Communication breakdown: Bikers and critics just can’t see eye to eye

BY KEEGAN STEPHAN  |  Bicycling has become one of the most volatile subjects in New York City. Almost no other topic inspires such passionate responses from both sides; few people have no opinion on the issue, and there are virtually no “middle-of-the-road” points of view. Some of our most esteemed writers have spent countless column inches trying to convince people one way or the other.

About a month ago, Randy Cohen, the original “Ethicist” for The New York Times Magazine, came out of retirement to write a column about why he believes the way he and thousands of other New Yorkers commute on their bicycles is ethical, if illegal. Two weeks later, in his review of the new movie “Premium Rush,” Will Leitch, founding editor of Deadspin, posited that almost all cyclists, even if they are perfectly pleasant and normal in the rest of their lives, become rude and dismissive of everyone else the moment they mount their bikes.

These are two succinct summaries of the diametrically opposed opinions on cycling in New York City. Bicycle advocates argue that bike infrastructure makes streets safer for all road-users and reduces carbon emissions. They point out the enormous ratio of pedestrians killed by cars versus bikes and that bike lanes have decreased all types of traffic accidents on every street where they’ve been installed.

Critics of cyclists and bike lanes point out that bikers routinely break traffic laws in ways that surprise them, and they express fears of being hit.

But despite how often and articulately these arguments have been repeated, I’ve never heard a single person on either side of the issue change his or her opinion. This is a strange phenomenon for a city that contains a diversity of intelligent perspectives on almost every other subject. All of this begs the question: Why? Why is there such a breakdown of communication on this topic, and is it worth the amount of discussion it receives?

Personally, I think cycling deserves all the attention it has gotten, but the caliber of the conversation needs to elevate, and it must do so quickly or we are going to miss an opportunity to unite New Yorkers around an important cause and bring about sustainable change.

Cycling advocates need to realize that the critics’ fears are never going to be assuaged with statistics. Fear is rarely grounded in facts. People typically fear the things least likely to harm them. Yet fear is real. Fear plays an incalculable role in both our personal and political lives, and cyclists have not discovered a good way to address this. To my knowledge, no pedestrian has ever been told that he or she is several hundred times more likely to be killed by a car than a bike, and then suddenly stopped fearing every near-miss with a bicycle.

On the other hand, most cyclists honestly believe they are doing something good by riding their bikes — for themselves, for their community and for the environment. Statistics support their beliefs — so when they are vilified disproportionately to the dangers they pose, they do often grow rude and dismissive, as Leitch suggests. To my knowledge, there is also no cyclist who has been told he or she is the deadliest thing on the street, and then vowed to never again hop a curb when a car nearly makes a right-hand turn over top of them.

As long as critics routinely have their fears dismissed as irrational, they will grow more oppositional to increased numbers of cyclists and bike lanes; and as long as cyclists are scapegoated for the dangers of our city’s streets, they will ignore the hyperbolic criticisms hurled their way. This is an unfortunate impasse at a crucial moment. The premise of both Cohen and Leitch’s articles is that they want livable streets. Automobiles have dominated our public spaces and our culture for generations, and both Cohen and Leitch’s pieces indicate that most New Yorkers are not happy about that. They want infrastructure that creates a safe environment protecting pedestrians from both bicycles and automobiles, and that also protects cyclists from automobiles without infringing on spaces for pedestrians.

And for the first time since Robert Moses, the city government is sympathetic to these desires. That is, at least until the 2013 election, when a new administration could make every positive change of this administration go the way of the bike lanes installed by Mayor Koch. Remember those? I didn’t think so… .

The two camps need to put aside their divisive rhetoric and form a coalition while this sympathetic administration is in power. If they work together to advocate for infrastructure that fulfills their needs, that infrastructure will be implemented. If that infrastructure is implemented, the benefits will be too obvious to be rolled back, and their coalition will grow too strong to let it happen. If not, a historic opportunity will be lost.


Stephan is a member of Time’s Up!, a New York City-based cycling advocacy and environmental organization.

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13 Responses to Communication breakdown: Bikers and critics just can’t see eye to eye

  1. well said. As an avid city commuter I often wonder why cars don't understand that I am working really hard (mentally and physically) to free the road of one more car, or free the subway of one more passenger. Still, drivers stare me down as a nuisance, feel that I deserve to be cut off or surprised by their uncomfortably close passage. Do us NYC-cyclists have to forgo our speed and determination in order to gain some respect or at least a polite wave on from a car? Part of me thinks that there is too much competition, rush and self-importance in this city for anyone to slow down and be more thoughtful. This new coalition you speak of needs to wipe the slate clean and get each sides priorities in order – appealing to drivers could be helpful. After all, we are all just trying to get somewhere, some of us just don't want or need to pay for gas.

  2. A thoughtful point – yes, I have some good friends who drive cars and dislike the bike lanes, and claim that they make the streets dangerous for cars and that the ones with concrete dividers cause traffic jams. Not a cogent argument, in my opinion, for more gas-devouring smog-emitting vehicles and more danger to those of us on the road, not to mention more carbon in our delicate atmosphere. Yet we remain friends.

    I find myself dodging parked and standing vehicles all the time in what are supposed to be OUR lanes, and have to keep watching out for passengers opening their doors on me. I bet the accident rate on being doored in a bike lane is pretty high. Thanks for this article – keep 'em coming.

    • Although I am a commuter cyclist and totally support cycling enhancements, as well as ticketing cars in bike labes, this slanted article disturbs me. The fears people have are not imagined. Too often, I see cyclists jumping curbs, scaring the heck out of people, especially the elderly or going the wrong way, causing cyclists going the right way to veer into traffic. Other cyclists blast through lights, causing the hearts of motorists and pedestrians alike to skip a beat. Cyclists should not be dismissive when they know this is wrong. They use their defense of "the greater good," as an excuse. If the cycing community would show its outrage, we would get better support. The trouble is, many of us hate give up that little edge we have when we are in a hurry and know we can do what a motor vehicle cannot do.

      Richard S

      • Hey Richard,
        Thanks for your comment. I did not intent to imply that people's fears about bicycles are imagined. People get hit by bikes. Reckless cycling can create unsafe conditions in the street. And I do not condone any behavior that makes anyone's heart skip a beat, let alone harms someone. But most bike advocates believe that reckless cycling is disproportionately blamed for unsafe street conditions compared to the amount of accidents and especially deaths caused by biking. The numbers support their belief. And my concern is that disproportionately blaming cyclist for unsafe street conditions makes them defensive and prevents us from having a very important conversation about safe, livable streets in general – a conversation that absolutely must include safe cycling and cycling etiquette. My hope is that this conversation will lead to the creation of infrastructure that will foster city friendly cycling, that will make it safe and efficient to bike in such a way that never creates unsafe street conditions.

        I look forward to continuing the conversation.

  3. Withheld for now

    If we cyclists would just obey traffic laws, ie., stopping at red lights rather than barrelling through, then I believe we would begin to garner the respect we deserve for the choice we have made to ride our bikes through the streets of NYC. From all that I have seen, I believe we are our own worst enemies when it comes to distrust of cyclists. Have you been out there and seen some of the insane riding I have from my fellow cyclists? It's just got to stop people! Then, and only then, will the logic (perhaps we have been "vilified disproportionately" but there is much truth to the anger against us by pedestrians and motorists based on my view of the "urban-cowboy" style of riding I witness in my daily commute) in this well-written article apply to us cyclists.

    • Thanks WFN,
      The best ways to encourage cyclists to ride considerately will definitely be the topic of future columns. I think an important step will be to create a broad, inclusive cycling community that encourages outreach and partnership with other road users, instead of the lone wolf, urban cowboy attitude you describe. As these comments showcase, the cycling community is extremely fragmented – to the point it is hard to even call it a community. We can hardly speak to each other, let alone speak with a unified voice to request the changes we want to see, from ourselves or anyone else.


  4. Charles M. Fraser

    As will be reiterated at a September 28th event, http://battleofthebikeban, in the Great Hall at Cooper Union, that Keegan is instrumental in arranging, Safe Streets has always been a focus of the bike advocacy community. Rudeness is wrong, from aggressive vehicular traffic to arrogant cyclists, and I have, sadly, been injured by both.

  5. It's funny to hear that only bikers don't respect traffic lights and they are dangerous to cars and pedestrians while at the same time pedestrian NYers pride themselves of not waiting for the green light to cross, jay walking and crossing avenues in the middle of the block, and drivers are still double parking, speeding etc ect. Bikers are not behaving any different than pedestrians and drivers. The only difference is that the huge growth in biking makes it a new thing and pedestrians and drivers need to grow accustomed to this new player. A great opportunity for all NYers to start respecting one another starting with traffic laws.

  6. You have to educate people. The driving test needs to have a whole section on understanding how to safely interact with cyclists – the weight differential alone is such an enormously powerful factor. You hit a bike, you ding your car… and the cyclist is in the hospital. Learning how cyclists think and strategize around moving in traffic would be a tremendous help to vehicle drivers.

  7. The statistics for everything from air quality, parking availability, health, injuries/fatalities and on an on and on all point to the solid societal benefits of increasing the mode share of cyclists . . . it's an entitlement mentality that somehow evenly weigh's "I feel" of some motorists with the relative avalanche of facts. The real wonder? That the countless New Yorkers who don't regularly drive don't rise up and demand to see fewer, cleaner and safer automobile traffic in the city.

  8. Thank you for pointing out the centrality, and fundamental irrationality, of FEAR in this confrontational attitude. I ride a bike much more than I drive, and I've done this for most of my 66 years. I've often wondered why so few of my women friends ride bikes, and have only recently started to recognize that these otherwise bold women are very afraid – not just afraid to ride bikes in the city (my city is Seattle), but afraid that they will one day hit someone on a bike while driving. I ride legally – stop at stoplights even – but when I'm riding in traffic, even on a street with a bike lane, I am now aware that people driving cars sometimes find themselves closer to my vulnerable body than feels safe in a several-ton vehicle. If I move across lanes to make a left turn – perfectly legal, reasonably safe – the people around me driving cars don't trust my judgment and grip their steering wheels hoping not to hit me. I believe firmly and passionately that bikes are essential if cities are to remain inhabitable and if we are to rein in global warming and the obesity epidemic not to mention the misery that comes with dependence on cars. The answer, I believe, is to push forward aggressively to create dedicated infrastructure for bikes. That's what has created peace on the roads in Europe. And even though you wouldn't know it from this article, apparently the majority of New Yorkers think bikes are fine.

  9. This is a very important conversation, thank you for getting it started.
    In the past, I have been involved in verbal abuse, perpetrated both by me and against me, and violence and threats that caused me tremendous fear, anger, and grief. The streets of New York are filled with many rude and aggravated people, on wheels and foot, who are not only legitimately upset or fearful about infractions, or impatient about being stopped and feeling entitled to mobility, but they are resentful of you personally, your culture, the type of people you are, this is very toxic.
    I have been part of the problem. I have not always been the most respectful cyclist, over the years I became wired to react angrily, cursing at cars trying to bully their way through crosswalks, and occasionally I still catch myself staring down aggressive drivers, wishing that I could punish them, smash them up their machines. This is wrong.
    However righteously I feel, and perhaps how right I am, these disputes have the spirit of warfare, boosting my own pride and self-esteem, preventing understanding of others, creating an escalation.

  10. bicyclerootsbklyn

    Stephan, thank you for this article. We really appreciate how you have opened discourse in RE: this issue. It's true that dismissing critics of cyclists/urban biking seems to justify their preformed opinions. Acknowledging that there is opposition, addressing their concerns, and moving forward anyway is important for our community. We may not be able to change peoples' minds, but we can normalize urban cycling.

    Fear is usually a reaction to something unknown and not understood. In time, this fear will dissipate as biking becomes just another form of transportation. In the meantime, cyclists do have to take responsibility for our reactions and behavior. We must be aware of our status as representatives of what is still a small, often marginalized community.

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