The Big Idea
By Mia Birk
He raises his hand, politely at first. He’s impossible to ignore, the only person in the crowded room wearing a cowboy hat. He then stands and begins a tirade.
“You keep talking about adding all these bikeways and stuff, inconveniencing motorists, taking away parking, and you never talk about cyclists doing whatever the hell they want, all the time, disobeying the law, and the police don’t do a damn thing about it. And they just go all over the place, running the lights and you can’t see them at night because they don’t have any lights. Where is the enforcement?”
Sigh. I’ve heard this question/ lecture a thousand times, not only at public meetings but in casual conversation. For drivers, the image of cyclists as scofflaws is etched in their brains.
Mr. Cowboy Hat is part of a vast company of those who chant, “The law is the law. You want the rights, you get the responsibility,” as they exceed the speed limit, roll a stop sign, talk or text on their cell phone, fail to stop for a pedestrian, forget to use turn signals, change lanes abruptly, tailgate or otherwise behave in a manner ranging from inattentive to aggressive. Yes, they are hypocrites. Does that excuse us? Nope.
Many of us who bicycle do behave badly. Some – not all of us – flow like water as we travel, blithely ignoring stop signs, traffic signals and public perception. This is how I behaved when I was getting around Washington, DC, in my early 20s.
It was when I became the Portland Bicycle Coordinator in 1993 and started engaging in a community conversation about bicycling as a mainstream form of transportation that I came to understand that bad behavior has harmful impacts beyond personal risk of harm.
Every time a person in a car saw a person on a bike blow a red light, it made my already challenging job a little bit harder.
So I shaped up: no more red light running and a smile and wave at every motorist who showed me the slightest shred of courtesy. In my role with the city, I was able to get traffic signals tuned and marked for cyclists. I noticed that my mindfully good behavior and attitude attracted courtesy from the motoring crowd in return.
As I wrote in the March issue of Momentum, our traffic laws and systems need to evolve in lockstep with the rebalancing and redesign of our transportation systems. Stop signs should be yield signs, for example. We need bike-specific traffic signals and a connected network of low-stress, comfortable, convenient bikeways. But the lack of these things is not a good excuse either.
Remember this the next time you roll up to a traffic signal: running that red light does more damage to the collective credibility of cyclists than the time you might gain is worth. For the greater good, heck, for your own good: stop and stay stopped until the light turns green.