Why It’s So Hard to Treat Bicyclists Like Human Beings

We’re so used to the idea of drivers crashing into things, people, and animals that many headlines of such tragedies personify the vehicle, and in doing so erase fault from its ubiquitous operator. Cars confine empathy, especially while moving at speed. Cyclists and pedestrians become mere obstacles to avoid, or to not avoid once a motor vehicle and its driver are in motion.

And the thing is, cars weren’t originally meant to be everywhere at all. In fact, once you have everyone addicted to driving, the technological advantage of cars ceases to exist.

From ‘The Social Ideology of the Motorcar by André Gorz:
The worst thing about cars is that they are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one.

Today, the masses are so affixed to the automobile that there are traffic jams lasting 11 days long. It would seem like a liberation from this prison would be in order.

Breaking away many have. The number of people commuting by bike is exploding. Everywhere you look cities are increasingly catering to the cycling and walking hordes. Begrudgingly, even car companies are getting in on the game.

I Am A Cyclist, And I Am Here To Fuck You Up

I am riding a hill slower than you would like me to. I am taking a second to gain momentum at the stop sign. I am doing all of this on purpose, to make you hit me, so you will be late again and it …

But there’s still one problem. Drivers – whether in a 2,000 lb. gas-guzzler or a 2,000 lb. hybrid-electric – still are dangerous to everyone around them. They cause 40,000 traffic fatalities in the US every year, over a million globally. It’s little wonder a majority of folks ‘interested but concerned‘ about riding say they fear this envelope of automobile danger.

I’ve wondered about this before, is it cars themselves that frighten would-be bicyclists, or is it homicidal prejudice splayed out online that does the most damage?

Where do these sociopathic attitudes come from in the first place? The answer boils down to the aura of entitlement that accompanies marketing the automobile.

Again from André Gorz: “Mass motoring effects an absolute triumph of bourgeois ideology on the level of daily life. It gives and supports in everyone the illusion that each individual can seek his or her own benefit at the expense of everyone else. The persistence of this myth is easily explained. The spread of the private car has displaced mass transportation, altering city planning and housing in such a way that it transfers to the car functions which its own spread has made necessary.

Drivers are confronted with this contradiction of their perceived status any time they’re stuck at a long light, stuck in congestion, or (God forbid!) stuck behind a cycling commuter they can’t pass.

Is there a way to undo the psychological damage that driving does to motorists without banishing cars altogether? Is it possible to for drivers see cyclists and pedestrians as human beings and expect them to treat us as such?

The most important thing is to slow drivers down. Cars are deadlier the faster they move; reaction time decreases as momentum increases exponentially. The other factor here is eye contact. The slower the car is moving, the more likely the driver is able to see people outside the vehicle, make eye contact, and communicate with one another as human beings have evolved to.

Once a driver’s moving more than 25 mph, however, eye contact with oncoming people becomes almost impossible. The other obvious area is signage and infrastructure. You see signs with bikes on them, you think about people on bikes. When you see bike lanes, you’re more likely to notice the people riding in them. And the more bike infra out there, the more people ride, period.

Nothing makes us more visable than riding in large numbers.

Another so-obvious-it-hurts idea is to make killing or injuring bicyclists actually be illegal. A century ago, lethal collisions were called ‘Homicide by Automobile‘, and were punished accordingly. Only as it became so common did the auto lobby demand a rebranding of this form of violence to be a blameless ‘accident‘ – a term still misused today.

Now, whether incarceration is warranted, that’s a whole ‘nother article. Jailing people has a lousy record of reform in this or any country. But certainly imposing stiff fines for loss of life, at least as much as we would for running over and killing a road worker should suffice.

If we respect human life – and all modes of transit – then ensuring drivers can’t literally get away with murder seems the least we could do. Recognizing the value of cyclists’ lives is imperative. We’ll never reach that climate-concious urban-bicycling utopia if we allow a classist automobile supremacy over the roadways. See you in the streets. •••

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14 comments

  1. Great piece, but it repeats one particular trope that is, for some reason, a pet peeve of mine: the trope of the “2,000 pound car.”

    This trope needs to die. Cars haven’t weighed 2,000 pounds since the initial wave of tiny Japanese sub-compacts first hit North America in the 1970s. The majority of cars on the road today are closer to 4,000 pounds than 2,000. Most SUVs are well over 4,000 lb.

    Being hit by a 2,000lb car would be a luxury by today’s standards.

    1. Very true, thanks for that update. I haven’t owned a car for years (and it was a small Japanese sub-compact). Will definitely use the 3k – 4k numbers in the future.

  2. Yes, 3500lbs. for the average small car, topping out at 5,000lbs. for one of the luxury limo-like sedans. A small SUV, think Honda CRV, is 4500 lbs. The mid-sized & large models add another 750-1500 lbs. Bicyclists have no chance against them.

  3. One small correction: momentum does only increases exponentially if speed increases exponentially. There is a linear relationship between momentum and speed. Double the speed, and momentum will double. Increase the speed by a factor of 137, and momentum will increase by a factor of 137.

    1. It’s the force that increases as the square of velocity. The general idea is correct. The faster the car, the FAR worse the likelihood of death and destruction.

  4. “the car… is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one” – -This is right up there in the Hall of Idiotic Babblings with “Trump would make a good president.” My car is useful because commuting is an inefficient use of my time and I have yet to find an employer who understands that. Anything that makes my commute shorter is “useful”. A bicycle makes it longer in two ways: first, we normally get several inches of ice and snow that will never be clear before I need to get to work and I am not risking my life to do something that is already not a good use of time my time. Second, the other half of the year is too hot for a dog to walk on the sidewalk. I’m not wasting my time on a bicycle and then further wasting my time trying to manage my sweat. I don’t take public transportation because any that is less expensive than a car takes an hour and a half. One-way. I only have a three mile commute.

    “Drivers… are dangerous to everyone around them. They cause 40,000 traffic fatalities in the US every year, over a million globally.” — I’m glad that you set the rules for this discussion at using an all-encompassing “they”. I know you’re going to get offended when I treat you the same way, but I don’t care about your feelings any more than you care about anyone else’s. For the record, I have been driving for 25 years and have never caused any fatalities, never struck a cyclist, never struck a pedestrian. But, if I must be part of “they” to you, then you are part of “they” to me.

    You talk about “classism”. You neglect the fact that it is cyclists who are in the luxury class. Every broke cyclist I’ve ever met was on a bike because they had too many DUIs. Operating a bicycle as a primary means of transportation is a serious time-suck. Poor people don’t have the time. Owning a bicycle as a primary means of transportation can be a serious financial burden.

    You never stop to consider that people don’t like cyclists because you are inherently unlikable people. The cycling community is so self-entitled and arrogant that when Mitt Romney sees a cyclist, he thinks, “Wow, that guy is really self-entitled and arrogant.” Your rhetoric is exactly like those people who always insist that it’s OK for them to tailgate and drive aggressively in the left lane of an Interstate because of the behaviors of others while ignoring the fact that they behave that way all the time. You cyclists get tired of waiting at a stop light so you bust out around and get mad at the guy who’s turning right because he barely saw you in time. The fact that it’s illegal in every state I’ve ever lived in to pass on the right in an intersection is irrelevant to you because of the cyclist’s number one code: “Laws are for other people.” You get mad at drivers when you come flying through their blindspots off of a sideWALK while they are attempting to turn the opposite way and can’t see in all directions at once. You get frustrated with street traffic so you barrel down a sideWALK forcing people that are WALKing to step aside for your royal highness. You believe that because the laws of man make it illegal for me to hit you that the laws of physics will similarly cooperate in helping me avoid hitting you when you decide that “stop lights are just too inconvenient” and blow one when I’m already in motion. It never matters to you that I’m burning five times as much gasoline dealing with you than I would if you weren’t there because you’re not the one paying for it. And of course, let’s not forget that the only reason I’m dealing with you at all is because you demanded that my tax dollars go to pay for your bike lane and separate bike roads and trails so that you could continue riding on the street or on the sideWALK anyway.

    I will be the better man, though. I know that not all cyclists are like that. I apologize to all four of you. Next time you see a gaggle of cyclists clogging every single lane in both directions for their “early morning ride” in the middle of rush hour, know that I am sorry that we lump you in with those twits.

    So here it is, o self-styled king of the road: I will continue my practice of doing everything in my power to never intentionally hit a cyclist, no matter how much of a douche he is. I will never condone or support violence against a cyclist for any reason with one exception. The next cycle-head that charges my eight-year-old on a sideWALK while I’m there is never going to walk again, must less ride a bicycle, and I will have it charged with vehicular assault and assault on a minor while still in its hospital bed. You want to be treated like a vehicle, you’ll be treated like a vehicle. However, I will never shed a single tear for a single one of you. Ever. Damn you for even thinking that I should. I avoid hitting you because not one of you is worth the inconvenience of being questioned by the police, much less actually being charged with something.

    Before you criticize my community, clean up your own. Remember that the world can live without cyclists. You wouldn’t be able to get that next $400 “I’m not a classist, not at all” shiny for your little pedestrian-molester if there wasn’t a truck to bring it.

    1. Oh, Wayne. So much anger! You do make some good points although certainly you are not balanced in your views.

      I’m a cyclist AND a driver. When I’m driving, I notice a lot of dickhead cyclists AND drivers on the road who don’t follow the rules or the law or practice common courtesy. Same thing when I’m cycling, funnily enough, the only real difference is that when I’m on my bike I feel a lot more vulnerable for obvious reasons.

      The problem isn’t really cyclists OR drivers. It’s dickheads. And there are a lot of them pedalling bikes AND sitting behind wheels of cars and pickup trucks. The whole “cyclist vs drivers” rant goes both ways and is pointless. Lots of cyclists, and lots of drivers, display an oversized sense of entitlement and arrogance. If everyone just respected each other, slowed down a little, and tried to work cooperatively, it would all go much better for everyone. I know because I saw precisely that, this past summer…. in Bend OR where I was on vacation. And this wasn’t some kind of Amsterdam style bike nirvana – Bend is a typical American city with long commutes, lots of cars, but also lots of bike commuters, all giving each other space and common courtesy. It was amazing – a civil society!!!!.

      And I hope it spreads because cars and bikes are here to stay. Let’s all just chill out a bit – although I’m with you on the subject of cyclists running down my own 8 year old on sidewalks!!!

    2. Out of this long farango, I’ll pick three points:

      1) Wayne says: “For the record, I have been driving for 25 years and have never caused any fatalities…” Good for you. Seriously. If you consider your safety record an individual achievement, then… don’t tell cyclists, because we aren’t the people who need to know. Tell the lawyers who defend the killings of pedestrians, hit and runs, and all manner of disgraceful behaviour behind the wheel by saying that the “accident” could have happened to anybody. Tell the judges who go along with that drivel. Tell them you don’t want to be associated with homicidal recklessness when these cases come up, and if they elect judges where you live, tell them again at election time. Tell the police. Tell legislators not to issue licenses to drivers who kill. If you don’t want any part of drivers who kill, don’t disown them to a cycling forum. Disown them to the courts, the legislators, the lawmakers, the people who can actually get bad drivers off the roads.

      2) The cost of ownership for an average car eats up about two hours after-tax wages for an average middle class worker. That’s a time suck. And that is before we factor in the health effects of a car dependent sedentary lifestyle, which has debilitating and life shortening effects similar to smoking.

      3) Wayne says: “Before you criticize my community, clean up your own.” I hope you belong to a community, Wayne. I hope the people in it support and care for you. Everyone should belong to a community. Just… cyclists have never criticized any community you might belong to. We criticize drivers, and they are not in any sense a community. For starters, if you think truckers feel a sense of community with car drivers, I have yet to meet a trucker who agrees. In fact, drivers don’t want other drivers around much. Apologists for the car love to say people love their cars. Maybe so, but a look at the “traffic calming” measures in any major city, or the road layouts in automotive suburbs, makes it clear they want other people driving around them or the places their kids play about as much as they want Karla Holmulka living next door.

    3. “Anything that makes my commute shorter is “useful”.”
      Unfortunately this is the whole problem wrapped up into one sentence. Killing pedestrians and bicyclists is a small price to pay if someone can cut 10 seconds off their commute.

  5. Perhaps if the cyclists would watch where they are going, stop at stop signs and lights and not weave in and out of traffic, there would be fewer injuries/fatalities. Also, lights at night are the law…use them you morons!

    1. I ride to work every day with a GoPro on my helmet, and my GoPro says your ignorant tribal whinging is ignorant tribal whinging. Cyclists watch where they are going, the overwhelming majority obeys the law, and of the fraction that does not, they look very carefully before running reds. Practically nobody rides wrong-way (I’ve seen it less than half a dozen times in a year, believe me, if they’re wrong way, they’re in *my* biking face and I am not happy). “Weaving” is “lane changing”, and it is legal. Crash studies indicate that well over half the crashes are caused by drivers (in Cambridge, MA, 20% of all crashes are caused just by dooring).

      You are, however, correct about the lights, and it turns out that they’re a good idea even in the daytime. A study in Denmark found that the following crash categories all decreased by about 50% with daytime running lights (in some cases, more) — daytime crashes, multiparty crashes, crashes that generated an insurance report, crashes that generated a police report, crashes that generated an ER visit, crashes that generated a personal doctor visit.

      A quick comparison of pedestrian fatalities makes it clear who’s the cause of road danger. Every year, drivers kill over 4000 pedestrians. Cyclists kill 1 or 2. There are of course more drivers, but not 2000x more — it’s more like 150 car trips per bicycle trip. That is, when you hop in your car to run some errand, you are 13x more likely to kill a pedestrian than I am when I hop on my bicycle to run an errand.

      It seems to me that I know more about safety than you do, since I am 13x safer; I assume you will not take offense if I offer a few safety tips?

      Safety tip #1: 20mph is plenty. Don’t drive faster than that.
      Safety tip #2: Don’t drive a vehicle heavier than necessary for your trip. In most cases, 40lbs is plenty. You might want a cargo bike if you carry children or carry other heavy loads, those can weigh as much as 100lbs, but more than that is wasteful and endangers others.
      Safety tip #3: Stereo off. Windows down. You need to be able to hear what is going on around you.
      Safety tip #4: Never use your horn. Use your brakes instead.
      Safety tip #5: Always stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. Be sure that if your visibility is obstructed, you slow down to a speed at which you could stop if a pedestrian suddenly appeared.
      Safety tip #6: Reduce speed by 5mph for each child/dog near your path of travel, up to 3. I.e., 15mph limit for 1, 10mph limit for 2, 5mph limit for 3 or more.

      This is really rude of me, isn’t it, to lecture at you like you’re an irresponsible child? Go re-read your own remarks, then look in a mirror.

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