The faux-war between ‘cyclists’ and ‘drivers’ has gotten depressingly out of control, even though it is being fought almost entirely in the media. The 900+ comments in Danny Westneat’s recent Seattle Times column (“What’s With All the Bike Bitterness?”) reveal that the mutual acrimony has grown past the absurd into a parody of itself.
A simple truth: cycling is not an inherently political act. When a person is on a bicycle, they are just cycling, a verb whose adverbial embellishments (recklessly, quickly, safely, cautiously, etc…) have a short shelf life and extend only to observed behavior. When people insist on twisting you into a noun – a Cyclist, a Motorist – you become not a person doing something, but rather a category expressing some fundamental defining value. By definition, categories are constraining, and they make it easier to load transportation choices unnecessary moral weight. As transit advocates we also do this to “Drivers” – and it’s just as unfair to “them” as to “us”.
This intellectual laziness provides the framing material needed to animate call-in radio shows, network news segments, and (to a slightly lesser extent) print and social media. As the Fundamental Attribution Error rears its ugly head, we lose our ability to handle complexity and begin thinking in binary. ”Cyclists do X, Motorists react with Y,” as though cyclists never drive, drivers never cycle, and that the two have a necessarily adversarial relationship. Worse, each time we do this we risk losing the crucial ability for integrated systems thinking, descending into both mode-based and region-based parochialism.
Our current investments in bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure are modest, they are appropriate for bicycling’s mode share, and they can only be seen as radical in the context of a cultural expectation for complete car dominance. When you build your city for its largest scale mode, smaller scale modes are precluded and society actively engineers your mode choice upward toward cars. In a depressing segment Monday on KOMO Newsline AM, John Carlson affirmed as much when he suggested that bicycles be banned from any road with a speed limit higher than 20 mph. When you build for cars, they become the only permissible game in town. When you build for choice, all modes are enabled and respected (including cars!).
I would hope that we could all grow up already. Modal fetishism is immature whether it’s bikes, trains, buses, or cars. Ultimately, transportation infrastructure should become not a product to be marketed but a public utility matching people’s needs with appropriate tools. (Something tells me that there is no marketing budget to get people to use I-5!) As a transit advocate, I simply want more tools in my toolbox.
So when you feel yourself jumping towards the ad-hominem, take a moment and reflect upon inertia, individual economic incentives, the cumulative effects of all the poor decisions that have come before us. Hopefully this would produce fewer culture warriors and more sober problem solvers.
For more on constraining terminology – see Jarrett.