I was waiting at a red light last week while on my way to meet some friends after work when a pedestrian in the crosswalk started talking to me.
That, in and of itself, makes for a noteworthy event. Save to signal or, very occasionally, to register my profound displeasure with someone, I rarely interact with the pedestrians, drivers, or even the cyclists around me when I'm on my bike.
When the pedestrian started talking, it took me a moment to register that I was even being spoken to.He was an older man, dressed dapperly enough to suggest gentleman, and he was looking at me in the eye and nodding solemnly.
"I want to thank you for stopping," he said. "Not all of you take the time."
Maybe not, I should have said, but certainly some of us do. And by "us," I mean cyclists: a group defined by a particular vehicular choice and not, I should add, much else at all -- certainly not a monolithic disregard for traffic laws.
But I didn't say that. Instead, I said, "you're welcome," because I had no interest in picking a fight with a man in homburg -- certainly not one so intent on telling me how great I am.
I tell this story not to ring my own bell (I might very well have slow rolled through the quiet T-crossing had I not just received a text message that I wanted to read), but to bemoan what is only too obvious to most cyclists: A lot of people really don't like us.
Or more to the point: A lot of people have a very specific notion of who we are.
Try it now. Close your eyes and think the word, "cyclist."
Chances are you're imagining an irrepressibly young person with genital-clenching pants -- either spandex or skinny jeans, depending on your neighborhood. You're thinking of lane-hogging and stop-sign running and car-hating. You're picturing someone (probably a dude, almost certainly a white dude) riding the wrong way up a one-way street on a Friday night with no bike lights while texting -- drunk.
"Thank you for stopping," is what the man said. What does it say that a cyclist bothering to obey the law should warrant a response at all?
Perhaps I'm making a disproportionate fuss over one friendly, if over-generalizing, comment from a well-intentioned senior citizen, but bear with me. I hear remarks like this all the time: "I'm sure you're not like the rest of them, but I hate it when cyclists ..." is a familiar enough refrain to anyone who professes to ride a bike to a coworker or to the friend of a friend at a party.
My point is that cyclists are often defined in very narrow terms. And that's a problem for advocates of bike-friendly city policy. Because as anyone who's ever frequented the comment section of a bike-related news article knows, having a reasoned conversation about MTA Master Plans is really tough if one side can't stop conceiving the other as a bunch of "bike Nazis."
The challenge, then, is how do we broaden most people's basic understanding of who cyclists are? How do we get people to imagine the word "cyclist" and, instead of immediately recalling that one guy they saw making a mad dash through a red light, they remember instead the much larger crowd of cyclists he had left waiting patiently at the crosswalk? How do we get people to stop conceiving of cycling as a necessarily political act, but to see it as just another way to get around -- a method of transportation that a variety of different people choose for a variety of different reasons?
While I fully support the Bicycle Coalition's decision to start handing out candy bars to law-abiding bicyclists(because it gets more cyclists thinking about the rules of the road, because it reminds everyone else that most cyclists do bother to follows those rules, and because it involves the possibility of my eating chocolate), getting drivers to think differently about the people riding past them in the bike lane on their way to work is going to require something a bit more systematic.
Something like, say, a citywide bike share program.
On Tuesday, Scott Wiener co-sponsored a resolution urging the SFMTA to expand what was to be an ineffectually small bike-share pilot program into a much larger, city-scaled network sometime next year. Citing a recent study of Washington D.C.'s Capital Share program, Wiener points out that "44 percent of respondents used bike share to make at least one trip in a month that they would not have made if bike share had not been available."
Wiener's intent in using this fact was to illustrate the sure boon that bike sharing will bring to the local economy as people hop on the municipal bikes to go shopping. But I think that's also a particularly encouraging statistic for those who want to see a larger, more diverse mix of people on bikes in San Francisco.
People who use bike share programs are, almost by definition, non-regular riders. These are people for whom it might occasionally be more convenient or otherwise worthwhile to ride a bike than to drive or take Muni, but for whom owning a bicycle outright doesn't make sense. These are, in other words, not your "typical cyclists." Throwing them into the mix of cyclists already roving around the city would, I hope, make it that much harder to dismiss the entire lot as anything other than mainstream.
Ben Christopher is an Oakland-based freelance journalist. His favorite pastimes include pretending to work at coffee shops and shaking his fist disapprovingly at errant drivers from atop his baby blue Cannondale.