The Bike 'Otherizes' Us — Get Out and Bike

Eugene Bicyclist posted a thinker today in a post titled “On getting yelled at by a guy in a pickup.”

Like me, he says he doesn’t get yelled at much. (See my post, “I Feel Your Rage.”) But he got yelled at by a guy in a pickup after making an “assertive” move in traffic — not unsafe, not aggressive, but the kind of move motorists make all the time. But he encountered hostility because he did it on a bike.

He asks,

If you believe in the urban cycling movement, do you bear more responsibility to ride courteously, to conduct yourself in impeccably virtuous ways at all times? You know, in a fruitless effort to improve the image of cyclists in general? I dont know. Maybe so.

On getting yelled at by a guy in a pickup | Eugene bicyclist
Screen shot: Eugene bicyclist


I had what I believe is the flip side of this social phenomenon a couple of days ago.

I’m in the Phoenix area right now helping a family member who is in the hospital, and I’m using a borrowed car. (Yesterday’s weird bike review was written from a hospital room.)

I was driving the car slowly through a parking lot with a million things on my mind, starting to head back to the hospital.

As I was turning left, I suddenly noticed a young family in a crosswalk, directly in my path, and with startled looks on their faces. (Well, the baby was oblivious, but the parents were startled.)

I stopped the car still about ten feet from the family, and let them pass in front of me. Through the window I said, “I’m very very sorry.” I felt terrible.

Alanis Morissette with Baby Carrier
They looked like this, but not Alanis Morissette

And the woman replied, “Oh. No worries.”

As I drove on, I thought, No worries!? Lady, I’m a distracted schmuck operating a heavy, powerful, and dangerous piece of machinery — a compact car. Do you realize what this thing can do a human body even at low speeds? No worries!? I’m a monster!

Yeah. I was kind of down on myself. I felt deserving of any scorn they might have offered me.

I don’t know these people. Perhaps they aren’t the scorny type. But the post by Eugene Bicyclist made me wonder what the response would have been had I been on a bike. Would I have received the same gracious absolution from the nice lady, less, or none?

I tend to think that I would have been seen by them as an idiot on a bike.

The bike “otherizes” us — they (motorists) are normal and we are the other. And when the other is less than exemplary, some people will always give themselves permission to pile on an extra helping of anger, judgement, or a cartoonish negative stereotype they have about the other.

Those of us who cycle for transportation are as complex as any other users of roads and parking lots. But I don’t believe we bear more “responsibility to ride courteously,” or to conduct ourselves in “impeccably virtuous ways” at all times.

I actually believe that the more dangerous the vehicle you are operating, the more responsibility and circumspection you must bear — and the more deserving of scorn you are when you falter. But that’s not necessarily how people see it in our car-centric public spaces.

But we need to ride with at least as much courtesy and civility as we would like to see from motorists towards us. Of equal importance is to simply ride, often, and for ordinary day-to-day reasons. The more we do, the less socially consequential our mode of transportation becomes — it de-otherizes us bit by bit.

Just watch out.

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8 thoughts on “The Bike 'Otherizes' Us — Get Out and Bike”

  1. JaimeRoberto says:

    You are being way too hard on yourself. You were driving slowly, stopped 10 feet from the family and let them cross in front of you. I don’t see that you deserved scorn at all.

    I hope your family member gets well soon.

  2. BluesCat says:

    A few weeks ago, in the early predawn morning, I was driving the car to Starbucks. I would have been riding the bike if not for some other responsibilities I had that day. I was at an intersection, in the left-hand turn lane, blinded by the headlights of a truck which had just gone past me headed the other way. I began my turn and had to slam on the brakes to avoid running over a gal who was riding her bike through the crosswalk.

    In spite of the fact that she didn’t have any lights on her cruiser, and in spite of the fact she was wearing dark, non-reflective clothing, I felt tremendously guilty.

    Oh, and she wasn’t wearing a helmet either, which, as we all know, according to the news media, would have miraculously protected her if I had mowed her down with my Honda. *sigh*

  3. Jim Dowd says:

    Great post. Here is one from me on my local blog here in Gloucester MA trying to explain the differences between cyclists and drivers in a somewhat more aggressive, humorous manner. It’s a small city and I’m a known quantity here.

  4. While it is risky to try to guess what people “might have done” I agree with your basic point, Ted. For some motorists–certainly not all–there seems to be something threatening about all these people on bikes. Like their whole way of life is being questioned. And maybe it is. The reaction though is to stereotype us and more or less assume we’re all a bunch of jerks.

    Thanks for reading my post and spreading the link. I’m glad there was something in it that got you thinking.

  5. Brrr says:

    I’m a proud “other”. I don’t see myself as an vehicular cyclist, or as a member of any movement, just someone who happens to be using a bike as a piece of exercise equipment.

    I know it sounds bad, but I really don’t care how my riding habits reflect on others who might be riding. I’m just trying to get some exercise, and to get home safely.

  6. listenermark says:

    “I actually believe that the more dangerous the vehicle you are operating, the more responsibility and circumspection you must bear — and the more deserving of scorn you are when you falter.”

    I agree with the responsibility and circumspection relationship, but the scorn…not so much. You had a minor close call because you were distracted. It happens. No harm no foul. As cyclist we should remember that the guy in the Hummer that almost “insert primal anxiety here” probably didn’t intend to endanger us. Let there be slack.

  7. Patrick Perez says:

    Great timing on this post. Just yesterday morning, when I was driving (my car) to breakfast, I was stopped awaiting a chance to turn left onto a main street from a side street. Watching left, I saw an upcoming break in traffic (as well as to the right) about 10 seconds away. While I waited for the gap, a bike rider drvove past the front of my car, driving against oncoming traffic (there is no proper sidewalk on that street). He saw that I was at the intersection waiting to turn, and drove in front of me.

    Unfortunately, in my town, Tacoma, WA, I see bad cycling habits in probably ~40% of the riders on the road. Biggest offenders are riding on the sidewalks, riding at night w/o reflectors/lights/hi-vis clothing, riding the wrong direction, failures to observe lane rules, blowing through red lights/stop lights (not even Idaho stops, which while sensible aren’t legal here).

    I guess I’m amazed there aren’t more bike related injuries here. I’m not trying to blame victims here, I’m pointing out that a substantial percentage of cyclists are dangers to themselves. As a motorist, I value the predictability that traffic laws strive to create. And certainly a large percentage of motorists ignore important rules (would it kill them to signal all lane changes/turns?) But at least where I live, it is difficult to assume a cyclist’s behavior can be predicted in the few seconds they are visible. I’ve witnessed dumb moves in riders of all ages/all types of equipment. I give a wide berth, but I know I’m in the vast minority.

    I do like the idea of penalties to a motorist being tied to gross vehicle weight. It astounds me how many drivers treat their giant SUVs as if they are Miatas.


  8. Kwin says:

    I totally understand where you are coming from. In my article on riding on the sidewalk, I mentioned my rule that if I wont ride there faster than I could go on foot. I would never forgive myself if I injured someone.

    As for bicyclists being threatening…we are for two reasons that I can see:

    1) we challenge the social order that says transportation = cars. People are highly invested (monetarily and emotionally) in the current order, and challenges to it don’t sit well with some.

    2) we appear vulnerable. Just as you and I worry about injuring pedestrians, I think motorists are often worried about hurting us. Have you ever seen a parent loose track of a child in a store and then get angry at the child when they are re-united? The potential danger causes an emotional response.

    As for people yelling out the window of a passing truck, I can never understand what they say anyway, so I pretend they’re being complimentary.

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