Thomas Barraga is an Idiot, and So Are You.

I’m sure you’ve seen or heard about the anti-bike comments coming out of an idiotic low-level politician from West Islip, NY.  If you haven’t seen it:

Here’s the summary: “Your mom was hit by a car because she had the audacity to ride upon our car-roads.  Reality: bikes don’t belong on roads.  Hope she doesn’t die, but if she does, it’s because she rode a bike.”

The cycling world’s reaction to this is predictably dire.  People for Bikes is encouraging people to send lettersen masse, to Barraga.  The blogosphere is frothing at the mouth.  A friend of mine encouraged me to write an Open Letter to Barraga (in the style of past Open Letters), sharing with him my perspective on his commentary.  I’m not going to do that.  Here’s why:

Thomas Barraga is an idiot, and so are you.

Sure.  Focus media attention on what he’s saying.  Force him to make some form of capitulation and apology.  That’ll show him, right?

Wrong.

What you see here is a secret glimpse into the mind of a politician.  You know what?  There’s probably a surprising amount of people in his district, maybe even a majority of people, who agree with him.  There are undoubtedly people who think that cyclists don’t belong on the road, and that those who are hit or killed by cars had it coming to them.  I’ve personally heard other humans react to car vs. bike accidents in that fashion: “he shouldn’t have been riding on the road.”  The only reason we got this secret glimpse is because this politician is low-level enough to not have a handler or staffer there to censor his letter.  His viewpoint is shocking because he put it into a letter (to a kid whose mom was injured by a car, nonetheless), but it isn’t shocking overall–it represents the consensus of a significant number of people in this country.  Clearly, between us folks that read this blog, he’s an idiot–and demonstrably wrong.  So what do we do about it?

There are a lot of people and organizations out there telling us that what we should do about it is start writing letters to Thomas Barraga.  Maybe we should have some public gatherings.  Maybe we should do a critical mass ride and piss off every motorist in the community.  Maybe we should “take the lane!”  Maybe we should get a pro-bike politician to come out and chastise Barraga.

And that, my friends, is why you’re an idiot.  (No, not you.  I mean, if you read this blog, you’re clearly not an idiot.  I’m talking to the Royal You.)

The approach that the cycling community has taken for the past…forever…is not working.  What Barraga wrote is what a lot of people think (but are too smart to put down on paper).  And even if you force him to apologize, you probably won’t change his mind.  Sure, I could write a letter to Barraga and criticize his insensitivity to a child’s concern for his mother.  I could talk about the positive economic benefits of cycling.  I could remind him that when he talks about motorists ignoring street signs, he’s defending people who are violating the law.  But that’s not going to accomplish anything.

So what do we do?  If the tried and true methods have failed, how do we move forward?

My answer is pretty simple.  My answer is Axletree.  My answer is starting locally to undertake actions that make cycling safer.  My answer is to work towards actions that improve the public perception of cyclists.  My answer is to create group rides are fun and enjoyable, and that have responsible routing–and to have expectations of the cyclists participating that we will ride responsibly and predictably, and minimize adverse interactions with motorists.  My answer is to go back to that old saying of “Share the Road”, and to actually adhere to that.  Share the road, not take the road.

My answer is a lot lower profile.  It isn’t nearly as sexy to publicize.  It doesn’t grab headlines as well.  It involves things like signing (and then living up to) a Rider Pledge.  If the old way of doing things was working, I’d be completely in support of it.  But it isn’t working.  We have to try something new.

And do we let Mr. Barraga off the hook?  Of course not.  He needs to be talked to.  But who should talk to him?  A special interest bike lobby that tells fifty thousand people to send him angry emails?  Or should it be the Axletree of West Islip, that comes in and shows him that local business owners depend on cyclists, and shows him the myriad of reasons why he needs to change his perspective?

Axletree is working to ensure that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in our community–we’re putting into place anti-harassment ordinances to protect cyclists, and we’re meeting with our local community leaders proactively.

So am I going to write a letter to Thomas Barraga?  No.  He’s an idiot, and I’m sure he’s getting, and summarily ignoring, a lot of mail these days.  What am I going to do?  I’m going to talk to my local politicians and ensure that they don’t share his views.  And then I’m going to go for a bike ride, and try my hardest to ensure that I’m building a positive perception of cyclists.  Firing off an Open Letter to Barraga would be a lot easier.  But it’s not working…if you think it is, then you’re a part of the problem just like Barraga.

14 thoughts on “Thomas Barraga is an Idiot, and So Are You.

  1. This is what I wrote to this brilliant politician, Mr.Barraga,in all of my 55 years I don’t know if I have read a more callous ,disrespectful ,ignorant and disappointing letter from an elected official. It is difficult to know where to begin. At first I hoped that your letter was written in haste however I see that you now have issued a second statement reaffirming your ridiculous viewpoints. First, our public roadways provide access to all citizens to travel and move about freely. Automobiles do not have a superior right to use the roads and in fact drivers are required to exercise caution and yield  to other vehicles including bicycles. The roads are created and maintained by tax revenue which is paid by all citizens ,not just car owners. Some  people can’t afford a car or choose not to own a car and a bicycle is their primary means of transportation. Your insensitivity to the plight  of lower income people is astounding. Believe it or not sir,many people take their bicycle to work every day as their sole means of transportation. According to your philosophy these people should now stay home and lose their employment. Every medical association and  government health publication urges citizens of America to increase their daily exercise routine to live a more and healthy life. Bicycling is an excellent cardiovascular workout. Thousands of long islanders use their bicycles to obtain exercise on a  weekly basis on a relatively inexpensive scale. Believe  it or not Mr. Barraga, not everyone can afford to pay for a membership in a private gym, are you aware of this? They  ride their bicycles on the public roadways. Are you aware of the fact that there are many bicycle associations and groups that regularly ride on the public roadways each and every week? These bicycle riding taxpayers need your help to ensure their safety. They do not need your uninformed statements and an attitude that is resigned to take no action. One of your constituents has been injured and you offer no help or solution but  rather you have offered an undignified, hurtful and uninformed criticism of bicycling. We need more designated bicycle lanes, signs and areas designated for bicycle use. This country is dependent upon gas guzzling automobiles for transportation which increase our foreign debt, increase our dependence on foreign oil and contribute to air pollution which is warming our climate. You should be using all of your powers to encourage bicycle riding as a means of transportation and exercise. I await your response to the many issues raised in this letter. Sincerely,S. Russ DiFazio

  2. I don’t agree that lambasting this guy will do no good. As a professional cyclist (not the racing kind, I’m just a local cycling guide out here in California) I am spreading this as far as I possibly can. Because of what I do and who I know I have international reach. This has now been picked up by Levi Leipheimer’s Gran Fondo. There are several other organizations with whom I have had contact as well; the guide shop where I work, the cycling store where I work, Bike Monkey Magazine and Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition. I am waiting on their decisions regarding picking this up. Once the media and the web and the blogosphere get it all amped up it is up to the local cycling community in NY and LI to pick up the reins and run with it. You are being presented with a unique opportunity to make something positive happen for the cycling community. I urge you to run with it as far and as hard as you can. Perhaps, if you are truly committed, the legacy of this action will be a brand new bike lane, freshly striped with lots of signage up and down Montawk and Sunrise Highways. I grew up in west Islip. I rode my bike everywhere. We made monthly runs up to Cold Spring Harbor. We rode to Montawk Point. I rode to High School and to the Babylon Village Deli. I rode to all my friends homes and to the library. Essentially, we rode everywhere.

    It’s up to you guys to make it happen. If you are truly “riding against the grain” then do so. Don’t talk the talk unless you are prepared to walk the walk.

    • I’m not entirely sure what you mean here. I am doing my best job of walking the walk. In our local community, we started a bike advocacy group and we’re doing a LOT. That said, I don’t see any point in encouraging people from across the country to harangue one ill-informed politician from New York over his comments. I don’t think you’ll change his mind, and I don’t think it will be effective. Local advocacy and working to change perceptions–that’s an approach that I believe to be more effective.

      • The victim is my cousin Sandra and her 17 year old son is the letter writer. We grew up together, shared a childhood together. I have a personal stake. Beyond that, this is not an attitude restricted to politicians in your corner of the country: it’s a national attitude that needs changing. If lambasting this guy on a national level is what it takes to raise awareness, then that’s what is going to happen. This thing is now completely viral. It’s now out on the “Giant Bicycles” dealer network thanks to my friends at work. It’s appearing on mom & pop bike shop websites all over the country. Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo site has picked it up (yep, I did that too) so it will now have national AND international exposure. Politicians will sit up and take notice. Attitudes will change. You now have a huge venue at your fingertips to exploit. Use it well. The next time I visit my family and friends in NY I’d like to take my composite Synapse and ride up to Cold Spring Harbor, just like I did when I was a kid, and I’d like to see a bike lane when I do.

  3. So I was just riding to the bookstore and I was thinking about this letter and I realized it breaks down on many different levels. He says that despite all the bike lanes and signage people are still getting hit by cars so adding more signage and bike lanes won’t solve the problem. His solution is to have us all stop riding our bikes. Well despite all the car lanes, stop signs, and stop lights I still see plenty of car accidents so maybe people should stop driving their cars at least if you follow his logic.
    He also says that despite the 135 signs between Montauk Hwy and Sunrise Hwy drivers just ignore the signs. So shouldn’t the solution to this problem be to better educate the drivers?

    • It’s kind of like the engineering discussion about putting curbs on roads to keep the drunks from going off the road. Kind of a scary thought when you contemplate how much we do to accommodate incredibly poorly-trained, inattentive drivers.

  4. Riding a bicycle on the road, based on the possible consequence, is a very high risk endeavor, the disparity in speed and mass of the vehicles is too great to be safe for the cyclist. Collisions, even slight, are hugely in favor of the steel encased driver vs the basically naked cyclist. Roadways are designed for cars, ask any civil engineer, the width, radius, pitch, banking, crown, shoulder etc are all designed and optimized for motorized vehicular passage. These are just facts. The biggest problem that bicyclists have, is that they falsely believe that law/principle will keep them from being hit, that their “rights” should protect them. Its totally faith based, and if you think about it the average car driver (barely qualified by most states) is more distracted today than ever before. “I didnt see him/her” and they are free to go, you, on the other hand, are dead or maimed irreversibly. I don’t think most people, when thinking clearly, would bet their life and livelihood against the low skill level and minimal mental aptitude of the average american driver. They have just enough skill to operate a vehicle to get to the store and back, after all states license kids way too early to create new consumers, because that is the true motive of roadways being installed. The cyclist is not thinking clearly when they decide to go for a ride with the cars, especially on roads with little or no shoulder, they are in a haze of overconfidence that their mere presence is supposed to cause the driver to act/yield, and become immediately cautious. The answer is most definitely segregated bikeways or paths, designed to feed cyclist to all the city’s resources. Of course these then become clogged with strollers, dogs, rollerblades, and pathway wide walkers and the cycle continues. There is no good solution for bicycles unfortunately (except maybe for Off-road riding) This politician wont be one for long, he’s far too honest and insensitive, but you have to appreciate that he shared his view openly on some level, just not very deftly. I think at this point its obvious that the laws and right of ways do not protect the cyclist, and that after the fact, if you live, you would realize how insanely dangerous this activity really is. We all have the right to commit suicide, but one doesn’t try to do it regularly. Is your life worth the bet?

    • I’m sorry, I think I’m confused. Are you suggesting that riding a bike on the road is akin to committing suicide?

      Not sure if serious.

      You do realize this is a bike blog, right?

      • Im suggesting that riding a bike on the road is a huge gamble that if you lose ends in death or serious disability. Its stupidly naive to think that drivers are watching out for you. They simply are not, and are not cited when there is a collision, so there is no real deterrent to bad behavior on their part. Its a poor proposition these days, and seems to worsen annually.

      • Morpheous,

        As I said on Fb:
        I shouldn’t have to explain this, but there is a serious flaw with looking at total deaths and ignoring miles travelled. In year 1, if 100 people ride bikes and one dies, that’s a 1% death rate. In year 2, if 200 people ride bikes and one dies, you can explain that one of two ways. You can be sensationalist and say “Twice as many people died riding bikes this year!!!” On the other hand, you can say that the overall death rate remained stable (1%), despite a doubling of riders. The article you quote doesn’t give enough background data to determine whether ridership remained constant or increased, or whether total mileage increased. It also doesn’t discuss whether the cyclists wore helmets or engaged in safe practices. It doesn’t talk about whether they are people forced into biking unprepared due to high gas prices. It doesn’t talk about whether advocacy efforts affect local trends, or whether bike lanes provide any protection, or whether the gravitational pull of Mars impacts traffic deaths on the third Tuesday in March. It’s just sensationalism.

        I shouldn’t have to say this either, but seriously? Your takeaway from this is that people shouldn’t ride bikes on the road? That it is somewhere between “very risky” and “suicide”?

        Wow.

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