Virtually everyone I know who regularly rides a bike in Toronto has gotten in an argument with a person driving a car. (I assume you would find similar results in any major North American, British, or Australian city, among others). The reason for this is that virtually everyone I know who rides a bike regularly in these places has nearly (or actually) been hit by a person driving car.
I have been in more spats with drivers than I can count, owing to increasingly unsafe drivers, who are not only careless, but often callous if not outright malicious. My reactionary response to threatening driving used to be anger. Lately, I have tried to adopt a strategy of calmly trying to explain to drivers who almost kill me that what they did was extremely dangerous and totally unnecessary. I also try to pepper the brief conversation (I use the term loosely) with the phrase “You could have killed me” as much as possible in the short time you have before the driver who is in a totally unnecessary rush drives away really dangerously.
On the rare occasion a driver will admit they were in the wrong and apologize. But the far more common response, no matter how reasonable I try to be, is indignation.
“Do you think you’re better than me?”
I’ve been asked this same question by drivers on several different occasions. That it comes up as a recurring motif, I think reveals a lot about how drivers see themselves. This, in turn, can explain their animosity toward cyclists.
Let me first respond to that question generally. I don’t think that anyone is inherently better than anyone else. What makes somebody a better or worse person is what they do. And since people do a lot of different things, one’s moral character is very difficult thing to estimate. Do I think that at the end of some complex calculation I can say that my morality quotient is higher than any other person’s? I couldn’t say based merely on the fact that you drive a car. Driving a car does not automatically make you a “bad person” and riding a bike does not in itself make you a “good person.” There are selfless humanitarians who drive cars, and sociopaths who ride bikes.
However, on the topic of superciliousness, here’s another frequent utterance I hear: “Nice bike!” Invariably said with a sarcastic and condescending tone, this is meant to suggest that riding a bike is a character deficit of some sort, namely, that I have been unable to achieve the financial means to afford a car. I’ve had numerous drivers explicitly tell me how much their cars cost. Also frequently overheard: “Get a job/car!”
There’s various psychological research into what contributes to this disdain that drivers have for people on bicycles. Part of this can be attributed to typical “us vs. them” mentalities – building stereotypes and prejudices around notions of who belongs and who doesn’t. There are also feelings of entitlement bolstered by myths that drivers “pay for roads” while others don’t. And one can’t forget that drivers are hardly considerate of each other. Road rage as a general phenomenon has nothing to do with cyclists.
But I conjecture that a major underlying cause of the hostility that drivers direct at people who ride bikes is a feeling of moral insecurity.
Of course, I and many other people riding bikes can afford a car. And I doubt the drivers who say this sincerely believe I can’t. They fully understand that others have decided to ride a bicycle. This is what is hard for them to comprehend. Why has this person made such a profoundly different choice than myself? And the implied follow-up: Have I made the wrong decision?
This anxiety needs to be understood in the context of the deeply held cultural assumptions and prevailing narratives surrounding automobiles. As any car commercial reveals, cars are symbols: symbols of freedom, symbols of maturity, symbols of success. Cars are seen as a rite of passage from adolescence into adulthood. In a very pragmatic yet no less symbolic sense, cars are tied to personhood and citizenship. Most North Americans’ main form of identification is a driver’s license. Their ability to access the services of the state, to have a bank account, or own a house – or another symbol of maturity, the right to buy alcohol, de facto depends on having a driver’s license.
There are also deeper beliefs about efficiency, technological progress, and economic benefit. Car centricity is oriented around certain technocratic ideals. It is really not that far a stretch to say that many drivers view bicycles as obstacles to progress. This attitude is easily found in the rationales that drivers (and their political representatives) offer for their opposition to cycling infrastructure.
Cars also require a significant financial commitment. As the size of that commitment increases so too does the status of cars as symbols of success and virtue of character.
In short, the sight of someone freely choosing to ride a bicycle instead of driving a car calls into question all of these symbolic values.
But so does the actual lived experience of driving a car. We should not expect advertisements to reflect reality. Car commercials never show people stuck in traffic jams, lining up for gas, struggling to find a parking space, stressing out about lease payments, or the horrors of a collision. Not to mention the simple mundane exertion it takes to safely operate a several thousand-pound vehicle. We thus find our expectations of freedom, instantaneity, immediate gratification, and convenience – the promises of the automobile – unfulfilled.
The result are entire transportation systems that are underlay by a simmering frustration. And drivers are constantly trying to find a target for their grievances. It must be this person who “doesn’t know how to drive” who is responsible for the dysfunction. It must be these construction projects. It must be that municipal planning has failed to accommodate cars. It must be because the traffic lights aren’t timed properly. It must be these buses and streetcars. And so on. People on bikes are just one among many scapegoats, but which prompt an added sense of moral doubt.
But the actual failure is systemic. In Toronto, where I spent most of my life, there is a major highway that traverses the length of the city and is twelve to fourteen lanes wide for large stretches of this distance. Every day, traffic nearly (or fully) comes to a standstill on it. This is not a failure of implementation as if this particular highway was poorly designed. It has nothing to do with any of the ordinary targets of drivers’ ire. The system is not working because there are simply too many cars. And the proposed solutions are untenable.
One of the most readily offered popular solutions to traffic problems is simply to build more roads. But where would these go? In the very spaces that we would like to live. Ironically, to accommodate more and more cars you would have to decimate the very places the car is supposed to take you.
Car-centric transportation systems are also failing on much deeper level. Not only do cars jeopardize the immediate places in which we would like to reside – beautiful, vibrant, accessible, amenity-filled cities – but the intertwined backdrops of our lives that we too often take for granted: our health and the environment.
The reason that I choose to ride a bicycle as my main form of transportation is because at some point in my life I realized that car-centric narratives were false. I realized that cars are not the pinnacle of convenience and efficiency as they are marketed to be. I realized that they didn’t promote freedom but rather dependency. I did not enjoy driving cars. These personal factors are often sufficient in causing someone to choose a bike rather than a car. But what motivates this decision often extends beyond personal or selfish reasons. Many people decide to adopt an alternative to automobiles because of broader societal, environmental, and ethical concerns.
In this way, bicycles are also symbols that connote a set of values. And these can conflict deeply with the symbolism of automobiles (especially certain types, like SUVs). This is not lost on drivers. They understand fully well that a person riding a bicycle is an implied judgement against them, hence the defensive indignation: “Do you think you’re better than me?”
I still couldn’t say. As I said, the problems are systemic, and many of these systems essentially require people to use cars. This complicates questions of moral responsibility. But insofar as I think that we should reflect on our impacts in the world, expand our scope of concerns beyond what’s merely convenient, and try to optimize human and environmental health, then if you can ride a bike (or walk, or inline-skate, or take the bus) instead of driving an automobile, it is plainly a better choice.