I’ve just read an article in Creative Loafing regarding Atlanta’s cycling community, and as usual when anything cycling-related is mentioned, I don’t completely love everything that got said. In fact, there’s at least something in every one of the seven paragraphs with which I disagree, but then, I’m often disagreeable just to pass the time.
The article starts with this near the top:
The monthly event — the leaderless, somewhat controversial Critical Mass that’s become an urban staple around the world — offers a snapshot of how far Atlanta’s cycling culture has come in a city defined by the automobile.
And tumbles to a stop with this closing paragraph:
Motorists, some of whom drive as if the road is theirs alone, should exercise more patience. Courtesy and caution toward cyclists ultimately could help keep cars off the road and smog out of the air by encouraging more people to start pedaling.
First of all, let me just say that I don’t think Critical Mass offers a snapshot of how far Atlanta’s cycling culture has come. It does, however, offer an excellent snapshot of what some people who own bikes like to do one Friday a month.
I think of Critical Mass much like graffiti. There are passionate fans of graffiti who will urgently represent it as an unassailable art form, perhaps even a vital expression of the soul of a city. Let’s face it, some of the most interesting artwork in our city is at least as likely to be painted along MARTA tracks as it is to be hanging in the High. On the other hand, there are business owners who might look at spray paint on the wall of their business and be less enthused.
Similarly, there are motorists trying to get home to their families on the last Friday of the month who take issue with a horde of people on bikes running red lights and blocking intersections, all the while shouting “Happy Friday!” as if everyone should be delighted that they’re being selfish with the roadway. Do those annoyed motorists get up the next day and vote in favor of more bike lanes? No they don’t, because the next day is Saturday, but you see where I’m going.
I have ridden in Critical Mass a few times, and I can honestly tell you it is a pretty excellent experience. When I started riding my bike in town, I also used to run a lot of red lights and split lanes (splitting lanes is the practice of riding between lines of parked cars to cut to the front of an intersection). After all, the best policy on a bike in traffic is to behave not as though a car can hit you if you are careless but as though they want to. If one is not not careful, one can start to have an “us against them” traffic philosophy.
The problem is that this behavior is, in my opinion, ultimately detrimental to cycling as a whole. Now, me, I love cycling very much, so I feel compelled to do what I can to make it better and more easily accessible for newcomers. As such, I no longer split lanes, I no longer run lights, and I no longer go to Critical Mass. I believe that these things make me look like a jerk, and being a jerk is bad whether you are on a bike, in a car, or expressing yourself through visual art.
I don’t believe that it behooves anyone who rides bikes to be combative about it any more than it helps motorists teach all cyclists a lesson by driving too closely to the next one they see. What we need is to all chill out, follow the rules, and be respectful of one another instead of making it into a fight.
I know that this might be a lot to ask, especially since a car vs. bike accident usually means some repairs to the driver and a trip to the hospital for the rider, but I have a lot of faith in Atlanta’s cycling community. Yes, motorists should exercise more patience, but cyclists should also exercise more courtesy. We’re all neighbors, are we not? Sure, there are five million or so of us, but we all live here together.
Let’s be safe, let’s use our heads, and let’s think about what’s best for everyone — motorists included — going forward.