Sunday, 14 October 2012

Why Do We Glorify Cyclists and Scorn Motorists.

...because no one else will.

In a recent post on a cycling blog, someone said that people spend too much time and energy glorifying cyclists and scorning motorists.

I'm not sure that's true.

After all, there is something to be said for glorifying cyclists. Cycling does have a certain refreshing iconoclasm to it. In the US especially, it represents a kind of new frontier of independence and rugged individualism in a culture that has always secretly despised all those things even as it pretends to be defined by them. Essentially, in a world in which nothing has come along in 35 years to seriously disturb the status quo, cycling is the new Punk.

I don't have much patience for those who claim the bicycle is a one-stop utopia machine, but it certainly has a lot going for it compared with motorized alternatives in terms of its low environmental impact and its potential health benefits.

And what of the automobile and its acolytes?

Well, I think driving a car is very clearly a bad thing. Driving causes severe pollution problems, motorists kill a million people per year worldwide and injure millions more (because most motorists are incompetent). Driving makes cities and roadways stink, it creates a constant background roar that (if you stop for a minute and 'try' to listen to nature) can be heard anywhere within a mile or two of a moderately busy road. Finally, cars create in their users a sense of entitlement - of ownership of what is by rights a public space. How is any of that not bad? How is it not worth scorn?

And here in the US motorists are parasites. They get subsidized gasoline, they get specialized facilities like interstate highways paid for out of general taxation, motorized traffic flow is given priority on every road, motorists are provided with free parking spaces on public roads and in government buildings and businesses, and what do pedestrians and cyclists get in return? A few poorly designed pedestrian facilities, a few dangerously designed bike lanes and never enough bicycle parking. Oh, and 30,000 deaths per year in the US alone, pollution, stench, noise, bullying on the roads, overbearing motorist arrogance, a gross sense of motorist entitlement. Does that sound like a good deal? Maybe to a motorist, but not to me.

I don’t think for a moment that the freedom to drive an automobile is worth the cost in lives or the cost to the environment. The car, thanks to its immense popularity, has become a ubiquitous horror - a frightening presence on the road, a disgusting blight on the environment and on our health. Surely everyone recognizes that freedom from being run over and killed, freedom to breathe fresh air and freedom to enjoy peace and quiet are things we should work towards achieving. But a veritable internal combustion pandemic prevents any of that from happening.

And let's face facts: motoring is no longer cool or individualistic - it no longer inspires independence of spirit, as it used to do when car ownership was somewhat rare. Driving a car used to be special, but now anyone can do it - worse - everyone is expected to do it. Not only is motoring not special - it's boring! Despite the best efforts of marketing companies to make it appear cool, the car has become the modern equivalent of the pocket protector (if anyone had ever been foolish enough to make a pocket protector that emitted enough fumes to make a person gag).

The automobile 'was' a part of the new frontier back in the early 20th Century. Its invention was a revolution, but like so many revolutions, it eventually got stale and staid. It had its 15 minutes of fame but like so many celebrities past their prime, it outstayed its welcome. It just wouldn't get off the stage, and when something gets that annoying, people start to look at it more critically, and let's face it, the car (and motorists) do leave something to be desired. When people in the 'ingroup' kill so many people, when they habitually show no remorse for their victims, when they act so shamefully, when they actively lobby against efforts to curb their abuses, and when pro-car bias is so profound in society that a pedestrian can be convicted of vehicular homicide when a car kills one of her family, it kinda leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those of us in the 'outgroup'. If motorists would stop the killings, stop the polluting and take their responsibilities a bit more seriously, then maybe they would deserve a bit less scorn.

And if we poll motorists, we find half of them don't even like to drive! Even they find it boring, frustrating, distasteful. But they are like abused spouses - they keep coming back to their cars because they just can't imagine life any other way. The love affair was bound to end at some point. I'm just surprised the honeymoon lasted so long.

One thing is certain - when the last car finally goes the way of the dinosaur and if we ever get our natural world back again, a lot of people will breathe a monumental sigh of relief, and for the first time since the age of the automobile began, they won't risk choking as they draw in the air necessary to breathe that sigh.

In the meantime, at the very least, motorists deserve scorn. To be honest, it disappoints me that they don't get a lot worse than that. They should be publicly shamed. I don't scorn motorists. Scorn requires a particle of humor - it requires me to laugh (at least inwardly) at them, and I can't raise even a smirk. I despise them, I can barely tolerate them, and I feel ashamed that I am so inured to them that I no longer have the internal sensitivity to be physically sickened by them.

And I have to admit that there's an irony there, because I often get into my wife's car far too willingly. The thing is, while cars are disgusting and contemptible, they are also convenient and (in the words of John Lydon) I'm a lazy sod. But if my wife's car was gone, I certainly wouldn't miss it, which is why I've asked her, on a number of occasions, to get rid of the damned thing.

One more thing. When I was searching for an image to use for this blog, I was surprised by the number of photos of burning cars during riots. maybe it's just that cars are easy targets. Or could there be a deeper motivation lurking there?

And to the motorists, I think John Lydon might have said it best:

"There's no future, no future,
No future for you."

 And to the car: what is it I want you to do?


  1. Ian, I owe you on this post. That's what caused me to flame out on the recent Bike League post about looking normal: to me, it was a post extolling the idea that you could ride a bike and still show up looking like a motorist. Why the hell would I want to ride a bike and not flaunt it? That's not to say that the rest of the cycling community should ride down the road looking like a rolling billboard, but it does mean cyclists should eschew what the U.S. calls "normal".

    thanks for the essay on this topic.

    1. Thanks Khal. You know, I didn't really get your point until now. Sometimes I'm just extremely dense and incredibly slow on the uptake.

    2. Sometimes I miss making my own point...

  2. If MOST motorists were incompetent, how would it be possible to safely drive a bike on the road?

    1. Look at the link that sentence leads to. Incompetent driving is not necessarily dangerous driving. I guess it does kinda hint at one reason for the million dead though.

    2. The good news - according to the study, 12% are competent. Yay.

    3. "...The permit test in New Mexico has 25 multiple choice and true or false questions and the passing score is 70 percent..."

      So I would counter the incompetence remark with my own: At least in NM, we only require mediocrity when issuing a driver's license.

      Let's hypothesize from these low standards that motorists are competent 70% of the time. The accident pyramid might suggest that we have incidents or close calls when the incompetent 30% of person A meets the incompetent 30% of person B. I think one way to cut down on crashes is to raise the bar on admissions. Lets say we go from 70% passing grade to 85% passing grade. In that case, the binary intersection of incompetence goes from 0.3 x 0.3 (0.09) to 0.15 x 0.15 (.0225). That's a factor of 4 improvement working its way up the accident pyramid.

      Just throwing that out for discussion.

    4. I'd say that the passing grade should be about what it is on the LCI exam - 90%. After all, not everyone should be driving (a heretical notion perhaps).

      If I recall correctly, I got 92% on the LCI exam and I'd say that made me just barely competent on the road. I still had/have a lot to learn that went well beyond what was even on the LCI test, so I have kept studying. Many motorists don't keep studying after their driving test, which is where their problems begin, but a 90% passing grade would at least ensure they did the work to become barely competent. After that, I would suggest a mandatory 5-year recurring re-test for every driver - not just for older drivers.

      We have to get beyond this false notion that driving is a 'right', and that we should make testing easy so that everyone can drive. Also, I think there should be a lifetime ban for f***-ups. Drunk driving should equal a lifetime ban, as should killing someone when the driver was clearly at fault.

      But heck, this is all a pipe-dream. No such laws would ever get voted in anywhere that motorists are a majority of the population. Heck, they won't even vote for Automated Speed Enforcement System implementation, because the last thing they want is the speed limits to be enforced. After all, gosh-darn it, this is America - we should have the right to go fast.

    5. That's another bad intersection of fate, Ian. "Speeding while Stupid". Concur on the 90% idea, albeit that would be a tough one to get implemented.

  3. Based on my experience, nearly 5% of the LCI "correct" responses are actually incorrect. For various reasons ranging from LAB doctrinal conflicts to more recent research about things like hydration, and some simply violate physics and/or common sense. Hmm, perhaps I sense a future "myth" post surge...