A close call with a young hipster running a red light at the corner of 80th Street and Broadway while I was walking, with the light, within the crosswalk, carrying my groceries, reminded me of how much I hate cyclists. Normally, this is something I keep secret because a few too many of my friends are “cyclists.” If you noticed, I didn’t say that they ride bicycles. Most able-bodied people ride bicycles from time to time. For a smaller number of those people, however, riding a bicycle is part of their identity. A criticism of bicycles is a criticism of them personally.
This morning, looking for some facts about cyclists hitting pedestrians, I came across an article in the New Yorker, by Samuel G. Freedman, from 2014 which succinctly put many of the complaints I have about the behavior of bicycle riders in New York City.
After describing an incident in which a 31-year-old male musician killed a 58-year-old woman, the young man described it as “an unavoidable accident.” There are two things about this that strike me as being common when talking about bicycle accidents. The first is the age difference. In fact, this is narrower than usual. It is probably my own bias that makes me imagine the killers as white hipsters, though that bias is based on cyclists I know. The killers are almost always male. The victim is almost inevitably older. A stronger, more powerful person kills a weaker person. The second thing is the lack of an acknowledgement that the killer cyclist has for his own culpability. It’s not simply an accident, but an “unavoidable” accident. I’ve never seen anyone killed, but I’ve seen close calls and more minor accidents. Typically, they could have been avoided by the cyclist not going quite so quickly. I find cyclists over-estimate their ability to weave in and out of pedestrians. They behave in a way that I can only describe as aggressive and arrogant.
After describing a second incident, in which the killer was 17 and the victim was 75, Freedman writes:
These tragedies lay bare two realities of what we might call bike culture in New York City. First, many bicyclists routinely ignore all traffic laws, signs, and signals. Second, the city has made inadequate efforts in recent years to enforce those laws, and thus to protect the rest of us.
I think it’s very relevant that Freedman refers to “bike culture.” Riding a bicycle is a neutral activity which could be conducted with a variety of attitudes. My best friend, while he lived in New York City, was active with some cyclist advocacy groups. With him, I would avoid the subject entirely. I couldn’t bring up the subject of pedestrian safety without my friend engaging in the diversionary tactic of changing the subject to aggressive drivers, a subject, while important to cyclists generally, has nothing to do with cyclists’ attitude toward pedestrians. If I tried to bring the subject back to pedestrians, he would then go on about how pedestrians violated traffic rules. All in all, I was always left after these discussions being somewhat bothered by his sense of entitlement and lack of empathy towards others, which was strange because it was uncharacteristic of him more generally. This is why I think Freedman is right to bring up “bike culture.” Eventually, I’d avoid the subject even if he brought it up. I guess this is me breaking twenty years of silence on the subject.
Part of the current problem, I think, derives from bicyclists’ sense of themselves as victims. If you feel aggrieved, if you have been injured, if you mourn at the ghost-bike shrines of bikers who have been killed by cars, then you may have a difficult time realizing that you can simultaneously be the aggressor. What I see on my runs in Central Park, though, could fairly be termed aggression: bicyclists speeding through red lights, scattering those in the crosswalk and leaving the rest of the pedestrians bewildered and cowering on the curb.
Psychological studies have shown that people who feel victimized show less empathy.
One day, two or three years ago, I was walking on the sidewalk along University Parkway in Baltimore, a couple of blocks west of Charles Street approaching 39th Street. The corner of 39th and University is a dangerous one for several reasons. The street is very busy with many cars and pedestrians, as well as cyclists. It is a nerve-wracking corner when driving and I hate crossing the roads there on foot, but usually walking along the sidewalk is safe enough. This day, however, there were a group of “cyclists” standing on the sidewalk. There’s no sense in calling them bicycle riders since they were not riding at the time. What they were doing was standing at a “ghost-bike shrine,” reinforcing their shared identity as cyclists and wallowing in the sense of victimhood, marginalization and self-righteousness that that identity creates. As I approached, the group who must have seen me, made no attempt to move. Their bicycles blocked my path. I supposed I could have yelled at them. It was clear from their impassive response to my presence that I would have to get verbally aggressive and I wasn’t even sure that would have the desired result. Getting physically aggressive would be an over-reaction. In order to pass by, I had to leave the safe sidewalk and enter the busy road. I’m sure the drivers who swerved to avoid hitting me wonder why a stupid pedestrian had suddenly started walking in the road.
In a study, “Victim Entitlement to Behave Selfishly” (Zitek, Jordan, Monin and Leach), the authors suggest that the
… perception of being wronged increases individuals’ sense of entitlement to avoid further suffering and to obtain positive outcomes for themselves. Wronged individuals feel that they have already done their fair share of suffering… and consequently, they feel entitled to spare themselves some of life’s inconveniences, such as being attentive to the needs of others. We predict that this should lead individuals to behave selfishly by, for example, refusing to help, endorsing self-serving intentions, or claiming a bigger piece of the pie when sharing resources with others.
And there is another element, I suspect, to bicyclists’ self-righteousness and the de Blasio administration’s inadequate response. To ride under your own power on two wheels is to be admirably green, to be on the sustainable side of the angels. Four wheels fuelled by hydrocarbons are easier to see as a potential danger needing to be controlled. But there is no mandate of heaven for putting passersby at mortal risk. And there is no public-policy logic to giving a free pass on public safety to someone who is not polluting the air.
My friend and some of his acquaintances used to bring this one up if I murmured anything about bicycles that wasn’t clearly positive. The reality was that none of them were cycling instead of driving anyway. This is New York City. Depending on the distance, they were probably cycling instead of either walking or using mass transit, and if they were cycling for pleasure, which they often did, the question is entirely irrelevant.
One of the social compacts of living in a large city is sharing public space in a mindful way.
It’s funny, I feel like I can always identify neighbors who have recently moved into New York from a suburban area. They are often blithely inconsiderate. The extreme density in New York causes us all to make little adjustments. However, the new arrivals usually learn and adjust. Cyclists, on the other hand, show no sign of adjusting on their own. The behavior of cyclists goes beyond mere civility because physical injury, and, on rare occasions, even death is at stake. The cyclists will not change unless confronted with the evidence of their own bad behavior. I regularly support laws that improve safety for cyclists. I have not opposed them in any way regarding the laws in the city. However, I do ask that they give up their sense of entitlement and curb their aggressive behavior.
It’s hard to explain to younger people the sense of vulnerability one feels as one ages. I’m only fifty and far from frail, yet I have begun to realize that I don’t heal as quickly as I did when I was young. Only last year, I wanted to get in shape. Doing what would have been a normal exercise routine only five years ago resulted in tendonitis in my knee which took months to heal. For six months I couldn’t climb even a single flight of stairs without pain. If the young hipster had hit me and knocked me to the ground, it would take me much longer to recover than it would have had I been a twenty-something as he was. I don’t work for a large corporation or the government. My health insurance is insecure and has a high deductible. A smallish injury could be thousands of dollars out-of-pocket for me. That would all be because he couldn’t even slow down, let alone stop, at a traffic light in the middle of Manhattan where a reasonable person could anticipate there would be a lot of people walking.
I’m not sure if I should add this, but I can’t help noticing. Years ago, when aggressive cyclists were associated with bicycle messengers, there was a crack down. Back then, cyclist were not viewed very sympathetically by anyone. They were also mostly black and working class. It seems to me that the attitude towards cyclists has changed as the demographic associated with them has changed. Not long ago, that very same cycling advocate friend who is normally very PC, said something about delivery men giving cyclists a bad reputation. That might be the case among people who drive cars. However, as someone who walks more than anything, I find the delivery men to be little more than an occasional inconvenience. Sometimes, they get in my way, but they are rarely going fast enough for me to feel at risk of injury, unlike the young white men who appear to be middle class. The delivery men are obviously working class and many of them appear to be descended from people native to the Americas. It’s definitely speculation on my part, but I can’t help thinking that class, and possibly race, is a factor in our attitudes.
Just to expand on that last thought – a few years ago they made a movie about a bicycle messenger. I’m not usually very PC and have mixed feelings about some of the calls for “diversity” that have been made recently. We’d have to go through them one at a time. Some seem valid. Some sound ridiculous. Others I’d need far more information to have an opinion. Yet I felt it was absolutely ridiculous that the bicycle messenger movie starred a white guy. I worked as a receptionist on Wall Street back in the heyday of bicycle messengers in the eighties. According to my recollection, more than nine out of ten of them were black. I had a sweetheart for a while who worked for a messenger company, in the office, not riding, and he was black and many of the people he worked with were as well. I don’t know the backstory of the main character in that movie, but back in 1986 a movie about a bicycle messenger starred the white-looking Kevin Bacon. According to Wikipedia:
Jack Casey (Kevin Bacon) is a young floor trader who loses all of his company’s and family’s savings on a risky business decision. Deflated and disenchanted with his profession, he quits his job and becomes a bicycle messenger.
Back in the eighties, around the time I worked as a receptionist and dated a guy who worked for a messenger service, I can tell you most of the guys were working class. They were attracted by the pay which was higher than what they could get in other occupations, but it was definitely a difficult, physically demanding job with no small risk of injury.
Anyway, while I was on the subject, I just thought I’d get that off my chest. Nothing personal against Gordon-Levitt. I’d bed him in a heartbeat under the unlikely circumstance that he’d be interested in a fifty year old woman who isn’t a movie star. He’s definitely cuter than the average guy I’ve dated, although not as hunky as the aforementioned sweetheart. Still, if I made a bicycle messenger movie, it would be starring a young black man with bulging thigh muscles. I’m definitely picturing a really corny movie which is a poor excuse to have hunky guys strut across the screen. Maybe I’ll go start a Kickstarter campaign. Maybe not, with tempers running as high as they are on race related subjects and the possible accusations of exploitation that would be a really stupid move right now. (But really, who the fuck casts Emma Stone as half-Japanese?)
I seem to be on a streak of getting things off my chest, so I’d better stop before I say something that will get me in trouble.