Why do they still hate us?

Americans could use a hero right now, it seems. We as a people are beat to hell and increasingly desperate for solutions. Where do you even begin listing all of the problems looming over us? Our planet grows warmer with no concensus plan in sight; our economy lies in the hands of a cartel that raises and lowers the price of oil at will; our infrastructure is crumbling under the weight of more and more vehicles with no money for repairs; and we continue to battle exponentially-increasing health care costs, all while getting fatter.

It feels like the perfect storm, and the perfect opportunity for the bicycle to rescue us all. It seems so obvious! So why does everyone still hate us?

Robert Sullivan’s recent essay in the New York Times asks much the same question (albeit with a narrower focus, staying within the boundaries of NYC bike and commuting culture), and comes back with something of a tortured answer, at least from a cyclist’s point of view: we’re part of the problem. He provides the following illustration to prove the point:

The Brooklyn Bridge is an important front in the bike publicity war; it is a place where bikes are losing. The essential conflict can be grossly caricatured like this: Guys dressed as if they are in the Pyrenees stage of the Tour de France try to set speed records as Italian tourists linger in the middle of the bridge to get a photo of their cousin, Paolo, backed by the Empire State Building.

Bikers won’t stop, fearing they will lose a few tenths of a second off their times; and tourists from former Soviet republics confuse the phrase “Get out of the bike lane, you jerk” with “Enjoy your stay.”

Confusion ensues, slowing down the furious bikers and dragging into the mix City Hall-area office workers who are just trying to get in a little lunch break walk-a-cise but are now risking loss of limb.

And on a certain level, this sort of danger-induced mistrust of cyclists is understandable. We’ve all seen people on bicycles doing stupid, ridiculous things — riding at night with no lights or reflective clothing, riding the wrong way down a street, etc. — and on occasion we’ve been the ones doing those stupid, ridiculous things. It runs in our blood, this desire to take risks, to push the limits of ourselves and our machines. But it also feels like a bit of a cop-out, another cyclist apologizing profusely to society and hoping that we’ll be seen as fundamentally decent.

Instead, I believe the answer lies primarily in the fact that society views the cyclist as a traitor who has opted out of the system. Author Jeff Mapes notes in his new book, Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities, “Bicycling, once largely seen as a simple pleasure from childhood, has become a political act,” and he couldn’t be more right.

Cyclists say no to parking fees, gasoline and traffic jams. We have declared that we will not be trapped inside a steel box for hours each day, trying in vain to get somewhere before it’s too late. We have said no the belief that we are locked into fossil fuels, and that there is no alternative or escape from the yoke of petro-dictators. And unlike any number of radical political movements that lurk under the surface of society, we are active in our opposition. We do this all in the light of day, in front of everyone else, busy idling in traffic and filling up their tanks. We live it.

And it pisses people off. For a variety of reasons, of course (including the “safety” argument), but mainly because they still believe in the system as they’ve been sold it, as it has been lovingly described by the oil companies and in Detroit. And as cities and states begin to see the benefits of cycling, and to provide for its expansion (however slowly it happens), it all represents a state-sanctioned implosion of this reality. It represents a stark change in our auto-centric model of life. And as much as people clammor for change, no one likes to have their own paradigm thrown away.

Even Sullivan acknowledges this, saying “The nature of the hate has changed. Once, they hated us because we were a rarity, like a rat in the kitchen, a pest. Now, they hate us because we are ubiquitous.” We are increasingly everywhere, and they have gone nowhere.

[A Modest Proposal – NYT]


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