Public Enemy – Fear of a Nicer Planet
The public enemy of the transport world rides a bike.
Is it not weird how all people who ride bikes are all lumped together in such a neat fashion and yet everyone who drives automobiles are not? That pedestrians are not? That public transport users are not?
Do any other groups attract this kind of attention? The only other group I can think of that is so maligned are sports bike riders, but they are a fringe group of the motorists category. We have somewhat generic opinions of some sub-categories of motorists, like ute-drivers, or blokes in Commodores or pimped-out imports, which we even have a name for in “hoons”. Hoons do get maligned in the public forum, but with nowhere near as much consistency or vitriol, and besides, that’s precisely because they should be. If they weren’t driving especially recklessly, they would just be regular “motorists”, and absent of doing sick smokies or driving well over the speed limit in any of the approved “hoon” cars (excessive speeding in a “normal” car is just speeding of the unremarkable sort), any death or injury that follows is merely an accident.
So, only when motorists fit into an easily stereotyped category that probably has more to do with who is driving than how or what they are driving, is their action considered as especially negative and typical of the group they are deemed to be a member of (fairly or not). If they don’t fit into an easily stereotyped category, then it was just an accident, and isn’t that too bad. Even so, truly undesirable actions from any sub-species belonging to the order of “motorists” can’t actually cause any real, lasting harm to the image of motorists in general, so there’s no real concern there.
(there are actually plenty of easy stereotypes for “normal” drivers, it’s just that majorities don’t tend to wear stereotypes anywhere near as well as minorities do)
When one “regular” person drives a car over another person, we never seem to read headlines about how “motorists” are a menace to young and old and will bring our city to its knees (even though, arguably, they are precisely that, if anything is going to).
Yet, as soon as one person riding a bike collides with a pedestrian, all hell breaks loose.
Might it be that most people do not understand cycling enough to distinguish the extremely subtle nuances that distinguish between a fully kitted-out road cyclist on a training ride and a stylishly dressed lady-about-town, and so, meh, they’re all the same (but then why is all the same a bad thing)? Is it simply that cyclists are still a minority and minorities can be blamed for everything? Could it simply be that most people assume that no matter what they look like, they must all have the same motivations to subvert our way of life as we know it? That the only thought going through their minds is “Death to the car and all who drive them!”
There is some merit to the idea that because motorists are isolated and often hidden from their surroundings that we don’t personalize their actions, but surely that works both for and against the argument, and conversely, that because cyclists are all easily identified as being individuals, that they should not be lumped together as all being the same. You can obviously see that they are not.
Is that all there is to it? Is it just that human proclivity for pride that we do this to some road users? We find groups of people who are in the minority that roughly fit a description of some kind and because we don’t like the actions of some of them (or look), we then feel free to vent our frustrations on all of them?
In the context of the road, these frustrations – congestion, stress, accidents, wasted time, pollution, and the rest – are necessarily caused least of all by these minorities, considering that they are a minority, but don’t let logic get in the way of a good prejudice.
Logic? No, there’s just more of us
So why cycling? There are as many types of people who ride a bike as there are people, so trying to say that cyclists are all X is impossible, unless what you’d like to say is that they all ride bikes. So even if you are super into saying really obvious stuff, that’s where the commonalities end, but that’s apparently enough to assign the blame of the few to the many.
If it’s simply that they all ride bikes that we can blame the many for the faults of the few, then why is it any different for people who drive automobiles? They are as varied as people who ride bikes, but all share the common characteristic of driving automobiles, so we should all be taring your mom with the same feathers as that guy who loves pulling sick smokies and drag racing in school zones.
Or would that be silly?
The answer is obvious, of course. We, the majority, are comfortable with what we have, and don’t like seeing anyone threaten that. Our mistakes are absolved. And if they are mistakes, at least they’re made where they should be, unlike cyclists.
The automobile is simply a social institution, and driving them is, generally speaking, beyond reproach. Again, just like gun laws in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. It’s a useful thing to have around, but we don’t need them everywhere and maybe we need to think about how we use them.
When one cyclist hits an injures a pedestrian and immediately faces charges, even when fault is unclear, yet thousands of pedestrians are killed by motorists and, well, it’s unfortunate but it’s just an accident after all, then, yes, driving automobiles is beyond reproach.
When something horrible becomes something that is beyond reproach, then we need to have a good, hard look at ourselves, realize that we have lost our way in this regard, and find our humanity again.
Which one is the public enemy again?
I have a tendency to think that the auto industry, the transport industry, the oil industry, and the infrastructure industry are all part of the same corrupt system that allowed the banking sector to, firstly, collapse the world economy, and second, bail them out with no apparent repayment strategy (financially and otherwise) and then allow them to carry on operating without any real oversight to do what they’ve always done.
I bring this up because it seems as though most people, especially in positions of influence, look only to the immediate concerns of more for me. More money. More customers. More power. So perhaps it is just that the automotive industry-machine needs to keep their lofty position on our roads and in our societies that causes minor threats like cycling to be blamed and ridiculed out of legitimacy. Perhaps cycling really does simply represent a threat to the way of life that we have been sold and have come to know and continue to try desperately to love.
Perhaps, like drivers of imports with loud exhausts and sports-bike riders, people on bikes are representations of things that frustrate us, that frighten us, that seem oh-so-unfair.
If you take the person off of the bike, they are just like you and me. If you take the sports bike rider out of his leathers, he’s just another guy. Sure, some of them are fanatical, but most people who ride just like to ride because of the many benefits. They have no interest in dismantling society, but when they are on a bike, that is what they represent.
So I think that cycling is public enemy number one because it represents better than anything else that it is first and foremost a threat to what we unthinkingly consider as one of our key rights and freedoms: driving. It is the pesky intruder that threatens to breach the walls of our little castles and run amok with the townspeople.
And so I think our task is this: to alter people’s evaluation of this intruder. This public enemy. We need to make people understand that people who ride bikes are not intruders looking to steal your women and livestock (though I can’t speak for all of them), but who’d like to scale your walls and clean the joint up a little. Plant a bit of greenery. Sweep up the rubbish. Create a few nice places to sit and enjoy the environs, and space for you and your children to enjoy health and happiness while on your way to and from whatever it is that you must do.
We won’t win anyone over by telling them they’re a bit stupid, tempting as it may be (and try as I might…). We need to convince people that there is an alternative, that it is so much more of the life that you desire than you realize, and sell them the image of cycling that a growing number of people are already enjoying.
Header image: The Sticky Bidon