Wednesday, December 12, 2007

If we cave...

In an earlier post, called Read This Second, I asked cyclists to resist driving their cars for transportation every time.

Think about riding your bike, I asked, just as if I should have to beg cyclists to ride their bikes. But I do have to beg them to ride if they have to ride around cars. Riding around cars is scary. Driving a car is easy and not nearly so scary.

I got a comment from a fellow named Kurt, from Golden, a famous western Denver suburb, home of the Coors Brewery and the Colorado School of Mines. The town is hip deep in cyclists, mostly recreational riders enjoying the quiet foothills roads.

As one rides toward Denver from Golden, traffic increases; the level of driver intensity and impatience rises. Kurt tells me that he is afraid to commute from Golden to Denver, not an easy daily ride, but one that many riders across America would envy. If not for the traffic.

We are not suffering on our roads because of a concerted effort on the part of motorists to make our riding lives miserable. We are not suffering because all drivers dislike us and wish we'd just disappear from what they think of as their roads.

We are not suffering worse than other road users from driver carelessness and ineptitude. We're just awfully vulnerable, is all.

We're vulnerable and they suck. They may not suck as human beings. That's another matter. They surely suck as operators of motor vehicles. Ask any cop. Ask a trucker. Ask a fireman paramedic. Ask an insurance adjuster. They'll all say the same thing:

Drivers overwhelmingly suck, or enough do so that it's plenty safe to generalize about them.

So, if it's a given that drivers suck, and it's equally a given that we're vulnerable on our bikes, what's to do?

We are traffic legally and morally. We have every right to be there on our minor slice of the roadway. Drivers don't know that, just as they don't know how to signal turns or begin turns from the proper lane. They evidently don't know how to read speed limit signs.

They don't know these things and they don't care. Unless they get caught.

They don't think of driving as a responsibility or privilege, as they've been told oh-so many times. They think of it as how they get to work or the mall. They feel they should be able to drive to work or to the mall at any speed they choose - without interference from school or construction zones, without interference from silly goddamn bicyclists.

If a motorist sees three cyclists on his/her commute, that motorist will write off those cyclists as odd-balls, lost licenses and poor people. As undeserving of respect. Perhaps they deserve a minor scare to remind them whose road it is - whose taxes paid for it.

If that motorist sees thirty cyclists on his/her commute, that ignorant, prideful stance will be harder to support. Maybe one of those cyclists is his/her minister or brother-in-law. Maybe one of those cyclists represented the driver in court or delivered her baby.

Maybe one of those cyclists is a decent human being trying to get to work, a decent person deserving of respect, deserving of the few feet of clearance that the law suggests.

The more of us they see, the more chance that one of us might be okay, might be more than a pain in the ass.

If many of us hang up our bikes and drive because we are afraid of traffic, we will never be granted our rightful place on the road. Drivers will take anything they're given. More.

We have to ride even if we're scared. Nothing will improve for us if we let their cheap terrorist act intimidate us off our bikes. Like Kurt, I've been intimidated off my bike. I quit riding for seven months after a particularly effective scare. I won't quit again.

We won't gain anything if we don't ride. We lose if we drive. We'll be part of the problem on the road, one more car. Maybe seeing us in our cars will convince other cyclists to drive instead of ride.

We have only our fear to overcome. I'm not saying it's easy or that our resolve not to quit will never flag. I'm saying I hope to see you on the road. Wave if you see me. Think what we have in common.


Perry said...

Terrific! I don't have high hopes, but I liked reading it anyway.

Mauricio Babilonia said...

I navigate around sudden U-turns and unpredictable moves. Any crazy thing could happen. I am beyond fearful. I'm a submarine captain listening for the depth charge that penetrates the hull, lets black freezing water roar in.

I ride anyway.

Jason said...

I've been a road bike rider now for 12-13 years - but only in the past two years have I gradually turned into a commuting cyclist. I feel better about it, but it is combat cycling, too. I occasionally fret about it as I am the father of two young sons, and there are no guarantees. Sometimes, on the commute home, when traffic is bad on sections, I simply bail out and ride the sidewalks. I'm not proud - but at least I am still on the bike and the car is at home.

The only near miss I've had this year, oddly enough, was nearly getting t-boned by a 7 point buck on a bike path near NC State University in Raleigh, NC! Nothing is given, and sometimes risk is not where we expect it.

The 800 miles or so of bike commuting I've done this year is a small thing - but . . . I ride anyway. There is a theme here.


Maynard said...

Hi Jason!

It's remarkable that you write me about having been a roadie and now being a transportation cyclist. I've got a blog post half-written about the same process in my riding life.

I believe, and I'll bet you do too, that the best riding is taking a car off the road.

Maybe we're no longer replica Hincapies or Armstrongs, but we're trying to do what's right.

Years ago, when I saw guys like present-day me on their commute bikes, I didn't consider them to be real bike riders - maybe 'cause they didn't know how to ride a wheel or fold a sew-up.

'Tis a far, far better thing we do... (from an old Dixie Chicks tune)
your friend, Maynard

Jeff said...

Fear is my friend on the commute. I've not had many instances of problems; my commute is relatively safe save one bottleneck. Still, I remember the crazed driver in the right turn lane going straight at an intersection where I normally veer to the right to get out of the way of the straight-through traffic. I remember the cars that hurry to get past me only to turn right just in front of me, cutting me off. I remember that local cop car that did the same. I remember a friend who died, killed by a truck from behind. Fear keeps me bright colored, predictable, and honest out there.

I will ride because I like my car sitting still. I, too, was a roadie, though I also commuted. Riding for the sake of miles is no longer fun. Riding to work, to the store, to see the leaves turn, to enjoy some time with my wife or my buddy on his Rivendell (ah, Jason) is fun.

The traffic here in Lynchburg, VA, at least on my commute, is pretty decent. I try to maintain predictability in the hopes that we know each others ways. Here's hoping it continues. I will still ride.

Steve Barner said...

I was saying this same thing in a post to a cycling listserv this morning. I've noticed how much better motorists treat cyclists up here in northern Vermont than in the Albany, NY area where I grew up. I attribute the difference not to a ready supply of maple syrup but to the fact the roads up here are full of cyclists. I've even passed a cyclist going the other way at night in a snow storm when I thought I must be the only person on a bicycle in the entire state. When drivers deal with cyclists all the time, they become an expected part of the landscape; a regular part of driving. It doesn't mean that we don't have drivers doing stupid things. As Maynard wrote, "drivers suck." They don't suck any less at driving just because they are Vermonters, even if they are, overall, more considerate than in many other areas of the country.

I'm totally with you on this one, Maynard. We make a small difference every time we ride. Roads are not under the ownership of cars; they are pathways for human beings. God knows I've paid enough taxes in my life to share in any misplaced idea of entitlement. We shouldn't be looking for ways to keep bike traffic separate from that of cars. Instead, we should expect our roads to accommodate all users and demand that motorists drive carefully and responsibly or not drive at all. Part of this is advocacy when roads are redesigned and a bigger part is being visible out there using them.

Our most powerful advocate as cyclists, though, is expensive gasoline.