Opinion Your Views — 20 June 2013
Understanding the difference between cyclists and bike riders

To the editor:

I must confess that after looking at the front page, I immediately go to the Opinion pages to see what I hope will be yet another letter taking one side or the other in the battle over bikes in the Port City.

As a bike rider for nearly 60 years, I believe that one can only truly understand the context of this ongoing debate and deal with it correctly if your readers see the distinction between bike riders and cyclists.

Since the day my dad hoisted me up on my new Schwinn for my 5th birthday nearly 60 years ago, I have been a devoted bike rider. I will never forget the freedom that bike gave to me. It was the freedom to get away, explore seemingly faraway places (more than six blocks from home!), get to school, run errands, and all sorts of things with a sense of responsibility and fun at the same time.

Rules? There were no rules, other than my dad’s warning to beware of cars. Stop signs were reasons to look both ways. Sidewalks and alleys were shortcuts. With our wide tires, we could go anywhere off pavement — and we did. The long summers seemed all too short as we rode our bikes to the park to play ball, the miniature golf course in the evening and the ice cream shop afterward.

We annoyed car drivers — as they were called then, not motorists — all the time. How we did peacefully coexist? Back in those days there was something so absent from today’s world: civility. Perhaps because we didn’t have written rules and laws, we relied on a combination of common sense and regard for others. I truly fear that, as civility becomes endangered, common sense and regard for others will disappear along with it.

Most of my friends exchanged the freedom they cherished for a decade on their bikes for cars when they turned 16 and never looked back. I didn’t. I have ridden my bikes throughout the world, including places like Italy, Israel, China, Egypt and Alexandria.

When I moved here four years ago, I became increasingly intolerant of a species of human being referred to as a “cyclist.” They are not always easy to recognize if you are a devoted motorist.

But us bike riders, we spot them in a heartbeat. They ride the streets and trails as if they own them. They treat the Mount Vernon Trail and Union Street as if they were designed for time trials, paying no heed to the 15-mph speed limit. They often pedal road bikes more suited for the Giro d’Italia than our neighborhood streets.

None of the Times’ pro-cyclist opinion writers — including thoughtful columnist Jonathan Krall — are willing to acknowledge that cyclists should be cycling in the Blue Ridge or Beach Drive on a weekend rather than on our trails and streets.

They are truly a menace to cars, pedestrians and bike riders.

Unhappy motorists out there: When you spot a bike rider, think back on your childhood when you enjoyed the freedom of a bike. Then smile, first to yourself and then to them. Bike riders range from age 5 to 95. Cherish them. They are enjoying their slice of freedom. They may be annoying, but they cannot hurt you.

You, on the other hand, can hurt them.

When you spot a cyclist breaking the rules, however, don’t let it pass. Let them know in no uncertain terms. It’s therapeutic, and it just might sink in if others do it enough. If possible, take a photo and send it to the police.

I would love to see the police assemble a video of cyclist accidents. They are gruesome. Then require each cyclist who violates the rules of the road to watch this video. It would be nice if groups like Krall’s would help with such an effort.

The D.C. area has hundreds of miles of bike trails, all accessible from our front doors. I challenge all the readers, of any age, to grab a Capital Bikeshare cycle and pedal south on the Mount Vernon Trail. For youngsters, it will open up a new world. For us seniors, it will reopen the fun of our youth.

- Jim Larocco
Alexandria

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(11) Readers Comments

  1. Dear Sir, Thank you for your letter to the editor. I am both a bike rider and a cyclist. I enjoy riding as you described carefree and happy on the weekends and during the week on my commute. Additionally I am a car driver and a cyclist, so I see both sides of the equation. Yes, there are cyclists that break the rules just as there are motorists that break the rules. As I am traveling much slower and paying much more attention to motorists (since my life depends on it), I see the extraordinary behavior exhibited by motorists. Eating, reading, texting, makeup application, fighting with passenger, improper lane changes, speeding up to avoid waiting one sec for the obstacle on the bike, drinking, sleeping (yes), and almost any behavior imaginable other than driving. So yes there are cyclists and motorists that break the rules. One behavior does not excuse the other. So if you feel the need to record all the infractions committed by cyclists, then I hope you do the same with motorists. The law simply does not agree with your assessment that cyclists be prohibited from using the roads. In fact, I would venture to say that bike usage will only increase as people rediscover its many benefits. Given the fact that you have cycled in the many wonderful countries that you mentioned in your letter, I would think you would see them a little more clearly. Here’s to all of us-motorists and cyclists alike sharing the roads in a lawful and safe manner. Cheers.

  2. The nature of prejudice is that it is wide-spread and affects pretty much anyone who is not making an effort to avoid it. As a result, for example, many women hold views that might be thought of as sexist. And, unfortunately, many cyclists hold views that might be thought of as anti-cyclist.

    In this letter, the writer tries to distinguish “bike riders” (nice people who ride in a nice way on bike paths without appearing to think that they “own” the road) and “cyclists,” who live up to every anti-cyclist cliche in the book. The fact is that we all own the roads and can all use them on a first-come, first-served basis. No one has the right to hound anyone off the road and no one group has a lock on law-abiding or lawbreaking behavior. While I am not in favor of lawbreaking, I hardly think the solution is to hound “cyclists” (however that is defined) off of Alexandria streets.

    While the letter-writer comes out in favor of civility, he also says that “When you spot a cyclist breaking the rules, however, don’t let it pass. Let them know in no uncertain terms. It’s therapeutic, and it just might sink in if others do it enough.” This doesn’t sound like a request for civility to me. It sounds more like vigilantism.

    We can and should do better in Alexandria. Pitting “good” cyclists against “bad” cyclists is hardly the way forward. For example, me preference would be that fast cyclists be allowed and encouraged to use the George Washington Parkway, while slow cyclists sensibly remain on the Mount Vernon Trail. South of Alexandria, this would be safe, effective, and would tend to reduce speeding by cars. Unfortunately, cyclists are banned from the Parkway.

  3. You’re not seriously suggesting that every time I see a driver breaking the rules — surely what’s good for cyclists with regards to civilized behavior is also good for drivers — that I inform them of his/her uncivilized behavior. There are lots of drivers speeding on King St., Duke St., Braddock Rd, and Washington St. that need to be held accountable. Although I suspect that my efforts to inform them of their uncivilized behavior will be poorly received.

    http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811753.pdf

    “Speeding is one of the most prevalent factors contributing to traffic crashes. In 2011, speeding was a contributing factor in 30 percent of all fatal crashes, and 9,944 (31 percent) lives were lost in speeding-related crashes (Table 4).”

  4. You are more worried about “time-trialing cyclists” than about all the speeding drivers in the area? I think you may have your own biases that are clouding your judgment and observations. All groups are guilty of bad behavior on the roads, sidewalks and trails. That includes car drivers, motorcyclists, runners, walkers, skateboarders and dog walkers.

    Car drivers frequently try to beat yellow lights and end up speeding through red lights. Or they don’t even bother worrying about yellow lights and just blow through red lights. Others text while driving. Or take high-speed right turns on red, without bothering to look for pedestrians in crosswalks. Other drivers will actively try to force pedestrians out of crosswalks, even when the pedestrians have a WALK signal and arrived at the crosswalk well ahead of the driver. Then there are the drunk drivers and drivers who are high on drugs. Then there are all of the drivers who drive well above the speed limit, sometimes 15-20 mph over the limit, even on local roads. (I think the majority of drivers speed every single day. Before denying this, they need to be honest with themselves.)

    Montgomery County police operated an enforcement sting program a couple months ago. They wore bright yellow clothing and walked in a crosswalk on a sunny afternoon. They had to cite a car driver for failure to yield to the pedestrian almost once every 2 minutes throughout the multi-hour operation. When you consider that as each driver was pulled over to the side of the road, other drivers would see that and likely slow down. But when drivers did not see another driver pulled over, they continued to try to run over the pedestrians, almost non-stop. Unfortunately, that behavior is far from unusual. I see this aggression among drivers on local roads every day.

    Are there problem cyclists? Yes. But there are even more problem drivers. Even many pedestrians cause problems too. Many will step out into roads, in the middle of a block, right in front of an oncoming car (or bike) and expect the driver or cyclists to slam on the brakes, even though the pedestrian is jaywalking and stepping out suddenly into oncoming traffic. I don’t understand the mindset, but I see this happen very frequently. It’s not only obnoxious, but very risky for the pedestrian. A pedestrian will not fare well in a battle with a car.

    One key stat needs to be emphasized and that’s the ongoing death toll caused by car drivers in the U.S. every year. Over 32,000 people were killed by U.S. drivers last year, which is a normal figure for recent years. (A decade ago, car drivers were killing 40,000 people a year on U.S. roads, so there’s some improvement. But 32,000 deaths is still too high.) There are tens of thousands of additional serious non-fatal injuries and hundreds of thousands of less serious injuries inflicted by car drivers each year.

  5. Cyclists ride the streets and trails as if they own them?

    Well, of course. When I am cycling on the road, I do ride as if I own the stretch of road that I am on. The alternative is to ride as if I am a road user only by sufferance of the “rightful owners,” motorists. That is precisely the attitude that many drivers have towards cyclists. The law, however, recognizes no hierarchy of road users. I have every bit as much right to the road as drivers, and it really does not depend on anyone’s sufferance.

  6. I think that if this writer were to read his own letter as if it were not his own, he would be appalled at the prejudice he sees. If he wants to criticize those who ride faster than they should on multi-use trails, there are ways to do it without heaping scorn on and encouraging road rage toward an entire group of people.

    There are those out there behaving badly using every form of transport available, but to try to somehow treat one group of cyclists as–well, scum is really the attitude he takes toward cyclists–just because they ride differently than he does? It implies a blindness to oneself, especially from a rider who admitted to breaking all the rules when he was younger. Somehow his rule breaking was okay because it was a different time and everyone was nicer then. (There were rules back then, I’m fairly sure.) Okay, possibly–he can start to recreate this nicer world now by apologizing for painting an entire group of road users as worthy of scorn. We are probably never all going to get along, but we don’t need to split into smaller and smaller factions blaming each other for what we do ourselves.

    It really doesn’t serve any purpose to say that all bad behavior is done by that other group, those “cyclists,” and oh no, I’m not one of them. I know that unfortunately I have made mistakes as a pedestrian, a driver, and a cyclist. I try to be careful and kind, but it doesn’t always work. But it takes work to be kind to other road users, and you can’t do it if you think you are always right and are incapable of making a mistake yourself.

  7. Delightful. If I’m kitted in cycling gear and riding a roadie and roll a stop sign, I should be subject to harassment from those around me. If you’re wearing khaki shorts and riding a Schwinn and do the same thing, that’s just good ol’ fashioned common sense and people need to show some civility! I don’t know how you’ve managed to adopt this insane form of tribalism, but you’re not helping anyone with it.

  8. Too often, while I am driving in Old Town, I come to a stop sign and am surprised by a cyclist who chooses to roll right through the sign. If I were to make a turn and hit him/her, I assume that I would be charged with hitting him/her. Were I on my bike, I also would not want to stop. However, given the concept of “share the road,” cyclists must endure stop signs just as drivers do. So far, the majority of cyclists tend to regard traffic signs as optional.

  9. I’m not clear from your letter whether I’m a bike rider or a cyclist and, to be honest, I fear I might be a bit of both. I also don’t live in your immediate area. But I wonder, based on your letter, if you can give me some advice.

    I was cycling to work this morning in New York City, a large city of which you might have heard, when the lights in front of me turned red. Being a law-abiding cyclist (or bike rider, I’m not sure which) I jammed on the brakes and stopped. Trouble was this didn’t suit the driver in the Mercedes behind me. She’d wanted to run the light for which I stopped and she let me “know in no uncertain terms” via her horn what she thought of my life-preserving behavior. She probably found it therapeutic, but not therapeutic enough that she didn’t lean on her horn again the moment the lights changed and accelerate dangerously into an illegal turn.

    What should I have done in the situation? The driver clearly thought I was behaving as if I “owned the road” and wanted to reprimand me in the manner you suggest. But I was striving to stay within the rules (and not end up the victim of one of the “cyclist accidents” you suggest should be filmed for posterity).

    I confess I was on a road on a weekday, so maybe I deserved the reprimand. But I was going well within the speed limit. And I was trying to get to one of the nice bicycle riding paths you suggest we use.

    It’s so confusing. Please help.

  10. Incidentally, I’m fascinated to hear there was much more civility in Virginia 60 years ago than there is now. I obviously got entirely the wrong end of the stick from all that propaganda I read about why the civil rights movement was needed.

  11. Mr. Jim Larocco. You are an asshat. To somehow distinguish between a competitive cyclist and a recreational cyclist, in regard to safety from cars, is asinine. Every cyclist on the road is deserving of the same basic rights.

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