“Terrorists on Wheels”: Why Does Everyone Hate Cyclists?

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c/o streetsblog.com

Last Thursday, Jill Tarlov was walking in Central Park, when she was struck by cyclist Jason Marshall. Tarlov, a 59-year-old Connecticut mother of two, died today after spending days in a coma. Eyewitness accounts suggest that Marshall struck Tarlov after swerving to avoid a group of pedestrians who were walking in the bike lane. Marshall reportedly yelled a warning at Tarlov, but it was too late and he hit Tarlov, causing the woman to fall, strike her head, and enter a coma from which she never recovered. Mitchell, a seasoned cyclist, sustained minor injuries, stayed at the scene of the accident, and has not been charged with any crimes.

And yet it hasn’t taken very long at all for an outcry to erupt with a variety of voices wondering if the city’s cycling culture needs to be completely recalibrated, if not dismantled entirely. Perhaps it’s because this horrifying accident took place just a couple months—and in virtually the same location—as another tragic and fatal cyclist/pedestrian encounter (that of Irving Schachter), but it seems like the tenor of the current debate is more frenzied than it has been in the past, with even the normally measured New York Times solely interviewing a number of anti-cyclist New Yorkers in an article about Tarlov’s death, thus seemingly planting itself pretty firmly on one side of the “debate” that the Times claims has risen in New York following Tarlov’s death.

But, of course, for a debate to be fair, there needs to be more than one side represented, and yet it seems that the media is overwhelmingly speaking out against cyclists, with some, like the New York Post‘s notoriously incendiary, perpetually hysterical Andrea Peyser resorting to infantile name-calling, and generalizing as melodramatically as possible:

Entitled, obnoxious and armed with two-wheeled deadly weapons and “don’t f–k with me’’ attitudes, the bike creeps speed through the streets and parks of this town, barreling through busy crosswalks, tormenting small children, pets, senior citizens and the rest of us sitting ducks with curses on their lips — and blood on their hands.

As absurd as it would be not to recognize that Peyser is blatantly trying to get people’s attention by calling cyclists “terrorists on wheels” and “assassins in Spandex,” it would be similarly absurd not to recognize that Peyser’s rhetoric is not hers alone, rather there are many people who seem to think that cyclists are the true enemies of New York pedestrians, and that ridding the road of bicycles will make for safer streets.

This, not to put too fine a point on it, is nonsensical. In 2013, 156 pedestrians were killed in New York by motorists. Zero were killed by cyclists. In fact, prior to Schachter’s death, there had been no cyclist/pedestrian fatalities since 2009. This doesn’t, of course, mean that there shouldn’t be a conversation about things like whether or not our city parks should be used as de facto velodromes (they shouldn’t), but it is ridiculous to pretend that more bikes on the street lead to some sort of inherent dangers for pedestrians. In fact, a city that makes it easier for its residents to use bicycles as a mode of transportation will be necessarily making that city safer for all road-users—providing that said road-users follow the rules of the roads. This means that pedestrians shouldn’t wander into bike lanes, that cars should yield to cyclists when appropriate, and that cyclists shouldn’t assume that yelling “Get out of the way!” is sufficient warning that they are coming.

The larger point is that we are all responsible for the safety of ourselves and of others. New York, more than any other city in this country, is a place of constant enforced interaction. It is a city where it takes smarts to survive. New Yorkers can not assume that anyone is looking out for them, yet must do their best to look out for others. There is no point in casting blame on a whole group of people (in this case, cyclists) when it is clear—based on the group’s safety record as a whole—that biking does not collectively endanger anyone as much as it does the cyclists themselves. Yes, cyclists have a responsibility to pedestrians to obey the rules of the road by not traveling at excessive speed and yielding to people in crosswalks, but demonizing the whole for the irresponsible actions of a few would be akin to banning all cars from the city because of all the pedestrian deaths. (Which doesn’t always sound like the worst idea, but still.) We could all stand to be a little more careful out there, whether on foot or on wheels, but heedlessly casting blame doesn’t make any of us safer, it only contributes to a culture of fear and antipathy. And that helps absolutely no one.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen