>bikes & cars

>I feel I must write this.

Yesterday I went on a bike ride (23 miles) that took me through the country. It was a beautiful morning and the ride was great. But there was an incident that got me mad. I was on a straight stretch of country road with no usable shoulder. This meant I had to ride just to the left of the white line. Everything was going well until a loan motorist decided to come as close as he could to me (about 6 inches) at 60+ mph and then blare his horn as he passed. Then as he barreled down the road his hand came out of his window and flipped me off. I did not get his license plate number. If I had I might have called the police to say the motorist tried to kill me. My speed increased by almost 2 miles an hour for about 15 minutes as my anger boiled inside me. Then my rage subsided and I rode home. Except for that one motorist it was a truly great ride. However, in the future I will consider riding with a local bike group rather than alone.

What I find interesting is that in the past two weeks I’ve had two other “incidents” with cars on my daily commute to and from work. The first was a woman in a white Lexus SUV (I’m sure she takes it 4-wheelin’ on the weekends) who was talking on her cell phone and waiting to enter traffic. As I came down the street in the bike lane she looked right at me and then decide to pull out into traffic anyway. I had to hit my brakes hard in order not to hit her. The other was about four days ago. Another woman on a cell phone in another SUV. I was entering the crosswalk on my bike. The light was in my favor. She came up on my left and then made a sudden right hand turn right in from of me through the crosswalk, cutting off my path and forcing me to hit my brakes. I missed hitting her by only a couple of inches. In all three of these cases I was in the right, playing by the rules, and if the situations had been even slightly different I would be dead or very injured. Being in the right doesn’t mean much for the cyclist when the other vehicle is a car or truck.

What is going on?

I see other signs of bicycle disregard. Cars park in bike lanes. Road crews use bike lanes to put out their road construction signs. Bike lanes are perennially filled with debris or resident’s garbage cans or piles of leaves. Cars pull into bike lanes to make turns. The list goes on. But of course I live in a country that is designed to get a car within at least 50 feet of anyplace a person might want to go. Our houses look like they are made for cars to live in along with their servants. Our lives are designed around cars. Our cities are designed around cars. Our economy is designed around cars. And yet we suffer in many ways because of cars. Don’t get me wrong. I have a car and use it. I need it, in fact. But I recognize our society’s mindset is wrapped around the supremacy of the automobile. It only takes a few days of commuting on a bike to realize that fact.

I read a recent article that compared the general attitude towards cyclists in the U.S. and Europe. The article used the interesting fact that in Europe truckers encourage cyclists to grab on to their rigs and get pulled over hills, whereas in the U.S. truckers try to run cyclists off the road. The article went on to say this is because in Europe professional cycling is seen as a working class option to “get out” and improve one’s life – kind of like boxing in the U.S. But there is more I think. There are just more people on bicycles in Europe. It’s part of their culture and part of their economy. In the U.S. bicycling is for kids and joyriding adults. It’s not serious or necessary to either life or our economy. This means, in part, that bicyclists don’t have to be taken seriously. I live in a city that is considered bike friendly. Yet sometimes I get the impression that many think the bike lanes are their as a courtesy and us cyclists should be grateful that at least we are allowed to exist at the margins.

Studies have shown that motorists tend to view cyclists as an “out group”. Put simply, motorists subconsciously see themselves as part of a group (motorists) and they hold negative views of a group they view is inferior (cyclists). This is a typical minimal group paradigm scenario.1 Not all motorists do this, but the majority do so subconsciously. Other studies have shown that the provision of bicycle lanes appears to “increase driver confidence and, hence, potentially risky behaviour, such as higher vehicle speeds and less speed reduction when encountering cyclists.”2 In other words, motorists tend to drive faster and with less regard for cyclists if the cyclists have their own lane. This may seem to make sense until one considers the consequences of a human body and a three ton car. Plus bike lanes are often inadequate, too narrow, and don’t interface well with the rest of traffic. If one is pulling a bike trailer carrying children then bike lanes are far too narrow. This is not good if motorists think the road belongs solely to them and it is the cyclist’s job to keep out of the way.3

I am not an angry person and I tend to say live and let live. But I am beginning to think of getting the license plate number of every driver who is reckless around non-reckless bicyclists and calling it in.

1 Part of this paradigm is to attribute the negative behavior of a few to all. Sometimes a person will claim that bicyclists are the ones at fault because they are reckless, don’t stop at lights, weave around in traffic, etc. But most cyclists follow the rules very well. And don’t forget those rules are, in large part, designed around the needs of automobiles and to control reckless motorists (of which there are many) rather than cyclists. Also, there is a world of difference between the mother riding safely in the bike lane, pulling her trailer with her kids, and the 20 something joyriding derelict recklessly cutting off cars. Yet many motorists don’t, or can’t, make the distinction – all cyclist are the same in many people’s eyes, they are part of that “out group”.

2 Basford, L; Reid, S; Lester, T; Thomson, J (2002), Drivers’ perceptions of cyclists, Report, 549, TRL Limited, pp. 38, OCLC 51283575

3 Years ago, when I first began commuting on a bike to work, I noticed myself becoming much more aware of cyclists whenever I drove my car. I was surprise by how much I previously did not care about, or even notice cyclists or their needs. It was a kind of paradigm shift for me. I came to the conclusion that everyone should commute in their city some of the time in order to reorient their minds to the greater word they live in.

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