Reviewed by Andy Cline
I try not to drink anyone’s Kool-Aid straight up, no ice – but Robert Hurst’s Kool-Aid is particularly refreshing. This self-described “weird little book” covers a wide range of issues in 200 pages. Hurst is a smooth and entertaining writer, so the weirdness is easy to forgive; his pointed statements, however, may not be, depending on what Kool-Aid the reader regularly drinks. Hurst is skilled at annoying nearly everyone at least once in any given text. And that is the reason you should read this book.
Hurst approaches his work from a very particular bicycling perspective: he’s ridden thousands of miles as an urban bicycle messenger. You can’t ride as much as he has in chaotic environments and come away with an ambivalent attitude about how to ride properly on the streets.
Bicyclists must take responsibility for their own safety. One can’t simply rely on traffic rules and the good graces of drivers. Hurst writes: “The truth remains that the ‘control’ lies substantially with the bicyclists, whether they want it or not. Any experienced rider will tell you that.”
And sometimes bicyclists are their own worst enemies. Hurst says: “Some of the anti-bicyclist sentiment is deserved. … Bicyclists have a tendency to, first of all, break laws and take liberties that the brilliant machine makes possible, that’s true; on the other hand, they tend to be quite defensive about their personal space in traffic. Slight encroachments are met with, at the least, glares and indignation. It’s not so much the lawbreaking or the indignation but the combo of the two that does it. To the motorist it can appear bratty, selfish, and hypocritical.”
Hurst asserts a few differences with Vehicular Cycling. His criticisms boil down to this: “As a bicyclist, then, the primary task is not to plug oneself into a shaky system [traffic], but to withhold trust in it on the fundamental level. In traffic we find the very essence of fallibility. Its most important feature, if not its most prominent, is the basic human mistake. … That’s not to say bicyclists should shun the rules of the road, mind you. They just have to be realistic about them. The task is to ride always with the understanding that you could be overlooked easily by this or that mistake-prone motorist and to remember the potentially very serious consequences, and ride accordingly, rules or not.”
The Vehicular Cycling crowd dislikes separate bicycling infrastructure. Their favourite straw man is that these systems treat bicyclists as inferior (and that is true if that is the kind of infrastructure you build). Hurst is not against bicycling infrastructure, but he seems to think that a country that can put a man on the moon cannot match, say, the Netherlands, in building a superior bicycling system. It is certainly more politically troublesome in the United States, as Hurst makes clear. But it could be done if we could muster the political will.
Hurst’s thinking leads him to a silly conclusion: “The American way of bicycling does not need to be fundamentally changed; it only needs to be enhanced. We could actually do Europe one better in our bicycling future. We could ride farther, and faster, on sportier bicycles, and just generally have more fun with it.” The “sportier” crack leaves me scratching my head. Sportier does me no good at all when I’m grocery shopping.
Hurst’s book helps focus an important idea for me: We need to change our traffic design and engineering. We need to re-think how we control traffic and under what circumstances.
I’m a Hurst fan, but I want plenty of ice when I drink his Kool-Aid. I appreciate his humour, insights, and no-nonsense approach to his subjects. It is impossible to come away from this book without learning something, without being challenged, without finding moments of connection, and without feeling moments of exasperation. Not bad.
The Cyclist’s Manifesto
By Robert Hurst
224 pages, $16.95 USD