Sometimes just driving a car in a city is an act of violence
You know how it goes: your city proposes a new bike lane project or does something else to encourage cycling, and inevitably the eternally simmering "drivers-vs-cyclists” debate flares up again. The drivers argue that the cyclists don’t deserve bike lanes because “they don’t think the traffic laws apply to them” and “they don’t pay for registration and insurance.” The cyclists counter by citing death and the environment and pointing out how difficult it is for even the most reckless rider to, say, destroy a dentist’s office or take out a school bus with a bicycle.
It’s an argument nobody wins—which is completely crazy when you consider how staggeringly obvious it is that drivers are way, way worse.
I know this because I’m a driver myself—an avid driver, if you will. In fact, according to both my car odometer and my Strava, I drive almost exactly the same number of miles a year as I ride. This 1:1 ratio affords me a truly balanced perspective and more than anything it has compelled me to wonder:
How the hell does anybody who drives regularly not think drivers are the absolute worst?
When I’m cycling, I frequently find myself gobsmacked by driver behavior, but at least I can minimize my exposure by riding on car-free paths from time to time. Also, the fact that when on a bike I’m rarely going much more than 20 miles per hour means I’m spared the worst of the high-speed automotive hijinx—sort of like a kid at a dirty movie who can’t see over the seat. When I’m driving, however, I’m privy to the entire sordid spectrum of motorist behavior, from zero to 60 (and beyond). And it’s completely depraved.
Sure, I’ve endured the “punishment pass” from motorists while I was cycling. But I’ve also been cut off, brake-checked, and swerved at on the highway while driving. I don't know whether to be comforted or distressed by the fact that, when it comes to homicidal road rage, it's not always about the bike. Either way, even when you're ensconced in a couple tons of gas-guzzling “Freedom Machine,” there's no shortage of drivers out there willing to cause a 20-car pile-up just to fuck with you.
Then there’s all the hostile driver behavior toward non-drivers, which you don’t even have to be walking or cycling to experience, and that increases exponentially with population density. Not only do drivers routinely bully their way through crowded crosswalks, but if you're driving and you yield, everyone behind you will lay on their horns. This is a whole other level of crazy—and standard practice in New York City. Imagine pointing a loaded assault rifle into a crowd while the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket stands behind you screaming, “KILL THEM! KILL THEM, PRIVATE PYLE!!!” and you’ve got the idea.
None of this is to say I feel superior to my fellow drivers when I’m driving. If anything, I feel acutely aware that I’m complicit in our collective assault on the the city, humanity, and the planet. I may drive as responsibly and courteously as I can, and I may rationalize my car use in any number of ways, but in such an environment my car’s mere presence poses both a liability and a public-safety hazard.
Drive the speed limit or yield to a cyclist or pedestrian with the right of way and the driver behind you is liable to floor it and pass you out of sheer impatience. They don’t see who’s in front of you and they don’t care. Naturally my first thought is always, “What an asshole.” But after a moment or two, it occurs to me that, if an impatient driver were to hit the person to whom I was yielding, I’d be responsible, too. No cop would see it that way (odds are the other driver wouldn’t get in any trouble either), but this doesn't change the fact that I’m also an asshole for jamming yet another oversized vehicle into a terminally crowded city that can’t handle it.
As for drivers who find cyclists uniquely reckless and disconcerting, I find this most baffling of all. Drivers love to complain about how heedles cyclists are, but in decades of driving, I’ve never seen a cyclist do anything to rival what drivers do as a matter of course. Do I see cyclists run red lights and ride against traffic while tapping at their phones? Of course. Does it affect me adversely in any way? As long as I’m driving with reasonable care, not really. The drivers I've seen reading and watching videos while cruising the highway at 80 miles per hour on the other hand are un-guided missiles; they're mass carnage waiting to happen.
You don't need to ride a bike to see how bad drivers are. The act of driving itself should be more than sufficient. What riding a bike will teach you though is that people on bikes treat each other far better than people in cars do. You may encounter the odd wheelsucker while riding, but nobody's going to get mad and try to crash you intentionally for some tiny ego slight, the pump-in-the-spokes scene in Breaking Away notwithstanding. And the only "rolling coal" you'll see is in the chase scene from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Perhaps the reason that drivers refuse to acknowledge that they’re the worst is that they don’t know how much better than them everybody else is.
Maybe they should get on bikes and see for themselves.