Friday, March 10, 2023

Throwing our bodies in front of the machines...

 Two women ran side by side along the edge of Mill Street on this sunny morning in meteorological spring. They were facing traffic, as they should when no other infrastructure is provided, but there is a sidewalk on the other side of that street. I expected them to divert into a parking lot entrance a few yards ahead of them, because that's what pedestrians on that side of Mill Street usually do. Instead, they continued to run up the traffic lane itself, toward the intersection with Main Street, a corner that motorists regularly round as if they're being filmed in a chase scene. It may be a driver yanking a quick left from Main Street southbound or snapping a quick right just past the last parked car on Main Street northbound.

Most motorists are unaware of how fast they're actually going in their machines designed to isolate them from the wind of their passage and the roughness of the pavement. Locked into the flow, we all have a tendency to focus on stopping only where we had already planned to, or wherever circumstances force us to. Drivers scan constantly for objects the same size as their vehicles, or larger.

The runners would have had to pass a retaining wall that gives them nowhere to go except right up the lane past a small building to get to the little section of parking lot beyond. And that section of parking lot is used as the entry to the bigger parking lot behind that small building, by drivers careening off of Main Street. With piles of snow crowding the roadway at that corner, the runners would not be able to walk across the worn dirt and trampled grass for a few yards to get to the sidewalk along Main Street, as they could do in the summer. This would bring them right up to the corner of Main Street itself. I couldn't see them once they passed the lower end of the little building, but I knew what their options were.

Their trajectory didn't end with a screech and a thump. One reason that people continue to do risky things is that they usually get away with it. In my observation, most drivers are aware enough to avoid hitting anyone. But are they happy about it?

Whether drivers are happy to see us doesn't matter unless you encounter the one who is finally having a bad enough day to engage in assault. You can't know who that is. So, if you want to use the roads you have to put yourself out there.

My first thought was that these women were idiots to place themselves at risk like that. But then I considered the challenge of creating traffic systems that accommodate all users. Unless a jurisdiction has the space and the budget to separate all users, we're going to mix. In Wolfeboro, not every street has a sidewalk. People walk where they can, because otherwise they would have to deal with congestion and parking for short hops in the village, which is already crowded with vehicular traffic. And, especially in the summer, the dinky sidewalks are so crowded that pedestrians spill over into the streets, or cross wherever they happen to be.

Pedestrians and bike riders are mobile traffic calmers. We aren't made of concrete. We aren't crash-absorbing barrels, although we will burst on impact, splattering liquid all over the place, if an inattentive motorist plows into us. Drivers know this, too. Most of them don't want to be grossed out like that. So our mere presence serves to remind them to be more alert. Our presence in larger numbers creates friction in their flow, automatically slowing them. Our bodies in front of them confront them with humanity.

The women did not get hit, but they did remind drivers that we exist. Every non-motorized road user reminds drivers and transportation planners that people do something besides drive. I would not have taken the route that they did, nor would I have advised them to do it. And I don't think they did it to make a statement. I think they were pretty oblivious. That makes it an even more powerful demonstration that walkers and pedalers need to figure in planning and in the perceptions of drivers. If no one is seen out there, the people who make the plans don't perceive a need. Drivers happily forget how to act around us. If you hang back and wait for the perfect facility, you will wait a long time. So we throw our bodies in front of the machines.

With Daylight Relocating Time starting this weekend, all I will need is some base miles and halfway decent weather to start the bike commuting season. This used to involve a distinct period of retraining motorists. For some reason, for about the past decade, drivers have seemed to adapt more readily, with less hostility than they used to. That can change at any time, though. No rider on the road can ever assume that the troubles are over. Just be grateful for times when they seem to be suspended. No doubt around here the transition is eased by people like those two women, who just go for it, and by the handful of riders who take every opportunity throughout the winter to grab a quick spin. We owe them reinforcements, these defenders of the people's right to self-propulsion. Not every struggle for freedom fills the news with flames and mass casualties, mobilizing national governments. Your own world is right here for you to shape.

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