Harvest Century September 22nd

Scapegoating messengers and fixed-gear fallacies

Posted by on September 28th, 2006 at 11:44 am

North American Cycle Courier Championships

Nearly every time someone complains about how bicyclists are unsafe, uncourteous, dangerous, and suicidal riders, they nearly always mention messengers. Or “those downtown messengers” as the cop put it who wrote me a ticket for rolling through a four-way stop intersection on a sleepy bike boulevard.

There’s truth to the observation that cyclists don’t know or obey the laws. But the context in which we ride is often forgotten. We ride on streets that are not designed for our safety or comfort. We are subject to laws that create dangerous grey areas when applied to cyclists. We share the road with motorists whose behavior is erratic and whose vehicle speed and weight are grossly incompatible with our own.

Messengers, who are the stereotypical fixed-gear riders, occupy an even more contested field — they work downtown, where they are often the fastest vehicles on the road, dodging motorists who are too much in a hurry to obey law, courtesy, or common sense.

Their jobs require speed and conditions require feats of quick stopping, starting, and maneuvering that most of us couldn’t execute on our best days in an empty parking lot.

They’re experts, and of course they mark and hone their skills with particular sorts of bicycles, and particular styles of riding and dressing. And of course this inspires others to the highest form of flattery, with varying results.

“The idea of unsafe “downtown messengers” is a potent myth, and we all suffer because of it.”.

Fixed-gear bikes, despite their mystique and demonization, are pretty normal and reasonable manifestations of bicycle work and culture. Messengers, with their high visibility have come to represent all bicyclists in the eyes of the city’s drivers. Many of those drivers don’t understand—or like—what they see, and are quite ready to project their misconceptions onto bicycle riders at large.

More unfortunately, many bicyclists are equally willing to play the same blame game, scapegoating messengers and other “anarchist” or “scofflaw” cyclists for this categorial prejudice.

But what does it mean to be a good cyclist or a bad cyclist? We all make mistakes, many of us are underinformed as to legal and safe riding, and frankly, the deck is stacked against us. It can be difficult to determine, in a hairy situation, what might even constitute courteous, much less safe or legal conduct on the road, or how to balance these three needs on top of the need to actually get to your destination.

Add to that the many riders who are slow, inexperienced, and may never even have driven a car. You can still see people riding the wrong way down streets like MLK and Hawthorne, cutting off cars and other cyclists, stopping too suddenly, and barrelling imprudently through dangerous intersections. And even the best of us can succumb to impatience and road rage, to the detriment of our skill and common sense.

Sharky and Velo downtown

[Unsafe for most
but not for him]
Read more about Sharky

Messengers, through experience, are less prey than the rest of us to all of these pitfalls, and are probably some of the safer road users out there. Regardless, many drivers still view them as crazy at best, threats to public safety at worst. But their job is to ride their bikes all day, and you’d better believe their first interest is in staying alive and keeping traffic moving. The idea of unsafe “downtown messengers” is a potent myth, and we all suffer because of it.

Sure, now police seem to be focused on fixed gear riders — easy targets due to their anomalous looks, behavior and downtown concentration. And messengers and their imitators are easy for the rest of us more staid-seeming cyclists to disown. But who’s next? Recently there was a ticketing blitz aimed at cyclists downtown who left the bike lane to turn left. Cyclists have been targeted for proceeding at a jogging pace through four-way stop signs on designated low-traffic residential streets.

We’re all susceptible to the same external dangers and internal dilemmas on the road. We need to recognize that we’re in this together, whether we’re lycra-clad racers, civil servants commuting in suits, DUII offenders on too-small mountain bikes, clowns on tallbikes, Zoobombers on mini bikes, hipsters cruising on comfort bikes, five year olds with training wheels, or the growing population of track-bike riders.

As bicyclists, we need to assert our right to the road, and we need to fight to make the roads work for us — all of us.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

31 Comments
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    ben September 28, 2006 at 12:33 pm

    beautiful… and thank you.

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    brock September 28, 2006 at 12:44 pm

    Good article.

    “Messengers, with their high visibility have come to represent all bicyclists in the eyes of the city’s drivers.”

    I wonder about that though – while a lot of people work and drive downtown, a lot do not. I hardly see messengers out at all on my commute or in my car. But I could easily count 30+ bike commuters this morning on my ride from NE to Tigard (and I travel through downtown).

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    Qwendolyn September 28, 2006 at 12:51 pm

    This is good writing.

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    pushkin September 28, 2006 at 1:01 pm

    Bravo! There are no better cyclists in traffic than messengers. All the reasons you listed are spot on (especially in re the context in which riding is done in the downtown core). For those of you that don’t understand why, then ask the river why it doesn’t curse the stone in its path…

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    Doug September 28, 2006 at 1:49 pm

    Elly, I think you’re improperly representing the police enforcement action that you linked to:

    “According to Traffic Division Lieutenant Mark Kruger, she complained that bicyclists were running the stop sign at speed without even slowing down and when she tried to confront them about it they became “caustic” (argumentative and sarcastic).”

    That’s hardly “proceeding at a jogging pace” and if they weren’t slowing at the sign they frankly deserved the ticket.

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    Dabby September 28, 2006 at 2:24 pm

    Doug,
    For your information, Mark Krueger is the last person who’s word you want to take as gospel, or beleive in general.
    Especially on one of his favorite topics to hate (besides holocaust victims as it has been proven), bicycles.
    Anyone who would perform the attrocities this man has, in and out of uniform, should for one thing, not even be a member of our police force, nor be used as a representative.
    I watch alot of what goes on in this town, and most cyclists will roll up to a intersection, such as a four way stop, slow to a good pace, and roll through if it is safe.
    A very small majority of idiots would roll through at speed, without even slowing down. These are the people who deserve a ticket for it.
    Perhaps you should reread the above article with an open mind, instead of a cold, closed heart.

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    tom September 28, 2006 at 2:29 pm

    I think the majority of the article is well written. Line I have a problem with: [quote]We share the road with motorists whose behavior is erratic …….[/quote]

    Sort of scapegoating all motorists, to some extent. Some motorist behavior is erratic would be the more appropriate thing to say, in my view. Or sometimes as cyclists we deal with erratic motorist behavior.

    The last two paragraphs aren’t consistent with blog topic. Looks like a rally cry for unity amongst cyclists …the rest of the article is on task explaining messenger scapegoating and fixed-gear fallacies.

    – Catrike Road rider

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    C3PNo September 28, 2006 at 3:04 pm

    Elly, nice work. Power of, by, and for the People.

    Doug, “slowing down” is not always percieved as such, esp. to a ped non-cyclist. Sometimes it means coasting without braking. If we get our “Stop as Yield” way, the amount of deceleration is relative to field of vision, speed, etc. Of course, that stop sign would not be there in the first place had our bike route been given right-of-way through the entire neighboorhood.

    Tom, to say motorist behavior is erratic means not all motorists but definitely the experience of one 50-block cyclommuter contains one or more “Unexpected Motorist-Initiated Event” or UMIE. S’life…

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    ben September 28, 2006 at 3:11 pm

    actually the “duii offenders on too-small mountain bikes” was my fav. part : )

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    worldsafari September 28, 2006 at 5:20 pm

    Nice writing and for the most part pretty darn accurate. Although I would say I see more people on my commute than not just blazing through stop signs. Albeit safe and clear to proceed it is still rolling right through a stop sign. Anyway, the best part of the article is that bicyclist “are all in this together” and that’s something that should be noticed. I might ad that I am surprised at the large amount of “messengers” and general bike riders that dont ride with helmets.

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    Erik September 28, 2006 at 5:23 pm

    I appreciate this essay most for the attempt to dispel myths and its spirit to unite all bicyclists.

    Messengers and similar-minded bicyclists may be the safest out there because they’re experienced and into self-preservation. The author does a good job documenting their experience (I’m not sure if she was trying to justify their behavior or not.) But it seems that something else is at play when messengers/fixies get jabbed at by society. Besides being more conspicuous to the average citizen, the erratic riding, whether safe or not, is the trigger.

    As users of the road, we don’t know what to expect. When we ride or drive erratically–not following preconceived manners of the road–regardless of whether it’s justified in our eyes or not, other users suffer. I feel terrified driving around bicyclists and I feel the same (albeit more vulnerable) riding around cars because both do unpredictable things. This rogue-ishness, even if it feels safe to the person engaging in the behavior, makes people defensive. The unknown/unexpected occurs and as a consequence, the fight/flight response kicks in. In the end, more erratic behavior can result. I can recall times when someone’s “safe” biking, put me in a sticky situation because I was trying to be predictable and follow the rules of the road as a cyclist. To be sure, I’m sure I’ve compromised the safety of another bicyclist with less “to the ‘T'” biking mannerisms when I didn’t run the red light.

    Overall, this essay is groovy. However, I can’t find much that would build consensus on what’s the best way to “assert our right to the road.” It’s been said over and over, we have a right to the road. But the lack of a unifying method to achieve that end is what’s causing anxiety out there. Until then, I expect the same fight/flight responses all over. Eventually, years from now, the current variety of methods (to obey or not to obey) will crumble the automobile-dominated culture. If we were ever able to unite on a single method, maybe we’d get there quicker and with less ire. But, the human experience is a diverse one.

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    Jeff September 28, 2006 at 5:24 pm

    I don’t have a problem with messengers or fixed-gear cycles at all. The problem I see is with “green” fixed-gear cyclists who are unable to control their bicycles in traffic. It’s one thing to not be confident on your bike, but it’s another thing to be technically inexperienced and incapable, hauling ass and making unsafe decisions in traffic. I can’t recall how many times I saw “new faces” in traffic this Summer, hauling down 21st street toward Clinton and nearly falling off of their bike trying to avoid the cars at the 21st & Clinton intersection.

    It’s one of the reasons why I’m reluctant to take full advantage of my new flip-flop hub. I don’t want to be “that guy”, even though I have years of cycling under my belt and would most likely be traveling at a rate of speed proportionate with my experience in riding fixed.

    It’s not about messengers. They do fine when left alone. It’s about people taking on a new aspect of our sport and biting off more than they can chew.

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    SKIDmark September 28, 2006 at 8:34 pm

    I rode fixed with a front brake for about a year until I was comfortable stopping without using it in all situations.

    It doesn’t help the situation when new bikes like the Bianchi Pista come equipped with 48 x 16 gearing which is great if you are starting out at the velodrome but way too tall for the street, especially if you are a beginner and have decided to forego a brake.

    Riding fixed is not all that difficult once you grasp how you can regulate your speed (slow down) by resisting the forward motion of the pedals, which is unique to the fixed gear.

    I think you’d do fine, because you understand your limits.

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    NeRf September 28, 2006 at 10:59 pm

    Awsome article, you nailed so many things that i’ve been trying to say and brought up many more, i can only shudder to think of the ingorance that may come in the comments as a result.

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    dabby September 28, 2006 at 11:46 pm

    Tom,
    I do not agree at all with your thought that the last part of the article does not have to do with the rest.
    The whole point of the artcle is that this issue has divided cyclists, pitting messengers first, and then fixed gear riders, below and against somehow all other cyclists. Thi issue has done not much more than to make us (messengers) look like outlaws, instead of the hard working, underpaid, and under- appreciated group that we are.
    She very well pointed ou that this seperation exists, then pointed out that instead of being divided on such a important issue, we should come together, for, as a whole we have much more power, and reason, then we do in pieces.
    I myself have put this same idea across on these comments.
    Most people don’t get it.
    Maybe you should just reread it, as I suggested to Doug above, with a open mind.
    If we stand divided in front of them, the have a sweet, clear path between us.

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    Doug September 29, 2006 at 12:06 am

    Dabby,

    I’ve opened my heart and discovered that Elly was right, a citizen could not have possibly complained about cyclists blowing stop signs at speed — despite what was in the contents of the article Elly linked to — because only a small minority of cyclists would do that.

    Before I go on I want to point out this, written by Jonathan Maus, in that same article that Elly linked to:

    “The bottom line is that far too many cyclists and motorists disobey traffic signals and stop signs. The problem isn’t with the Police, they just enforce the law.”

    I’m not digging up something that isn’t germane to the conversation here, this isn’t even about whether or not cyclists are getting targeted unfairly. It’s also not about Kroeker or who was right or wrong, what’s it’s about is that Elly basically misrepresents the contents of the article she linked to (“Cyclists have been targeted for proceeding at a jogging pace through four-way stop signs”) when the article doesn’t support her assertion. In my opinion this is bad journalism and shouldn’t be accepted because you agree with her overall point of view.

    I wish Jonathan would chime in here, I’d be interested to hear his take.

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    Jonathan Maus September 29, 2006 at 9:56 am

    Doug,

    Thanks for your close reading of the article and for pointing this out.

    The deal here is that Elly and I both wrote her article…meaning I edited it. I inserted links and made other changes I deemed necessary.

    That being said, it wasn’t exactly Elly who contradicted herself.

    As for the two conflicting statements, I am still very careful in using the words “targeting cyclists” in reference to the cops.

    I have thought a lot about this issue and I maintain that until I have absolute evidence that targeting is going on I will refrain from promoting this idea myself (although I have no problem publishing Elly’s opinion on the matter).

    I do think the issue of targeting cyclists should be discussed because a lot of people seem to think this is happening, but I have not seen or heard any real evidence of this happening.

    Has the rate of tickets gone up? Yes it has. But the Traffic Division had stepped up enforcement across the board. More tickets to bikes doesn’t necessarily mean targeting is going on.

    The cops ticket cyclists for stop signs no matter how fast they “roll” through. the law says to stop.

    the real issue is whether or not the law should be changed and whether or not the cops should spend their limited resources in this way.

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    Sean September 29, 2006 at 12:21 pm

    In my own experience, the sentiment that *most* cyclists are traffic law abiding citizens is utter BS. I can’t consider myself a commuter since I work from home, but I make every effort to get around the city by bicycle.

    My wife recently started teaching at Sunnyside Environmental and I’ve frequently been riding from our home to meet her during the day and after work. Guess what…over the past month and some dozens of rides to that area…I have not seen a single cyclist obey traffic stops…not one, and it’s enfuriating. Five times in the last two weeks, I have nearly been t-boned by fellow cyclists who didn’t even slow down.

    It seems to me that most cyclists (and peds) are only concerned with not getting creamed by cars on the road. More and more, I’m making eye contact with a ped or cyclist who forcibly takes ROW and disobeys traffic signals and every time it happens it makes me angry, embarrassed and ashamed.

    We (as people) need to be looking out for all other people, regardless of their mode of transportation.

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    tom September 29, 2006 at 5:19 pm

    In response to the comment that I have an open mind — I do have an open mind.

    What would your reaction be to reading an article saying: “We share the road with cyclists whose behavior is erratic.” ?? Kind of paints all cyclists with an unfair brush. All I’m saying is that by using the same sentence but instead inserting motorist the author is doing the same thing.

    I did think this was a good article, for many of the reasons mentioned above. I am a trike commuter who rarely uses his car.

    I may be wrong in my feeling that the last 2 paragraphs don’t go with the subject and title. (Maybe I’m in the minority). I just didn’t see the calls for unity in the rest of the article …I saw a well written response elaborating on fixed gear riders and how they’re unfairly perceived by many motorists and others.

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    Curt September 29, 2006 at 8:45 pm

    So, because of the many challenges bike messengers face in their work, and because of their awesome bike-handling skills, they should be excused for routinely breaking traffic laws.

    Hmmm. Interesting argument.

    Should we extend the same courtesy to, say, Nascar race-car drivers when they drive on public roads? How about long-distance truck drivers? They are both highly skilled and experienced at driving at high speeds in crowded traffic situations. So I guess we should give them permission to exceed posted speed limits, refuse to yield the right of way, make sudden lane changes without signaling, cut in front of other vehicles, weave and pass on both sides without warning, run stop signs and stop lights, go the wrong way on one-way streets … ? I mean, they’re highly skilled car drivers, and their very livelihood depends on avoiding accidents, so they should be allowed, right?

    Succussful bike messengers do this kind of stuff all the time. It’s no wonder car drivers get uptight about having to “share the road” with bike messengers in particular and project that anxiety onto bicyclists in general.

    To say that skilled bicyclists should be excused from obeying traffic laws, while at the same time insisting that motorists should always obey all traffic laws to the letter, is somewhat of a double standard.

    By the way, all bicyclists, including bike messengers, are already being given a free pass by motorists and the rest of society: Car drivers must pass a driving test (road test + written test) to get a license to legally drive a car on the roads. Bicyclists have no obligation to pass any kind of bicycle-driving test or exhibit any knowledge of the rules of the road to head out the door and legally ride a bike on the public roadways.

    In my opionion, bicyclists who ask to be excused from following the rules of the road are really asking too much.

    It is every traffic cop’s duty to pull over and ticket any and all road users-including bicyclists– who break the law. Why is this so hard to comprehend?

    If we don’t like the current laws, we should work to change them. But to whine and moan about how we should be excused from following current traffic laws just makes us look somewhat elitist and out of touch with the rest of the community we live in.

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    Dr. Mark Ross September 29, 2006 at 9:51 pm

    I would like to see more facts supporting claims like “a small percentage break traffic laws”

    What does one mean by “few” anyway? 1% 10% or perhaps more accurately, 49%?

    Cite some figures and stop guessing.

    ps, to the “bike messenger” who buzzed through the intersection on SW 6th (near the city hall) going the wrong way with BOTH hands on his cell phone, GOTCHA! I’m done with sympathy for you and your brakeless bikes. We’ve a bigger issue here, and its people like YOU who think the law doesn’t apply to.

    I ride 5-10 miles a day and I feel less and less sympathic to my bike riding brothers and sisters each day. I feel like a thug each time someone blows an intersection. thanks a lot.

    ps, have a nice day.

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    SKIDmark September 29, 2006 at 11:16 pm

    Hey Dr. do you think if a person in a car was doing what you described that messenger was doing (driving no handed and yacking on the phone) and he hit you, would you be able to type your response into the computer? I am guessing if a car hit you, you’d be in the Hospital, and if a bike messenger hit you, you’d both get up, dust yourselves off, and be on your way. Can you see how there is a difference? Also Doctor I am toying with the idea of soem sort of documentary of PDX messengers, so I have been hanging with them and riding with them, and a few are my friends anyways. Not everyone ride a fixed with no handbrake, some even have mountain bikes with cantis. Too bad you didn’t get to see two (on our bikes) of almost get creamed by longboarders on the sidewalk as we creeped uphill at walking speed on the sidewalk picking our way through pedestrians. Yes, we were breaking the law on the sidewalk but we were being consciencious and careful and these tw skateboarders are slaloming down the sidewalk almost hitting several pedestrians. Skateboards actually do not have brakes, unlike a fixed whose speed you can control by simply pedaling slow. And guess what? The bike stops when you stop pedaling. I have had it with the demonizing of messengers, and the High School cafeteria cliques within cycling. You guys can have it, I’ll go eat lunch outside.

    Elly, you wrote a great article and I am almost ashamed to put this rant down here but it has just gotten stupid and I can’t stand it. Rather than sit and whine I am just going to start documenting what I see and experience and share it with others later. There are plenty of outlets, not that I can’t make my own……….

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    Elly September 30, 2006 at 7:18 am

    Thanks for all the thoughtful feedback and critiques. Just to bring things back to earth a bit with the debate: this article is not suggesting that anyone ought to be above the law, and I certainly don’t want to trivialize dangerous riding.

    Rather, we’re all equally liable to be at odds with adverse conditions on the roads. We need to work to make traffic friendlier, whether by changing the law or road design or our culture. If we’re going to do that, we need to have some sympathy for each other. That’s all.

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    Dabbby September 30, 2006 at 1:34 pm

    I think I see a clear representation of this problem right here.
    Mr. Ross, semi truck driver if i remember correctly, has in quotes “bike messenger”, surely showing he has no idea if that even was a bike messenger.
    This is the problem, a bike messenger is not going to ride through a intersection with no hands on the phone..
    One hand on the phone, one hand on the handlebars.

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    Dr. Mark Ross October 1, 2006 at 12:39 am

    SKID, on the other hand, there are many who are tired of YOUR “rants” — the idea bicycles should be extempt from law abiding because they weigh less than cars is about insane as arguing cars ought to be extempt from law abiding because they weigh far less than semi-tractor trailer combos (105,000 lbs vs 3,500 lbs).

    If you wish to ride brake free and ignore traffic control laws, CHANGE THE LAW and make it legal. Trying to gather support for your causes by being an outlaw is a dubious method — you’ve already lost my support, a fellow bicyclist.

    Right now we’ve bumped up a wall that may be our own undoing — the image of bicyclists ignoring the law is starting to get burned in society’s collective minds. Geez, how are we ever going to overcome that?

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    Dr. Mark Ross October 1, 2006 at 12:42 am

    ps to elly and jonathan: congrats for writing on a timely and critical topic. have a nice day guys.

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    SKiDmark October 2, 2006 at 7:33 am

    I have never at any time said that I think bicycles should be exempt from ANY law. The weight issue came up when someone else attempted to create an analogy between a car with no brakes and a fixed gear without a handbrake. Some BS about engine braking, to which I pointed out that asking an engine to do something it is not designed to do and depending on it to stop a vehicle that weighs at least 10 times as much as the driver is not the same as making a fixed gear bike do what it was designed to do and stopping a vehicle that weighs 1/10 of what its rider weighs.

    Once again, for the 80,000th time, a fixed gear bike meets the requirements of the law because a fixed hub is a brake, as it can slow down and stop the rear wheel, and it meets the performance requirement of being able to skid the rear wheel.

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    samizdat October 2, 2006 at 3:33 pm

    Whether or not a fixie meets the spirit of the law what’s the problem with having at least one handbrake? Aesthetics? It’s not going to add that much more weight to the ride and it’s probably a good idea for the hundreds of new fixie riders out there whose skills on the bike are considerably less than that of the messengers and racers who ride fixed *all the time*.

    What seems to be the larger problem is that cyclists (of all sects) don’t know or don’t care about the rules of the road. We have to stop for all signs and lights (it’s even in the OR DOT bicycling guide I just saw at the DMV).

    Running lights or signs for whatever reason you have reflects poorly on all of us. Nearly every driver I talk to about bike commuting comments on how bicyclists are always blowing signs and lights and usually how it pisses them off. It’s not the kind of rapport we want to be building with the people we want to share the road with *us*.

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    BLDZR October 2, 2006 at 7:27 pm

    Capital job on the article, Elly and Jonathon both! Raises things in a light some have not seen before (I’m sure), and does so in an eloquence some of us do not possess.

    However, as to the commentary discussion afterwards, I say – Hope for a sensible and equal-footed “rapport” with the driving population in one hand, and sh*t in the other. Then tell me which one got full first.

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    joe October 2, 2006 at 9:14 pm

    I’ll go eat lunch outside.

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    Val A Lindsay II October 17, 2006 at 9:37 am

    I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again;

    The bicycle is an ideal unto it’s own. Arguably the most efficient piece of machinery man has probably ever made. But just because we all ride them does not make us saints.

    It really isn’t cars versus bicycles. It really breaks down to the vehicles we operate, the road we share and the laws of how we intermingle.

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