“Don’t Be a Jerk” — The Wrong Message at the Wrong Time

This week, the New York City Department of Transportation began promoting its online (and thankfully multilingual) “Bike Smart Pledge,” asking cyclists to yield to pedestrians, stop at red lights and stop signs, ride in the direction of traffic, stay off the sidewalk, and have the proper lighting when riding at night. This will soon be followed by DOT’s “Don’t Be a Jerk” campaign, which will include a series of radio and TV PSAs as well as billboards encouraging cyclists to ride responsibly.

While it’s true that there are a lot of inexperienced riders giving cycling a try this time of year, and many seasoned New York City cyclists need to take DOT’s advice, the “Don’t Be a Jerk” PSAs use the language of the bike backlash itself, indelibly linking the words “jerk” and “cyclist” together in the minds of people already inclined to think that cyclists are jerks. Plastering the city with billboards with these words may have the unintended effect of reinforcing the commonly held idea that cyclists, unlike motorists, are only as deserving of dedicated infrastructure as their behavior proves them to be.

The fact is that reckless riding is hardly the threat to public safety it’s made out to be in countless newspaper editorials and TV news segments. Cyclists were responsible for zero pedestrian fatalities in 2010, but car crashes claimed the lives of 269 people. But the DOT has never done a safe driving campaign that asks motorists to stop driving like jerks.

Then again, changing the way cyclists ride may be the least of the campaign’s goals.

The Department of Transportation has not been able to turn the tide of negative PR emanating from a handful of vocal critics, despite polling that shows the popularity of bike lanes, pedestrian plazas and other new street designs. Given the hostile media and political environment in which the DOT finds itself defending its policies and projects, the department may think that taking a strong stance against reckless riding will help fend off attacks as it pursues future bike-related projects.

It won’t work. When even a respected New Yorker writer like John Cassidy claims that bike lanes are “a classic case of regulatory capture by a small faddist minority,” hoping to placate a conflict-driven media catering to an auto-dependent audience is an exercise in futility.

A more effective campaign would put facts and figures – something so sorely missing from the general discussion about bike lanes – front and center for all to see. DOT should be aggressively touting its accomplishments and emphasizing the ways in which bike lanes make all road users safer. Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson has been taking this approach on behalf of the administration, but he can’t be a one-man messaging machine forever.

The city’s public messaging on cycling and sharing the road should also show that people who use bicycles for transportation are, in fact, real New Yorkers who simply want to get to work, school or the grocery store as safely as they can, and that everyone stands to benefit from a city where fewer people, no matter how they get around, act like jerks.

  • Anonymous

    At the scene of an accident it’s usually better to get the cyclist to the emergency room right away rather than make them lie in the road and die while waiting for the cops to come.

  • If the “Don’t Be A Jerk” campaign is truly targeted at cyclists then that would be outrageous. Cyclists are certainly not the only category of commuter with jerks in their midst.

    Sending that message to all of us: drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians would be less outrageous given the unprecedented dip in civility.

    However, if I had to choose whether to spend lots of money on more commuter infrastructure or more commuter training, I’d choose the former every time.

    Well-designed and engineered lanes for walking, cycling, and driving minimize conflicts and jams, maximize safety, and put people to work building and maintaining them.

    Well-designed ad campaigns, of which the “Don’t Be A Jerk” campaign is probably not one, won’t inject civility into the willfully uncivil.

  • moocow

    Force the salmon in to traffic, don’t put up with that crap.

  • Anonymous

    I just “took the pledge” and watched the little videos, then tooled around the DOT website for a minute. If the “cycling community” can’t get behind a friendly campaign to keep cyclists off the sidewalks, yielding to peds and riding with traffic then there is no hope for us. The “campaign”, such as it appears right now, is called “Bike Smart” which is a positive message. The “DBAJ” thing is just part of the conceit, which is obviously trying to set a tone that is not too sanctimonious and overbearing, unlike 99% of the comments on this topic here. Looks to me like the campaigns aimed at speeding motorists have skulls on them and tell drivers if they speed they will kill someone. The campaign aimed at cyclists says if they disobey the rules, they are “jerks.” Get on board here people…we need more respectful cyclists.

  • safetygirl

    Today on my bike ride in I saw:

    6 bikers blow through lights leaving the pedestrians there cursing while I sat patiently

    4 bikers not even try to stop at stop signs and one almost take a ped down.

    1 biker tell a pedestrian to fuck off on the bridge

    2 bikes on the sidewalk and

    2 people coming straight at me in bike lanes one of whom told me to shut up when I said something.

    SO CONTENTIOUS!

    Pedestrians are under the misconception that bikes are more dangerous than cars because it FEELS that way – perception, people. The only way we are going to turn them on to the truth is if we stop making peds feel like we are a danger to them – and get down to what is really wrong.

  • Kyle

    I am a cyclist. The last time I waited for a red light to turn before moving, the driver on my right made a left turn into me. I yelled at him to stop and he looked right through me and kept on driving, crushing my bicycle and knocking me several feet in the air. Luckily there were no other cars driving towards us, because if there were I would have been run over instead of just falling onto the ground and rolling a few feet. Since then, I do not wait for the red light to turn before moving, in order to protect my own safety.

  • Kyle

    I am a cyclist. The last time I waited for a red light to turn before moving, the driver on my right made a left turn into me. I yelled at him to stop and he looked right through me and kept on driving, crushing my bicycle and knocking me several feet in the air. Luckily there were no other cars driving towards us, because if there were I would have been run over instead of just falling onto the ground and rolling a few feet. Since then, I do not wait for the red light to turn before moving, in order to protect my own safety.

  • molly

    wow, those are some compelling anecdotes, safetygirl. I know I would never show the kind of contempt for pedestrians you refer to but there’s no way my behavior going to change that of the people you describe.

  • J:Lai

    I was driving yesterday, and there was a truck illegally parked in the right lane, forcing traffic to merge into one lane to get around it.
    There were a couple of guys on bikes who were in front of me. I slowed down to drive behind them as they went around the truck. Pretty much immediately, the drivers behind me began honking. AS soon as there was room, at least 2 of them floored it to pass both me and the cyclists (coming very close tothe cyclists in the process.)

    The drivers behind me in that case think that the bikers and I are the jerks.

  • Ian Dutton

    I might agree with so many people on this thread – except a huge number of my fellow cyclists in NYC in fact *choose to act like jerks*. The people those jerks are killing are not the people that feel threatened by them; they kill you and me. Because of the negative light they cast on all cyclists, the Markowitzes and Kramers and the lot all have serious traction when they cry that cyclists are out to destroy the world. So street improvements don’t happen, neighborhoods are not made more livable, and people’s lives suffer.

    All because of those jerks.

    Should we equate “cyclist” and “jerk”? Probably not. But we’ve got to get rid of the jerks. For real.

  • carma

    as i said before. a cyclist running a red light IS a jerk, but unlikely to cause harm except maybe to him/herself. a driver running a red light IS a jerk AND a danger to everybody around him/her and likely to cause harm including everybody

  • Anonymous

    Too many people to count have intentionally menaced me with their cars over the years, and may many more have nearly killed or injured me just though ineptitude or by accident for me to think that on balance cyclists are bigger jerks than drivers. I don’t think throwing fuel on the fire of road-rage-prone vigilantes who think they’re protecting their city by running cyclists off the road is going to turn out well.

    Sure people follow all the rules in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, but almost EVERY street has a protected bike lane in each direction with its own signals. Expecting bikes, which are completely different from cars in terms of visibility, speed, acceleration, safety equipment, illumination, etc. to obey the exact same set of rules as cars (but without a right to a lane of travel) is absurd.

    This is going to either force people to confront the still completely inadequate bike infrastructure, or discourage people from riding bikes as the danger level increases but the convenience level goes down. I suspect it will be the latter.

  • carma

    its funny, b/c in european countries. drivers also really do know how to drive properly as well. at least much better than here in the states where getting a license requires only half a brain. the other half focused on texting and chatting on the phone. *sigh*

  • Driver

    “i guess its okay when they have the right of way .”
    Carma, this kind of thinking ends up getting people killed. We see plenty of stories here about people getting killed in the crosswalk (one in this weeks carnage report) or when they otherwise have the right of way. Just because you have the right of way does not make it smart to not pay attention to traffic, especially at an intersection. Should drivers always yield and be respectful and keep control of their vehicles? Sure. Does that always happen in the real world? Of course not. When people leave all the judgment in the hands of someone else by not paying attention, they are playing russian roulette with their own lives. It seems foolish to me, and ultimately results in needless fatalities, regardless of who is at fault.

    Kyle, there is a thing called defensive driving, and the same concept applies to cycling. The idea is preventing an accident is more important than being right or fighting for your right of way. If your accident was because you were stopped at a light I’m going to say it was probably preventable, and if it wasn’t preventable, then maybe it wasn’t because you were stopped at the light. I say this from the perspective of a cyclist rather than a driver.

  • Gene Aronowitz

    I was recently out riding north on the Prospect Park West path. When I came to the end, I paused to let two pedestrians walk across the street. They both thanked me and as I moved on, I heard one of them say, “That’s the first time I’ve seen that happen.” I turned right into the park and went south. I arrived at a red light and stopped. Two pedestrians began crossing the roadway, a biker bolted past me, almost hitting them, and I heard myself saying “What a jerk.”

  • Streetsman

    “Don’t be a jerk”? Reminds me of “Don’t be a fool – stay in school”. It’s all about how you say it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQT830mo8Mc

  • Mr Bad example

    Carma–
    The reason European countries can make getting a license a lot harder is that people don’t HAVE to own a car to get to work. It’s also why authorities there really crack the whip on drunk driving and other reckless behavior. If you’re a bad driver, you become a bad EX driver and you get to take the train to work.

  • Mr Bad example

    I’d respect the DON’T BE A JERK campaign a lot more if it were followed up by a campaign for jaywalking pedestrians DON’T BE AN A$$H0L3 and its companion for drivers DON’T BE A MURDERER.

  • Fanman26

    I guess you’re living in a cave, since Don’t Be a Murderer has been posted all over town since last fall: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jag9889/5254726639/

  • Fanman26

    The pledge is actually positive – to “Bike Smart.” The pledge is not to Not Be a Jerk.

  • Fanman26

    I’m new to cycling in NYC, and on my very first commute home, a Jerk on a fixie decided to speed past me on the Manhattan Bridge on the downhill, while someone was passing the other way. The Jerk had a giant duffel bag on his back, which hit me as he passed between myself and another cyclist on the downhill slope. Had I been just an inch closer to him, I probably would have lost my balance and crashed into the bridge rail (not to mention been seriously injured). Left a bad taste in my mouth, and this aggro riding happens all the time out there. I’m still riding, and I took the pledge. Because I see it as a positive pledge to Bike Smart, especially within the cycling community. If you are biking like a jerk, I don’t want to associate myself with you. Period.

    To follow up on this other talk of a lack of messaging to cars: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jag9889/5254726639/ I’m not sure how much more of a “Don’t Be a Murderer” you can get aside from showing a toddler’s skull on a giant billboard.

  • carma

    I agree. we have to enact some of those laws. too many dumb drivers here who continuously do stupid things. a car IS a privelage, not a right.

  • carma

    Driver, you are right. sometimes, it doesnt make sense to follow everything to the dotted i. when i was biking this morning, i found myself also timing a light so that i jumped ahead to avoid a few cars. also it was more efficient.

    i am more often a driver than a biker, but in either mode, i always am defensive. sometimes, being “offensive” also helps in being defensive.
    this applies for both bike and car.

  • carma

    btw: im not advocating for blowing red lights on a bike. bikers who adamently dont look and blow lights thinking they are always right ARE STILL jerks.

  • Daphna

    The motorist campaign is entitled “That’s Why It’s 30”. As much as people are inferring that the DOT is indicating “Don’t be a Murderer”, that is not the title, whereas “Don’t be a Jerk” is the actual bike campaign title. “Don’t be a Jerk” makes the assumption that bicyclists are jerks and have to be told not to be. The vast majority of bicyclists ride with care and caution and should get thanks from the city for biking and saving the city money. They should get appreciation. New and potential bicyclists should be encouraged. This negative message just turns bicyclists against one another instead of uniting us.

  • Daphna

    What you experienced shows that there is insufficient infrastructure. A faster bicyclist wanted to pass a slower one. This is not an unreasonable request and ideally is something that bike infrastructure in the city would accommodate. We can not expect all bicyclists to travel the same speed. But there was not sufficient space for the fast one to pass the slower one in this instance.
    This shows that more space on the Manhattan Bridge should be allocated to bicyclists. That bicyclist probably thought he could squeeze through safely and misjudged. What you are calling aggressive riding is just someone biking at the speed that their stamina lets them. Part of any method of transportation is the time it takes to get somewhere, and allowing one to use that method of transportation in a time efficient way is crucial, so letting bicyclists ride at a speed that suits their ability should be allowed and encouraged.

  • Fanman26

    Daphna- Of course a cyclist should be able to pass another cyclist – I am definitely not suggesting otherwise. But I am saying that in that particular situation, the guy behind me could have waited just five seconds to pass, rather than passing at a juncture when that meant three cyclists in a row on a narrow pathway going downhill. And the fact that he didn’t indicates that he was either riding like an aggro jerk, or was on a fixie he couldn’t control. Or maybe he truly didn’t realize how narrow it would be during passing. Either way, his action created an unsafe condition. And that had nothing to do with his stamina!

    Do bikes kill people? Rarely. Do all cyclists pull moves like the guy who bumped me on the bridge? No. But the infrastructure is still new, and people who don’t bike (and even those who do) should be courteous to one another. It’s not going to change overnight and we’re pretty lucky to have what we do (been to any other American city, ever? OK, besides Portland.).

    The city seems to be doing a lot to encourage cycling. I would have never bought a bike had I not seen to many lanes crop up in the last few years. And I got a free helmet, too – imagine that!

    Lots of drivers are aggro, too, but not all. And not all drivers kill people. “Jerk” is not the same thing as “murderer.”

    Anyway, I’m just going to keep riding right. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be stopped at the light.

  • Fanman26

    Daphna- Of course a cyclist should be able to pass another cyclist – I am definitely not suggesting otherwise. But I am saying that in that particular situation, the guy behind me could have waited just five seconds to pass, rather than passing at a juncture when that meant three cyclists in a row on a narrow pathway going downhill. And the fact that he didn’t indicates that he was either riding like an aggro jerk, or was on a fixie he couldn’t control. Or maybe he truly didn’t realize how narrow it would be during passing. Either way, his action created an unsafe condition. And that had nothing to do with his stamina!

    Do bikes kill people? Rarely. Do all cyclists pull moves like the guy who bumped me on the bridge? No. But the infrastructure is still new, and people who don’t bike (and even those who do) should be courteous to one another. It’s not going to change overnight and we’re pretty lucky to have what we do (been to any other American city, ever? OK, besides Portland.).

    The city seems to be doing a lot to encourage cycling. I would have never bought a bike had I not seen to many lanes crop up in the last few years. And I got a free helmet, too – imagine that!

    Lots of drivers are aggro, too, but not all. And not all drivers kill people. “Jerk” is not the same thing as “murderer.”

    Anyway, I’m just going to keep riding right. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be stopped at the light.

  • Tom

    Good amount of comment both for-and-against; now let’s see if DoT is really following this blog.

  • I find that logic flawed, Daphna. If the city puts out an anti-soda campaign, does that mean it makes the assumption that everyone drinks too much soda? No, they’re assuming there are some people out there who drink too much soda. With this campaign, the city is not assuming that ALL bicyclists are jerks. They’re assuming that there are some jerk cyclists out there.

    And please… “the vast majority of bicyclists ride with care and caution.” God, I wish that was true. If it was, this campaign wouldn’t be necessary.

  • Joe R.

    One big omission which bolsters the case for which mode is really the largest problem is the number of indirect deaths caused by air pollution from autos. I’ve little doubt in a city the size of New York that this number far exceeds the 269 deaths directly attributable to autos. Unlike bicycles, cars can and do kill even when being operated totally within the law. Besides that, polluted air is an enormous quality of life problem, especially in warmer weather.

  • Elvi

    Well said Daphna! @Chris, unfortunately this campaign is stigmatizing. I am a bicyclist coming from a bicycle country and I do ride with care and caution everyday throughout the year and have noted that many of my fellow bicyclists do so as well. However, since the campaign I am being called a jerk on a daily basis by jaywalkers who suddenly step in front my bicycle while I have the right of way, by delivery guys that unload their truck placing the goods in front of my bicycle, by people in cars that make a turn and do not bother to let the bicyclists pass that are in their lanes with right of way, by taxi drivers whose passengers smack the door against me or my bicycle…Why don’t they tackle jaywalking which is a serious issue in this city and contributing to many of the accidents and casualties in the city. Even find it very surprising that a news network like NY1 is allowed to use jaywalking as a sign of being a jaded New Yorker in their commercials…Jaded New Yorker or not, jaywalking is against the law!

  • This is really a problem, and all the possible measures should be taken for increasing the level of safety both for pedestrians and cyclists, I think that bicycle lanes is the most reasonable solution that is also easy to implement and fully support the campaign. 

  • Anonymous

    You’re the one who’s wrong as are the ones who claim that it pays to be a jerk. The ones who are also wrong are the ones who claim that nice guys who complain jerks are self-righteous.

    Honestly, do you want to be hostile to other people your whole life? If so, you’ll make many enemies in the long run. And if that’s what you want, the only one to blame for making that decision is yourself.