Mess Media




Pay Attention!

Gas prices are high; tension between drivers and cyclists shouldn't also be.

by Stewart Dean Ebersole

Philadelphia City Paper, May 14, 2008

Really fucked up" is the expression that most accurately describes the story of my co-worker JD, a cyclist, who was sent to the hospital recently after being double-teamed and sucker-punched by a pissed-off motorist and his passenger. Even more absurd is that the incident began when the motorist, driving a large panel van and apparently unaware of his surroundings, made an illegal U-turn on Market Street — in broad daylight and without any warning.

As the story goes, JD was passing the van when it suddenly turned in front of him. He impacted the back end of the truck and found himself and his bike on the ground. Shaking loose the cobwebs from his head, JD stood up and confronted the driver, who then climbed down from the cab and stepped to him. A shoving match ensued. An anonymous hand grabbed JD's arm, a punch was thrown and once again JD found himself on the ground, this time out cold with the side of his nose torn clear from his face. The van drove away as JD once again shook loose the cobwebs, this time trying to stop his bleeding while calling for assistance on his work radio. Yeah, "really fucked up." And for the record, JD never did find his assailants.

We work in the city as bicycle messengers, professional cyclists if you will. JD, I and about 50 or so other dedicated cyclists spend eight hours of our day delivering anything that can be carried in our bags or on our handlebars to businesses all over the city. We are pretty good at what we do, but we are constantly vilified by pedestrians, motorists, city employees, SEPTA drivers and cabbies for our aggressive riding and supposedly bad attitudes. In the end, however, we are just doing a job, and the people who rely on us love us. No matter your feelings on bike messengers, please don't think that I am asking for sympathy here, because I am not.

Here is my issue. While JD's story is extreme, lately I have been noticing a marked increase in motorist violence toward cyclists. At a time when gas prices, as well as motorists' tempers, are rising, it seems we should be embracing alternative forms of transportation. But instead of ditching the car, the masses of would-be cyclists are scared shitless. Twenty-five pounds of steel powered by an unprotected human body is no match against traffic powered by internal combustion and human aggression — and a disdain for things that they don't understand (like why any rational human would choose to ride a bike in the city).

To get more cyclists on the road and more motorized vehicles off the road, we need to see far fewer examples like JD's. It is a catch-22 of epic proportions. I know people who want to ride their bikes but are scared to do so. As an avid city commuter and bike messenger, I know that the aforementioned aggressive riding becomes necessary for mere survival. But aggressive riding is not for everybody. Until something really positive happens in our city's transportation culture, I fear that seeing more bikes and fewer cars on Philadelphia city streets is just not going to happen.

That said, I'd like to thank city drivers for giving cyclists a break in the future. We deal with a life-threatening litany of doors opening without warning, illegal U-turns, unsignaled lane changes and buses pushing us off the roadways. So maybe you can deal with us shooting you the middle finger, or giving your windshield a love tap, or confronting you at a signal light occasionally because we're trying to remind you that we're unprotected out there, and that you are just not fucking paying attention.

Stewart Dean Ebersole is an artist and bike messenger in Philadelphia.




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