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Monday, August 04, 2008

More bicyclists provoking driver backlash?

Image of bicycle commuter
From Newsweek, 07.28.08:

Pedal vs. Metal
A surge in bike ridership spurs a new kind of road rage

When gas prices surged above $4 per gallon earlier this year, it didn't take Nostradamus to predict that there would be a resultant rush to carbon-free commuting options—especially in a place like Portland, which is known for its ample network of bike lanes. Cyclists in "Stumptown" are spinning their spokes here in unprecedented numbers, trading in their fuel-guzzling SUVs for stylish 27-speeds.

But the cycling surge has created conflict, as the new breed of commuters bumps up against the old, oil-powered kind...An escalating war between two-wheelers and four-wheelers, brought on by sky-high gas prices? Absolutely not, insist cyclists, city officials and the local newspaper, which has called the hoopla "a war of anecdotes." Injuries to cyclists remain steady even as ridership surpasses record levels, according to statistics kept by the city. Portland was recently named one of two "platinum" U.S. cities by the League of American Bicyclists, and most agree that there's safety in numbers; more pedestrians and cyclists on the road means more awareness and greater caution on the part of drivers.

But there's also clearly plenty of tension on Portland's streets, and the strange two-week spate of clashes this summer that has people wondering whether the incidents are a sign of further trouble to come...The numbers of new cyclists on the road are staggering...The surge has by and large been safe. Injuries to cyclists has remained flat even with double-digit increases annually in their numbers over the last several years. (Read more.)
Provocative article about a purported escalation of conflict between bicyclists and motorists on streets in Portland and other American cities. Record high gas prices are clearly leading to more bicyclists. Combining this trend with widely publicized incidents at Critical Mass events in New York City and Seattle, a few journalists have aroused themselves to suggest a raging battle on the nation's streets. Hmmmm. Count me among the skeptical.

Typical of this coverage of animosity between drivers and pedalers was a recent Reuters article, Cyclists and drivers struggle for harmony, which also pointed to the incidents in Portland. Another recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Risking Life and Limb, Riding a Bike to Work in LA, highlighted the hostility from motorists confronting some Los Angeles area bicyclists. "Cyclists have equal rights, but in fact a lot of motorists think they should get off the road," Lynne Goldsmith, manager of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority's bike program, told the Journal. "When we're used to seeing more cyclists, we will treat them better."

Are the streets really more hostile to bicyclists today than they were a year ago? Have high gas prices raised the temper of the country's most malevolent drivers? Do more bikes really cause greater traffic congestion? There is clearly a continuing struggle for space on American streets, but is it reaching a critical breaking point? More thoughtful commentators, such as Charles Montgomery in his Momentum Magazine essay "Bike Rage", point to a legacy of poor transportation planning as the real cause:
This kind of road rage is a symptom of the corrosive effect that modern commuting has on urban culture. Aggressive streets are not just dangerous, they change the way we feel and the way we treat each other, even when we’re not commuting.... The problem is that city planners have mixed bikes and cars together in ways that offer little certainty about how each should operate, and lots of chances for conflict. Cyclists feel threatened in traffic, just like drivers. Many of us feel hard done by and under attack. I sure do. The average arterial road is an engine of conflict. (Read more.)
For more than 60 years transportation planners prioritized vehicle speed above nearly every other consideration, providing motorists with a great sense of empowerment. It will be some time until we can quantitatively determine the significance of the reported surge in bicycling, and if it will persist. If bicycling activity does continue to grow, this should support advocacy demands for improved street design ("Complete Streets") to better accommodate bicyclists. As always, bicyclists will need to be involved with advocacy.

I'm admittedly fortunate to travel in a relatively bicycle-friendly environment, commuting from my home in bronze-level bicycle city Sacramento to my office in platinum-level Davis. My own experience and my understanding of the research confirms Lynn Goldsmith's assertion, that more bicyclists equals greater safety for all bicyclists. But what's your experience where you travel? Are drivers really getting more hostile?

Image: Web capture.
Visit: Moving Targets, New York Times
Visit: The Myth of the Scoflaw Cyclist, TheWashCycle
Visit: Motorists should give bikers a little leeway, Lexington Herald-Leader
Visit: Bicyclists and motorists clash as more ride bikes to avoid high gas prices, Vero Beach Press Bulletin (FL)
Visit: How to kill a bicyclist, Bicycle Spokesman
Visit: Conflict on the Roads,
Visit: Blogging Cyclist Calls for Truce in Car v Bike Culture Wars, StreetsBlog LA
Visit: Newly Numerous, Cyclists Face Angry Drivers, New West
Visit: More Taking to Bicycles - But Use Caution, Ozarks First
Visit: Do drivers know how to share the road?, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Visit: Uneasy riders bemoan quality of infrastructure, South Jersey Post-Courier
Visit: Sydney drivers 'worst' for bike rage, Sydney Morning Herald
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site


Anonymous said...

Bicycle activists tend not to drive, and thus attribute the hostility of aggressive, hostile drivers to the fact that they are on a bicycle.

Ride around enough in a motor vehicle, however, and you'll find that the same share of drivers are jerks no matter one's own mode. And of course there are bicycle and even walking jerks out there. The problem is jerks.

John B. said...

My own experience in Wichita--decidedly not a bike-friendly town--has been extraordinarily positive. It's not been uncommon for motorists to defer to me even at traffic lights when they have the right-of-way. It's been very gratifying.

I've had only a couple of incidents when drivers seemed to express a bit of impatience by speeding around me when they could pass, but no one has shouted at me or thrown things. So far, so good.

IgorTheCat said...

"If it bleeds, it leads"

Old adage in American journalism

Yes, this "backlash" is mostly hype. I am an engineer, and know that when the engine on an aircraft fails, the plane will start to descend. In the hands of a journalist trying to get your attention it "plummets".

I have had nasty encounters with bike haters over the years, and they have been few. I have gotten rude comments from people riding the trolley I take my bike on, in spite of the fact that I bend over backwards to be unobtrusive. These incidents have been rare also.

Although I have not seen the type of backlash these reports allude to, I fear that there may be one on the horizon against those of us who take bikes on transit, as demand, and crowding increase. I feel it is important to train riders on “transit etiquette”. Unfortunately, I am not totally sure just what the etiquette is. And I am sure that it would vary in different locals, depending on the design of the system. Currently, most transit systems define it by imposing difficult to enforce limits on numbers of bikes.

Paul Dorn said...

@ igorthecat:
Thanks for your intelligent comment. Yes, I think it's hype. Motorists routinely abuse and assault each other, and less it escalates to a shooting or other atrocity, this never makes the news.

My concern is that the media might reinforce some motorists' attitudes that bicyclists on public roads are unwelcome intruders, unintended users, or exceptional nuisances.

I agree that transit is a major challenge for multimodal bike commuters. Americans are clearly eager for alternatives to expensive driving, and this demand is straining the capacities of many systems. We can't expect expanded transit capacity in the short term, as Washington argues over drilling or alternatives or technological fixes or taxing big oil instead of sustainable transportation. So etiquette, ingenuity, and advocacy will have to emerge from bicyclists.

Anonymous said...

If anything, I think the great mass of drivers streaming by me have been a little more courteous this year. I like to think that's because more drivers have been behind the handlebars of a bike. More motorists have tried biking. More people get it.

On the flip side, I think there are a substantial number of new cyclists who don't know the rules of the road and are doing stupid things, aggravating those drivers who are inclined to be aggravated anyway by the presence of anyone on two wheels.

Anonymous said...

Here's a nice blog by the police chief in Lincoln, NE about sharing the road with bicycles:

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous that more drivers have been on bikes lately and tend to be more courtious. The people that tend to speed around me are pick-up truck drivers (the kind that never had anything in the bed of the
I also agree a lot of cyclist lack understanding or just don't care about our responsibilities on the road. Today comeing home, across the street, altough in a bike lane, two people going the wrong way and one person on the sidewalk.

Dean Fuhrman said...

I am biking more lately for errands and some trips. I am in Kansas City, and we are not set up for biking and cars together. So I do work arounds to avoid the heavy traffic. It seems to me that one of the biggest problems is not the inevitable jerks ... in cars, on bikes, and walking ... but the total lack of infrastructure for anything but cars/trucks. When the structure is there the conflict should abate. Look at some of the European biking centers as an example.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis and I agree that poor/biased transportation planning is a key issue, especially as newbies begin to pedal. New riders are often alarmed as they discover the risks when small objects are forced to compete with large objects. The more modes used the greater the conflicts when the plans failed to address efficient integration.

At least these issues are getting more ink in the MSM and hopefully the level of discourse will improve.

Anonymous said...

I don't have the data to determine whether the streets are more or less hostile to cyclists than they were last year. However, I'd hypothesize that the increased media attention is more closely related to the increased frequency of cyclists on the roads than it is to increases in hostility.

Increased ridership results in more opportunities for all people to come into contact with cyclists. Add increasing public awareness to the adage that igorthecat points out, and you have silly headlines about "driver backlash."

IgorTheCat said...

Anonymous said...

"Today coming home, across the street, although in a bike lane, two people going the wrong way and one person on the sidewalk"

This is a common occurrence on my daily commute also. When I can, I try to educate other riders as to [b]why[/b] riding with traffic is safer. I say 'when I can' because it should be done diplomatically. I have recently befriended one such, and he is truly appreciative, especially after I explained cadence to him, and told him how to adjust his seat. (Bicycles are "adjusted" in the Big Box stores by inserting the seat post all the way in, tightening the nut and calling it good)

Rob Anderson said...

The behavior of many cyclists is irresponsible, and it happens even in Berkeley ( It's the self-righteous, get-out-of-my-way-I'm-not-burning-fossil-fuel attitude that grates.

Paul Dorn said...

@ Rob Anderson
Thanks for your comment. I'm a big fan of your brother Bruce Anderson (who indicated he rode a bicycle to his appearance on KQED-FM's "Forum" program). And, of course, I'm not pleased by your lawsuit against San Francisco's Bike Plan.

I'm grateful that you indicated "many" and not "all" bicyclists. And yes, self-righteousness is tiresome from any direction. But I think it's a small fraction of everyday bicycle commuters who present a holier-than-thou posture. Just as it's a tiny fraction of motorists who are adamantly hostile gas guzzlers.

As I've written before on this blog, motorists and bicyclists are essentially the same: just people trying to get to their destination. Their behaviors are entirely consistent. Yet their relative total mass makes one mode far more dangerous.

dr2chase said...

I am quite a bit ticked off at Rob Anderson's remarks about cyclist behavior and attitude. No matter how annoying it might be to some self-centered people, bad cyclist attitudes do nothing in particular to anyone else. No scrapes, no broken bones, no hospital trips, no deaths.

In contrast, merely careless driving by well-meaning but irresponsible drivers kills thousands every year, and sends many thousands more to the hospital. When someone almost kills you, just because they were careless, you tend to take it personally, and no matter how finely crafted the insult yelled by some uber-fit pretentious hipster eco-freak, it will never, ever, even scratch your skin. So take a stress pill, please. Sticks and stones, words, etc.

Yokota Fritz said...

I'm with you, Paul -- I think there's more media attention, but I don't think the 'problem' of inattentive or even hostile drivers is any worse.

Adriel said...

More negative media in the New York times Aug 10, it was crafted so well some cyclists read it and did not catch all the FUD.

I wrote a detailed rebuttal here:

My experience is that the road environment is quite better on the whole. The real mean or impatient idiots have always been there, and they are still there. I wish law enforcement would take driving like an idiot seriously and yank some licenses.

Part of me wonders if some of these anti-cycling stories are funded by Big Oil or GM. I am probably just imagining it, but if I was working for a big oil company, and saw more people biking there I would do something to scare them. I wouldn't want my record profits to be at risk.

Anonymous said...

I ride in Massachusetts' south coast, through the very gritty city of New Bedford. Even when I've made some mistakes I've found drivers around me to be watchful. Here's the thing though, I find I'm in dangerous situations when people are giving me an exception - to be nice - like at 4 way stop intersections. The times I've taken them up on going first are the times I've had near accidents. Not different from driving... For us to be safe on bikes we have to insist on the rules, and insist the drivers follow them by showing that we respect them. Body language is important - it's easy to give the wrong impression, or piss a driver off. Driving must be very stressful for a lot of people, and we have to keep that in mind.
When people stop being nice and start treating me more seriously, and expecting me to act within the rules, I'll start to feel safer. That's not so much to do with the infrastructure, but a lot to do with drivers & cyclists' education. I won't hold my breath... they've yet to teach people what the directional signal lever is there for.

Papa Smurf said...

I have been living in Morehead City/Atlantic Beach, NC, a relatively calm coastal town. I see lots of bikers because it's flat and things are fairly close together. Somebody shot at me with a bb gun while I was biking over a bridge with a fairly well used bike lane. Nothing of this caliber has never happened to me.

Anonymous said...

I think the hostility comes from people being jerks because pretty much 99% of drivers believe they own the road, even against other drivers and this kind of "get out of My way' attitude needs to be discouraged with retraining at the dmv and as part of new training for new drivers in order to pass the test to be able to drive on our roads. Education. It's not always the drivers as some cyclists need to obey the rules of the road too and be responsible for their actions.