Posts Tagged 'activism'

Radio piece on empowering people through bikes, Worldview 1/22/2010

Listening to a fascinating piece on the work of World Bicycle Relief.

via Worldview 1/22/2010.

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Pass the morals, please

The tandem is the perfect solution to one of the trickiest issues for cycling on roadways shared with cars – whether to ride two abreast, or ride in a line. This is a stressful question for me. It’s certainly more enjoyable when riding with others to be able to chat side by side, however the act of being side by side frustrates even the most patient motorists. [This same discussion can be applied to all types of users of recreation paths, too, like the Lake Shore Path in Chicago.]

For much of my cycling life, I’ve simply avoided this issue by choosing to ride alone. The tandem is an even better way to avoid riding two abreast. Now my honey and I can chat and never lose touch throughout the ride. That still doesn’t solve what to do when we want to ride with a great group of friends. Nor does it get at what the politics are of the road that makes this decision so stressful.

In a plainly legal world in which everyone governs their behavior based on what the law allows and what it does not, this would not be an issue. At least in North Carolina, it’s not illegal for cyclists to ride two abreast. In this world, motorists would drive the speed limit, slow down when they see cyclists (riding two abreast or not), wait behind the cyclists until it’s clear to pass, and then pull around the cyclists leaving at least three feet of space, crossing the yellow line as they would to pass any vehicle.

I do this when I drive a car, and frankly don’t see what’s so difficult about it. Cars would have to do this when confronting other cars on the road that they need to wait for in order to pass, like turning traffic. Something other than law is governing our behavior on the road, as is true about the law in all aspects of our lives. Laws of the road are treated as guidelines suggesting better ways for us to keep ourselves safer, and then we decide to what extent we adhere to or stray from them given the present conditions of the road and our state of mind.

There’s something about the size and speed of bicyclists that seems to invite motorists to judge cyclists differently from other road users, though they are classed as eligible vehicles. When drivers see one cyclist riding along the edge of the road, they generally make a calculation that they can keep driving without changing too much – maybe slow down a little bit, don’t have to pull around too far over and cross the yellow line. If there is a car in the on-coming lane, they probably try to squeak by without waiting to pass. This is of course is all wrong, dangerous, and in the end doesn’t save a driver more than 5 seconds.

BUT, if cyclists are riding two abreast, all of a sudden it’s an untenable position these cyclists have taken, even though it’s legal. Now the motorist is really forced to slow down, and wait until it’s safe to pass and pull around crossing the yellow line – all of which they should have done when confronting a single rider or single line of cyclists.

This may be why I witness a number of older, experienced cyclists make the deliberate choice to ride two abreast, as a matter of safety: it’s legal to ride side by side and it forces motorists to slow down and pull around as they would for any other car or truck or tractor or horse-drawn wagon.

I’m not sure that this is the best method to ensure safety. I say this because of the anger it induces among motorists, even good patient ones, even ones that are cyclists. And for that reason, a lot of cyclists are frustrated with the behavior of other cyclists, and why I’ve often avoided group rides. We know that the practice of riding out into the middle of the road angers other people, and that makes it discourteous, raising the ire of drivers against all cyclists. In this sense, it’s a moral issue rather than a legal issue. If we’re demanding this: sign

…then as cyclists we have to think about whether we are sharing the road.

How to communicate this to other cyclists on a group ride is an issue in and of itself. The tendency is to be social and ride two abreast. Another tendency is ride within the rights we are entitled. But, the fact is, it makes a lot of us nervous when some of the group insist on riding out in the middle, because the cars behind often become obviously frustrated. In a sense, we lose our welcome on the road. Even though we are legally entitled to use the road, our safety still at the mercy of the graciousness and attentiveness of the majority of road users who happen to be driving big fast things that can kill us.

Ultimately I side with drivers on this issue, and wish that all cyclists would either ride in line, or else keep an eye out for cars and pull into a line when one approaches. Mainly it’s because I do feel like it is a moral issue. If we expect drivers to make the effort to pass us safely treatment, we should make a similar effort to make their passing easier. Perhaps this behavior in time could change driver behavior to be more welcoming and alert of our presence.

But this shared effort is not a 50-50 deal, in my opinion. Drivers who read this blog (which include all of us cyclists who have not made the decision to go car-free yet, including me) need to know that the greater burden of responsibility for safety lies with them. The fact remains that a car’s speed and size is a deadly weapon, and there’s a legal responsibility to be in control of that speed and size at all time, as a well as a moral responsibility to yield to more vulnerable road users. There’s just a lot more at stake when drivers choose to be nice or not.

This bike is a Quaker rifle

Gun + bike = message for car culture

Gun + bike = message for car culture

I’ve seen this image at a local bike shop. The bike shop itself is an active, community-oriented business offering common-sense repairs, products and support for bicycle lifestyle as a whole. I don’t know what is intended by the bicycle + machine gun image, but I personally associate it with another sticker I’ve seen around that says “This bike is a pipe bomb.” I realize This bike is a pipe bomb is actually a punk band, but as a sticker on a bicycle it can not fail to be a message as well. To me, the message of both is the politically-charged, radicalized version of “One less car.” It’s saying that riding a bike is a subversive act in the charge to abandon car culture, and with each ride the revolution gains momentum.

In a way, I associate the usage of guns on par with the general acceptance of the car as status quo in this country. Car ownership is standard in the U.S., just as gun ownership is not to be questioned by the political mainstream. In another sense, both cars and guns are easy, thoughtless solutions to everyday problems. So easy, in fact, as to be cowardly in certain situations. Need a bag of flour? Jump into the car. Suspicious of your neighbor? Don’t worry, you can have a gun. In terms of intimidation, the use of the bulk and speed of a car to intimidate a cyclist (for example), or the use of a gun to threaten or harm an unarmed person is pure, loathsome cowardice.

I heard an ugly story from one of my favorite places to ride a bike – the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Parkway offers hundreds of breath-taking and thigh-burning miles along the spine of the Appalachians in V.A. and N.C. Heavy vehicles are not allowed, and the speed-limit is slow: therefore you have no reason to fear traffic as you plod at 5mph up a gap, nor is it a problem to take a lane when you descend for 5 miles doing around 40mph. It’s a National Park, so there’s decent camping as well, making it an ideal route for bike touring.

Bear with me, it’s one of those A friend of a friend told me that: a cyclist was riding the Parkway the other weekend on his bicycle, when he was cut-off by a motorist. The cyclist caught up to the motorist at a stop sign. He rode up to the front window of the car to address being cut-off when the driver displayed a firearm. Smartly, the cyclist backed off and the motorist drove off. I was told the cyclist reported this to the police, since it’s still illegal to possess firearms in National Parks. Sadly, that ban – what I consider a safety measure of ALL of us – is about to be overturned.

Of course, those who follow N.C. news and/or those who follow bike blogs will remember the story in the media this past July in which a driver, angered, ostensibly, that a male cyclist was putting his family at risk by leading his wife and child on bikes out on busy roads, actually pulled a gun and shot the man. The bullet was somehow deflected by the cyclist’s helmet (who needs a better reason for wearing a helmet?), sparing the man.

This isn’t to say that the roads are unsafe because aggressive drivers are also packing and ready to use guns. I feel as safe biking as I do in any other aspect of life in this country. It just makes me think of all the times I’ve been threatened, intimidated, or simply mindlessly cut off by motorists, and in response I gesticulated, expectorated, or pontificated toward them to put them on notice. If I’d been a little more assertive, there’s a chance it could turn out much worse.

Where I live in N.C. is historically home to Quaker settlements. You can even see a musical called Sword of Peace about the Quaker’s history at the time of the Revolutionary war produced annually every summer in Snow Camp. For the purposes of this blog entry, what you need to know about Quakers is that they are pacificists in the most strict sense – they won’t condone war, and you can’t have a military wedding in one of their meeting halls. The other day, I had the opportunity to attend a Quaker meeting, and a story from the Revolutionary war was recounted. One of the very last battles of the war was fought just down the road from here – the battle of Lindley’s Mill (we’re still buying flour and grits from Lindley Mill). The pacificist Quakers didn’t condone the taking up of arms on either side, and were faced with the dilemma of what to do when soldiers of either army came through villages and pillaged requisitioned supplies like hunting rifles. The story related in the meeting was about how one man by the name of Osborne stayed true to his Quaker convictions, and bent the barrels of his rifle, rendering them useless for battle.

While I appreciate the notion of the bicycle as revolution, and feel that metaphors of other revolutionary methods – sub-machine guns and pipes bombs for pipe-smoking subcommandants – can be aesthetically and emotionally appealing, it’s not really how I choose to adorn my riding or my advocacy. I can be pretty vocal in traffic about my rights to the road as a cyclist, but faced with a clear deficit in fire- and horsepower and tons of steel, maybe the best thing I can do is assert my position on the road, conduct myself peaceably, and get people used to my presence.

Pipe + Machine Gun = Revolutionary

Pipe + Machine Gun = Revolutionary

On the tandem, my honey and I really do feel like we have magnified presence. We’re bigger, that much more visible, and once drivers see we’re on a bicycle-built-for-two, I like to think that people soften up and treat us sweetly. If consistent visibility (and our cuteness) on the road doesn’t pave the way toward more acceptance of our favored mode of travel, I suppose we always have the option of setting up the tandem to live up to one of the many nicknames of the stoker – the tail-gunner.

A good driver is hard to find

I awoke on this eve of World Car Free day with more that usual sense of foreboding that Monday brings. I’d gone to sleep last night having just finished Flannery O’Connor’s classic, chilling story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” To say the story would be unsettling for anyone in our society is obvious, but more so for those of us who are generally more hypersensitive to the perils of being exposed on the road. The story concerns a grandmother whose grappling with nostalgia competes for the attention of her son with the incessant whining of his pair of kids, her disrespectful grandchildren, emblematic of what she sees is wrong with modernity, in the back seat of a car during a road-trip through the southeast. These days, grandma feels, a good man is hard to find. And then everything goes haywire, the least horrific event of which concerns a serious car wreck, and concludes with looking the devil in the eye, in the guise of the preternaturally cruel criminal that the sensationalist press has dubbed the Misfit.

He’s not this sort of misfit:

Misfits.

Misfits.


… nor this sort of misfit:
Cool Hand Luke is a misfit.

No, O’Connor’s Misfit is a straight up killa. Without giving the entire plot away, the car trip ends horribly.

I roll out of bed this Monday morning, tired already by dreams stung by O’Connor’s story. But, I am looking forward to the tandem commute – the weather is perfect these days in North Carolina, the days are still just long enough that we’re not riding in the deadly low visibility of twilight, and as I said earlier, this week celebrates world car free day. Then we meet our misfit.

The first four miles of our 20-mile commute are, as a rule, a harsh wake-up in the morning. 3.5 miles of steeply rolling hills, that accumulate to more climbing than descending in the outbound direction. There are vistas of farm fields, stretches of loblolly pine, highland cattle, confederate flags. The traffic is a bit too heavy for the road’s rural narrowness, but is generally forgiving, save for the occasional early morning logging truck going to the mill west of Saxapahaw. It’s gets the blood pumping.

Before we hit the end of this road – a typically lengthy-named NC road Saxapahaw Bethlemhem Church Road – with an on-coming car, we hear a blaring horn behind us, bleeding with malcontent. Without waiting for the on-coming car to move by, the vehicle behind speeds inches from our side, continuing with its honking (not to be confused with our tandem’s “honking”). It’s a close call. We stay calm in handling the tandem, as close, loud cars are nothing new, but this driver’s belligerence is an outlier – much worse than normal.

In my haste and automatic righteousness, I decided he needed to be put on notice. I’ve long since abandoned the divisive flying of the bird. Instead I chose a hand gesture more exemplary of what I intended to do. I gave him the “phone-it-in.” Like, “I see you, man, what you did is reckless, intimidating, and illegal, and I’m gonna let the authorities know.” Mark Cavendish provided me with a good model in one of his stage wins in this year’s Tour de France:

The "You're on notice, phone-it-in" gesture.
Image via bikesnobnyc

This gesture, however un-obscene, struck an extra nerve with our misfit. Fifty yards up the road, he skidded to an angry stop, leaving marks on the pavement. He backed up a few feet and stopped. This is never a good sign. A bit extreme by normal measure, crazy in fact. Nothing we had done – which, to summarize was a) biking on the road, and b) making a phone gesture – could enrage an uncrazy person like this. By this point, I knew better and pulled the tandem off the road, rather than ride up next to him and invite an escalated confrontation. His stopping gave me a chance to mark his description – a white sedan with out-of-state plates. And then he drove off. Of course, it wasn’t just as simple as driving off – he did peel out. But at least he was gone. And we reached for the handy cellphone to notify the Alamance County cops. Alas, we wilted when it came to actually calling 911 to report this.

The encounter concerned our minds and led our conversation for the rest of the hour-long ride into Chapel Hill. What could have made someone so angry at encountering us? Was it our simple presence? Was it my phone-call gesture? Was it the stress of the situation – that he was coming too fast around a curve behind us, saw oncoming traffic and our tandem in the way, and this led to his momentary aggression? Whatever it was, we were glad that the aggression was momentary, and that he didn’t clip us when he sped by.

One thing that we were glad of was that, at least according to this person’s license plate, he was not one of our neighbors of rural Alamance County. This is a big deal for us. It runs contrary to the supposition that everyone out here are a bunch of hicks who’d run down a cyclist just fer fun, and spit tobacky in his eye just fer the hell of it. No, our neighbors know us, and from what we’ve experienced, are pretty accommodating on our roadways.

And why didn’t we report it? Since no one was hurt, we had to puzzle out in our minds what exactly was illegal about the situation – reckless/ threatening driving, passing too close – and whether we should bother our local sheriff who wouldn’t give a flip anyway. The answer – we should have called immediately. I’m putting myself on notice here to call next time. Anything we can do to get aggression like this off our roads is necessary. It’s for the safety of everyone. Furthermore, to quote the title of another Flannery O’Connor story, “The life you save may be your own.”

PARK(ing) Day

Leave the car at home, but not your parking meter quarters, for today is international Park(ing) Day.

Park(ing) Day doesn’t have much traction where I am in North Carolina, but for eco-hipster city dwellers in San Fran, Brooklyn, Chicago, and now internationally, it’s become a creative, community-involving event.

The premise is that parking spaces are rectangles of public space that a town lend out by time-increments. Activists realized they could rent this space and do whatever they wanted in them as long as they kept paying the rent. They decided to turn parking spaces into temporary public parks and art spaces, and an annual park(ing) day is now recognized.

Visit your local PARK today. Alas, only today.