Bike Curious

There is growing tension between two of America’s largest factions: people who drive cars, and people who get in the way of cars by riding bicycles.

A bicycle is a perfectly legitimate mode of transportation, of course, particularly if you are 8 years old, or Lance Armstrong. The problem is that American roads were designed with automobiles in mind, and cars make up the bulk of road traffic, and cars and bikes don’t really interact very well. Cyclists are stuck in this ill-defined netherworld. You’re not supposed to ride on the sidewalk, but you’re not supposed to be out in the regular traffic lanes, either, except in cases where there’s no bike lane, and then you can be out in the regular lanes and the drivers are supposed to treat you as if you were a fellow automobile, except that fellow automobiles accelerate more quickly and don’t top out at 15 mph and don’t crumple into bloody piles of metal and flesh when you barely tap them with your bumper.

All of this makes it difficult for drivers and cyclists to co-exist. This tension has led to the rise of bicycle activism, a movement that, like most forms of activism, seems to attract primarily the strident, the humorless, and the unemployed. For example, here is the story of a woman in Virginia who was so annoyed at not being allowed to bring her bicycle into a Wal-Mart that she took her clothes off!

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Leading bicycle activist P.W. Herman.

Posting on a bicycle-enthusiast website, the woman says she rode four miles to Wal-Mart only to discover that there was no place to lock up her bike outside, so she tried to take it inside the store with her. The elderly woman at the entrance said she couldn’t do this, and the manager was summoned.

“So the manager comes out and says I can’t bring the bike into the store, so I explain to her that there are safe places for people who drive to lock their cars but there is no safe place for me to lock my mode of transportation.” Yes, bicyclists, your people have been oppressed for centuries. Someday a leader will arise who will lead your people to equality. His name will be Martin Luther Schwinn. Is this woman suggesting that if there were no parking lot in which to leave your car, or if your car could not be securely locked, you should be able to bring it inside? Because that’s stupid.

The manager said that the woman couldn’t bring the bike inside because Wal-Mart sells bikes, and she might be mistaken for a shoplifter when she tried to leave with it. So the woman asked if Wal-Mart sells shirts, and the manager said yes, and so the woman took off her shirt, lest there be any confusion. She continued with this line of thought until she had removed her shorts, shoes, and sunglasses, too, leaving her in just her spandex and sports bra.

Now, arguing with a Wal-Mart employee is like arguing with the bookie at a cockfight: You might win the debate, but what were you doing there in the first place? But in this case, the Wal-Mart manager was right, albeit for the wrong reasons. The logic that you can’t bring your bike inside because the store sells bikes is, as demonstrated, faulty. The real reason not to let someone push her bicycle up and down the aisles at Wal-Mart is that Wal-Mart is not an open-air market, and you are not in Morocco. Bikes are for outdoor use; Wal-Mart is located indoors. Wal-Mart reserves the right to refuse service to anyone, and that includes attention whores (which is what you are if you remove your clothing in public for any reason other than being on fire).

But while angry cyclists are disrobing in Virginia, up in New York City, the cops are knocking them off their bikes for no reason and then lying about it. On July 25, a bike rally was taking place in Manhattan, and a cyclist named Christopher Long was arrested for obstructing traffic and attempted assault after he intentionally steered his bike directly into a cop, 22-year-old Patrick Pogan, and knocked the officer down. (You can read the arrest report here.) Except whoops! A video of the incident soon popped up on YouTube, and it turns out everything the cop said in his sworn statement was a big fat lie.

As you can plainly see, there was no traffic to obstruct (there were no cars on the road), and Long didn’t run into the cop or knock him down — the cop ran into him, body-checking him like a hockey player and knocking him off his bike, seemingly for no reason, or at least not for any of the reasons he listed in his arrest report. The actual reason was probably “I’m a 22-year-old meathead who played football in high school, and now I’m a cop who likes to abuse his power by beating up civilians and lying about it.”

Pogan’s badge and gun have been taken away while the incident is investigated. Since proof that Pogan lied and misconducted himself is all over the Internet in video form, I’m curious to see how the NYPD will follow its standard procedure of investigating in a cursory fashion and then declaring that the cops didn’t do anything wrong after all. That’s gonna be a hard sell this time.

But here’s another twist: While Officer Pogan is a lying douchebag who ought to be fired, a lot of people are kind of jealous that he got to knock down one of those bicyclists. The victim was taking part in Critical Mass, a rally held monthly in dozens of cities in which bicyclists converge by the hundreds or even thousands and ride through town. It was originally conceived in San Francisco as a means of calling attention to how bicycle-unfriendly that city was — because really, what better way to get automobile drivers to treat you better than to gather en masse and clog up their roads?

Most Critical Mass participants are law-abiding and reasonable, but there are always a few bad apples who kick cars, intentionally block traffic, and generally make a nuisance of themselves as a form of protest or whatever. Consequently, many city-dwellers dislike the event and have a negative view of bicyclists. This tension is evident here in Portland, a city known all over for being bike-friendly, which is strange, considering how often Portland bicyclists are run over. (What would a bike-unfriendly city be like? Would drivers hunt bicyclists for sport?) A few weeks ago, The Oregonian reported an incident where a drunken bicyclist sped through a couple red lights, prompting an automobile driver — who is also an avid cyclist, it turns out — to pull up next to him and scold him for giving bike riders a bad name. This angered the bicyclist, who got off his bike, picked it up, and started hitting the man’s car with it. When the man got out of his car, the bike guy started swinging the bike at HIM. Then a passerby stepped in and punched the bike guy, laying him flat — which meant we now had a bicyclist lying on the ground next to his battered bike in front of a dented car, which made other passersby think he’d been run over, which led them to start attacking the driver.

Fortunately, the cops arrived and sorted everything out before the bike supporters became an angry, unshaven mob. The bicyclist was arrested for assault, criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, and driving under the influence. (Yes, riding a bike while drunk is against the law, too.) Nobody was seriously hurt. A week later, the tables were turned when a bicyclist yelled at a driver for going too fast on a residential street, whereupon the bicyclist was chased down by the driver and had to leap onto the car’s hood to avoid being hit. The driver then sped through the neighborhood with the bicyclist clinging to the windshield for dear life. The driver, a 21-year-old who already had a terrible driving record, was arrested. Turns out he was intoxicated, too, just like the bicyclist in the last story, making me think the problem here isn’t the tension between drivers and cyclists — it’s the tension between drunks and non-drunks. And I don’t see those issues being resolved any time soon, unfortunately, not as long as our streets are still clogged with those annoying non-drinkers.

Another element of the Wal-Mart woman's story that I don't like is that she claims to have successfully taken her bike into this particular store before, yet she also implies that the store's lack of bike racks was news to her on the day of the incident. If she'd been there before, wouldn't she have known there were no racks? Or did she take the bike inside on her previous visits without even looking for an alternative first? Maybe she carries her bike around everywhere, like those ladies who carry small dogs in their purses.

Here's a New York Times story about the cop and the bicyclist, and here's one from Gothamist that adds more details. The usual response here is that none of us were there, and that the video can only tell part of the story. But the fact is, everything in the arrest report is refuted by the video. If the cop had a good reason for shoving the guy off his bike, he never said what it was.

SnideCast intro & outro: "Bicycle Race," Queen.