Cyclists Won’t Annoy Drivers Out of Their Cars

Ethel Walsh

Like cigarettes, shag carpet, and those tanning reflector things, the automobile is becoming a product that used to be normal but is now considered irredeemably evil, or at least really tacky. More and more cities are adding car-free streets, and if the government has its way you won’t be able to buy an internal combustion engine by 2035. Meanwhile, a new form of protest seems to be gaining traction: vandalizing people’s vehicles.

Tyre Extinguishers is a group that bills itself as a “leaderless autonomous movement.” It started in the UK, hence the “y,” but has since moved to other countries including the United States. Its goal is to “make it impossible to own a huge polluting 4×4 in the world’s urban areas,” and it does this by deflating people’s tires and leaving a smug little leaflet that starts off: “We have deflated one or more of your tires. You’ll be angry, but don’t take it personally. It’s not you, it’s your car.”

Perhaps it’s because I’m old enough to remember stuff like cigarettes and shag carpet (an incendiary combination, it’s a wonder I never burned to death), but to me the idea of sabotaging a stranger’s car belongs in the same category as smashing their mailbox with a baseball bat or putting a flaming bag of poop on their porch, even if it is ostensibly predicated on making the world a better place for humanity. As such, I was surprised to find this tactic actually resonates with people. BikePortland (okay, Portland, I shouldn’t be surprised) recently published a sympathetic opinion piece, which ended thusly:

Oh, and one quick tip: if you wake up to find your SUV out of commission, ask someone who relies on active transportation to help you figure out a new route to work. I assure you that anyone who rides the bus or bikes to get around the city has dealt with their share of annoyances preventing them from getting where they need to be on time.

In an era defined by perpetual panic and unprecedented self-importance, I suppose it’s only natural that there are people who think they’re saving the world by letting the air out of car tires. Even so, this “tip” oozes condescension like a tubeless mountain bike tire with leaky sidewalls.

I’ve long come out of the haze of car worship under which many Americans still languish, and as a bicyclist and New Yorker, I of course rely on “active transportation.” (Finally, a phrase to let everyone know you’re better than they are because you live someplace you don’t have to drive!) But I also know that people drive for all sorts of reasons, even in cities. Sure, sometimes those reasons seem almost offensively gratuitous (there are people who get in the car and drive around aimlessly just to make their baby fall asleep, which…really?), but just as often they’re driving out of necessity, and occasionally access to to an automobile is even a matter of life and death. (Nurses, doctors, emergency responders, people who deliver pizzas…) So the idea that you can declare yourself an arbiter of personal mobility and furtively deflate an unvetted individual’s tire in a petulant act of passive-agression with the certainty that you’re doing nothing more than making them “figure out a new route to work” that day–as opposed to, say, visiting a dying loved one in the hospital– is astonishing in its arrogance.

Granted, if you’re a cyclist it may be harder to find compassion for the hapless motorist; they’re the lumbering dinosaur, we’re the wily mammals, and until nature downsizes them we’re forced to dodge their heedless footfalls. However, if you’re a cyclist, you also love and depend on your machine, and you should have at least a certain degree of respect for someone else’s, even if you don’t particularly care for it. You should also appreciate that the sorts of idiots who do stuff like put glass in bike lanes are just as convinced of their own righteousness as the Tyre Extinguishers are, and are just as willing to assume anyone who rides a bike is an entitled hobbyist as the déflateurs are to assume every single person who drives a car with “coarser or larger tires than normal” (whatever that means) is a lazy, selfish cubicle jockey for whom a disabled vehicle is a mere inconvenience.

The current state of motordom is deeply dysfunctional, but even a million Tyre Extinguishers are not going to annoy people out of their cars. It may seem crazy to the “active transportation” enthusiast, but a lot of these people actually like their cars, flat tires and all. If they’re willing to pay all that money for gas in order to keep driving, why would needing a little air stop them? You don’t effect change by messing with things people like; you effect it by offering them something they like better. (That’s offering, not forcing them into it via sabotage.) Or, if you absolutely can’t resist fingering a Schrader valve, at least have the courage of your convictions; instead of leaving a note, why not wait for the vehicle owner and explain exactly why you did it?

Surely something as important as the fate of the planet warrants speaking to someone in person, right?

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