Who Hates Cyclists?

May 19th, 2010 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

We all have to know there’s no quick fix to the emotionally based bike/car/pedestrian scuffles. When I recently had coffee with cycling friend Boston City Councilor John Connolly to discuss bikes, I confessed to my UU and progressive bent — as in trying to resolve underlying problems instead of treating symptoms.

In his efforts to improve riders’ safety and to increase bike use through a downtown sharing program, he goes for the achievable. In contrast, when he asked what would make the biggest difference in safety, regular-cyclist I had a different answer than tweaking car travel-lane widths.

Citywide enforcement of existing laws and regulations for cyclists, pedestrians and motor-vehicle drivers would do it. Virtually everyone who travels in Boston calls for enforcement, which we decidedly do not get. They differ widely and often irrationally on the bad guys. They identify as the victim class and it’s those others who need to wise up.

Name the Villain

Any set of comments orally, written or online will give us more than our fill of the vitriol and self-righteousness on the issue. The latest I’ve seen appears on Universal Hub in comments on a post about the new Commonwealth Avenue bike lanes.


  • Quick Question By anon (not verified) – 5/18/10 – 12:01 pm
    Will anyone be enforcing laws for cyclists, like having them actually FOLLOW THE RULES OF THE ROAD and not try to run over people in crosswalks during a red light? If one more dbag from Slumerville does it to me again, they’re getting slugged.
  • As a pedestrian in Boston who uses several major By roadman – 5/18/10 – 12:38 pm
    intersections on a daily basis, I see FAR more bicyclists run red lights than drivers do. For one thing, I have yet to see a driver pull into the opposing lane (or up on a sidewalk) to pass other traffic stopped for a red light and blow through the “all red” pedestrian phase, nearly running down the people LEGALLY within the crosswalk. Most of the “red light running” cyclists I observe do this sort of thing all the time.
  • Good points. By anon (not verified) – 5/18/10 – 2:00 pm
    And let’s use some common sense here. If an experienced cyclist comes to a full stop at a red light, then determines that it is safe to pedestrians and the other vehicles to proceed, we shouldn’t kill him or her for doing so. It’s akin to jumping on pedestrians who cross in the crosswalk against the light when there are no vehicles in the intersection and it is safe to do so.
  • Let’s extend this to all vehicles, shall we? By KellyJMF – 5/18/10 – 5:06 pm
    So you’d be ok with experienced car drivers coming to a full stop at a red light, determining it’s safe to proceed, and then running the red light?
  • So when you’re in your car, By NotWhitey – 5/18/10 – 2:55 pm
    So when you’re in your car, you’re a normal, law-abiding citizen. Get on the bike and laws no longer apply to you – the rest of us should just trust your judgement. In other words, a typical bike-riding knucklehead.
    Is it something about the bike seat that causes this? Or maybe the air blowing through your ear-holes?
  • How many cars blow through By anon (not verified) – 5/18/10 – 1:35 pm
    How many cars blow through lights that have changed from yellow to red? At least one if not two or three along my commute, regularly. Those initial seconds are when bicyclists whose light has just turned green are most vulnerable. Or how about this one… how many drivers make turns or change lanes without using turn signals? That’s one that seems to happen about 25% of the time and a move than can be a deadly one for a cyclist who can’t tell what the car is doing next.
    Oh and how many times has a cyclist running or rolling a red light hit or killed a car driver?
  • And how many cars travel By AdamPieniazek – 5/18/10 – 3:24 pm
    And how many cars travel above the speed limit? 100% 150% Infinity percent?
    A biker blowing a red light is dumb and dangerous. A biker treating a red light as a stop sign is less so. But a driver blowing a red light and/or speeding is several magnitudes more dangerous.

Those are some of the gentler, politer chatter such discussions engender. Virtually everyone trades in empirical knowledge and stereotype. The trappings of those are absolute confidence in one’s position and churlish disdain for those of others.

Running Start

I admit to my own calls for more nuanced solutions. For one, I have already proposed legislation to allow cyclists to treat red lights like stop signs. Apparently such new concepts require repeated tries and testimony if they ever get through committees, much less to discussion, and more rarely to a vote and passage. Those who have shepherded even such minor laws say to expect six or more goes.

Moreover, the lawmaker who helped last year, Rep. Willie Mae Allen, is retiring. I had gotten her to work with me when my busy-and-distracted senator, Marion Walsh, couldn’t be bothered. It looks like I have to break in a new one when the elections are settled.

The fairly disingenuous same-road-same-rules slogan and campaign has the support of MassBike among others. It is an oversimplified and ultimately unworkable stopgap. Dressed in seeming logic and fairness, this passes the common-sense test. It fails the reality one.

Unfortunately, anything short of such literalism is a bit subtle and not binary enough for many drivers and cyclists to consider important distinctions in travel modes. For drivers in particular nothing seems to annoy them more than the idea that someone might be able to do something forbidden to them.

The puerile reaction is somebody-got-more-than-I-did. “Billy got a Popsicle. I didn’t!” The teacher might point out that Billy had a bloody, fat lip from a softball and was sucking on a frozen pop to keep the swelling down. The response is still likely to be, “Billy got a Popsicle. I didn’t!,” repeated many times.

For my nascent legislative effort, a primary point in red-lights-as-stop-signs is giving cyclists a literal head start. When the bike leads the car, truck or bus, the driver can overtake it safely. When they leave an intersection at the same time and there’s no bike lane painted on the blacktop, far too many drivers swerve, turn right into the cyclists’ paths without signaling or yielding, and generally seem confused enough to risk a wreck to the left or right.

Several times (ah, empiricism again) when a driver has behaved dangerously at an intersection, I have caught up and discussed the matter. They invariably like the idea of being in control by overtaking me on the bike rather than being unsure of exactly where I am. It’s not a hard sell.

I’m a big guy and I wouldn’t advise most cyclists to do that. However, I find it reassuring to know that a little logic and solid geometry go a long way very quickly.

Serving Notice

That noted, the issue remains that many drivers have felt that roads are for cars, trucks and buses only. They’ve felt like that from their teens. Unless they are frequent pedestrians and/or cyclists, they view those others as others, inconveniencing them on their streets.

This is where the constabulary can make the difference. I admit upfront that it would require support and mandates from Mayor Menino, Commissioner Davis and maybe Superintendent in Chief Linskey. Boston police would have to:

  • Set aside the fantasy that they are all movie-star crime busters who face barrages of bullets daily and live to haul in murders and drug kingpins, also daily.
  • Accept that it’s well past time to make a huge difference in our culture by making the Boston driver, pedestrian and cyclist rare or extinct.
  • Enforce the devil out of traffic laws for everyone.

This would probably only require a couple of months. If cops would first obey the laws themselves.Then, they would pull and ticket every driver who runs red lights. Our drivers often do that in chains for two to five.

Do the same for cyclists and ticket jaywalkers. You can be damned sure the word would spread in and around Boston quickly it did in other cities and have done this (I think of D.C., where pedestrians actually wait for walk signals and how amazed my firstborn was on his initial visit to San Francisco at six. He said in wonder, “The cars stop for red lights here.”)

A couple months of that and over a century of wild, wild east behavior would surely see a major transformation, if not to civility at least leaning to the rule of law. The cops could get back to their fantasies and occasional realities of heroic deeds.

The legislature could help here too. Make the fines for bike violations $50 instead of the maximum of $20. Make the jaywalking penalty $25 instead of $1. Do as some places like the D.C. do and haul offenders downtown if they won’t ID themselves and hand over the ticket price on the spot. In other words, give us incentives beyond the golden rule to obey safety laws.

Tags: , , , , , , ,


3 Responses

  1. Uncle says:

    This business of making the playing field level has gone on since the original legislation passed. A letter exchange in the local paper back then contained the usual comments from motorists. Then a cyclist wrote to say the law didn’t apply to him because his bicycle was not a “vehicle.”

    After we pound our heads slowly against a hard surface, we must accept that many Massachusetts cyclists are cut from the same bolt as Massachusetts drivers.

    Where I grew up, I got a ticket for some cycling infraction at age 12 and actually had to go to court. I have never forgotten that. Enforcement does work.

  2. Harrumpher says:

    Wowsers. What happened before the judge — assuming you didn’t have a jury of middle schoolers?

  3. Uncle says:

    There was a gaggle of youthful offenders…two or three others, I recall. We were haled before the judge, pretty much scared out of our wits, lectured sternly and given a purely nominal fine. People may be too hardened today for that to work, but who can say?

Leave a Reply