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Will cyclists and motorists ever get along?

The San Francisco Bay Guardian: Will cyclists and motorists ever get along?

05.18.10 - 4:29 pm | Steven T. Jones |

Bicyclists and motorists often clash in San Francisco, over space on the roadways and in conversations about each others' behaviors, often in the most acrimonious fashion imaginable. My recent writing on bike issues has prompted lots of feedback and controversy – including lovely comments such as “Steve, keep riding your bike without a helmet, with any luck you'll get in an accident and what little brains you have will spill out onto the street and we won't have to read your smug condescending bullshit about bikes anymore.” – but I'm not the only one interested in trying to figure out how this gulf got so wide or how to bridge it.

The San Francisco Civil Grand Jury recently issued a report entitled “Sharing the Roadway: From Confrontation to Conversation,” that identifies strife between cyclists and drivers as a serious problem and seeks “to move towards everyone seeing him/her self as part of the community sharing the roadway.”

It's an admirable goal that echoes that of the SF Bicycle Plan, and the 40-page report occasionally offers some insight into diagnosing why the problem exists, although it focuses mostly on the behaviors of bicyclists and the view by motorists that people who bike are arrogant, dangerous, irresponsible, erratic, inconvenient, vulnerable, and despised, all adjectives it gleaned for a 2002 study in Scotland, for some reason.

The report calls for more education and enforcement that targets all road users, but it seems most focused on criticizing bicyclists for running stop signs and other traffic violations, noting how cyclists are rarely given citations and saying that's at least partly because cyclists have become politically powerful and are more likely to file complaints about cops who ticket them. In other words, we cyclists are the overentitled special interest that the angriest motorists say we are.

The report even discusses such radical ideas as requiring cyclists to get licenses, pay registration fees, and buy insurance, but it gives no mention to radical ideas on the other end of the spectrum, such as importing traffic laws from Idaho, where cyclists legally treat stop signs as yield signs and stop lights as stop signs, which conforms to current behaviors and the laws of momentum and doesn't steal anyone's right-of-way. Clearly, this was not a report written by cyclists.

“If San Francisco truly wants to increase responsible bicycle use, it will need to solve the issues of anger, misunderstanding, and mistrust between motorists and cyclists, and increase everyone's view of shared responsibility on the roadway,” recommends the report.

I thought it was a bit vague and one-sided, but San Francisco Bicycle Coalition acting director Renee Rivera said it strongly supports the SFBC-backed Bike Plan, which was its target subject. “The report goes into a lot of anecdotal detail, but the recommendations are pretty good stuff,” she said, adding that SFBC's members aren't exclusively cyclists, “but people using different modes at different times for different reasons.”

On the other end of the spectrum are people like local bike messenger Adam Shapiro, who says he also wants to improve communication between cyclists and motorists, but he's come up with a different kind of conversation starter, one he's been handing out to fellow cyclists.

It's a magnetized “Yellow Card” that cyclists can toss onto a car that reads, “This magnet was tossed onto your car by a cyclist who felt that you had been driving in a way that could endanger their life. They chose to toss this magnetic note because it can neither damage your automobile, nor will it disrupt your driving. It serves as our communication in a world buffered by steel, glass, and speed. With mutual respect, we can each adjust our behavior to allow all people to live in safety. This is a yellow card, your awareness can keep us out of the Red.”

Shapiro said he heard about the idea from East Coast cyclist Peter Miller, who he met and borrowed the concept from, changing the wording on his version. “This is starting a conversation between two human beings who can be more civil to each other than they have been,” Shapiro told me. Shapiro said he's experienced the full range of emotional responses to threatening behavior by motorists, from fear to rage to “dreary acceptance,” but that lately, “I've shifted away from cycling as war.”

He still rides quite aggressively, in a fashion likely to anger many biker-haters, and he says that his Yellow Card is actually made more for good, respectful cyclists that want to communicate their fear and vulnerability to distracted or self-centered motorists, but who often feel powerless to do so in a highly buffered urban culture. “This subversion of that is unique in saying, 'We can communicate in a way that's non-violent,” he said.

And perhaps that's true, although I tend to think that neither the yellow cards nor educational campaigns are likely to lessen the tension anytime soon. There's still too much resentment on both sides, with motorists feeling judged for their wasteful and dangerous transportation choice and outraged that bicyclists flout traffic laws, and bicyclists feeling judged for riding in a way that makes sense (even to The Ethicist Randy Cohen) and doesn't hurt anyone and outraged for being the target of such scorn for choosing such a widely beneficial way of getting around.

But Rivera said she thinks tensions will wane as traffic design improvements “lessen the places where friction develops on the streets,” and the growing number of cyclists forces everyone to get used to each other and figure out strategies for peaceful coexistence.