The myth of the virtuous cyclist
Last Sunday, at about noon, in the middle of Harvard Square, I saw a young man cycle down Massachusetts Avenue in front of the Harvard Coop. As the walk light came on, he cut across the opposite traffic lane, up a wheelchair-accessible ramp and onto the sidewalk in front of the T entrance. There he weaved through and past pedestrians who were heading in various directions. I couldn’t imagine why he thought it was okay or what was in his mind, but he seemed unconcerned about the risk he posed to others or that he might be reprimanded.
Everyone who walks around in Cambridge knows that flagrant “anything goes” behavior is the exception but has spread among young cyclists, scooterists, e-bikers, e-boarders and the like.
This outbreak of norm-breaking by cyclists may in part be due to advances in bicycle technology that make cycling easier and more enjoyable, e-bikes and other novelties. It may in part be that continued improvements in bicycle trails and infrastructure have stimulated a desire to push boundaries. It may also be generational, a badge of millennial identity.
The norm-breaking cyclist is not alone. A belief that “anything goes” for a virtuous cause is widespread throughout society, and cycling is a virtuous cause. Witness the City’s Bicycle Safety Ordinance amendment passed by the City Council in 2020. This remarkable piece of legislation was enacted via Zoom with remarkably little discussion by a public who were preoccupied with the pandemic as well as myriad disruptions to normal life and lulled by the proposal’s benign and highly misleading title.
The law in fact contains a detailed menu and timeline of mandates for the city to build separated bicycle lanes on more than 20 miles of public ways. It briefly references the goal of bicycle safety but none of the other recognized means of improving safety, such as enforcement of traffic and cycling regulations, education or signs. It simply asserts that an elaborate and inflexible plan is necessary to reduce systemic risks to cyclists and makes no provision for evaluation of impacts, or reconsideration as progress is made, circumstances change or new information comes to light. Further, it explicitly privileges the needs and comfort of cyclists over those of other users of the public ways, residents and local businesses who rely on the streets for access and parking.
In approving this law, councillors showed that they are willing to disrupt people’s lives and livelihoods, to move “fast and break things,” the mantra of Big Tech. It is not surprising that Jeff Bezos favors policies that will shutter local businesses, that developers are comfortable with a policy that may force settled residents to move or even that a young cyclist on the sidewalk in Harvard Square believes it’s okay to break norms that others depend on. But it is surprising and shocking that our local government leaders, our representatives, would adopt such an attitude.
We need to support city councillors who are willing to reconsider the timeline and details of the 2020 ordinance. They can do this without compromising cycling safety.
John Pitkin, Fayette Street.