Monday, October 22, 2012

The Walls Around Us: a tragedy in two parts

Part 1.

I was bicycling home by myself.  I was on the long straight piece where I can see up the road ahead and, in my rear view mirror, the road behind.  I have a bike lane.  The cars travel fast here but I don't feel unsafe as they have their two or three lanes and I have my skinny little ghetto filled with flat animals and broken glass.

Anyone who bicycles in traffic develops a strong sense of when something is wrong (sociopath at 2 o'clock, evasive maneuvers, cap'n!)  and I am no exception which is how I came to be simultaneously pedaling and trying to figure out what was happening behind me about a half mile back.

It was...a motorcycle.  In the bicycle lane.  Travelling at speed.  It was not a motorcycle darting in and out of the bicycle lane with a warm disregard for anyone's safety, it was a full on "this is the best way to go" motorcycle heading up the bicycle lane scattering bicyclists of all kinds to either side.  The pretties staggered onto the sidewalk, heaving their teal cruisers after themselves.  The roadies forced themselves into traffic.  The elderly Mary Poppin bicyclists stopped and huddled by the curb.  The hipsters stopped and waited for the storm to pass.

Meanwhile the motorcycle accelerated past all the cars on it's left and up the bicycle lane and now it was my turn to make a decision.  I ended up with a sick rabbit thing where I kept pedaling but huddled against the curb, my skinny tires bouncing along the gravel and assorted road junk until the motorcyclist blew by and I got myself back on the steady.

Then of course we are all at a red light together as that's the way this game always goes.  Some asshole nearly kills a bunch of people and we all meet at the next red light.  I notice that the motorcyclist has Colorado license plates.  I memorize the number because I'm good at stupid pet tricks that involve remembering strings of letters and numbers.

Me:  Hey.  You.
Motorcyclist:  [turns towards me]
Me:  Go back to Colorado.

The motorcyclist takes off when the light turns green, moving in front of the other cars until he encounters traffic and then going to his fallback position of travelling in the bicycle lane.  I think about how much I dislike motorcycles.  I think about how loud they are.  I think about how it scares me when they force their way past and I think about how being hit by a motorcyclist would be a lot like being hit by a car.  I think about how I hate it when people equate bicycles and motorcycles as if they were basically the same animal - they're not.

After awhile I think also about how it is always the worst of a tribe that draw attention.  The average motorcyclist doesn't come onto a person's radar like the guy who rides his ugly pig of a machine up the bicycle lane.  The only memorable bicyclist is the one who goes through a red light while a bevy of fat SUVs watch in frustration.  I finish by thinking that vehicles that speed are scary and that if cars pretty much always speed that goes about quadruple for motorcycles.

At least a week goes by during which I am sure that there is no common ground for me between bicycles and motorcycles.  Then I get a message about an accident and I am forced to see things differently.

Friday, October 12, 2012

One day "I didn't see you" will not be an acceptable legal defense.

My youngest (eight years) rides her bicycle to school every day.  This has the usual effect of making me very happy and very terrified at the same time. 

Happy:  so proud! look at my darling daughter!  she loves to bicycle! 
Terrified:  so afraid!  what happens if an SUV comes to close and hurts her!

Through a mixture of my love of bicycling (I really love riding my bicycle) and various strategic defensive practices I  summon enthusiasm for the endeavour and try and minimize danger.  The non-bicyclist responds here with "why do it at all?  don't you have a car?"  Well, we do "it" for a lot of reasons.   We bicycle because if you don't exercise your kids they develop odd nervous behaviours.  We do it because bicycling is a lot more fun than sitting in the backseat of a car and our kids enjoy riding.  We do it because we think it's more right to bicycle a short distance than drive a short distance.  We do it because we think that overall the route is pretty safe.  We do it because we want our kids to learn safe bicycling habits while they are still young enough to respect our opinions.  We do it because we think we can minimize the risk.

How do we (attempt to) minimize risk?

1.  We all wear helmets.  Lately I have been really hating on my helmet so this is a big deal.  I hate the way my helmet blocks some of the sky.  I hate the way it sometimes makes my head itchy.  I wear it anyways.  Some studies show that cars give more room to women with long hair who do not wear helmets but I can't take the risk that I get hit without a helmet and then have to deal with headlines saying "drunk driver hits bicyclist who did not wear a helmet so we know she had it coming, right?  RIGHT?"  I want the headline to read "drunk driver hits bicyclist who was wearing a helmet and no one understands why she was injured anyways."

2.  We ride with the Contraption Captain in front, Rapunzel in the middle, and me in the back.  I stay just to the left of Rapunzel and watch approaching cars carefully.  Fun Fact about being a parent.  You aren't just willing to throw your bike and your body in between your child and a dangerous car, you are GRATEFUL for the chance to be crushed so that your kid can live to adulthood and your only worry is that your death may cause her emotional trauma. 

3.  We are relatively slow.  Even when we have a green light we approach pretty slowly because of the risk that some asshat wanting to take a right at that light will say "hey, I let that big red bicycle go but two more bicyclists is way the hell too many to wait for.  The blonde kid on the 8-gear is going to have to be toast."  Note to that guy?  If you ever touch a hair on her head I will find you and tear your kneecaps out without benefit of anaesthesia.  No, really.  I will. 

4.  We are very law abiding.  This means that yes we stop at stop signs and slow down when we see a yellow light.  Just like those law abiding cars do.  Hahaha!  Just kidding.  The car has not been made that slows down for a yellow light when it is hurling itself towards an extreme mani-pedicure.

5.  ...and I ride somewhat unpredictably.

This last one is kindof new for me.  I've always ridden the "be predictable" horse really hard.  I apply it to crosswalks where I call out bicyclists who ride on the sidewalk and then bounce down into the crosswalk at speed as being a problem.  Google "bicycle predictable" and you get the following front page hits:

Seattle Bicycle Club - Responsible Cyclists Are Predictable

Be Predictable - Being predictable means doing what drivers expect you to do, and not surprising them.

Nice Ride MN - Safety Be predictable. Drivers and walkers need to be able to anticipate your movements.  

Haha and just for contrast you also get this one:

twin city sidewalks: Another Predictable Bicycle Tragedy

So yes.  Talk to bicyclists and they will tell you to be predictable, to do what drivers expect you to do and for crissakes don't surprise the cars or they may turn on you like an angry drunk and crush you into the curb. 

So here's the thing.  I'll be bicycling in the bike lane behind Rapunzel.  I'll notice a car approaching way too fast.  I notice that the car has a wheel in the bike lane and as I watch it swerves in a little closer.  I respond by feigning a small epileptic seizure, I make my bicycle shudder from the left to the right.  I do not leave the bicycle lane but I come up the the line, twitch spasmodically, and then stagger in the direction of the curb.  And while riding my bicycle as if I had centipedes in my helmet (ewww!) I watch the cars in my mirror and guess what:  They get the hell out of the way.  They veer back out of the bicycle lane and turn towards the center of the road.  How come?  Unpredictable bicyclists are weird and scary and it's best to give them extra room because who knows that kind of random bullshit they might get up to.  Unpredictable bicyclists are like the homeless drunk guy who is wandering around in the park unzipping his fly --- you give him some room unless you relish being peed on. 

So all I am saying is, sure, I guess, be predictable.  Don't throw yourself under the wheels of an approaching bus.  But don't be too predictable either.  Every time there is a fresh car to bicycle accident or car to motorcycle or car to pedestrian accident I hear the same old tired refrain.  "I didn't see them."  And then everyone nods understandingly.  "A tragedy.  The car did not see the bicyclist.  Very sad but understandable really."  They do not see because they do not look, so be open to the idea that there will be times when you do not want to be predictable, when you must make them look.  Try this experiment:  when you see a car that is too close in your mirror (you have a mirror, right?) lean towards them, twitch towards them.... and watch what happens, does the car move away?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

off the wagon and rolling downhill very fast

The seasons are exerting their delicate change here in the bay area which means that some mornings are overcast and occasionally my hands get cold if I do not wear gloves.  Soon the time change will come and plunge my commute home into darkness.  I think I'll hand out more lights this year cause it's better to light a candle etc. etc.

I am currently exiting a particularly egregious phase of personal aggression against cars, something I liken to an alcholic having a drink and then going on a binge of pissed-offed-ness.  I know I should be calm and mannerly and I know that if I antagonize the wrong car it might go nuts and tear my leg off but I can't seem to always get a lid on the instinct to let dangerous drivers know that I am unhappy with them. 

So here, for your amusement, my latest instances of going berserk.  Terrible language is ahead (I love bad language and can curse like a sailor) so if you're the easily offended type best be heading over to one of the blogs about how to bicycle and look pretty at the same time.

I'm on my way to work, thinking about a particular problem I am trying to solve and watching the road and the cars.  I am in a bicycle lane.  Ahead is a red light.  I need to make a left turn at that light and so I must cross two lanes and settle myself into the left turn only lane.  I stick out my arm and signal my desire to go left.  I look in my mirror and over my shoulder and a car yields to me and I move over one lane.  I signal more and look more and move over the next lane, at which point an angry minivan stomps on the gas and speeds by me on my right gesturing rudely at me out their open window.  The driver's face says "bicyclists are so dangerous, it's shocking how they act all surprised when cars hit and kill them."  I see the man's arm waving around and I stab in his general direction with my middle-finger because as far as I am concerned he can fuck his bad attiude with a rusted coat hanger if he thinks I don't deserve to make a safe and lawful left hand turn as I commute to work. 

Now we are of course all sitting at the red light that he wanted to get to first.

I'm mad.

I take a deep breath and use my powerful lungs to bellow "I WAS TURNING LEFT, YOU FLACCID DICKED ASSHOLE." 

The parked cars around me all inhale sharply and I realize that the majority of people commuting to work are men.  Their faces convey anxiety.  "Who is this woman and how does she know my dick is limp?"  One gentleman in a yellow convertible has gotten extra of my voice and looks particularly worried. 

I sigh and attempt to clarify, this time shouting "I AM TALKING TO THE HONDA ODYSSEY IN THE RIGHT LANE, NOT THE YELLOW SPORTS CAR."  Everyone turns and stares in the direction of the Honda Odyssey.  I watch, smugly, as he quickly rolls up his window.  Corvette guy spots the Odyssey and then points at it and starts laughing. 

Ok that was bad but also incredibly fun for me.  It totally turned around the feeling of having some disapproving guy with thinning hair chastising me as he revved the engine and passed me way the fuck too close. 

All is quiet for a few days until I am not so much cut off as forced off the road (towards oncoming traffic for those p by an SUV driver speeding towards yet another red light.  I arrive at the red light a few moment later and stare gloomily into her rear view mirror.  She did not so much cut me off as never see me at all.  She's busy with her cell phone.  I frown.  I study the back of her shiny Merceded SUV.  It has one of those family groups on the back:  Daddy in a tie.  Mommy in an apron.  Cute girl with big bow.  Cute boy in shorts.  Dog with tongue hanging out.  "Fuck you and fuck your family" I think to myself.  "Talking on your fucking cell phone when you should be watching out for other people ont he road."  I peer closer at the car.  The family people are not stickers.

They are magnets. 

I brighten.  I lean forward and abruptly pick the Mommy sticker off the back of the SUV and tuck it in my backpack.  The light turns and I pedal away.  Two intersections on I put the Mommy magnet onto the back of a blue Porsche Boxster driven by a doughy man who is busy texting his accountant.  I smile fondly at my handiwork as he guns the engine and drives away.  So yeah, from one Mommy to another?  Fuck you and your thoughtless driving. 

And since we are on the subject, a nod to my active fantasy life...

One day, if all goes well, I will be waiting behind one of those cars with "truck nuts" hanging off the back.  And I will lean forward with my wire cutters and snip-snip.  And then I'll take a picture.  And then I'll toss those balls into the recycling.