Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Society, Image, and Change

Transportation becomes a public forum for society. Social norms, technology, interpersonal interaction take place in that public space reserved for travel (and very little else these days). And so this is where conflicts, misconduct, and systemic change (or systemic failure) first become visible. At least, that's my theory.

Recent media coverage on bicycling - particularly about sharing the road - indicates a civilization in flux. While bicycles have been around slightly longer than cars, and while this debate has bubbled on for decades, it seems to take on a new urgency. Motorists act like they are being threatened. Governments waiver between restricting the rights of pedestrians and cyclists, and investing in new bicycle-friendly, walkable infrastructure. Bicycle riders respond with everything from Critical Mass-style protest rides to Cycle Chic parties.

I started thinking about this after reading some recent articles from the Charlotte Observer. They started with an article explaining traffic laws and talking about conflicts between cars and bicycles. This item was actually in response to an earlier feature in the Charlotte Creative Loafing, which combined the worst of fear-mongering journalism with rampant misuse of statistics and motorist entitlement. If you click through to the article, please don't believe any of it! Anyway, these articles generated intense debate among the 'traveling public' and the discussion became so acrimonious that the newspaper had to disable, and even delete, the comments section. The debate raged on through another article and an editorial.

Is this representative of Charlotte's citizenry? Is it even representative of the newspaper's viewpoint, or just a single reporter? Probably not. It's just another part of the public discourse about social norms. And to me, it sounds very self-conscious. I think people know that they sometimes drive with distractions, after drinking too much, or that they take risks behind the wheel. We comfort ourselves with the (erroneous) belief that airbags, seatbelts, and anti-lock brakes will prevent something terrible from happening as a result. Acknowledging the legitimacy of bicycle traffic means taking responsibility for one's actions on the road, and giving up all of the excuses that people use to justify reckless driving.

I do not think that confrontation is the antidote to the situation. I believe the best response is to continue portraying the "citizen cyclist", the ordinary person on a bike, who could be your neighbor, your friend, your future spouse. The Charlotte Observer published this cute human interest piece a few days later, although it still caught the end of the rules-of-the-road firestorm. In addition, the Elle Magazine website did an entire bicycle feature in their street chic section, and a group of women in Seattle got inspired by Atlanta's Heels on Wheels events!

Across the pond, the Guardian (London) has been following debates over bicycle lanes, traffic laws, and some high-profile collisions. The article that caught my attention the most, however, was this one about one woman's strategy for dealing with sexist remarks while she bikes through the city. (You can link to their other cycling articles along the right side of the page).


  1. Wow... the author of that CL piece sounds like a genuinely horrible person.

  2. Hopefully they just bring her on to stir up controversy - I hope it's not a common viewpoint!