The Bike 'Otherizes' Us — Get Out and Bike

Eugene Bicyclist posted a thinker today in a post titled “On getting yelled at by a guy in a pickup.”

Like me, he says he doesn’t get yelled at much. (See my post, “I Feel Your Rage.”) But he got yelled at by a guy in a pickup after making an “assertive” move in traffic — not unsafe, not aggressive, but the kind of move motorists make all the time. But he encountered hostility because he did it on a bike.

He asks,

If you believe in the urban cycling movement, do you bear more responsibility to ride courteously, to conduct yourself in impeccably virtuous ways at all times? You know, in a fruitless effort to improve the image of cyclists in general? I dont know. Maybe so.

On getting yelled at by a guy in a pickup | Eugene bicyclist
Screen shot: Eugene bicyclist


I had what I believe is the flip side of this social phenomenon a couple of days ago.

I’m in the Phoenix area right now helping a family member who is in the hospital, and I’m using a borrowed car. (Yesterday’s weird bike review was written from a hospital room.)

I was driving the car slowly through a parking lot with a million things on my mind, starting to head back to the hospital.

As I was turning left, I suddenly noticed a young family in a crosswalk, directly in my path, and with startled looks on their faces. (Well, the baby was oblivious, but the parents were startled.)

I stopped the car still about ten feet from the family, and let them pass in front of me. Through the window I said, “I’m very very sorry.” I felt terrible.

Alanis Morissette with Baby Carrier
They looked like this, but not Alanis Morissette

And the woman replied, “Oh. No worries.”

As I drove on, I thought, No worries!? Lady, I’m a distracted schmuck operating a heavy, powerful, and dangerous piece of machinery — a compact car. Do you realize what this thing can do a human body even at low speeds? No worries!? I’m a monster!

Yeah. I was kind of down on myself. I felt deserving of any scorn they might have offered me.

I don’t know these people. Perhaps they aren’t the scorny type. But the post by Eugene Bicyclist made me wonder what the response would have been had I been on a bike. Would I have received the same gracious absolution from the nice lady, less, or none?

I tend to think that I would have been seen by them as an idiot on a bike.

The bike “otherizes” us — they (motorists) are normal and we are the other. And when the other is less than exemplary, some people will always give themselves permission to pile on an extra helping of anger, judgement, or a cartoonish negative stereotype they have about the other.

Those of us who cycle for transportation are as complex as any other users of roads and parking lots. But I don’t believe we bear more “responsibility to ride courteously,” or to conduct ourselves in “impeccably virtuous ways” at all times.

I actually believe that the more dangerous the vehicle you are operating, the more responsibility and circumspection you must bear — and the more deserving of scorn you are when you falter. But that’s not necessarily how people see it in our car-centric public spaces.

But we need to ride with at least as much courtesy and civility as we would like to see from motorists towards us. Of equal importance is to simply ride, often, and for ordinary day-to-day reasons. The more we do, the less socially consequential our mode of transportation becomes — it de-otherizes us bit by bit.

Just watch out.

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