I wasn’t really surprised by the recent screeds against bicyclists in the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. These seem to come in flurries every once in a while, first one media outlet, then others not wanting to be left out of the resulting mayhem. Generating controversy is a common tactic for the media, and challenges to the status quo, like increasing interest in bicycling, are an irresistible target. But what does it really mean for bicyclists?
The greatest injustice the Herald and other haters are perpetrating is that they dehumanize us. We end up nameless, faceless “bicyclists” – not who we really are, like mothers on bikes, grandfathers on bikes, or neighbors on bikes. When motorists are driving next to that nameless bicyclist, it’s easier not to pay attention to or care about that bicyclist’s safety. Last year, we did a campaign called “And I Ride” to put a human face on people who ride bikes. It’s worth taking another look and sending to your non-bicycling friends.
There is also lack of perspective in all this reporting. Yes, there are bicyclists who don’t follow the law or who act like jerks, but you can say the same of many motorists and pedestrians. Motorists routinely speed, fail to stop, and make illegal turns, and many pedestrians cross mid-block and against the light. We’ve got a cultural problem on our streets, where some people have given up on being considerate to others. These recent stories on bicyclists ignore the fact that bicyclists make up a tiny percentage of road users, along with a tiny percentage of users breaking the law.
But the truth is, bicyclists are being noticed because our numbers are growing. More bicyclists are out on the streets than ever before and that is a great thing. More and more people are finding out that bicycling is good for the environment, good for their own health, good for their wallet, and it’s fun, too. It’s no wonder that bicyclists are getting more attention.
So what can we, the bicycling community, do to end the vitriol? We’re doing our best at MassBike to foster change in our transportation culture, to educate motorists how to share space with us, and to get more police enforcement against dangerous motorists. Bicyclists can do their part, too. That means speaking up at public meetings, being a good bicycling ambassador wherever you go, and yes, following bicycling laws, too. MassBike strongly advocates that bicyclists should follow the rules of the road (see Same Roads, Same Rules, also urging motorists to respect bicyclists). Whether you agree with us or not, please consider how your actions might affect public perception of bicyclists and the safety of others on roads, paths, and sidewalks.
As more stories about bicycling make headlines, the media needs to be reminded of its responsibility to report fairly on issues of public safety. Bicyclists can do their part, but unless the media reports more responsibly, the negative perception of bicyclists won’t change.