Bicyclists Have the Right-of-way, But We Don't Own the Road

12:34pm | We bicyclists1 rightly believe the city is right to get a clue about our favored mode of movement.
And it's absolutely essential that we operators of gasoline-powered vehicles (I'm this, too) drive with deference to the vulnerability of our bicycling brethren on the roadways, because helmets and elbow pads don't do much against a ton of four-wheeled metal. Factor in the ineluctable reality that, however essential motorized transport may be for covering X distance in Y time or hauling a piano from here to there, pedaling a bicycle is, environmentally speaking, a holier activity than pressing a foot lever that pumps carbon monoxide (to name but one pathogen) into the air, and puh-lease. Bicycles have the right-of-way, end of story.

That should not give leave for any of us to ride as if we are not part of the human traffic flow  however they may roam  and instead act as if we’re disconnected, impervious, above it all, as if we don't have to concern ourselves with anyone not traveling like us.

All this bicycle-friendly infrastructure-building is good stuff. The more convenient it is for people to bicycle from point A to point B (especially if it becomes increasingly inconvenient to drive there), the more we'll do it. When bicycling increases and driving decreases, emissions go down, traffic goes down, the health quotient of the populous goes up a tick, businesses like the neighborhood bike shop flourish, and so on. Win-win-win, etc.

But there may be a negative sociological side-effect. Call it bicyclist entitlement.

I'm talking about riding style, such as that which I saw from my window the other day. A rider crossed into traffic not caring whom he cut off, weaving across the street against the light, then through a crosswalk and in front of a car that had a green light to make a right turn. It was almost an "I dare you to hit me" move — stupidly perilous and arrogant, as well as inconsiderate.

It was clear from the way this gent handled his racing bike that he was a skilled rider. But know-how and a nice ride is no excuse for putting car drivers in a difficult situation. Rules of the road apply both ways, and automobiles are a reality in the traffic game. Yes, people are overly reliant on them, lazy, sometimes frivolous. Yes, we should have much better public transit. Yes, in general they should be smaller and run on electric or solar or hydrogen power. But these are all separate questions. Cars are part of the playing field, and they ain't going away in this lifetime.

The key is not to focus on the cars, but on the people. However we feel about automobiles, we bicyclists don't have to be jerks to the people driving them just because our mode of transpiration is (in a certain sense) a superior choice. Yes, they damn well need to yield to us; that doesn't mean our disregard should make it any harder for them to do so.

There are laws covering this stuff. Maybe some of those laws are ignorant. Maybe sometimes the police get caught up in the letter of the law and rather miss the spirit. Maybe the police chief can be a little mixed up in his priorities. Nonetheless, the civil libertarian that I am, some rules of the road are necessary and should be enforced.

But part of the point is that they shouldn't have to be enforced: The ones that matter we shouldn't be violating simply because there's a right way to ride. And I think we all know that some of our fellow riders regularly display a wanton disregard for that right way. I don't know that it's important for every rider to come to a complete stop at every stop sign every time; I do think that plenty of bicyclists commit
transgressions far beyond this level.

I imagine one of the ways in which the last 30 years or so will be regarded by future American sociological historians is that this has been an era of a specific kind of selfishness, an "I'm gonna get mine" combining with an abdication of personal responsibility. It's "South Park"'s Cartman's "Whateva! I do what I want!"

We bicyclists deserve much, all of which will help create a better community. This should not be understood to mean that we are above the herd. The human animal is mobile and multifarious, and we need to look out for both ourselves and our herdmates, just as we should be looking both ways before we cross the street.

1Although I have yet actually to join the ranks (soon), for the purposes of this piece we're letting me have the "we" in the title: I'm a bicyclist. We're bicyclists.    

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