Tuesday, August 30, 2016

You'd be wise to stay out of the way

This video of a massive icebreaker cruising into Helsinki in the 1920s stirred up all kinds of thoughts and feelings.

The first thought was, "What is wrong with those idiots? Give that thing some room!" How could the crowding spectators know that the ice would not crack laterally, dumping them into the frigid water? How could the ones skipping beneath the bow know that they would not slip or trip and go for an unplanned dive beneath that charging hull? The propellors would not be kind.

It must have been amazing to stand that close to the beast as it cut through the ice. But it's also the stuff of nightmares.

Whoever was conning the ship wasn't wasting a lot of concern on the people clustered in the vessel's path. That kind of mass is not going to stop or swerve sharply. It was up to the crushable, but highly mobile, people on the ice to keep themselves from being crushed. If one or more had failed to evade, no one would have blamed the icebreaker's skipper and crew.

To the non-riding majority, we who ride our bicycles on the street look like the idiots playing chicken with that icebreaker. Whether an onlooker is rooting for us to fail or hoping that we don't, when a rider gets crushed it seems inevitable, unavoidable, and entirely the responsibility of the small person who should have known better than to impede the great machine. The critical differences are lost in the glaring and deceptive similarities. And not all the similarities are deceptive.

Machines like big ships and railroad locomotives don't have the maneuverability and stopping power of even a large tractor-trailer. The people running around that icebreaker knew it would not accelerate sharply or swerve abruptly. They could calculate its speed and direction intuitively. The little people and the big ship's crew seem unconcerned about each other because they can be. The disparity of the relationship imparts its own stability, barring an unfortunate crack in the ice.

Elements of traffic on a street, road, or highway are closer in size and highly variable in speed, mass, and maneuverability. The aquatic analogy is demonstrated on any crowded lake on a summer weekend: swimmers, paddlers, sailboats, and motorized vessels in a range of sizes dart around like water bugs. The biggest vessels move ponderously compared to the smallest, but everything is more fluid, if you will.

This summer, a bicyclist was crushed by a tractor trailer in Conway. The driver left the scene. The story was misleadingly reported in all media. Initially, the cyclist was portrayed as avid and experienced. The vehicle was not described. The stark facts were that a cyclist was run down and it was hit-and-run. As details emerged, the rider emerged as somewhat less than meticulous in his riding tactics. The truck driver may not have been aware that his vehicle hit someone. A cyclist has to know something about the limitations faced by drivers of various-size vehicles and take the initiative to stay out of danger zones as much as possible.

When drivers talk about cyclists on the road, some of them display a blanket prejudice, while a handful of others display an undiscriminating concern. In between are all the ones who sound like someone trying to describe how they're not a racist, but... They have my sympathy, because cyclist behavior plays a huge role in safety. It will not protect you from someone who has decided you deserve to be killed just for being out there, but it will keep you whole in nearly every other circumstance. Riders who do dumb things provide talking points for the haters and huge anxiety for the compassionate.

Dumb things. On one level, it's dumb to be out there at all, just as it was dumb to run right up to a massive icebreaker charging ahead with its bow designed to crush whatever is in its path. Let's assume also that none of those people needed to be out there to use the ice for their own purposes as the ship came through. That's a critical factor.

When we're using the roads we all pay for, we all have a stake in the infrastructure and deserve benefits from it. These are your tax dollars at work. The methods we use to move greater numbers of people and volumes of cargo have led to the different size vehicles using the public right of way, but it is public, and putatively designed for the use of all.

Debate simmers, seethes, and occasionally rages about who should be included in "all." Money drives. It has a disproportionate voice in design discussions. Meanwhile, in the real world, people find very good reasons to use a bicycle or to walk from place to place. Intelligent life is not always displayed by complete embrace of the most elaborate technology. But money talks. Whether we're talking about preserving the environment that supports all life, caring for the sick, or creating safe walking and biking accommodations in our entire transportation network, if you can't show a monetary gain you will not get anywhere. Tell me again about intelligent life?

A rider in traffic, or on a road where traffic could occur, takes a calculated risk. Any traveler takes a risk, but the cyclist or pedestrian is particularly exposed to other people's judgment. On the other hand, we are particularly free to bend and break rules to improve traffic flow and enhance our safety. It's a thoughtful dance at all times. We are also able to bend and break rules selfishly in ways that unnecessarily antagonize other users, whether we're on the street or a separated path. Bicyclists are in the middle, between those on foot and those in motor vehicles. Did you have any idea that something as simple as riding a bike brought such responsibility with it?

Responsibility is optional. Everything in life is optional. You may choose to stop, rot, and die at any time. You may choose to be a flaming asshole and call it a blazing torch of liberty. Responsibility can be ducked. It can be chucked. It can be ignored. We could go out in a blaze of selfish anarchy. The universe doesn't care. Why should you?

That's a question you have to answer for yourself. Evolution will note the results.


Steve A said...

Well said.

Anonymous said...

The voice in this clip is reading lines from a poem by the Finnish poet Eino Leino, one of the major Finnish poets of the early 20th century. A rough translation:

"We don't live only in the present,/ The past, all things remembered, experiences,/ Live on in us./ Sometimes it happens/ That the past is really/ Stronger than the present."

It would take effort to hammer this into English poetry. It's fine Finnish. Food for thought that it is attached to this video clip.

But: well said indeed, well said.


cafiend said...

Thanks for the info about the poetry, Leo. Not knowing any Finnish, I just figured it was narration for the film. I like the poem. The past is strong indeed.

greatpumpkin said...

That icebreaker still exists as a museum ship in nearly-operational condition.