Published: Wednesday, July 11, 2012
By KATHRYN BOUGHTON
I have been worried about my son recently. No, he is not sick or in financial trouble, and he isn’t dabbling with drugs or drinking too much alcohol. In fact, his life seems to be on an upswing with a happy personal life and prospects for imminent career advancement.
So, what’s to worry about? Other people, that’s what.
With summer here, he is out of the classroom until fall, and, like many educators, he looked for summer employment. He found that in a popular bar/restaurant run by friends and opted to work in the kitchen rather than to resume his more lucrative moonlighting occupation behind the bar—he said he could no longer endure the slice-of-life exposure to other people’s problems that a bartender sees if he stands there long enough.
He also decided to improve his life other than just financially by shedding the too-plush pounds gained during an inactive winter, riding his bicycle 15 miles to and from work. And that is why I am worried. I had fussed about his riding along a narrow, curvy country road heavy with vehicular traffic, but I had not factored in the essential meanness of spirit currently exhibited by some people.
In only one week he has been nearly killed by a cement truck and harassed by a truckload of young people. Just the other day, as he waited for traffic to clear so he could retrieve a metal travel mug that had fallen from his bike’s holder, a car swerved well out of its established trajectory to smash the vessel in front of his eyes.
As he told the story of these events, he referred to other bikers who have had similar—and worse—experiences. “I cannot believe how aggressive people are toward bikers,” he said. Indeed, the pages of this newspaper have carried letters to the editor from other bikers who have been forced off the road and suffered actual injuries and potential death as a result of belligerent drivers.
What could cause a motorist to behave in such a heedless and dangerous manner? It, apparently, stems from the growing congestion of our lives, both on and off the road, and it is far from a local problem.
A thoughtful article written by Hugo Kugiya, a correspondent for Crosscut.com in Seattle, Wash., explored the issue in that city shortly after another bicyclist was killed by a car. In it, Mr. Kugiya speculated that the hostility may, in part, stem from race and class divisions. Cycling, he noted, once the mode of transportation of the proletariat, has moved into the realm of the well-to-do as the cost of equipment has escalated. Mr. Kugiya quotes a friend as saying, “Poor people ride the bus. Rich people ride bicycles.”
Well, they don’t ride the bus here, but class resentment could be there. Many Western Connecticut towns have a distinct overlay of people who moved into the area bringing with them income levels that bear no resemblance to the wages earned by local workers. The tensions between the groups only rarely surface to the level of verbal expression, but it is there and connotations of race and class are a “hot topic” in the bicycle advocacy world, according to Mr. Kuyiga’s story.
“The public face of bicycle advocacy tends to be white and upper class,” he quoted Mike Lydon of Street Plans Collaborative, which has offices in Miami and New York, as saying. A second factor in the equation has to be frustration. “If by hostility you mean rampant frustration, yes we are hostile … ,” wrote one person in response to Mr. Kuyiga’s article. “Many cyclists believe that traffic laws, stop signs, red lights and crosswalks are meant for motorists and pedestrians, not bicyclists.”
Resentment against cyclists is amplified by their visibility: few cycle, nearly everyone drives. So a rude, belligerent or inconsiderate rider is more obvious than an equally obnoxious driver. Add to that the sense of separation engendered by riding in a car—those outside the car become faceless and voiceless—and empathy and courtesy dissolve.
It can be frustrating to find yourself behind a cluster of cyclists on a narrow country road, but it is equally frustrating to follow a heavy truck that lumbers up hills and obstructs your view in the few areas where passing is possible. Few would consider making rude gestures to the truck driver, however, or of sideswiping the vehicle out of exasperation. It would be well to consider, as our roads are increasingly clogged with motorized vehicles, that each bicycle represents one fewer car or truck, emits no toxins, creates no noise and is easier to pass.
The isolation of the car and the anonymity of the bicyclists should not obscure the humanity of both travelers. My son has a face, a family that loves him, a society that he serves. He has a couple of bikes—one of which costs a lot of money but, ironically, the one he likes best was rescued from a transfer station and rehabilitated. It’s about 30 years old. His “expensive” gear consists of a helmet and a headlight that cost far more than they should have and—oh, yes, a backpack to carry his work clothes to the restaurant kitchen where he slogs away to make a living. No class war here.
Indeed, the lesson to be learned is that our regard for road safety and the sanctity of life should rise above any assumptions about who the other person is. In a world where resources of all kinds are increasingly stressed as more people occupy this globe and want their fair share of its benefits, we all need to be more tolerant and more patient.
Kathryn Boughton is Associate Editor of The Litchfield County Times.