If you are a city driver, you have undoubtedly been scared half to death by some maniac cutting across traffic like Frogger on a fixie. Such emotionally charged events stand out in our associative memory far more than mundane events, like a cyclist riding peacefully alongside your vehicle. The affect heuristic is compounded by the idea of negativity dominance—bad events stand out more than good ones. This causes you to overestimate both the amount and the severity of upsetting events, like almost getting some dirty hipster’s blood on your windshield.
Don't believe me? Well, ask yourself, what causes more deaths: strokes or all accidents combined? Tornadoes or asthma? Most people say accidents and tornadoes, and most people are wrong. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman asks the reader these same questions before revealing, "strokes cause almost twice as many deaths as all accidents combined, but 80 percent of respondents judged accidental death to be likely. Tornadoes were seen as more frequent killers than asthma, although the latter caused 20 times more deaths." Kids careening on bikes are our urban tornadoes—somewhat rare, upsetting events that stick in our craw longer than they should, and seem like bigger problems than they really are.
Moreover, bicycling as a primary means of transportation—I’m not talking about occasional weekend riders here—is a foreign concept to many drivers, making them more sensitive to perceived differences between themselves and cyclists. People do this all the time, making false connections between distinguishing characteristics like geography, race, and religion and people’s qualities as human beings. Sometimes it is benign ("Mormons are really polite"), sometimes less so ("Republicans hate poor people"). But in this case, it’s a one-way street: Though most Americans don’t ride bikes, bikers are less likely to stereotype drivers because most of us also drive. The “otherness” of cyclists makes them stand out, and that helps drivers cement their negative conclusions. This is also why sentiments like “taxi drivers are awful” and “Jersey drivers are terrible” are common, but you don’t often hear someone say “all drivers suck.” People don’t like lumping themselves into whatever group they are making negative conclusions about, so we subconsciously seek out a distinguishing characteristic first.
Every time another bicyclist pulls some dickish stunt, the affect heuristic kicks in to reinforce the preconceived biases. The same isn’t true in reverse: The conviction that bicyclists are erratically moving hazards is not diminished by the repeated observance of safe and respectful riding. Facts and logical arguments that do not conform to the emotional conclusion are discounted or disregarded. But we’re not doomed to our initial prejudices: Once a person becomes aware of her biases, she is more able to engage rational thought processes to overcome the affect heuristic and dispel her inaccurate conclusions. So, study those stats bike haters!
As the studies show, more and more commuters are trading in their parking passes for bike locks. In light of those numbers, it’s heartening to hear that the number of fatalities per bike trip has decreased in Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere. That suggests to me that these new-to-biking commuters are riding less aggressively than the old urban vanguard of bike messengers and Tour de France wannabes. If the present trends continue, we’ll see asshole bicyclists like me become an even smaller minority of bicyclists as a whole. And some of us are trying to get better. I’ve recognized that my bad behavior keeps others from taking up riding, and keeps politicians from investing in things I care about, like more bike lanes. So I’ve stopped riding on sidewalks and try to keep my illegal lefts to a minimum. But I’ve been a jerk for a real long time. So, let me say this to drivers, pedestrians, and my fellow riders alike: I’m sorry. See, aren’t cyclists the nicest, most polite people in the whole world?