All the rage

What's to blame for all the anger as cyclists, drivers, and citizens fight over their rights on the streets? Is it $4 gas? Young punks? Class warfare? Poor urban design? It's time to theorize.
What's to blame for all the anger as cyclists, drivers, and citizens fight over their rights on the streets? Is it $4 gas? Young punks? Class warfare? Poor urban design? It's time to theorize.

There's lots to say about the recent outbursts of what street rage, from the death of James Paroline at the south Seattle traffic circle to the Critical Mass beat-down of a driver on Capitol Hill last week. Regardless of where you put the blame, one thing is clear: tempers are flaring on city streets.

Road rage used to be driver-on-driver stuff. Now we've seen a gardener killed while watering a traffic circle and a frightened driver angered at bike activists run a couple down, then have his car and head smashed in response. But the violence isn't just in Seattle. Portland has had a series of bike rage incidents in recent weeks.

In one, a cyclist smashed the window of a Tri-Met bus. In another, a Portland cyclist savagely attacked a driver using his bike as a weapon. It turned out the victim was himself a cycling advocate. And in yet another confrontation, a cyclist got into a fight with a car passenger who also happened to be a cycling advocate and bike shop employee.

What we're seeing isn't eco bike punks versus bad nasty SUV drivers, we're seeing a rage and guerilla warfare in which in some cases, politically correct citizens are eating — or at least punching out — their own.

Brian Miller blogging at The Daily Weekly thinks the Paroline incident is our Kitty Genovese moment and warns that there's a might-makes-right-of-way attitude on the streets. Miller, I think rightly, starts to look at the broader picture. He writes:

Paroline is a martyr of sorts to a new conflict: That between citizens and cars. With traffic pressures, gas prices, and land values all peaking at once, pedestrians and motorists all seem equally frazzled and angry. The question we increasingly face is, Who runs this town? Who has the right of way?

So is street rage fueled by $4 gas, gentrification, economic hard times, and gridlocked political process?

Paroline was apparently struck down because he was blocking the road so that no one would drive over his garden hose, and angry drivers objected. The whole point of the Critical Mass protests is to commit civil disobedience to reclaim road rights for bikes. That people feel affronted to have to steer around a hose, or feel they have a moral right to block traffic to water flowers, suggests a turf war. That a driver would risk running over cyclists to get to a birthday party (as happened on Capitol Hill) or that cyclists would resort to vigilante violence against a frightened gay man suggests a power struggle in which actual human beings have devolved into mere symbols of good and evil.

These various incidents suggest class and race issues, too. Paroline was white and his alleged assailant black. In some of the incidents, you get a whiff of class warfare: the bike people versus the car people, the young populist bike punks versus the monied four-wheeled bourgeoisie.

A very thoughtful and timely piece on bike rage is in the latest issue of Momentum, a Vancouver, B.C.-based urban cycling magazine. Writer and rider Charles Montgomery writes about the car and bike rage (he's experienced it from both sides) and he believes it stems from poor urban design, which exacerbates conflict:

This kind of road rage is a symptom of the corrosive effect that modern commuting has on urban culture. Aggressive streets are not just dangerous, they change the way we feel and the way we treat each other, even when we're not commuting. ... The problem is that city planners have mixed bikes and cars together in ways that offer little certainty about how each should operate, and lots of chances for conflict. Cyclists feel threatened in traffic, just like drivers. Many of us feel hard done by and under attack. I sure do. The average arterial road is an engine of conflict.

Don't blame the other driver or rider, he says, blame the road, and do what you can politically to solve the problem. "If I want real change, I've got to ease up on the outrage and channel my frustration into urban design activism," Montgomery writes. Your fellow citizens aren't the enemy and, in fact, because so many bike riders also drive and so many drivers also ride bikes, the enemy is often someone just like you.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.