Bicycle Responsibility, Not Entitlement

I recently got my first real bike since the Barbie bike I had as a kid. My new one is still bright pink, albeit in a much more adult kind of way. I’ve been using it to get to school and work, and it’s great because now I don’t have to feel guilty about not working out. It saves me money and it’s incredibly fun.

I’ve had so much fun with it, in fact, that I’ve spent many an hour that should have been devoted to homework figuring out how to change a tire, how to ride in dense traffic and the best way to carry my laptop around. I’ve spent hours perusing bicycle blogs and forums and learning from the people who are trying to get from one place to the other on a bike, just like I am.

While avoiding my ever-growing stack of homework one night, I wound up watching a bicycle documentary by Lucas Brunelle called Line of Sight, and it made me all kinds of angry. The film focuses on bike messenger races in major cities around the world in which a large number of people on brake-less fixed-gear bicycles have to reach a number of checkpoints strewn across the city as quickly as possible. The problem is that to win these races, the riders resort to reckless and exceedingly dangerous maneuvers through traffic to save time. They blow through busy intersections, go the wrong way on one-way streets, smash through crowds of pedestrians in crosswalks and grab on to the wheel hubs of cars in order to be pulled along the street as fast as possible.

The worst part about this documentary is that they ride with the perspective that what they’re doing is somehow tranquil and zen. They’re just “riding the wave of traffic,” man. But they’re also forcing everybody to bend to their unpredictable route and endangering the lives and safety of everybody else on the street. Cars are slamming on their brakes in the middle of intersections and pedestrians are diving out of the way to avoid being hit by 200 pounds of metal bicycle and aggressive rider. It’s not zen, and it’s not some sort of transcendent experience. It’s being an asshole.

Now, these races don’t take place every day and the majority of cyclists don’t ride this way, which is good news. I have noticed that most cyclists seem like friendly, responsible people. They put lights on their bike so other people can see them, and they do their best to obey traffic rules. They share the road and ride in a predictable, courteous and safe manner. But an undercurrent of bicycle entitlement and superiority most definitely exists, both online and on the streets, and it’s a dangerous and selfish way to behave.

Cycling is slowly becoming a more mainstream activity. I myself am proof of that. I am now another person in a vulnerable position on the street, choosing to ride a bike instead of sit on the bus. In order to avoid being killed, I have to ride defensively and pay attention. It’s just something that comes with the activity. I am the one putting myself on a road that is almost entirely filled with cars that weigh a couple of thousand pounds more than I do, and acting like an entitled asshole isn’t going to do anything but put me in danger.

We do not live in Copenhagen, where roughly 50 percent of people commute by bike. In Copenhagen, the safety in numbers thing really works. They have less fatal bicycle accidents because they have created a culture in which everyone in cars watches out for bicycles, because the drivers themselves spend a great deal of time in the bicycle saddle. In America, cars rule the streets, and even in Portland, no amount of bicycle entitlement will save you if you ride like an idiot.

So until the day arrives when the majority of the population commutes by bike rather than by car, bicyclists need to be careful on the road. Obviously, people in cars need to learn to drive safely and look out for cyclists, but people on bicycles need to do their part as well by riding safely and following the rules of the road.

Nobody in a car wants to accidentally kill another human being, and I know bicyclists don’t want to be killed either. There’s no getting around the fact that a bicycle is immensely more vulnerable on the road than a car. So don’t ride like you’re somehow above the law and never assume that a car is going to get out of your way when you run a red light, because the only one that’s going to be killed or seriously injured is you.

A bicyclist may not be able to do as much damage as a car, but that does not make us exempt from the law or from responsibility to others on the road. Cars and bikes need to set aside their hatred for each other and instead understand that we are all human beings just trying to get somewhere. A cyclist who acts selfishly on the road is, in the end, no better than a driver who acts the same way.