Thursday, March 22, 2007

S-s-something long from the comments

Reader Nathan posted this extensive comment, which deserves to be a post in its own right, due to length.
Hey cafiend, it's lne_n8.

I ran into this blog via Ze's forum a while back. Then I just caught it again. I was meaning to make a comment.

When I was involved in the biking community in Boston, this sort of thing came up all the time. I'll admit that when I first started bike commuting in the city, I was young and probably much too reckless. I definitely had some close calls that were a result of my speed and style (but the one time I was broadsided by--thank God--a Honda Civic which totalled my bike, it was entirely the driver's inattention that was at fault and he paid plenty for the bike).

As far as the posted commute is concerned. This guy is riding a fixed gear which behaves a little differently than other bicycles. One thing is that you have to maintain momentum because it is more difficult to stop and start. I would wager that this is the principle reason for running the red lights, etc. Also the maneuver of getting in the oncoming lane of traffic before making a left turn is a classic move that, in my opinion, is sometimes safer and always faster than using the left turn lane.

The thing is that there is a delicate balance, I think, between simply getting more bikers out on the street (which is the only way to make a real impact) and trying to teach those bikers to behave responsibly. What I mean is that sometimes even (friendly) chastising is a real downer to someone who's just enjoying the thrill of riding. In my own experience, there is a kind of tough-guy mindset that kept me riding through Boston winters. And I must say that part of it was the sheer aggression of fighting traffic.

While there are hundreds of little technical arguments one could get into about what riding is unsafe and what riding isn't, the main thing is to get more bikes on the streets and force drivers to recognize bicyclists as valid users of the road. The problem I see too often is that road construction and driver habits serve to marginalize the cyclist in addition to inclimate(sic) weather, potholes and all the other things you have to deal with on a typical ride. So the cyclist has to, in effect, fight back. I've banged on hundreds of car hoods and windows to alert rude and unaware drivers of the fact that their large metal machines were putting me in danger.

Again there is a delicate balance between aggravating drivers and educating them. The thing I don't want to do is discourage riders from bicycle commuting by imposing more rules and restrictions on their behavior. What may appear dangerous and unsafe to one person may feel perfectly within the bounds of control for another. And the appeal to traffic laws is pretty weak because there are in fact no traffic laws specifically tailored to bicycles. In general, the law says: stay in a bike lane when there is one, stay off interstate highways and in every other circumstance behave like a car. Keep in mind that this is someone's (presumably daily) commute. He probably knows these intersections like the back of his hand. I'll bet he knows where he can cut corners and where he has to stop and wait.

Where do I start? First off, I have been riding fixed gears since 1975, so I know how the gear works. For city riding I recommend you choose a lowish gear so you can sprint away from stops and maintain a track stand without undue effort. If you can't stop and start easily, maybe you should choose a bike you have truly mastered. See post regarding ethics here.

Second, remember that drivers are in sensory deprivation tanks, while the cyclist has almost infinitely better field of view and maneuverability. You have a responsibility to drive very defensively, the same way a smaller vessel, even a sailing vessel, has some duty to avoid larger vessels, less maneuverable than themselves, when said larger vessels have to operate in a limited fairway.

Third, I understand the warrior mentality. Anyone who wants to launch into the swift waters of traffic riding needs a certain amount of testosterone. Look it up, women have it too, and it does the same thing for them, making any human more intrepid. We need to look beyond the warfare to create a climate in which less intrepid riders can function as well.

Lastly, I do avidly discourage riders from getting into this if their behavior will both get them killed and antagonize an already unsupportive motoring public. Ask most motorists in complete privacy if they'd like to see bicyclists disappear from the roads and a depressingly large majority would say yes. Turning culture around takes a many-pronged effort. And we can't please everyone, especially someone implacably hostile to our kind. But think, think, think how you look. We must, regrettably, consider public relations as well as our own opinions of what is practical and should be permissible.

Be strong, be brave, keep riding and keep thinking.


Fritz said...

Once again you still have readers! :-)

I don't really have a problem with rolling through stops - most motorists don't come to a complete stop either -- but the wholesale flying through red lights and weaving through the cross traffic is just asking for trouble.

Some people are into the whole open defiance thing and that's why they ride a bike in the first place. It's not "normal" and so breaking the law is part of that culture of going up against the man, so to speak.

cafiend said...

I roll through many stop signs and almost no red lights.

Riding a bike at all is weird and different enough. Riding it in a foolish and dangerous fashion just tells the world you're an idiot or a sociopath. Yeah, that's the image I want to project.

I want to win the PR war, not die in a pointless physical one.

Nathan said...

Thanks for mentioning the comment in the main blog.

I hope I haven't come off as a maniacal anarchist. I used to ride the monthly Critical Mass ride in Boston. We had a fair few *real* anarchists on the ride. This caused a great deal of consternation on the part of other riders (you know--they would antagonize drivers, run red lights, the whole bit). While, for my own part, I don't participate in that type of thing, I did appreciate the energy these young riders brought to the group (even if they were a bit aggressive).

Let me just try to separate two aspects of my comment: First, I absolutely agree that as far as educating new riders (and even in my own practice these days--with a wife and a kid on the way), I think the rule is: stop at all red lights, stay in your lane, don't weave through traffic and ride in the correct direction. However, the second aspect has to do with how to respond to those who are already competent, albeit perhaps a bit unsafe, riders. My position is that we let this be. Let's not be divisive within the bicycling community just because we think cycling itself must (in all respects) rise to the moral high ground. I just think that this kind of attitude (which is in fact elitist) is contrary to our shared aim which is to create a big tent for any and all potential cyclists.

For my money it's a bit like anti-war Democrats voting against a resolution to set a timetable for withdrawal because it's not soon enough. It seems to me that this is counterproductive to a movement that hopes to be in the majority.

cafiend said...

We're on the same page in 99% of this. I just don't think it's "elitist" to suggest that people aspire to a more productive, safer, more sustainable behavioral model. I don't demand or require it, but I would be angry if an anarchistic rider forced me into a dangerous situation when I was riding sustainably.

Nathan said...

Fair enough.

My beef may come from a larger concern about activism. Sometimes I feel like the desire to realize an ideal about how the world works causes one to be rigid about that ideal. The long and short of it is I agree with your point: the video should not be taken as an "instructional video," but I think there is room to also admire this guy who had the thought and took the time to film himself riding to work, set it to music and put it up on YouTube. I think this moves in the right direction vis-a-vis making bicycle commuting more visible and more a part of our cultural expectations.