Wednesday, September 12, 2012

you don't have to live this way

If you were following the 24 hour news cycle about two years back you might have seen a small story about a neighbourhood in San Bruno, California.  It blew up.  The fire was so bad that everyone assumed a plane had crashed.  Paint melted off cars.  The wind-shields on the firetrucks cracked from the heat.  Six people died.  In the end no plane was found and people put together enough pieces to understand that there had been a gas pipe explosion.

Fast forward to the present and PG&E has been on it's best behaviour seeing as even in the US, exploding a town can be considered bad for business.  Numerous repair projects and refurbish projects have come off back burners and are stopping traffic all over the bay area --- including up the road from where I live and along the section of Middlefield that I take to get to work.  When they need to replace those big pipes there's nothing for it but to halt traffic and rip up the road.  What does this mean for bicycles?  Not a lot really.  We skate along in our mostly empty skinny little lane and squeak around the cars on those occasions that our little bit of real estate gets torn up.

Two weeks or so back I saw the worst traffic ever, bar none, on Sand Hill Road.  It was backed up from the 280 all the way to El Camino.  Possibly further.  It wasn't just slow but for much of the time the cars were not moving, a parking lot.  Contraption Captain and I are hurrying home and we wonder what the deal is, so much traffic.  Odd.  Then we spot a broken down car being pushed.  That must be the problem, we think.  But no.  It turns out that this car just lost it's mind in an agony of slowness.  It's being pushed by two humans who are in an agony of back-pain but traffic is so slow that the dead car is not changing the profile around itself.

So what is it?  PG&E working on their repairs.  It was quite a snarl.  It was such a snarl that I saw two helicopters hovering around ostensibly there to airlift the despairing Lamborghinis and Maseratis to safety.  Porsches and Ferraris can go screw of course, those guys are a dime a dozen.  Cars everywhere were sobbing quietly as they wondered where the open empty roads of their relevant car commercials were, who had sold them this bill of goods.  They had thought themselves alone in the world!  And yet here they were on roads that were positively infested with other cars.

I lol'd.  It was so much traffic that at a certain point it just became amusing.  My commute was (of course) the same as it ever was with two mild course corrections.

Course Correction 1:  Cars in parking lot traffic will wedge a wheel into the bicycle lane even if the right turn they are making is four miles further up the road.  This is annoying.

Course Correction 2:  Cars stuck in this kind of traffic get really upset.  They go through all the stages of grief.  Denial "This isn't happening to me!" followed by Rage "This shouldn't be happening to me!" followed by Acceptance "Kill me now."  And then, when the traffic finally clears, they reach a point that grief victims try and avoid:  Retaliation as in "Those fucking bicycles are for it now.  Zooming past me when I was stuck like that..."

So, be careful out there my friends.  And if you are in a car stuck in traffic?  Those bicyclists aren't mocking you, they're showing you the exit.

a now a song snippet for you, with apologies to Gotye:

Now and then I think of all the time I spent in gridlock
Always believing that a car was the only choice
But I don't want to live that way
Stuck in traffic every goddamned day
Now I leave, my car at home
I ride my bicycle, lost ten pounds plus I'm free to roam

Saturday, September 8, 2012

didn't we almost have it all?

My week at work was absolutely horrible (send me an NDA if you want the disgusting and also boring details) but the bicycling was actually quite nice.  It makes me notice, or re-notice, a few things.  One is that most days no one comes close to killing me, that despite a media representation of bicycling being a mode of transportation best suited to people yearning for a (sometimes fast and sometimes slow but always painful) death... mostly it is pretty calm and uneventful.  I pedal, I signal, I turn, I get back into the bicycle lane, I pedal some more, I stop, I continue I meet up with my husband I bicycle home lather rinse repeat.

The other item I notice is that there is a steady backdrop to my bicycling life that like almost anything you see every day is hard to notice.  This backdrop is formed by my route.  It is the changing houses, the 'for sale' signs that come and go, the work that is started and completed, the lights and decorations that get put up and then put away and it is shaped by the people I see and sometimes ride with.  An almost never discussed (that I notice) quality of bicycling over the same route twice a day five days a week is that you get to know the people.  Here are some of mine:
  • The network/software engineering guy whose company (you have not heard of it) was just acquired by vmware so his route has changed and we see each other only in passing.  He is now fabulously wealthy.  I noticed that he has not bought a new bicycle yet.  Wonder if he will get around to that?
  • Cheerful Guy who looks a little like Richard Gere, in fact Palo Alto being Palo Alto he might actually *be* Richard Gere.  We have been waving fondly and calling "good morning!" to each other for some five years now.  During that time we have never been bicycling in the same direction.  We have seen each other carry kids on riders, trail-a-longs, and in wagons.  In a weird very minor way, our kids have grown up together, they are all on their own bicycles now.  Cheerful Guy is always happy, always smiling, in stark contrast to my often sullen self.  I look forward to our high speed minuscule exchange of pleasantries.
  • Sullen woman.  Twice a day every day I see Sullen Woman.  She rides a vintage something or another that I am pretty sure she bought when it was new.  She never wears a helmet because helmets are for pussies, or maybe helmets are for the little people, donno.  We do not acknowledge each other's existence but I'd definitely stop and trash the car that disturbed one thread of her Talbot's clothing.  
  • Guy who lives on Bryant and has a greyhound that he walks every day.  At some point he had seen me ride my bicycle past his house often enough that he noticed me and now we wave to each other every day.  His smile says "I never worry about bicyclists running over my dogs."  My smile says, "It's cool that people still walk places."
  • Big broad-assed woman (actually there are two of these) who wears too tight lycra shorts.  Rides a road bicycle.  Doesn't stop at the 4-way stops.  Finally met up with her on a long straight away with no traffic lights and she trounced me anyways.  Damnit.  
I'll spare you the rest of this for the time being although I don't promise not to return to the subject.  Do you have favorite peeps you see a lot of on your commute?

One of the pleasures of a big company (this week I'm thinking it is possibly the only pleasure of a big company but like I said, rough week) is having co-workers in other countries who like to bicycle.  This is how I came to have staying with me, a few months back, a Dubliner who is a steady bicycle commuter when at home and "has never cared for cars all that much."  

He picked up a temporary bicycle when he got to the US and pedaled home with me (nine miles or so) that night despite his having spent the entire day in what must have been tiring transatlantic travel.  This is also how I know that UK area bicyclists shoal to the left --- not that surprising when you work through which side of the road they drive on but quite a surprise in the US where we shoal to the right.

The next day, after a nice breakfast, my Dubliner friend and the Contraption Captain and Rapunzel and I all set out on bicycle for our respective destinations, which involved pedaling Rapunzel to school first and then the rest of us to our respective offices.  We rode pleasantly along and Dubliner said thoughtfully "Just like on the telly, really."  When I asked him what he meant he explained that on television, American children are always portrayed bicycling or walking to school.


In the US, it is a minority of children who walk or bicycle to school.  In some places it verges on illegal for a kid to bicycle to school.  Unless of course they have a police escort and even then they may be sent home.

But European television is not entirely current (last time I visited) with American television which is why (last time I checked) the Europeans I talk to are also surprised that I am not blonde and that the family does not have a drawer full of guns in case we need to shoot someone.

But once it was true.  Not the guns, but the bicycling.  Once our kids walked and bicycled to school.  We didn't even need special lanes for them.  Schools were closer and cars were fewer.  If at that time we had gone the Dutch route and started building bicycling infrastructure instead of the American route, add tons more cars and faster roads we might today really have it all.  Instead we're fighting to take hold of just a few feet.

One more thought if you're still around.  I'm subbed to a mailing list of area road bicyclists.  Some part of the talk is area rides and another part is bicycle maintenance but a not insignificant piece is surviving the road so a person can live to ride another day.  In such a discussion someone referred to the "bike lane" and then referred to times they find they must ride in the "car lane."  A second person corrected them saying that there was no "car lane" there were public roads.  Before cars there were public roads and people walked on them and biked on them and rode their horses or drove a coach and four or whatever.  It was a road.  You used it to get from point A to point B.  And now?  We have car lanes.

We almost had it all but then we threw it all away.