Photo by velobry.

Bicycle advocates were surprised and disappointed that Virginia legislators, particularly Republicans, defeated a seemingly innocuous measure to change Virginia’s standard for drivers passing cyclists from 2 to 3 feet, to match the practice in most states.

Based on their summary, the bill mainly didn’t go down to defeat because legislators thought 2 feet was better. Rather, they perceived cyclists as a group not deserving of any added protections from the law.

Here are some arguments the Virginia Bicycling Federation reported hearing from legislators at the hearing:

  • “Bicyclists are often law breakers, unworthy of any added protection under the law.”
  • “Bicyclists are inconsiderate when they delay drivers from getting to their destinations, especially in narrow lanes or roads.”
  • “Bicyclists should police themselves before coming in asking for added legal protections.”
  • “A 3 ft. passing rule would inconvenience and hazard motorists by requiring them to move into the adjacent or oncoming travel lanes.”

Only the last item is actually about the passing distance itself. But even with a 2-foot rule, drivers still have to either get into the adjacent lane, or at least move substantially enough into that lane that they might as well move in entirely.

Many drivers think they can or should pass cyclists by squeezing through in the same lane. That’s dangerous and illegal in most places. To pass safely, a driver needs enough room to move over to the adjacent lane, at least temporarily.

More worrisome is the attitude which we hear all the time from letter writers to local newspapers, talking heads, blog commenters, and even legislators, that bicyclists are lawless hoodlums not deserving of any protection from the law.

Yes, some cyclists break laws, and some cyclists ride very recklessly. Of course, many motorists break laws too, like speeding, not stopping at stop signs, not yielding to pedestrians, driving in bike lanes, assaulting each other, pedestrians, and cyclists, yelling at police officers, and more.

That doesn’t excuse cyclist misbehavior, but it’s also totally unfair to blame all cyclists for the dangerous actions of a few or the mildly illegal actions of many when drivers do the same thing. Most drivers generally act respectfully but do break laws in small ways like speeding, and a few drivers are really bad. Same for cyclists.

When a majority builds up and expresses incorrect and biased attitudes about a minority group, we call that out. If white people say that black people don’t deserve the same rights or respect, we call that racism. If men say that women don’t deserve the same rights or respect, we call that sexism. If straight people say that gay people don’t deserve the same rights or respect, we call that homophobia.

This anti-cyclist attitude needs a name, too. These Virginia legislators aren’t just misinformed and pigheaded, they’re also cyclist-ist. Or something. I haven’t seen a good name for this prejudice. Have you? Any ideas?

Update: Racism, sexism, etc. are of course far worse than cyclist hatred, and I don’t mean to mean that oppressed cyclists are being mistreated as badly as ethnic groups once were and often still are. However, that doesn’t make this attitude not a form of prejudice, and one worthy of being named and criticized, even if it’s lower on the scale of prejudices than some.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.