2/19/11

Tom Vanderbilt's Long and Good Piece on Bike Commuting

If you've got some time (like being up early on Saturday morning), I highly recommend this somewhat sprawling, but very comprehensive piece on bike commuting and bike-car conflicts built around the story of a guy who bikes 67 miles into work from Westchester County to Manhattan. I thought this bit was interesting:
In one sense, the so-called bikelash has little to do with transportation modes. In the late 1960s, a pair of British psychologists set out to understand the ways in which we humans tend to split ourselves into opposing factions. They divided a group of teenage schoolboys, who all knew each other, into two groups and asked them to perform a number of "trivial tasks." The boys were then asked to give money to fellow subjects, who were anonymous save for their group affiliation. As it turned out, the schoolboys consistently gave more money to members of their own group, even though these groups had just formed and were essentially meaningless.
"The mere division into groups," wrote the psychologists, Henri Tajfel and Michael Billig, of the University of Bristol, "might have been sufficient to have produced discriminatory behavior." Though not exactly Lord of the Flies, the experiment was a demonstration of the power of what's called "social categorization"—and the penalties inflicted on the "out-group."
This dynamic appears on the road in all kinds of ways. "We know that merely perceiving someone as an outsider is enough to provoke a whole range of things," says Ian Walker, a researcher at the University of Bath who specializes in traffic psychology. "All the time, you hear drivers saying things like 'Cyclists, they're all running red lights, they're all riding on sidewalks,' while completely overlooking the fact that the group they identify with regularly engages in a whole host of negative behaviors as well." This social categorization is subtle but dominant, he points out. When people are given a piece of paper and asked to describe themselves, "men never write, 'I'm a man.' Whereas women will write 'woman' because being male is the 'default' status in society."
And so it is with cyclists. In a country like the Netherlands, which has more bikes than people and where virtually the entire population cycles at one time or another, the word cyclist isn't meaningful. But in the U.S., the term often implies something more, in both a good and a bad sense.
On the one hand, cyclists have a strong group affiliation, with clubs, group rides, and a flourishing network of bike blogs. And yet the oft-invoked idea of "bike culture" itself betrays cycling's marginal status in America, observes Eben Weiss, creator of the blog Bike Snob NYC, in his book Bike Snob: Systematically and Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling. "The truth is," he writes, "real cultures rarely call themselves cultures, just like famous things rarely call themselves famous."
The dark side of the "cyclist" label is that it becomes a shortcut to social categorization. Suddenly, that messenger who cut in front of you becomes the face of an entire population. And the next time you have an unpleasant encounter with a cyclist, it isn't just a matter of his (or your) carelessness: it seems intentional. Simonetti sees this type of reaction all the time, on the road and in his practice.
"As a couples therapist, I tell people that we take things so personally," he says as we near the Whitestone Bridge, on the first dedicated bike path we've seen in more than two hours. It's easy, when a car edges too close or cuts him off, to "go to that paranoid place where they're just trying to fuck with me. We're so worried that someone else can steal our sense of self that we fight for it at every turn." But it could have been just that the driver didn't see him. Under the spell of what's called "inattentional blindness," people have been known to miss obvious things simply because they're not looking for them. Either that or what seems inconsequential in a car—passing by within a foot or two—can be terrifying to someone on a bike.
Don't be paranoid, when driving or biking. No one is out to get you. Remember that and be quick to forgive and you'll have a much better commute.

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