"Scaring the Public to Death"

On city streets and country roads, the war rages againstcyclists

Time Magazine, October 5,1987

By Frank Trippett. Reported by Wayne Svoboda/ New Yorkwith other bureaus.

bicycle: lightweight, two-wheeled, steerable machine propelled byits rider; the bicycle is said to be the most efficient means yet devisedto convert human energy into propulsion.

- The New Encyclopedia Britannica

A marvel of efficiency, the bicycle is also cheap, handy, nimble. Itcan sprint like a cat, then stop on a dime and give you nine cents change.It is easy to ride and speedy enough for any sane short-distance traveller.In the typical bumper-to-bumper city creepathon the bike can outrun a Porsche.

Unlike the car, truck and bus the bike does not spew stinky fumes andcarcinogens. A bike is easy to park in sliver of space, and of preciousoil it only a smidgen to keep the wheel squeakless. Riders may turn rowdybut the vehicle itself is quiet a blessed virtue amid the squawk-bleat-screamgrind-growl-honk-toot-wail-shriek that is the voice of the big city.

Given such merits, the bicycle ought to be universally embraced by humankindas a sensible way of getting about in the strangling, traffic-plagued city.Bicycles have long been a major mode of transport in Europe and Asia; theremany as 230 million of them in China. Now they have taken to U.S. streetswith a vengeance. According to Bill Wilkinson, director of the BicycleFederation of America, roughly 2 million people commute to work on bikes,up from approximately 500,000 a decade ago.

Still, though Americans have always liked two-wheelers as a child’splay and currently own 111 million of them, they have never truly welcomedthe bike as a serious vehicle. In fact, wherever it appears in numbers,the bicycle provokes tension, annoyance, outrage or hostility. This yearbikers from Manhattan to Denver, from Oregon to Missouri, have wound upin conflicts: bikers vs. motorists, bikers vs. pedestrians, bikers vs.runners, bikers vs. police.

In Washington the overlap of bicyclists and Pentagon-based joggers turnedthe Arlington Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River into anger zone. Lastmonth bikers were banned from hiking trails in California’s Monica mountains.In St. Louis, where a motorist has been known to slosh a bucket of wateron a cyclist in cold weather, someone sprinkled tacks route of a LaborDay cycle tour and flattened the tires of some 40 bikes. Motorist-bikertensions around St. Louis grew high last month after Bicyclist John S.Reif Jr., 22, a nationally ranked triathlete, was fatally injured in ahead-collision with a car. Speaking of the current mood, Deeds Fletcher,47, a municipal bond dealer and a cyclist, says it often feels as if "carsare going after people. It's like the Christians and the lions."

In Boulder police in July snared and ticketed a flight of 55 cyclistsracing past a stop sign, and Steve Clark, the city’s bicycle-program coordinator,applauded the crackdown: "When one segment of the group creates badp.r., it hurts all cyclists. In Eugene, Ore., according to Bi cycle CoordinatorDiane Bishop of the public-works department, police patrol university areas,especially in their annual autumn bike-safety campaign, in which, she says,"they ticket as many as 100 riders a month. Proliferating cyclistsreduced Denver Post Sports Columnist John McGrath to epithet: "Lookaround: geeks in long black shorts are hunched over a pair of handlebarsat every urban intersection, on every country road."

Nowhere has the bike provoked such a sustained and official skirmishas in New York City, Mayor Ed Koch, who suffered a probike mood in 1980and had bike lanes built, had them eliminated a few months later. By thisyear Koch had become so antibike that he banned the cycles from severalmajor Manhattan avenues. The state supreme court in Manhattan overturnedthe ban last month, but did not overturn Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward'sopinion about the city's peddlers. "They are scaring the public todeath," says Ward, "and we've got to do something about it."

"It means the free-form riding habits of 5,000 or so messengers.Inspired by the fact that more deliveries mean more money, many messengerswhiz around the city in pseudokamikaze style, heeding neither red lightsnor one-way signs, zagging on and off sidewalks, leaving behind a wakeof screeching tires and cursing pedestrians. Many messengers even opt forbikes without brakes, to save on a few pounds of heavy metal.

There were 640 reported incidents of bikes colliding with pedestriansin New York City last year, up from 339 in 1981. Three New York City pedestrianswere killed by cyclists in 1986, while nine bikers were killed by motorists."They are like roaches," complains Anita Sockol, who was crossingLexington Avenue in June when she was floored by a speeding cyclist. Shesuffered a broken hip and wrist and now limps. "They come at you fromall sides," she adds.

Even cyclists admit that some bike riders act like pit bulls on wheels,but enthusiasts attribute most accidents to impatient walkers, many ofwhom insist on waiting in crosswalks for the light to change. Most pedestriansdon't look before they cross the street, says Eric Williams, a Manhattanmessenger. "I've pulled so hard to stop that I've got scars to proveit."

The numbers prove that Manhattan’s reckless-bike-riding problem is nottrivial. Even so, the ire stirred by the bikers is striking, Some argue(not too convincingly) that the antipathy toward messengers, who are mostlyblack, is racially motivated. But that does not explain the shouts of angerdirected at white speed demons by startled white pedestrians.

Efforts are being made all over to educate bikers about traffic rulesand to train motorists in the ways of bikers. In Los Angeles, state andcounty planners are even contemplating a 2 1/2-mile- long overhead bikewaythat would rise above the congested streets around UCLA. But the real culpriton American roads, as conspicuous among cars, cabs and trucks as amongcyclists, is an arrogant, scofflaw spirit that sends vehicles those withfour as well as two wheels streaking through red lights and stop signs,just as it tempts pedestrians into habitual jaywalking.


back to articles

If you have comments or suggestions, email me at messvilleto@yahoo.com