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.

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