Older Sibling Syndrome

Last week, LA Times writer Jeannine Stein described the dynamic between cyclists and motorists in her piece, On the mean streets of L.A.

Published August 27, 2007 by C.I.C.L.E.
By David Pulsipher

Last week, LA Times writer Jeannine Stein described the dynamic between cyclists and motorists in her piece, On the mean streets of L.A. As the title describes, the relationship between cyclists and motorists can often be less than cordial. For those of us, this is our lot to bear. The price we pay for doing something we love so dearly. In exchange for verbal abuse and the danger imposed by aggressive drivers we save money, the environment, our bodies, and we can even be smug about it if we want to.

[[image:sibling_inside_copy1.jpg::inline:1]]As I read the article the stories seemed all too familiar, reinforced by my own accounts of close calls and arrogant drivers. But when I turned to the "comment" section of the webpage, I began noticing a smaller theme. It wasn’t just outraged cyclists shouting “right on brother,” but motorists defending themselves too.

My irony thermometer began to boil. "The nerve of these motorists" I thought. "It's not enough that we are vulnerable and out-numbered, now they are defending the way they act." Most of the complaints by motorists referenced cyclists running red lights and stop signs. Their account seemed to paint us all as red-light-running-anarchists. Sure, the "motorist" point of view was outnumbered 10:1 in the comments, but I think it says something that there were motorists there, airing their dirty laundry (seemingly stained by us, cyclists).

I did a brief audit/flashback of my experiences on the road. While most of the cyclists I recall seemed to be law abiding, urban heroes/heroines – I have seen from time to time a few cyclists who were less resolute in observing basic traffic rules, and definitely when cars were watching.

I grew up in a home with 9 children. I was a middle child and had three younger brothers. Whenever I would do something stupid, particularly in front of my brothers, my mother would tell me very sternly "David, think of the example you are setting for your younger brothers." A specific instance comes to mind when I thought it would be a good idea to throw rocks from our back yard at the plexi-glass display case positioned at the entrance of our sub-division.

I think it's time for us as cyclists to think of the example we are setting. Not only for other cyclists (who may be less skilled and experienced than us), but also for motorists. Sure, they may see me stop at that same green light 20 times, but the time I get lazy and coast through a red, you can bet they are mobilizing their bike-hater phone tree. It’s probably on speed-dial.

The Mean Streets comments also reminded me of the sales-rhetoric I used to hear when I was working in the mall selling over-priced “European comfort shoes.” Our manager would say stuff that had obviously been plagiarized from motivational posters, but also things like "Remember, a happy customer may tell 1-2 friends. But an angry customer will tell ten."

I believe that is the case with cyclists running red lights. It's not that cyclists do it all the time; it's that the times they do run them are the memories that go straight to the "lifetime deposit box" of motorist’s cycling memories. Do they remember you dutifully stopping at a green light, squinting, wiping sweat off your face beaming with joy? Of course not. But nonchalantly sail through a stop sign, and you might as well be Osama Bin Laden on a bike.

From the comments it seems like this is the brush we are being painted with by the motorists. We run red lights and stop signs. What if we take that brush away from them? What if we resolve to be a little better? Perhaps they'll find something else to nitpick about? But maybe they'll come to acknowledge us as fellow, law abiding vehicles on the road.

I'm not advocating an all out ban on casual riding. This isn't an attempt to form a brown-shirt bicyclist Gestapo critiquing how people ride. Rather, this is an invitation to remind you that we are not only setting an example to the motorists, but also to other cyclists. We are the proverbial older siblings setting an example for those who don't know better.

What kind of example are you setting? I ask you to think about this the next time you go out for a ride. I know it's a lot to ask, considering (as cyclists) we already carry the collective weight of the world on our shoulders. What, with saving the environment, modern healthcare, revolutionizing transportation planning and the allocation of public space. What's one more responsibility, right?

Mom’s everywhere would be proud.

David is a bicycle commuter living in West LA, but originally from Denver. He is also pursuing a masters degree in urban planning from UCLA.