Joe Wos: “I Was Wrong”

JoeWos

When I told, cartoonist Joe Wos that I felt his transformation was incredibly comparable to the 1966 version of the Grinch, he not only agreed, but he drew himself as the Grinch for us. “Totally. It’s a story of redemption,” he said. Indeed it is. Illustrations by Joe Wos.

Storytelling is the best medicine

Resistance to bike infrastructure improvements and bike culture or “bikelash” is nothing new, furthermore many consider it to be a sign of progress.

In the past few years Pittsburgh has made many important advancements that have increased comfort and accessibility for bikers across the city. And in the past few months with Mayor Peduto’s leadership we’ve seen unprecedented commitment to making biking in Pittsburgh safe and enjoyable. So the fact that local cartoonist, Joe Wos, is now known in Pittsburgh’s bike community for having openly shared his hostility towards the recent bike infrastructure improvements – bike lanes and bike racks alike – shouldn’t come as a surprise. His recent op-ed in the Post-Gazette jumbled together dozens of inaccuracies about people who bike in Pittsburgh, most of which we’d heard before.

But then something important and relatively unusual happened: he changed his mind. Or, rather, you changed his mind. Joe heard from you — the diverse, committed community of Pittsburgh bike riders and supporters. And from hearing your experiences he learned that he had made some seriously off-base assumptions about people who ride bikes.

So as we continue to work together to make Pittsburgh’s streets safer for people to bike and walk, be sure to share your story. There are as many reasons for biking as there are people who bike, and our reasons change from day to day and year to year. Let’s make a commitment to share the reasons why we bike by talking to the people who surround us and by using #WhyIBike on social media. Let’s keep up the conversation.

Below are Joe’s sincere, unedited responses to our questions. Joe, we’re mighty glad that you have come around.

1./ Tell us your age, where you live, and where you work or your profession.

I am 44 years old. I currently live in Penn Hills, PA, but I grew up in Braddock. I am a freelance cartoonist, writer, and storyteller. I am also the former founder and executive director of the ToonSeum.

2./ Was there a particular event or experience that lead you to write your Enough about the bikes, bikes, bikes op-ed?
There were actually a couple of experience that all seemed to culminate in writing that piece. First, at the time I was working downtown at the ToonSeum. Which is on the 900 block of liberty avenue. The block is still reeling from the August Wilson Center Debacle. So there were frequent conversations with other businesses about how to improve the area, and what is helping and hurting that part of town. Bike lanes were viewed with a lot of resentment, there are so many other things that needed addressed. When bike lanes began getting all the hype, a lot of us reacted the same way: “This is their solution?” The zealous efforts to promote and “sell” the concept of bike lanes and all their benefits came off as claims of it being the great solution. So I had all that floating around in my head. Then one afternoon I was walking downtown around noon. A guy on a bike rode off the street and onto the sidewalk and started screaming at me “on your left!” I turned around to see who was yelling. “He then sped past me on the sidewalk and shouted “move it a-hole!” He then got off the sidewalk into the street and ran a redlight! Lol I couldn’t believe it. I was fuming at the sheer gall and disrespect from this particular bicyclist. I started paying attention to bikes and how they were interacting in the city. What I saw (and likely it was because it was what I was looking for) was a lot of disregard for traffic laws, mostly running red lights, and hopping on and off sidewalks. And then…. The city and Cultural Trust held a press conference for the installation of bike racks. The whole thing took on a surreal quality of being an article written about Portland in the Onion.

So dealing with a few bad bicyclist and the hype built up a lot of resentment!

3./ How would you characterize your feeling towards bikes in Pittsburgh and people who ride them at the time when you wrote the op-ed?

At that time I viewed bicyclist as militant vegans who were going to force you to listen to their poems about trees while shoving tofu into your face. I associated bicyclist with elitist. Again a few experiences can completely cloud your opinions if you don’t seek out other opportunities.

I really viewed them as constantly shouting to the city “You’re fat! Get a bike! You’re polluting the earth! Get a bike! You’re stupid! Get a bike!” I absolutely viewed them as hating anyone who didn’t adopt their lifestyle and as a judgemental and preachy lot.

I saw many bicyclist as blindly overzealous followers of a religion that didn’t just want religious freedom, they wanted everyone to convert!

I have three kids, I wasn’t going to drive three kids to softball practice on a bike! It was a feeling of being judged without any regard to the practical issues of individual situations.

I also viewed them as hypocrites when I found out the over 90 percent of bicyclist own cars. By the time I wrote the article I was anxious to deflate what I regarded as the most overhyped pretentious thing in Pittsburgh since the big rubber duck! I attacked it from every possible angle and found studies and facts to back up everything I wanted to say. That’s one thing about studies for every study there is an equal but opposite study.

4./ What caused you to change your position on bikes and biking in Pittsburgh?
After the article ran I followed the reaction on twitter, facebook and my personal email. At first I got a lot of name calling “hey fatty you need to ride a bike.” I also got a few threats, which was a little scary, but at first it all reinforced my opinions on bikes.

But then something else happened. I began to hear from real people. They were taking the time to send links to studies. Then they began to say- “here’s why I ride a bike.” Not bikes are saving the world! But “biking is important to me.” They shared their passion for biking not in a way to convert but in a way to educate and help me understand.

With that came personal stories of the risk and dangers they faced everyday. The turning point was when it ceased to be about bike lanes and became about bicyclist, about people. It became less of a political issue about a bunch of marked pavement and became about the people who ride bikes. I was appalled that my article was being used to advocate an attitude of putting bicyclist in harms way. I was just as affected by anti-bicylist comments and their rage filled hatred.

I realized I was creating dialogue or discussion, I had only turned up the heat on a boiling situation. As all that is happening I am still getting informative and even compassionate emails from bicyclist friends “saying, I understand the points you were trying to make, but some of it, not all, but some of it was misinformed.” They helped guide me on a bike path to enlightenment!

I began to realize it wasn’t about the paths, or the percentage of bicyclist, it was about individuals. If a bike path cost a half million dollars but it saved one single life. Than it was worth every single penny and so much more.

I saw my daughter outside riding her bike and thought about what I would want for her. I ultimately want her to be safe. Shouldn’t everyone feel safe?
That was it. I was now informed, and more important connected to the human beings on those machines. I saw the humanity.

Once I got to that point, I started reading study after study and watched each of my arguments completely fall apart. I was wrong. Every single thing I wrote was wrong. The only single thing I could still stand by was that I felt bikes were being overhyped. But even that I understood as someone who also held passions and a constant pursuit of publicity for my equally underappreciated artform.

5./ Can you give an example of something meaningful that someone shared about biking or being a biker that resonated with you personally?
When I heard from women bicyclist that had the strongest impact. Women’s equality has always been important to me. I went to a primarily women’s college (Carlow), I actively promote women artists, and most important I have two daughters. What I was hearing from those female bicyclists was “this isn’t just about a bunch of white men with 5000 dollar bikes.” What I heard in my head was that my entire argument about this being an activity for a tiny minority group was prejudiced and close-minded. My god! Would I say we shouldn’t fund things for women or girls safety just because they are a minority group? Of course I wouldn’t! Every woman who messaged me “I bike, and I’m scared that I’ll get hit by a distracted motorist” sent me deeper into regret over what I had written and believed.

My argument about bikes being exclusionary of minorities really haunted me. It was such a cheap shot at a group that have been working hard to reach out to minority groups.

As I began to hear from more and more women and minority bicyclist I grew disgusted at my own piece I had written. I couldn’t distance myself from it, but I could learn from it.

I also looked to people I deeply respect such as councilman Dan Gilman. If someone with such a strong commitment to this city thinks that bike paths can help, than there must be something to it!

6./ How do you now feel about bikes in Pittsburgh and what might you have learned about people who ride them?
I respect them. Especially their passion and commitment, to not just biking, but to improving our city. What I considered misguided blind hype is actually sincere concern and enthusiasm.

They are a bunch of geeks and there is no one I respect more than a geek! I now am hyperaware of them when I drive. I am concerned for their safety as individuals. I recognize the real and tangible benefits of not just biking, but of bike lanes for us all as a city.

If you can improve any aspect of this city for any of its citizens than we are all better for it and we all benefit.
They are people not bikes. That is what I needed to learn. That we aren’t talking about bike lanes we are talking about people lanes. People who happen to be on bikes because they are concerned and want to make Pittsburgh a better place, and this is their way of making a difference.

7./ Any advice for the bike community? How can we better explain the importance of creating safe streets for all road users — pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists alike?
Stop talking about bike paths and start talking about people who ride bikes! This has become a political issue about pavement and not one about human beings. That is what is lacking in the conversation on both sides. Help take some of the animosity out of this. There are people in those cars and people on those bikes. Lets talk about relationships. Especially the relationships of motorist and bicyclist sharing the road. There also needs to be education not just of motorist but of bicyclists. We all have a lot to learn about each other. In order for bicyclist to be more widely accepted they need to also accept motorist. Sharing the road goes both ways and we all need to start respecting each other.

Focus on trying to sway individuals not change an entire city all at once. When you force change it feeds animosity and fear, but if each bicyclist offered to go out for a ride with a friend and introduce them to bicycling, then you can change those attitudes.

Focus on immediate and tangible benefits for individuals. Share why you ride a bike, not why everyone else should ride a bike. When they hear your story, and how it benefits you they will take that to heart and see if they can apply to their own lives. We take up new habits by observing them in others and seeing the benefits first hand.
It all comes down to “respect.”

Respect the laws. Respect bicyclist safety and rights. Respect the road.. but most important of all respect one another.

8./ Anything to add?
Share you stories, share your experiences, and lets all share the roads.

So what’s your story? We’d like to hear why you bike.

12 Comments

  • ericf says:

    This is an awesome piece. I sometimes forget how considerate people can be toward others until someone takes the time to do something like this.

  • bikeburgher says:

    What is still perplexing is how the bike racks made by local artists like Toby Fraley somehow set Mr. Wos over the edge on this topic. Those artists deserve all the press they received. If you haven’t had a chance to see them, you should check them out in the Cultural District.

  • helen s says:

    Thank you Joe. I now withdraw my personal boycott of the Toonseum and may ride dontahn to see it sometime, as I regretfully have never been there.

  • paulheckbert says:

    Why hasn’t Joe Wos written a retraction on the web page where he started this, http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/Op-Ed/2014/09/14/Bikes-bikes-bikes-Pittsburgh-transportation-Joe-Wos/stories/201409140106 ?

  • Joe, you are a heck of a guy to admit publicly that you were wrong. Kudos to you. However you make a very valid point at the beginning- your encounter with that jerk cyclist on the sidewalk. We cyclists are, unfortunately, too often our own worst enemies.

  • ChrisZ says:

    Me-A-Culpa!

  • shadow says:

    I biked to Joe’s going-away party at the toonseum earlier in the week. I was not the only one there who did (tho it’s probable I was the only one who did it in a dress)

  • flipflap says:

    Since you mentioned you like to hear from women about their biking experiences: As a young child I used to admire the enormous 3 speed bike in our barn. My mother’s idea of a college graduation trip in the 1930’s was a bicycle trip to Ireland with her roommate. She had a little photo album of the trip with the route on a map which was magical. I grew up in the country and we were 5 miles from town, all downhill. As I grew up my sisters and girlfriends always rode bikes to get there where the public tennis court was, where other kids were and where you could get candy and soda. We also rode all over the place from there with a group of friends on bikes on country roads through farm country and on old logging roads. These were 3 speed bikes. Shoulders were almost nonexistent, it was pre-helmut and pre rearview mirror, there were lots of tourists on the road, and leaf peeping season was especially bad traffic-wise. It was New England, but we always rode bikes in every season until the roads were covered with snow and ice. Then along came 10 speeds, Peugeots to be specific. I was told if I convinced 3 friends to buy one, I could get a fee one. My sister and I did that and lots of our friends. I took that free bike to college in Berkeley. It was cheaper than riding the bus to school from our apartment which unlike Pittsburgh, was not free to students. When I returned to the northeast after college I still had it. A $100. used car took its place for a while. Then due to a decent job I got a Honda Civic and lived in Boston. I lashed my bike to the roof of my car and found places to ride in the country on weekends. Then found I actually could ride it in the city and took my life in my hands and did it. By then I had a husband and he had no bike. He rode mine to his job in Boston. We moved to Pittsburgh. For exercise I used to ride it in the hills in Greenfield on weekends but I was using the bus for work on weekdays. My husband rode it to work at Pitt. Then my sister living out west really needed it and could not afford to buy one. So we shipped it to her. For a few years I did not have a bike. Then the mountain bikes and hybrids came along with 23 speeds. First I got a $300 one and wore it out. Then I got a $500 one which is holding up great still. I ride 3 or 4 times a week for exercise. I had all sort of orthopedic problems which limited my walking for a long time. I could hardly walk 2 blocks but I could bike for miles and miles. I have had a few operations which have helped my walking but I will never be able to walk more than about 5 miles and I am very grateful for walking that far when not long ago it was out of the question! But biking- I go, go and go and go. I bike on roads, streets, bikes paths etc. If there is no traffic anywhere as far as I can see I have been known to go through a light. If there is any traffic at all I follow all the rules for moving vehicles. I have biked my entire life and plan to keep on biking. I am in my 60’s.

  • joetoon says:

    Paul, fair question. Actually the Post Gazette was the first one I contacted about writing a new piece. Unfortunately I had already written two pieces that month and they would not allow another. Their usual policy for op-ed pieces is every two to three months. Knowing they wouldn’t be able to publish I put it out on twitter that I was looking for somewhere else to apologize. I issued several apologies via twitter. When bikepgh saw them they asked if they could do an interview where I could share my new thoughts. I appreciate the opportunity they have given me.

  • […] rare is this? A Pittsburgh cartoonist offers a mea culpa for an anti-bike diatribe after riders convince him he was […]

  • congokid says:

    “There also needs to be education not just of motorist but of bicyclists. We all have a lot to learn about each other. In order for bicyclist to be more widely accepted they need to also accept motorist. Sharing the road goes both ways and we all need to start respecting each other.”

    “lets all share the roads.”

    While it’s admirable that Joe Wos has done something that very few people seem willing or able to do – ie, change their opinions relating to an activity as divisive as merely cycling for transport – I don’t think he’s right to suggest something as vague as ‘sharing the road’.

    That’s what we’ve had in the UK, and probably most of the US, for the past 40+ years, and where has it got us? While in the ’70s in the Netherlands they started building infrastructure that made cycling attractive to and possible for everyone aged 8-80, here we’re still trying to calm driver behaviour by using people on bikes as moving speed bumps. And is it working? I don’t think so – the modal share of bike use here is less than 2 per cent, yet is as high as 50 per cent in parts of the Netherlands. Not a great return on 40 years, wouldn’t you agree?

    In the UK, probably as much as the US, we have relied on ‘education’ and ‘awareness’ campaigns to advance cycling as a mode of transport. As the outcomes of most such campaigns are rarely evaluated and comparisons of pre and post event data never done, their impact is almost impossible to assess. Typically all we have to rely on are KSI numbers, a far from satisfactory state of affairs when we’re trying to promote everyday cycling as a safe, healthy activity.

    The final insult directed at those choosing to travel on bikes is the apparent need for them first to ‘accept motorists’, only after which we can beg a few scraps of reciprocation. With that comes the automatic assumption of shared responsibility for our behaviour on roads.

    That all sounds wonderfully warm and woolly, but in reality it means accepting dangerous and inattentive driving. I really would prefer not to accept dangerous driving or have responsibility for people driving cars too close to me while I’m making a journey by bike. And I don’t think anyone would expect a child to take responsibility either. Conditions on most western roads are not conducive to cycling and that’s what needs to be addressed, not yet more calls for ‘education’ or ‘awareness’. Those campaigns we’ve seen in recent years in the UK have been spectacularly clueless and counterproductive, not to mention a waste of money.

    My main point is that all these campaigns put together – the good and the bad – are worth less than a single yard of proper cycling infrastructure that keeps people on bikes safe from motor vehicles by separating the two.

    Judging from the blog post I’ve linked to below, that ‘acceptance’ from vehicle drivers, at least in the UK, is nothing more than wishful thinking (there are also some pics of Dutch infrastructure that illustrate that ‘sharing’ is something that can and should be avoided at all costs).

    aseasyasridingabike.wordpress.com/2014/10/07/what-would-measuring-overtaking-distances-in-the-netherlands-tell-us-about-dutch-drivers-very-little/

  • sxotty says:

    I am one of the terrible people that treats stop signs and yields and red lights as stop signs. Personally I wish that this behavior was more acceptable as it actually makes the roads safer and diminishes wait times for motorists. I commute 80 miles a week and the usual danger is simply people pulling out in front of you. Part of the issue is that landscapes are designed with cars on mind so the shoulder might not be visible to a motorist entering a roadway.

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