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Scott Dodd’s Blog

What's with all the bike hate?

Scott Dodd

Posted July 29, 2008

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By now, you’ve probably seen the video (either on YouTube or the evening news) of an NYPD officer knocking a biker to the ground during a Critical Mass ride in Times Square. If not, here it is:

If you’re unfamiliar with Critical Mass, it’s a form of protest (organizers call them celebrations) held on the final Friday of every month in cities around the world. Essentially, a bunch of bikers meet up and ride together as a mass, sometimes snarling traffic. The rides are controversial even among bikers, with some viewing them as a way to promote safety and remind people that bikers belong on the streets, too, and others worrying that they give cyclists a bad name. 

A melee erupted during a recent Critical Mass ride in Seattle, and many other hostile confrontations have taken place between motorists and Critical Mass cyclists over the years. In New York, as the Times’ City Room blog reports, tensions have been high between police and riders in the past.

Still, although I know that people have strong feelings about Critical Mass, what disturbs me as much as the officer’s action (which resulted in an investigation after the video became widely circulated) is the public reaction it has entailed. Although the majority of people viewing the video are outraged, there’s also a strong undercurrent of “blame the biker.” On Gothamist, which first reported that the biker was arrested and charged with assault, some commenters left reactions like this: “Headline should read ‘CM rider, looking for trouble, finds it’” and “The cop should get a medal.” Some similar comments poured out at Gawker. (Caution, strong language at both of those links.) 

It seems that bikers are having a rough time lately, public opinion-wise. Just witness the outpouring of vitriol in the comments section of this recent New York magazine article. Part of that is obviously the conflict that comes from having so many people living and interacting together in a densely packed city like New York. But what worries me is that with gas prices in the stratosphere, more people are turning to biking and realizing that it’s good to live in communities where walking and riding provide alternatives to the car.

That’s good for our health, good for the environment, and good, I believe, for our sense of community and our relationships with one another. But it seems that right now, the relationship between cyclists and the rest of the community are rather strained. 

Look, I know there are some jerk cyclists out there. I’m still bruised from my collision two weeks ago with one of them. But there are jerk drivers, jerk pedestrians, jerk scooter riders … you name it. We all have to use the same streets, so naturally, there will be conflicts. But why does it seem like bikers are attracting so much rage right now, just at the time when it seems that more people are starting to realize that riding is a good alternative to gas guzzlers?

Or did I just answer my own question? And if I did, what can be done about it? Is it just a matter of getting cities to build better sidewalks, bike lanes, transit options and other alternatives to the car, so that we’re not all competing for the same narrow strip of pavement? Or is there something more fundamental to the bike hate that I’m not getting?

Because I think we’re all going to have to find a way to share the road, whether we like it or not.

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AnonymousJul 29 2008 01:59 PM

I see a bunch of bikers ignoring not one, but two, traffic cops in the middle of the street. A crowd of bikes buzzes straight toward the cops, neither stopping nor slowing down, only veering away at the last minute. Some go left, some go right. To me it looks like the bikers are messing with the cops by making it look like they're going to crash into them, and only pulling away at the last minute. Then I see the cop on the right lift his right forearm as though he's about to motion the bikers to stop, but the camera veers left. Only at that point does the cop on the left walk out and knock down one of the bikers. What I can't see in the video is where the struck-down biker was moments before... was he always on the left-hand side of the street, or was he part of the group of bikers that was buzzing the cops? Looks like to me the bikers were teasing the cops and they just decided they had enough and were going to stop one. The one that got struck down veered left and could have stopped long before he got near the cop, but didn't. Even if you disrespect the uniform, the cop was at least a pedestrian, so the bike should have been nowhere near him, or should have at least slowed down, again either because it was a uniformed cop stepping in front of the cyclist's path as a non-verbal command to stop, or at least because it was a pedestrian in the roadway. This doesn't appear to be anything new on the part of Critical Mass; look it up in Wikipedia and pay particular attention to the sections on Corking and on Critical Manners. Critical Mass seems to routinely attempt to create confrontations with the public and the police, and in particular their members have been arrested in the past for things like failure to yield. This looks like more of the same. In this case, the cyclist did not stop and also attempted to veer left around the officer, clearly resisting law enforcement. You could argue that he might have been simply trying to veer around the officer's actions, except the point is that too is resisting -- the proper action if a cop steps in front of you, whether you're in a car, on a bike, or on foot, is to stop, and to communicate with the officer. Anything else is resisting law enforcement. The cyclist in this case clearly had not made any effort to even slow down. If this cop was trying to flag down a cyclist and arrest him for whatever behavior he witnessed the cyclist doing, how else would he do it? Stepping in front of the cyclist didn't work; the cyclist kept going, thereby resisting. Subduing a subject who is resisting law enforcement sometimes involves force on the part of the law enforcement officers, but was excessive force used? I don't think so. Did the officer pull out a gun and shoot the guy off the bike? No. Did he use a taser? No. Did he use a nightstick to chuck the guy's wheels and throw him from the bike? No. Did he club him with a flashlight? No. He just pushed the cyclist off the bike, putting the officer's own body close to the path of the bike and in harm's way in order to arrest him. Yes, other methods of stopping the guy were available that would have been safer to the officer, but he chose to risk injury to himself rather than escalate to a higher degree of force. I think people need to see the official police report on this before snapping to any quick judgments.

AnonymousJul 29 2008 04:16 PM

The cop shouldn't have hit the cyclist - but then, the cyclists should have slowed down and moved over to allow the officers to cross the street. I'm a New Yorker and here's my issue with cyclists in our fair city -- they follow no traffic laws. Sometimes they act like a car, sometimes like a pedestrian. They suddenly ride up on sidewalks, or go the wrong way down one way streets. I've seen kids and dogs barely missed. Then, they turn around and act like cars, demanding the space and respect of a car, as they go 6 miles an hour down the street. (NYC has lots of narrow streets - most streets that are not avenues or major crosstown streets. With parking on both sides, they are even smaller.) You get stuck behind a bike and you have to wait and go slowly - bc they don't pull to the side to let cars pass them, nor do they stay in the bike lane. If you ARE lucky enough to get ahead of one safely, then they invariably run red lights so then, you're stuck behind them again! Pedestrians and cars take turns at intersections - cyclists do whatever they feel like. They pay no attention to the flow or speed of traffic, to traffic signals, to yeild signs, to the common coutesy of slow moving pedestrian traffic, to anything. The only thing they care about is making it fast and easy for themselves to get to their destination. They are a danger to themselves, cars, and pedestrians. Sure - there are lots of bad drivers. But how many times a day do you see a car run a dozen red lights in a row? Or go up on a sidewalk? I've been hit in the crosswalk twice - and both times the bikers yelled at me! When I see a bike, either while I'm driving or walking, I turn my full attention to it, bc they are so dangerous and unpredictable. When cyclists start obeying traffic laws and signals, and showing common courtesy, perhaps the "hate" will go away?

DaneJul 30 2008 04:15 PM

Cyclists are an uppity minority demanding their own rights and their own piece of the street. The cops, columnists and community board types don't like that.

Cyclists will obey traffic laws when traffic laws and streets are designed for cyclists. Go to any mature cycling city and you see people obeying the regulations. In NYC streets are mostly not designed for cyclists and -- as we saw very clearly the other day - the law isn't on your side either.

Very often it makes no sense to adhere to street designs and regs that were designed for 3 ton vehicles.

Dan TroutmanJul 30 2008 11:25 PM

What do you expect from a bicycle culture that originated from the courier business where weaving and dodging in and out of traffic was expected in order to deliver the goods!?
Take a look at the chaos in the asian city streets with hordes of cyclists going every which way.
Saying you won't follow traffic laws specifically spelled out in state driving regulations isn't going to help matters any.
With America fast becoming a poor country, large city planners better get a handle on what to do with bicycles, scooters, etc before it's too late.
BTW, if some goon on a bicycle is racing towards me on a city street and looks like he's going to run me over, he'll get "clotheslined" too. Hope he's wearing protective gear. :)

Richard ConroyJul 31 2008 10:18 AM

Disclaimer: I'm an avid, lifelong cyclist, daily bike commuter year round (about 100 miles a week), & bike tourist. I work for a bike organization & am a cycling instructor. The reasons why cyclists are so poorly regarded are not hard to understand. This is what I've observed about the cycling community, and why I think we invite trouble on ourselves.

In a nutshell, many cyclists want to have it both ways in terms of road safety. They want drivers & pedestrians to act courteously & legally, but many, many cyclists don't want to act that way themselves. The double standard is glaring, and yes, the non-cycling world notices it. The various blogs, message boards, bike fora, etc. are filled with cyclist stories about rude & dangerous drivers. There are a number of committed cyclists who believe & openly say that cycling on the roads is dangerous. So there's a lot of finger pointing at others. But on these same message boards, when the topic turns to rude cyclists, obeying the law, stopping at red lights, there is a split in the cycling community. Many cyclists will espouse a "share the road, same roads, same rights, same rules" ethic. Many, many others, however, think it's ok to blow off the rules, and resent "being told what to do" by other cyclists (note: it's the state legislature telling you what to do, not other cyclists!).
Even prominent local bike organizations have gotten into the act. One local bike organization can be heard in the press frequently lamenting how dangerous the streets are, that the streets need a better design, yadda yadda (if cycling is so dangerous--why do it? is one obvious question that comes to mind). Yet I know many of the staff of this organization think it's OK to ride against traffic, ignore traffic signals, & ride on the sidewalk. Sure, their publications urge cycling safely & courteously, but there's been too many statements from them in the press that preaches a diametrically opposite message. Then we get a prominent local blog, which has twice in the past year, published articles suggesting that traffic law should be amended to allow cyclists to run stop signs & red lights, allowing cyclist behavior that is less predictable, and less in sync with the rest of traffic.

Critical Mass is another case in point, and a glaring example of a supposed bike promotion movement with no leadership, no goals, and no coherent strategy, where the lowest common denominator sets the tone. Some of these people need to study some Gandhi, to understand when law-breaking can be an important part of a social movement, and when it's just plain mindlessly stupid. "Be the change you want to see in this world" is one statement that seems to be completely lost on the Critical Massers.

In the end, instead of wallowing in self pity, lamenting why cyclists are singled out, maybe the cycling community needs to take a look at itself. Instead of complaining about how dangerous the streets are, let's talk about what cyclists can do to make themselves safer (thereby making the streets safer as well). Instead of asking for special exemptions from traffic law, lets ask how traffic law can be molded so that riding on the streets seems less scary, and that both cyclists and drivers are accountable for road safety.

The beauty of cycling is its freedom & independence. But freedom also needs to be tempered by self-discipline, and much of the cycling community, especially critical mass, has completely failed to exercise that. Here's a basic rule of politics: if you don't control yourself, somebody else--mainly the government--will do it for you, often in a manner that you don't like.

Sam MitrianianJul 31 2008 10:23 AM

I think the answer's simple -- of all the groups mentioned above that are using the streets bikers are the least likely to obey laws. You may say that pedestrians jaywalk more often than bikers run red lights or make illegal turns or go the wrong way up one way streets or ride on sidewalks, but whether that's true or not they do so at their own peril. Bikers may not kill many people but they show the most disrespect of any group out there on the road.

Marc PJul 31 2008 11:34 AM

@Scott, I think you nailed it on the head: "We all have to use the same streets, so naturally, there will be conflicts."

Basically, there wouldn't be a conflict if we learned to share the streets.

I think especially here in the US, there isn't a sense sense of public civility. Everyone believes they have a right to use public spaces as they wish without consideration for others.

Scott @ NRDCJul 31 2008 12:02 PM

I appreciate the responses, and I recognize and acknowledge the point that many of you are making about the need for cyclists to show more respect for safety and the rules of the road. (Fellow bikers, take heed.) The reverse would be appreciated, as well, of course.

But I do think there's an argument to be made, as Dane does, that in reality bikes are neither standard vehicular traffic nor pedestrians, but a hybrid of the two, and that there's a need for rational rules that acknowledge that. California, in fact, may consider a law that would let bikers ignore traffic signals when it's safe to do so. Idaho apparently has one already.

Read the news story here and see reaction here, here and here.

Hmmm, you know, NRDC has offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Perhaps a personal fact-finding mission is in order.

Paul PJul 31 2008 12:06 PM

Thing is, is that biker was well out of the cops way. Clearly maintaining a safe distance. That cop was wrong. Dead wrong.

Ingrid PetersonJul 31 2008 12:40 PM


I just wanted to thank you for writing this article. Well done!

As a cyclist in Los Angeles, you are almost forced to become an advocate. There really is a strange feeling of "hate" out there on the roads.

If anything, I hope the shift in attitude comes soon. Whenever I do drive nowadays, I give cyclists so much space and respect.

It is so good to see the road from both sides. But to keep seeing assault after assault, and from law enforcement!!

It can be overwhelming some days....

but I wont give up riding, it feels too good!!!

spikeJul 31 2008 02:00 PM

What was the cop doing in the middle of the road anyway? Was he motioning for anyone to stop (no, as is evident in the video).

I have never seen cops in NYC make any effort to enforce most traffic laws. I would love to see them ticketing wrong way bike delivery guys, double parked limos and trucks, and jawywalking clowns with cell phones stuck to their heads.

But they don't. This random enforcement of laws against the critical mass riders is just because the chief of police has decided to enforce this vendetta against them.

Riding in NYC is ridiculously dangerous because pedestrians and cars are utterly reckless. (I don't ride in NYC for this reason). This lawless attitude has spilled over the bicyclists, but they were hardly the first.

BrendanAug 1 2008 12:00 AM

As a daily bike commuter I almost get killed at least once a month by some driver breaking the law. It's usually a car going through a red light at full speed while on the phone. I've never come close to killing someone. Excuse me if I get pissed off sometimes. Drivers are jealous that they mostly sit in traffic wasting hundreds of dollars on gas a month while cyclists are mobile and yes, breaking taboos and sometimes going through red lights. Deal with it. I'm a father of two, my safety is my number 1 priority, I'll break a bullshit law if it let's me bike safer.

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