Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Big Tent - Opinions in Bicycling Advocacy

The deeper I get into bicycle advocacy, the more I see that our opinions are so divergent about the correct operation of a bicycle on a roadway, building a consensus and taking action is nearly impossible. To make things worse, the people who have probably put the most thought into the matter tend to be the most impassioned and most easily dismissed by their fellow advocates, government officials and even other bicycle riders. How does one build a coalition to advocate for improving people on bikes safety and defending the use roadways, educate people who drive cars that people on bikes are allowed to be there, and in the end, increase the number of people who use bicycles in their daily lives?

Just a quick rundown of the basic types I encounter, and in some cases, fear.
  1. Vehicular - The bicycle is just another vehicle on the road, and the operators of vehicles are prescribed to operate their vehicle in a particular manner in accordance with the laws. The extreme example of this group is opposed to bike lanes and segregated bike paths, believing them to decrease bicycle user safety and insisting that in the stream of traffic is the safest place.
  2. Libertine - The road exists for people to use, and motorized vehicles are regulated in their manner of usage to keep other users of the roadway safe, but generally, laws for motor vehicle operation don't apply to bicycle operation on a roadway.
  3. Safety - Essentially generally following the rules of the road is desirable, but getting to your destination alive is the most important thing when mixing with traffic. Many obligations placed on road users are unsafe for bicycle riders (such as signaling, or using bike lanes). This might actually be the same as Libertine, but is based on the 10 rules for Urban Commuting posted by Josh King to Commute By Bike. Alternately, it's a moderate and pragmatic variant of Vehicular.
  4. Expediency - This is more of an observed class of riders who don't appear to follow any rules. They frequently behave more as pedestrians than road users, riding where convenient at any moment and trusting other users of the roadway to look out for them.
Obviously, these are gross generalizations that don't capture the nuance's of any particular person's behaviors and beliefs when riding. I consider myself to operate my bicycle primarily in a Vehicular mode, obeying roadway usage regulations for the most part as prescribed by state law. I regularly come in contact with a wide variety of people who hold opinions all along the spectrum above, and they're all valuable, but we end up talking past each other a lot.

When someone is telling me that signaling is optional, riding through a red light during the all-red portion of the cycle and that the laws that apply to motor vehicles don't apply to other roadway users, I find it difficult to accept and have a meaningful conversation with them, and further, to agree on a course of action that will produce a safer environment for people to ride bicycles in their daily lives, as well as increase perceived safety.

Perhaps the problem is that people who are trying to improve conditions and increase the number of people who use a bicycle regularly are too involved, too polarized and don't represent the people we want to help and reach? Other transportation modes are perceived to be simpler and safer, having a multitude of opinions shouted of how to do it is probably too daunting to someone who can walk out of their home with a key, get in a car and drive to their destination and is very willing to accept the costs, risks and annoyances of doing so.

So how do we integrate everyone's opinions into plans of action that really do increase safety, protections for the injured and get more people riding?

More to come. No sparing the electrons for this topic.