Why aren’t Cyclists Angrier?

Posted on March 23, 2014


I was pulling up to a red light on my commute home one day last summer when I heard the screech of rubber on the pavement. A the car swerved violently around me, coming to a stop about twenty feet ahead to take its place at the end of the queue of cars. I followed standard procedure: I raised my one hand in an exaggerated, sarcastic shrug and, making my best effort to make eye contact through the driver’s rear-view mirror, I made a contemptuous expression and mouthed something along the lines of “what the hell are you doing?”.

“You were too far out from the curb!” said the driver as I rolled past.

In reply, I told him that I have the right to take up as much of the lane as I deem necessary for my safety. The man insistently repeated his demand that I move further over, getting increasingly frustrated as I reiterated my position. After a few exchanges, he  got angrier and started to shout at me.

“Next time I’ll hit you!”

I was somewhat taken aback. I was aware that sometimes drivers like to threaten vehicular assault against cyclists, but I personally had never experienced anything worse than car horns before that point. So my reaction was not exactly eloquent. I yelled something about him being a sociopath, and made a show of writing down his license plate number before he drove away. I considered reporting him to the police but decided against it. I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. We all know how those things go.

This happened more than six months ago, but it still sticks in my memory because it’s a perfect example of the kind of treatment that cyclists are simply expected to put up with. On previous occasions I’ve been cut off by cars who pull into my lane so abruptly that had to violently swerve around them to avoid going through their rear. I’ve had my foot momentarily stuck in the wheel well of a moving car whose driver simply kept driving without even noticing what was happening until after I had managed to extricate myself. And nearly every single time I get on my bike, I have to find my way around bike lanes obstructed by dozens of parked cars whose drivers can rest assured that the police will never bother ticketing them. Most of the time when I am nearly injured on the road, the driver remains blissfully ignorant of the fact; their face retaining the same bored expression worn by all the other drivers around them.

I’m not bringing this up to be melodramatic. I’m merely trying to make clear the reality that cyclists face on the roads every day. We must constantly put up with an urban transportation system that is either negligently unconcerned with our safety, or, as in the anecdote I started this post with, intentionally violent towards us.

A lot of cyclists tend to be left-leaning activist types, so you think we’d fight back against this. And we do, to some extent. But critical mass has been going on for decades and we haven’t seen any significant change. While many cities now talk big about their efforts to better accomodate cyclists, they rarely accomplish more than window dressing. Manchester, for example, has been spending most of its cycling budget on “cycle hubs“, which are really just overpriced bike locks, when what we Mancunian cyclists really need are some bike lanes with legal standing. And the less that’s said about cycling policy in my home city of Toronto, the better.

The reason for such discouraging progress, I think, is that the politics of road infrastructure are a zero-sum game. Every bike lane takes away space from cars. Car drivers, who make up the vast majority of the electorate, don’t like that. So no matter how many signatures are collected on a petition, city councils will always side with the bigger voting block of motorists who value their convenience over cyclists’ safety.

My question, then, is this: Where is the radical cycling movement? While more diplomatic forms of activism have their place, history has that trampled minorities generally don’t win their rights through letter-writing campaigns. We need to demand our right to safety on the road rather than just asking nicely for it. That means targetted disruptions that occur more often than the last Friday of every month. We need to force ourselves to be heard.

So here’s my proposal. I call it “Ride to Rule”. In most jurisdictions, cyclists have the right to take up as much of the lane as they feel they need to feel safe. Any time we move over to the side of the road is, therefore, an act of good-faith to make life a bit easier for the drivers around us. I propose we stop doing that. We continue to ride within the exact letter of the law, but pledge to take up the maximum of space that we are allotted on any road. Drivers behind us will be inconvenienced, but that’s the point. We can let them know why they’re being held up by putting signs on the back of our bikes directing them to a website which lists our demands, which I personally think should include more and better bike lanes, and better enforcement of existing bike lanes.

I realize that this is a bold idea. It would make a lot of motorists very angry, and it would require cyclists to put themselves at a bit more risk than they normally do. But I think this strategy, or another one like it, is necessary. The current organization of most cities is lethal for cyclists. The indifference of motorists and the cowardice of politicians is literally killing us. Why aren’t we angrier about this? Why are we allowing our frustration to be defused by the occasional ineffectual protest? Ride to Rule might not be the answer, but neither are the strategies that have been tried so far. We cyclists need to demand the end of the road system that so endangers us, and we need to make our presence and our frustration keenly felt until that demand is met.

Tagged: ,
Posted in: Uncategorized