(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 12.)
Cyclists get up many people’s noses. There’s no getting around the fact.Why? It could be the perception – justified or otherwise – that they’re inclined to moral smugness because they use a form of transport that keeps them fit, doesn’t pollute and doesn’t burn fossil fuels.
It could be a peculiar resentment aroused by cyclists’ brightly coloured clothing and other accoutrements that are seen by some motorists as a statement of difference and exclusivity. For some drivers, the sight of a cyclist wearing designer lycra seems to trigger irrational rage. (I’ve heard non-cyclists sneer at lycra bike shorts as if they’re some sort of self-indulgent fashion statement, but they might think differently after riding for 50 kilometres or more in conventional clothing.)It could be anger at the documented fact that some cyclists see themselves as exempt from road rules. In a recent Auckland City survey, 60 per cent of red light runners were on bikes.
It could be a gut reaction to the sight of a Saturday morning peloton (that’s cycling-speak for a group of riders) taking up an entire lane, or a cyclist hogging the middle of a narrow street – and needlessly holding up following traffic – simply because technically the law allows him to.It could even be something as minor as the clatter of metal-cleated cycling shoes on a café floor as a bunch of riders stop for a latté (bloody cyclists, always drawing attention to themselves). Or it could be a complex mix of all the above, with one or two other as yet unidentified psychological phenomena thrown in.
For their part, cyclists have good reason to feel jaundiced about motorists. Drivers often don’t look behind before opening their car doors – one of the most frequent causes of cycling injuries, and even deaths.A common mistake made by motorists is that they under-estimate cyclists’ speed and cut across their path, thinking there’s plenty of time to execute the manoeuvre when in fact there isn’t. And they often pass too close, even when there’s plenty of room.
Sometimes motorists don’t see bikes at all. As a cyclist myself I’ve learned to be particularly wary of older male drivers, who often seem blissfully oblivious to anyone on two wheels. If I’m approaching a car stopped at an intersection or pulling out of a driveway, I like to make eye contact with the driver just to make sure that I’ve been seen.Unfortunately, as cycling increases in popularity, them-and-us attitudes seem to be hardening. This runs counter to the theory that the more cyclists there are on the road, the more aware and considerate motorists become.
Childish, tit-for-tat behaviour – “you held me up so I’m going to cut you off” – can ratchet up the hostility level to the point where all reason is abandoned.For some drivers, the mere sight of a bike seems to trigger a hostile reaction akin to that of a dog spotting a cat. Many cyclists have experienced abuse from passing cars even when riding considerately.
On rare occasions motorists hurl more than insults, as an Australian on a cycling tour in Canterbury learned in December when he was shot in the face with a paintball. In 2003, a Swiss cycle tourist was hospitalised (also in Canterbury, oddly enough) after a bottle was thrown at her bike and shattered, severing tendons in her leg. She and her partner had cycled 9000 kilometres in the United States, Canada and Mexico and thought New Zealand drivers were the least friendly they had encountered.But these are exceptional occurrences and I wouldn’t want to give the impression that it’s war out there. I do most of my cycling alone on rural roads and find that the overwhelming majority of motorists are considerate and courteous – sometimes more than they need to be.
And of course there is fault on both sides. I occasionally see arrogant or inconsiderate behaviour by cyclists and may have been guilty of it once or twice myself. But it goes without saying that in any confrontation between a bike and a car, the cyclist is going to come out worse off, as attested by the $15.8 million paid out by ACC in 2012 for motor vehicle-related cycling injuries.While the imbalance in terms of vulnerability doesn’t excuse a “might is right” mentality on the part of motorists, neither does it entitle cyclists to special treatment or exempt them from showing the same consideration that they expect from drivers.
Although attitudinal changes would be helpful on both sides, it’s motorists who must make the bigger shift. They need to get over the mindset that roads exist exclusively for them and that bicycles are an intolerable intrusion.They must also accept that cyclists won’t go away. In cities such as New York and London (whose colourful mayor, Boris Johnson, is a cycling advocate), bikes are now mainstream. The same will happen here.
For local authorities, the challenge is to find ways to reduce conflict between cars and bikes. In cities like Wellington, where the topography is not obligingly flat as in the European lowland countries often touted as cycling utopias, that’s not easily achieved.Some of the demands by the cycling lobby in such places are unrealistic. The number of cyclists simply doesn’t warrant the expense required to bring roads up to the bike-friendly standard they might like.
It’s no accident that historically, cycling has been most popular in flat, spread-out cities such as Christchurch and Palmerston North. But where narrow, winding streets leave little room for cycling lanes, responsibility falls on motorists and cyclists to show greater regard for each other.Cyclists can also do their bit by countering the widespread perception that they are arrogant. A useful first step would be to observe the road rules: for example, stopping for people on pedestrian crossings, complying with traffic signals and displaying lights at night.
No matter how righteous they might feel as environmentally clean commuters, cyclists are not entitled to dispensation from the law. They can also encourage goodwill by pulling over when possible to allow cars to pass, or by acknowledging a courteous motorist with a friendly wave.All that’s required from both sides is common sense, respect and courtesy. It doesn’t seem too much to ask.