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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.