Jeff Frings has a talent for attracting insults. Soda bottles have been hurled at his head without warning. He's been called unprintable names by people who don't know his actual name. He's been sideswiped and rear-ended and run off the road more times than he can count. Red Sox fans wandering through Yankee Stadium have been subject to less abuse from complete strangers than Frings has on the streets of his hometown, Milwaukee.
So what's his problem? It's simple: he's an avid bicyclist. Over the past few years, Frings--a 46-year-old photographer who bikes well over 100 miles a week--has kept video of his rides, taken from cameras mounted on his helmet and his handlebars, because he wanted visual evidence of his encounters with aggressive drivers. (He now uploads the video to his website bikesafer.blogspot.com. Frings has suffered more than a few injuries in scrapes with cars, but what really stands out is the gratuitous hostility. It's not just that inattentive drivers fail to give him the three feet of space required by law. It's that they're galled by his very presence. "They think that you don't belong on the road," says Frings, "and they're trying to teach you a lesson."
In many ways, there's never been a better time to be a bicyclist in the U.S. After decades of postwar decline--matched by the rise of the car--the number of Americans biking regularly has been increasing steadily over several years. More and more people are using bikes to commute to work and just to get around, in cities such as Washington and Minneapolis, which have some of the country's highest cycling rates. Progressive mayors in Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere have been laying down bike lanes and replacing car parking spaces with bike racks. Bike shares, which lend out two-wheelers for short trips at low fees, are blossoming around the U.S., with a 10,000-bike program sponsored by Citibank launching in New York City this month.
But even in the most pedal-friendly cities, cyclists can still feel they're biking against traffic, legally and culturally. It's as if just enough Americans have started cycling to prompt a backlash--call it a bikelash--as drivers and pedestrians ally against these rebels usurping precious traffic space. Is there room on the road for everyone?
There's no more contested space to explore that question than New York, which almost certainly has the most crowded streets in the U.S. Though New Yorkers ride the nation's most extensive transit system, more than 600,000 cars crawl into lower Manhattan each day, leading to miserable congestion. "All that traffic has a major economic cost," says transport analyst Charles Komanoff.