Overheard on the Bus: NYC Bicyclists Losing the PR War

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Stuck in traffic congestion all day long, one might think that New York City’s bus drivers might be at the center of the movement to reduce automobile dependence and encourage more efficent forms of urban transportation. But if the conversation I heard last week is representative, it’s the cyclists that are wrecking all that havoc out there on New York City’s streets.

Time: A few minutes past 5 p.m. during the height of the Friday rush hour.

Location: On the downtown M6 bus, stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Broadway in SoHo.

People involved: A white man about 60-years-old, sitting in the first seat, and a white male bus driver, a little bit younger, who said that he lived or had lived in Suffolk County, L.I.

The Scene: The bus inches forward, stuck in traffic. A young white guy on a white track bike riding against traffic pulls up to the curb in front of the bus. The cyclist awkwardly hops the curb and goes up on the sidewalk. The bus stops short and the passenger and the driver share a guffaw.

Passenger: "You know, some of these guys will fly past you at 90 miles an hour going the wrong way on a one-way street."

Driver: "I heard a lot of them are criminals who can’t get driver’s licenses, so they become bike messengers. A cop told me that."

Passenger: "Oh, yeah?"

Driver: Launches into a theory about how criminal cyclists will use their heavy Kryptonite chains to smash car windshields out of pure anger. He points to his head as he notes that cyclists are angry and off balance. Of his friend in law enforcement, he says, "He says he locks up two of them a month for that" (smashing the windshields).

Passenger: "A lot of them want to be locked up. Heh heh. They call it three hot meals and a bed."

  • Jim

    I share your sentiment here, but can’t we find an anecdote to support it that doesn’t center on a cyclist who really *did* do something dangerous and illegal? Just whom are we going to the mat for?

  • I guess the point is that old people are so eager to hate city cyclists that they’ll latch on to anything to brand them as criminals from other planets. There isn’t going to be any winning over types who disapprove of everything that wasn’t happening in 1955, but the problem tends to solve itself over time. Also, prison is pleasant! (Anyone expressing that old saw will believe whatever the hell he wants, forever.)

  • I’ve often thought that it’s not appropriate to paint all cyclists with the brush of a few bad apples, just as you can’t paint all drivers or mass transit riders by the actions of a few bad apples.

    But you know what, it’s not about what we think, it’s about the common perception out there of cyclists as dangerous illegal risk takers. It does nothing to the movement to enhance safety on the streets.

    We need to break out of the victim mentality and the attitude that cyclists can do no wrong. In every social movement, there comes a time for a group to become more disciplined and organized within its ranks, especially as it asks other groups in society to rally to it’s cause.

    We are on the verge of great things. Let’s everyone try to do their part to make cycling seen as a positive experience for everyone.

  • Slick

    I like that there was a dangerous move in the story. It underscores that we are ambassadors for a movement when we’re on our bikes. Don’t you think it would suck to drive a bus while trying to deal with wrong-way cyclists in NYC traffic? Seems to me that it would affect my opinion of cycling and support for building better places to ride. Cyclists disregard for our impact on others helps us lose the PR war.

  • There’s a point made there. I’ve often stepped off curbs, with the light, and almost get flattened by bike riders going the wrong way on a one-way street.

    When they do stop, there’s a lot of cursing and invective, some from me.

    Trsnsportation Alternatives and Critical Mass need to do some PR heavy lifting and some of it involves attempting to get bike riders to follow traffic rules, stop at lights, etc etc.

    I ride a bike frequently, and stop at lights, till Ii ascertain there’s nothing coming, and ride on the right.

    Maybe I just don’t get it.

    http://www.forgotten-ny.com

  • Charlie D.

    The best thing for the bicycling community to do is spread the message that we should behave BETTER than pedestrians and motorists. We should be setting an example, obeying all traffic laws (including stopping at stop signs and not running red lights, as painful as it is), yielding to pedestrians even when motorists don’t, etc.

    Personally, I also make sure to try to convey the “normal person” image. I always try to ride in work clothes (with a helmet of course) and be very courteous to others, even when the favor is not returned.

    Unfortunately, many people do tend to generalize, and as I point out to my friends who complain about scofflaw bicyclists, you don’t generally notice the good ones.

    Many people see bicyclists as a fringe group, and therefore see bicycling as something that is not accessible to them. As important as it is to advocate for better bicycling conditions, it is equally important to be the marketers of bicycling as something that “regular” people can do, not just messengers, athletes, and people who lost their drivers licenses.

  • Self-hating cyclist

    There’s also the point of view that people like this are irrelevant and have no influence whatsoever on public policy, and thus all your hand-wringing here is a complete waste of time and bandwidth. They may hate cyclists but did they stop the city from spending billions on four first-rate East River Bridge bike/ped crossings, or prevent NY State DOT from spending millions it could have used on highways upstate on the Hudson greenway?

  • tps12

    Sounds like it was a conversation about messengers in particular, not “bicyclists” in general. So it’s less of a PR problem for general activist groups like TA, and probably not even that big an issue for courier groups: after all, the perception that bike messengers will break the law and risk their lives to make deliveries as quickly as possible is not an entirely negative one as far as they’re concerned.

  • Steve

    Like many bicyclists, I tend to apply a double standard, openly voicing my criticisms of dangerous/disrepectful motorists and pedestrians, but refraining from criticizing other bicyclists. Usually I refrain out of sympathy towards what appears to be a delivery person. However it is not uncommon to find what appear to be native commuters and others riding counter-flow and failing to leave a sufficient margin of safety when passing pedestrians with the right of way.

    I guess it’s time to dust off the T.A. “Give Respect/Get Respect” handbills and start distributing as appropriate:

    http://www.transalt.org/campaigns/bike/giveget_flyer2005.pdf

  • What is this, has SB become the frickin’ NY Post!? This is almost as good as Steve Dunleavy’s 7/20/06 editorial “Take Back the Streets From These Kamikaze Jerks.” Not nearly as good as Ray Kelly’s 10/28/04 editorial in the Daily News, “Extremists Have Hijacked the Ride.”

    So people have biases against an entire identifiable class of people based on extremes (much more so for the second and third class amongst us). You could find the same conversation about pedestrians, drivers, etc. The only thing this says to me is that there are people on the bus and in the NYPD that find cyclists unpleasant. That has been the case for decades. That will probably still be the case in NYC becomes a Copenhagen of bike infrastructure.

    C’mon, it’s NYC, there are kamikaze jerks on every corner and in many cars. Buhfduh.

  • This anecdote only proves that in the PR war, bicyclists have to battle urban legends and utter bullshit. Bike messengers might not be the most well-behaved bunch, but the idea that a single cop arrests hundreds of them per year for serial felony assault doesn’t pass the laugh test.

    I do think bike activists need to promote safe cycling, including common-sense things like staying off the sidewalk, never riding against traffic, wearing helmets, etc, and perhaps the spectre of “crazy bikers” turns some people off to cycling.

    BUT — let’s be honest and keep our eyes on the prize here. Car-centered street design forces cyclists into dangerous situations on every block. The rules weren’t made for us. The real reason people are afraid of riding a bike is cars, not bikers.

  • andrew

    I agree with Ryan. When you push someone so far down into the gutter they are perceived as living on the fringes, how can they ever be perceived as the status quo? Unless the car culture changes on the streets of the city it will only get worse.

  • WTFFolks

    Ambassador? I just ride my bike. Why should I be an ambassador? It seems to me that’s one definition of a second-class citizen: don’t make waves, keep your head down–after all, it’s not like we are as important as the all-mighty motorist. I don’t have to prove myself to be better than a driver or a ped. That’s just a ridiculous, self-defeating attitude. Plus, the cycling community is not one big unified body of people. People bike for many different reasons: work, transpo, excercise.

    Y’know, if people don’t like my transportation choice, @#$% them. These are not people that are going to be swayed by any kind of PR campaign.

    That said, this commentary is just a couple of grouchy old white men with teeny brains that can’t grasp anything better or more intelligent to talk about.

  • WTFFolks,
    That’s exactly the stigma with being a minority culture/group/niche/class. You’re expected as an individual to be a representation for the entirety of the class, as though you can speak for every last one of the people who look like you, dress like you, partake in an activity like you.

  • Cyclists will not be the minority culture forever. When cities finally get their climate change plans in place, cycling will be one of the main transportation options.

    I think here lies the problem. Now that cyclists are on the verge of being mainstream, will their behaviors change along with their surroundings?

    However, I also agree that “car-centered street design forces cyclists into dangerous situations on every block”.

  • brent

    Here’s a relevant article from the Seattle Times (Aaron was mentioned!):

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2003667576_peirce16.html

  • Steve

    I don’t think bicyclists have to be ambassadors or model citizens, I don’t care what the guys on the bus or motorists think of bicyclists. But most bicyclists (myself included) should probably be more respectful of pedestrians. Just as bicyclists feel threatened/bullied by motorists who won’t maintain a safe distance and speed, pedestrians (particularly those who are older or have small children) often feel threatened/bullied by bicyclists who ride counter-flow, on the sidewalk at speeds faster than a slow pedestrian, or through reds when pedestrians are within 1 traffic lane in proximity. (And bicyclists who ride counter-flow in bike lanes that are installed on the left-hand side of the street in effect force the bicyclists who are riding with the flow into the traffic.)

    I used to go through reds without giving much heed to pedestrians but I cleaned up my act after I started bicycling with my kids and thinking and dialoging more about “road equity.” There is definitely a cost in terms of speed and convenience. But bicyclists expect motorists to make a similar trade-off to enhance road safety. I’m not suggesting that bicyclists even at their most lawless pose anywhere near the danger that the typical speeding, non-yielding, crosswalk-blocking motorist does. But from the pedestrian perspective the bicyclist threat is magnified by unpredictability–you don’t often see motorists proceeding counter-flow or on the sidewalk.

  • kevin cool

    at least you’re all illegal living in indian land, destroying the planet! there is no perfect crime, what a joke there is: cardriving; legal murder, legal genocide: Hurricane Mitch,aso. legal gasing the planet!
    i prey for a total recall pt. 2, arnold is waiting to built a prison for cars on the mars

  • Gelston

    Wondering why the racial identification of each person in this anecdote was considered relevant…

  • AD

    My main interest in posting this was to open a window into some of the ideas people beyond this blog have about cyclists.

    To me, there are two interesting things here. First and most importantly, these guys could have been complaining about all the people parking or idling in the bus stop: wrecking the air and getting in the way of the bus itself. But somehow that didn’t bother them as much as slow, harmless, eco-friendly bicyclists.

    How could this be?

    Cyclists have so much to offer the city and the planet: By reducing traffic congestion, oil consumption and carbon emissions, in my world, people should automatically love cyclists and give them extra leeway on the street and even a “thank you” from time to time. But somehow all of these things are rendered moot by something as inconsequential as riding against traffic.

    The automobile, meanwhile is responsible for so many problems (I’m not going to enumerate them yet again), and yet, the level of angst about them is just not commensurate with the problems they cause.

    I once was giving a bus tour to a bunch of out of towners. We were stuck in traffic in the Financial District (again on Broadway), and a cyclist rides by the bus at a speed that was faster than all the stopped traffic, but not all that fast considering how fast cars can go. The people in this bus were so startled by one cyclist that a couple actually jerked away from the window. Then they had to get into a whole conversation about the propriety of cycling in the city. (Typically, they couldn’t believe anybody would want to do it.) It was hard pointing out that cyclists are actually not dangerous compared to cars, but they didn’t see it.

    So my view after reflecting on this is that for better or for worse, people aren’t alarmed by cars they way they should be because wherever they’re from, they’re used to cars being ubiquitous. Most people are also probably sometime drivers, and can relate to a behind-the-windshield mentality. Ditto for pedestrians. Everyone’s a pedestrian sometime and so people are less liable to be upset with scofflaw walkers.

    So until we get our numbers up, we should at least be aware that others are unduly and irrationally alarmed by behavior that we know is not dangerous. If you have this information and choose not to alter your cycling, that’s fine. The macro-level trends are in our favor anyway. I myself am not the most courteous cyclist in the world, although I am trying to abide by the rules these days more than I used to.

    The other interesting thing about this conversation is that the bus driver assumed that of course, everyone wants to have a drivers license. There could be no other reason for not wanting one than that it was denied on account of one’s being a criminal. I guess it’s a pretty typical mindset beyond the city, and it even can be found here.

    The inclusion of race was pretty much just to set the scene in a city where the speakers could have been of just about any social, economic or cultural background you could imagine.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    When I lived in Albuquerque, I heard an anti-cyclist rant from a bus driver. But in that case, the cyclist was behaving quite legally; if I remember right, the bus driver was upset that the cyclist was able to squeeze between cars backed up at a stop light.

  • flp

    hmmm, i have a question here. why is it that there always is soooooo much talk about cyclists being “ambassadors” for the cycling community, but so few people bring that up when it comes to the far more numerous rogue motorists? sheesh! there is way to much generalizing about cyclists!

    btw, in case it’s not clear, i totally agree the WTFFolks. argh – this ambassador/generalizing shit makes me so angry! for instance, i stop at lights when necessary (peds, cops, etc), but, hell, why is it that peds are so afraid to cross until i have come to a COMPLETE stop while i see plenty of folks rushing headlong into the street as a car heads for a red at 30-40 miles per hour! does every cyclist have to be associated with the “bad apples” or “kamikaze” cyclists? NO!!

  • I think we have a fundamental disagreement between some folks who still see the livable streets movement as in it’s infancy versus others who see it maturing.

    Here’s perhaps a better way to frame this discussion: What stage of the social movement development are we at currently?

    See the Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements to see which you most agree with. I can see cases being made for many different ones.

    This is important because if you think it’s stage 1-3, we should focus on pointing out all the injustices against cyclists as a way to gain sympathy. If you think it’s more stages 4-6, we should focus much more on the PR image of cyclists to win over the majority of people.

  • Steve

    flp, agree with your observation on peds wanting full stop from bicyclists and not from cars. Where the peds have the right of way, they assume that the bicyclist may proceed illegally across their path so they often yield to a bicyclist who does not have at least one foot on the pavement. You can try making eye contact with the ped and waving them though.

    Ironically, there are also a fair number of peds who will take the “go ahead hit me” approach of not yielding to a bicyclist that has the right of way and simply pretending not to notice there is a bicycle coming. Those folks deserve bells, horns, and choice words.

  • Cyclists should chill out a little about “scofflaw” pedestrians. It’s probably not the same people, actually, cringing from cyclists at walk signs and then charging out in front of them with a don’t walk. Those of us who don’t see cyclists as a threat are your friends, even as we scoff at laws designed to protect us from deadly automobiles (in those blissful moments when that danger is not present). Of course I look before crossing mid-block, and wouldn’t walk in front of a bike that would have trouble avoiding me. But please realize that bitching about those few that do otherwise is the same as crotchety “pedestrians” complaining about criminal cyclists bearing kryptonite. In the real, non-rhetorical world, bike and ped conflicts are rare and minor. I much prefer to think of us as one group of people with rational ideas about street use, even though I haven’t ridden a bike since 2003.

    Let’s be friends and plan for a day when many streets are bike/ped only and the law won’t even be required to regulate our crossings.

  • in my neighborhood, it’s like this:

    i just dropped $60 grand and gave up a kidney for that brand new escalade or bmw with the spinning rims and 2 million watt sound system. i’m out driving it around, wanting to go full throttle, like i could on my playstation, but sadly can’t in real life because i was stupid enough to buy the thing in new york city, where the average driving speed on surface streets is, like 10mph. i pull up to the stoplight and wtf? some @ssh%le bicyclist is able to pass me and all the other cars, get to the crosswalk and maybe even make it through the light, while i’m stuck here breathing my own fumes.

    this is what this person assumes: “i spent alot of money on this thing, i’m entitled to go faster than anybody else” and when they see me cruise by on my dinky folding bike that looks, to them, like i built it out of scrap, they get pissed.

    i almost get run into/doored EVERY time i ride my bike, sometimes on purpose, while i am FULLY abiding by the traffic laws. i see cars run red lights every day — in fact, witnessed a car run over someone last weekend. the car drove through a crosswalk full of pedestrians, who had the right of way.

    why is it my responsibility to make sure drivers are pleased as punch with me being on the road with them? i’m just concentrating on staying alive.

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