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Do cyclists really want to “have it both ways”?

May 15, 2013

I cringe at much of the cycling behavior I see on New York City streets and share some of the sentiment expressed by Sarah Goodyear in her lament in the Atlantic Cities, but I think her piece misses the mark.

Goodyear’s analysis has already inspired a spirited discussion online, with this take from Wash Cycle reflecting my own opinion that one can hope, wish, and work for better behavior while still believing that fidelity to the law should not be a prerequisite for better infrastructure.

But as someone who is very entrenched in the advocacy community, my biggest issue is with this passage:

“I am truly sick, at this late date, of people wanting to have it both ways: calling for protected bike lanes and a bike-share system, demanding that cops step up enforcement when it comes to cars, and then blithely salmoning up a major thoroughfare and expecting everyone look the other way.”

This is a straw man, and I think Goodyear undermines her point by creating it. The people who want better infrastructure and the people who “blithely” salmon “expecting everyone look the other way” are not generally the same people. Those who advocate for better infrastructure and enforcement are often among the most law-abiding and courteous cyclists in their city. However, the cyclists you see blowing through intersections filled with pedestrians are not, with some exceptions, attending community board meetings, lobbying their elected officials for “special” rights, or drooling over the mainstream cycling cultures of Copenhagen or Amsterdam. They’re just reckless assholes. Or delivery people.

Are there cyclists who want to have it both ways? People who think it’s their right to ride so close to a little old lady in a crosswalk that they can see their reflection in her walker? Sure. I just don’t think too many of them exist to warrant this type of scolding.

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15 Comments
  1. invisiblevisibleman permalink
    May 15, 2013 2:53 pm

    Your views closely correlate with mine.

    But, from my point of view, the most eye-catching aspect of Goodyear’s piece was that she complained about people “salmoning” on Court Street in Brooklyn. I have the misfortune to live just off Court St and to have no option but to cycle several blocks on it each night on my way home. It is a terrifying street.

    At the point I use Court St, a stream of limos and taxis is generally racing down it towards Hamilton Avenue. Few if any of them understands the necessity of pulling out properly round a cyclist to pass. In December, a car overturned in my street because it turned into my street too fast having raced down Court. It was the second such incident in nearby streets in a few months. A woman died earlier this year at the Court St/Hamilton Avenue junction. Cars have killed several other people in recent years along Court St.

    It had never occurred to me to regard it as one of Court Street’s problems that occasionally a biker is foolhardly enough to ride the wrong way into this traffic chaos.

  2. May 16, 2013 8:36 am

    You’re right, invisiblevisibleman, Goodyear’s example of Court St is a particularly bad one for whatever point she is trying to make. Notably it sounds like she herself is afraid to cycle on it in either direction, as am I. The last time I tried to be a good little vehicular cyclist and confront the evident danger by “taking a lane”, I was intentionally clipped by a furious livery cab driver. Yet Goodyear thinks that “young men of color” cycling against auto traffic are the real problem on this “major thoroughfare” that cuts through otherwise quiet and safe neighborhoods? That’s insane. It is a simple two lane street, gone to hell.

    Goodyear’s general thesis is “But now, bicycling is becoming mainstream” so … we have to do what she says. Never mind that cites with cycling participation rates tens of times higher than ours are not full of cyclists dutifully following one-way rules on every street. Quite the opposite, they are full of signs saying it’s permitted to for cyclists (like pedestrians) to travel in either direction on most streets that are designated for one-way auto travel. Goodyear seems to be clueless of how popular, mainstream urban cycling actually works where it does work — which does not yet include New York, Boston, Chicago or any other American city she can name.

    But Goodyear is beyond clueless, she’s malicious in her attempt to conflate street danger with rule obedience. Cyclists having it both ways on street danger would be to advocate that motorists be prosecuted for killing people while cyclists should not be. In fact, it’s motorists like Goodyear who already do have it both ways in this respect. When motorists kill someone (which is often) the city falls over itself to exonerate them. Perhaps they had their first-ever diabetic fit and couldn’t help careening onto the sidewalk and crashing into a building and killing a woman in between? No criminality! But when a cyclist kills someone (which is exceedingly rare) the cyclist is subject to all available legal scrutiny. What cyclists want is for motorists to be subject to exactly the same scrutiny.

    What Goodyear forgets about a democratic society is that, unlike in a religion or card game, rules only exist to serve a purpose. Just following the rules is not particularly virtuous, especially if your following of the rules is more likely to kill than my breaking of the rules. America’s vaunted “rules of the road” could be more accurately described as a recipe for the violent deaths of more than thirty-thousand people a year. I’m not ashamed to pick and choose the parts that I follow.

    Everything we advocate should go back to the first principle of reducing the danger on our streets. Those who take rule obedience as their ethical foundation, like Goodyear and other unhappy devotees of TA’s ineffectual “Biking Rules!” campaign, put the cart before the horse in a most obvious and self-destructive way. They’re carrying the torch for the failed “vehicular” movement of American cycling’s most pathetically unpopular decades at the end of the 20th century.

    And lastly, a note about this particular livable streets personality, Sarah Goodyear. Above all it is she who has enjoyed having it both ways, writing as an advocate for livable streets when she wants to build alliances and writing as a concern troll for livable streets when she wants to gin up attention for herself. She can not be taken seriously.

    • May 16, 2013 10:13 am

      First off, I know and like Sarah Goodyear. She’s generally spot on about a lot of these issues. And when I heard that shew as writing a story about cycling behavior, I was looking forward to it. It’s a ripe subject and I do believe there’s a way to write about it by exploring the way design influences behavior. And I think she could do that story well.

      But her general thesis, that in order to take cycling to the next level cyclists have to obey the law, is obviously hugely flawed. It’s not remotely provable, as Nathan suggests. If one took all of the cycling infrastructure out of the Netherlands, I bet you’d see a lot of Dutch cyclists breaking laws, despite their general civility and more cohesive national identity. Maybe they’d be more polite than Americans (a low bar, I know) but they’d still “break the law.”

      And you’re right that it’s really motorists who want to have it both ways, even while using infrastructure that’s exclusively built for them. Take the speed camera debate. Motorists want every privilege on road, but somehow holding them accountable when they break the law by speeding more than 10 mph over the limit is an incursion into their God-given ‘murican rights to do whatever the hell they want. It’s the very definition of having it both ways.

      Her thesis is completely at odds with what we in this community and those in the know have been saying for years: we have to *design* better streets in order to make people comply with the law and stop killing people (PPW, 8th and 9th Avenues, slow zones, etc.). So why does that standard not apply to cyclists? I ride Jay Street every day. Other than two stripes of faded paint, what “design” tells cyclists that they should behave in a certain way? Where are the dedicated bike signals? Where is the enforcement? Are we to expect cyclists to stop at every red when all they see ahead of them is a blocked bike lane and four drivers making illegal u-turns? In the face of other people’s selfishness, people tend to act selfish. That should be the subject of the next Atlantic Cities piece.

    • ADN permalink
      May 16, 2013 12:53 pm

      I completely disagree with Goodyear’s point in this article but I think Nathan’s ad hominem critique is also way off base. Sarah’s a great writer and journalist and her heart is in the right place as an advocate. She’s done a fantastic job at Streetsblog and Atlantic Cities to help push livable streets issues into the mainstream. I think she’s wrong in this case, but that’s OK. I know quite a few people who hold a similar opinion.

      • May 16, 2013 5:51 pm

        An ad hominem argument attacks an opponent personally instead of rebutting the points of an opponent’s argument. I attacked Goodyear’s argument from a few different directions before noting, finally, that she’s merchandised this kind of concern trolling a few times before. Because of that, I can no longer take her seriously. You are free to think whatever you want of Goodyear, and rebut her wrong articles in your own way.

  3. ADN permalink
    May 16, 2013 10:57 am

    Birmingham, Alabama circa 1958: If y’all want to have any hope of full and complete rights in this society then follow the rules and customs that we’ve developed over the course of the last century, sit quietly in the back of the bus and don’t be “uppity.” If you behave yourselves, then maybe we can talk about giving you your rights.

    NYC, NY circa 2013 as per Goodyear et al: If you want to have full and complete rights on these streets, then follow the rules, regulations, designs and engineering that we developed over the course of the last century solely to accommodate motor vehicles. Don’t bike in an “uppity” fashion — going the “wrong way” on one-way streets that exist only because cars are too fucking massive for the streets to be two-way. Stop at all of the traffic signals that exist only because drivers are too fucking blind and dumb when inside of cars to negotiate intersections without this massive amount of top-down regulation. Stay inside of your tiny margin of bike lane and fight for scraps with the pedestrians while a relatively small number of car owners enjoy a massive amount of public right-of-way. If you bike people behave yourselves, then maybe we can talk about giving you your rights at some later date.

    • May 16, 2013 11:18 am

      If you gay people want to get married, you need to stop being promiscuous and pledge to never get a divorce. No short courtships culminating in a quickie wedding in a Vegas chapel, no kids before you’re legally married, and no affairs. If you want entry into an institution straight people have had the freedom to abuse for centuries, it is your responsibility to hold yourself to a standard no other group must meet. And if you are gay, then it is your duty to police other gay couples committing any number of offenses against society. If you homosexuals behave yourselves, then maybe we can talk about giving you your rights at some later date.

  4. marbledmurrelet permalink
    May 16, 2013 4:09 pm

    Nathan, I mostly agreed with the points of your article, but In defense of Sarah Goodyear, having just re-read the article, she does not write that “men of color” are mostly to blame for bike salmoning on Court St; she writes that she wants increased enforcement of the rules but that she does not want such to be used as a pre-text for stop and frisk—that she needed to disavow the NYPD’s practice of stop and frisk in an article about cycling manners strikes me as gratituous–like she is having to prove what a hip upper middle class white progressive she is inspite of her cranky Abraham Simpson tirade. But this article is very muddled in its thinking. Since the worst offenders in terms of bike salmoning are food delivery guys, and since they are overwhelmingly latino, is she unwittingly calling for a crackdown on men of color? I don’t think so because in one of her other recent articles on cycling addressing the growing anger at the wrecklessness of delivery guys she defended their behavior as one born out of economic neccessity. So unless she’s changed her mind about that, I suppose they would be exempt. But then how effective would the new zero tolerance policy be? Not very. But in general and she should know better and I suspect she does having been an editor at Streetsblog, there is a ton of evidence which disproves every single one of her major contentions–if anything cycling in major US cities is more law abiding now then at any time in the past–certainly in NYC–and that is precisely because of growing bike infrasctucture and the mainstreaming of cycling as a transpo alternative. Also, the way most cyclists actually ride has little to do with organized opposition to expanded bike infrastructure–also, seems that increased punitive measures demaning 100 pct adherence to the rules of the road–crafted for cars really–would be self-defeating in terms of getting cycling to the next level since so many would be discouraged from cycling. So why did she write this really bad article? It must have occurred to quite a few of her old friends in the advocacy community that she is not trying to move cycling to the next level of acceptability so much as her media career as she has moved on from the alternative online press to the mainstream press. Or myabe she was just having a bad day.

    • May 16, 2013 4:22 pm

      I know from personal experience that even the best-meaning writer and livable streets advocate misfires now and then. So I do think there’s a way to critique the content of the piece and the overall damage it may do without getting personal. I doubt that Sarah was doing this for opportunistic reasons and sincerely believe she meant to open up an honest and meaningful discussion, even if it backfired a bit.

      Sarah’s heart is 100% in the right place. Only the story is off.

  5. jqr10001 permalink
    May 16, 2013 6:52 pm

    I too can stand up for Sarah Goodyear. She is a thoughtful mensch who sincerely believes in bicycling as a fun thing and as a force for good in the world. I sincerely doubt that she is trying out for a gig as a New York tabloid columnist.

    One of the great things about utility cycling is that it’s self-promoting. When you see an ordinary person (like Sarah Goodyear, for instance) bicycling around on an ordinary bike with an ordinary family and ordinary groceries, you begin to think that an ordinary person like yourself could be biking, too. The best advertisement for the bike-share system is seeing lots of people like yourself using them.

    On the flip side, when you see people riding recklessly, it makes you feel as if bicycling is only something that reckless people do. Cyclists take cues from the other riders around them, so if the only other riders you see are reckless delivery cyclists, you will ride more recklessly.

    Sarah wants more ordinary people to be bicycling safely, and she feels frustrated that there are so many poor role models out there.

    • marbledmurrelet permalink
      May 17, 2013 10:46 am

      John Cassidy of the New Yorker is a tabloid writer? And he used to ride a bike in NYC too. My point being that there is probaly a career niche in the more thoughtful mainstream press for concern trolling on the issue, especially by former activists. But you are right. Sarah Goodyear has written some really good informed stuff in the past. But what to make of this article? I can understand her annoyance at the ill-mannered behavior of some cyclists–we all feel that from time to time–but she goes way beyond that defending punitive policy prescriptions that will only discourage cycling not take it to the next level. Tell me how someone who was once a Streetsblog editor could be so completely wrong in their assessment of the issues? How could she trade in the same stereotypes as the tabloid press–few cyclists “blow through” red lights. And is bike salmoning really the “stupidly dangerous” beahvior that she claims? Many do it not just for the convenience but because it’s safer than other lawful options. And I think the truth is that most biklers at some point in their commute bike salmon for entirely rational reasons–I frequently see cyclists cross Jay Steet and take the south bound bike lane against traffic to approach the city bound entrance to the Manhattan Bridge becuase they feel justifiably that merging into traffic on the bridge off ramp and cycling the right way is dangerous. We know that a lot of seemingly wreckless cycling behavior is a reflection of inadequate infrastrucure and poorly designed unsafe streets that weren’t engineered for safe cycling. She knows all of this too–and I know about it in part because she wrote about it or edited the articles of someone who wrote about it. She missed a great opportunity to explain all of this to a wider non-cycling audience, the readers of the Atlantic. Instead she chose to trade in tired stereotypes, to pander to prejudice. Maybe I’m not giving her more credit for past good-deeds but as she blithely proclaimed–life isnt fair, get over it!

      • jqr10001 permalink
        May 18, 2013 3:02 pm

        Thanks for your response; please let me know what you think of my last three paragraphs.

        To respond to your point, I personally don’t know why cyclists don’t use Adams St and Sands St northbound instead of Jay St. There’s even a bike lane.

      • May 18, 2013 7:45 pm

        I’ll pitch in. Of your second paragraph I think I’m also an ordinary and polite utility cyclist, good for me. Unlike Goodman I’m not a national columnist with an article that parrots negative generalizations about cycling underneath my byline. Whatever good Sarah Goodman does by riding around looking ordinary on her bicycle, a more significant positive or negative effect is made by her writing for a widely read publication.

        I don’t disagree with the words in your third paragraph but I suspect I disagree with your reason for writing them.

        In paragraph 4 we get around to implying that bellyaching about the bad apples will cause them to clean up their act, unless the article was just aimless venting. (Perhaps that will be the denouement…) But ten thousand articles like Goodman’s will not bring religion to the bad apples, and we know this because there were already 9,999 such articles and there’s still all those pesky bad apples. Also don’t forget the bad drivers, pedestrians. Everybody’s so bad! Boo.

        What Goodman wants is fine and dandy but her recent work throws sticks in the spokes of mainstream cycling. It uplifts negative generalizations about cyclists and reinforces the ridiculous double-standard that the bad apples are our problem to solve. She mindfully undermines the case for infrastructure by accusing the petitioning cyclists of also being reckless, which is in plain words a lie. In her opening she mocks citizen cyclists for democratically organizing to affect legislation directed at them. Goodman’s general argument that cyclists must Do Something about bad apples in order to deserve infrastructure and equal protection under the law sets us up for failure, removes attention from the source of danger on our streets, and is anti-democratic to boot. It’s just the worst.

        As for Sands vs. Jay, it’s because it’s up a friggin hill. People like me coming from west of there take Adams to Sands and it’s fine. (Except for being a 6-lane highway in the middle of a dense pedestrian environment.) But other people are coming down from ft greene, etc. They are not going to climb a different hill before they have to climb a bridge. And no amount of finger wagging articles are going to make them.

      • jqr10001 permalink
        May 19, 2013 12:47 pm

        Nathan, I have always been a big fan of your insight, so thanks for taking the time to dissect my argument.

        I think you are making a mistake by assuming that press coverage of bicycling etiquette is on a ratchet. If 10,000 articles have been published to no effect with regards to salmoning and running red lights, then how is this one article going to impede the drive for safer infrastructure?

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