Forget About “Sharing the Road”, “Share the Headspace” Instead


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When you read about the “Share The Road” campaigns around the world, you often think first about how bicycles and automobile can coexist on urban streets. The fact is they cannot. That is a very real myth. Sure we can try and simulate a peaceful coexistence by laying down extra lines to indicate the presence of “bike lanes”. We can even paint these areas, blue or green (my personal favorite) but neither is really a solution to an age-old problem, congestion.

Head-to-Head Competition

Now congestion in and off itself is not the real issue. What is the issue surrounding congestion is the fact that like gases, humans tend to experience increased rates of collisions as their numbers increase. It puts the lie to the notion that increasing ridership makes things safer. What increasing ridership rates among cyclists actually does is increase awareness among drivers that cyclists are a part of the mix. That is why “headspace” is the more important area to share, not the road.

All of the “visual aids” pretty green lanes do not in and of themselves provide, safety. For instance on our streets where there is high volume traffic (especially in situations where it travels in both directions on the same surface) we have long understood the benefit of “physical segregation“. On arterial roads like boulevards we accomplish this by means of parkways. These green areas have two benefits, they are first of all quite visually inviting and take the edge off of the pavement theme that is so prevalent in urban areas. The lushness of these parkways conveys the impression that you are moving through a lush green city. But the planting of trees and such helps to impede cars that might stray off the pavement and strike oncoming traffic without warning.

Boulevards are the more civilized means of providing physical separation. In downtown areas where streets tends to be narrower the parkways give way to planters. There are spots all over the cities where large planters have been installed and lush greenery grows on a regular basis tended to by city workers who change the plants throughout the year to provide maximum seasonal beauty. The plants are an added bonus, but the star attractions are the planters themselves. Think of them as pretty concrete buffers.

When real estate is even more limited or the streets move from the status or arterial to something akin to Lake Shore Drive the planters give way to ugly pieces of concrete or I-beams planted on their ends supporting guard rails. Not very pretty but quite effective in keeping cars using the same strip from hitting one another headlong.

Physically Separated Lanes

In situations where drivers cannot be trusted to give one another space when riding in the same direction, we often see physical barriers that prevent them from encroaching on one another side-by-side. Off ramps are a good example. Traffic suddenly passes a “choke point” and anyone failing to take that ramp is forced to wait until such time as another off ramp appears.

Turning lanes with physical barriers are also another situation in which we separate traffic so that riders cannot suddenly encroach on their neighbors without suffering a dent or undercarriage damage. That tends to keep folks alert enough to remember to anticipate their turns. You can see this sort of thing along the Lake Shore Drive as you approach Roosevelt Road from the south.

Motorists are aware that on a roadway they should expect other motorists. You quickly get conditioned to expect only cars until a something bigger blocks the sun and you snap out of your reveries. A double decker bus or even a touring bus has that effect. Large tractor trailer trucks are also a good source of “snap out of it” for drivers who have been lulled into thinking only about other cars.

But smaller objects which do not present a physical threat to drivers still get overlooked. Just ask a motorcyclist about not being seen. And if you really want to get an earful you only need to ask a bicyclist about being seen and they will invariably tell you that they feel invisible most of the time and that on those occasions where drivers are aware of their presence it tends to be a threatening experience.

People are instinctively aware of these problems. It is why folks who drive to work or take public transportation always look at a cycling commuter with a mixed expression of horror and suspicion that the person standing before them is certifiably crazy. And even cyclists know deep in their lizard brains that what they are doing is foolhardy on the best of days and downright insane given the lack of any reasonable margin of error should contact with a metal beast occur. It is this fear and loathing that eventually drives cyclists to contemplate aggression while being accosted over their choice of commuting vehicle while at the family table during the holidays.

Spouses who commute can end up avoiding tales of “near misses” simply because they are troublesome in ways that are compounded if children are part of the family mix. Who will help support them should that spouse be taken from them by death or severe injury? But you cannot live your life as a cyclist deeply embedded in avoidance. You cling to the hope that those pretty green lanes are going to make the difference. And you take heart when you see more individuals riding the streets alongside you.

But what tosses cold water on your daydreams is when you hear that someone who daily route overlaps with your own, was killed that morning. Car violence is one thing but what do you do when you realize that pedestrians are lying in wait to otherwise hurt or rob unwary cyclists? Couple all of these worries with the fact that unlike your average automobile having flat tires is a relatively common occurrence and there are no networks of station standing by with tow trucks or repair crews to help you get back on the road in the “dead of winter“.

You are on your own when it comes to taking care of your bicycling needs. And that does not even begin to take into account the clothing issues that arise when the temperature starts to drop. Even things like lights and turn signals which are commonplace necessities among motorists and even motorcyclists are simply non-existent as “out of the box” solutions save on very limited few bicycles. You can find a few urban trekkers that are sold with relatively inexpensive hub generators that power head and tail lights. But with the exception of velomobiles turn signals non-existent.

Bicycles are in essence as yet too primitive  a tool for commuting to be widely useful to soccer moms and little children who want to get to the shopping mall or school. And in places like Amsterdam or Copenhagen the only reason that it works there is because there is widespread physical separation of automobile and bicycle traffic streams which make the “headspace issues” less extreme. By keeping the two kinds of vehicles in separate spheres of influence you minimize the problems with collisions that are inevitable when you increase ridership amongst cyclists. Keep thinking about the behaviors of gases when you introduce more molecules and you have the right picture of the situation.

The Most Important Headspace

Now the cycling advocates have a plan concerning headspace. They have seen the “handwriting on the wall” and expanded their appeal to include pedestrians and public transit users. But to be honest few truly committed urban cyclists who commute year round ever use multi-modal travel connections. For on thing people who live beyond a 10-15 mile radius of their offices are ever likely to consider the commute time short enough to warrant an attempt to try year round cycling. When you are faced with an hour or more of travel time, the train or the bus look like much better options. And if you are concerned at standing in the elements waiting for connections then the automobile is your more likely choice.

Cities despite all their pretty green lanes are going to be “stuck on stupid” when it comes to ridership increases until they can bridge the multi-modal gap that prevents long distance commuters from venturing onto the roadways at either end of their trips into the urban centers.

Managing Headspace

Meanwhile cyclists have to face up to the fact that they are outnumbered by automobiles and have too little horsepower by comparison to keep pace with the unruly ones who decide to ignore the speed limit. And of course there is always the issue of mass. If rather than paying attention in high school you slept through the section in your physics class on “mass” you missed out on the importance of this one feature of automobiles and trucks that is truly what stacks the deck against bicycles.

In physicsmass (from Greekμᾶζα “barley cake, lump (of dough)”), more specifically inertial mass, is a quantitative measure of an object’s resistance to acceleration. In addition to this, gravitational mass is a measure of magnitude of the gravitational force which is

  1. exerted by an object (active gravitational mass), or
  2. experienced by an object (passive gravitational force)

when interacting with a second object. The SI unit of mass is the kilogram (kg).

It is the first of these two explanations of mass that concerns you and me. And for us it is oddly the obverse of the meaning that is most troublesome. Just as mass is a measure of the difficulty one experiences in moving an object up to speed, the reverse is also true. An object of greater mass is harder to bring down to a speed of zero. In other words a big SUV or a truck or even a small Cooper is hard to stop. If you collide with one (that is to say your paths intersect) you as the cyclist have very little mass and quite a bit less structure integrity to sustain the impact.

Your brain is going to suffer no matter what, that means a concussion is quite likely. And with that comes the nearly universal loss of short term memory of the time line surrounding the impact. But your body is also a structure entity with a very nice cushion of protective material (we call it flesh and fat) and then an internal cage (i.e. ribs, bones and skull) that seeks to protect the vital organs like the brain, heart, liver, lungs, kidney, spleen and genitalia. Well not such much the latter but you get the idea. You are danged vulnerable.

There are no guaranteed infrastructure remedies for avoiding car vs. bike collisions. And frankly most of the shoe-horned in sharrow lanes along with most standard bike lanes are accidents waiting to happen. You are close enough to the parked vehicles on the right to have to slow down well below your cruising speed to provide a cushion in your reaction time should a door suddenly open. But then on your left are vehicles whizzing past too close for comfort and sometimes for safety.

There are no laws on the books or will ever be placed on the books which can remedy the loss of your life. Who the heck cares if a motorist gets a ticket or is even tossed in the slammer for six months if you are dead and buried and your spouse is left to raise a family of four all alone? The knee jerk reaction to trying to enact laws that get drivers to think before they act is really just so much high school nonsense when it comes to creating a meaningful change in conditions on the roadway.

I kind of liken it to the way in which gun advocates espouse concealed carry laws as if somehow having a gun under your shirt is going to deter a drive-by shooting or a crazed gunman from walking into a mosque in Wisconsin and opening fire. Even the police who arrive on the scene of such situations are often wounded and they knew in advance that somebody was unlawfully discharging a weapon within the city limits. We really need to get real about the problem of cycling and its inherent dangers. Your biggest defense against getting hit by a car or clipped by one or finding yourself under the rear wheels of a truck is to drive. Pure and simple. You never bring a knife to a gun fight.

If you plan to deal with automobiles you need to be driving one of equal size and mass and more exquisite structural integrity than the other guy. If you cannot or more importantly will not do that then you have to think like a motorist.

In response to the question about how to respond to the complaints of folks about the generally perceived bad behavior of cyclists one responds thusly:

Reply by Gene Tenner on Friday

I explain that I am a cyclist, a car driver and a pedestrian and I can complain about all three from each perspective. There is not a commute I make where I do not see a car driver blow a stop sign, stop light or fail to signal a turn. And, I see pedestrians stand in the street, ignore traffic lights and cross in the middle of the street. Why not stop the complaining now and discuss the ways to improve the situation from all three perspectives. Said forcefully enough, they start talking about the weather.

What is the salient point here is that no matter who you are you must anticipate what a motorist will do in response to a situation on the roadway. Sometimes you hear this described as Defensive Driving by cyclists. I like better the notion of Vehicular Cycling because it does not change the frame of reference away from bicycles while it drives home to notion that cyclists are intended users of the roadway (i.e. vehicles) and have both rights and responsibilities pertaining thereto.

Some Observations From My Motoring Experience

When LCIs get together to discuss training methods I would think that they offer one another insights into how to convey to cyclists the best way of thinking like a motorist. I would like to share some things I have discovered about driving with you.

  •  Most folks do not know how to properly adjust their rear view mirrors. As a result checking your mirror before exiting the car can yield a false positive. As a result always assume that a person exiting from a car has been unable to properly assess the safety of doing so. And if kids or passengers are involved you are completely without recourse. They do not drive with an eye on rear view mirrors. So when they exit, nothing will have ever been checked. Read and learn about the proper rear view mirror adjustment technique here.
  • Cars are increasingly more sound proof than ever before. Devoid of hearing what is around you drivers are essentially driving as if they were deaf. Now toss into the mix the scene from one of the latest Progressive car insurance commercials where Flo is rocking to the sounds of customer radios as she joins then on the road to test their “snapshot” driving plugin. The level of volume you can crank out from a car stereo is enough that cars around you can feel the vibrations. There are no human voices capable of penetrating that cocoon of noise with the exception of you screaming in agony after being struck by an inattentive driver.
  • Car windows are darker than ever before. In an effort to eke out as much efficiency from vehicle cooling system manufacturers have tinted the windows ever darker. Right now you can count on some drivers (especially the young males who want to look “cool”) attempting to up the ante on how dark their windows can be. The result is that you are nearly invisible through side windows in most vehicles. Never assume that a luxury automobiles driver can see you, even if you are looking directly into their eyes.
  • Vehicle closing rates make it nearly impossible to get a real-time assessment on what is going on at any moment. The standard rule of thumb is to look to your left and then your right and then back to the left again before making a turn. But if a car or a bicycle is moving fast enough you can completely miss them when scanning before making a turn.
  • One other really nasty feature of new cars is the size of the rear view mirror. These mirrors are large enough that an SUV vehicle approaching from the right at an intersection can be completely hidden from the view of the driver. It is not until the driver begins to advance into the intersection that the vehicle is uncovered. Or more likely the vehicle behind the mirror begins to move into the intersection believing that the other drivers can see them, when in fact this is not the case. We desperately need auto manufacturers to fix this problem.
  • Cities are simply “too busy” for safe driving. Notice all those billboards along the sides of every street in the central city. They are road hazards pure and simple. They distract the gaze of the driver towards the curves of a model who is selling shampoo or cigarettes and away from your curves just ahead. The city fathers need to dollars that these billboards bring in. But they do not help with the matter of safe transport. In fact setting aside the billboard issue, the visual cacophony of the city is enough to overwhelm the most seasoned driver. You would almost need to be riding a long wheel base recumbent bicycle in the nude with your hair on fire to be noticed by less than a tenth of the drivers who are fussing with their lipstick, picking their nose hairs, tending to the kids in the back seat, ogling the blond in the mini-skirt walking alongside them on the street or bending over to either complete a text message on their smartphone, read a girlie magazine or pick up that dime that slipped out of their pockets while adjust their, uh nether regions.
  • Cyclists who act as scofflaws do not help the situation, one whit. I watched again on the drive home from cycling in the city on Sunday as a fellow on a fixed gear back at the intersection of Taylor and Ogden decided to do the ride against traffic two-step in order to cross on a red light. I see this all the time and yet wonder why ChainLink cyclists are constantly complaining when people of color supposedly salmon in the bike lanes. I guess that if you salmon in the left turn car lane before executing a U-Turn behind the last vehicle heading into the intersection that is ethical, right? Blowing stop signs and sneaking between vehicles cannot be justified if you plan to avoid dealing with the mass of vehicles who are bearing down on your or buses that after unaware of your presence as you slip between them and that cab taking on a passenger in the left lane on a one-way street.
  • Not being visible is a crime. Cyclists need to take a page out of the attention grabbing annals of leggy blonds. If you can ever figure out how to attract as much attention as they do then you will up your chances of staying alive. Until then assume that you are completely invisible, because unless you can penetrate the lizard brain of the driver you are just that, invisible. Dressing in dark clothes, having little or no reflective material anywhere on your bike simply stupid. Admitting that you have no interest in putting lights on your bike (especially in the darker months) is criminal. What exactly do we as cyclist not understand about “sharing the road?” Before you get upset with me, just ask yourself how you would react if all the automobile drivers took to turning off their lights at night.

The Urban Cyclist Does Not Understand The “Alternatives” In ATA

Exhibit A in this regard is the following remark made in the thread “Winter 2013- who’s still riding?“:

Reply by Joe Guzzardo 13 hours ago
I couldn’t agree more. I was talking about it with John, my bike repair guy and he mentioned, among other benefits, that he doesn’t get sick as much when he rides in the winter. I connected the dots when I realized that spending less time in public transit germ incubators may help and the fresh air and crisp mornings along the lakefront are just beautiful. It got down to 22 degrees today but there wasn’t much wind which helped a lot. Wool socks and gloves are a huge asset.

As comments go this is pretty mild when compared to some of those regarding pedestrians who dare to use the bike lanes rather than non-existent sidewalks:

Reply by notoriousDUG on October 22, 2012 at 11:34am

They should not be there but they are entitled morons to lazy to cross to the other side of the street where there is a sidewalk.

The part that I think is interesting is how few of them would walk out in the street in car traffic but feel perfectly OK walking in bike traffic; only self preservation prevents ignorant behavior.

When it comes to alternative modes of transportation urban cyclists are less than charitable. There seems to be an air of disdain for folks who do not ride bicycles. I listened tonight to a rebroadcast of Jeffrey Baer’s, “Biking The Boulevards” documentary in which he notes that that during the heyday of the penny farthings riders here in Chicago were mainly upscale folks who were wealthy enough to enjoy the “all the rage” past time. I would say that for many urban cyclists their sense of being an elite group has changed very little.

Trying To Control Thoughts

A recent article appeared in the Huffington Post showing the reply that Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave to CTA riders upset with fare hikes:

Now you, as a commuter, will pick,” the mayor said Monday, according to the Chicago Tribune. “You can either drive to work or you can take public transportation, and the standard fare will stay the same.”

The article added further:

The comments have already inspired a satirical Twitter account: @RahmSaysDrive.(Scroll down to read Chicagoans’ Twitter reactions to the mayor’s remark.)

One ChainLinker responded this way on her FaceBook wall:

ChainLink Royalty

Anne Alt shared a link via Michael J. Harrington.
“The mayor suggested commuters who don’t like the new fare structure are free to get behind the wheel, setting aside the fact many Chicagoans who rely on the CTA to get to and from work don’t have cars.”

Um, could that answer be any more WRONG, arrogant or clueless?

One final observation about cyclists is that they have a very low tolerance for anyone who does not parrot the urban cyclist narrative. It is a bit like walking into a time warp and hearing Trotskyism declared as the only available line of thought for a True Believer. This is what makes the urban cycling movement sound so very much like the Tea Party. They demand uniformity of thought and you can get dissed even if you are the guy providing the pretty green lanes.

Of course if you are related to someone who serves as a ride marshal and exhibits horrendous behavior in the process, all is forgiven? Go figure.