The Egoist on the Fixed Gear

Good friend and fellow cyclist Joe over at movement movement wrote a great post about his love for breaking the law on his bicycle.  The article wonderfully captures the romance of fixed gear bike culture in a specific place (New York) and a specific time (the early 2000s) but its conclusion that cyclists in New York should “fuck the law” is dead wrong.

There was a time when riding a bike through New York streets was a death defying act.  People really were out to get you.  I’ve had a cabbie throw a cup at me; I’ve  kicked an SUV after it swerved to hit my girlfriend, and I’ve gotten into more screaming matches than I can remember.  It used to be rough out there. I couldn’t blame cyclists, especially those who made their living on their bikes, for worrying more about getting home alive than the rules of the road.

I am going to give this gentleman the benefit of the doubt and hope this road was closed to traffic.

But New York has changed.  Now there are thousands of people cycling in New York every day and the city has accommodated those cyclists by building hundreds of miles of bike lanes, encouraging employers to support bike riding, and making the whole experience a hell of a lot safer and more pleasant.  Cyclists owe their fellow residents of the city a little civility in return.

The average New York Cyclists of today

When cyclists blow through an intersection, they’re not just endangering themselves.  They’re endangering the people in the cars around them and the pedestrians who have to dodge them.  They’re undermining the idea that cyclists are part of the fabric of New York and reinforcing the idea that all cyclists are dangerous, egomaniacal assholes who are not to be trusted.

Put simply –they are undermining the social contract that keeps this mess of a city from exploding.

This place holds together because, for the most part, New Yorkers treat each other with respect and obey certain social conventions.  We let people get off the train before we get on, we try not the block the doors when others are exiting, we treat each other with dignity – if not always politness.*  When a cyclist screams through an intersection, or hops up on the sidewalk, or speeds  her way through pedestrians crossing the street, she is not just breaking the law, she is disrespecting, and endangering, her fellow New Yorkers.  She’s putting her personal expression of “freedom” above her responsibility to her neighbors.

It drives me nuts.  And it drives me even crazier when this culture of rule breaking is associated with progressive politics.  As I have said before, how can I trust an Occupy Wall Street activist to create a better world when I cannot even trust them to treat an old lady crossing the street with respect?  Our behavior has consequences. Our personal freedoms are not without limits.  Our traffic lights are there for a reason.  Pay attention to them.

And get over yourself, dude, This isn’t 1987, and you’re not Kevin Bacon.

*And woe unto you who breaks these rules.  I hate you even more than I hate asshats on fixed gear bikes.

Commuter Ethics in a Disaster Zone

I’ve lived in New York through September 11th the black out of 2003, the transit strike of 2005, and now Hurricane Sandy.  In the days after those events, I’ve ridden my bike many times through a downtown Manhattan without power.  One thing has always been true – people behave better.

New York can be an aggressive place. Cars will cut you off when you’re trying to cross the sidewalk, cyclists routinely barrel through red lights and jaywalkers will casually walk across four lanes of traffic.  The roads of New York can be chaotic and perilous.  But this morning, when the street lights of lower Manhattan were out, the subways were closed, and there were thousands of inexperienced cyclists skateboarder, roller-bladers and razor scooter riders on the streets things went remarkably smoothly.  Even at the many intersections where there were no police, cars gingerly inched forward and cyclists waited patiently for their turn.

It was as if with the rules governing our behavior removed, we decided to act more ethically.  Perhaps because of some altruistic feeling brought on by the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, or perhaps because of some internalization of the categorical imperative – i.e. if I behave reasonably that asshole is more likely to behave reasonably and I won’t end up getting killed on 8th avenue.  I am cynical enough to think it is most likely the later.  But either way, it made what could have been a very dangerous ride to work a little less terrify.

Immanuel Kant, whose complex and nuanced theory of the categorical imperative I have entirely mangled in this blog post.

Now let’s see what this evening brings when we all repeat the experiment in play nice road sharing in the dark.