You often learn a great deal about a person by asking them how much money it would take for them to feel financially secure? The response to that question varies but even for the wealthy the answer eventually becomes, “more“. The same is true of bicyclists. When we ask the question of each other, “How many people will it take before you feel truly safe on the roadways?“, the answer eventually becomes “more than we have now“.
But there is a problem with that response whether it be in regards to financial security or emotional security as a bicyclists. If you want just a wee bit more money to feel safe there is a burden that comes with its ownership. If you have enough money a financial planner’s services are often sought. And then you have to worry about his competency. He will have you in investment vehicles of all sorts in order to diversify your portfolio but eventually some or most of them will overwhelm your ability to understand their relative safeties.
When you apply this same consideration to bicycling it becomes clear that simply wishing for more people on bicycles to ride alongside you is not enough. Take for instance your last experience riding along the Chicago Lakefront Trail just after the Air and Water Show has ended. There are thousands of people on foot and on bicycle plying their way back home or to their cars. And suddenly it hits you, “Would this many people on a perpetual basis riding alongside me each morning on my commute make me feel safer?”
At first you might be tempted to say “yes“. But at that very moment someone on a bicycle flies past you with mere inches to spare and cuts between pedestrians and bikers alike determined to escape the crush of people. Yikes! And then you notice that virtually every family with children on bikes alongside their parents is either unruly or not mindful of the throngs around them. Instead they are concentrating on finding a bathroom for the youngest to use.
And then it hits you. This is what a traffic jam looks like without cars. Everything is coming to a standstill and the crush of humanity is oppressive and even a bit frightening. You are not free to forge ahead without running up the backside of a pedestrian or another cyclist. This is a nightmare, not a dream come true. And then another revelation hits you. “Why would you have expected anything different?”
The problem with “Rush Hour” is not the cars, it is the behavior of the people driving them. And frankly the reality is whether those people are sitting behind a steering wheel or walking aimlessly along the Lakefront Trail or pedaling a bicycle wildly as they seek to escape the crush of people, they behave in the same fashion. They are self-absorbed, discourteous, unmindful of the harm they could do to others, anxious, and in fact downright afraid.
In fact we humans do not always understand that the crush of people is a mild case of a panic attack. We need to find some small place to sit or stand and gather ourselves. It is difficult to spend hours in a throng without eventually desiring some semblance of being alone. It is why people who have worked an entire week in the crush of an urban setting find it wonderful to weekend away from the city.
Bicycling is not a solution to any problem with have with lots of people concentrated in a relatively small space. It does not free us up to be more human when we are plodding along on a bicycle in “fender-to-fender” traffic any more than it would be to sit behind the wheel of gas guzzler in “bumper-to-bumper” traffic. And frankly we are no less aggravated with self-absorbed human behavior when on a bicycle than we would be behind a steering wheel.
It is always the fact that we are dealing with our fellow man that causes the heartburn. With enough bicycle traffic you can find yourself not being able to execute your normal (but illegal) Idaho Stop simply because you are riding with others who like you are trying to barge through an intersection and it is difficult to read that many minds at once. You end up deciding to try to find a side street just to keep from blowing your top.
It does not help that a cyclist can cause you great damage by sweeping past your and hitting your front wheel and down you go breaking a collarbone or chipping a tooth. And sure you think to yourself I did not get doored. But pain is pain and you can suffer severe damage even in a bicycle-on-bicycle collision. If you doubt that fact just watch some reruns of the Tour de France. The human body is horribly exposed on a bicycle. You have no airbags to cushion your fall or prevent concussion or even brain bleed.
So the next time you are asked how many people will it take to make you feel safe, carefully consider your response. Can you trust the cyclists around you to keep you safe? Will there be ones in that commuting crowd who is thinking about something other than controlling that bike of his? Will he do something stupid that injures himself as well as you? After all if the injury is severe enough you still have to be transported to a hospital in an ambulance and you still need to file a police report.
And oh by the way, there are no vulnerable user laws to protect you when you collide with one of your own. This is uncharted territory for our society and we will reach recognition of that fact with some awful truth that cycling can be safe but it depends on the people around us.