Societal Change and Cycling

There’s been plenty of news lately in the war between cyclists and motorists.  I suppose there always is a lot in the news on this subject if you simply look for it.  Still, it seems more widespread than ever before and it makes me wonder if we are on the verge of some great change.

Let me tell you a story.

As a youngster in the 1970s, I eagerly accepted temporary employment at the local Eagles Club selling snacks during Bingo Night.  I would load up a cart of goodies and circulate amongst several hundred people, trying to sell my wares.

One of my strongest memories is that everyone smoked.  A lot.  As the evening wore on, a haze from the second-hand smoke would fill the hall, slowly expanding downward from the ceiling.  It was very impressive.  There was a handful of people who preferred not to be in the smoke-filled hall and a small room was set aside for their use.  Nobody thought it odd that hundreds of people should be exposed to a roomful of secondhand smoke, including a young man trying to sell candy.  As for the people in the smoke-free room, they were tolerated, although they seemed to be a tad anti-social.

My, how times of changed.  It took 30 years, but the smoke-filled room no longer exists and smoking indoors would not be allowed in a public building.  The notion of a kid working in such a place is distasteful.  The question is, how did society decide to modify its behaviors concerning such an addictive substance as tobacco and what does that mean to cyclists?

I think there’s good news out there for cyclists.  I don’t think the change in people’s behavior is unique to smoking.  Drunk driving and women’s rights are a couple of other examples where society significantly changed its attitudes.  There are other examples out there if you put your mind to it.  The point is, behaviors viewed as perfectly acceptable can and do change.  The question is how does this happen and how long does it take?

My answer is, I don’t know.

I do know this.  Cycling on the street was ILLEGAL in much of Virginia and Maryland as recently as 1998.  Most city bike share and bike lane programs are less than ten years old.  The first ever Critical Mass ride took place in 1992.  While some cities can trace their bike infrastructure program back to the 1970s, most didn’t put many resources against the plans until the turn of the century.  Protected bike lanes (those which put some sort of physical barrier between cars and bicyles) didn’t exist in America ten years ago.  Cycling issues such as how to punish motorists who accidentally kill cyclists and (of course) cycling infrastructure are appearing more often in local news.

On the other side, it is still obvious to Your Humble Scribe that motorist attitudes towards cycling are tolerant at best and physically hostile at worst.  The notion that streets are for cars and cyclists are a nuisance to already clogged traffic arteries is still strong, especially in suburbia.

Can things change?  When I think about that smoke-filled bingo hall 35 years ago, I realize the answer is “absolutely.”

Will things change?  I’m afraid my crystal ball is a bit cloudy on that issue!

18 thoughts on “Societal Change and Cycling

  1. I feel very bad in retrospect that I spent many years poisoning my wife and children (and doing myself no good either). I reckon that if they had complained about it, I would have given up earlier than I did. The point of this is to say that cyclists will have to make as much noise as the no smoking lobby did if you want to get change.

    How many people are killed by motorists every year in the US? I expect that it is quite a large number (even taking off the number of motorists who kill themselves) but it never seems to figure in discussions regarding cycling. The only topic is how wicked cyclists are to break rules and incommode drivers. I not sure in this case that you are right to be at all optimistic. The car lobby is very powerful.

    1. Over 34,000 last year. They peaked back in the 70’s (in the 50,000 range), I suspect they have only dropped because of (entirely passive!) safety devices like airbags and safety belts and campaigns against drinking and driving. People still think it will happen to the other guy.

      Our safety technology and medical intervention has run far ahead of changes in the psyche of the average driver. That doesn’t bode well for cyclists, I suppose, since the greatest change probably needs to be attitudinal.

      One thing is new: younger people are not nearly as eager to start driving as my generation was. Many wait until they are in their 20’s–I work with quite a few that feel this way. I was driving the second I could, at 16 (and before, but that’s another story). This might help a bit–maybe less of a gungho “it’s my right” feeling will percolate through the populace in time as more mature, less eager drivers take the wheel.

      1. Looking at those figures, let’s hope so. It is one of life’s mysteries to me that people are so tolerant of the mayhem that driving causes. I speak as a driver who acted very dangerously in his youth.

      2. It’s considered to be just a part of life. While each event is tragic, nobody sees any way to seriously change things so they simply accept it. I mean, we can’t live without cars, right?

        When I look back at the horrible work conditions of the late 19th Century and the child labor, I wonder why people put up with it. I suspect they considered it to be “just a part of life” and endured. Now we look at them and shake our heads in wonderment. I suspect people will do the same when they look at us 100 years from now.

    2. Those were the times in which we lived. It was normal behavior so I wouldn’t be too harsh on yourself as you look back, armed with today’s knowledge and sensibilities.

  2. Good points, all. I frequently look back over my life (54 years and counting) and I too am amazed by the societal changes that have occurred in that time, mostly positive. I guess my feeling on the cycling issues is that so long as we don’t go away and continue to simply be a part of the landscape, so long as we assert our right to space in the world, we will keep moving in the right direction. As in most things–including all the changes you’ve mentioned here–there’s no ultimate, quantifiable goal to achieve I think, just continual progress to be made.

    1. I agree. It’s interesting to me how we come to a “tipping point,” and suddenly lots of progress is made in a very short while. Consider homosexual rights. The last five years have seen tremendous change on that issue after years of advocacy. Maybe one day, it will be cycling’s turn.

  3. Good article about cycling’s popularity in the Netherlands

    I think some of the changes that need to happen are already happening. A movement to smaller vehicles. The only time I’m ever really scarred to ride on any road is when I’m surrounded by very large vehicles, RVs, Big Trucks, and Land Yaht SUVs.

    To use smoking as an example, as long as the majority of people smoked then resistance to smocking was anti-social.

    “In 1975, the US state of Minnesota enacted the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act, making it the first state to restrict smoking in most public spaces.”

    It took 30+ years and focused government regulations to turn the tide on smoking. It took a honest evaluation of the harm smoking causes to make this action a reality.

    In the Netherlands government regulation discouraged the use of automobiles, over time cycling becomes extremely popular and the country reaps the benefits.

    Now, that won’t work in America, the Netherlands is small and compact, but if some thought was put into cycling infrastructure in America it would help.

    1. An interesting (to me, anyway) thought is the almost unconscious effect city planning had on automobile use. Since everyone assumed that car (and home) ownership was a must, cities were designed to support cars, and thus cars not only became popular, they became a necessity.

  4. Good point well made Steve.. peoples viewpoints on many do and have changed with time..

    The way things are going, given time.. cyclist will outnumber motorists anyway. Also bear in mind most adult cyclists are motorists as well, and give deference to cyclists on the road.

    Whereas a still greater number of motorists are probably not cyclists but I am sure the balance is changing slowly..

    1. I hope you’re right, Brian. I must report that the county I live in has 400,000 people living in it and I would be pleasantly surprised to learn that more than 500 of them commute by bicycle.

      1. But maybe plenty more will be riding socially and gain some bike awareness ?.. Not a lot commute here but I see lots of people out just riding and they are on the increase here for sur.

  5. I sure hope that it changes sooner rather than later. I have had so many close calls of late it makes it hard to WANT to hit the pavement. Though I still do.

    1. I tried to cycle on the pathways today, but they don’t plow them around here and the melting snow/ice made it too dangerous. So I once again entered the street.

  6. I think that the societal change can and likely will come but there is going to be some serious friction on this issue. One barrier is definitely going to be the way that cycling is used as a tool of partisan politics. I recall you writing about this point in the past. I just read an article from the Boston Globe that speaks to this:

    1. Go to the head of the class, Tuckamoredew! The blog post was more than two years ago. You can find it here:

      It’s an interesting counterpoint to the Globe article, which asserts conservatives are targeting cyclists. My post from two years ago pondered why cyclists so strongly identify with liberal agendas, even when those agendas undercut their cycling advocacy. I also wondered why people assumed I was liberally oriented just because I happened to ride a bicycle. Two very different perspectives on the problem, I think.

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