Why the hostility to bikes?

When I see cyclists on the road, I am particularly careful to give them a wide berth because they are so vulnerable. But apart from that, bikes do not cause any problem for me. Not only do I have no objection to cyclists, it is a cheap means of transport and results in a far healthier lifestyle than mine.

It is true that some cyclists flout the rules of the road dangerously, especially when it comes to running red lights, and that can be annoying and even alarming. It is also aggravating when they ride too fast on sidewalks. But I put this down to the fact that cyclists in the US are still a tiny minority so they think can get away with not following the rules. This may have well been the case with cars in the early days too. If biking gets more popular and more people take it up, I suspect that rules will be observed out of sheer necessity.

But biking is undoubtedly a good thing and so I am baffled at the opposition to a new plan in New York City called CitiBike that, like car sharing services, sets up bike stands around the city where for an annual fee of $95 subscribers can get a bike for their use up to 45 minutes at a time. It may or may not be a good plan but like all experimental systems, we need to try it out. So the deep hostility in some quarters seems weird to me. Any New Yorkers with special insight as to how it is going?

Meanwhile The Daily Show has its own take on the program.

(This clip aired on June 6, 2013. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)


  1. jamessweet says

    My assumption is that it is the same motivator behind the recent widely-publicized results that conservatives were less likely to buy a product if it’s good for the environment…

  2. Corvus illustris says

    It is true that some cyclists flout the rules of the road dangerously, especially when it comes to running red lights,

    and traveling in the wrong direction on one-way streets, or comin-at-ya on the wrong side of bidirectional streets,

    and that can be annoying and even alarming. It is also aggravating when they ride too fast on sidewalks …

    It’s worse than aggravating, it’s illegal and dangerous (we’re talking full-size bikes with full-size adults on them). They travel at four or five times the speed of a pedestrian; significant injuries are possible if they hit you. I am hyperacoustic but in the presence of ordinary small-town street noise I cannot hear them approaching at high speed on rubber tires; deaf people don’t stand a chance. When I’m driving I give the law-abiding ones every courtesy; nobody wants to be in a bike vs. motor-vehicle colllision. My town is “bike-friendly” and has many marked bike lanes. Tolerating the law-unto-themselves cyclists is a little too much.


  3. daved says

    I don’t know that it’s the law everywhere, but I’m under the impression that if you are riding a bike, you are legally a vehicle, and are no more allowed to ride on the sidewalk than an automobile is allowed to drive there.

  4. lochaber says

    I wonder if it’s some sort of observation bias, where they notice the one blatantly breaking the rules, but ignore the other 8 riding like they are supposed to.

    I imagine it’s also similar to what motorcycle riders face – due to the way our brains work, most drivers are looking for ‘cars’ on the road. Their eyes will pass right over something standing in the middle of an intersection, whether it’s a person, a motorcyclist, a bicyclist, or a baboon, and determine that the intersection is clear, since none of those were a ‘car’. Then when they strike the object, they say ‘it came out of nowhere – I looked, the intersection was clear, and then there was a thud’

    So, for the record, I get annoyed at those that ride in a reckless/dangerous manner. As a pedestrian, I’m not too concerned, cause I got hit by a bicyclist in college – I stumbled, but the guy on the bike got tossed. not to be dismissive of it or anything, but I’m pretty sure a bicyclist wants to collide with a pedestrian a bit less then a pedestrian wants to be struck by a bicycle.

    I’ve also had the experience riding a bike where someone deliberately follows and harasses/threatens me, and it’s a pretty disturbing experience.

    Maybe it’s also just plain old selfishness and tribalism of a sort?

  5. slc1 says

    I can’t speak for every place in the US, but in Washington, DC it is legal to ride on the sidewalk except for the downtown areas where there is significant pedestrian traffic.

  6. Mano Singham says

    That’s a good point that I had not considered. In the case of car-car collisions, you might result in just a fender-bender. But with car-bikes it is almost always serious, so that may be why motorists get more alarmed by bad bike behavior than car behavior.

  7. left0ver1under says

    Car drivers and MRAs act exactly the same, pretending the actions of a few cyclists represent all while excusing their own behaviours that range from inconsiderate to violent to (in a few cases) murder.

    Like MRAs, some drivers act as if only they have rights. They claim that a small protected space for cyclists to travel is tantamount to banning cars, when all that’s being asked for is equal protection and equal right to the road.

  8. smhll says

    I don’t channel conservatives very accurately but my made-up answer (for them) to “what’s wrong with bikes” is that bikes don’t pollute enough, they aren’t phallic like a sports car, socialist Europeans drive them, poor people drive them, kids drive them, and you can’t crush as many things on purpose with them. (eyeroll).

    Stretching my oddball imagination even further, I would add that there are no bicycles in the Bible, but God put gasoline in the ground while he was hastily putting the planet together in just a few thousand years. And he’s not giving us much longer than that to use it up. (end snark)

  9. says

    There’s a long history of outright hostility between cyclists and motorists in the USA. Lack of infrastructure, education, and enforcement of traffic laws for cyclists combine to create a situation where conflicts are common and rarely resolved.

    Infrastructure – even in cities where bike lanes are common, there are still plenty of areas that make it difficult for cars and bicycles to share the road.

    Education – both drivers and cyclists are under-educated about how traffic laws apply to bicycles.

    Enforcement – I don’t think cops regard enforcing traffic laws on cyclists as a top priority, most of the time.

    In my opinion, having the exact same laws for cars and bikes makes very little sense, but it’s better than having no laws for bikes. Ideally bicyclists should be able to treat stop signs as yield signs, and if we expect bikers to respect stop lights, we really need to improve the ability of cyclists to sit at an intersection for a while without worrying about being hit (or harassed, as is the fear for many women who ride bikes).

  10. Paladynian says

    Hostility to bike riders has always seemed to me to be an offshoot of Hippie-Punching. I could understand if their concern was “I am anxious that I’ll hit a cyclist by accident on the road and so I’m happier when they aren’t around”, but much of the hostility seems nowhere near so rational.

    I’m not sure what motivates it beyond a primal sort of defensiveness. Some folks when told that something that they aren’t personally interested in gives some net benefit to society, they can get *really* hostile to the people who are already doing it.

    I’m not sure if the defensiveness comes from a sense of “I don’t want to drive a bike and if all this cycling takes off soon I won’t be allowed to drive anywhere” or rather more towards the “damn cyclists think they are better then me” variety.

    Or perhaps it is simple tribalism… a lot of personal identify can get invested into being a “Driver”, so when confronted with people who do not value that identity, they double-down on it as being culturally superior and the non-Drivers as correspondingly inferior.

    Personally though my money is on that fact that many people are just opportunistic jerks, and since cyclists are perceived as less powerful then motorists they are an easy target for abuse.

  11. invivoMark says

    And I suppose you never go 2-3mph above the speed limit, and never roll through a stop sign without coming to a complete stop?

    Bikers are on average more law-abiding than drivers: http://wisconsinbikefed.org/2013/04/15/our-pr-problem-self-righteous-spandex-wearing-scofflaws/

    Should we stop “tolerating” you law-unto-yourselves car drivers? Hell, when a biker crashes into someone, the worst that usually happens is maybe a broken ankle. Cars kill people.

  12. howard says

    YES, THIS.

    I know people who will turn all their lights on for Earth Day.

    For what? I don’t understand it, but it makes perfect sense to them. Proving they really believe they can’t hurt the planet?

  13. says

    It largely depends on local jurisdiction. Many places allow bicycles on the sidewalks, particularly in areas where there is no bike infrastructure. There is a (sometimes implicit) understanding that bikes are supposed to cede right of way to pedestrians. In practice, the more bicyclists there are in an area the better behaved they are in terms of road rules, courtesy to pedestrians, etc. There are a number of factors that play in to this: One is that when there is no bike infrastructure and few bikes, cycling is dangerous. Thus, only fanatics are out on their bikes, and they tend to take the tack that they should ride however they think won’t get them killed, because it’s dangerous enough out here and fuck all you drivers anyway. However, once you start to get bike lanes/sharrows/bike boulevards/bike paths installed, enthusiasts will start riding in the streets, and they’ll be the ones who take the laws seriously (mostly; in a few cases the laws are just damn stupid), and start to moderate the bad behaviour of the others both by example and social pressure. Once there are enough of them on the streets, people stop associating cycling with assholes darting through traffic and riding too fast on the sidewalks, and if more infrastructure is put in, more people will use it, and they’ll mostly follow the lead of the second wave, giving a positive feedback loop until you reach local maximum (depending on things like population density, zoning, etc. Even in a perfect situation, you’ll never get everyone on bikes, of course, but there’s a lot of potential still).

  14. brucegee1962 says

    Just about everything in this post sounds exactly like the vegetarianism post a few threads ago. Just substitute “vegetarian” for “cyclist” and “meat eater” for “driver” and it all fits perfectly.

  15. Rob Grigjanis says

    I gave up bike commuting in Toronto several years ago, for a variety of reasons.

    1) Increased traffic volume
    2) Increased cell phone use by drivers
    3) Poorer apparent driving skills (e.g. more sudden unsignalled lane changes)
    4) More, and more inattentive, cyclists
    5) One too many accidents/close calls which could have easily resulted in my death or injury

    I can understand drivers’ hostility. It only takes a few bad cyclists to make them nervous any time they see one ahead. And of course bike couriers make everyone nervous. A small but visible percentage of them are complete arseholes.

  16. says

    I wonder if it’s some sort of observation bias, where they notice the one blatantly breaking the rules, but ignore the other 8 riding like they are supposed to.

    This is also part of it, but see above; in areas with relatively few cyclists, the odds are good that a lot of them actually are breaking the rules, and justifying by pointing to the fact that drivers routinely fail to see them, ignore them, etc. in a way that’s very dangerous to them. Thus, they argue, I may be acting like a jerk, but at least I’ve got you’re attention and you aren’t going to e.g. turn through me accidentally without signaling (this has happened to me on no less than 3 occasions. It is not fun at all.) Your note about paying attention is also true, but it is less of a problem when more bikes are on the road, because motorists start to include them in their conceptual space. This is also the reason for sharrows (big arrows with bikes under them painted on the roads), signs noting the presence of bikes, etc. (although protected/separate bike routes are still preferabe, in terms of infrastructure.)

  17. machintelligence says

    Having logged more than a few thousand miles on all three types of vehicles (car, motorcycle and bicycle), I can say with some assurance that although the assholes are rare, they are the most memorable. Hello, confirmation bias.
    BTW Denver has its B-cycle program, which is now in its third year. The biggest complaint seems to be that it isn’t growing fast enough.

  18. lochaber says

    Yeah, I think this is a large part of the ‘bullying’ aspect. Someone has more power then someone else, and they are going to exploit that power difference just because it exists.

    Though, I think there is a lot of anti-bike sentiment not explained by this, I think this probably works for the cutting off/pushing off the road, unnecessary honking, revving engines, etc.

  19. lochaber says

    Except for a couple routes, I’ve pretty much given up on bike commuting as well.

    Even here in the SF Bay area, where there are plentiful bike lanes, they are frequently used to double park or pass on the left. Also there currently isn’t a good method to go back and forth over the bay.

    Plus the antagonistic/bullying assholes. If I’m a pedestrian, I have a lot more ability to jump/run/dodge out of the way, but a bicycle is much less maneuverable.

  20. Chiroptera says

    Heh. They forgot “Al Gore is fat!” Reason: “Pretty much the conservative response to any environmental initiative.”

  21. mnb0 says

    “I suspect ….”
    As far as Amsterdam goes you probably suspect wrongly. In this city there are about as many bikes as inhabitants. During my study I rode my bike in A’dam for 7 years and indeed I learned quickly not to care for the rules, but for a far more important thing: visibility. For a biker a car is a potential murder weapon. That’s not my bias; that’s just statistics. Now cardrivers are not evil or something; as long as they see the bike they will be careful. That’s why my behaviour in traffic always has one goal: drawing their attention. And if that annoys them, sorry, but I’m not sorry. I rather survive. Indeed in those seven years I never have had a single accident, despite my nickname kamikaze.
    For bikers it’s forbidden to ride on the sidewalks in The Netherlands. Amsterdam is so crowded that it’s simply impossible.

  22. Corvus illustris says

    Should we stop “tolerating” you law-unto-yourselves car drivers? Hell, when a biker crashes into someone, the worst that usually happens is maybe a broken ankle. Cars kill people.

    Do consider reading comprehension exercises; you have addressed nothing I wrote, but simply rattled off anti-motor-car clichés. I wrote one line on motor travel but many on foot travel, because I am a pedestrian by preference. I drive into town (pop. 15000 and rated as pedestrian-friendly by the folks who study these things; if I could afford it I would live in town and drive not at all), park the car and walk. Mrs Corva is deaf. I am old enough that if I am struck by a cyclist on the sidewalk, I will break more than an ankle; permanent incapacitation is a frightening prospect to us olds. Oh, and I do make full stops at stop signs; cyclists hereabouts habitually charge right through them, usually on the crosswalks.

  23. Frank says

    I am sure that the majority of cyclists are safe and generally law abiding (in the sense that as a driver going a few mph over the limit is technically breaking the law but not really putting anyone in danger, cyclists might safely coast through a stop sign). I think the hostility that many people have toward cyclists is the egregious manner that the minority flout the law.

    A couple of examples:

    I work in downtown Cleveland. Bike messengers routinely cross lanes and intersections without regard to traffic light status. They may feel completely in control, but it is disconcerting for a driver who, for example, is trying to make a legal right turn on red when they see a fast moving object suddenly appear from an unexpected direction.

    I was driving home through Amish country (Parkman, OH) at dusk recently, and passed an Amish woman biking on my side of the road, going the wrong way. Due to the general darkness and glare from an oncoming car’s headlights, I saw her for less than a second before we passed. The natural instinct is to swerve, which I did; luckily not too much. I could have swerved into the oncoming car with potentially fatal results. (The fact that she put herself, me, and the other driver into this position because her religion says she can’t drive a car made the situation doubly irritating.)

    Unfortunately these are the kind of experiences that stand out in people’s minds. I’m not sure how to change this. There will be outliers in any community.

    I encounter cyclists almost every day on the street that I live on in a Cleveland suburb, and while I don’t like slowing down temporarily, I think “they’re commuting in a healthier and more environmentally friendly way than I am, so how can I fault them”? Maybe if there were more dedicated bike lanes (one was recently striped on part my street), drivers would start to distinguish between cyclists and BAD cyclists, and hostility would rightly be directed at the latter group?

  24. Corvus illustris says

    This is the situation that prevails in many US college towns, in which there will be a lot of students on bikes but also a lot of pedestrian traffic whose student component directly enforces the no-bikes-on-sidewalks prohibition.

  25. invivoMark says

    I’m not sure if you read the article I posted. That article actually answers pretty much everything you’ve said.

    For one, it provides evidence that cyclists are not the law-breakers that they have a reputation for being. They break the law less often than drivers, and that includes dangerous maneuvers that could endanger pedestrians like flying through crosswalks without yielding.

    Cyclists do often roll through stop signs without stopping, because stopping would rob them of all momentum and it takes effort to get going again. But that’s the culture of cycling. Cyclists know they can get away with it, and that as long as they are observant, they are not putting anyone in danger. It’s the same thing for drivers, who know they can go 5-10mph over the speed limit past a patrol car, and as long as they are observant, they usually won’t be endangering anyone. The difference is that cyclists are less likely than drivers to break the law, and less likely to seriously endanger someone if their judgment is wrong.

    So if you are tolerant of sharing the roads with drivers, then you would be hypocritical to be less tolerant and more hostile toward bikers. Yet that’s the attitude you seem to have taken.

    And I notice you didn’t say you never drive above the speed limit.

  26. Nathan & the Cynic says

    This. My inner ring suburb allows everyone of all ages to bike on the sidewalks.

  27. Rob Grigjanis says

    an Amish woman biking on my side of the road, going the wrong way.

    I once asked someone riding on the wrong side why she did it. She said she felt safer if she could see oncoming traffic. I tried to explain that the feeling was an illusion, because

    a) The relative speed between her and cars is significantly higher
    b) Nobody expects to see her there
    c) It really pisses off a cyclist coming the other way. If that’s a courier, there may be blood.

    Didn’t seem to change her mind.

  28. Corvus illustris says

    Are you commenting on Mano’s post or replying to my comment? I made one remark about wrong-way travel (scary no matter who does it); the rest of my comment was on bikes vs. pedestrians on sidewalks, linked to the last sentence of Mano’s that I quoted in italics. (Oddly enough, that was the one illegal behavior of which there was a photo–but no significant text discussion–in your link.) Mano can defend his own post; I would be happy to defend my own assertions. They are about PEDESTRIANS–Fussgänger if that’s what you understand in the land of the cheesehead–NOT AUTOMOBILES vs. BIKES, ON SIDEWALKS. Here is a thing I said: “When I’m driving I give the law-abiding ones every courtesy; nobody wants to be in a bike vs. motor-vehicle collision.” I do the same for the non-law-abiding drivers and bikers, with a certain gritting of teeth. But when I’m walking on a sidewalk, I am the vulnerable party that your legislator would protect if I were in Wisconsin, not the cyclist.

  29. Corvus illustris says

    This may be a carryover from the recommended pedestrian behavior that one walk facing traffic. That feels safer and it is safer, because there are so many options for evasive maneuvers by a pedestrian. Not so for bikes, alas.

    It really pisses off a cyclist coming the other way. If that’s a courier, there may be blood.

    What are things coming to in Canada?

  30. left0ver1under says

    He’s not an American, so it’s not actually an intimation of violence, it’s humour.

  31. left0ver1under says

    To no surprise, many of the “comments” are bike-hating gas trolls, who can’t grasp that the problem is too many cars, not too many bikes. They can’t understand that smaller bikes will reduce conjestion, pollution and noise, that traffic would actually move faster with fewer vehicles.

  32. Frank says

    “She said she felt safer if she could see oncoming traffic”

    I could just maybe see this justification on a slow city street. Not on a dark rural highway. In my case, the cyclist had to be as blinded by my headlights as I was by those of the oncoming car.

    If I could have talked to her (and I considered doing a three-point-turn and speaking my mind, but thought that would be just as dangerous as her behavior), I would have made your points a and b. I don’t ride my bike on public streets, so I wouldn’t know about your point c, but I can certainly understand it.

  33. Frank says

    I’ve thought that too, but my understanding is that bicycles are to follow the rule of the road.

  34. sailor1031 says

    Tribalism, lack of consideration, lack of education, disregard of the rules – on both sides. Standards of knowledge and competence for drivers are very low. I’d hazard the observation that they’re quite low for cyclists too. Whether against the rules or not, dark clothes at night on unlit bikes are not a great idea. Frankly, however, I don’t much care what they all do on city streets but I wish someone would get trail bikes off the hiking trails up on the blue ridge. Fortunately they’re banned on the AT – plus there are some places they don’t go because they’d have to ride uphill which they don’t seem to like to do. But anywhere they can drive an SUV to the top of a trail and ride down to another SUV at a lower trailhead, watch out! It rarely seems to occur to them that on a hiking trail you’d meet a hiker, but there it is! And sometimes on the trail there is not much space.

  35. bmiller says

    I honestly thing another factor is that the automobile is a fundamentally “sociopathic” technology. It wraps us in several thousand pounds of steel and plastic. It gives us unbelievable physical power. It isolates us from other human beings, body language, verbal communication, etc. Throw in decades of advertising equating automobile driving with (isolated) “freedom,”status and consumerism, and government infrastructure spending which totally focuses on moving cars, and you get today’s sense of injured entitlement. I am an avid road cyclist, and I know better, but I know the thought patterns that creep into my mind when driving.

    That is not to deny that there are not cyclists who behave like assholes. But, part of that is a feeling of being a beleaguered minority. Part of the nastyness is self righteoussness and sense of entitlement endemic in our culture, but the other part is a reaction to the reality of dealing with the cocooned, entitled, dangerous motoring moronocracy.

  36. invivoMark says

    Did you forget that you said this?

    “Tolerating the law-unto-themselves cyclists is a little too much.”

    Because you said that.

    And that’s hypocritical for all the reasons I’ve thoroughly explained to you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *