Call it bike rage. The simmering conflict between some cyclists and some drivers seems to have boiled over a bit this summer.
No less a revered source than USA Today published a long story (actually, it’s a book by McPaper standards) about the issue. Even the painfully politically correct and excruciatingly sensitive National Public Radio host Scott Simon took a shot at bike riders when he found some bizarre way to link urban bike commuters to Lance Armstrong's doping scandal.
I have done my own bit of unscientific research this summer, observing cars as they cheat on yellow lights and sometimes just blatantly blow through red ones. Cars that run red lights have become an epidemic. If there's rage to be had, it should be over how couple thousand pounds of glass and steel moving at 40 miles per hour can do a whole lot more damage than a 25-pound bike traveling at ten or fifteen.
Now look, I'll be the first to admit that there is plenty of irresponsible biking that goes on out there. I am not convinced that it exceeds the amount of irresponsible car driving, though.
Last week, in just a single issue, the State Journal reported that three car drivers had been charged with their fourth, fifth and (get this) ninth drunk driving citations, respectively, but certainly not respectfully. And Wisconsin remains the only state in the nation in which the first drunk driving offense is not a
Given the more or less equal amounts of irresponsibility on the part of both drivers and cyclists, and given the fact that dangerous driving will cause a whole lot more mayhem than bad bicycling, what accounts for all of the venom directed at bikers?
One good theory is that this rage has little to do with biking at all.
Bicycles have become a symbol, and conservatives have made them a weapon in the culture wars. They want to portray all cyclists as entitled, urban hipsters or elite super athletes. One way or another, the far right (and now I guess even a liberal NPR radio host) wants to portray bike riders as somehow un-American. I guess it starts with bicycle lanes, and then before you know it we're all sitting in cafes glued to soccer matches and everybody's got health insurance. Oh, wait. Maybe that is actually happening.
In that USA Today article, Shane Farthing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said it best: "In some cases, a bike has become a symbol for some folks of so many social, historical, racial, demographic and mobility issues that have been packed over so much time and space. At that point, the debate is not about bikes anymore."
So what to do about it?
Well, let's all start by taking a deep breath. I will admit that as a driver I get irritated by bad cyclist behavior. When that happens, I breathe deeply and remind myself that at that moment I am responsible for deadly force. I have a special responsibility behind the wheel to look out for other motor vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians. Others may act badly, but my job is to stay cool and focused. The computer-piloted driverless car may someday take care of this problem, but for now, it's good to remind ourselves that driving should not be an expression of our emotions.
As cyclists, we need to be on our best behavior because drivers are watching. I make it a point to stop at red lights even when there is no traffic, to signal my turns, to stay off of sidewalks where that isn't allowed (mostly downtown) and to otherwise just be courteous on the street. Maybe the best thing we can do to cool the tension is just to take the 30 seconds and actually come to a complete stop when the rules call for it.
Finally, there's a public policy solution as well: more safe bike infrastructure. By building more dedicated bike paths, and more clearly marked and protected bike lanes, we are providing better facilities for both bicyclists and drivers that allow each to know their space and perhaps live in harmony.
One way or another, this issue of rage against bicyclists needs to be worked out, not just in Madison, but in the whole country. The explosion in cycling is no fad -- it's the future. Bicycle commuting is up 60% nationwide, and probably more around here. Bike lanes and other bike infrastructure is being added at a rapid rate and Milllenials are biking a lot more than Baby Boomers.
The bicycle is not a symbol of anything. It's just a bike. Don't get mad. Go with the flow.
Dave Cieslewicz is the executive director of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.