Yesterday, The Washington Post published a column by Courtland Milloy that attempts to justify the violent assault of bicyclists by motorists, writing: “It’s a $500 fine for a motorist to hit a bicyclist in the District, but some behaviors are so egregious that some drivers might think it’s worth paying the fine.” The “egregious” behavior Milloy cites is simply slowing his car’s progress between stoplights.
This piece of rhetoric is both irresponsible and incorrect. Encouraging, or at least condoning, acts of violence has no place in civil discourse, and I am appalled that our hometown paper has published such a statement. We have, of course, grown accustomed to journalists and columnists who resort to bike-versus-car tropes to fill column space. However, this attempt to justify assault as a mere cost of doing business for motorists is well beyond the pale.
Those who might take Milloy’s counsel and share his sick calculation that bicyclists’ temporary slowing of motorists is worth attacking those bicyclists should know that his facts are wrong. Intentionally assaulting a bicyclist carries a much stiffer penalty than the $500 he cites. So even his readers who lack the moral judgment to recognize that assaulting a bicyclist with a motor vehicle is a barbaric, criminal act should know that his advice is flawed.
Throughout this column, Milloy does his best to avoid resorting to facts and data in favor of regurgitating simplistic, inaccurate, and pejorative stereotypes. Those who bike are labeled “bullies” and “terrorists” without explanation, and Milloy intentionally mischaracterizes and maligns programs that WABA has undertaken in our efforts to minimize the conflicts between drivers and cyclists on the roadways.
Rather than attempt to debate Milloy’s specious mental construction of the new-white-millenial-bully-terrorist-pedicabber laughing maniacally as he simultaneously displaces elderly churchgoers, threatens downtown pedestrians, and terrorizes motorists, I will focus on setting the record straight on the work that the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) actually does to make our roadways, sidewalks, and trails safer. (For those looking for the point-by-point rebuttal, I refer you to Aaron Wiener’s City Paper article and Washcycle’s response.)
Milloy is correct that much of our work is focused on improving roadway infrastructure to accommodate more than automobiles. That includes changes to our roadways that provide dedicated space for people who bike, including bike lanes and protected bikeways. Bicyclists are neither cars nor pedestrians, and in the District the number of people biking has moved the conversation well beyond the question of whether there needs to be space for people who bike, and on to how to provide it in a safe manner. At one time, Milloy seemed to recognize the need for this dedicated space for bicyclists, as his own 1998 account of biking after his license was suspended for excessive speeding included being caught in the common bicyclist’s catch-22 in which you are welcome on neither the roadway nor the sidewalk, and there is no third option. WABA unapologetically works to get that third option built into our public space.
Infrastructure is not the only key to integrating the growing number of bicyclists safely into the District’s transportation network, however. For things to function properly, rules and laws must be written appropriately for each mode of travel, and people must be encouraged or compelled to follow those laws. As biking grows, WABA advocates for laws that clarify the rights and responsibilities of bicyclists where physical differences justify departure from standard vehicular rules. However, our greater role is in encouraging safe and lawful behavior on the roadways through our education programming and Bike Ambassador program. This year alone, WABA has taught safe cycling to over 3,000 bicyclists, with a curriculum that emphasizes riding predictably and lawfully.
Meanwhile, our Bike Ambassador program works to engage with those who are not inclined to attend WABA’s education program on the streets. The program uses mobile signage, light and bell giveaways, explanatory flyers detailing bike laws and safety tips, and other forms of quick communication to encourage bicyclists to ride safely and motorists to respect that right. In his column, Milloy focuses on the words “bike ninja,” which is slang for a bicyclist who wears dark clothes and no lights while riding at night, and uses it as a catch-all for all sorts of belligerent, but irrelevant, behavior. What Milloy pillories in his column is an effort by the team of Bike Ambassadors who volunteer their time to give out lights to cyclists who would otherwise ride home after an evening movie without any.
Finally, I want to directly address Milloy’s scattered but consistent efforts to cast bicycling as the realm of “newly arrived white millenials” and somehow not for the longtime residents, black residents, Ward 8 residents, etc. Apparently “bikes versus cars” is not the only “us versus them” conflict worth trotting back out in print.
Milloy cites the fact that in the past, black juveniles on bikes were routinely stopped by police for trifling bike infractions in order to detain them, search them, or harass them. What Milloy neglects to mention is that the laws used to justify those stops are no longer on the books. They were successfully challenged by WABA and repealed nearly a decade ago, with the strong support of Councilmember Mendelson.
He also fails to note that WABA’s first formal outreach program was one designed to improve bicycling conditions and grow ridership east of the Anacostia River, with efforts centered squarely in Ward 8. In recent years, in that ward alone, WABA has held over a dozen classes, countless rides and events, and nearly thirty free bike repair clinics at which we have repaired several hundred bikes and led their owners on fun, casual, community rides. Undoubtedly, there are barriers to bicycling in Ward 8 that we must work together to overcome. WABA is working to overcome them and make the streets safer—especially in Ward 8 where the need for affordable mobility is perhaps most acute.
To Milloy, the facts seem not to matter, as his arguments are constructed to tear down a cartoon bicycling “terrorist” that bears little resemblance to real people who ride their bikes in the District: black, white, Latino, or otherwise. Certainly, one can build a composite of the worst behaviors encountered over time and attribute those behaviors to every person who rides a bike—but that is not journalism or even fair characterization. It is lazy stereotyping.
At no point does Mr. Milloy engage with the human side of biking or speak to any people who actually bike. By engaging only with his conceptual cartoon bike-terrorist, Milloy can excuse and justify violence against real people on bikes. He does not fear for his safety, the safety of his spouse, the safety of his children. He does not know the fear that stays with you for days after being threatened on the roadway by the angry driver of a machine weighing a ton. He does not know the fear that creeps into your throat when a bike-commuting family member is a half-hour late arriving home.
Every day, I talk to bicyclists who have been in crashes and try to help them deal with the experience. Less often, I speak to the families of those who have been in more serious crashes and are not able to speak for themselves. I have painted ghost bike memorials for cyclists black and white alike. I have placed them across the region and on both sides of the river, from Germantown to Southern Avenue. I have prayed at the vigils with churches and families, black and white alike.
In those moments, everyone is able to focus on the human tragedy and join together to call for the improvements that might keep the next human tragedy from occurring. In those moments it seems so silly that we cannot reconfigure simple pavement and white lines in a way that serves the safety of people, not just the speed of cars. The choice is not an abstract one.
Mr. Milloy: I encourage you to reflect upon your attempt to justify violence against your fellow citizens simply because they choose to travel by bike. In taking this stance, you adopt the cause of the comparatively strong against the comparatively weak and encourage them to use that strength to commit violence against the weak.
If that is the sort of man you are, I understand why you might have difficulty understanding programs like the ones that we run to broaden the appeal of bicycling, make every bicyclist safer, and encourage a safer roadway culture. From your position of strength this all seems silly. For us, all these programs and initiatives and attempts to calm the rhetoric—even the existence of a collective group of bicyclists like WABA—is a form self defense against roads, laws, and an enforcement system that do not yet protect us, and against people who share your views and will take your encouragement literally.