The 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta has got me thinking a lot about our society’s interconnectedness. There is a great scene in Jerome K. Jerome’s comedy tale Three Men in a Boat where the weary boating men come across the riverbank where King John, surrounded by indignant bishops and barons, was forced to grant Englishmen their God-given liberties. That one moment can be traced to today, and all the arguments we Americans have over keeping our country intact.
Here in Washington D.C., the ancient lineage upon which our country was founded is practically forgotten. The typical American no longer sees himself as a part of unfolding history. Instead, thanks to liberalism, he is a hyper-autonomous individual who works for himself and no one else.
This point is best illustrated by a recent article in Washington City Paper. The topic is bicycling, a favorite activity among the yuppy, progressive D.C. denizens. With total obliviousness, author Will Sommer asks, “Riding a Bike on the Sidewalk Makes Sense. Why the Hate?” Sommer is dismayed at the anti-bicycle attitude so prevalent in the city. He’s also perturbed that a police officer once stopped him for the crime of riding his bike on a sidewalk. To him, non-cyclists don’t get it. Even though it’s illegal to bike down the sidewalk in some parts of the city, Sommer is undeterred. “I still bike on the sidewalk…because riding on the sidewalk has its place everywhere in the city,” he asserts.
“Everywhere in the city”? Well Will, pedestrians have a right to walk practically anywhere in the city as well. That doesn’t mean they can dart out in traffic anytime they please. It simply means that people can transverse the city in a reasonable, orderly manner.
Cyclists scoff at this kind of regimented movement. They want the freedom to behave as cars in the street but without the boundaries that come with the designation. “When traffic is backed up and the cars are too close to the curbs to filter past, the sidewalk is perfect,” Sommer writes. “The same goes for avoiding going the wrong way on a one-way street. And of course, the sidewalk is ideal for new cyclists otherwise spooked by city riding.”
That’s all well and good until you have to make way for douchebags in helmets ringing their little bells for you to get out of their path. Working in the city, I’ve had a number of close-calls with cyclists who thought the sidewalk existed for their pleasure, as if the huge number of bike lanes in the streets don’t exist. Every time I’m cut off by an unruly biker, I want to shout the George Costanza maxim, “You know we’re living in a society!” It wouldn’t do much good, though. Cyclists are a pet protected class liberals love to coddle.
Having to dodge sidewalk-hogging jerks on two wheels isn’t the only reason I dislike the biking attitude. My pal Reid Smith tried to make a case for D.C. cyclists in The American Spectator last year. His point was highly individualistic: “I may run a stop sign or two, but that leads me to my next point…If I’m a danger to myself, that’s my problem.”
That kind of thinking is where the prime error occurs. Cyclists who act like cars and pedestrians at the same time have little regard for the rest of us. By adopting two styles of travel, they not only put themselves in danger but they put everyone else in danger as well. The motorist who has to stop or swerve for a reckless doofus on two wheels has his own well-being to worry about. That goes double for the hapless folks on the sidewalk who have to dodge and avoid bicyclists who feel the need to barrel down a space meant for foot traffic only.
Smith’s self-serving take would be fine if the city was full of cyclists and nothing else. But it’s not. LIke all metropolises, Washington has to function with a variety of people living, working, and commuting within its borders. There are rules of travel for each mode of transportation. It’s hard enough driving in a highly-congested city around rush hour. Punk cyclists who want to be two things at once and ride unpredictably among 4,000 pound machines are asking for trouble. And injury.
An example: I was once enjoying dinner outside on the corner of North Capitol and E Street when I witnessed a cyclist get hit by a car trying to make the red light. The motorist was clearly at fault. He even attempted to hit-and-run by driving away right after the collision. A few thoughtful pedestrians chased him down, thankfully.
The whole incident was harrowing to watch, to say the least. Upon contact, the cyclist was thrown to the ground, and never got back on her feet. Paramedics eventually arrived and carted her away. Talking to police afterwards, I was assured she didn’t sustain any permanent injuries. But even so, I imagine the psychological trauma was high.
The driver was clearly at fault in this case, but the accident was striking. No other pedestrians on foot were hit despite crossing the road at the same time as the cyclist. By being a hair faster in crossing the street, the biker was struck down. Was she, to use Smith’s words, a danger to just herself? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Even so, she was hit, unable to escape the collective nature of life in the city. Individuality failed to protect her; it was the kindness of others who came to her aid.
In his recent encyclical on the environment Pope Francis rejected the technological gains that have led to environmental degradation. “Everything is connected,” the pontiff declared; a clear rebuke to the Western idea of pure individualism. Technology, he explained, can often be a temptation that “tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic.”
Amen to that. Technology, when used improperly, upheaves well-grounded tradition and order. The bicycle has been around for a long while. But its embrace in urban centers is new. The two-wheeled machine is seen as a sleek, modern alternative to sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. That’s nice, just as penicillin is great. But it can also lead to problems, such as cyclists trying to zigzag around traffic patterns without a care for those around them. Suddenly, the bicycle and the freedom it brings become an end altogether; it’s no longer a means for coordinating movement within society.
Like the centuries-old document that first detailed our freedoms, D.C. cyclists have forgotten they have to share the city with the rest of us. They might have the right to a fair trial and a jury of their peers, but they don’t have a right to peddle down the sidewalk at breakneck speeds, forcing pedestrians out of their way. Sadly, in our post-modern liberal era, there is little difference between the two.