Battling cyclist entitlement
The Atlantic Cities has posted an excellent opinion article called "Cyclists aren't 'special' and shouldn't play by their own rules". The author, Sarah Goodyear, points to Chicago enacting higher fines for dangerous motorist actions, but also for cyclist rule-breaking. Praising its even-handedness, she states the following:
I am truly sick, at this late date, of people wanting to have it both ways: calling for protected bike lanes and a bike share system, demanding that cops step up enforcement when it comes to cars, and then blithely salmoning up a major thoroughfare and expecting everyone look the other way.
If cycling will truly become mainstream, the author emphasizes, it must shed its renegade/outsider trappings and become a team player in our urban environment. As a cyclist, she sees it as a very personal decision:
I am trying to see myself as an ambassador for bicycling and to break the bad habits I formed over years of biking on streets designed solely for cars. If I am going to fight back against the forces that want to intimidate and marginalize me when I am on my bike, I think that riding as squeaky clean as possible is my best strategy these days. The balance has shifted, and with the advent of bike share, modeling good behavior is going to be more vital than ever. Not just to prove the naysayers wrong, but also to be truly safer riders.
And I agree. I try very hard to bike legally and cleanly in a civil and accommodating manner. I too have bad habits formed over the years of biking in an environment designed for automobiles that I suppress. I sometimes see that desire to have our cake and eat it too amongst other cycling advocates and I try to avoid it myself. And yet...
Surviving in a hostile environment
There is a problem that despite years of gradual cycling infrastructure improvements, here in Waterloo Region we are still in an environment primarily designed around the auto. Not only the physical environment, but also the rules and conventions, are still biased towards a monomodal world of motorized travel. It's still often impossible to get where you need to go both legally and safely by bike, let alone comfortably. For those who don't get turned off cycling completely, rules usually get sacrificed in the name of necessity, and sometimes convenience.
As a cyclist, it is very hard to buy in to a social (and legal) contract when it feels like we never had a seat at the table. Is that a selfish attitude? Perhaps. It's also quite natural. And, sadly, justifiable. Allow me to demonstrate by example:
|Herbert & John, near Uptown Waterloo|
Welcome to Waterloo's most car-centric intersection: Herbert and John. No mammoth arterial intersection here, just a very quiet neighbourhood junction. I propose that this location demonstrates an "autos uber alles" mentality better than virtually any point in town.
- Herbert is one way to the left. The street is too narrow for 2-way vehicle traffic.
- Herbert is one way to the right. The street is too narrow... yeah.
- Herbert is not a through route, even one way. The one-way signs point in opposite directions.
- Despite the impossibility of traffic from Herbert, there is still a stop sign on John.
This intersection shows how hard the city of Waterloo has worked to discourage traffic from moving through this quiet, stately neighbourhood. The stop sign here is the worst kind of "traffic calming" sign, a traffic demand management "worst practice" that inhibits cycling and diminishes the respect that stop signs get in general. Herbert even has a barrier to all traffic two blocks to the right.
And it's all being done because of the problems that automobile traffic bring: safety issues, noise, congestion. Allowing people to travel through here on bicycle won't cause any of these problems, but the rules don't consider that.
Herbert (and Willow) in this neighbourhood are a wonderful refuge that could help cycling in town, but not if you plan to cycle legally. It's as hostile to bike traffic as it is to car traffic, without justification.
This scenario repeats itself over and over throughout Waterloo region. In ways large and small, cyclists looking for quiet, safe biking conditions end up running afoul of rules put in place for cars and because of cars. Time and again, we must make the best of places designed without us in mind.
Is it any wonder cyclists learn to bend the rules?
No excuse, only explanation
As cyclists, we need to be better. Unfortunately, people remember "those scofflaw cyclists" and they will lump into that group the otherwise law-abiding cyclists who run a stop sign here or there (auto-self-justification: it's legal in Idaho!), or ride the wrong way on a tiny street like Herbert. Ms. Goodyear takes a hard line on this matter, holding herself and others to a very high standard of rule adherence.
But because of the conditions we cycle in (even in this enlightened new age), it may be an impossible standard. I have a hard time passing judgement on someone who takes a bike to an empty sidewalk next to a windswept, high speed arterial road. Or criticizing a harmless jaunt upstream on a tiny back neighbourhood one-way. The alternative, for them, could be just leaving the bike to gather dust and taking the car instead.
Rules can place us in intolerable or ambiguous situations where an outsider can easily take a literal, hard-line position on because they don't have to live with it. But when faced with them ourselves, we'll bend, shave, spindle, and outright break a rule to make the situation work... usually with some care and judgement. That's human nature.
It doesn't matter if we're on bike, in a car, or on foot. The difference with bikes is that our road rules balance the needs of pedestrians and motorists (for better or for worse) but have not quite embraced cyclists yet. Those on bikes are often asked to live with the disadvantages of both foot and motor traffic, and are denied the advantages of either.
When that changes, so too will the rule-breaking culture of those renegade/outlaw cyclists. Until then, hold yourself to a high standard... and don't hold others to an impossible one.
What's your take on this issue? Do you agree or disagree? Leave a comment!