Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cycling is a Civil Right

A couple of guys in the shop today were telling us Virginia Beach is a horrible place to ride.

"They really don't get it down there," said one. "They really don't want you out there on the road. When I go to visit my sister there, I just don't go out riding."

When I hear a thing like that I immediately want to go there and ride. I want to see if it is as bad as they say or if something about their riding style attracts problems. And if it is as bad as all that, I want to get on the road and assert cyclists' rights.

In driver education, many decades ago, I was told repeatedly that driving is a privilege, not a right. Unsafe and unsociable behavior would lead to loss of driving privileges. This many years later, with the automobile widely assumed to be an indispensable appliance, I wonder if the government could therefore take away someone's right to this ubiquitous transportation device. They do, and not often enough, but that's a constitutional question for another day.

No one has ever said that cycling was a privilege. Walking certainly is not a privilege. And, in our car-centric "civilization," neither one is exactly a treat in many places. Our automotive overlords shower their scorn on us like chickenshit tyrants from within the cabs of their armored limousines. We are asserting a right of free passage on the public right of way. They are rubbing their privileged asses all over us.

In my neighborhood, the drivers are remarkably accommodating, with the usual glaring exceptions. Some spineless, micro-manhood loser will decide to use the power of his vehicle to make up for the inadequacy of his physical and intellectual capacity by ripping by with inches to spare, maybe downshifting noisily or laying on the horn. Or it might be a woman, though that happens less often. And, when summer traffic packs the roads with people "from away," some of them may be inattentive or impatient in the custom of their urban and suburban homelands. But this is generally a pretty nice area for cycling.

My fortunate circumstances don't keep me from identifying with the downtrodden, such as I was in Maryland. The Annapolis area has gotten better in some ways and worse in others. I didn't move to New Hampshire for better cycling. The better cycling was a bit of a surprise.

Today when I listened to our visitors and remembered things I've read about many dangerous riding venues, mostly in the south, I wondered if we could institute our own version of the Freedom Riders. Send activists into areas that need their consciousness raised about cycling. Don't go all Critical Mass on them, but put a large number of cyclists into their traffic mix right away, to jump start the interactions of motorist and cyclist on a more even footing.

Obviously our civil rights position is not as dire as that of African Americans in the 1950s and '60s. But the motorist bigots do injure and kill cyclists and engage in hate speech against us. We are viewed monolithically as bike riders, lumped into one pool of disparaged sub-humanity because of our bikes. Cycling freedom riders could expect to meet violence. The confrontations would bring the dialogue about cyclists' rights to the forefront of the media.

It would be vitally important for the front-line riders of this campaign to behave with the utmost scruples. It can't be just a handful of local kooks who can be taken out separately. It has to be a campaign of organized activity. It has to be in significant numbers.

This is not civil disobedience. Apparently, in some parts of the so-called Land of the Free, the playground bullies have successfully scared the pencil-necked cyclist geeks into giving up their lunch money and cowering in the audio-visual room during recess. What cyclists want to do is legal. What the bullies are doing is not. We just want to use our bikes. Our right slows down their privilege from time to time. That makes us fair game in their eyes.

That ain't right.


RANTWICK said...

Woah, Cafiend! Excellent post... when you get your activist groove on, you are something else. Well done. They said those same things about driving being a privilege when I learned... I wonder if they still do?

ChipSeal said...

A civil obedience protest maybe?

If our rights are not asserted, do we have them?

CR, you are on to something here! The use of an automobile has become such an everyday, commonplace activity that its fearsome responsibility has been diminished in the publics mind.

In contrast, no one causally picks up a firearm. Even police officers don't present their weapons without exercising due care, yet the damage a firearm can do is a fraction of the power of an automobile. But folks have no sense of the dreadful potential for tragedy when they point a car down a public street.

Ham said...

Don't get me wrong, I agree with you 100%, but the story is a bit bigger than that, in my view. It's the same people who ride bikes as ride cars. Yes, riding a bike may give you a better perspective on life, and especially on driving on roads, but that's not guaranteed. You know who I mean - you've met them too.

There is a fundamental issue about giving anyone the right to pilot several thousand pounds of metal at high speed, and then designing in as much insulation as possible to isolate the driver from their environment and the consequences of their actions. But it is there, it isn't going to change.

The best great hope for us all is that more join us on the road, which fits with your thoughts about Freedom Riders.

What I think I'm saying is that the "us and them" attitude of your post is as much part of the problem as the drivers themselves. So without disagreeing with the sentiment (or anything) or criticising, it's just an observation.

On a different tack, have you discovered "Pearls Before Swine" ? That should be a link to today's strip which made me laugh, especially because of the different ways it will be seen. I'd recommend going back through the archives, I think you'll enjoy the humour.

cafiend said...

One reason I prefer cycling to driving is that I drive like an asshole. I've learned to control it, but I used to be a tailgating, illegally-passing jerkwad. I became a cyclist early enough to make me sensitive to any of them I might encounter, but I had no mercy on my fellow motorists. When such people annoy me now when I'm driving I have to accept the karmic element.

I've written many posts sympathetic to the needs of drivers. That does not mean I accept the ones who obviously think might makes right. These are the ones who like to point out that their big tank can put our puny bodies in the hospital, so we should get out of their way. By that reasoning no one should resist any form of terrorist coercion. No one should defend against any powerful aggressor, because "you might get hurt."

Some areas seem to have a higher concentration of this moto-fascist mentality than others. Just as not every motorist is an evil moron, not every one is just a misguided innocent.

Even that comic, funny as it is, feeds the stereotype that all cyclists are self-righteous fitness freaks.

Jef Mallet! Help us out!

Ham said...

I thought I might sound like as if I was criticising, I wasn't. And maybe you had to have been following the cartoon strip for a while to realise the significance of putting the attitude into Rat's mouth.

cafiend said...

Critique is different from criticism. Your thoughts generated more thoughts. And I haven't been following Pearls Before Swine, so I didn't have any mitigating context. I'll have to check it out.

Yokota Fritz said...

Hear hear!

When I travel I make a point of riding just to see for myself what it's really like. I've also thought several times how something like your "Freedom Riders" could be done whenever I see news about areas where cyclists don't fare quite as well as the bike friendlier communities I'm accustomed to.

Ed W said...

Anyone interested in bicycling advocacy should read Mionske's "Bicycling and the Law". Fritz graciously sent me a copy. The book is a wealth of information even for experienced cyclists.

Finally, there are some excellent observations to be found in Cycle*Dallas, a city some regard as a difficult place to ride, unlike PM Summer, who writes the blog and is outspoken about utilizing vehicular cycling as a technique to make ALL roadways accessible.

Paula said...

I'm a Virginia Beach resident, and it's not the worst place to ride, nor the best. A lot of it depends on what part of the city. The area is unfortunately a victim of sprawl and the cul-de-sac, and there just are some just plain unsafe roads with no alternative route. That being said, I commute by bicycle pretty regularly and don't have that many problems. Things can be a bit stressful if you can't bike comfortably over 15 mph in some places though.
It's just such a large city to get from place to place, and it's connected by mostly 45-50 mph main roads, some of which have nice wide shoulders, some have widened sidewalks, and some have "bike routes" on regular sidewalks, which doesn't work. City planning needs to be pressured more, but the general attitude isn't that bad.
On the downside, local legal official have proven they don't really give a damn if a cyclist gets hit, even if they have a reflective vest, front and back lights, are rear-ended, then killed. Definite anger at that bit.

cafiend said...

Most motorists feel, whether they say so or not, that you're just asking for it by riding a bike on "their" roads. Most officials are motorists. Therefore most officials are largely unsympathetic to self-created hardships up to and including death.

Bicyclists are second-class citizens. We are relegated to this by our obstructionist choice to pedal slowly rather than drive fast. If all cyclists disappeared tomorrow, no motorists wold miss us.

Most problems between motorists and cyclists could be eliminated by a transportation matrix with routes for all modes and space for all mixtures of them. Unfortunately, humans almost never do a good, complete job of anything except the annihilation of benign species of lesser creatures. So it goes.

Shout our battle cry: "Pursue Incremental Improvement!"

ChipSeal said...

"Things can be a bit stressful if you can't bike comfortably over 15 mph in some places though." -Paula

I am so sad you feel this way. No motorist can , or is even inclined, tell how fast you are riding. 8 MPH or 25 MPH -it is of no discernible difference to them.

If you are uncomfortable with how much room they are providing you when they overtake you, you should move out further into the lane. You must take away their option of squeezing by you on narrow lanes.

As a slow moving vehicle, you have no obligation to travel faster than your cruising speed.

Consider this video of a slow cyclist in heavy traffic:

As the author of that video says, "You don't need special facilities, athletic prowess, a "fast bike" or nerves of steel. Riding in downtown traffic does not require speed or vigilance. All you need are a few simple skills and a calm assertiveness that comes from your belief that you belong on the road."

Paula said...

Considering we've had cyclists in our area rear-ended even with lights, reflective vest, etc, and no charges were even pressed... and that a lot of the roads are two lane slightly curving roads that are marked 45 mph and people do 55 on... never mind the fact we don't have a real downtown and the traffic in that video is like the lightest I see around my area... it's rough.
I do take over the lane when necessary, but if I can go faster it keeps me from hitting as much traffic, since I can spend more time in the clear gaps that form between lights. :D

Ham said...

I'm with Paula with the riding style, but I suspect that people who aren't comfortable at car speeds probably don't realise that moving with the traffic lowers stress.

And I'm not going to get into the one-upmanship-my-city-is-busier-than-your-city because I'm not sure that has much effect on absolute safety, there are arguments both ways. Having said that, the volume and density can be very daunting