Monday, January 11, 2010

Why Do Hate Groups Toward Cyclists Exist?

Interesting things happen on Facebook. Readers will have known by now that there is a 35,000 strong group on the social networking website that goes by the name of "There's a perfectly good path right next to the road you stupid cyclist!"

In direct opposition, (drum-roll) sprang up another group called "Help remove this hate group against cyclists!" that is exponentially increasing its membership as we speak and ironically, is no less of a hate group than the first.

For instance, you'll find members here bad-mouthing the admins of the first group and calling for desperate measures to have it taken down. Defense lieutenants suggest the sabotage of computer systems, among other militant tactics. Below, an example :

Earlier, I had asked the fans on my own Facebook fanpage to join the second group hoping that if this group accumulated a lot of members, perhaps Facebook would consider taking some sort of action against the first group. But over the weekend & rightly so, I struggled to differentiate between the two groups.

Is it disturbing that hate groups exist anywhere for that matter? Sure. But on Facebook, hate is one of the most common used words anyway. So much so that more than a million or so members are rallying for the website to pamper them with a "Dislike Button". Oh boy.

What's more, there's a fanpage for "Killing", "I hate bicycles", "I hate cars", "I hate God", "I hate stupid people", "I hate black people", "I hate Steve Jobs", "I hate Jews", "I hate Arabs", even "I hate myself".

The subjects for Facebook hate groups are immensely wide. They cover everything from ice cream to computers to complex racial prejudices you and I would rather not talk about in public. In short, Facebook members have managed to hate almost every thing there is to hate in the world.

So for Facebook officials to think about deleting one specific group, they would have to ban many of these other offshoots of hate with equal reason, groups where perhaps the admins themselves don't encourage hatred and violence, but the members who are ensconced there do. If Facebook doesn't do so, anyone can rightly accuse them of displaying double standards.

For a start, Facebook has already issued a statement refusing to delete the hate group towards cyclists in question. So it's likely it won't happen. Even if they did, that won't eliminate the hate. People are going to hate wherever they want, why limit it to Facebook?

Now it is hardly surprising why we cyclists are a sensitive bunch of whiners when something like this happens. Cycling as a mode of transport is just growing in Western countries. In many of these places, cyclists are a minority group trying to get established on 4 feet of side road or narrow shared pathways.

Day in and day out, you hear of cyclists being seriously injured, maimed or killed on the roads. In November last year, the Guardian reported that the number of cyclists killed on English roads over a 3 month period in 2009 had increased by 19% from that of 2008. A staggering change indeed, if true.

Trying to intentionally harm cyclists is a serious offense and punishment is growing to be severe. The message these days couldn't be clearer. A doctor in California who was recently found guilty of such a heinous act was sentenced to 5 years in prison. It was big news, one that was welcomed with reluctance by a nervous cycling community. They expected more!

But neither are cyclists an innocent bunch. The NYT has reported several times about brash behavior from urban cyclists. I myself did highlight one that was featured on the front page, one which was particularly embarrassing to read. In places like Victoria - Australia, punishment for such rogue riding is severe, from hefty fines to jail terms.

To add plenty of drama on the side, independent cycling groups lobby for an anti-car world. They organize critical masses, block traffic, ride naked on the streets, come up with fine jerseys such as this one to make the message clear - that no one group is exclusively funding road tax so you know what, we are the traffic too so shut up and get along.

Motorists on the other hand continue to violate traffic laws, kill pedestrians and cyclists and spew hydrocarbons into the atmosphere to often travel what are frequent, small distances (an inefficient way to use gas).

To top it all off, newspapers such as Daily Mail publish anti-cycling content and victimize the minority, for no obvious reasons but fun.

One has to recognize that it is in the middle of such lawlessness and all the hullabaloo on the side that the law itself is trying to bring some sense of balance. For the rest of us perfectly law abiding citizens who ride bikes but also drive cars, all this comes in the form of news or entertainment. It could even offer us a basic, nevertheless important economics lesson.

Economics has it as a fundamental idea that resources in this world are limited. Land, labor, capital etc., all come in discrete quantities. Between cyclists and motorists, the road is the predominant resource that is shared. And you can have only so much people on a given quantity of road.

As an affluent middle income class grow, they want to buy and use more cars. As health and environmental consciousness rise and advocacy for cleaner transport grows alongside, more folks turn to the alternate modes of transport such as the metro and bikes. As oil prices skyrocket, people start driving less. As oil prices drop, people may or may not start driving more but cycling could continue its growth.

As cycling increases, it feeds itself. There is now more apparent safety for members of the community, hence the numbers of cyclists increase. They might start taking liberties while riding two abreast. As motorists crash into them and take them out one by one, the numbers decrease. Alternatively, as cyclists ride dangerously without abandon, their numbers decrease.

You see, the point I'm trying to make here is that the road sign you see on the left holds a simple truth - share the road, for it is a limited resource.

As long as the status quo is preserved, resources are not going to increase out of thin air to accommodate transportation growth patterns. This inevitably leads to more conflicts between cyclists and motorists. Its like the sharp struggles of life that happen in the animal kingdom between territorial creatures, creatures that have to share one piece of land.

In this limited world that has to be shared by cyclists and motorists, numbers rise, numbers fall, some people die, others break bones, and still others are taken to jail or fined. Where is the equilibrium to this dynamic world?

To find that out, you'll have to create a model built on mathematics and consider cyclists and motorists as a species trying to gain control of a shared area. You know, its like that neat predator-prey model you studied about in differential equations class that started out with a list of assumptions and described the world of the eater and the eaten. Or it's like Conway's Game of Life, a computer program that provides a great insight into evolution, emergence and self-organization of life.

I did want to go into this interesting topic more mathematically but perhaps I'll attack that another time. Meanwhile, perhaps you readers could think more about the interesting mathematical patterns you see in the cyclist-motorist rivalry and what it shares with other more fundamental aspects of life?

Bottom line - one aspect is clear in my mind after this discussion. The disturbing rivalry between motoring and cycling warrants a need for more advocacy and a tougher call for tolerance, sacrifice and respect from both parties involved. Share the road. Otherwise, stay at home.

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