Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Battered Bike Syndrome

There is an unfortunate disconnect in the cycling community.  It starts with definition.  Am I am cyclist if I ride out of sheer necessity after a DUI or due to inability to afford a vehicle?  Do I fit into the community if I ride against traffic or without a helmet?  How about if I just ride around the block with my kid on Saturdays? Am I more of a community member if I train 15 hours a week with a powertap and participate in 25 racing events per year?  What if I ride frequently but only on designated bike trails and never on the open road?   (Photo:  Riders in Broad Creek community gear up for YMCA's bike rodeo, September, 2010)
I have heard cyclists say, “Was he a rider like us?” when the media reports that a bicyclist has been hit or killed by a car. Shoot, I have asked this question myself, and intended no harm, just sought clarification.  But underneath this question implies that anyone who is not like “us” has made a mistake on the road that probably would not happen to us.
Well, I have been riding solo more lately now that I have a new schedule, and I am finished with that kind of talk.  Each time I go out alone—dare I say it—I nearly get hit at least once, usually a few times.  I rely heavily on skill, and it’s clear that anyone who does not have the years of experience that I do is at an even higher disadvantage against some people who appear to have no regard for our lives and against a Hampton Roads infrastructure that sucks.   (Photo:  Hund's Recycle Factory on Colley Avenue offers repair and bike refurbusing services.)

Close calls when riding alone are something that I and probably many other riders of all varieties have grown so accustomed to that we have the attributes of battered wife syndrome.  I accept certain behaviors in a way I have heard some refer to as Uncle Tom in nature, but I think the battered wife syndrome is a better metaphor.  We go out alone, risking our lives.  The law says we can be on the road and that drivers must treat us like other moving vehicles, give us a 2 foot clearance, allow us to take the lane in certain circumstances, but we face abuse and ignorance of these laws daily.  We seek shelter in group rides, similar to a battered wife surrounding herself with friends and siblings, where the drivers are forced to give us respect and can’t touch us.  Yet, let it be clear that should we venture out alone, the abuser returns, thereby making us prisoner to the group ride.  No longer obstructed by extra bodies, the aggressor returns, the cycle of abuse continues. The things we should be able to do with a measure of freedom—head out to the park on a sunny day, jump on a bike to ride to work, train around town in the breeze—become mired in dark calculations of risk vs. reward.  (Photo: Regional racers demonstrate riding 2-abreast, a legal practice in Virginia under certain circumstances.)
What also makes our plight similar to battered wife syndrome is inaction.  I am frustrated with my own inaction over the past 40+ years of riding a bike. I have ridden since I was a toddler and have no excuse for not working harder (at least in post-college years) to help make roads safer for myself and others.  Additionally, we have done a terrible job at gathering “people who ride bikes” to speak about the abuse rather than just “cyclists,” so we appear in state legislator committee meetings as a narrow-minded special interest group rather than a conglomerate of Virginians who own bikes and would like to be able to ride to ride out for a loaf of bread without risking our lives.  
I have now been on the Virginia Cycling Association listserv long enough (about 15 years) to see the same conversations (amongst mostly racers) generated over and over again, and hardly ever is there consensus, and even more rare is there follow up action.   The latest letter writing campaign to state senators and delegates to pass the 3 foot law appears to have had an impact and unifying effect even though the proposals were ultimately shot down.  I am very aware that there are huge issues surrounding 2 and 3 foot clearances, mostly the lack of enforcement.  Ok, it’s fine to disagree that the buffer is not ultimately the fix, but the larger issue is how many cyclists said things like, “Oh, I didn’t even know there was a 2 foot law and what does it matter, the drivers don’t care anyway.”  Sounds like a battered wife to me: “Oh, I didn’t know there were laws to protect me and what does it matter, my abuser is going to hurt me anyway.” 
When laws are proposed to our state representatives, we have also become accustomed to being portrayed as lawbreakers ourselves and therefore not worthy of more protections.  Many submit that we have a serious image problem, usually due to actions of pack riders and urban fixies which are 2 varieties of riders most visible to the average motorist.  The pack riding 3 abreast clogs a road, the fixie blows through the red light—we all know the transgressions.  We work hard to argue that transgressors should be ticketed accordingly (even knowing that we ourselves deserve those tickets sometimes), but that legislators have no right to deny us protections based on the actions of a few.  We seem to break from battered wife syndrome with our defense, but here is the real question:  do we put off action for a later time when we are “fixed” and doing all the right things?  Do we shrug and say, “Things are not going to improve until we fix ourselves.” And what if every rider were to begin behaving in unison, do we really believe we will suddenly earn respect?   If so, I think we are in denial and back to being battered. (Photo:  A bike has found a home under the Tidewater Drive overpass.)

I have been trying to educate myself on advocacy issues recently. I have tried to put aside frustrations—like the fact that longstanding advocacy groups like Virginia Bicycling Federation and Sharing the Road in VA appear to do very little to reach the enthusiast, let alone the average rider, about taking action.  Other than information from Jake Helmboldt (Sharing the Road advisory board member), there has been little presence or information from these groups on the longstanding VACA listserv, which is very likely the most active cycling forum in the state.  I have rarely if ever seen information about them at the local bike shops. All groups of cyclists need more information about legislature proposals and how to show a unified front to commonwealth attorneys who make decisions about whether or not to prosecute drivers who kill cyclists. 
I started by getting involved in Bike Norfolk, a year-old grassroots advocacy group that focuses on making cycling more accessible and safer in Norfolk, VA.  I think our biggest assets right now are strong communicators—Jesse Scaccia, editor, writers Wes Cheney and BC Wilson—along with other awesome people who love bikes and love Norfolk.  The momentum is there.  A committee has met Norfolk's recreation and planning staff to give input on a new master plan that will be unveiled this year that includes bike infrastructure improvements.  The media has sought members twice to comment of bike related issues.  The group serves and educates the public with bike valets during outdoor events, bike lane cleanups, and workshops.  It's time for me to stand up and lend a hand in changing things around here.  Battered wives who want change start by not being invisible.  (Photo:  Markus Wegner decorates the Bike Norfolk Grand Illumination float, November, 2010)
(If this rant seems ununified, critical of others, low on solutions, I couldn't agree more.  I just needed to say that I am sick of nearly getting hit and it's painful to think of those less fortunate and/ or skilled out there navigating the roads.  I realize there are layers upon layers associated with every issue, so I don't mean to oversimplify things here.)


Anonymous said...

Found your post through and, frankly, the examples you use brought tears to my eyes. Not that we would be presumptuous enough to compare our experience with the exact FEAR or THREAT of violence that a battered wife would experience but the analogy is accurate and valuable to help both people on bikes and people not on bikes understand. Thank you.

Gene in Tacoma

matt picio said...

I also found your comment through Bike Portland, and I am a former 6-year resident of the Tidewater area (Norfolk NOB & vicinity and Atlantic Ave in VA Beach). I've previously ridden a bike on multiple bases, and around Lynnhaven Mall (granted, this was back in the early 90s). I wondered how the area would develop, and it sounds like the situation has developed much like everywhere else in the last 20 years - more people, more cars, more congestion, shorter tempers.

This is an important discussion to have. We as cyclists are a transportation minority - and while many ride by choice, many do not. The comparisons between cycling and domestic violence or the fights for racial, gender and sexual equality are valid. Not equivalent, but valid - the same biases, ignorance, apathy, and sometimes outright hatred that exist in all those situations exist in the relationship between the dominant road users and Active Transportation users.

People have a right to use the roads, whether on a car or on a bike. They have a right to aqual access, the right to travel without fear of imminent death, and there are aggressive motorists out there who do not respect those rights. (there are aggressive cyclists who likewise disrespect pedestrians) It's important to stand up for those rights, to speak out against injustice, regardless of who the oppressor and who the oppressed is, and to fight the attitudes of intolerance.

Simply put, we need to start calling out the jerks when their jerky behavior is manifest, and stand together to support each other.

Allen Muchnick said...

I highly recommend taking a vehicular cycling class (e.g., Smart Cycling Traffic Skills 101) from an experienced certified instructor, to decrease "near misses" when cycling alone.

Nearly all bicyclists--including most experienced racers and club cyclists--needlessly make themselves vulnerable in traffic by riding much farther right than "safely practicable". John Forester has termed this phenomenon the "cyclist inferiority complex" or phobia.

Your criticism that the Virginia Bicycling Federation has failed to effectively engage the bike racing community over the past 31 years is not entirely valid. After all, you did indeed receive timely action alerts for all the bicycle bills via the Virginia Cycling Association Google group. Due to the fast-paced nature of state legislative sessions in Virginia, viral information diffusion through the Internet is about as good as it gets.

Anonymous said...

I found your post from a friend who found it on BikePortland.. Just put a bird on it ;)

Liz Schleeper said...

Allen, not that I can't learn new tricks, but I have been street riding for 40 years. I practice taking the lane, staying to the left, etc, but this is a perfect example of a layered issue. In practicing confident riding, I find drivers get pissed because they are not able to pass as quickly as they'd like, even though as an informed and savvy rider, I am making the best choice for the situation. When the driver finally does go by, he or she sometimes uses that opportunity to swoop in closely to combat the confident behavior. So, damned if you do, damned if you don't is often the case. As far as VBF--Ruth Stornetta is the one who informed the VACA about the recent bills, not VBF. I said in the blog that the campaign was successful, but she is the one who made it happen on the listserv not VBF. That said, I did receive an email that informed me that VBF is the entity that prompted her to encourage VACA to action.

Jonathan said...

Thank you for the thoughtful post. I found it from Bike Portland as well.

If I get you correctly, the tendency for people who bike to push a "let's get our own house in order first" agenda is sadly similar to the rationalizations that many battered women use. As cyclists, we are constantly under threat of assault by motor vehicle, yet we're convinced that there's some kind of special behavior that we can adopt which will suddenly remove that threat.

Powerful stuff. I have become more aware in recent months of the inability of some people to advocate for all cyclists, but I've never read something which hits the mark like you've done here. Thanks!

EricW said...

Found this via BikingInLA.

I concur with Allen. Take a League of American Bicyclists riding in traffic class. Cycling in traffic is all about communicating with other drivers. It's mostly done with road position, and in my case big arm sized signals indicating intent. The practical part of the class will probably bring you that last little bit of finesse in your riding. You can probably just find a LCI to give you a short lesson.

Definitely works for me, and I ride 20 miles each way on Los Angeles's highly trafficked streets. No close called any more. It may be all in the wrist...

That being said: the more bicyclists on the road, the more the car drivers expect cyclists. I applaud your efforts! Starting advocacy is a greatly worthwhile thing to be doing.