Friday, May 9, 2014

Entitled Cyclists and Motorists

Last week a man in Rosslyn stopped his car and climbed fully out just to hurl an epithet at a woman thrown from her bike in a hit-and-run.  What did he want to tell her as she lay there, concussed and bleeding?  He wanted to call her an "entitled cyclist."

It's hard to figure out the entitled part.  Riding a bike--particularly a clunker with a basket, like hers--is not exactly Wolf of Wall Street gallivanting. What did he mean?

Did he mean she is taking risks she shouldn't, just by stepping on a bicycle?

Most of us do think cycling is dangerous.  Maybe shouting at her was his way of saying, "stop being so reckless."

If he is anything at all like most (65%, in fact) Americans, he probably wishes he could ride a bike more.  And maybe he despises her because she reminds him that he could be out there on his bike if only he was a little less timid.

Maybe he yelled at her because, in the past, he has been annoyed by enough cyclists to feel justified in generalizing about all of us.  But how many cyclists can he have been annoyed by?  Nationally, only about 860,000 ride bikes to work, and in DC, only about 3% of us get to work by bike.

U.S. Census Bureau
Not many, but enough to earn a reputation, at least with one angry man.

There was a time, a century ago, when mobs formed around accidents of this type, not to shout at the victim, but at the motorist.  That was when streets were public spaces, not mere thoroughfares designed for car traffic.

The shouting, then and now, has been about ownership.  Did streets belong to the public, or were they just thoroughfares for cars?

Until a century ago, city streets were once public places where children played, where neighbors met--they were public spaces.  Cars arrived and the initial public response was anger: popular demonstrations and monuments were erected and mobs gathered around accidents.
Gradually, authorities began to reshape streets with innovations (e.g., traffic lights) and pedestrians were pushed to sidewalks.  Instead of public spaces, streets became places exclusively for getting to somewhere: thoroughfares.

Why did cars win?  For several reasons.  Cars became common and car manufacturers had money and were organized to influence policy.  But, primarily, cars killed people at an alarming rate.  The alternative to streets owned by cars are streets full of dead pedestrians and cyclists.  Writes Norton:
"Drivers themselves exercised power every time they traveled at speed in the streets, resorting to the horn instead of the brake to proceed.  This exercise of power drove pedestrians from the streets and sometimes barred them from access to streets, even at designated crossings.  Horsepower gave motorists a literal, physical form of momentum that collided with the social momentum of old constructions of the street, changing their trajectories.” – p. 259
American city streets--instead of being places to play, stand, and congregate--were abandoned.

I own a car and, for the past month, have driven it every day.  I only drive because, while I'm fine risking my own life on a bicycle in the city, I'm not fine risking my infant son's life on one.  We have an SUV for similar reasons--because my wife feels anything smaller would be unsafe.

Driving so frequently has led me to conclude we humans are not biologically suited for it.  Sitting at traffic lights, obeying signals, showing appropriate caution with deadly objects--we are equipped for none of this!

Everything in the world, when you are in a car, is merely an obstruction:  dogs, children, the elderly, cyclists.  That's because you are simply on your way somewhere.  The streets are like the internet: a virtual space.

And that is why drivers see cyclists as entitled--because cyclists treat streets, as we all once did, as public spaces.  Whether you follow traffic rules or not, when you're on a bike, you inhibit the spaces you ride through. You aren't merely passing through.

The cost of our car culture is not just environmental or cultural.  It's also personal.

The emptiness Louis CK describes in his car, I'd argue, has something to do with his being in a car.  Sure, we all feel depressed and isolated and petty sometimes, but being in a car surely worsens that feeling, and for good reason.

We are stuck in streets where to touch another is to collide rather than connect.  To avoid the terror of  silence, we can listen to the radio and connect to information, but we can't actually talk face to face.  When we do feel compelled to get out of our cars, it's only to berate obstacles in our path: cyclists.

These, whether law-abiding or not, we call entitled.

1 comment:

dj cyclone said...

Great take Pappy. Taking the jealous captured boxed in frustrated motorist notion one step further to the subconscious and adding a dose of past for contrast. And, we should note this sensation occurs mostly in confined urban dense spaces because the auto machine still brings inspiration and release in open expanding terrain. (Little Duece Coupe/Route 66/Road Runner Runner/Hot Rod Lincoln/Jeepster/Low Rider) - In some ways just as the bike does but you have to get there you can't just be there, like immediately, as soon as clipping in or just rolling off and I guess that very real immediacy and access does make us entitled or maybe appear to be (I guess both but with separate connotations) which is its' own form of perceptional contrast and definition slip. Ride on!