Why Do Drivers Hate Cyclists?

Practically any mention of bikes versus cars on the internet incites a flamewar. It’s a curious phenomenon, particularly given the minor threat bikes pose to cars. Nonetheless, I’m convinced that drivers are more afraid of bicyclists than vice versa.

I cannot tell you very much about how to get traffic to your website or manage comments. One thing I can guarantee, however: write an article about bikes, safety, and transportation, and you will get a flood of commenters. Most of them will be angry; most of the angerbears will be angry at cyclists, which is something that’s long fascinated me. And the answer, I think, is a bit of a paradox, but it might be good news.

For instance, Jon Hilkevitch wrote a piece for the Tribune on how the Active Transportation Alliance wants IDOT to count doorings: i.e. when the driver of a parked car opens his or her door into the path of a cyclist (Steven Vance has been doing some excellent work on this, along with many other bike issues). The worst injury any of my friends has suffered on a bike came from a dooring. It’s a terrifying possibility, and one that’s hard for cyclists to avoid: I try to keep an eye out for the telltale signs of an opening door–brake lights turning off, the flash of an arm in the side-view mirror–but you never know when it’s going to be too late.

Don’t tell that to the commenters, though:

No need to waste more taxpayers monies. Very simple solution, stay off the streets.  When I want to ride I go to a park with bike trails. Those that wish to ride in traffic need to obey the rules of the road. The most logical way to reduce this type of accident is for bike riders to stay in the center of the lane, away from the vehicles. They should also be licensed and carry valid registration and insurance. They run into the vehicles door and should pay the repair.

I lump these biking folk into the same catagory as I put smokers crying that they can’t pollute our collective lungs. If they are stupid enough to ride a bike in traffic, are they really worth saving from themselves? You know the risks yet continue this destructive behavior? In the end you get what you deserve then.

It would be like bringing a spoon to a gun fight. You would have to be an idiot to ride a bike in traffic, yet somehow these bike riders are incapable of understanding even that. I for one am not surprised.

With bicycles causing so much damage to our cars, why aren’t they forced to carry insurance?

We pay to pave the roads. If a separate infrastructure were to be built, bike riders should be required to have [plates, licenses and insurance so there would be revenue to pay for it, but no, Mr -Streets-are-for-bicycles wouldn’t want to pay for that. They want everything for free.

Whatever the reporting requirements, it seems pretty clear that the bicyclists are generally the “at fault” party in this type of collision.  I ride bicycles occasionally and my motorcycle quite often.  It’s irresponsible and foolhardy to put yourself in a position where you cannot be seen until the last moment, if at all, by people getting out of their cars.  There seems to be, among many bicyclists, a sense of entitlement to ride like an idiot, without real regard for their safety, then cry “foul” when the inevitable occurs.

(When I bike, I’m not so much afraid of drivers as commenters.)

It’s not just here. In New York, the big political war right now is over a bike lane on Prospect Park West:

“We’ve never seen anything like this in the realm of neighborhood-level bike advocacy,” says Aaron Naparstek, creator of the pro-cycling site ­Streetsblog and co-founder of the advocacy group Park Slope Neighbors. “It’s crazy. Gibson Dunn is the law firm that represented George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore in 2000. Now they’re working to get rid of a bike lane. Think about that.”

And it’s not just angry anonymites on the internet. John Cassidy, a New Yorker staffer and respected economics journalist, unleashed a crass broadside against cyclists as part of the great Prospect Park West debate. He got the flame war he was asking for, not just from cyclists but from colleague Hendrik Hertzberg and fellow econ journalists like Felix Salmon and Olaf Storbeck. Storbeck does an excellent job rebutting Cassidy’s complaints about “free” parking, and Ryan Avent of The Economist takes on the absurdity of the “free rider” charge made against bikers. If you really want to get deep in the weeds, Salmon’s Wired profile of Charles Komanoff and his Balanced Transportation Analyzer is a good introduction to the economics of traffic.

I’ve never lived overseas, so my evidence that anti-bicyclist sentiment is almost uniquely American is entirely circumstantial. But a friend of mine, an avid biker, recently sent a dispatch from Tblisi in which he compares biking in the Georgian city to Chicago. Despite the chaotic traffic there, it’s safer. Among his reasons:

The final reason is the lack of animosity. In most American cities, there is a certain group of drivers who actively resent the encroachment of cyclists onto “their” roads. These guys will deliberately make cyclists’ lives miserable, simply for being on the road. They will cut in front of you, honk their horns to try and scare you, or spray you with windshield cleaning fluid (I’m not the kind of cyclist to key someone’s car or bash their windows with a U-lock, but I was pretty close with the windshield wiper guy). I think that this attitude is only possible because American roads are so pleasant to drive on and American drivers so law-abiding–in Tbilisi, the average driver has to contend with so many things getting in their way that anyone who flew into a frothing rage at the slightest infringement on “their” patch of pavement would get arrested instantly. Once again, chaos makes for safer biking–rather than an “intruder” into the automobile’s rightful domain, drivers view cyclists as simply another obstacle to be avoided.

The most convincing part of this, for me, is the argument that Georgian traffic is so fraught with obstacles that cyclists don’t raise an eyebrow. On the other hand, I’m not sure about my friend’s contention that the novelty of commuter biking in Tblisi makes it safer. As Tom Vanderbilt, author of the excellent 2008 book Traffic, writes in Outside:

As various studies have found, the more cyclists and cycling infrastructure a town has, the safer it becomes statistically, not just for cyclists but for drivers and pedestrians alike. When New York City put a protected bike lane on Ninth Avenue, some protested it as unsafe for people on foot. But since the lane’s opening, pedestrian injuries on Ninth have dropped by 29 percent. Last year, as miles of bike lanes were added, New York had its best pedestrian-safety record ever.

I’m more convinced by Vanderbilt’s argument that ignorance of the laws governing biking is responsible for a lot of the discord, which partly explains the misguided belief that roads belong to the cars. It’s explicitly illegal to door someone, and bikes are legally required to ride as far to the right as possible in Chicago and in Illinois. If you don’t know that, and many of the commenters clearly don’t, the doored bicyclist looks to be twice at fault.

What would appear to be constant, blatant lawbreaking–beyond just the obvious, like cyclists blowing red lights, which irritates me too–has to figure into what Vanderbilt calls a “bikelash.” But the most compelling argument I’ve ever read about anger comes from a lengthy thread about bikes and road rage. In short, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the dark side:

I think dismissing anti-biker-rage as “people are assholes” is too simple, and as an explanation it doesn’t explain.

I drive on roads (in semi-rural NJ) where there are a lot of bicyclists. I used to be one of them, until it got to be more dangerous than I was comfortable with.

As a driver, cyclists scare me, they make me tense and wary, because I know how easy it would be for me to hurt them. I think there are a huge number of Americans whose reaction to being afraid, especially in their cars, is rage. They can’t acknowledge that they’re afraid, so they channel it into anger.

I read this two years ago, and I still haven’t forgotten it; it reminded me of Keith Bradsher’s excellent book on SUVs, High and Mighty, in which he documents how the intersection between fear and aggression on the road helped popularize the vehicles:

‘’Minivan people want to be in control in terms of safety, being able to park and maneuver in traffic, being able to get elderly people in and out,'’ Mr. Schaafsma said. ‘’S.U.V. owners want to be more like, ‘I’m in control of the people around me.’ ‘’

[snip]

Sport utilities are designed to appeal to Americans’ deepest fears of violence and crime, Dr. Rapaille said. People’s earliest associations with sport utilities are wartime Jeeps with machine guns mounted on the back, he explained. Sport utilities are ‘’weapons'’ and ‘’armored cars for the battlefield,'’ he said.

Or maybe I just want to believe it: the idea that these angry drivers are afraid of cyclists, and the idea that fear is what makes them so angry, makes me a lot more sympathetic to whoever it is that leaves the angry comments that inevitably follow any discussion of cars and bikes. Fear I understand, and it’s something that can be addressed with good public policy. If it’s just inchoate rage, that’s too far above (or below) my head.

 

Photograph: waferboard (CC by 2.0)

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