When the Bad Guys Ride Bikes – Another View

Summary

Some additional background reading: http://chicago.everyblock.com/announcements/jul09-bikers-watch-you-re-going-5125339/

Shutterstock

Thanks to the wag on ChainLink who posted the link to the article from which this title was stolen. The summary version is that a bicyclist and a pedestrian collided with very bad results. The author has decided to take sides in this debate and it is clear which one she prefers. If you were to have seen a similar article written by a ChainLink denizen regarding a bicyclist and a motorist the title would have been similar. It might have read “When the Bad Guys Drive Cars”. Neither viewpoint really gets at the sources of the problems that plague what is now known as Alternate Transportation Modes, and that is the relative speeds of the modes.

If all three (automobile, bicycle and pedestrians) could travel at similar rates things might be a great deal different. You could walk alongside a super highway and because you could do upwards of 100 MPH without having to expend money for gasoline you would probably see lots more people using their foot power to get them to work. And of course of bicycles were able to travel at that rate of speed cycling would be more popular. People would reckon that traveling around the city as fast as cars could go would mean that because they usually blow through intersections on their bikes despite the color of the light or the sign, they could get to work all the faster and even handle themselves in “rough neighborhoods” by simply outrunning the thugs.

But wait, that would mean that thugs too could travel faster just like the good guys. And if bikes were faster than would mean that the chance for entering an intersection while the light was red and sneaking through would be much more problematic because cars and pedestrians and cyclists would all be moving at warp speed and crashes would go up and the losers here would be the cyclists and pedestrians. Why? Simple, they have less protection.

So Let’s Hit Rewind

If closing the speed gap between these three modes of travel has the potential of actually creating more problems, then what? Well the solution is simple. We need to ask ourselves why crashes occur in the first instance. We need to stop assigning automatic blame to anyone not traveling using our preferred transportation mode. Otherwise some wag is going to suggest that an Automotive Mass Ride be held on the same Friday each month as the Critical Mass Ride and that its members travel the same route, only with half of them at the head of the Critical Mass peloton and the other half bringing up the rear.

And then you will see driver using “safety bumps” to help bicyclists operate their vehicles in what they (the motorists) feel is a more safe manner. From the points of view of each of the first two transportation mode users (i.e. motorists and bicyclists) the slower mode is always an impediment to their progress. And of course the obverse is true, the slower modes always feel that the high rate modes of transportation are the ones at fault whenever a crash occurs.

Solutions That Have Been Tried

The current method of separating the alternate modes of travel is to outlaw the slower ones in specific situations. For instance you can’t drive your car on the sidewalk or down the Lakefront Path. Those places are reserved for slower traffic modes. And of course you are only allowed to ride the Lake Shore Drive if you are either an automobile or once a year as a cyclist on Bike The Drive.

But there are situations where bicycles and automobiles have to coexist. Streets in cities and towns are likely examples of this. There is a move on to separate the different speed modes by virtue of artificial lanes. Someone comes along and paints a graphic symbol on the pavement and adds a few white lines and perhaps a green background to this area and voila you have a bicycle lane. And if you want to get über fancy you can add plastic bollards that intensify the visual separation of the lanes and that is considered an improvement. But as cyclists have noted automobiles and buses are just as likely to crash through the plastic bollards in an attempt to use the lane to reach parking or a curb where a pedestrian passenger is seeking to board.

Where elevated rail lines have been abandoned it is being suggested that these areas be turned into bicycle and pedestrian routes which because of their elevation are isolated from motorist traffic and thus far safer. But of course thugs are going to discover these elevated areas and use them as sources of “fresh meat” when seeking to conduct street crimes.

And surely at least one or two cyclists a year will veering over the railing of such elevated areas to fall to injury and or death below. And that of course will no doubt happen onto a busy street where automobile traffic leasts expects it. You can of course add chain link fencing to prevent this sort of thing (e.g. the sort of thing done on pedestrian overpasses along highways leading into inner cities). But some enterprising person is always going to find a way to spoil things for everyone else. And that is the real source of the problem.

Myopic Living Is Dangerous

No mode of transportation is ever completely safe. Cars find ways to hurdle barriers on highways to lunge headlong into one another. Drivers manage to jump curbs and hit pedestrians. Pedestrians love to cross busy streets somewhere other than the corners. Cyclists cannot be bothered to wait at intersections when the lights are red and so move onto pedestrian crossings to camouflage their illegal behaviors while trying to sneak through an intersection.

Regardless of the transportation mode folks insist on traveling under the influence of either alcohol, drugs, makeup applications, newspapers, radio music sessions or smartphones. In short we are a self-absorbed society where the only really truly important people in it are us. We insist on riding motorcycles without helmets. We also insist on being able to do the same thing on bicycles.

Whenever we enter a situation where there is a transportation mode that is slower than ours we develop a sense of contempt at being prevented from hurtling forward at a speed more consistent with our ambitions. So paths and lakefront trails are a study in disaster at times. Walkers ignore any and all traffic approaching from the rear and do so while taking up the entirety of the lane shared by everyone there.

Cyclists insist on being able to do time trials at any and all times of the day at speeds that are clearly inconsistent with their safety when traveling in the midst of pedestrians and toddlers. The whole thing is a nightmare unless everyone is willing to take a deep breath and consider the next person.

There are two kinds of persons in this world:

  • Adults (people who understand that bigger picture and act accordingly because the consequences of not doing so results in possible injury or death.)
  • Juveniles (people who regardless of their chronological age are trapped in a singularly myopic approach to living in a world where cooperation is essential for their collective safety.)

If you insist on trying to force the other guy to bend to your will then you perpetuate the myth that have a regularly scheduled act of civil disobedience with a clever name like say Critical Mass is the only proper solution. But in reality cyclists, motorists and pedestrians ought to understand the concessions that have to make to coexist and then practice them religiously. How much more useful would a monthly Safety Ride be over and against a protest ride?

Riders of all skill levels need to know how to negotiate city streets. After all we are forbidden to ride sidewalks beyond the age of twelve. So knowing how to ride in a single file using a bike lane where possible or otherwise coexisting with automotive traffic would be more beneficial (in my mind) that conducting an alcohol-fueled evening sortie through the streets of a city in an attempt to deliberately impede the traffic of automobiles and possibly pedestrians. That does not win you points or understanding from the users of other transportation modes.

Self Analysis

Sometimes I find that my estimation of the number of folks on the ChainLink who are actual adult thinkers is far too low. I guess that the number of vocal members drowns out the Silent Majority or perhaps they simply do not feel as comfortable sharing their views as the others. But at any rate during the course of the thread after which this post is named I came across some interesting discourse concerning the causes of myopic thinking regarding cycling.

Background Reading: http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/story/2012-07-10/individualist-language-in-books/56134152/1

Here are a couple of examples:

Permalink Reply by David Barish 8 hours ago

The LFP is not a good place to evaluate the local cycling community. More often than not it is the refuge of the dilettantes. They ride in their own world, head down, with headphones on a bike suited for a time trial, in an effort to win the Walter Mitty Criterium. On the streets you will find a better sample. Even the cyclist you find cutting across an intersection will notice you and is likely to respond to you. Yes, you will find the bro with a phone, a Corona and a backwards Cubs hat. He is more a part of the urban landscape than a part of the cycling community. The renewed popularity of cycling brings more riders (yeah) and many of them inexperienced or worse (boo).

Permalink Reply by Derek 8 hours ago

My 2 cents on “bad cyclist behavior”:

I started out as a timid cyclist in the loop but after figuring out a few normal routes, timing on lights, traffic patterns and gained some leg strength aggressive riding seemed to simply be safer. Also every time I get on my bike in the loop my body goes on hyper alert status until I get to Milwaukee Ave and then it switches down to super alert. Do that long enough and cars and people alike look like the enemy, objects to be avoided that can not be trusted to act consistently. It’s a lot easier to treat an object like poo than a person.

The second of these two thread replies was the one that caught my eye. It brought to mind my own personal experiences with having moved to the suburbs of Chicago to attend college and suddenly discovering myself in a world where the night sky was far more brilliant than anything I had seen before (short of the sky over Camp Beard on the Owassipe Boy Scout Reservation).

It was not until my youngest sister and her seven children came to visit our home and I heard them exclaiming about how “unsafe” they felt being in a neighborhood with so little street lighting that I remembered my early days at Wheaton College and how different it felt to hear crickets and cicadas chirping at night and smelling freshly mown grass underfoot.

My maternal grandmother had me visit her home in Birmingham, AL each summer as a child. I would either ride down with her or one or two occasions my parents would put me on the train with a boxed lunch of fried chicken and biscuits (blacks were not allowed to buy food in the same places in the South as whites in those days, so you carried your own food just in case there were no enterprising blacks who came to the train station seeking to serve travelers from the North). When I reached my destination my grandparents would pick me up and we would travel to their home by cab or bus. Few blacks owned cars in the South during this period and most used public transportation which was segregated.

At night you could run around on the street in front of her house (I was probably 8-10 years of age) capturing lightning bugs and placing them in jars. You could see moths and hear cicadas there as well. But the sky over Birmingham was simply dazzling. And not more than a half mile from her home the creek produced carp and snapping turtles. The folks living across from her had a small farm and they grew chickens and pigs and planted small crops. I saw my first and only hog butchered while tethered to a tree just in front of their barn.

For the summer they roasted a pig in a trough of coals and after many hours of cooking it was served to those who wanted a fresh pork sandwich. You had to pay for the privilege but it was possible to taste the freshest possible pork of your life. Life then and there was a bit slower than it is in some Chicago suburbs. And if you head west to places like Elburn and beyond it slows further still.

Living In A High Stimulus Environments

Let me commend to you by way of background reading the book:

Quiet
The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking
by Susan Cain

There is a very fascinating article that goes along with the book titled:
Quiet, Please: Unleashing ‘The Power Of Introverts’

A brief excerpt for the article:

“From Gandhi to Joe DiMaggio to Mother Teresa to Bill Gates, introverts have done a lot of good work in the world. But being quiet, introverted or shy was sometimes looked at as a problem to overcome.

In the 1940s and ’50s the message to most Americans was: Don’t be shy. And in today’s era of reality television, Twitter and widespread self-promotion, it seems that cultural mandate is in overdrive.

Susan Cain — who considers herself an introvert — has written a new book that tells the story of how introversion fell out of style. She talks with NPR’s Audie Cornish about Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.”

(Note: included in the article is a a nearly 8 minute long audio clip which is well worth listening to.)

So why should you give a hoot about introverts and quiet settings like the suburbs? Well it helps to explain the effect that high stimulus areas like Chicago’s neighborhoods have on people. Introverts are probably least likely to respond well to these high stimulus environments. Extroverts (at least some) may seem to thrive in them. But for the most part a certain level of anxiety is pretty normal when one considers that the area you are about to ride through had a homicide over the weekend.

And having confrontations with “urban youth” can be troublesome if you have up until that time had little personal interaction with people of either different ethnic, racial or cultural backgrounds than your own. Kids who move to the big bad city have to learn that being too open can place you at a disadvantage in terms of being aware of your surroundings. Not everyone who says hello or offers to help you carry your bags upstairs to your apartment is simply helpful and friendly. Some are downright mean and yet others deadly.

It does not help to have ChainLink members define black neighborhoods as “sh*tholes”. It merely confirms the stereotypes that your parents used when warning you about people of color. And even if you spend all your time on the North Side and see few if any blacks you are more than likely to detect that there is a level of unfriendliness that borders on distrust when confronting strangers.

You are more than likely to develop a set of friends who like yourself are single, needing companionship and unwilling to be isolated. But frankly the singles scene just about everywhere suburbs or city revolves around alcohol and that has its own set of issues when abuse creeps in.

So when you start biking for the first time you are intimidated by the hustle and bustle of the streets. You find yourself a bit like an inmate in a prison who suddenly realizes that to cope with the situation of your surroundings you are going to have to appear as tough as the other guys in your cell block. Otherwise you become the “patsy”.

And not unlike prison to get along you have to go along. Critical Mass has a purpose but it does not serve to do much more than allow individuals who have felt somewhat powerless against motorized traffic to strike a blow for their self-esteem in a certain of protest. It really does not make you a more confident person in tricky traffic situations because there is really no training component to the ride. It is simply a chance for some folks who have been drinking for the better part of the afternoon to get on a bike and ride around blocking traffic and pissing off motorists.

Instead a ride which resulted in practical training on:

  • how to fix flats,
  • change inner tubes,
  • adjust brakes,
  • pick a proper bicycle,
  • adjust the one you have to fit you better,
  • deal with dangerous traffic conditions
  • connect with folks who ride into and out of the city on routes they have found to be safe
  • help you increase your endurance and stamina while cycling
  • learn the valuable Rules of the Road as they apply to Chicago cycling
  • perform outreach work in those very areas that you feel unsafe riding through
  • help stimulate the cycling ethic among people of color who might not yet have thought of recreational cycling as an option
  • create a blog about all the skills you have developed in your year-round commuting
  • organize a group from your neck of the woods to compete for mileage honors during Bike to Work Week
  • coordinate cleanup crews to help the trails in your area to remain viable alternatives to busy streets
  • plan get togethers with other cyclists which don’t necessarily have to revolve around alcohol
  • ride to restaurants and movie theaters or plan campouts with your new friends in regions far from Chicago
  • build a repository of bicycle routes that can be printed out as cue sheets or downloaded into GPS units

Some of the things mentioned are already being done. But the sorely lacking component of the monthly ride format known as Critical Mass is the one where newbies learn to be self-sufficient when traveling along. That is not to my mind simply a steely determination to venture out on busy streets while choking down your fear of heavy traffic. I am instead talking about learning how to access routes that others have deemed safe and to learn to add your own. Feel confident in leading rides yourself.

When you can feel pretty confident that your bicycle’s mechanical nature is no longer a complete mystery to you and can be shared with stranded bicyclists you encounter on your way into or out of the city, then you have made a great leap forward.

Turn That Fear Into Empowerment

When you can take the time to organize an interfaith ride or even an multi-neighborhood ride that passes through all parts of the city and where everyone in attendance feels comfortable you have made a great leap forward. But my hope it that the ride is conducted on the basis of coexistence between not only the participants but between the motorists you encounter as well as the pedestrians. Any group of truly skilled urban cyclists should be able to safely and comfortably navigate the Chicago Lakefront Trail without too much trouble. And when a problem does crop up it would be wonderful if there was a debriefing to analyze how the situation was handled.

Everyone learns and cyclists begin to be less myopic and begin to understand that a good deal of the problem with cycling has to do with ignorance on everyone’s part. When you can offer more than heated objections to attempts to improve the traffic congestion so that all modes of transportation are accommodated that represents a great leap forward.

And while we are at it I would love to see three things become a trend among urban cyclists:

  • The use of kickstands. These things have been around for ages and yet we get together as a group and everyone is in search of a wall, tree, parking meter or bench against which to lean their bike.
  • The use of folding bicycles. Bike theft is a fact of life. Bringing your bicycle indoors when you need to keep it safe should be as easy as remembering to wash your hands before eating.
  • The use of fenders. Nothing could be more practical. But somehow going without has become fashionable. So I guess that “rooster tails” are chic as well?

Stay safe out there. And remember the words of Pogo: