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Mean Streets

Mountain Xpress: Mean Streets

It’s time motorists and cyclists signed a peace treaty

by Mike Sule in Vol. 16 / Iss. 3 on 08/12/2009

As much as I love cycling in Asheville, it is not without its challenges: steep terrain, erratic weather, a lack of infrastructure and harassment by hostile motorists.

The latter peril was graphically illustrated July 26, when Asheville firefighter Charles Diez allegedly harassed Alan Simons verbally, pointed his gun at Simons’ head and pulled the trigger — in front of the cyclist’s wife and 3-year-old child — apparently because Diez disapproved of Simons’ having his child in a bike seat.

Thankfully, the bullet hit Simons’ helmet but missed his head, and our city now has an opportunity to use this spiteful shooting to reflect on the very real tension that exists between motorists and cyclists without having to bury a father.

But for me, this kind of hostility is the most frustrating local cycling challenge, because it’s the product of a pointless malice that has no rational basis.

How silly is it that we harass one another based on our transportation preferences? Yet the consequences are severe — and potentially fatal. Fortunately, the more time you spend riding in the city, the more avoidance and defensive strategies you learn, thus reducing the likelihood of injury and death.

But the fact is, cyclists are vulnerable, whereas the motorists who endanger them can all too easily drive off and disappear. And experienced riders know that while motorist harassment generally lacks creativity and falls into four readily recognizable categories, all of them can threaten cyclists’ lives.

"Projectile harassment" involves throwing something at a bicyclist. Often, it consists of drive-through refuse or a glass bottle, but motorists can and do hurl just about anything that might be cluttering up their vehicle’s interior. I’ve heard stories of everything from shoes to diapers being flung at riders. Projectile harassment most commonly happens when motorist and cyclist are traveling parallel to each other. Cyclists must learn how to dodge the lobbed obstacle or endure the encounter without losing control and either colliding with the car or going off the road.

Then there is "noise assault" — typically, a vulgarity or series of vulgarities shouted by the motorist, though it can also take the form of aggressive horn-honking (or, sometimes, both). Noise assaults tend to come from a vehicle traveling either behind or beside the cyclist. They may continue for an extended period of time, often running in a pattern: "vulgarity, beep-beep, vulgarity, beep; vulgarity, beep-beep, vulgarity, beep" and so on. This tests the cyclist’s nerves and is particularly disturbing in tunnels.

In the "bully mass," a driver pits the motor vehicle’s considerable mass against the decidedly lesser mass of a bicycle and rider, highlighting the latter’s vulnerability. An intimidation tactic, the bully mass can easily lead to a collision or the cyclist’s being driven off the road and into whatever unfriendly terrain may begin where the asphalt ends. Our narrow city roads and lack of bike lanes make it harder for cyclists to avoid ending up in a ditch.

Until recently, I’d understood the fourth form of harassment, the "wild-card combo" — employing any two of the above harassment strategies simultaneously — to be the greatest threat to the cyclist’s safety. The wild-card combo is terrifying for several reasons, but the fundamental concern stems from the fact that multitasking while driving is always risky business.

Each year, countless vehicular collisions result from a motorist’s texting, phoning or even choosing music while negotiating traffic. Anything that distracts the motorist from the primary task of driving compromises safety and increases the risk of mishap. So imagine what happens when a driver decides to use both projectile and bully-mass harassment.

While approaching the cyclist and sizing up the target, the motorist rummages about the car’s interior in search of an ideal object to lob. That takes one hand off the wheel and divides the driver’s attention between keeping the car on the road, keeping the cyclist in the cross hairs, and finding a suitable weapon.

Meanwhile, the motorist is also initiating the bully mass, steering perilously close to the chosen target and placing the rider’s life in jeopardy. The fact that some motorists find this particular mode of transportation so intolerable that they’re willing to run the risk of killing someone is ludicrous. It defies all reason — yet it happens on our city streets, daily.

Divisive and angry is no condition to be in when moving about city streets, especially if you’ve taken on the responsibility of maneuvering a 2-ton machine through our neighborhoods and business districts. Nothing good ever comes from armed and angry, and that’s exactly what a motorist is who disregards the cyclist’s lawful right to the roads, practicing annoying harassment at best and, too often, something far, far worse.

Meanwhile, Asheville’s transportation network is changing: The automobile is no longer king of the road. As the city implements its Comprehensive Bicycle Plan and adopts a Transit Master Plan, more and more residents will start taking advantage of alternatives to cars. Bicycles are cheap, efficient, green and healthy. Some cyclists feel called to pedal due to environmental concerns, while others turn to the bicycle out of necessity in these harsh economic times. Still others are looking for quick exercise or affordable, quality, family time. The reasons vary, and the number of local cyclists continues to multiply.

But change is always a challenge, and community leaders, organizers and residents all have roles to play in improving the conditions on our streets. We all have a stake in safe transportation.

I challenge both motorists and cyclists to take personal responsibility for keeping local roads safe for everyone. As our transportation options diversify, it’s time to make road rage and cyclist harassment things of the past. Let’s move beyond the "something worse" and embrace something better.

[Asheville resident Mike Sule is the founder of Asheville on Bikes.]