New York Times' YouTube Investigation: Bicyclists Sometimes Run Stop Signs

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The odd media war unfolding in San Francisco -- in which major dailies establish editions here while local periodicals fade away -- advanced in a new direction Friday, with a page A-19 story in the New York City edition of the New York Times titled "San Francisco's Cyclists Facing Backlash for Flouting Rules of the Road."


The story didn't coincide with the headline. The purported San Francisco backlash consisted of one guy  on a bike who got a ticket for running a stop sign in Portola Valley. More striking, however, was the question of what strap-hanging Big Apple readers might find interesting about a San Mateo County traffic ticket -- even one wrapped in the sort of bogus Times trend story Slate columnist Jack Shafer has made a steady sideline of outing. (Ex SF Weekly editor Shafer's latest roundup began with a story about a phony NYT-reported trend in which men supposedly grew pot-bellies on purpose because it had become fashionable.)

The real trend outed in the story was that cyclists often run stop signs. The author set up a video camera to prove this. He referred to unnamed bicyclists he supposedly interviewed as "venom-spewing bike bullies." And made the unsubstantiated claim that Marin County residents refer to cycling tourists as "locusts."

This is all well and good. The writer is entitled to his opinion. But why is this news in the New York Times' New York City edition A-section?

Having observed San Francisco newspapers' coverage as the number of cyclists on our city streets have multiplied since the mid 1990s, I may have some insight. Every time a driver stops using a car and instead gets around by bike, significant road space is opened to motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists. Fewer cars are on the road to kill and maim people.  There's less need for parking space and more places to put parks, stores and apartments. And there's less smog, less noise and a greater sense of urban peace.

But car-commuting newspaper reporters or columnists driving to work don't usually see this. Instead, they experience a new crop of slow-moving vehicles they have to drive around. Former Chron columnist Ken Garcia used to liken cyclists to a mentally unstable fringe group. Current columnist C.W. Nevius described accommodations for cyclists as a usurpation: "the wishes of the few versus the needs of the many." A Chronicle news story last year misinterpreted statistics to create the false impression that most bicycle-involved collisions were cyclists' fault, part of a general theme of coverage that treats bicycling as an exoticism and a nuisance rather than the transportation solution it is.

New York is currently undergoing the sort of bicycle revolution San Francisco has been experiencing since the mid-1990s. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has installed bicycle lanes, racks, and other accommodations as a central plank in his bid to turn cities into a tool to slow global warming. Cyclists, as a result, are turning up on the street. And they're being met with fascination, and sometimes scorn.

The Times stop sign article also came on the heels of the conviction Monday of a Los Angeles physician who was nailed for felony assault after using his car to injure two cyclists, then tell police he meant to "teach them a lesson" for taking up what he believed was too much road space. That story earned national attention. And Friday's Times stop sign piece provided a sort of counter-narrative.

The fact that cyclists often don't halt at stop signs has long has been a rallying cry for the scorn-mongers. Cyclists don't deserve rights and protections, this strain of logic goes, because some of them don't obey our laws. Hence, a fake trend story positing a backlash against San Francisco stop sign-blowers just might be of interest to Manhattanites preoccupied with their own city's bike boom.


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