Cyclists Aren't Just Stop Sign-Blowing Pricks in Skinny Jeans

Categories: bikes

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I was waiting at a red light last week while on my way to meet some friends after work when a pedestrian in the crosswalk started talking to me.

That, in and of itself, makes for a noteworthy event. Save to signal or, very occasionally, to register my profound displeasure with someone, I rarely interact with the pedestrians, drivers, or even the cyclists around me when I'm on my bike.

When the pedestrian started talking, it took me a moment to register that I was even being spoken to.He was an older man, dressed dapperly enough to suggest gentleman, and he was looking at me in the eye and nodding solemnly.

"I want to thank you for stopping," he said. "Not all of you take the time."

Maybe not, I should have said, but certainly some of us do. And by "us," I mean cyclists: a group defined by a particular vehicular choice and not, I should add, much else at all -- certainly not a monolithic disregard for traffic laws.

But I didn't say that. Instead, I said, "you're welcome," because I had no interest in picking a fight with a man in homburg -- certainly not one so intent on telling me how great I am.

I tell this story not to ring my own bell (I might very well have slow rolled through the quiet T-crossing had I not just received a text message that I wanted to read), but to bemoan what is only too obvious to most cyclists: A lot of people really don't like us.

Or more to the point: A lot of people have a very specific notion of who we are.

Try it now. Close your eyes and think the word, "cyclist."

Chances are you're imagining an irrepressibly young person with genital-clenching pants -- either spandex or skinny jeans, depending on your neighborhood. You're thinking of lane-hogging and stop-sign running and car-hating. You're picturing someone (probably a dude, almost certainly a white dude) riding the wrong way up a one-way street on a Friday night with no bike lights while texting -- drunk.

"Thank you for stopping," is what the man said. What does it say that a cyclist bothering to obey the law should warrant a response at all?

Perhaps I'm making a disproportionate fuss over one friendly, if over-generalizing, comment from a well-intentioned senior citizen, but bear with me. I hear remarks like this all the time: "I'm sure you're not like the rest of them, but I hate it when cyclists ..." is a familiar enough refrain to anyone who professes to ride a bike to a coworker or to the friend of a friend at a party.

My point is that cyclists are often defined in very narrow terms. And that's a problem for advocates of bike-friendly city policy. Because as anyone who's ever frequented the comment section of a bike-related news article knows, having a reasoned conversation about MTA Master Plans is really tough if one side can't stop conceiving the other as a bunch of "bike Nazis."

The challenge, then, is how do we broaden most people's basic understanding of who cyclists are? How do we get people to imagine the word "cyclist" and, instead of immediately recalling that one guy they saw making a mad dash through a red light, they remember instead the much larger crowd of cyclists he had left waiting patiently at the crosswalk? How do we get people to stop conceiving of cycling as a necessarily political act, but to see it as just another way to get around -- a method of transportation that a variety of different people choose for a variety of different reasons?

While I fully support the Bicycle Coalition's decision to start handing out candy bars to law-abiding bicyclists(because it gets more cyclists thinking about the rules of the road, because it reminds everyone else that most cyclists do bother to follows those rules, and because it involves the possibility of my eating chocolate), getting drivers to think differently about the people riding past them in the bike lane on their way to work is going to require something a bit more systematic.

Something like, say, a citywide bike share program.

On Tuesday, Scott Wiener co-sponsored a resolution urging the SFMTA to expand what was to be an ineffectually small bike-share pilot program into a much larger, city-scaled network sometime next year. Citing a recent study of Washington D.C.'s Capital Share program, Wiener points out that "44 percent of respondents used bike share to make at least one trip in a month that they would not have made if bike share had not been available."

Wiener's intent in using this fact was to illustrate the sure boon that bike sharing will bring to the local economy as people hop on the municipal bikes to go shopping. But I think that's also a particularly encouraging statistic for those who want to see a larger, more diverse mix of people on bikes in San Francisco.

People who use bike share programs are, almost by definition, non-regular riders. These are people for whom it might occasionally be more convenient or otherwise worthwhile to ride a bike than to drive or take Muni, but for whom owning a bicycle outright doesn't make sense. These are, in other words, not your "typical cyclists." Throwing them into the mix of cyclists already roving around the city would, I hope, make it that much harder to dismiss the entire lot as anything other than mainstream.

Ben Christopher is an Oakland-based freelance journalist. His favorite pastimes include pretending to work at coffee shops and shaking his fist disapprovingly at errant drivers from atop his baby blue Cannondale.




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14 comments
gezelligsf
gezelligsf

I've had people thank me for stopping. Makes me feel bad. They shouldn't have to notice that I'm following the law.

theonewhoisright
theonewhoisright

So the truth is revealed -- people on bikes behave a lot like people in cars.  Get off your machine and walk like a human!  Pedestrian Power!

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

The bad behavior of cyclists in SF is so widespread it's legendary. Anyone who spends any time on city streets sees a lot of it. And then you have Critical Mass every month when these folks get together and do it en masse. And then you have City Hall and the Bicycle Coalition forcing bike lanes on city neighborhoods, taking away street parking and traffic lanes in the process. People naturally begin to resent this PC imposition.

District elections skews city politics to the left allowing people who could never be elected citywide to make a majority on the Board of Supervisors. What principled progressives and City Hall should do is put the Bicycle Plan on the ballot to allow city voters a voice in the radical redesign of city streets on behalf of what's become the most unpopular special interest group in San Francisco: cyclists.

Rob Anderson

AZanimal
AZanimal

"instead of immediately recalling that one guy they saw making a mad dash through a red light, they remember instead the much larger crowd of cyclists he had left waiting patiently at the crosswalk"

In my experience those proportions are almost exactly reversed.

loinmastersf
loinmastersf

While a bike sharing program would certainly alleviate the tensions between cyclisits and everyone else (allowing others to see things from a bike riders pov), leaving it to SFMTA to implement is a sure way to make it fail. Also, roughly the same percentage of cyclists break traffic laws as drivers (speeding, etc.), but that doesn't make it ok.

sofiahussain6
sofiahussain6

 Dear Mr. Christopher,

I think your article brings up some good points, but I disagree with you on the possible motivation of the pedestrian you encountered.

If the individual simply said "I want to thank you for stopping, not all of you take the time." it seems that he has merely lumped you in with other cyclists and not necessarily with any other demographic nor a specific stero-type.  And I think that is a fair assumption.  You were on a bike, therefore you were a cyclists.  He did not guess your age, favorite color, music preferences, employment, pizza topping... etc.  And that is where I disagree; I don't think this individual has a stero-type of cyclists that needs to be shattered by public out-reach.

Yes, I do understand where this pedestrian might be coming from because I, too, have made such a comment on the streets of San Francisco.  And my motivations for the comment were different than what you suggest.  Personally, I have seen many types of cyclists out there... families with babies or dogs in a cycling "trailer", a pack of tourists enjoying the sunshine, commuters going to work every morning around the same time I leave for work, teenagers with helmets on, carriers making a living delivering a package, and many others.  And I too share a love for the cycle: I road my bike to school every day both in high school and in college. I do not mind sharing the road with cyclists, but I do mind when they run red-lights and put themselves and others in harm's way.

I live near Embarcadero, and every day I will see at least one cyclists blow through a red light at speeds faster than the traffic around them. At least once a month I see a pedestrian almost run over by a cyclists, or a cyclists almost hit by a car because the cyclists is not obeying traffic laws.  Sometimes I am that pedestrian, or that car driver.  And it is not one "type" of cyclists who does this: I have seen a representative of just about any stero-type you can think of run a red light.  The only thing that unites these individuals seems to be being on a bike and running a red light... nothing more.

And that frustrates me, because it is unforgivable if someone gets hurt because someone (in any vehicle) ran a red light.  So, instead of getting upset or angry, I try to channel my frustration in a positive way. I think, "why are these people running these red-lights, and is there anything I can do to improve the situation?"  One possibility is that these people run red lights because they don't think their actions are effecting anyone else around them.  Maybe they don't think they matter, or their actions don't have an impact on anyone else, one way or another.  Well, it matters to me, so I think that maybe I should express that in a positive way, and just maybe it might make the world a better place.

And so, sometimes I will say to a cyclists, "Thank you for stopping."

mrericsir
mrericsir topcommenter

@rmajora Are you still spreading FUD about bicycling all day?  For fuck's sake, get a LIFE.

BenC
BenC

@sofiahussain6 Thanks very much for that. To echo @BikePretty : well said.

You may be right that I'm not being fair to the man in the crosswalk. After all, he was thanking me, so whatever his motivation, I probably ought not be so hard on the guy. 

What struck me about the interaction was that the man did seem so pleasantly surprised to see a cyclist actually stop. That indicates one of two things: that the man holds an unreasonable assumption about cyclists that is uninformed and overly broad or that the man holds an absolutely reasonable assumption, informed by the behavior of most of the cyclists whom he sees. 

I have no way of knowing which is the case but, either way, that's bad news for people like me who, for both personal and political reasons, would rather everyone think a bit more highly of cyclists. And so it's worth asking how we can repair that shoddy reputation. Certainly, part of the solution is that more cyclists try to be more mindful of the fact that, as you rightly point out, their behavior on the road really can have an impact on others. But I also think it's worth reminding those who don't ride that not everyone on two wheels deserves such a bum rap. If only for the sake of self-preservation, no cyclist wants to get in an accident.

And hey, if I'm being really honest, having a stranger thank me for stopping sort of made my ride. So I hope you both keep it up. 

Thanks again for the comment.

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

@mrericsir 

Is this the trendy way to write? Use "fuck," caps, and an acronym---FUD---that uncool people like me don't understand. And I like the cutesy picture of the cat, which means what exactly?

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

@prinzrob @rmajora 

I'm not mad. It's just lame to make a comment---and make it anonymously, of course---with zero intellectual content, with a fashionable obscenity, and adorned with a picture of a cat.

prinzrob
prinzrob

@rmajora "FUD" is a very common term that has been in wide use for decades. I remember hearing it on the news when I was a kid. Don't get mad at @mrericsir just because you weren't familiar with it.

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

@mrericsir

If you have something to say, why not just say it clearly? Answer: You're just another know-nothing twit who seems to think he's/she's cute. Better go empty the cat box.

mrericsir
mrericsir topcommenter

@rmajora  Maybe you should spend less time writing anti-bike comments on the internet and more time educating yourself.

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