Writer. Warning: opinions. My lawyer advised a disclaimer, but didn't include any jokes to go with. Damned if I can think of any either.

Atlanta’s Cycling Community Needs to Think

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.

9 thoughts on “Atlanta’s Cycling Community Needs to Think”

  1. bob donlan

    Bob ‘Dornlan’ approves of this message. Since riding more organized road rides and less choatic “social” rides I have begun to obey more laws. I still run a few lights here and there, but its becoming less and less. Mostly cause I’m just never in that big of a hurry and enjoy the chance to catch my breathe. Even in alleycats I generally obey most of the laws. I do enjoy the occasional salmoning though.

    I do like how people continue to make the stab at the “spandex clad” rider. I want to make a kit that just says “This silly kit is comfortable,” or something along those lines. No would read it though. Oh well.

  2. Brad Fletchall

    @Jim, I agree with you 100%. Critical Mass has its place but I wish they would obey traffic laws while they do it. Wouldn’t it be cool if there were 1000 riders waiting at stop lights and in a really really long line no more than 2 wide. Taking the lane when it makes sense and signalling turns. Costumes, flags, ect. all still acceptable if one is into that sort of bike decorating that sometimes happens with such events. That would truly make a statement.

    It would put the ball in the motorists court so to speak.

  3. jim

    Well actually Brad there is Courteous Mass, which tries to do exactly that. They meet at the same place as Critical Mass, but every second friday, I believe. You’re very likely to see Atlanta Bicycle Coalition members there, as well.

  4. Kyle

    Correct, Jim, Courteous Mass is the second Friday of each month. Brad, you should join us, and spread the word. Sometimes we stop in the summer for popsicles or ice cream.

    Bob, I like your take on organized road rides and how they have led to your better awareness of traffic laws. I had never considered that angle. I fail to see why people get uptight on the spandex issue: who cares? Do people write letters to the editor whenever some lardy tourist shuffles her FUPA past en route to the World of Coca-Cola? No. You just look elsewhere and move on. So if you don’t like spandex, don’t wear it; if you don’t want to look at a guy’s aerodynamic junk, look away.

  5. Rebecca

    Nice post, Jim. I’ve been thinking a lot about the reaction to the editorial in CL about cycling – did you see it? They hit some highlights of what is lacking in Atlanta, but the comments are just dumb (except for mine and Kyle’s :-)

    On the way home last night I caught up with a girl (riding a cute pink mixte, btw…) who proceeded to run every single red light she was faced with for the 1.5 miles where our paths coincided. It occurred to me that while only the cars I was traveling with noticed me stopping, every car she cut in front of noticed her running the light. So she probably created the impression of a dozen cyclists running red lights by interacting with so many drivers.

    This led me to the depressing thought that if I want to eradicate the negative impression caused by red light running (not my top priority but it has a big impact on how successful I am with my outreach/education/lobbying efforts, I would have stop to convince nearly every single cyclist to stop running lights and stop signs. Talk about an uphill climb!

  6. jim

    I know, it irritates me too. That girl deserves to be yelled at.

    Mixtes also deserve to be melted down and made into less abominably-shaped bicycles, in my view, but that’s another story.

  7. Doug

    It always amazes me listening to some cyclists talk about busting stop signs, running traffic lights, and other traffic violations as this moral gray area open for discussion and interpretation. Motorists (most) on the other hand never even consider running red lights because we know we’ll get in trouble with the cops. So my question is why do cyclists not get in trouble for these traffic violations the way motorists do? You know – flashing blue lights? tickets? court? jail? Does that ever happen?

  8. Thomas Wheatley

    Great points, Jim — they’re ones that I share.

    It’s funny, because during the week I was reporting the story, I was driving home and got caught at a red light on Edgewood. I was tired, crosseyed, and just eager to get home. A cyclist passed me and went straight through it. And I was jealous and just a wee bit pissed about it. And I should’ve noted that such behavior doesn’t help anyone.

    I appreciate your thoughtful take on the piece. Any time you think there’s something going on that deserves attention or some investigation, never hesitate to send us a line. Take care and keep well.

    [this comment was sent via email. I’ve added it with permission from Mr. Wheatley -Jim]