Last week I was compelled to respond to the kind of idiocy that actually makes everyone around it a little less smart. The kind that you can spot even without your glasses, at night, having woken up because you have to pee, and are feeling your way to the toilet in a sleepy stupor. Today, The New Yorker is proud to present a wolf in sheep’s clothing, though I think she forgot to cover her claws. It’s clever, but not really. Because The New Yorker is so high-brow and stylish, I’ll present you with the accompanying theme music for today’s post to set the tone, and also because it’s just plain good.
The stated theme of Cars vs. Bikes vs. Pedestrians is actually one I agree with. Ms Konnikova suggests that a common trait of those who are in charge of piloting themselves along public roads is that they are inherently self-centered.
Whichever mode of transportation you currently happen to be using—whether you’re the pedestrian, the cyclist, or the driver—you are correct, no matter the scenario. Everyone else is in your way, wrong, annoying, and otherwise a terrible human being.
Couldn’t agree more. This is common for people in all situations, but on the roads it’s magnified by, I don’t know, probably a mixture of the fact that people are more or less selfish dickheads normally, are defensive as a result of the ever-present potential for danger on the roads, and of course, cars. Cars (and trucks and buses), causing 99% of that danger, and also enhancing the natural selfish entitlement people feel because they are piloting a powerful, technologically advanced machine that transports them at unnatural speeds. That power goes to people’s heads and is regularly abused.
Curiously, however (not really), Ms Konnikova doesn’t go in that direction. What she does instead is impersonates someone who is making a clever argument, presenting herself as nonpartisan and evenhanded in her accusations of all who use the roads and pavements, but her performance is less convincing than she might believe. She’s not as clever here as she thinks.
As Friday’s post was a bit lengthy, and this is a similar affair, I’ll get straight to it. In order of appearance (mostly), Ms Konnikova’s attempt to pull the wool over your eyes, and my responses.
How to not get sucked in by pseudo-clever media stories in 10 easy steps!
- Her opening set of examples has pedestrians and cyclists as the dopey culprits, but mysteriously lacks motorists – the most dangerous offender of all – as anything but a victim. Bikes hurtle towards pedestrians, pedestrians walk out in front of bikes. It also sets the tone by listing the cyclist first, with the longest and most detailed description being reserved for their particular brand of heinousness, including a special mention of illegal sidewalk riding.
- Why is this “fight for the streets” as old as said streets? You’ll notice that it’s not a fight for the sidewalks, because nobody dies in a pedestrian-on-pedestrian collision and it’s an extremely rare occurrence when a bike is involved. It’s only been a fight where danger looms large in the form of easily abused and irresponsibly used motor vehicles. I suppose chariots posed the same danger…
- When listing the history of the roads, cycling is not mentioned, even though cyclists are the very ones responsible for roads as we now know them. Further, the urban landscape does not include “more bikes than ever before”, just more bikes than there have been since the car industry pushed them to the periphery. Bikes used to be used by a huge portion of the population, certainly in places like England and Australia where cycling’s mode share was many, many times higher than it is now. Her attempt to convince us otherwise obfuscates the legitimacy of cycling from a historical perspective.
- “Cars, in short, are status symbols. Just as owning a bike conveys autonomy upon a ten-year-old—you can ride to your friend’s house even in the absence of a willing parental chauffeur—so, too, does having a car convey freedom and power upon the first-time car-owner. A car shows that you’ve accomplished something.” Wow. Bikes are for kids, cars are for adults. Cars show that you’ve accomplished something. Really. Just wow.
- “For drivers, that sense of proprietorship can lead to a feeling of conscious or unconscious entitlement: I deserve to own the streets because of what I’ve achieved, both fiscally (I can afford this car) and symbolically (I’m in a big metallic monster that can—metaphorically, of course—crush you). As the Lancaster University sociologists Mimi Sheller and John Urry point out, cars cast their drivers in a role of “disciplining and domination” in a way that other modes of transportation, such as walking or bicycling, do not. As drivers, we always have the right of way because we are bigger and better. It’s survival of the fittest.” I completely agree with that, but I would add that this feeling of power is not simply symbolic, but literal – people are empowered by the fact that they can actually crush you, with the effect that they will act in a way that presumes that the softer, more breakable road-user will yield to the harder, protected road-user and becoming quite upset when they don’t, as is their right.
- “In terms of social cachet and temporal precedence, bicyclists are worse off than everyone else. They lose to the precedence game to pedestrians, who can say—even if no one cares—that they got there first. At the same time, bicycles lack the weight and status of automobiles. Cyclists are marginalized practically, too: bike on the road and you’re in the realm of the car; on the sidewalk, you’re in the realm of the pedestrian. Walking is a human ability; driving is an urban right. Bicycling is neither.” I’m not sure if Ms Konnikova is stating this as fact, or challenging the notion, but I presume the former. In that case, she would be wrong. Bicycling is not neither, but in fact both.
- “Bicyclists, of course, can marshal different arguments that give them the advantage. One factor can overwhelm precedence and power: critical mass. Think of those moments when an errant pedestrian or cyclist crosses against the light only to be followed by a wave of compatriots. Against one, you can honk; faced with a mass, you must wait. As more and more people bike—a trend that’s growing worldwide, in part because of the rise of bike-sharing programs—bicyclists achieve through sheer numbers what their lack of power and precedence has denied them. (In 2006, Ben McGrath wrote about the rising popularity of bicycling in New York.)
And bicyclists have a new argument on their side: moral rectitude, with its corresponding sense of entitlement. Who are you, they ask, to be driving a clunker and killing the environment? I am making the morally superior choice when I get on my bike; I am de facto in the right because I am the better (and fitter) human being. As an argument, it’s hard to resist—especially since, from the moment we invoke moral arguments, we tend to ignore other kinds of reasoning that earlier we found appealing.” Both of these examples are designed to engender a distaste for cyclists, or if not designed to, at least have that effect. Cyclists swarming cars like pests, and a moral sense of entitlement? “…it’s hard to resist”, like it is something devilishly tempting, but needs resisting like all sinful behaviour.
- “There is, therefore, another, and perhaps more fundamental, source for our sense of vehicular entitlement: egocentricity. We all experience the world from our own point of view, and find it exceedingly difficult to move away from that selfish anchor. (Psychologists call this our egocentric bias.) Who we are colors what and how we see, and who we are changes depending on our mode of transportation. When we walk, we’re pedestrians. When we’re in a car, we’re drivers. When we bike, we’re cyclists. And whoever we are at the moment, we feel that we are deserving of priority.” Except, of the three modes of transportation, only drivers present high levels of danger, are a burden on our environment, our infrastructure, our productivity (time spent in traffic, lower productivity at work, etc), and our physical, mental, and emotional health. In our current global predicament we find ourselves in, the car is at the bottom of the priority list for urban environments, but still the default mode of transportation for most users, planners, designers, and elected officials (though, thankfully, that is changing).
- “When it comes to in-the-moment judgment, we don’t think abstractly, in terms of rules or laws or even common sense. We think concretely, in terms of our own personal needs at that very moment. It takes a big, effortful leap to tear ourselves out of that mode and accept someone else’s argument—and it’s an effort we don’t often make unless we’re specifically prompted to do so. And so, in some sense, it doesn’t matter who came first, or who’s the most powerful, or who’s best for the environment, or what the rules might say. What matters is what we, personally, happen to be doing. It’s hard to remind ourselves that we all play interchangeable roles within the urban landscape. In the end, it’s the role we’re in right now that matters. The never-ending war between bicyclists, drivers, and pedestrians reflects a basic, and often wrong, mental shortcut, upon which we all too often rely: Who is in the right? I am.” Nice try. This is the most piss-poor and least clever argument in the piece. The idea that “in-the-moment” applies to decisions that happen over the duration of your entire commute is absolutely amazing. The idea that you don’t have the power of reflection when driving, that you are simply reacting, relying on basic, animalistic responses to danger as soon as you start the engine. That’s the same horrifying mindset that assumes that all collisions are accidents, when in reality nearly 100% of “accidents” could have been avoided with the due care and attention that is needed when operating a deadly weapon. “…we don’t think abstractly, in terms of rules or laws or even common sense” is true when a car is speeding towards you (who are on a bike) from the wrong side of a roundabout, but it certainly isn’t for the driver of the car that is speeding through a roundabout without bothering to exercise any caution or consideration. However passively is it made, acting without due care is a choice, any way you slice it.
- “Isn’t it sad that we all can’t just be nicer to one another?”, is how this article ends. “Drawing on these arguments about power, precedence, and morality—and, also, through sheer numbers—pedestrians, drivers, and bicyclists all make strong claims to the streets (but one is stonger than the others…). And yet the picture is even more complex, because almost no one is exclusively a walker, a cyclist, or a driver. We shift from role to role, and with those changes comes a shift in our vantage point.” Wrong. Very few people outside of a small number of unique cities actually cycle as a means of transportation, never mind on a regular basis. Most people (especially if we are talking about places like North America and Australia) only walk to get from the car to the office. Driving is still considered to be normal, and walking and cycling for mild eccentrics. This is trying to make it sound like everyone understands, that drivers, especially, feel your pain and are just as much a victim as the rest of us. Most people identify with their primary mode of transportation at all times. Specific instances of threats to one’s own safety, like a driver nearly being driven into as they walk across the street to their parked car, do not represent a person’s overarching view of who has precedence on the roads. Someone who favours driving will think the other driver is an idiot, but it won’t change their view of driving in general.
You know what this whole situation is exactly like? It’s like we, as a species, have chosen to domesticate the lesser known land-shark and use it for transportation purposes, and when they eat over 1 million of us each year and chomp the limbs off tens of millions more, we simply develop flashy ways of making them appear safer and easier to control, but leave the teeth and huge powerful jaws untouched. Without actually saying it, we all simply accept that it’s the price we must pay for our freedom to get from A to B.
Of course, the staggering irony is that when we dive into an actual sharks dinner plate like it is our own private playground and a few of us, like, a really, really tiny amount of us, get eaten or bitten by one, we decide to kill ’em all. Get them gone! They want your children!
Cars, though? Again, millions of people, and one would have to think that we are approaching ever nearer to a billion people by now, are killed by those who drive them and we act like nothing is wrong. We simply carry on like nothing is happening, just as we are doing with our environment on a global scale.
This less-than-clever article from The New Yorker only differs from the crass drivel that was the subject of Friday’s response in it’s subtlety, but it subjugates cycling and walking to the dominance of driving all the same.
The motor vehicle has had extremely powerful backers working hard for a very long time to ingrain into the collective mindset that motor vehicles as the only mode of transportation that human beings are worthy of. Ms Konnikova demonstrates that, even if she’s not knowingly biased towards driving cars, she, like most people, have bought into this story. If she is aware and thinks she’s being a bit clever in subtly marginalising active and public transport, she can consider herself busted.
Header image: source