Thursday, November 19, 2009

Close Calls, Politics, Instant Gratification

Sometimes ideas drift in and out of view without forming into solid trains of thought. For instance, on a ride the other day with a less traffic-adjusted rider I noticed that her notion of a close call and mine are somewhat different.

I recalled a time almost 30 years ago when a friend and I ventured onto US 1 South below Alexandria, Virginia. We were trying to put the finishing touches on a hundred-mile ride we had started about ten hours earlier, and we didn't really know the area. We didn't know what we would later know about bypassing the heavily traveled highway on the network of side roads cyclists discover most places. Where such alternatives don't exist, riders make do with the busier routes.

I saw it was a busy highway. I put my head down, stuck my elbow out and aimed to make the best of it. We were only going a few miles, to the next side road we could see on our map.

My friend shouted to me, "This sucks!" over the noise of trucks and the gap I had opened ahead of him. We pulled over to confer. He convinced me to give up on our first plan and ride back up into DC instead. We knew more roads going that way.

A year later he was fully acclimated. That piece of Route 1 wasn't a favorite of local cyclists, but you do what you have to do.

As a champion of cyclists' rights I will join another rider's fight, so I have to remind myself to hold off a second when a traffic novice gets worked up by what looks like a negligent or aggressive driver. From day to day my own comfort zone changes size, too.

Still mulling over the concept of traffic behavior, I was flipping through some old magazines as I cleaned out my office. One of them had an article on the oft-repeated subject of vehicular versus expedient riding styles and the proper way to treat red lights and stop signs.

Again, 30 years ago, when this information was harder to find, even if you were looking, I was making up my own set of traffic-riding principles.

Riding is a political act. That may be the last thing on anyone's mind when they take up the bicycle, but it's true. Especially an adult cyclist takes up political space by choosing to share the public right of way in what has, to some extent, always been an abnormal fashion. Even at the height of various booms in cycling popularity, plenty of people have found the two-wheelers annoying.

We can assert our rights doggedly, but politics ultimately hinges on popularity. Unless you can prove the value of an unpopular stance it will get voted down. An unpopular person will get the boot at the earliest opportunity. Because we not only vote with our wheels, we also ask for the cooperation -- if not support -- of our fellow road users, we are constantly campaigning (or lobbying).

With all that in my busy, under-employed and probably unemployable mind, I cranked doggedly to my various bottom-feeder jobs. I wouldn't take any crap from motorists, but I sensed the value of presenting our struggle on the road as a shared one rather than a battle against each other.

Red lights seemed like a particularly good place to make this point. That's one reason I have tended not to run them. If I could show that I was one with the poor prisoners in their sensory deprivation tanks, held back by Big Brother and his traffic signals, it might make me seem a bit less alien. Yes, indeed, I was a superior being, but I wasn't going to lord it over the lesser folk. Let's face it, superior is not the same as invulnerable. So I would be a sport and play by most of the rules.

Playing by the rules also put me in a better position in case of an accident. That system has worked flawlessly: in each case where I had an accident and suffered injury I did not pay a dime for medical or bike repair expenses. Law enforcement was on my side. One was a bad encounter with a construction site inadequately marked on a dark street. The municipality in question picked up the tab for the emergency room and follow-up care. In the other instance, involving a car, the motorist's insurance covered the injuries their negligence had caused. The insurance company did not balk, faced with a nice, complete report by the officer who covered the scene.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but if I can stack the odds even a little bit in my favor with a simple code of ethics I will do it.

Cyclists are the smallest vehicles in the traffic mix. Pedestrians are the smallest elements in the overall transportation mix, but cyclists mix it up in the traffic flow with the least armor and equipment. Many of us think about traffic volume and vehicle size. Some of us imagine a world with far fewer motor vehicles. But few does not mean none.

I looked out the front windows of the shop on a recent sunny afternoon as two delivery trucks went by on Main Street. Transportation of people and goods has always been a critical part of civilization. From the invention of the wheel and watercraft, machines have evolved with greater speed or cargo capacity, preferably both. Mobile machines served other purposes, such as warfare, but even without armed conflict people want to get themselves and their stuff from place to place as quickly as possible. That crap about enjoying the journey was just a way to get the kids to shut up in the back seat of the covered wagon.

Even if humans suddenly (and without precedent) decided to get sensible, someone would still have to deliver things across great distances. You want railroads again? Say goodbye to all those rail trails built on the abandoned lines. I like rail travel and use it when I can, but it does involve another stage of handling when shipping freight. And eventually that freight hits the streets in some form of truck to reach its ultimate point of interface with the consumer. Sitting in that truck is some poor bastard whose job it is to drive, drive, drive.

In my Utopia, everyone gets free time every day, work weeks are short for individuals, even if businesses operate seven days a week. It's not like we have a shortage of people to work the various shifts. But for such a system to succeed we would have to redesign our payment methods and possibly spend a bit more overall on labor. Improved quality of life comes at a price. But then, so does deteriorated quality of life. Are we going to be grumpy, overworked or unemployed, rushed, hyper-competitive human time bombs or are we going to learn to relax and cut each other some slack? At the moment, we tend more toward the time bomb.

As the Industrial Age progressed, management looked for people who would sell their lives cheaply for the sake of bare subsistence. The accounting department liked that. The negotiation continues to this day. One side or the other enjoys gains or deals with losses, but the vast majority of economic fluctuation stems from this push and pull. The rest comes from suppliers of goods and services arm wrestling over who is going to get to jack their prices how much for a quick surge of profit. While all this macroeconomics goes on, regular bozos are just trying to live their lives.

Some of us ride bikes. It seems so sensible at first: fresh air, exercise, transportation, recreation, all rolled into one activity. I came to the 1970s ten-speed boom a little late. Never the hippest cat on the block, I found most social trends later than my peers. So I figured that what I was realizing about the bicycle must be well known to almost everyone else. Imagine my surprise to discover that so much of it was unknown, unsuspected and unwelcome. But it remains nonetheless true, and since it is true I cannot abandon it. I can only promote it.

For various reasons I cannot use a bike year-round. This helps me retain a realistic perspective on transportation, because there will be motor vehicles as long as humans can figure out a way to propel them, whether it's batteries or bottled farts. It's hard to feel worthy during driving season when I read about my fellow cyclists doing the winter thing. Just remember not everyone can do it, regardless of whether they would. When I could, I did.


RANTWICK said...

So this is what was percolating... man, there's a lot in there. I'm going to have to read it a couple more times!

"Hard to feel worthy"? You are a smart, thoughtful writer and obviously are a dedicated rider. I ride through the winter, but I drive almost every day of the year for one reason or another too. How the full-time car-free people pull it off I'm not quite sure. I'll do my best to enjoy winter riding for both of us this year; still waiting for the first snow.

cafiend said...

Thank you, Mr. Rantwick! I sincerely appreciate the encouragement. I ride alone most of the time and work more or less alone much of the time, so I don't know how readers will react until I toss it out there. It entertains me when I'm talking to myself, but good reviews make it better.

Anonymous said...
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Ron George said...

I'm drinking a cup of tea and reading this and I don't know what to call better, the tea or your prose. If this is any encouragement, I feel the same way you do on several traffic topics in cycling. I see bloggers I follow who're so vehement against motorists and have an almost religious stance for cycling that I can't stand it. As I will always say, live and let live. In the meantime, carry on this tradition of biking by leaps and bounds and it will get there. The problem with us cyclists is that we expect too much too soon. When we get it, we abuse it. I sometimes feel the cycling movement is its own enemy.

Back to drinking tea now! Keep blogging!

Ron George said...
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cafiend said...

Ron -- Thanks! I guess I'll keep hittin' the keyboard.

I have believed for years that the best thing anyone can do for cycling is to ride. Get out there, claim a space, use it fairly and pave the way for other cyclists to follow. When it gets really political and confrontational you scare as many people as you convert. Sounds like you're leaning the same way. Have fun out there.