The world of transportation is divided into tribes – there are countless sects and communities, each defined by their respective machines. Last week, I was reminded of just how far apart some of these tribes really are when I wrote a satirical column about e-bikers (one of the smaller and more colourful factions, who ride unlicensed electric scooters).
Within hours of my story's publication, my virtual inbox was flooded with e-mails, text messages, Twitter notes and Facebook posts. Most were positive, but among a certain crowd, I appeared to be Public Enemy Number One:
"You are a complete idiot," one began. "People like you will destroy the planet."
The e-bikers had spoken.
The most fulsome criticism came from a young man named Christopher Langston, who wrote a Facebook post that was headlined: "To a rich, grumpy old man who doesn't like change."
When I realized that the rich, grumpy old man was none other than yours truly (car owner and e-bike critic), I decided to read Chris's account. By the second paragraph, I realized that Chris saw me as a member of a community that I have never liked much myself: the guys who steal your pension to buy luxury cars, then destroy the environment by zipping around in their ill-gotten status symbols.
"First off, I want to say thank you for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on your big-boy toys which burn fossil fuels and contribute to climate change!" Chris wrote. (It should be noted that he was parodying my own column on e-bikers.) "Although your selfish behaviour has essentially doomed my generation, and ensured a much more difficult life for me and my family than you ever had, at least you had a good time, right?"
One of the oldest battles in the world of driving had reared its ugly head – two wheels versus four. Chris is an e-biker. I am a car guy. We belong to two vastly different tribes. And according to his post, I am The Great Satan. Hmmm.
This wasn't the first time I'd encountered the vehicular divide. In downtown Toronto, it plays out on the streets every day. And I've been on both sides of it.
As I read Chris's missive, I remembered my twenties, when my possessions consisted of a bicycle, a second-hand hang-glider and several crates of textbooks. Back then, I was a cyclist out of both passion and necessity – I loved bicycles, and I couldn't always afford to run a car. I spent much of my university career commuting to class on a racing bike that I rebuilt with scavenged parts.
Even after I started making a decent income as a journalist, I remained a cyclist – I worked out with a road club, and commuted to the newsroom on a bicycle every day for more than 13 years, even in the dead of winter.
Yet I was always a car guy, too. I dreamed of the day when I'd be able to afford a sports car, and I was glad that my wife and I had our little Honda Civic – we used it to pick up groceries, run errands and head to Nova Scotia for family visits. The Civic wasn't lust-worthy, but I got my performance fix from my bicycles (my stable included a titanium-framed Merlin race bike with ceramic bearings, Dura Ace derailleurs and custom-built Mavic wheels).
I was a vehicular ecumenical – I loved all vehicles, no matter how many wheels they had. But many of my acquaintances were of a single faith. They were car guys or bike guys, and there was no common ground. "Cyclists are losers," one car-driving colleague declared. "None of them can afford a car. That's why they're on bikes." (I didn't bother telling him that I owned four bicycles.)
The war between two wheels and four has always had a visceral quality, and the leaders of each army occupy the militant, polarized ends of their respective camps. Back in the day, I spent time with bike couriers for a series of stories. Most were good people and skilled riders who believed in sharing the road, but there was a subset that hated car drivers with the same kind of righteous fury that Osama Bin Laden brought to bear on the decadent West. One was a tattooed addict who had a habit of spitting into open car windows. Another confided that he saw fatal car crashes as a Darwinian elimination process that would eventually clear the roads for cyclists.
When I rode with the couriers, I could see where their anger came from. Car drivers cut us off, pushed us into the curb, and flicked cigarettes out their window like tracer rounds. Their exhaust fumes burned our lungs. And in a collision, the cars always won.
From the rider's perspective, car drivers can seem like an occupying force, demanding that the world be shaped to their selfish needs. When a bike lane was added to Toronto's Jarvis Street a few years ago, car drivers launched a political campaign to get it removed. And when they succeeded, some of my cycling contacts saw the lane's removal as nothing less than the triumph of fascism. "Do those fat bastards in cars really need every last road in the city devoted to their carbon monsters?" one cyclist e-mailed me at the time. (Although I preferred having the bike lane, I didn't see its removal as fascism.)
And when I'm in my car, I understand why drivers dislike bikes – they disregard stop signs, ride on the wrong side of the road, and run without lights, rendering them invisible at night. Not long ago, a militant cyclist on a fixed-gear bike rode the length of College Street in the middle of the lane, forcing me to stay behind him. When I finally passed him, he gave me the finger. To him, I was rich guy in a carbon-spewing status symbol. (To me, he was an insufferable, two-wheeled ideologue. Such is life in the big city.)
Just last week, one of the car-centric commenters on my e-bike story opined that the majority of e-bike owners are drivers who have lost their licences after being convicted of drunk driving or vehicular homicide. Although I've seen some terrible e-bike riders, I doubt that the majority are criminals.
On reflection, I realized that the good e-bike riders pass unnoticed – they stop at red lights, obey signs, and blend in with traffic. It's the terrible ones that get our attention and prompt satirical columns.
You don't have to look far to find a bad e-biker. (On the day after my e-bike column was published, my wife and I watched an e-bike rider park in a handicapped spot in front of the liquor store, then ride away with a case of beer sitting between his feet.)
But I see bad car drivers, too – like the guy in the SUV who almost killed me on the Gardiner Expressway a couple of weeks ago, or the woman who backed out on to Highway 8 in front of me this spring as I headed to my glider club.
Since e-bikers don't need a licence, their ranks comprise a motley crew. There are good riders. And there are terrible ones (those are the ones I was taking a jab at). But to Chris and others who ride well and obey the law – sorry for the sideswipe. See you on the street, whether it's on two wheels or four. Peace. (But I still think a driver's licence would help your cause.)
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