Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Cool and Logical Analysis Of The Motorist Menace

Bicycles are not dangerous. A gentle push of a pedal and a bit of coordination is all that is required to glide serenely forward. Learning to ride one of these simple devices is among the first advanced physical endeavors we humans attempt. Bicycling becomes more complicated, challenging, after we leave the safety of our parents' driveways and the untrafficked peace of the sidewalk. When the bicyclist ventures onto the road -- as he or she must -- cycling becomes a little scary. Our streets were made for motorized traffic, not self propelled traffic. The laws that govern how our streets and roadways are to be shared were written with motor vehicular traffic in mind, not bikes. The attitude of the driver has formed within the context that history. This is mine, thinks the driver. Pedestrians, scurry across if you must, but do so infrequently and within a narrowly defined space. Get out of my way! Nonautos are trespassers, sometimes tolerated and often not. This, I submit, is the majority viewpoint in America. Bicycling within this context becomes a risky endeavor to be sure. Just last month I read a story about a bicyclist who was left in "serious-to-critical" condition after being struck by a CTA bus while riding in the city. The story prompted one reader to post the following comment:

And now the latest score: Bus 1, Bike 0. No surprise. Until the new bulletproof Krypyonite (sic.) bikes are marketed bike users need to be more careful. Might usually makes right and busses (sic.) are pretty mighty.

Stupid, but an attitude that is neither unique nor new. I recently came across an old essay authored by conservative satirist, P.J. O'Rourke. Written in 1987, it predicts the end of -- and wishes good riddance to -- the bicycle on America's streets. The piece, A Cool and Logical Analysis of the Bicycle Menace, is worth reading. In my opinion, its over-the-top tone makes it entertaining:

A Cool and Logical Analysis

of the Bicycle Menace

And an Examination of the Actions Necessary to License, Regulate,
or Abolish Entirely This Dreadful Peril on our Roads

by P.J. O'Rourke

Our nation is afflicted with a plague of bicycles. Everywhere the public right-of-way is glutted with whirring, unbalanced contraptions of rubber, wire, and cheap steel pipe. Riders of these flimsy appliances pay no heed to stop signs or red lights. They dart from between parked cars, dash along double yellow lines, and whiz through crosswalks right over the toes of law-abiding citizens like me.

In the cities, every lamppost, tree, and street sign is disfigured by a bicycle slathered in chains and locks. And elevators must be shared with the cycling faddist so attached to his "moron's bath-chair" that he has to take it with him everywhere he goes.

In the country, one cannot drive around a curve or over the crest of a hill without encountering a gaggle of huffing bicyclers spread across the road in suicidal phalanx.

Even the wilderness is not safe from infestation, as there is now such a thing as an off-road bicycle and a horrible sport called "bicycle-cross."

The ungainly geometry and primitive mechanicals of the bicycle are an offense to the eye. The grimy and perspiring riders of the bicycle are an offense to the nose. And the very existence of the bicycle is an offense to reason and wisdom.


1. Bicycles are childish
Bicycles have their proper place, and that place is under small boys delivering evening papers. Insofar as children are too short to see over the dashboards of cars and too small to keep motorcycles upright at intersections, bicycles are suitable vehicles for them. But what are we to make of an adult in a suit and tie pedaling his way to work? Are we to assume he still delivers newspapers for a living? If not, do we want a doctor, lawyer, or business executive who plays with toys? St. Paul, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, 13:11, said, "When I became a man, I put away childish things." He did not say, "When I became a man, I put away childish things and got more elaborate and expensive childish things from France and Japan."

Considering the image projected, bicycling commuters might as well propel themselves to the office with one knee in a red Radio Flyer wagon.

2. Bicycles are undignified
A certain childishness is, no doubt, excusable. But going about in public with one's head between one's knees and one's rump protruding in the air is nobody's idea of acceptable behavior.

It is impossible for an adult to sit on a bicycle without looking the fool. There is a type of woman, in particular, who should never assume the bicycling posture. This is the woman of ample proportions. Standing on her own feet she is a figure to admire-classical in her beauty and a symbol, throughout history, of sensuality, maternal virtue, and plenty. Mounted on a bicycle, she is a laughingstock.

In a world where loss of human dignity is such a grave and all-pervading issue, what can we say about people who voluntarily relinquish all of theirs and go around looking at best like Quixote on Rosinante and more often like something in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade? Can such people be trusted? Is a person with so little self-respect likely to have any respect for you?

3. Bicycles are unsafe
Bicycles are top-heavy, have poor brakes, and provide no protection to their riders. Bicycles are also made up of many hard and sharp components which, in collision, can do grave damage to people and the paint finish on automobiles. Bicycles are dangerous things.

Of course, there's nothing wrong, per se, with dangerous things. Speedboats, racecars, fine shotguns, whiskey, and love are all very dangerous. Bicycles, however, are dangerous without being any fun. You can't shoot pheasants with a bicycle or water-ski behind it or go 150 miles an hour or even mix it with soda and ice. And the idea of getting romantic on top of a bicycle is alarming. All you can do with one of these ten-speed sink traps is grow tired and sore and fall off it.

Being dangerous without being fun puts bicycles in a category with open-heart surgery, the war in Vietnam, the South Bronx, and divorce. Sensible people do all that they can to avoid such things as these.

4. Bicycles are un-American
We are a nation that worships speed and power. And for good reason. Without power we would still be part of England and everybody would be out of work. And if it weren't for speed, it would take us all months to fly to L.A., get involved in the movie business, and become rich and famous.

Bicycles are too slow and impuissant for a country like ours. They belong in Czechoslovakia...

5. I don't like the kind of people who ride bicycles
At least I think I don't. I don't actually know anyone who rides a bicycle. But the people I see on bicycles look like organic-gardening zealots who advocate federal regulation of bedtime and want American foreign policy to be dictated by UNICEF. These people should be confined.

I apologize if I have the wrong impression. It may be that bicycle riders are all members of the New York Stock Exchange, Methodist bishops, retired Marine Corps drill instructors, and other solid citizens. However, the fact that they cycle around in broad daylight making themselves look like idiots indicates that they're crazy anyway and should be confined just the same.

6. Bicycles are unfair
Bicycles use the same roads as cars and trucks yet they pay no gasoline tax, carry no license plates, are not required to have insurance, and are not subject to DOT, CAFE, or NHTSA regulations. Furthermore, bicyclists do not have to take driver's examinations, have eye tests when they're over sixty-five, carry registration papers with them, or submit to breathalyzer tests under the threat of law. And they never get caught in radar traps.

The fact (see No. 5, above) that bicycles are ridden by the very people who most favor government interference in life makes the bicycle's special status not only unfair but an outright incitement to riot.

Equality before the law is the cornerstone of democracy. Bicycles should be made to carry twenty-gallon tanks of gasoline. They should be equipped with twelve-volt batteries and a full complement of taillights, headlamps, and turn signals. They should have seat belts, air bags, and safety-glass windows too. And every bicycle rider should be inspected once a year for hazardous defects and be made to wear a number plate hanging around his neck and another on the seat of his pants.

7. Bicycles are good exercise
And so is swinging through trees on your tail. Mankind has invested more than four million years of evolution in the attempt to avoid physical exertion. Now a group of backward-thinking atavists mounted on foot-powered pairs of Hula-Hoops would have us pumping our legs, gritting our teeth, and searing our lungs as though we were being chased across the Pleistocene savanna by saber-toothed tigers. Think of the hopes, the dreams, the effort, the brilliance, the pure force of will that, over the eons, has gone into the creation of the Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Bicycle riders would have us throw all this on the ash heap of history.

What must be done about about the bicycle threat?
Fortunately, nothing. Frustrated truck drivers and irate cabbies make a point of running bicycles off the road. Terrified old ladies jam umbrella ferrules into wheel spokes as bicycles rush by them on sidewalks. And all of us have occasion to back over bicycles that are haplessly parked.

Bicycles are quiet and slight, difficult for normal motorized humans to see and hear. People pull out in front of bicycles, open car doors in their path, and drive through intersections filled with the things. The insubstantial bicycle and its unshielded rider are defenseless against these actions. It's a simple matter of natural selection. The bicycle will be extinct within the decade. And what a relief that will be.

© P.J. O'Rourke
from 'Republican Party Reptile', The Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1987

I wonder if P.J. O'Rourke's childish complaints about bikes and those "organic-gardening zealots" who ride them were actually made to ridicule those who, in all seriousness, protest with red-faced hysteria about the "bicycle menace." Perhaps he was creating a satirical strawman. I don't know. Regardless of whether P.J. O'Rourke meant what he wrote or not, I have enough experience as a bicyclist and a lawyer representing bicyclists to know that a great many motorists do believe strongly in the viewpoints set forth in the essay.

How are these unreasonable folks to be dealt with?

RIDE -- O'Rourke's cheeky predication did not come true, of course. Far from disappearing from American roadways, bicyclists' numbers are increasing. Our new Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, seems committed to policies meant to increase our numbers even more. The future looks bright for bicyclists. Continue to ride. Recruit others to ride. The more people ride, the louder our collective voice will become and the more likely it is that those who are in a position to initiate change -- and fund and build "complete streets" -- will take notice and respond.

ADVOCATE -- Truth is, riding alone will not affect change. A safer and smarter traffic infrastructure will come about with organization. Motorists who think bicyclists do not belong on our streets will not learn better without it either. Join some of the many excellent, committed groups out there actively fighting on behalf of bicyclists. Many of these groups are staffed by smart, committed people who have the ear of legislators. They give bicyclists access to the mechanisms of change. A list of many such groups are listed down the right side of this blog. Locally, I recommend the Active Transportation Alliance. It is a fantastic group of Chicago bicyclists for Chicago bicyclists.

FIGHT -- Motorists should be placed on notice that negligent conduct comes with consequences. If you open your door without looking, make a right turn without paying attention, fail to give cyclists three feet of space, or otherwise drive like a knucklehead and hurt a bicyclist you will be sued. You will pay for your mistake.

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