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People riding bikes aren't jerks, they're just like you

Expanding bicycle infrastructure requires political support. That means showing residents and elected officials that cyclists are not some strange, alien species, but fellow people just like them.

Photo by somervillebikes on Flickr.

Since people who ride every day are currently a small portion of the population, advocates must work with those who don't ride bikes to show why expansion is in the local community's best interest.

There are, of course, issue-based arguments, supported by facts and numbers. We hear these arguments all the time: cycling is good for the environment, good for public health, good for congestion reduction, and good for the bottom line. Even most bike lane opponents won't disagree.

But there's another line of argument that bike advocates employ less often. It's an empathetic appeal that demonstrates that cyclists are just like you. They're everyday citizens, getting around town. Failure to show this reality to decision makers, the press, and the public at large can have adverse consequences. In the absence of a positive or even neutral image of cyclists, an alternative, more explosive narrative can gain steam.

This negative narrative has two parts. First, because there is not much of a social contract between cyclists and other road users, it's easy to believe that cyclists are reckless scofflaws who don't deserve respect because they don't give respect. Cyclists become aliens on two wheels who run red lights and play chicken with you as you try to guess their next unpredictable move. This thinking transforms cyclists into something that is nothing like you.

The second part comes into play when governments begin providing bike lanes or other provisions for cyclists. It starts to look like the road is being taken away from responsible users like you and given to a reckless minority. This is where the backlash begins, as citizens speak up against this perceived injustice.

There is an alternative to this acrimony, though. DC bike advocates are already making the case that people riding bikes are no different than anyone else, and deserve a safe way to get around.

It's hard to underestimate the importance of Capital Bikeshare in showing the general public how hopping on a bike can become an easy part of everyday life. The bikes are comfortable, steady and ubiquitous. The only things that would make it even easier to use for the general public are more stations and integration with SmarTrip.

It's easy for non-cyclists to imagine taking CaBi for a short trip across town. Once they do, they're more likely to see the importance of bike lanes.

It's also important to cultivate advocates from every DC community who can talk to their community leaders about why they should support cycling. Shane Farthing cited this as one of his priorities when he took over at WABA.

Keeping DC's black population involved with cycling is especially important in order to keep bike infrastructure from becoming a wedge issue, as it did during the recent mayoral election.

A negative narrative can lead to opinions about cycling like that of ANC 8C03's Mary Cuthbert, who told the Washington Post that "we don't need no bicycle lanes." A more positive narrative, on the other hand, can build upon the advantages that good cycling infrastructure brings.

A great example is the outlook from Edgewood residents near the Metropolitan Branch Trail who now have a safer connection to downtown. Anybody can hop on a bike, no matter their race, income, gender or age. Let's work to keep it that way.

Finally, cyclists must become known as road users in good standing. While it garnered some controversy within the cycling community, WABA's Resolution to Ride Responsibly strikes a better tone than a similar effort being undertaken by New York City's DOT, called Don't Be a Jerk.

The New York campaign reinforces the idea that cyclists are dangerous road users in need of reform, instead of everyday people trying to safely get around town. While WABA's pledge and its related ride held on Saturday could have been more affirmative by noting the many cyclists who are already responsible road users, it's a step in the right direction. After all, it's not often you see transportation advocacy organizations ask their members and supporters to behave responsibly.

DC deserves credit for staying civil instead of devolving into a bike lane war, but there are steps we can take to ensure the discourse about cycling is as good as, if not better than, the facilities being installed. Demonstrating and recognizing that people on bikes are just like us is an important first step.

Stephen Miller works for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which does work to promote the Metropolitan Branch Trail.

Stephen Miller lived in the District from 2008 to 2011 and is now a student at Pratt Institute's city and regional planning masters program. 


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I agree 100%.

by SJE on Jan 10, 2011 11:05 am • linkreport

On the "we are everybody" point -- I'm always struck by how many people bring their bikes to beach towns in NJ for summer vacations.

I'm sure most of these folks live in relatively unbike-able suburbs, but the bikeability of the beach communities is something they view positively and like. But, what's possible and easy and fun at the Beach is somehow not mentally transported back home for the other 50 or 51 weeks of the year.

Somehow an expectation needs to be created that what's possible one week a year could actually be possible throughout the year.

by jnb on Jan 10, 2011 11:11 am • linkreport

While it garnered some controversy within the cycling community, WABA's Resolution to Ride Responsibly strikes a better tone than a similar effort being undertaken by New York City's DOT, called Don't Be a Jerk.

I disagree. "Don't Be A Jerk" has an element of good humor to it. And it captures nicely the core of responsible cycling. I slow-roll stop signs if there isn't anyone coming. I'll treat a red-light as a stop-sign, just as I would on foot. I won't ride on the sidewalk at above a walking pace. That's because it's "jerk" behavior. Salmoning is acting like a jerk.

No reason to rehash why folks found the WABA piece to be offensive. We covered that ground pretty thoroughly.

by oboe on Jan 10, 2011 11:13 am • linkreport

Oh, and yes, I agree with the thrust of this piece. What will be interesting to see is how folks' behavior when adoption of cycling (via CaBi and private bike) becomes high enough that we're no longer talking about "cyclists" but rather "people on bikes."

I'm thinking current cyclist behavior will simply come to be seen as somewhat normal, and thus predictable and non-controversial...

by oboe on Jan 10, 2011 11:16 am • linkreport

re: riding bikes at the beach

Yes, flat roads and slow traffic will make biking a lot easier. Obviously, there are parts of DC that are hilly, but the slower traffic? Bike lanes help, but it is increasing both the perception and reality that the streets are safe for all to use.

by William on Jan 10, 2011 11:18 am • linkreport

So you're saying I'm not a jerk? You don't know me very well, do you?

by monkeyrotica on Jan 10, 2011 11:23 am • linkreport

I'm with Oboe on the "Don't be a Jerk" campaign. Part of the problem seems to be a bike vs. car vs. walker divide. Rather than terming it that way, I'd rather frame it as responsible folks vs. "jerks". I don't think any mode has a monopoly on either.

It encourages me when WABA or the generally bike-friendly NY DOT work to improve biking behavior. It's the kind of thing I'd like to see AAA get (more) involved in.

Good article

by TimK on Jan 10, 2011 11:26 am • linkreport

@ William

Correct, riding your bike in DC is not "a day at the beach." But if the sand, sea, and level grade can't be transported, the slightly more "chill" attitudes and expectations could be. That's the important technology transfer I'd be hoping for.

by jnb on Jan 10, 2011 11:27 am • linkreport

It's an empathetic appeal that demonstrates that cyclists are just like you. They're everyday citizens, getting around town. Failure to show this reality to decision makers, the press, and the public at large can have adverse consequences.
Yep. All of the facilities and engineering in the world can't overcome our primary challenge as cycling advocates - culture. And culture is only really changed through sympathy (if not empathy), I think.

by MB on Jan 10, 2011 11:54 am • linkreport

"Keeping DC's black population involved with cycling is especially important in order to keep bike infrastructure from becoming a wedge issue, as it did during the recent mayoral election."

I think there's a strange blindness to the number of black and Latino cyclists already on the road -- maybe it's a NW thing, but I see plenty of non-white bikers around already. (They are almost all men, though.)

Everyone of every race living in NW without a car faces the same transport/geographical situation that makes biking an attractive solution. And it's also a very economical solution: I can imagine that a Latino dishwasher living in Mt. Pleasant can earn back the price of a cheapo $150 bike pretty quickly in foregone bus fares, not to mention the fact that it's probably more convenient to hop on a bike to get back home than wait for the S bus late at night. Better bike infrastructure would benefit working class riders just as much as it benefits the 20-something white hipster commuting from Columbia Heights to the Hill.

by M on Jan 10, 2011 12:02 pm • linkreport

This is really funny because the debate mimics the evolution we had in our neighborhood between dog owners and non-dog owners. It took a lot of back and forth but we eventually figured out there was considerate and inconsiderate behavior and speech in equal measure on both sides and we needed to all be nicer to each other and compromise, help each other use common spaces, which we've seemed to learn how to do.

Group hug!

by Ward 1 Guy on Jan 10, 2011 12:02 pm • linkreport

I agree with the premise Stephen. People complain about the jerks in cars. People complain about the jerks riding bikes. People complain about the jerks walking. At some point we all should make the leap and realize that it isn't the car, bike, or shoes but the jerk using them that makes life more difficult. It isn't clear to me that a "Don't be a jerk" campaign is quite the right way to go. But perhaps a WABA resolution that was about everyone continuuing to be or trying to be more cordial and cooperative on the road would be more appropriate.

Oh ... I think it is a mistake to make facilities equivalent to a pedestrian/cycling friendly street. For many streets -- think about the bicycle boulevard concept -- if you had a choice to design the street for slower speeds or put a bike lane there (or both), we would be better off with slow traffic sans bike lane.

by Geof Gee on Jan 10, 2011 12:57 pm • linkreport

Yes, instead of battling a political backlash with more politics, I'd rather find a way to simply resist letting the bicycle become a political football.

I do have my doubts about whether that's possible -- given that some of these battles are about spending public money -- but I like the gist of what you are saying.

by Eugene Bicyclist on Jan 10, 2011 1:17 pm • linkreport

Like most issues, it seems that the fringe elements make it harder for the rest of us to get along. Most cyclists are also drivers, so there really shouldn't be an us vs. them mentality. Drivers could clearly benefit from more cyclists (and thereby less cars) on the road. And folks who haven't tried a bicycle in years might be surprised how many of their errands (usually less than 2 miles) could become more interesting and healthy on a bicycle.

by Cycling for Beginners on Jan 10, 2011 2:01 pm • linkreport

Good piece!

by Fritz on Jan 10, 2011 2:07 pm • linkreport

You probably ought to read the education, encouragement, enforcement, and planning recommendations that I wrote as part of the Western Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan, which is one of the best outlines of this issue anywhere. (The pre-posted draft is better, with examples, those were taken out of the plan before posting.) It's an extension of the principles laid out in "Ideas for Making Cycling Irresistible in DC" from 4/2008.

One of the basic points is the creation of neighborhood-ward-district infrastructure and programming plans, as part of sustainable transportation elements created for community plans.

by Richard Layman on Jan 10, 2011 2:24 pm • linkreport

The guy in the picture looks like a total jerk, making his kids do all the pedaling while he just fakes it.

Just kidding -- this was a great piece. Very affirming. I'm going to be extra nice on the road going home tonight.

by Ward 1 Guy on Jan 10, 2011 5:15 pm • linkreport

I think that it all comes down to mutual responsibility. As a person who owns a car and is a mountain biker, I can see both perspectives. Here is where I draw the line. I live in the Massachusetts Avenue area of Bethesda. In the area, the county has constructed both the Capital Crescent Trail and a separate bike path along MacArthur Boulevard. And yet, despite these good connections, bikers consistently bike on the road on MacArthur Blvd, a windy road with many blind corners in certain sections.

I understand that paths and the Trail get busy on weekends. If you are an avid biker with skill, then please, go ahead and use the road instead of the path. But, if there is no one on the path next to MacArthur Blvd, please use it. It will be faster and safer. Little things like this really drive the tensions between drivers and bikers. For drivers like myself, choosing to ride on the road instead of an adjacent path is an act of bravado, not of courtesy. I don't honk at bikers; I just pass and move on. Both sides will need to move closer together for this new era of transportation to work somewhat harmoniously.

by thesixteenwords on Jan 10, 2011 5:20 pm • linkreport

TheSixteenWords (TSW) does a good job of reinforcing my suspicion that those who exclusively ride MTB don't really share much in common with general cyclists. Not even basic empathy.*

TSW, have you ever tried to ride that sidepath on MacArthur? It's a useless and dangerous mess. Further, it puts the cyclist in more danger (with multiple intersections) than simply safely riding in the road where he or she has every right to be. It's like wondering why you think you should have any right to ride in Greenbrier/Rosaryville/Frederick Watershed when they've constructed a perfectly nice little place for you to play at Wakefield.

*The most hilarious/sad example of this was an argument a local MTB board a while back involving a driver shuttling some bikes up a mountain, and a rider riding up that mountain. The driver got impatient with the rider, tried to blast around him, and ended up in a ditch. Consensus of the MTB forum? The rider shouldn't have been on the road. *facepalm*

by MB on Jan 10, 2011 5:32 pm • linkreport

Mountain biker? Is "W" back in town?

by Fred on Jan 10, 2011 6:04 pm • linkreport

One, I first feel that my initial statement was pretty even-keeled, not deprived of "empathy." I actually do ride on that path. I will break down your objections one by one. First, the MacArthur path is not useless. It connects you to the Capital Crescent Trail on one end and the towpath on another. Ride On buses run alongside. It is right next to the road. It has as much use as the road. Having used the path, I have never encountered any particular dangerous elements, besides the occasional branch or snowfall. You actually go through fewer intersections than you would if you were in the road, by my count, as you bypass busy, by local road standards, intersections, like Seven Locks, Goldsboro, and Brickyard.

Now let me restate my point. There is a need for mutual understanding. You have a right to be on a road. Note that my comment didn't say, "get off roads where you have no other choice. I don't want any bikers." I just personally feel that it is safer for everyone on MacArthur for experienced bikers to use the path WHEN it isn't crowded. When it's crowded, I fully agree with using the road if you are faster than the family crowd.

So, to recap, I made the point that a) we each need to give a little, b) I offer a compromise solution on MacArthur, and c) you respond by saying that I have no empathy. I thought the idea was to show that bikers aren't jerks...

by thesixteenwords on Jan 10, 2011 6:58 pm • linkreport

sorry, folks. the old hearts-and-minds argument espoused here--that we citizen cyclists are really people, too, so please don't kill us with your cars!--won't change much of what happens on the streets themselves, if history is anything to go by.

what changes things is a change at the base (in this case, the urban infrastructure, still massively tilted toward motorists and their cars) and at the superstructure (the laws to punish harshly motorist violence).

once the relation between motorists and cyclists stops being so horribly asymmetrical, people won't need to keep telling us cyclists to "behave" or to remind motorists that we're human, too.

by tony on Jan 10, 2011 9:10 pm • linkreport

"Base" and "Superstructure"?

Let me guess, you just finished your first sociology class of the semester, taught by a washed-up Marxist.

by MPC on Jan 10, 2011 9:49 pm • linkreport


My New Years Resolution is to avoid being drawn into these kinds of pointless arguments, so I'll let it suffice to say, people have their own reasons for riding on MacAurthur. It may be, in your opinion, faster, safer, or what have you, to ride on the trail that runs alongside. For others, it's clearly not. I'm in the latter camp. So I'll keep riding on the road (which actually has quite good sightlines, btw, if you're not egregiously speeding).

As someone pointed out earlier, if hunters and equestrians were to try to convince you to stay out of the Watershed because Schaeffer is "perfectly suitable" for your mountain biking needs, there'd probably be a strong--if juvenile--impulse to tell them to go stuff themselves.

If the multiuse path running parallel to MacArthur were sufficient, cyclists would use it. They don't; so it's not. It's that simple.

by oboe on Jan 10, 2011 11:14 pm • linkreport

I have to take exception to the whole premise of this article because, you know what... I am a jerk. I mean I don't ride my bike around very often but if you are saying they are just like me, then well, I think you see where I'm going here. Anyway, I think most drivers are pretty much jerks too. Maybe we are just projecting.

by Doug on Jan 10, 2011 11:59 pm • linkreport

No, cyclists really are jerkier than drivers. That has to change, and then the perception that they are jerks will change.

by Emily on Jan 11, 2011 7:20 am • linkreport

A certain number of people really are jerks. Would you prefer that they were blasting around the city with two-ton lethal weapons?

by Kevin Love on Jan 11, 2011 7:46 am • linkreport

The county has provided a number of trails suitable for mountain biking. I use them, since I pay for them anyway. I know the mountain biker you're taking about. I met a lot of them at Whistler, so I get that mountain bikers sometimes are jerks...

@oboe-If the path is not suitable, what could be done to make it suitable? If it could be made safer and more useful, I'd like to know, so I could contact either Roger Berliner or Brian Frosh about it.

by thesixteenwords on Jan 11, 2011 9:49 am • linkreport

The only reason I have become a new daily bike rider is b/c I joined CaBi. I rode as a kid, but never as an adult. I think the problem that many new adult bike users will face (like myself) is not really knowing the bike riding rules and needing to take the time and the energy to learn them. When I was a kid, I did whatever (no helmet, no rules, just ride from point to point with the exuberance of a 10 year old--you get the point). I had to learn that just b/c I could blow through a red light it was illegal and I shouldn't. My main criticism of CaBi is that they need to devote a lot more material to reinforcing the rules of the road (they don't do this on their FB page either which would be REALLY easy, low-maintenance way to reach riders). You need to pass a test to get a car license, but you don't need to do ANYTHING to ride a bike and I think that has a lot to do with understanding the rules of the road (and the sidewalks) as far as bikers are concerned.

by mehrenreich on Jan 11, 2011 10:50 am • linkreport

If the path is not suitable, what could be done to make it suitable? If it could be made safer and more useful, I'd like to know, so I could contact either Roger Berliner or Brian Frosh about it.

Sure: you'd want something that's essentially a third lane of traffic. With good sight lines, and where pedestrian and stroller traffic is banned. I'm not particularly fast, but when I'm riding out that way, I'm averaging 18-20 mph. There's just no way that can be made safe for moms pushing strollers, roller-bladers, kids on Barbie bikes, etc, etc...

Which means that, for someone cycling at a brisk pace, the safest and most responsible place to ride is in the standard traffic lane. Obviously that marginally reduces the convenience for drivers, but that can't be helped.

I think there's a certain element of cognitive bias going on with drivers along that stretch, where they attribute some kind of "Critical Mass" motivation to cyclists where none exists. Those cyclists eschew the path because doing so is the safest and most responsible choice.

As far as...

The county has provided a number of trails suitable for mountain biking. I use them, since I pay for them anyway.

...we might just as well re-frame this as "The District has provided a number of roads suitable for vehicular traffic. I use them, since I pay for them anyway." The problem is, it's very difficult to "triage" other folks' choices. Very easy to be parsimonious about how far other folks' rights should extend.

by oboe on Jan 11, 2011 11:05 am • linkreport

Alot of the MNCPPC trails even have a speed limit of 12 or 15 mph, though I guess sidepaths managed by the County do not. I'm of the view that sharrows and R4-11 (cyclists use full lane) signs help (the educable) motorists to distingish between smart and rude cycling, and can lead the non-educable motorists to get mad at DPTW instead of the cyclist obeying the sign. I wonder whether a trail speed limit sign readable by motorists might help as well.

by JimT on Jan 11, 2011 11:45 am • linkreport


I think the problem that many new adult bike users will face (like myself) is not really knowing the bike riding rules and needing to take the time and the energy to learn them.

I'm not sure I understand the problem. I would imagine about 99% of CaBi subscribers hold driver's licenses. Since the "rules of the road" for bikes is essentially the rules for the road for cars, plus a few extra perks, it doesn't seem to me there'd be a whole lot of education required.

If you're on the road, operate like a car, but try to keep right except to pass or turn left. If you're on the sidewalk, operate like a pedestrian (including moving at the same speed as--or slower than--pedestrian traffic).

That's it!

by oboe on Jan 11, 2011 12:38 pm • linkreport


Every Fall I see a new crop of sidewalk ninjas around Tenley;college age kids on bikes without lights or reflectors buzzing down the sidewalk like it was the street,and weaving through peds. Many of the ones that do make it out onto the road are gutter bunnies that ride an inch off the curb no matter what the conditions. I guessing they're used to riding around small towns,or haven't ridden since they were kids,so they don't know any better. I almost never hear and bell,and in 6 years I've heard less than a half dozen total verbal warnings. So there is def a need for educating new riders.

by dynaryder on Jan 11, 2011 3:41 pm • linkreport

Every Fall I see a new crop of sidewalk ninjas around Tenley;college age kids on bikes without lights or reflectors buzzing down the sidewalk like it was the street,and weaving through peds...

Ok, I see your point.

This reminds me of a passage from a book I received for the holidays:

When it comes to cycling, it's essential to be without fear and to ride our bike wherever and wherever you want. However, it's also essential to be smart. This may seem obvious, but there are a lot of stupid cyclists out there. There may even be as many stupid cyclists as stupid drivers, proportionately speaking. And even though stupid drivers are more of a risk to others in that their vehicles are really fast and heavy, the stupid cyclists are just as big a risk to themselves.

Admittedly, though, the cyclist also has more of an excuse. In a world that's prejudiced against cyclists it's no surprise that so many people don't learn how to ride properly. And when I say "properly" I don't mean having a fluid pedal stroke, or wearing the right gear, or pulling off into the wind when riding in a paceline. I'm talking about really simple things, like not going the wrong way down a one-way street. But because so many people think that riding a bike is something that children do, a lot of adults actually do ride bikes like children.

(from "Bike Snob")

by oboe on Jan 11, 2011 8:23 pm • linkreport

On dynaryder's point, the area around college campuses can be very tricky in terms of biking safety, which poses an interesting dilemma. We want people to bike, and lots of students choose to do so, but not a lot of students at the school I go to elect to use a helmet.

@oboe, I have one last question about MacArthur, just so I get the full picture. I understand why you want an on-road lane, check. There is enough room on both sides to make that work. But, the reason you bring up the need for this modification is because of heavy, slow traffic on the route. On the weekends, this route is heavily used by slow bikers. Many skilled bikers will then need the lanes you mention. During the weekdays, particularly the weekday commute, that path is totally empty. Is it because of a mandated slow speed, as mentioned by some poster? Is there a lot of debris? Thanks.

by thesixteenwords on Jan 11, 2011 8:43 pm • linkreport

@thesixteenwords- the path is usually covered with debris in many places, and unless it's been repaved in the past month, it's a buckled mess. Maybe not an issue on your fat-tired bike, but it's particularly unpleasant on a road bike at any kind of speed. The cyclists you think should take to the sidepath are generally moving at an average speed of 20-25mph - not something suitable for a MUT.

by MB on Jan 11, 2011 8:55 pm • linkreport

I think MB captured most of it, but I would add that riding the multi-use path and finding "the path is totally empty" is a very different thing from riding the multi-use path each day as though it actually were totally empty. Though there's a good portion of the path that basically serves as a shoulder to the blvd, and sight-lines are fine, there are other sections where the sight-lines are poor, and you never know what will be around the next bend. It would be irresponsible to ride as though there wasn't a kid around the next bend.

It's similar to the section of the Rock Creek Parkway between the Calvert Street Bridge and the Kennedy Center. Riding on the parkway would be the responsible thing to do, because there's no way that you can safely ride that section of multi-use path at speed and not endanger joggers, walkers, roller-bladers, etc... Of course, the fact that 99% of drivers exceed the speed limit by 15-20 mph over the already excessive 35 mph speed limit makes that unsafe.

by oboe on Jan 11, 2011 10:00 pm • linkreport

If this is a correct description of how drivers view bikers:

"become aliens ... who run red lights and play chicken with you as you try to guess their next unpredictable move."

Then maybe we are very similar because this is exactly how I view the suburban commuters that run into me, door me, and make me feel like I am trying to survive the wild west everytime I try to get home from work.

by Alex on Jan 11, 2011 10:42 pm • linkreport

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