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JOAN VENNOCHI

Don’t mix bikes and politics

istockphoto/globe staff illustration

As Boston traffic inched forward during a recent rush-hour snowstorm, a cyclist scooted in front of my car. His back wheel skidded on the icy street, but he righted the bike and cruised across two more lanes of oncoming automobiles.

Naturally, he wore no helmet.

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A recent Globe essay identified the bicycle as a “new conservative front in the culture wars.” But trust me, a person can believe in climate change and wind power and still conclude that Rob Ford, Toronto’s Neanderthal mayor, had a point when he said: “Cyclists are a pain in the ass to the motorists.”

And, vice versa. From the cyclists’ perspective, self-absorbed drivers who hog the road, open car doors without a backwards glance, and make turns without signaling are the real hazard.

There’s hyperbole in declaring bike riders “the most important danger in the city,” as the Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz put it. But bikes on downtown streets are a definite danger, especially when ridden by self-absorbed people who pay no attention to traffic signals or gridlocked intersections. The risk to all multiplies in wintry weather.

There’s hostility on both sides. A recent encounter between a driver and cyclist on Commonwealth Avenue that went viral after it was captured by camera on a cyclist’s helmet attests to that. The driver was straddling the bike line. The cyclist didn’t like it. Profanity flowed.

The heat of that moment has nothing to do with the politics of Rachel Maddow versus those of Bill O’Reilly. It’s about safety, courtesy, and common sense.

I don’t think of bike-sharing programs as “broken down socialism” favored by “commune enthusiasts” and “metro-sexual males,” as one conservative columnist suggested. But you don’t have to lean to the political right to be annoyed by metered parking spots lost to Hubway bikes. For those who say cars, not bikes, should be banned from city streets: Tell that to merchants who benefit from every customer who gives up free mall parking and drives into Boston to shop.

Unlike Rush Limbaugh, I would feel terrible if my car door knocked down a cyclist. But there’s something about a guy waving his middle finger as he hurtles against traffic on a one-way street that brings out the anti-bike in me.

More people are cycling, to get fit or to get to work. According to one recent study analyzing bicycle trends in large North American cities, bike commuters surged 64 percent from 1990 to 2009. In the United States, most of that growth is among men, in the 25-to-39 year age group. That demographic could explain a lot. I don’t want to turn a fake political war into a real gender war. But envision the typical man tailgating you in a pickup truck because he thinks you’re not driving fast enough. Now imagine him on a bicycle, propelled by the same attitude.

Cycling activists love outgoing Mayor Thomas M. Menino because of his commitment to turn Boston into bike-friendly territory. Menino may have a different take when instead of being driven around the city, he’s driving himself to his new job at Boston University.

But Menino’s embrace of the city’s cycling community meant it was a force in the recent mayoral race. With help from the media, Menino’s would-be successors were grilled on their fealty to building an ever more bike-loving metropolis. Woe to any candidate who was not driven by passion to create more bike lanes in every Boston neighborhood. When the race boiled down to Martin J. Walsh and John Connolly, a pro-bike blogger on the site Southiebikes complained that Walsh’s campaign website contained only a “snippet” about his cycling policy while Connolly’s showed a deeper devotion to prioritizing cycle tracks.

Walsh won the battle for City Hall, and with victory inherits Boston’s traffic mess. In an interview at the Globe this week, Menino said that addressing traffic is something “I wish I did a better job of.” Traffic jams haunt the city. On narrow, clogged streets, jaywalking pedestrians add to the chaos — and so do bikers.

Culture wars already create more than enough gridlock in Washington. Let’s not do the same on Boston streets. Alleviating the city’s traffic problems requires leadership and willingness to find common ground.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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