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Soft-pedaling the bicycle trolls

John Bennett is executive director of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.

THERE'S NO shortage of good news about bicycling lately. Cities and towns here in Georgia and all over the country are investing in bicycle infrastructure and reaping the economic, public health and public safety benefits.

Yet I am often trepidatious about reading even the most positive coverage of bicycles being used to improve individual lives and entire communities. No matter how encouraging the story, I know the comments are coming.

The angle, tone and content of an article don’t matter. Any mention of bicycles attracts comments that range from gripes about people who ride bikes to threats to murder them. When media coverage is shared on Facebook, the effect is amplified.

The predictable nature of complaints about bicycling inspired Josh Cohen to create a Bike News Commenter Bingo Card.

“I am a journalist in Seattle and often report on bike politics in the city,” he explained.

“As such, I frequently see comments like those on the bingo card. The direct inspiration was some particularly persistent trolls commenting on an article I wrote about Seattle’s new bike share program.”

Cohen’s bingo card puts a humorous spin on the inevitable and repetitive comments that can be disheartening for people who want their communities to be safer and friendlier for bicycling.

“The bingo card really resonated with cyclists because it’s such a shared experience,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in Portland, Oregon, or some small town without a single bike lane, if you ride a bike in the U.S. you’ve been yelled at by passing drivers at some point. And if you’ve made the mistake of reading comments on articles about bicycling you’ve definitely seen versions of the bingo squares.”

The “Bikes Don’t Pay Their Share” notion is popular locally and rooted in the mistaken belief that people who ride bikes are somehow getting a free ride on streets paid for by people who drive.

“Contrary to common perceptions, cyclists do help pay for roadways,” writes Todd Litman in “Whose Roads? Evaluating Bicyclists’ and Pedestrians’ Right to Use Public Roadways,” published by the British Columbia-based Victoria Transport Policy Institute. “ Currently, only about half of U.S. roadway expenditures are financed by motor vehicle user fees.”

The balance comes from “general taxes that people pay regardless of how they travel,” according to Litman. What’s more, “people who drive less than average and use non-motorized modes tend to overpay their share of costs, while those who drive more than average underpay.”

The “Scofflaws!” square represents tales of bicyclist misbehavior that are shared on almost every news story that mentions bicycling.

I’m not questioning the veracity of these accounts. Believe me, I’ve seen my share of cyclists putting themselves at risk and each time I’m reminded of the importance of safe cycling education.

However, many people who ride bikes can match each story of irresponsible bicycling with reports of encounters with aggressive, distracted or impaired motorists.

That’s not to say scofflaw cyclists and scofflaw drivers are interchangeable. The threat posed by each is radically asymmetrical. A reckless driver’s capacity to harm and kill others is many, many times greater.

Sometimes a single comment can hit multiple squares on Cohen’s card, such as this jewel from the Savannah Morning News’ Vox Populi:

“Please stop spending our tax dollars on bike lanes when all the riders insist on riding on the road during peak traffic hours.”

This comment also conveys the durable, but wrongheaded belief that all bicycling is elective and recreational. It denies the very existence of our fellow citizens who depend on their bicycles to get to work and everywhere else they need to go.

These people aren’t joyriders who impede traffic. They are traffic. In fact, they may have no choice but to ride “during peak traffic hours” if they want to arrive at work on time. Their employers insist on it.

Cohen is hopeful that his bingo card will someday become obsolete.

“The more people who ride, the more bicycling seems like an everyday activity and that in turn leads to even more people thinking bikes are a viable way to get around,” he said.

“Good infrastructure is necessary, of course, for making bicycling safe and accessible to everyone, but it all leads to making riding-as-transportation seem like the logical, healthy, fun choice that it is. It’s going to take a long time, but some day bicycling won’t seem like a niche activity to folks.”

I know I’m going to regret writing this, but feel free to leave a comment.