Not responsible for bicyclesPhoto: Mike GiffordIs it a good idea to ride a bicycle responsibly?

I doubt there are many out there who would say it isn’t.

But there is no consensus about what exactly constitutes responsible riding.

The topic has generated intense debate since the bicycle was invented. There has never been a unified code of behavior for bicycling, and existing laws, infrastructure, and expectations range from contradictory to absent to downright hazardous. So people who ride — as well as ones who don’t — are left to hash out their own street code.

The conversation’s most recent locus is on Greater Greater Washington, a well-respected D.C.-area transportation blog. David Alpert wrote a post about a “social contract” for bicycling, covering situations from stop signs to sidewalks. The resulting discussion is good-natured and inconclusive — and extremely long, as commenters hash out a slew of preferences, exceptions, and variations.

Alpert’s piece came in the wake of a campaign launched by major D.C. bike advocacy group, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. WABA asked its members and the public to sign onto a “Resolution to Ride Responsibly” that begins: “I resolve to be a more responsible bicyclist. I resolve to better respect the rights of other road users. I resolve to make a good faith effort to better follow the law. “

This pledge has generated less debate about riding strategies than grumbling about WABA’s advocacy tactics and underlying assumptions. 

WABA addressed the clamor in a blog post by the organization’s director, Shane Farthing. “Bottom line: The scofflaw perception is getting in the way of needed changes, and we need some mechanism to combat it. This pledge is meant to do that in order to set the stage for the next round of advocacy.”

Farthing’s frustrations are clearest in the conclusion: “If you disagree with riding responsibly … don’t sign the pledge.” 

The “scofflaw perception” is indeed pervasive. But is it real?

Prejudices abound about people who ride bikes. The classic ones — that people who ride are both entitled elites and impoverished losers — are brilliantly contradictory. Then there is the myth of the freeloading bike riders, which we debunked here. The idea that people obey the law less on bikes than in cars is another baffling falsehood that has over time hardened into conventional wisdom.

But you may be thinking right now — Hey, I see them break the law and ride unpredictably all the time!

Well, yes. But in greater rates than people driving cars? Or walking?

Maybe not. In the absence of numbers, consider the perspective of Randy Blazak, a sociologist who specializes in hate crimes and sees distressing parallels between his work and his daily bike commute.

We all practice “selective perception,” he said in an interview about reactions to a proposed new stop sign law in Oregon. Apparently we are hyperaware of anything that reinforces stereotypes we hold dear. Yet when there’s contradictory data, we don’t look as closely.

Biases also tend to color our perceptions of what is and isn’t dangerous. Seeing someone on a bicycle in traffic can seem alarming no matter how legally or safely that person is riding, especially if you can’t imagine yourself doing such a thing. But the devil you know is always more appealing — and the 100 or so car-related deaths and many, many more injuries that happen in our country every day have come to seem so inevitable and mundane that most of us don’t think twice about climbing into a car and setting off towards the freeway.

The more people on bikes, the safer bicycling becomes. Yet even as the mode’s popularity grows, there’s a measurable increase lately in the toxicity of rhetoric about it, which is unfortunately reaching beyond the media and into politics.

It’s understandable, in a way. In order to get from point A to point B efficiently and safely on a bicycle, you can’t always do exactly what you would in a car.

There aren’t always good options, though. Or even safe options. Red lights don’t always turn green unless a car is present. Narrow bike lanes force you into a minefield of opening car doors. Fields of broken glass and unexpected potholes prevent you from holding a straight line.

But if you’ve never ridden a bike in the city, you may not even realize these problems exist, or that the person who is riding right in front of you rather than in the available bike lane probably isn’t doing it to annoy you.

Without empathy, there can be no understanding. Which is why one of the most effective tools in the bike advocacy workshop is to bring your most vehement critics on a ride. Even in the absence of vitriol, the experience of riding a bike, often initially for fitness, has turned many a politician into a proponent of bicycle transportation.

This is why WABA’s pledge occupies shaky ground.

A pledge to ride “more responsibly” not only presupposes existing, widespread irresponsibility, it assumes that we can change public opinion that is based on misconceptions and remove dangers that are built into the roadway simply by changing the way we ride to conform to a legal code — one that’s riddled with contradictions and grey areas and wasn’t written with us in mind in the first place.

More education is needed. As WABA points out, nobody is perfect. And there are certainly some styles of road use out there that aren’t as safe or polite as one might wish.

But education goes both ways. No matter how predictably and well we ride, it won’t change the perception of anyone who doesn’t know what they are looking at.

The challenge for WABA and all other bicycle advocates in the year to come is to educate road users — all road users — in the way of the bicycle and what exactly it means to ride, drive, and design a road responsibly.