Two recent Washington Post stories and the reaction to them give me cause to question the possibility of constructive, civil discourse in general, and the ongoing skirmish among drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians in particular. The first was the narrative of Post Wellness Editor Lenny Bernstein (no, not that Lenny Bernstein) of his experiences in trying to cycle to work in response to last month’s Bike To Work Day. The second was the report yesterday of a fatal accident on the Four Mile Run bike trail in which a cyclist killed a eighty-year-old pedestrian. In both cases much of the Post reader response was vituperative, nasty, antagonistic, and lacking in logic, compassion, and respect.
I suppose that tone is to be expected, since it’s been the norm for over ten years on the Internet, harking back to the era of AOL chat rooms. Still, it seems surprising to hear it so clearly on a topic that really need not be controversial and should be taken seriously in the interest of public safety, namely bicycle use in urban areas. What the two stories have in common is a focus on using bikes as transportation to and from work, not as recreational or exercise vehicles.
In his story Bernstein, who does not chan smoke and may not even like the symphonies of Mahler, admitted that he made some cycling gaffes, like riding through a tunnel when he could have gone up a ramp and avoided it. He worried about his change of clothes from trail to office, he wondered about time, he considered options like driving part way, and in general tried to extrapolate from his own experience in going from a suburban home to a city office to assess the broader possibilities of biking to work in this large, complex, traffic-clogged metropolitan region.
He reported a few days later that most of his responses were supportive and collegial, including suggestions of alternate routes, ideas about how to carry the work clothes efficiently, and lists of dos and don’ts from experienced commuter cyclists. He also, however, apparently got a large number of angry and /or vulgar comments about staying out of the way of drivers, breaking the law, and even just being a novice.
The pedestrian death story concerned a cyclist on Four Mile Run Trail in Arlington, VA who approached an 80-year-old woman pedestrian from behind about 7 a.m. last Monday. By that hour the sun is well up these days, so visibility was not a problem. He warned her both by bell and the familiar verbal “to your left” that he was passing her. Her response was to move to her left, directly into his path, and turn around. He hit her, she fell to the ground , hit her head, and died. The cyclist stayed on the scene.
No charges were filed, but the incident was reported in the Crime section of the online Washington Post. I can only surmise that the Post, having apparently abandoned copy editing some time back, is now moving into sensationalistic yellow journalism, trying to bias the story and create sensationalistic emotions from readers. They got some in the reader reply section following the story. The comments ranged from rage about lawless, reckless riders (this one seems to have done everything right, providing both a verbal and a bell warning, calling 911, and staying on the scene), to accusations of excess speed (no evidence of that—it takes very little force to knock down an off-balance 80-year-old), to absurd tangential arguments about what kind of nerd would ride the bike involved (a NEXT Power Climber dual suspension Mountain Bike with a shipping weight of 45 lbs. [that’ll knock you over!] currently on sale at WalMart for $88). Burning anger, mindless ranting, with the essential facts of the situation forgotten.
I feel for both of these riders, having ridden a few times in swarming traffic, and having many times warned walkers of passing with “on the left” only to have them move in that direction. Cyclists are accused of not following the rules of the road. They are said to think the road belongs first and foremost to them. They appear to think their own path and destination are the most important things. Now I grant you there’s just a hint of a voice in the back of my head whispering “We don’t have to! It does! They are!” But my Good Angel reminds me that just a bit of humility, caution, deference, and manners, even an occasional yielding of the right-of-way, would solve most of these conflicts, and create a far more positive public opinion of cyclists. In a city in which bicycle use is soaring—we don’t look like Amsterdam yet, but the Bikeshare folks can’t keep up with demand—everyone had better begin to think more kindly of others in cars, on bikes, and on foot.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.