“They symbolize America’s independent spirit. They deserve our respect,” Leonard said.
Chuck agreed. “If populations are threatened, bad news for us all.”
Amanda said, “I get frustrated because they move slowly, but then I remind myself that they are just trying to get where they need to go.”
William was conflicted. “They have the right to be out there, but they’re unpredictable. I’m afraid what might happen if I bump into one.”
Amy was clear. “If they are stupid enough to get in the way, they deserve what happens to them.”
Then Michael said, “They’ll absolutely take over a place and wreak havoc if you give them any opening.”
To have a productive conversation, it helps if everyone involved is talking about the same thing. Take the discussion above.
Leonard? He was thinking about eagles. Chuck was sharing his thoughts on bees and our ecosystems. Amanda thought they were having a conversation about turtles, while William was describing the uneasy feeling he gets when he wades in the surf at Tybee, knowing there are stingrays around. Amy was complaining about armadillos, and Michael was grumbling about squirrels in his attic.
All animals, but I’ve heard people make all those comments about a specific animal: a human on a bicycle.
Many images are conjured when people hear the word “cyclist” and I’ve learned these can be very different from the positive pictures I see in my mind’s eye. One person may recall club riders in bright clothing, who he had difficulty passing on a winding road. Another will remember the time she had to brake suddenly to avoid an inattentive cyclist. These negative associations have a way of persisting in people’s memories and blocking out countless other encounters that were unremarkable.
This type of thinking seems even more pronounced in online discussions. Just as “Godwin’s Law” states that if a conversation thread goes on long enough, people will eventually start comparing each other to Nazis, discussions about bicycle infrastructure always degrade into a contest to see who can share the most shocking story of reckless cycling.
Negative images of bicycling shade public discourse in unfortunate ways that rarely happen when we talk about cars.
For instance, the intersection of Victory Drive and Skidaway Road is the scene of an alarming number of car crashes. Yet no one has suggested an obvious fix that will immediately reduce the number of collisions to zero: Ban cars from the area.
When it comes to cyclists, however, that same solution is sometimes recommended and punctuated with an account of irresponsible cycling to support the erroneous notion that cyclists don’t belong on our streets.
An extension of this argument casts cyclists as an invasive species and warns that accommodating them, whether through infrastructure or legislative measures, will only embolden and encourage them to misbehave. In other words, if you let squirrels get into your attic, they will act like they own the place.
It’s true that some bike riders break the rules, but the scofflaw shouldn’t dominate our conversations to the extent it does. After all, when we get behind the wheel, we do so with the knowledge that we will be sharing the road with other drivers who may be inexperienced, distracted, aggressive, impaired and sometimes all four at the same time. Yet when we hear the word “driver” our first thought probably isn’t of someone speeding through a residential neighborhood or texting while driving.
Most people imagine themselves carefully and lawfully operating their automobiles. Through infrastructure improvements, education for cyclists and motorists, and effective law enforcement, we can make our city safer and friendlier.
And as more of us become comfortable making bicycling a part of our daily lives, we will replace the visions in our heads of wild and potentially dangerous creatures with more realistic and meaningful images.
When we hear the word “cyclist,” we’ll think of ourselves.
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