The Cyclist’s Manifesto

I try not to drink anyone’s Kool-Aid straight.

I find Robert Hurst’s Kool-Aid, however, particularly refreshing. He’s published a new book entitled The Cyclist’s Manifesto: The Case for Riding on Two Wheels Instead of Four. This self-described “wierd little book” (scroll down to 3 April) covers a wide range of issues in 179 pages. Hurst is a smooth and entertaining writer, so the wierdness is easy to forgive. His pointed stands, however, may not be depending upon what Kool-Aid the reader regularly drinks. I’m thinking the Vehicular Cycling crowd here. But not just them. Hurst is skilled at annoying damned near everyone at least once in any given text.

That last assertion, BTW, is the reason you should read this book.

The book is loosely organized into three parts: 1) an entertaining and informative history of bicycling in American culture, 2) an argument why cars are troublesome, and 3) an argument why more of us should be using bicycles as basic transportation.

Hurst approaches his work from a very particular bicycling perspective: he’s ridden thousands of miles as an urban bicycle messenger. You can’t ride as much as he has in chaotic environments and come away with an ambivalent attitude about how to ride properly on the streets. I find some of what he’s learned to be cogent advice that translates well to my situation negotiating the flat streets and regular grid of Springfield, Missouri. Some of what he claims leaves me baffled. That’s OK. I’m not looking for a Guru. I’m not thirsty for more Kool-Aid.

Here are a few highlights of the text for me:

  • Hurst, like me, is a fan of the sharrow. He says: “The sharrow doesn’t really tell the bicyclist or the driver to do anything specifically, and therein lies much of its beauty. It’s art that conjures awareness, and that, as we’ve seen, is what traffic safety is all about. It makes people think.”
  • I believe bicyclists must take responsibility for their own safety. One can’t simply rely on traffic rules and the good graces of drivers. This is a large area of agreement between me and Hurst. He says: “The truth remains that the ‘control’ lies substantially with the bicyclists, whether they want it or not. Any experience rider will tell you that.”
  • Sometimes bicyclists are their own worst enemies. Hurst says: “But some of the anti-bicyclist sentiment is deserved…. Bicyclists have a tendency to, first of all, break laws and take liberties that the brilliant machine makes possible, that’s true; on the other hand, they tend to be quite defensive about their personal space in traffic. Slight encroachments are met with, at the least, glares and indignation. It’s not so much the lawbreaking or the indignation but the combo of the two that does it. To the motorist it can appear bratty, selfish, and hypocritical.”
  • That said, Hurst is somewhat comfortable with bicyclists taking liberties with the law under certain circumstances. This may be what leads him to be a fan of the Idaho stop; I am not. That law, obviously, isn’t liberty-taking. It’s the codification of liberty-taking — giving in. It’s similar, IMO, to Springfield increasing some speed limits around town because drivers were speeding on those streets.
  • Hurst asserts a few differences with Vehicular Cycling. I’m largely in agreement with his criticisms, which, for me, boil down to this: “As a bicyclist, then, the primary task is not to plug oneself into a shaky system [traffic], but to withhold trust in it on the fundamental level. In traffic we find the very essence of fallibility. It’s most important feature, if not its most prominent, is the basic human mistake…. That’s not to say bicyclists should shun the rules of the road, mind you. They just have to be realistic about them. The task is to ride always with the understanding that you could be overlooked easily by this or that mistake-prone motorist and to remember the potentially very serious consequences, and ride accordingly, rules or not.”
  • It is well known that the Vehicular Cycling crowd dislikes separate bicycling infrastructure. Their favorite straw man is that these systems treat bicyclists as inferior. And that is 100 percent true if that is the kind of infrastructure you build. Hurst is not against bicycling infrastructure, but he seems to think that a country that can build Hoover Dam and put a man on the moon cannot match, say, the Netherlands, in building a superior bicycling system. It is certainly more politically troublesome in the United States, as Hurst makes clear. But we could do it if we could muster the political will. We should try to muster that will. Hurst’s thinking leads him to a conclusion I think is silly: “The American way of bicycling does not need to be fundamentally changed, it only needs to be enhanced. We in the States could actually do Europe one better in our bicycling future. We could ride farther, and faster, on sportier bicycles, and just generally have more fun with it.” Spend a little time reading some of the European bicycling blogs linked on Carbon Trace and make up your own mind about that. The “sportier” crack just leaves me scratching my head. Sportier does me no good at all when I’m grocery shopping.

While Hurst does not cover this topic specifically, his book really does help focus an important idea for me (whether he would agree or not): We need to change our traffic design and engineering. We need to re-think how we control traffic and under what circumstances.

I’m a Hurst fan, but I want plenty of ice when I drink his Kool-Aid. I appreciate his humour, insights, and no-nonsence approach to his subjects. You can’t come away from this book without learning something, without being challenged, without finding moments of connection, and without feeling moments of exasperation. Not bad.

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Comments 4

  1. Karl McCracken (twitter: @KarlOnSea) wrote:

    Looks like a great read – available in the UK from 30th June – just in time for summer holiday reading!

    Posted 26 Apr 2009 at 12:31 pm
  2. Andy Cline wrote:

    Karl… Yes. Hurst is interesting and fun if you like feisty writers. I’m reading Jeff Mapes’ book now. Will review it in a few days.

    Posted 26 Apr 2009 at 4:14 pm
  3. Kevin Love wrote:

    My test for transportation infrastructure is this: “Am I OK with my 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son cycling here?”

    If the answer is “no,” then the infrastructure fails and needs to be fixed.

    When I was in Holland, the infrastructure always passed this test. I saw almost all children cycling to school and this was perfectly normal and expected.

    Unfortunately, in all-too-many parts of the USA, the transportation infrastructure fails this test. In Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, girls are forbidden by law from being on the street without their parents or older brother escorting them. Many parts of the USA are just like these Muslim countries – teenage girls have no way of getting around without their parents or older siblings driving them.

    Take a look at this video of Dutch children going to school at:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=NL&hl=nl&v=2n_znwWroGM&feature=channel

    And at:

    Posted 27 Apr 2009 at 2:26 pm
  4. Andy Cline wrote:

    Kevin… I’m planning on making a trip to the Netherlands in 2010. I’m looking forward to seeing all of this for myself. Thanks for the links! I always enjoy David Hembrow’s videos.

    Posted 27 Apr 2009 at 5:07 pm