Friday, August 10, 2012

an invitation

I've been trying to write about this for weeks and now here it is, do or die time.  I have much I want to complain about but I have to get this idea of an invitation off my plate before I can move back to kicking the tires of passing cars and hurting my long-suffering feet.

Awhile back I read an article in Salon with the dubious title of Are urban bicyclists just elite snobs?  I died a little inside when I saw the title.  I'm so tired out by the sentiment there, the shrill postulating about snobs and "bicycle entitlement."  For the record: Yes.  I feel entitled.  I feel entitled to bicycle to work or the shops or a soccer game without being mauled by a behemoth SUV.  Sue me if you think that makes me a snob.

But the article was nothing like the title and I loved what I read which was thoughtful and articulate and which ultimately answered the question asked in the the way I'd want it to be answered: "No.  Not elite snobs.  Just trying to get somewhere in one piece, same as you."

The article has stayed on my mind, at times distractingly so, for one particular bit:

Like many of today’s bicyclists, I started riding when my city striped a bike lane near my apartment. It was the Prospect Park West bike lane, which became ground zero in New York’s bike wars. The lane was what made me first realize that biking to work was an option — I didn’t feel forced, but I did feel nudged, as if the city was suggesting that maybe I’d like to give this a whirl. I think this is the true power of bicycle infrastructure: It’s an implicit message that bikes are real transportation, and an advertisement for biking that runs right through the city in bright green paint.

I keep thinking about the above because I had never realized the truth of it before.  Bicycle lanes act as an invitation to people, they are an explicit statement to everyone that here is a place where a person could be bicycling.  It is not just the bicycle lanes that create the implicit message though because if those lanes never had any bicyclists in them they would eventually become just another invisible piece of road art, kindof like those stupid Share The Road signs that every car sees and no car pays attention to.  Build bicycle lanes and the bicycles will come, when the bicyclists start showing up they draw other bicyclists and this is the way commuting to work changes from a dirty dangerous race to something that can be sublime and beautiful and at the last which doesn't leave flat animals in it's path.

The bicyclists is the invitation.  If you are on a bicycle, you are an invitation.  The lunatic bit is that even a middle-aged mother with a bad attitude can be an invitation to the people around her to get a bicycle and try and bicycle in to work.  This is because people respond to people they can relate to and some of the people out there relate to a surly failed roadie like myself because all invitations are needed and it is impossible to tell what particular invitation will work on a person.  Mothers and father, young studs and pretty fashionistas, little kids and old ladies, recumbents and tricycles and road bicycles.  All the bicyclists need to be represented out there because every bicyclist has a car-driving doppelganger waiting to be inspired.

Bicyclists are so accustomed to feeling invisible (unpleasantly so) that it is easy to forget that to a certain population we are incredibly visible --- the people who are thinking about bicycling see us and study us and imagine themselves on a bicycle riding along.  They wonder if they could do it.  They wonder if we have a magic pill that protects us from the SUVs.  They wonder if they'd get sweaty and if their co-workers would make fun of them.  They wonder where to buy a nice bicycle and if they can afford a nice bicycle.  They wonder if they would finally lose that 15 pounds they put on after college or after the baby or whatever.  When they see us, it starts them wondering.

A woman up the street told me that she sees the Contraption Captain and I every day as she drives to work and we pedal to work.  At the intersection of the Alameda and Sand Hill she sees us leaning our heads close together as we talk and laugh and kiss each other.  She told me:  I see you and I think "I should be bicycling with my husband, that would be good."  She tells me this and I agree "You should!  Why not ride in with him and then run some errands?"  I watch her as she thinks about the idea.

Guy across the street is a fabulous runner.  I asked him if he biked to work and she shook his head saying that he did not.  His bicycle doesn't really fit quite right and it seems like effort and and and.  I told him "it will improve your times, it's easy, and for crissakes get yourself a bicycle that fits."  Then one day there he was, in my rear view mirror, scanning the traffic at an intersection and looking ten years younger for some reason and when he caught up to me he smiled and offered "This is pretty good, isn't it.  I like this."

On the way home from work I stop at a stop sign and then turn left and bicycle past a long line of cars waiting to get onto the 101 which is so backed up that they can't even get on the highway without waiting.  Every single driver, I kid you not, turns and looks at me as I bicycle away in the other direction.  Some are thinking "I'd hit that" and some are thinking "She's not hot" and some are thinking "What a crap day I had" and some are thinking "bicycle helmets are so dorky" but one or two of them, maybe more are thinking "How far is it into the office?  I could do that.  I should do that.  One of these days, I'm going to do that.  I'll be the one outside in the California sun pedaling past the cars that are stuck in traffic."


  1. Great post Chafed! I read the link -It was a nice piece as well.

    I think the sentiment boils down to one thing. Laziness. The cars see us riding and they know in most cases) they could and should be doing the same. The oil-dependency thing has been going on for a while now and everybody knows it but it will take a while to undo that hundred year old habit. Our just being out there riding is kind of like an "I told you so!" to the cars. The whole smug entitlement thing is just an excuse and like the article states -a good way to sell the story.

    I like to think we are on the cusp of big changes and it does feel good to be on the "right" side of things and setting the example. I'm seeing more bicycle commuters even in my small midwestern town and that makes me happy. The message is starting to get out there.

    1. I'm so glad you made it through all the typoes =( Admittedly the one where the wife shakes her husband's head is kindof funny ;-)

      I too am hoping for big changes. Hearing that there are more commuters in your town makes me happy also, gives me cause for optimism. I know without a doubt that your bicycling has contributed to those numbers increasing.

  2. Great post!

    I'm about half way through reading your archives and finding your writing very cathartic. I'm a father of three who takes his kids to school by bike and commutes to an office in Bristol, UK.

    Like all bicyclists I have a changeable and somewhat tempestuous relationship with motor traffic and your blog has helped put some of my anger in a better place and have a good laugh.

    I absolutely love your idea of us all having our dopplegangers, waiting for a suitable invitation that speaks to them and allows them to believe its possible for them to step out of their death machines.

    When working for a large finance firm about five years ago I revelled in riding in 6 lanes of traffic in rather flashy suits on a commuter hybrid converted to an upright with BMX bars. Thinking all the while, 'look, look at my cream linen suit, don't I look fine!' and hoping, just hoping that I was riding that wave of change.

    I cant believe I've only just commented for the first time, your post describing Contraption Captain getting you back on a bike again made me cry!

    Stay Awesome!