NPR covers L.A. Bike Trains, gives voice to sociopath

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[Update 12/3: Corrected Herbie’s affiliation. She’s employed by the Institute of Transportation Studies, not the Luskin Center. I have a hard time keeping all the various UCLA Luskin School research centers straight, seeing as they fund all sorts of joint initiatives and are all housed in the same building — oftentimes in the same rooms.]

L.A. Bike Trains is a great concept created by my friends Nona Varnado and Bruce Chan in which people commute by bike together on fixed routes and at fixed times. The idea is to have experienced commuters lead the ride so that beginners can see how it’s done and have someone there to deal with any unforeseen issues — flats, mechanicals, etc.

Even more fantastic: NPR did a segment on L.A. Bike Trains for the weekend edition of All Things Considered! There’s an interview with Nona as well as some of the conductors and commuters. Another friend of mine, Herbie Huff of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation Institute of Transportation Studies, puts a little bit of a damper on the boosterism, arguing that protected bike lanes and bike sharing systems will probably do more to make bicycling accessible to non-enthusiasts. She’s absolutely right, but I still think the Bike Trains idea is useful for helping people who already own bikes get over their fears and see just how far their bikes can take them. When I started riding as an adult about four years ago, for example, one of the ways I got comfortable riding on busier streets¬†was by riding with groups. Before long, I was commuting up and down Westwood Boulevard between my apartment in Palms and the UCLA campus, taking the lane when needed.

Anyway, there was one interview in the story — that of Los Angeles resident Jackie Burke — that really got under my skin, as well as many other people’s, no doubt. Not only does she talk about being annoyed by bicyclists; she admits to having intentionally driven dangerously close to them when she felt like they were getting in her way. This goes beyond the usual troglodyte comments we hear from random anti-cyclists on the internet; this woman is openly admitting to having menaced and assaulted random strangers for daring to cause her a few seconds’ delay.

I sent the editors of ATC a response via NPR’s listener feedback form. You can read it here in its entirety:

To the editor:

You deserve praise for covering the L.A. Bike Trains phenomenon, in which experienced bike commuters help novices learn how to travel safely by bike. It was horrifying, however, to hear the comments of Los Angeles resident Jackie Burke, who admitted to wanting “to run them [cyclists] off the road” and said “I’ve actually done one of those drive-really-close-to-them kind of things to kind of scare them, to try to intimidate them to get out of my way.”

This kind of sociopathy is seriously disturbing, and I as I ride my own bike around the streets of Los Angeles, I shudder to think how many motorists hold the view that it is ever OK to use a motor vehicle to intimidate or threaten another human being. Does Ms. Burke not realize that she is admitting to having committed menacing and assault? 

I urge Ms. Burke and others with a similar attitude to get some perspective. City and suburban streets are not freeways. They provide access to homes and businesses and have to be usable by everyone and by all types of vehicles, including slower-moving ones. There is no entitlement to drive as fast as one wants all the time, and drivers need to be prepared to share the street with different types of vehicles that are legally allowed to be there. Sometimes this means waiting for a few seconds until it’s safe to overtake. And it really is a matter of seconds — I drive on Los Angeles’ streets too, and I rarely spend even so much as 30 seconds waiting to pass a bicyclist. Considering that traffic signal cycles can sometimes create delays of a minute or more, the delays caused by bicyclists are trivial, and certainly not worth risking the serious injury or death of another human being over.

With gas prices rising and the cost of living in urban areas going up, bicycles are going to be a fixture on the streets of American cities for many years to come as commuters try to slash costs. We need to cultivate a more humane environment on our roadways to accommodate this new reality. A well-connected network of protected bike lanes, separate from car traffic, would do wonders to ease tensions, as would bicyclist and motorist education regarding the rules of the road for each.

Until we get these things in our cities, would-be bicycle commuters are left to their own devices, and groups like L.A. Bike Trains are going to keep using safety in numbers to bring novices into the fold. Instead of threatening these people from the inside of her vehicle, perhaps Ms. Burke should go on a ride and get a cyclist’s perspective on traffic.