Bikes, Use of Force, and the “U-Lock of Justice”

Pretty much everyone I know has seen this, but I’m posting it again anyways.

Riding a bike everyday makes you a little defensive. A friend of mine once marveled at the sense of comraderie cyclists feel with each other – I think it comes from the collective defensiveness, the sense of vulnerability of being out on the road surrounded by really big pieces of machinery designed to move excessively fast, often piloted by careless, idiotic or malicious drivers. At this point I get edgy about car doors opened within 20 feet of me.

All in all, New York City is a fairly bike friendly place, and I would never discourage anyone from riding. The rewards vastly outweigh the risks, and you have a lot of fun. Normally I tell uncertain potential cyclists that New York offers three advantages over almost any other biking environment: traffic rarely moves above 30 mph on city streets, we have lots of bike lanes (with more every day), and drivers, for the most part, are used to seeing people on bikes at this point.

Which is not to say everything is smooth sailing. Many bike lanes lack serious enforcement, some roads scare me still, and every now and then you meet someone in a car that just hates your guts. Other times, pedestrians present their own problems – I swear, some people in this city have a bike-focused death wish and at least act like they very much want to get hit.

Raising the question of what to do. Cars parked in bike lanes, or making particular effort to be in the damn way such that they make cyclists’ lives more difficult (or short) are fairly easy: hock some spit on the window (aim for driver side if you can get it), give them a nice love tap, and just keep riding. People in cars like three things: 1. going irrationally fast 2. the outside of their cars, and 3. the illusion of security provided by total isolation from the outside world. A little spit and a fender tap gets at at least 2 of the 3 important car-functions, which I think is a pretty good ‘heads-up, don’t do this again’ type message. Sometimes you can give them the finger too. This response can be adjusted for different circumstances, but I think it provides a good start.

Now, pedestrians present a bigger problem. I don’t mind a little property damage here and there, but I really wouldn’t feel comfortable spitting on someone who walks in front of me. My strategy with pedestrians involves making them realize they’re about to do something stupid – walking in front of a moving vehicle – by making them very aware of the presence of bikes. Typically, this means a yell (try your best punk rock Oi!), and actively claiming the bike-space they were about to inadvertently enter. So, roleplay: You’re riding up Lafayette and reach 8th Street/Astor place, where peds often step into the bike lane to idle or jaywalk. You near the intersection and someone just moseys out in front of you – you yell (Oi!), and then ride right where they are about to step.

Now, the third case is the driver the pursues you in their car, trying to hit or harass you, or that confronts you in some way verbally. I’ve had two experiences with this recently: once at Centre and Canal, after getting nearly hit by someone suddenly pulling across the left lane to park (in front of a fire hydrant), I yelled something like

“What the fuck are you doing?!” and pulled around them.

At which point the driver – behind the wheel of one of those really really big Cadillac SUVs – sped up to pull right in front of me again, rolled down his window and glared:

“What am I doing? Do you really want to see what I can do?”

I paused. He was clearly driving a much scarier vehicle than I, with a level of malice I can’t match. At this point I hadn’t acquired the u-lock of justice (more on this below), and wouldn’t be able to muster any serious self defense (or offense against his too shiny car) with the speed necessary. So, I took the high road/sidewalk and kept riding.

The other incident was today. I was riding home down Lafayette when someone in the back seat of a Jeep swings open a door perilously close to where I was riding. I had a few close calls earlier in the day, so I gave them a wide berth, but I felt they had been reckless, so I gave a casual “Hey, watch out” as I passed by. Coming to the light, I heard the passenger yelling at me – “you watch out, motherfucker… pussy riding a bike, what the fuck?” or some such. I paused at the light. My mind went to what I call ‘The U Lock of Justice,” the standard Kryptonite mini-U lock I carry around in my back pocket – my first line of defense against bike theft, and assholes that threaten me. here’s a pic:

Justice is flourescent.

Justice is fluorescent.

I like U-Locks. They’re simple, effective, and Kryptonite makes them with an exposed metal end that turns them into excellent weapons if the need arises. I thought maybe it had. I stopped at the light and decided to turn around. I rode up next to the guy on the sidewalk, and as I pulled along side him, he made the standard hyper-masculine come on: “what, do you want to go?”

With a good look at him, I knew I wasn’t up for it. He looked like something between Yuppie scum and douchebag fratboy, and with nice folks enjoying their dinners on the sidewalk cafe next to us, I figured he wasn’t worth my time -or ruining someone else’s dinner. Sometimes just calming folks down shows the absurdity of their actions, and makes them thankful for a second chance. I tried to keep it simple – “You almost hit me – you opened the door right in front of me. I just asked you to be more careful,” then rode off. He mumbled a few other deep-throated manly-isms as I peddled off. In this case, diffusing a petty argument made more sense than escalating – if the door hit me and I got the same attitude, I might have had a different response.

So my question is this: when should cyclists enforce their own rules of the road, and how. The video above I think demonstrates that the police don’t have sense enough to figure out sensible bike traffic rules for themselves (and I’ve dealt directly with the cops about bikes enough to know they generally have no clue when it comes to non-car transportation). That means in many cases, cyclists need to create their own code of conduct – claiming street space and respect in a way that makes themselves more visible and safe.


3 responses to “Bikes, Use of Force, and the “U-Lock of Justice”

  1. ibrahim binshahbal

    nice article.

  2. “Now, pedestrians present a bigger problem… ride right where they are about to step.”

    Yeah, and then something like this happens.

    It really isn’t worth it. They are far less danger to you than motor vehicles. By all means shout, ring your bell, whatever – but don’t risk hitting them.

  3. i like this post.

    just a thought:
    funny how the conflation of masculinity and cars has lead to so many small penis jokes.
    patriarchy backfire, i guess.

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