Letter to the Editor

06

Aug

Letter to the Editor

I received an email copy of the following letter the editor, recently submitted to the Projo, by Keith Moore:

To the editor:

I was biking to work this morning in Providence, sticking as close to the curb as possible, when my life flashed in front of my eyes: a driver in a beige Saturn drove as close to me as she could – so close that I almost hit the curb trying to avoid her. She then accelerated, changed lanes without signaling, cutting another driver off in the process.

This whole maneuver did her little good: she ended up stopped at the next light. Her window was open so as I pulled up next to her, I said “You should learn how to drive.” I should have just kept my mouth shut but I was still shaking after the close call.

Her response just about made me fall off my bike: “I pay taxes. You pay nothing.”

I was literally speechless. How does one respond to that level of ignorance? Unfortunately I did respond by lowering myself to her level. The rest of the conversation quickly degenerated into name calling. But her words stuck with me.

Let’s assume she’s right and I don’t pay any taxes. Does the fact that someone doesn’t pay taxes give a driver the right to attempt to run them off the road? Children don’t pay taxes. Does that mean that children are fair game?

Why would she assume that a bicycle rider is not paying taxes? Sure, it’s highly unlikely she knows anyone who bikes to work – bicycling commuting is still in its infancy in the U.S. (with a few exceptions, such as New York City and Portland, Oregon). But there are still plenty of bikes on the roads. And lots of people who drive also bike recreationally (as anyone who’s ever used Rhode Island’s excellent bike paths would know). So her assumption that a bicyclist is someone who doesn’t pay taxes is patently absurd.

Perhaps she feels that the streets and roads are for cars only and bikes should be relegated to the sidewalk. Perhaps she’s just frustrated at sitting in traffic and seeing bicyclists passing her. Perhaps she’s annoyed at bicyclists who flout traffic laws. That’s understandable: I feel the same way when I’m in my car and some bicyclist flies past me and runs the red light.

Let’s keep in mind that there are plenty of bad drivers who pay only passing attention to traffic laws – such as this very driver. I’m not going to defend bicyclists who ignore traffic laws anymore than I’d defend a bad driver. And whether or not bicyclists should be in the streets with cars is a question for lawmakers, safety experts and transportation planners, not for me.

But the bottom line is that I do have the right to be bicycling in the street and I was obeying the law. There are more and more of us who are choosing to bike – whether for fitness, to save money and time, to reduce greenhouse gases, or for all of these reasons. Drivers need to get used to that and learn to drive near cyclists. And cyclists need to make themselves visible and follow the laws. It’s all about mutual respect, something that was sadly missing (on both of our parts, to my chagrin) in this morning’s encounter.

Sincerely,

Keith Moore

It’s happening all around the country and Providence is no difference.  For whatever reason, there is an extremely strained relationship between cyclists and motorists.  As far as I’m concerned, the whole issue boils down to two basic concepts:

  1. Bicycles, motorized vehicles (cars, buses, trucks, etc.), and pedestrians are all here to stay.  None of these forms of transportation are going to disappear from our roads in my lifetime.
  2. Given #1, society needs to figure out how all road users can coexist peacefully and safely.

The first point above indicates a need for appropriate infrastructure to address the various modes of transportation.  Unfortunately,  state and city planners have generally failed over the long run to provide appropriate infrastructure for the various types of transportation options and we now find ourselves with quite a mess.  This gives rise to frustrations on the part of all roadway users and, unfortunately, frequently leads to confrontations.  Cyclists and pedestrians usually loose in these confrontations, as motorists can choose to simple ignore the needs of other road users, potentially at the risk of killing someone.    Cyclists and pedestrians can ultimately make life difficult for motorists, but ultimately there is little one can do if a motorist simply does not care about the rights of others.

But what can be done?  Over the long term, developing appropriate infrastructure that provides adequate resources for the various types of transportation.  Unfortunately, this is a very long term goal.  It is our job as advocates to remind the city and state that all new projects and reconstruction work should take into account all forms of transportation.  Yes, it will cost more money up front, but the end result will be a much better place to live for all users.

In the shorter term, what can be done?

  • Respect.  Plain and simple, all road users need to respect each other.  Everyone needs to think about how their actions affect the other road users.  Motorists, it’s not okay to act aggressively towards cyclists; it’s scary for the cyclists and if you make a mistake could cost a cyclist their life.  Cyclists, you can’t just blow through stop signs and lights or riding the wrong way on a one-way street.  Much like motorists can easily hurt cyclists, cyclists can easily hurt pedestrians.
  • Significantly more education, both on the part of motorists and cyclists.  We need a full blown campaign to educate motorists that cyclists have a right to the road, that they are not protected and can be easily killed through inattentive or dangerous driving.  Cyclists need to learn how and where to ride, so they are predictable for motorists, and yes, need to learn how to deal with emergency situations.
  • Punishment.  I’m consistently shocked at how much motorists get away with.  Why is it, the state can’t make a traffic ticket stick?  If I speed in my car and get pulled over, I expect to get a ticket and should have to pay a fine.  Worse yet, the fine schedule for more egregious violations are a joke.  Most all fines are $85!  For many people, it might be worth frightening the daylights out of a pedestrian or cyclist, if the worst that is going to happen will be an $85 fine.  Motorists who are repeat offenders or guilty of more egregious violations (i.e. killing someone with their car) should loose their license, period.  The Europeans have the right model when it comes to a) how difficult it is to get a license and b) how serious the fines are for rule breakers.

8 thoughts on - Letter to the Editor

  • Dennis
    Aug 6, 2009 at 8:22 am

    Wow! I never realized… wait a minute.

    Just kidding. I see this nearly every day when I ride to work. This year(since Jan) I've only been aggressively threatened by a vehicle 4 times. One of those was just someone in a hurry that told me she had her signal on so I should have gotten out of her way. That doesn't count all the drivers texting and talking on the cell phone that nearly hit me and never saw me. They didn't mean it and would probably feel quite sorry if they hit me.

    And still I ride. The sad part is that it will take the death of a Cyclist, and no ordinary Joe. Perhaps it will be a Senator's kid. Or maybe the offspring of a Bank President. I, for one, will feel no better if I can say "I told you so".

    1. Education

    2. Enforcement

  • Alan Barta
    Aug 7, 2009 at 4:15 am

    Ha! A perfect example of glimmering awareness in transition.

    Motoring causes dementia: hardening of the arteries, impatience, irritability, lack of blood flow to the brain, stress. You have to pilot a ton of steel around, like a snail carrying a huge shell for protection. It's a cage on wheels among millions of others, all vying for a few spaces to park or perpetually roll this rock of Sisyphus. Yet it's a "privilege" for which you must pay: insurance, registration, taxes – on average $8k/yr. – plus time to earn, time to inspect and repair, time to wait nicely for everyone and everything else legally entitled to be in the road: construction workers, children, cyclists, other users, walkers. Maybe you don't want to drive after all, since the onus to avoid and protect falls squarely upon your shoulders alone.

    A bicycle is closer to apparel than vehicle, a pair of sneakers that moves you freely. Bicycling and walking are a right in a public right of way. Traffic laws only apply to motor vehicles, which were adopted to protect everyone from their deadly momentum. This threat to life is not shared by children running after a ball, cyclists tooling along quickly, wild animals in the road. Motorists are the threat, thus the laws.

    In a society that devalues people over profits and values pets more than humans, I will leave the streets, ignore traffic restrictions, ride on wherever I feel safest, and wend my way as warily as possible watching my back. 4-way red lights are a blessing: the only time you can cross some intersections. Those who haven't yet been weened from their daily petroleum consumption don't speak for bicyclists and don't deserve column space or real consideration. They are still trying to justify the clearly rude and totally unsustainable.

    What can be done? Next time get the license plate and report the crime (yes, it's a crime to buzz cyclists in Rhode Island). Let's revoke some licenses. Get rid of the bad actors and there will be no controversy. Let's start with bus drivers, all of whom believe THEY ALONE own the road.

  • Aug 7, 2009 at 4:53 am

    Wow.

    I see this often, too. One day when I was biking to work I had a similar incident. I did get the license plate, and I did call the police. Their response was, "What do you want us to do?" and encouraged me to drop the issue. The officer was kind enough to meet me at my office and volunteered to go to the individuals house and give them a "good talking to."

    I think the resolution goes beyond more laws. We've seen that, despite the laws, people drive recklessly, foolishly. There needs to be some change in perception of cycling, some grand marketing push to make it ok for there to be as many bicycles as cars.

    I don't know where this shift could come from, but I'd love to hear more ideas.

  • Barry
    Aug 8, 2009 at 9:11 am

    I think part of the solution is to develop of critical mass of bicyclists. I've noted much more courtesy from motorists when crossing roads along the East Bay bike path than in North Providence where I live, devoid of any bike facilities. I think in the East Bay they are more used to bicyclists and more motorists are bicyclists themselves. This is one reason I strongly favor extending our bike path system though I know some very competent bicyclists are somewhat hostile to this, being more interested in on-road conditions. But the bike paths can generate lots of additional bicyclists.

    I also think the motorist had the taxes backwards. With the phaseout of the auto excise tax, local roads are increasingly supported from the general fund, a subsidy to motorists from the non-motorists. In Providence, treating the runoff from paved surfaces is paid for by those in the Narragansett Bay Commission on their sewer bills, up about 260% in the last 9 years largely due to this, another subsidy to the motorists. And if course we all subsidize driving thru our military budget needed to try to secure oil supplies.

    Finally, I always thought some motorist hostility to bikes is resentment because they really know bicycling is a superior life-style.

  • Alan Barta
    Aug 9, 2009 at 5:28 am

    Yeah, Barry, part. The fast track is get the butt of Mayor Lombardi of North Providence or his planner Ed Restivo on a bike.

    This worked in Boston….
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/09/us/09bike.html?…
    since Mayor Menino began riding himself. Once officials see what bicyclists are facing from the saddle, obstacles begin to disappear overnight.

    All a critical mass of cyclists does is makes them think there are issues, which they are quick to suppress through abusive regulation. Traffic laws were ONLY meant to protect everyone from motorists.

  • Pingback: Bike Sharing is coming to Boston at Greater City: Providence

  • Aug 17, 2009 at 10:49 am

    The comment about "paying taxes" makes me crazy– she may pay taxes, but she also pollutes our air, uses our resources, and puts an extra burden on our healthcare system by lazily hauling herself around by motor. Public space is PUBLIC, not for automobile drivers! She should thank you for being one less person and machine weighing on the faulty infrastructure that her taxes aren't maintaining.

    I can't believe how much risk is involved with biking in RI. I grew up in Corvallis OR which has rain 2/3 of the year and tons of hills and still perhaps the best bike path network of any city of its size in the country. I commuted everywhere by bike until I left for college. And while I am in love with the Blackstone Valley and East Bay Bike paths, they seem to suggest that so far bikes in RI are about "recreation" — where you go to a special place on the weekend and ride for fun. The bike-as-transit logic seems to be evolving much more slowly.

    As for bicyclists following the rules of the road– it is nearly impossible here because motorists don't know what they are supposed to do. How, for example, do you turn left here– in the auto turn lane? In the cross walk? I end up on sidewalks incessantly for basic safety which I hate doing. Hope Street is the saddest "bicycle route" I have ever seen– a few green signs don't equal space on the street. Whenever possible, I head into the neighborhoods which then undermines the visibility of cyclists.

    I'm so grateful bike providence is making headway! Anyone up for starting bike pawtucket?

  • Alan Barta
    Aug 17, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Maia, a lovely name, means in mythology a spirt that brings ideas into reality. Well said, and welcome. Pawtucket is already far more permeable by bike than most of Providence, and is slated for a bikeway connection from Blackstone to East Bay. We meet every Wednesday night and ride through there.

    Hope Street is a nightmare of "bike catcher" corners, which irrationally squeeze shoulders for no useful purpose other than slowing traffic. Quieting streets is a good goal, but not by forcing busses and trucks into path of cyclists.

    Of situations to watch develop, trolls Bill and Dennis will run down your honest observations when they get around to it.