Folding Bikes Blog

The Bard and the Bike: A Plea for Tolerance

I don’t know what it’s like in the rest of the world these days, but in Boston, at least, it seems that drivers are becoming angrier. I am an experienced, conscientious, law-abiding cyclist, but recently, it is with alarming frequency that drivers have yelled at me to “Get out of the road” (which, by the way, is the only legal and safe place for me to be riding), and have even gone so far as to pretend to swerve into me. I know there are studies showing that people are more aggressive in their cars than they would be otherwise because they feel isolated and therefore immune from society’s consequences (or what have you), but sometimes I think that the anger is a reaction to the progress that cyclists are making – the more bike lanes the city puts in, the more some drivers try to intimidate cyclists off the road.

Speculating about what makes some drivers so intolerant of bicycles, together with seeing a preview for the new movie about Shakespeare, Anonymous, that’s coming out at the end of the month, got me thinking about one of the great Shakespearean appeals for tolerance: Shylock’s speech in Act III scene i of The Merchant of Venice. While I’m certainly no Shakespeare scholar, I started thinking about a cycling-themed play, perhaps titled The Merchant of Velo, where the cycling minority, represented in the character of Cyclo-ck, appeals for tolerance from the larger population of drivers.

Consider this adaptation of the famous speech:

I am a Cyclist. Don’t Cyclists have places to be? Don’t Cyclists have friends, families,
engagements, jobs, appointments, obligations; aren’t we entitled to
the same rights, injured by the same collisions, subject
to the same laws, ticketed by the same police,
enduring the same weather and road conditions
as Drivers? If you cut us off, do we not seethe?
If you yield to us, do we not wave? If you run us over,
do we not die? And if you do not respect us on the road, shall we respect you?
If we are alike in all these other ways, we are alike in this way too.
If a Cyclist takes the lane, how do Drivers react?
With anger and aggression. If a Driver cuts off a Cyclist, what is
the driving force behind the Cyclist’s response? Aggression.
I will emulate the irresponsibility and indifference you teach me,
and take it to a whole new level – regardless of the consequences for you.

Photo courtesy of Real Cycling.

The parallel can, of course, only be taken so far. For instance, in The Merchant of Venice, while Shylock is the one appealing for tolerance, he’s also the one demanding a pound of flesh from Antonio later in the play; in The Merchant of Velo, it seems more fitting that the Drivers would be after a pound of flesh from Cyclo-ck (or perhaps from Cyclists in general). The original play also ends with Shylock (a Jew) being forced to convert to Christianity. The Merchant of Velo certainly would not end by forcing all the Cyclists to become Drivers, especially considering that it’s supposed to be a comedy and not a tragedy…

The Bike’s the Thing

What is it about cyclists that can make drivers so angry? How do you respond to these drivers when you’re out riding? Or to cyclists, if you’re driving? What do you think is the best way to improve driver/cyclist relations? (Maybe a full-length Merchant of Velo adaptation?)

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7 Comments

  1. Nick Hentschel
    Posted October 17, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Hi, I was redirected to the blog by way of a Facebook discussion, and i’ll share the comments that I made there.

    For several days, I’ve been arguing with people over the aftermath of the GM ads, and I’ve only seen 2 things from “the other side”:
    A) Simple meanness, as drivers make fun of us for taking offense, and sneeringly tell us to “get over it.”
    B) Drivers simply refuse to abandon their stereotypes, rigidly seeing cyclists as nothing but effete, snobby hammerheads in tacky Lycra, and maintaining that we need to be taken down a notch.
    The problem is machismo: cyclists violate drivers’ ideals of masculinity, and are accordingly singled out for bullying. We need to make clear that cyclists are normal people, not some elitist enemy, and that they’re harassing people just like themselves. We need outreach that emphasizes the normally-clad shopper, college student, or commuter who looks just like everyone else.
    We also need to emphasize the belligerence and hostility that we face, and that we are not the aggressors here. A series of ads featuring a comically abusive, anti-cyclist driver could drive the point home nicely.

  2. Posted October 17, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    I agree that cyclists are not (usually) the aggressors in the car/bike conflict – the trouble is that some people see riding in the street in and of itself as an aggressive act. I think one reason drivers get angry is because it is often faster to get around by bike than by car, which can upset some drivers. For example, say a cyclist riding on the right, past a lane of cars stopped in traffic (which is legal in MA, by the way); the drivers who get angry think the cyclist is somehow cutting in line, and want to teach the cyclist a lesson.
    Overall though, it’s a really complicated issue, and I’m not really sure there’s a good, fast way to fix the problem – but I agree – ads like the one GM had recently, while not wholly responsible for the situation, certainly don’t help anything.

  3. Stephen Fitzgerald
    Posted October 17, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Very creative and to the point.

    Safe place to ride, safe place to ride. Wherefore art thou safe place to ride.

  4. Mike
    Posted October 22, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    I really don’t understand all the road-rage associated with bicyclists in traffic.
    If only drivers could see that bicyclists are the ‘coupon clippers’ of the transit world. They have a way to make travel ‘free’ that only takes a small effort and time. Clippers will search for discounts and jump through hoops to claim their prize, and they do it willingly. It might make us a little nuts if we get behind them in line as the checker scans all their coupons, but we don’t ridicule and assault them. We know a good thing when we see it.
    Bicyclists do the same by putting on a helmet and some gear, airing up tires and leaving home a little earlier. A small price to pay when it come to the current cost of fuel. Our efforts are repaid directly and they see a benefit as well, even if they don’t see it.
    Drivers also don’t realize that for every bicyclist they see, there is likely more space in traffic and more fuel to use in the future. It should appeal rather than aggravate, as ‘one less car’ probably equates to being 25 feet ahead in line and there will be more fuel left for them to continue driving.
    Smug – no. Frugal, healthy and courteous – yes.
    We’re doing them a favor. They should be thanking us.

  5. Posted October 24, 2011 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    Hi Mike,
    You raise a lot of interesting points. I don’t know that drivers’ aggressive behaviour is ever justifiable, but we can probably look to explain and/or understand it. I think some of it probably has to do with the feeling of isolation in a car, and that the rules somehow don’t apply – it would be really embarrassing for everyone to yell at someone in line at the check-out for using coupons, and if you tried to hit them, security would probably escort you out. But for some reason, it’s different on the roads. You might also want to check out today’s post, http://www.montaguebikes.com/folding-bikes-blog/2011/10/can-better-infrastructure-put-us-on-the-path-to-a-new-cycle/.

  6. Martina
    Posted October 28, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    The ironic thing about Shylock’s appeal for tolerance is that it is coming from a very intolerant person. A major point of The Merchant of Venice was not that one group appealed for tolerance, or mercy, or justice and got it by asking politely. The point of the play was that there were two opposing groups, and neither were willing to show any of the qualities they were demanding of the other. Shylock denied Antonio mercy, Antonio’s friends harshly dealt Shylock with justice.
    So maybe the lesson we can learn here is that we all need to be a bit more forgiving, and be more tolerant ourselves before we can expect others to be. I love the originality of this post and I agree that no one should ever be trying to swerve into cyclists or push them off the road, but I’ve seen a fair share of people being reckless on bikes and making it dangerous for drivers as well. I feel like people get into this mentality where whatever they are doing at the moment is what’s important and other people should make way for them. It happens all the time. When you’re the one driving pedestrians are the most annoying thing in the world, and when you’re the one walking you walk out in traffic because you know the cars will stop. We are doing the same thing that Shylock did, asking for tolerance when we are not willing to give it.
    So the next time you’re out on your bike and someone gets upset at you, show them a little tolerance and make sure you weren’t in any way at fault before getting angry. And the next time you’re driving in your car and something a cyclist does bothers you, make sure you know the law before saying something dumb, and show a little tolerance for a fellow human being. We’re all people here, we all make mistakes. Maybe we could all just be a little more careful and a little more understanding.

  7. Posted October 31, 2011 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Hi Martina,

    Thanks for your very thoughtful reply. I

    agree with a lot of what you say here. I think it is important to remember that we’re all just trying to get somewhere. But as the balance of power on the road is weighted heavily in favour of motorists (just by virtue of the size of the car compared to the bike), I think there is more of an onus is on them to “tolerate” bicycles in the road. This is not to say that cyclists don’t also have an obligation to ride responsibly – they most certainly do – but if drivers have the “bikes don’t belong in the road – get out of my way” mentality, all the responsible, law-abiding cycling in the world is not going to change the situation.

3 Trackbacks

  1. [...] Montague Folding Bikes blog has an interesting “Plea for Tolerance” based on Shylock’s monologue from The Merchant of [...]

  2. [...] at the Montague Bikes blog there was a post expressing frustration with some of the way cyclists are treated riding on the [...]

  3. [...] David Byrne, and not just because he’s wearing that awesome plaid outfit. Just grab your Montague folding bike, and you’ll be all set to go. (Fun fact! In The Bicycle Diaries, David Byrne travelled the world [...]

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