How I Learned to Start Worrying and Hate the Car
Pedaling toward the truth of the “bikes-vs-cars” debate
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So I'm pedaling my younger child to his preschool. We're on the right-hand side of a two-way street free from traffic when a motorist beeps behind me. As I turn around, she passes me while making some sort of sign language of which I can make no sense whatsoever. Imagine someone miming crumpling up a piece of paper and tossing it in the trash and you've got the idea.
Anyway, she passes me, then she cuts clear across my path and pulls over in a no-parking zone along the curb, at which point I realize her ambiguous gesticulation had been her telling me she was going to cut me the hell off so she could drop her own precious little darlings off at the expensive prep school we were now passing. (Though to imply that this is merely a case of wealthy entitlement would be facile on my part, since her car was a modest one, and not everybody who attends such schools pays full tuition. We're equally selfish across all income brackets.)
I'm increasingly of the opinion that it's never worth it to tell off a motorist. Like blowing up at a customer service rep or eating at Pizza Hut, it seems like a good idea at the time, but you usually wind up hating yourself afterward. Nevertheless, I couldn't help it. Leapfrogging me saved her no time whatsoever while simultaneously creating a dangerous, totally needless situation for both my child and me. It was a power move, plain and simple. So as I rode by I said to her, quite calmly, something along the lines of, “You know, you could have waited.”
“Likewise,” she spat, wearing a look of utter disgust.
I've been riding bikes most of my life, and I've been writing about them for nearly a quarter of it. Yet incredibly it's only recently that I've come to the following conclusion:
I hate cars.
It's not like I hate them as machines. As a bike person, I'm instantly attracted to any wheeled vehicle. (Recumbents and unicycles excluded, nothing personal.) No, what I hate about cars is that, excluding actual weaponry, no invention in modern history has been as successful in eliciting the very worst from people and making death, maiming, and general mayhem a part of everyday life.
Why did it take me so long to figure this out? Like any cyclist, I've encountered similar situations countless times before. Regardless of whether you're riding your carbon fiber wonder-sled for fun and fitness or you're pedaling your 50-pound smugness chariot to the food co-op while high on the fumes of your own smugness, at some point you've felt the surge of adrenaline as a driver nearly takes your life, whether through inattention or outright aggression.
The reason it took me so long to realize I hate cars is simple: I'm brainwashed.
We all are. The auto industry started brainwashing us nearly a hundred years ago when they invented the concept of the “jaywalker,” the hapless rube sauntering into the middle of the street and engineering his own demise. Armed with this piece of propaganda, they not only defeated legislation that would have slowed cars in cities but also successfully criminalized the act of walking.
In school I learned how Ford's assembly line created jobs and made America great. And everywhere I went I saw traffic signals and “Don't Walk” signs and drive-thru restaurants and fueling stations and all manner of flashing lights that programmed my brain to believe that the natural order of things was to optimize the landscape and cityscape to facilitate the swift movement of motor vehicles.
Of course, a reliance on private cars as a primary mode of transportation has made our country undeniably better in many ways. For one thing, cars keep getting bigger to compensate for increased fuel efficiency. Also, the average American spends 42 hours a year sitting in traffic, and the percentage of kids walking or riding bikes to school has gone from 48 percent in 1969 to around 13 percent today. Best of all, we're up to over 37,000 motor vehicle deaths a year, the highest number since 2008.
Isn't that great?
There's every reason to be optimistic about our auto-centric future. An eventual shift to electric vehicles will reduce pollution slightly while consuming the same amount of space and requiring the same inefficient infrastructure, and self-driving cars will come to our rescue just as soon as they work out small details such as whether the car acts to preserve the life of the driver or the life of a pedestrian or cyclist in the event of an imminent collision. (Prime directive: Save the customer!) In the meantime, Ford's getting ahead on the victim-blaming front with the concept of the “Petextrian,” which is basically “Jaywalker 2.0.”
So don't worry, in the 21st century, death by auto is still coming for you. It will just arrive more quietly.
I used to resent the whole “cars-vs-bikes” debate that dominates social media, mostly because I resented having to take a side. After all, many of us use both, and we do so sensibly and responsibly. It's all about choosing the right tool for the job, right?
Now I resent it because the very notion of comparing the two machines is so utterly absurd. It's the same thinking behind the whole “bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as automobile drivers” idea, which sounds great until you consider that it flies in the face of both logic and physics. Really, someone driving a 3,000-pound car bears no more responsibility on public roadways than someone riding a 30-pound bike? Now that's some effective lobbying.
Of course, you don't shake off a lifetime of brainwashing right away. I've got the license and a car hogging public curb space to prove it. But riding a bicycle can be a contemplative process, and after years of pedaling I've broken through to a place where the sheer malevolence of the car is something I can no longer unsee. I'm like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in They Live, only it's the bike and not the sunglasses that's revealing the subliminal messages.
Maybe that's why some people seem to hate bikes so much: pedal one for long enough and eventually you'll arrive at the truth.
Now that's scary.