Monday, August 28, 2017

Division and finger-pointing between drivers and cyclists

Recently, radio talk show host Mike Farwell penned a column on cycling, or rather cyclists, that has a lot of people all a-twitter. Farwell's main thrust was that cyclists need to behave better on the road, and take responsibility for each other's behaviour. And this has rubbed a lot of people with two-wheeled experience the wrong way.

Myself included.

But let's start with what was good about Farwell's column. He hit a number of solid points I agree with:
  • Lower speed limits would reduce accident severity,
  • We should support better active transportation infrastructure,
  • There are people who are biking like idiots.
Yes, there are people biking like idiots. I agree! But after this point is where, for me, Farwell's line of reasoning takes a dangerous blind turn.

Later in the column, he rattled off a list of incidents where someone on two wheels did something stupid and unnecessarily risky. And these people are making him see cyclists in a less courteous light, calling for cyclists to take ownership of these yahoos, and implying that cyclists' place on the road was morally at stake.

But who are these cyclists, anyway?

We're all just people trying to get where we're going.

Am I a cyclist? I drove to work today, so probably no. But I've spent years biking to work and around town multiple times a week, so probably yes. But I have a neck injury and don't know when I'll be able to get on my bike again, so, have I stopped being a cyclist? It's an identity crisis in the making!

I was walking Spur Line Trail the other day, and I was passed by several people on bikes. Are they the cyclists Farwell expects to police each other? How about this older couple who were clearly out experimenting with two wheels and marvelling at how lovely the trail was: how many more pedals until they're held culpable for the actions of others? Do they get membership cards in the mail, or possibly by bike courier?

That's the problem here. When it comes down to this, there is no such thing as a cyclist, except when you're talking about someone on a bike right now. The same thing goes for drivers. The rest of the time, we are just people. The term "cyclist" and "driver" are convenient, but sometimes we tend to mistake what is a temporary state for a permanent, exclusive identity, and I believe Mike Farwell is guilty of just that.

Because if that isn't the case, then I am a cyclist, I am a driver, and I am a pedestrian (an impressive feat since I'm sitting in a desk chair at the moment!) But I don't understand why as a cyclist I should be held responsible for all cyclists, when we clearly don't put a similar burden of responsibility on car users or walkers. The idea that as a driver, I would be responsible for every idjit behind the wheel, is laughable. Also impractical, given how many people in cars seem willing to communicate with just their middle finger. So what makes it OK to impose this moral burden on me for my predilection to pedal?

Nonetheless, this column is strongly insinuating that my right to respect on the road, while on two wheels, depends on my policing others. That is... chilling.

No matter what happens, the person on the bike loses.

When I'm on a bike, I'm already dealing with an uncomfortable power imbalance. If I screw up near a vehicle, the likely result is my death or injury. If someone in a vehicle screws up near me, the likely result is still my death or injury. Even minor accidents I might experience while driving could leave me with a broken collarbone, or broken neck, if they happen when I'm on a bicycle.

As a motorcycle enthusiast, I would have thought Mike Farwell might understand the condition of being a vulnerable road user. Still, while riding a motorcycle Mike does enjoy the ability to keep up with the speed of motorized traffic. (In my experience, motorcycle riders certainly show no problem keeping up with the speed of traffic!)

But it takes a strong stomach to claim your place on the road while being passed by vehicle after vehicle. Every once in a while, someone is having a bad day and I get to experience that incautious, incourteous close pass, the kind where my life hangs in the balance of a few inches. After an incident like this a couple of years ago, I got to talk to just such a driver.

He had passed me so close that I still don't know how his mirror didn't clip my handlebars. But he was also so close to home (which made his inability to wait 20 seconds for a safe pass even more galling) that I came upon him at his driveway. And he had absolutely zero willingness to accept any fault, and I guess he felt the need to put me in my place: the conversation ended in a threat that made me go to the police and had me nervously looking over my shoulder for months afterward.

The law says that I can ride my bike on the road, and I seek to do so as safely as possible. As the police officer explained to me with a cop's world-weary pragmatism, there are people out there who just don't believe I should be in their way and I need to watch out.

Tribalism and finger pointing

While cycling, I accept responsibility for my own safety, and I strive to use the road in a safe and predictable manner. After all, I already have plenty of incentive to do so. But that does not exclusively identify me as a cyclist.

I have worked hard, even within this blog, to avoid the "cyclist vs. driver vs. pedestrian" tribalism, and not always successfully. What I keep reminding myself is we are just people trying to get around. Sometimes, some of us bike.

The ugly truth is that there are really nasty, careless, thoughtless people on the road. The ones on two wheels, Farwell would have me reach out and police. As for the ones behind the wheel, well, my track record dealing with them is not so good. Neither group will listen to me if I confront them, and some of them might attack me for calling them out, so once again, I only stand to lose. But that's not all.

Farwell's column promotes the idea that there is a cycling "tribe" who needs to earn their place on the road from the driving "tribe"-- and you had better bet that his audience is listening. In doing this, he gives a few hot-headed and irresponsible people more license to treat me with disdain and reckless endangerment, by providing a justification their antisocial behaviour. I would have preferred that he used his platform to remind everyone that sharing the road starts with you, not the other guy.

I can't ask Farwell to take responsibility for these dangerous drivers any more than he should ask me to take responsibility for reckless cyclists.

But as a media personality, whose words have reach and influence people, I can ask Mike Farwell to take responsibility for his message.

Postscript: There's more I could have touched on here, such as sharrows and the evidence that shows them being worse than nothing, or the fact that we could use more education for riding bikes, or the fact that the thing that would have the most effect is just what cycling advocates keep asking for, better infrastructure. Perhaps a second blog post?

There's also the ugliness I saw on Twitter, that I chose not to take part in. Mike Farwell certainly didn't deserve the treatment he got at the hands of some respondents. I would have expected better of people, but once again I saw evidence of a "community" being held responsible for the actions of a few.

The more we reinforce the idea that we are separate camps or tribes, the more this kind of ugliness will surface. I am sorry Farwell got to see the worst side of these "cyclists", but I'll be even sorrier to see the worst side of any "drivers" who take Farwell's message to heart.

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