Thursday, April 12, 2012

Why It's Hard to Share the Road

Where'd everyone go?
I just stumbled across this article on Grist, and it reminded me of my commute, yesterday.

Last night as I rode home, I passed by the Rose Garden Arena.  There was an event going on --probably a Blazers game -- and the sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians on their way to the Arena.

The bike route that I was on shares a road with bus lane, on which no regular vehicular traffic is allowed. The problem with this stretch of road, is that pedestrians look for buses, not bikes, and then go ahead and cross the crosswalk against their signal if there aren't any buses coming.  Compounded with the shear numbers of people and the heard mentality that develops, and you get this:

The bike/bus light turns green.  A crowd of people is still crossing the crosswalk, and doesn't stop. More and more pedestrians are piling off the sidewalk on one side, strolling across while chatting with each other about the upcoming game/concert/event to which they are headed.

The guy on the bike ahead of me decides that the best way to handle this is to ride up at full speed, and then ring his bell and start yelling loudly when he is about 4 feet from the crosswalk.

Understandably, the walkers are startled. Does it get them out of the crosswalk any quicker?  No. Does it elicit  a few choice expletives from the crowd, directed at all of us on bikes behind that guy?  Absolutely.

I actually stopped and had a chat with the pedestrian who yelled at us the loudest, to apologize on behalf of the rest of us who try to be reasonable.  He and his wife were very nice.

I was going to write more, but the article over at Grist is exactly what I've been trying to say.  Thanks, Grist!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"You don't know me!"

What is it about this intersection?
It happened again, at the exact same intersection, though it was different cyclist this time. This guy had already cut me off as he wobbled off the sidewalk at the transit stop a few blocks back, but I've been practicing my acceptance of other people on the road and I let it go.  He may have honestly not seen me coming, and we were both safely riding on our way. No harm, no foul, right?

So we roll along, and eventually come to a stop sign. Neither of us put our foot down as we got to the sign, but only one of us was any good at track-standing and therefore actually stopped for the car oncoming from the left.  I'll let you guess who that was.

Well, as Wobbly McWobblerson slowly rolled and swayed through the stop sign, he noticed that the oncoming driver had a turn signal on and was going to to turn left, into the same street we were headed for. So Wobbly just kept on rolling, expecting, I guess, to cross as soon as the car turned and to fit right in within an inch of that car's bumper.

It didn't work that way, of course. It never does.  We bikers tend to forget what it's like to drive around bikes, but the reality is that, as a driver, when you see a bike rolling out almost directly in your path you slow way the hell down and make sure you're not going to hit them.  It makes sense. People in cars are used to people on bikes cutting them off around here.

I'm trying really hard to be peaceful about my travels, so at this point I'm focusing on remembering that we're all people just trying to get where we're going, and that no amount of stressing over what other people do is going to get me anywhere faster.

And then Mr. McWobblerson starts yelling.

"Come on!  Move! Move!

Ok, so she's going slow. Of course she is. The look on this driver's face says this guy is scaring the sh*t out of her.  Not her fault, really.

And then:
"F@*K YOU!  F@*K YOU!  F@*K YOU!"

Oh boy.  Here we go again.

No matter what kind of peacefulness and acceptance of others' behavior I'm trying to cultivate in myself, I cannot accept this kind of hatefulness from this guy--especially when it's his own assumptions and expectations that are at fault!

When the car has pulled into the parking spot and out of the travel lane, Wobbly and I ride on. As I pass him, I decide that a polite observation might be called for. So, as tactfully and casually as I can, I say,

"Maybe she was going slow because you were about to cut her off."

"No man, I don't think so."

Oh well, it was worth a shot. And then, at the next stop light, he turns to me.

"You don't know me."

"You're right," I say, " I don't, but I do know that--"

"YOU DON'T KNOW ME! You've got no right to tell me how to ride!"

"--When  you're at a stop sign, it's--"

"Don't talk to me. Don't talk to me!"

"--legally your responsibility to wait until the way is clear."

"Don't talk to me!"

OK, right. Now, I'm not one to push when someone yells "Don't talk to me,"-- at least after the third repetition. He's obviously not ready to hear anything.  So I move on, and we both ride our separate ways.

I've been trying hard to see the situation from his point of view. Obviously he was in some sort of rush. Aren't we all, these days, whenever we're riding or driving somewhere? And I get that he felt judged by my statement, that he feels that unless you know someone and understand their circumstances, it's not your place to yell at them and tell them how to ride... or drive...

Oh, right. Exactly.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Rules of the Road

Not the road I was on today.
A fine example of golden hour, though! 
It happened today.  I finally succeeded at completely quelling my cyclist's road rage--at least for the ride home.

I started out feeling fine, as usual, and as usual, as I traveled I began to see all of the, er, "idiosyncrasies" of the other people on the road. The familiar sarcastic inner dialogue started:

"Oh sure, you can turn right in front of me without signaling. Go right ahead."

I started to do that thing where I imagine how the argument would go if they tried to yell at me for some perceived slight. Nevermind that they probably bore me no ill will at all. I was ready in case they did.

And then something not so usual happened: Maybe it was the beautiful day, or the golden-hour light illuminating my travel. Perhaps it was just that everyone on the road today was exceptionally nice, or maybe it was this episode of Talk of the Nation that I recently heard on NPR.

As I rolled along, internal diatribes ramping up toward full, I remembered a caller on that show. If you haven't listened to it, or read the synopsis in the link, this particular episode of talk of Nation had a long segment about the interactions between bicyclists and other users of the roads. One of the first callers, who claimed to be an avid cyclist, also turned out to be first rate loser. Amidst his bragging about his comebacks to drivers who yell at him (Driver: "Where's your helmet?!" Caller: "Where's your helmet!") and his other cycling "accomplishments," the caller told a lovely story of the time he chased down and yell at driver who cut him off. When the elderly woman had the nerve to say that she didn't see him, he grabbed her keys and threw them down the sewer grate.

I'll repeat that in case it was too ridiculous to sink in the first time: He grabbed an elderly woman's keys, right out of her ignition, and threw them down the sewer grate. Or at least he imagined it so vividly that he felt the need to tell that story on the radio.

Either way, I realized today that--sometimes--I am that guy. I've never grabbed anyone's keys or otherwise physically accosted any drivers, but I have absolutely chased them down in order to speak my piece about their apparent nonchalance with my life.

And then I thought about Denmark. Not about their amazing cycling culture and the way that they successfully integrate biking and driving. No, I thought about Ejby, and about Makkinga.  These are a few of the places in Denmark where a truly outside-the-lines experiment in traffic control is taking place:  They are removing it. Whole cities are going "safely chaotic"

The idea is that, when you remove the "certainty" of who belongs where, who goes when, and who has the "right of way," people actually pay more attention to the road and the other travelers. The more I thought about it, the more I came the to the conclusion that they might be on to something.  It's not just about road signs and traffic lights, either. Even the painted lines on the street come into question.  But what about my beloved bike lanes? Their magical while lines and painted stick figure cyclists grant me immunity from other vehicles on the road, don't they?

In fact, they don't. Not always, anyway. Studies are showing that on roads with painted bike lines, drivers tend to drive far closer to the cyclists, often dangerously close. We're talking inches, here.

It seems clear.  The safety net provided by the lines and rules of the road is an illusion. No one is exempt. Drivers don't slow down for pedestrians who aren't at marked crosswalks.  Pedestrians expect traffic to stop instantly if they are at marked sidewalks.  If the system relies on everyone being exactly where they're supposed to be, and doing exactly what they're supposed to do...  Well, we're all human. How likely is is that we will all do everything so well, so consistently. I'll be the first to admit that I've made my fair share of honest mistakes on the road, as a driver, a cyclist, and a pedestrian. So what are we to do?

That brings me back to Denmark and to the above episode of Talk of the Nation. In perhaps the most important bit of the segment, one of the guests remarks about how, in Denmark, people on bikes are just that:  people on bikes.  Not cyclists, bikers, or any other category label. They are people, who at the moment happen to be on bikes. 
So it is with everyone else on the road, really. There are people in cars, and people who walk, and people in wheelchairs, and people jogging, and people on razor skooters... and we're all people, traveling in different directions, together.

Maybe, if we can all remember that, we can move forward without crashing into each other.

I'm picturing travel whereby all involved focus not of the "right of way" but rather, the "right way." I'm imagining a city where drivers actually pay enough attention to each other that they don't need lines and signs to tell them when to slow down or when to give someone else a little more space. And I'm practicing it, starting today, by actively remembering that all of us on the road are people, and we have to look out for each other.

Monday, April 2, 2012

This is Portland

Image courtesy of Flowizm on Flicker
I ride my bike to and from work most days, with some public transportation thrown into the mix now and then. Over the years of commuting by bike, I've had a lot of interactions with drivers and other cyclists. But this is Portland. For the most part my ride is a very pleasant experience, here. No one has once yelled at me to "get on the f*cking sidewalk" here--although I've been asked to move over into the bike lane once... when I was trying to make a left turn. (For those who don't understand: the bike lane is on the right, and I wanted to turn left. Is it even legal to turn left from the right lane of a multi-lane road? Nope.) But it's OK, because I get that some bicylists are jerks, and that a lot of drivers lump us all together as a group and yell at anyone who rides on two wheels without an engine to power them. That's why what really irks me is when I see those bikers who give the rest of us the bad image. There are a lot of cyclists around here. After all, this is Portland--and not all of us seem to know how to share the road.

On my into work today, I ran into one of these guys. Almost literally. He was pulling up to the intersection of NW Davis and 4th and decided, since he was riding a fixie and was obviously too cool for brakes, that he didn't actually need to stop at the stop sign. Well of course there was a car coming from the left that he very nearly ran right into. Fortunately, they were able to avoid a collision. The driver very understandably honked his horn at the cyclist that cut him off. The cyclist, meanwhile, gave the driver a one-finger salute.

Wait, what? Yes, the cyclist flicked off the driver that he, the cyclist, cut off! My mind was blown. "What was he thinking?" I thought. So I asked him. His reply:

"This is Portland, man."

Oh, and even though he continued to run every red light and breeze through stop signs without even slowing, we both managed to reach the Park Blocks at exactly the same time. But it's cool. It's all good, because he was riding a very trendy fixie. And he had a beard. And this is Portland. Man.