Monday, 30 July 2012

Cycling to School Clubs

I took my daughter out to her new school this morning for summer clubs. She's no longer on the Trail-a-Bike, her new ride is a lightweight Raleigh Ivy (which I can recommend highly - at just 25lbs, it's very light for a kid's bike). She's had plenty of practice over the summer vacation and she's now very confident on the road and well able to handle the light traffic we encounter on our standard route to school.

So we're riding along and this older gentleman, seeing us riding along the residential street road, calls out "There are some big trucks up ahead". Sure enough, there were some heavy trucks parked on the road. Not sure why I needed to know this info, but okay.

Well, yeah, I know full well why he warned us. He sees my 9 year-old daughter riding confidently in the road and he thinks she's in danger from these trucks, both of which must (in his mind) be driven by slavering maniacs bent on killing children.

He'd probably have a stroke if he knew we were about to turn out of his (and our) quiet residential neighborhood, join a main road, cross a six-lane highway at a busy controlled intersection and then turn left from the main road into another neighborhood, all the while carefully and properly negotiating traffic (not busy traffic by any means, but still traffic).

People are nuts when it comes to cycling. Anyone would think I was taking her skydiving, or bareback bull riding at a rodeo.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Elephant in the Garage

Just saw yet another article online, claiming that cyclists no longer belong on 'our' (by which the writer means 'motorists') roads. These articles are ten-a-penny recently. Apparently, many motorists want to help us stay safe on the roads by denying our right to use them. If they're so concerned about our safety, rather than finding a solution that restricts the travel options of the potential victims of traffic collisions, I think maybe the motorists should take a good hard look in the mirror and see if they can find a better solution in what they see there.

Because let's face facts: motorists have only the privilege of using the roads. They lost the 'right' to use the road, beginning in the early 1900s, after the death toll from motoring caused a public outcry which resulted in governments around the world revoking motorists' right to the road and demanding that they pass tests and become licensed road users. Since then, the death toll has not declined. In fact it has skyrocketed. Clearly, licensing is not enough. If anything, testing and licensing may make the situation worse, as it appears to give motorists a false sense of entitlement.

Many motorists seem to think their licenses give them a divine right to behave poorly on the road. They routinely speed, as if speeding were perfectly safe and natural. They use cellphones to talk and text while driving; they drive drunk; they run stop signs and red lights, etc., etc., etc. And this wouldn't be so bad if their actions resulted in death only extremely rarely. But the fact is, a person is killed on the world's roads by a motorist every 30 seconds! This, apparently, is the elephant in the living room (or, in this case, in the garage) that we, as members of a polite society, are not to speak of.

But I think something more needs to be done, because it's quite obvious that motorists do not understand that their having been given privileged status was not some sort of advanced road user's diploma. On the contrary, it was (and still is) a demotion, a mark of censure: lets not forget that driver's licenses are a reminder to us all that motorists cannot be fully trusted on the road.

The real question is this: should there really be a guaranteed place for the car on our streets anymore? When is enough carnage enough? Isn't it time we started to take away the privilege of using a motor vehicle on the roads from those who have shown an unwillingness or inability to use their cars safely? When is the government going to get tough on road users who are abusing 3,000+lb vehicles on the road and who often don't even show a hint of remorse when, as a result, they kill someone.

Drivers who rail against cyclists, when motorists kill over a million people per year, ought to be ashamed of themselves! This witch hunt against cyclists must stop. It's about time we started a justifiable witch hunt against incompetent and dangerous drivers. They, not cyclists, are the real problem, and there's a simple solution: permanently revoke the licenses of drivers whose actions result in death on the roads. I think the fact that driving is a privilege needs to be brought home to motorists, who don't seem to understand that privileges can, and should, be revoked when people abuse them.

As cycling advocates, let's never forget that a driving license does not give its owner a right to the road. On the contrary, it's a reminder that that right was taken away from all motorists - and it was taken away for good reason.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Trying to be Nice - Big Mistake

Today, I had to commute on a route I've only cycled once before, ending with a mile of 6-lane highway. On the way there, no problems at all - took the lane (what we Britons call 'primary position'), the 6-lane highway goes down a fairly steep hill into a creek, and my momentum carried me up the other side almost all the way to my destination, so I was able to match traffic speed almost all the way.

On the way back, there's that same fairly steep and long hill, but going uphill this time, so I tried to retain as much momentum as possible, but soon I'm down to 10mph and puffing and panting away. Meanwhile a line of a few cars has developed behind me, so I decided to try a new technique I've read about recently: 'control and release'. So I give up my strong primary position and move right (about 3ft from the curb) so traffic could overtake in the same lane. I figured I could get back into primary position if the motorists failed to pass safely. Big mistake!

It's a fairly wide lane but I don't think it quite classifies as a 'wide outside lane' (see this Google Maps street view image), so I figured they would still be able to give me just enough room. The first three cars did, but then I get buzzed at about 1ft clearance by an SUV. By this time, more cars have appeared behind me and I was faced with a situation that was no longer controllable.

I eventually managed to get back into primary, but only after a couple more passes that were too close for comfort. I guess some motorists in Maryland have yet to see the memo about the 3ft passing law.

Lessons learned:

1. I will not try to facilitate traffic flow again - at least not anytime soon. I think it's too dangerous.

2. 'Control and release' may work in some conditions, but in my opinion it is risky: too many motorists simply do not give cyclists a safe amount of room, even when they can do so. And what at first appears to be only a few cars behind you can easily develop into a long line of traffic, so that before you know it, you can be boxed in with no way to safely retake the lane.

3. For the first time in about 18 years, I experienced what gutter-riding cyclists experience. When every third car overtakes you with just inches to spare, it's no wonder they're scared of traffic.

To motorists who may read this: if you want cyclists to 'get out of your way', ALL of you have to pass us safely. I tried seeing if you could do it today and I ended up risking my life in the process. We can't afford to help you motorists get past us if some of you are going to put us in danger when we try to help you out.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Why I Love Cycling

When I chose cycling as an adult, after having (I'm sure) similar childhood cycling experiences to many others in the 20th Century, I did so purely as a convenient way of getting to work. I was 18, and within the week, I was expected to start a new job four miles away. I did not have a driving license, nor were there any convenient bus routes, so a bicycle seemed like the best option. I enjoyed it, so I just kept doing it.

As the years have gone by, my reasons for using a bike have remained utilitarian - I use it as a tool to get to work, to do errands, to travel, to get my daughter to school, etc. I never saw the point in cycling in any competitive way. To be honest, I've never appreciated 'sport cycling', although I see how it has driven bicycle improvements. The Tour de France leaves me cold, as in my view it's more about winning than about cycling. To me, sport cycling was, and remains, just a waste of energy. I don't get on a bike unless I have to be somewhere to do something useful or fun, and that somewhere is never a finish line, because I can't see picking up a trophy as a useful or fun endeavor.

But over the years, the bicycle has become, for me, more than a mere tool. My appreciation for the bike - for bicycles in general - has grown. I think people fail to recognize what a fantastic invention this is - it gives us so much freedom and demands so little in return. It's so simple that any cyclist can repair it with just a few tools and a little knowledge. One could (if one would ever want to) leave a bicycle exposed to the elements, then pick it back up after a year and still be fairly sure that the application of a little oil would make it go again. What other machines, in our hi-tech age, can we say that about? Not many.

I laugh bemusedly at the contempt in which many people hold the bicycle, and I scorn the danger they falsely ascribe to using it. I also benefit from the undervaluing that goes along with all of this: would bikes be so accessible without society's contempt and fear? Surely not: anyone can pick up a perfectly sound vintage/classic bicycle for $50 on craigslist. Astonishing! The perfect vehicle, going for the price of a restaurant meal! Those who sell the bicycle so cheaply just don't recognize or appreciate what it is they're giving up. But we who love bikes do appreciate it, as do the world's poor, for whom the bicycle is a freedom machine, allowing them to travel cheaply and to literally broaden their horizons - benefits they might otherwise be denied.

Sure, I sometimes think about how cycling is 'green', how it helps me avoid polluting, how it keeps me fit, how it will help people surmount future energy crises. But those things aren't really 'reasons' to cycle. They are merely added benefits. But when I'm on my bike I really don't care about them: when I'm on two wheels, I'm in that place in my mind where I feel fully in control of my life, performing turns, leans, calculating intersecting speeds and angles of traffic. In a way, the bicycle completes me - when I take my foot off the ground and place it on that pedal, something happens - we fit together, we move, and I evolve into something greater than the bipedal mammal I am when I'm not 'wheeled'. This feeling is something you simply can't get from a car. It has to do with balance and movement, and with the fact that it's all you - not some liquid-fueled combustion engine translating your will into a sort of cheap, embarrassing and unnecessarily overwhelming power.

Cycling, to me, is like a subtle dance whose steps we know intuitively. It's as if the bicycle anticipates in some ethereal way, a being we just might, after a few millennia, become. Or perhaps it's that the bicycle gives us back some sense of the hunter-gatherer 'us': the people we were before our lives were overwhelmed by urban complications and irrelevancies; people who were ennobled by the immediate application of essential mind and body skills in pursuit of the simple necessities of life.

In short, on a bike I feel truly and essentially human in a way that I really don't think I do when I'm off it. What's saddest about that is that many people never ride, so presumably they don't get to feel that. Perhaps even if they did ride, they would never feel it either. I'm just happy that I do.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Motorists: What Do I Make of Them?

Sorry folks, I missed posting during the month of June, as we've been going through the 'Move from Hell' as we moved from our old rental home to our new 'owned' home. To cap it off, the power went down the night before last due to a storm that basically forced much of my area of DC suburbia back, in terms of technology, to the 19th Century. This morning, I found myself back in the 21st Century, and able to blog away, so here I am.

Recently, the subject of motorists has been much on my mind. Lately, on a cycling forum, the question of what people thought of motorists came up. As is often the case with me, my plain-speaking Yorkshire nature came to the fore and I didn't pull any punches.

After all, some folks live within easy cycling distance of work and amenities (sometimes within just a few hundred yards), yet they still drive - they drive everywhere. Sometimes I wonder if they would drive to their home mailbox if it was more than a few feet away. as the above image shows, some of them can't even walk their dogs outside of a car. In fact, enough of them are too damned lazy to ever get out of their cars that they've even convinced the post office to build postboxes that can be used from the comfort of the driver's seat. Ditto drive-through windows at fast food restaurants, banks, etc. To be frank, these people sicken me. They are often so unfit and there are so many of them that they increase all our health insurance costs, they use up our natural resources and pollute unnecessarily, they clog up the roads and create vast parking lots in downtown areas that are essentially mini-deserts - wastelands of asphalt. It's disgusting! At best, I think these folks are a drag on the system; at worst, they are a cancer.

Now don't get me wrong - we all have vices, and we all get lazy sometimes, but I'm talking about a level of lazy that goes well beyond that. And I'm not talking about those who commute 20, 10, or even 5 miles to work or to the grocery store (although I do think these folks should re-think their choice of home location). My point is this: surely commuting less than a couple of miles by car has to be one of the most damaging vices. Such trips make up a large proportion of motorists' journeys, and this at a time when stress, obesity, heart disease, traffic congestion, pollution, peak oil and global climate change are all very apparent problems in our society. If these folks would just choose to make one of these short journeys per week using human power rather than that bestowed by fossil fuels, we'd be in a much healthier place as a society. Sure, we'd still have a long way to go, but at least these motorists would be doing something to show that they weren't merely a bunch of lazy and selfish degenerate jerks.

As a desegregated cyclist, I sometimes get the feeling that I'm supposed to be more accepting of car culture (as if my preference for the road should make me enjoy the noise and the gasoline fumes). But I don't. I hate it! I think cars are abhorrent, a mutilation of the desire to travel, deformed, dysfunctional, monstrous, disgusting, freakish, damaging. And I despise the people who misuse them so casually. I think these people are immoral, unethical, unhealthy, depraved, corrupt, degenerate, perverse, unnatural, degraded, sick, twisted, obscene. I wish they would all leave the roads altogether. But they won't, so I may as well get used to it, because the alternatives (i.e. me surrendering roads and advocating for segregated bike infrastructure, or joining the idle and corrupt masses by buying and learning to drive a car) are far worse - and are not an option - I have too much self-respect.