Sunday, May 01, 2011

Spring Retraining

Life is war. Despite all protestations of peace and love, nothing reminds you that humans really don't like each other more than a simple bike ride during the early season.

After months of having the road to themselves, drivers have to get used to seeing cyclists again. We the cyclists have to reestablish our claim by using the road, while a certain number of the motorists try to discourage us from doing so.

This year, drivers of large pickup trucks seem to be trying to see how close they can brush a cyclist regardless of the rider's lane position. Few of them honk. No one has yelled. The offenders have passed with inches to spare when they had ample room to shift over, or have blasted through dangerous gaps at the risk of collision not only with the cyclist but with the oncoming motorists they have forced to the curb. It's not just me. Most of the cyclists I know have reported that behavior.

Every morning news broadcast brings reports of motor vehicle accidents causing injury or death to the motorists. Motorists are not a unified bloc set against cyclists. Driving behavior simply points out the pervasive selfishness of people that finds its expression on the road.

Not enough people want to ride bikes for transportation to make high-quality infrastructure engineering worth the money. If people felt safer from traffic, more of them would ride, but probably not in impressive numbers. I wish that was not true. I doubt the theory will ever be tested, because I doubt that this country or any significant portions thereof will ever make the investment to find out. So we're left with our imperfect system. Cyclists stitch together what routes they can and endure continuous harassment.

Most drivers pass a cyclist at what they think is the safest distance they can manage without slowing down. A traffic herding cyclist can force them to slow down and plan a little better, but most of them will still take chances around a cyclist that they would not take around a slow-moving motorized vehicle. Size matters. So does the perception of speed. A motorist knows that a cyclist probably will never catch them to retaliate for any aggression on the open road or a fairly fast-flowing street.

Whenever possible I release the following vehicles if they have not already pushed past. Unfortunately, certain sections of road do not offer this opportunity soon enough to satisfy an aggressive driver. Most drivers don't appreciate that a cyclist is working hard to get them through a bottleneck at 20 miles per hour when 30 miles per hour already feels creepingly slow to them.

One stressful section of my morning route runs parallel to the notorious rail trail in Wolfe City. Unfortunately, that trail is clotted with pedestrians and cyclists at almost any daylight hour during the milder seasons. The clumps of strolling humanity can bring a rider nearly to a stop. Riders meeting from opposite directions have to fit past each other with inches of clearance between their handlebars. Overtaking a slower cyclist is similarly tricky. Then when a rider wants to rejoin the street flow it means ratcheting up to full combat readiness instantly. The sight of cyclists in the cross walk also reinforces the stereotype in motorists' minds that cyclists belong on a segregated play path.

My evening route winds out through a different set of streets and roads to avoid the uphill grind through the stressful, curb-lined canyon of Center Street. That does not mean it's vastly better, only somewhat better. The route still grinds up a grade, slowing my speed relative to traffic. The road is narrow enough to require gate-keeping. Impatient drivers get pushy. Some display obvious anger with horn or words while others satisfy themselves by passing with a noisy downshift and abrupt swerves.

As I age, regular exercise is more and more vital to maintain vitality. As I negotiate the shaky economy and my own questionable life choices, I can really use the money I save by riding instead of driving most of the time. However, the human race being what it is, I have to fight just as hard as ever for benefits I thought anyone would be glad to join me in claiming. Most people don't see the sense of it. They just see an obstinate jerk who could drive like a normal person if he wanted to. Who would want to be that guy?


Steve A said...

IMO, motorists generally treat each other far worse than they treat cyclists. Though I admit to getting frequently irritated lately by motorist behavior at one particular left turn on my commute.

cafiend said...

Steve, that's what I was getting at when I mentioned the daily news reports of traffic crashes. People are just relentless out there. It's all a mad rush to cram as much in as you can before someone kills you or you get an expensive and untreatable disease. We all needed to back off starting about 40 years ago. As a species we're long overdue now.