Chronicle writer C.W. Nevius can't seem to make up his mind.
In July, Nevius penned an ode to the Wiggle — the popular bike path that is the only reasonable way for cyclists to move from the east side of town to the west without climbing up and over a giant hill. In the July piece, Nevius claimed to have a conversion experience while riding the Wiggle, suddenly realizing that “bikes are the future,” and that recognizing this “cultural shift… means letting go of the old angry biker model.” Given the revelation that bikes are an inevitable part of any 21st century city, Nevius further proclaims “it's time for us all to start getting along — bikers, walkers, and drivers” and quotes a citizen saying, “Needless antagonism doesn't help anybody.”
This was of course a welcome message to the city's community of bicyclists, the vast majority of whom are mild-mannered, considerate riders simply trying to move around the urban landscape in a safe and efficient manner, and, yes, one that is also better for their body and for the planet as a whole. For years, bicyclists have suffered the indignation of being unjustly portrayed as a group of people who are reckless, insolent, and dangerous on the road — adjectives that can only be fairly applied to the very worst of the cycling community. That someone who as recently as 2009 wrote a piece entitled “A bike-friendly SF? Don't hold your breath” was now coming out against the “needless antagonism” and downright bigotry regularly directed at cyclists made this call for sanity particularly encouraging.
Unfortunately, Nevius' moment of clarity seems to have been particularly short-lived. Last week Nevius saw occasion to write not one, but two negative articles about the Wiggle and the community of cyclists who use it.
The first piece was published on Tuesday and focused on the “vociferous” reaction from the bicycle community at the sting operation along the Wiggle which featured the SFPD “improving safety” by ticketing cyclists who don't come to full stops while taking right turns in completely vacant intersections. Instead of taking the opportunity to explore the chasm between the ad hoc laws the city has imposed on cyclists (i.e. treating them as automobiles when they clearly are not) and the safe, reasonable manner in which thousands of cyclists actually use the streets (i.e. treating stop signs as yield signs — a solution reasonable enough for the progressive hotbed of Idaho to adopt it as state law), Nevius followed up his dismay at the “touchiness” of the bicycling community by unfairly perpetuating negative stereotypes in his highlighting of the “speed racer” cyclist and the guy texting while cycling instead of the 90-95% of the cycling community that is riding with the utmost respect for other users of the public right-of-ways.
When his Tuesday article generated such a strong response, Nevius decided to write another article on the Wiggle, this time taking the highly unusual step of actually going out and doing some research on his topic. Showing that he himself is not immune to exhibiting exaggerated touchiness in response to criticism, Nevius ratcheted up the very “needless antagonism” he once derided by deciding, apparently mid-week, that the Wiggle was no longer in need of capitalizing (demonstrating the height of pettiness), and then proceeding to claim that riders of the Wiggle regularly “steam through the stop signs, swoop around corners, and scatter pedestrians in the crosswalk.” If that weren't enough, Nevius would have us believe that the average Wiggle rider will “often” verbally berate pedestrians by yelling “Fuck you. Mind your own business” as they ride by.
I applaud Nevius for getting out on the Wiggle and spending five whole minutes doing research on the activity of Wiggle riders. And I don't doubt that of the 19 bikers that came through the intersection of Waller and Steiner that only one stopped at the stop sign. What I do reject is his claim that those 18 bikers who didn't stop are dangerous and each one represents a “potential accident.” Let us examine this disconnect.
Obviously the biggest problem here is the traffic code itself. I think we can all agree a bike is not an automobile. Owing to this, bikes and automobiles are often expected to follow different laws (cyclists can ride in bike lanes, cars cannot; people under the age of 13 can ride a bike on the sidewalk or the street but they cannot drive a car anywhere until age 16; etc). However, when it comes to stop signs, the bicycle is expected to follow the exact same rules as a car, despite the fact that they operate very differently and pose very different levels of risk. The simple fact is stop signs should be treated as yield signs for cyclists, something that occurs de facto hundreds of thousands of times every day in San Francisco without incident and has been a successful law for almost 30 years in the state of Idaho.
The second biggest problem in this situation is the very small minority of cyclists who seem to not understand the concept of yielding the right-of-way. These people do in fact exist. They represent about 5-10 percent of the total cycling population, and pedestrians and drivers are not alone in being upset with them.
Cyclists themselves have particular contempt for this small faction of riders because they contribute to the third problem in this scenario, namely that there are a great number of people — pedestrian, driver, cyclist and Nevius among them — who equate the actions of this very small minority of riders with the entire bicycling community. The reality is that at least 90% of the riders of the Wiggle do in fact yield to pedestrians. Unfortunately, the unpleasantness of the occasional jerk on a bicycle naturally overshadows the vast majority of experiences when bicyclists behave just as they should — and a headline of “95% of Cyclists Excellent Riders” doesn't help much in the way of selling newspapers.
What was particularly discouraging about Nevius' article, other than his hit-piece being preceded by his sensible admonition to “let go of the old angry biker model,” is that he ends the editorial by suggesting that “the more accommodations the city makes for bicyclists the more entitled the riders become,” a claim that has been proven over and over again to be the exact opposite of the truth. In reality, the more you actually consider the experience of the bicycle rider and plan the streets with some modicum of awareness of their existence and proliferation, the more you will see a respect for the rule of law amongst cyclists and an improved street experience for everyone, particularly pedestrians (hint for the gentleman who “plays peek-a-boo” with cyclists: you have to do that because a car is parked too close to the intersection, not because people ride bikes. Try contacting the MTA to have the spot removed).
Garbage laws engender garbage behavior: when you deem by law that every cyclists must come to a full stop at every stop sign regardless of the situation, you're going to get a scoff-law attitude because that law doesn't truly reflect what it takes to safely ride a bike. If you change the law while putting in some basic bike infrastructure so cyclists don't have to rely on their own wits just to keep from getting run over on Oak Street, then you will start to see cyclists being less aggressive and holding each other to a higher standard.
Of course Nevius isn't interested in solutions to the problem — he's only interested in cultivating more comments on his articles. Last week's second op-ed yielded over 230 comments within 24 hours, the majority of which are characterized by misinformed, vile hatred and some of which openly call for unprovoked lethal violence to cyclists. Nevius is clearly aware of this effect — after all, it was the strong reaction that compelled him to write his second piece.
Now he has a choice to make: either he can heed the advice of July-C.W. Nevius and publish a retraction of his latest contribution to “needless antagonism” and the false perpetuation of the “angry biker model” or he can continue to throw misinformed gasoline on the raging fire of the perceived conflict between pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers.
Here's hoping that C.W. Nevius remembers what he realized in July — that bicycles are not only the future, but, for those of us who are aware of climate change, soon-to-be $5 gallons of gas, and impending economic crisis, bicycles are an essential part of the present. It is in all our interests to maintain a healthy, respectful dialogue and work together to help stamp out the small group of cyclists who are inconsiderate on the road. More bicycles means a more efficient Muni, more open parking spaces for those who can afford a car, a healthier more active citizenry, and less carbon in the atmosphere heating up our planet.
But we aren't going to stand around and wait for Nevius' apology — to borrow a phrase: A bike-friendly S.F. Chronicle columnist? We're not holding our breath.
[photo by David Gartner]