The above quote reflects an idea with seemingly widespread acceptance, which is that cyclists could overcome drivers’ hatred and earn their respect if we would all just follow the rules. Respect for cyclists, in this view, is predicated not on our legitimate, law-given right to the road, but our ability to perfectly, “in every traffic exchange everywhere”, obey the letter of the law. Never mind that drivers and cyclists break the law at roughly the same rate—the perception is that cyclists are the scofflaws, and damn rude to boot. And so many of us have taken to policing our fellow riders, blaming them for our pitiable station, or begging the police to more often ticket law-breaking cyclists. This I consider unfortunate—because the sad truth is that cyclists can never be perfect enough for motorists to willingly give up the space and speed they feel they’re entitled to. It’s time for us to try a different way.
The politics of respectability
The concept of respectability politics, through which Black social critics have made the case that "acting right" will never command respect for Blacks in American society, is a useful frame for all marginalized groups, including bicyclists.
You might recognize a respectability-oriented argument from comments by Bill Cosby and Charles Barkley, who insist that a lack of personal responsibility and conformity with mainstream culture, not white racism or hundreds of years of oppression, are primarily to blame for the black community's continued struggle. If (poor) blacks would pull up their pants, speak deferentially to cops, stop acting like thugs, etc., etc.—then they'd thrive. Unfortunately, as many of us know from hard experience, being respectable does not necessarily translate into being respected. Plenty of "respectable" black folks still face discrimination and, indeed, outcomes as disparate as those of America's white and black communities suggests something more is at play here.
Of course respect can be earned, no one is disputing that. But when a power imbalance exists—caused and reinforced over many years by policies that benefit one group over another—the more powerful group comes to feel entitled to their privilege, and blind to its true cause (i.e., not their own inherent worth but an entire system stacked in their favor). They are not so inclined to grant respect (i.e., equality) to those they believe would halt the gravy train.
And so it is with bikes v cars. If we believe that stopping at stop signs is going to reverse the impact of decades of car-prioritizing policies in the U.S., we are tragically naive. Again, cyclists can never be perfect enough to get motorists to willingly give up the space and speed they feel they’re entitled to. Many motorists don't want us on the road, period. They don't want to have to drive slower and pay better attention and re-learn traffic law and adopt a new transportation paradigm that encompasses all comers. I’m not mad about that—change can be uncomfortable, and there’s no denying that this change is a doozy. What’s crazy-making is the pretending.
I remember on two separate occasions when I was stopped at a red light and the drivers behind me honked their horns, waved frantically and yelled at me to get over so they could make a right turn—which I did not oblige, because I was headed straight. They were both over-the-top mad about it. The second time it happened, I remember wondering if he would have pretended to be as mad if I'd run the red light as he was actually mad that I was stopped there, delaying his turn. Prior to those incidents it had not occurred to me that people might (subconsciously, perhaps) pretend to care about cyclists following the law in order to mask their rage at cyclists existing in their space...but what other explanation could there be?
Countering power and privilege
Of course it's good practice for cyclists to observe the law—it upholds the predictability upon which safety in traffic depends, and it's generally safer for us. But let's not pretend that it will earn us the respect we crave, and let's not waste time policing cyclists who aren't compliant. Instead our movement should turn our attention to helping motorists, who wield a disproportionate ability to harm, move into a new paradigm of transportation. How? Widespread motorist education. About this, Yay Bikes! has some thoughts—and also, some original data. Which is back up by yet more data.
During our 2015 Ride Buddy pilot program, we rode with people to help them figure out how to ride bikes on trips to and/or from work. We followed up with participants six weeks after their Ride Buddy experience, to see whether and how their behaviors and attitudes had changed. A couple of things we were curious about was how riding with us influenced both their impression of bicyclists and the way they drove their car. Here's what we found:
In terms of how, exactly, their impression changed, the majority of survey respondents (61%, n=41) reported that they "better understand why [bicyclists] make the choices they do", while others said they "feel less hostility towards them" and even that they "think they're kinda heroic, actually".
The majority of respondents (61.5%, n=39) reported that they "give cyclists more space when passing", while others said they "are less anxious and more patient"—and also that they drive more slowly and less distractedly. One even wrote, "I'm way more patient with cyclists now. I understand what they're doing.”
Although it's a small sample size, these results suggest something interesting—that a one- to two-hour guided bike ride experience can change both the way people drive and how they feel about bicyclists.
In fact, I have come to believe that the only way for cyclists to get more respect is for more motorists to become bicyclists, even for a very short period of time. Ideally, a preponderance of the population would participate in educational rides like How We Roll or Ride Buddy or Professional Development Rides. But how? It can be hard for people to overcome their fear of riding with traffic, their inability to see themselves as a “cyclist”, logistical challenges, etc. So anything that compels participation is likely a no-go. But an idea from former Yay Bikes! founding board member Ken Cohen provides a compelling alternative. What if we could get insurance companies to provide a discount to customers who participate in an educational bike ride? If we could demonstrate safer driving through bicycle education, I bet insurance companies would consider it. And if people could save money on their car insurance by becoming more attuned to how their driving impacts more vulnerable road users, I think they'd jump at the chance.
The final word
People who ride bicycles yearn for respect out there on the roads, and no wonder—our lives can depend on it. The mistake we sometimes make is believing that we can earn that respect by acting right and following all the rules. We cannot. As much as we should ride lawfully (and we should), sadly that is not the path to legitimacy. We need to cultivate empathy among those who drive. We need to get them to ride with us. And with the proper incentives, I believe we can.