San Jose Mercury News * August 1, 2001

Tribulations on the open road of bicycle-motorcar coexistence

By Sue Hutchison
Mercury News

Just when I was convinced the so-called "cyclist community'' would never veer away from sanctimonious rants against drivers, a group of bike riders in San Francisco has done the unthinkable.  It's launched a new tack of diplomacy that displays a sense of humor about daily stupidities that happen on the road. The message: There's plenty of blame to go around.
The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is one of the main sponsors of a public ad campaign to stamp out dangerous behavior, whether the jerk in question is behind the wheel or the handlebars. It's a welcome departure from pious condemnations of motor vehicles -- lectures that are only slightly less annoying than those delivered by vegetarians at Thanksgiving.

One ad in the "Coexist'' campaign shows an irate driver leaning out the window, and the speech balloon next to his head reads: "Cycling chum, your generous use of hand signals and predictable riding decorum make sharing the road an utter joy!''  Another shows a scowling bicyclist leaning over to holler, "Kind sir, I'm positively elated you exhibited the decency to survey the roadscape prior to opening the door!'' 

Of course, the usual crowd of irony-impaired whiners has complained about the ads. But Dave Snyder, executive director of the bike coalition, said the response has been generally positive. "We know that 'Us vs. Them' doesn't work in any social movement,'' he said. "We're trying to get beyond finger-pointing and make the streets safe for everybody.'' 

It worries me when people refer to riding bikes as "a social movement.'' Still, the campaign has a sane goal that has been maddeningly elusive over the past few years. Tragedies -- including the deaths of Chris Robertson, a cyclist who was killed by a truck driver in San Francisco in the fall, and Katherine Pope, who was hit on Sand Hill Road last month -- have only fueled hostilities in the road wars. 

The "Coexist'' campaign, spurred in part by Robertson's death, is an encouraging sign that bicyclists and drivers are acknowledging that they have to take responsibility for their behavior on roads, which are increasingly congested and often poorly designed. 
Menlo Park traffic officer Craig McCarty said the department plans to wrap up the investigation into Pope's death in about two weeks. McCarty has a special interest in the Pope case; he's constantly amazed by the unsafe driving and bicycling he gives tickets for all the time. 

"I base a lot of my traffic stops on people's selfish behavior,'' he said. "You know, motorists cutting each other off because they're in a hurry or bicyclists running red lights.'' 

McCarty is a bike rider on his off-duty hours, and he lost a 7-year-old cousin who was hit by a car while biking. So he's sympathetic with the dangers bicyclists face. But he doesn't understand why some bicyclists insist on riding along high-speed roads with no shoulder. 

It's ridiculous to continue the bicyclist vs. driver debate. A lot of drivers are too busy dodging other horrible drivers to lay much of the road-rage blame on bicyclists. We should be concentrating on the much larger problem of fixing Stone Age road design and terrible public transportation. 

Snyder, of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said some angry cyclists responded to the new ad campaign with online messages such as, "Coexist? Not until drivers stop killing us!'' That fear is fueling the road wars. Bicyclists are afraid of being hurt, and drivers are afraid of hurting them. 

When a group of cyclists held a memorial ride last month, in honor of Katherine Pope, it would have been nice if there had been a line of cars driving slowly along as well. That would have shown the somber side of coexistence -- and respect. 



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