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Responding to the Anarchist Scofflaw Argument

One of the skills engineers and planners strive to develop throughout their careers is the ability to lead a discussion in a public forum in a professional manner.  This is especially true any time the discussion involves cycling, a topic that often results in heated debates.  Any engineer or planner leading a discussion about bicycle infrastructure should be prepared to respond to what I refer to as the anarchist scofflaw argument.

The anarchist scofflaw argument includes any combination of the following:

  • “Bikers never stop at stop signs.”
  • “Bikers always ride down the wrong side of the street.”
  • “When are bikers going to start following the same laws drivers do?”
  • “I see bikers blowing through traffic signals all the time.”
  • “Why do bikers think they own the road?”
  • “Bikers just do whatever they want.”

If you’re not familiar with any of these arguments, just read the comments section from any article about cycling on a newspaper web site.

This afternoon, Mia Birk posted some helpful tips on her blog Joyride on how to respond in a situation like this.  I was more drawn to her ideas about what not to do than her ideas about what to do.   I nodded my head in agreement as she first offers some ideas of what not to say:

First: don’t bother trying to explain the laws of physics, meaning that on a bicycle, we use our body for propelling the vehicle and thus it is desirable, normal, and natural to want to keep moving. […]
Second: skip the lecture about how our traffic laws need to evolve in lockstep with the re-balancing and re-design of our transportation systems toward bicycling and walking. […]
Third: refrain from comparing cyclists and motorists’ relative level of misbehavior. […]

Without a doubt, none of these responses will be the slightest bit helpful.  While Ms. Birk is collecting comments about what you should say in this situation over on her post, I’m more interested in hearing some horror stories about what not to say.  I’ll admit that I’ve attempted these arguments on occasion in private discussions, always with poor results. Luckily, I’ve never used any of them in a public forum.  What other responses should be avoided?  Have you ever used one of these arguments in a public forum?

3 comments to Responding to the Anarchist Scofflaw Argument

  • melanie

    I don’t know if this is urban legend or truth- but I’ve heard that if a biker comes up to a red light and it isn’t changing because the bike is not heavy enough to activate the signal, the bike is totally free to head through the red light. I’ve stretched this into a personal justification to run red lights on my bike when I know it is completely safe, but I doubt it would hold up in a public forum.

  • @Melanie – Yes, it is truth! You’re referring to Minnesota Statute 169.06, Subd. 9 (a.k.a. the Unchanging Red Light Rule), which was just recently (2010) amended to allow bicyclists to proceed through a red light if an actuated signal has not detected their presence. However, there are a few stipulations about when this applies that you should be aware of. There’s a great post about this over at Ride Boldly! that does a great job discussing this statute change. Head over there for more info.

  • Holly

    well, gee, I suppose one “bad” option would be telling the non-rider that if they’d just get off their fat behind and try biking for a few miles, they would understand the behavior from the other side…I think the best answer when someone uses this argument is to say, yes, true, bikers sometimes do all those things. and then explain that if we design traffic measures and streets/paths that make biking a legitimate form of travel which doesn’t penalize the rider, we expect to see them comply with those measures. I know this sounds like whining that bikers are victims of the system, but I think it’s a better answer than claiming we don’t run the intersection. Cuz we do…And I do it when I’m on foot too. So why is it more legit as a pedestrian than a rider? If it is…

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