walking around in tap shoes and pyjamas since 2010 - my cycling log (opens in new window)

Friday, July 02, 2010

Get on the Interstate!

It has recently occurred to me that for every driver who shouts, "Get on the sidewalk!" at a cyclist, there's an appropriate answer: "Why don't you get on the Interstate?"

It's an honest question, and depending on how you say it, it can be as snarky or as gentle as you please. I'd prefer, if ever I have opportunity to ask this one, to ask gently. I'm truly curious. I have a feeling that the answers most drivers would give represent a great deal of common ground between drivers and utility cyclists.

I'd like to sit down with some drivers who don't ride bikes and ask them. I can understand not wanting to take the interstate during peak periods — frankly, during rush hour, the Interstate and its more-local limited-access derivatives are often the slowest ways from Point A to Point B. However, the rest of the time, if you want to get somewhere quickly by car, high-speed, limited-access roads are definitely the way to go. And, of course, drivers usually express their irritation about cyclists as a matter of speed (in fact, I don't believe that's the root cause — I think it's a question of not wanting to be responsible for other human beings, and/or being afraid of causing harm inadvertently). If it's really about speed then, well ... it's not like drivers don't have options. In fact, they have more options than anyone else.

The highways are not, of course, the most scenic option -- but if you're driving through town or country by the 'scenic route,' you can probably afford to slow down for the minute or less it will take you to pass even the slowest of cyclists.

Many drivers seem to think that the correct answer for their needs is to confine cyclists to bike paths (or, God forbid, sidewalks). I think the correct answer is probably, in fact, to reduce and enforce speed limits on surface streets (in most places, there really is no real reason to drive faster than 25 MPH — sure, slowing down might seem like an inconvenience, but so does paying taxes, and we all do that, don't we?), and to implement a better grid of connecting streets in areas built between 1950 and about 2000 or so (the Age of the Cul-de-Sac). It's as annoying to have to 'reach around your elbow to scratch your fanny' in a car as it is on foot or on a bike. Better surface-level road planning would mean less need to filter cars into huge 'arterial' roads while allowing drivers to reach their destinations at lower speeds.

Lower speeds would mean less adrenaline pumping through their systems, less road-rage (in my opinion, anyway — I think adrenaline is a primary ingredient in road rage), and a smaller speed gradient between cars and bikes. I've noticed that a driver in a 25 MPH zone generally gets much less annoyed sitting behind a cyclist who is himself doing 15 MPH than a driver in a 45 MPH zone does when sitting behind the same cyclist at the same speed.

I think, to be fair, as weird as this may sound, we might want to also give drivers a place to drive like morons. By which I mean, the way I would drive if there were no speed limits :) People like to go fast, and cars can go fast — and if there were certain roads (say, honest-to-God interstates) set aside where drivers could really open it up, and strict, effective enforcement everywhere else, people would have incentive to take their need for speed where it was relatively unlikely to harm the surrounding populace.

While, admittedly, the inspiration for the Eisenhower Interstate System derived from the absolute nightmare that was military travel in the contiguous US during World War I, it is, nonetheless, a dedicated motors-only zone. It is what the UK would call a 'motorway,' which seems to me like a sensible distinction — it explicitly states that this is a road (this is, a way) for motors (cars, trucks, motorcycles, tanks [okay, maybe not tanks, but who's going to stop them? SRSLY!]). Its purpose in life is to get drivers in cars from Point A to Point B quickly, without the need to wait for stop lights, cross traffic, and ... you guessed it ... cyclists (and tractors, horses, buggies, and so forth).

Basically, drivers who don't want to share the roads with cyclists are forgetting that they, for the most part, already have an entire system of dedicated motorways they don't have to share (except with long-haul truckers — the deisel-burning kind, rather than the Sam Adams-burning kind). If they complain that those motorways will only get them so close to their destinations, and we reply in kind, "Likewise, bike paths only get us so close to ours," perhaps they might begin to understand. If they complain that the behavior, speed, and size of the long-haul trucks scares them, then that's even more common ground.

Imagine the uproar that would result if we suddenly decided that cars, SUVs, and pickups shouldn't be allowed on the Interstates! There would be civil war. That same zeal for the preservation of the basic right to get from here to there is what drives those of us who oppose being restricted from cycling on the roadways.

A big part of the problem, of course, is the perception that cycling is inherently recreational. Most Americans see bikes as toys or, at best, expensive sports equipment. When a driver sees a cyclist, chances are she doesn't see someone getting from Point A to Point B in the most efficient way possible — instead, she sees someone choosing to clog up her lane with a glorified child's toy — someone who "should" be in a car, like a sensible adult.

Drivers who haven't experienced the singular pleasure of becoming a really self-reliant cyclist don't understand why those of us who have would choose to ride when we could drive. They also don't understand that some of us who can operate a bicycle safely aren't able to drive. For example, I have never owned a car because I had seizures resulting from a traumatic head injury (not cycling-related!) for a very long time. This is not something I usually mention unless pressed, but it is what it is. I ride now because I love cycling, but that was only a small part of the equation that turned me into a 'utility cyclist.'

Kentucky state laws allow one to drive as long as one hasn't had a seizure for six weeks, but I didn't like the idea of possibly endangering others that way. I knew that there were times I would go much longer than six weeks between episodes, and that, while I did often experience the prodroma effect commonly called 'aura' prior to experiencing a seizure, there were times that I didn't &mmdash; in other words, there wasn't always much, if any, warning.

I could justify getting on a bicycle and riding, especially since the longest route I routinely rode (30 miles round trip) was not busy. It was probable that if I had a seizure, I would fall off my bike and get some road rash and bruises (and maybe even be run over, but that was unlikely on the roads in question), but extremely unlikely that I would somehow injure anyone else. My usual traveling pace at the time was about 20 MPH (faster, and sometiems much faster, downhill; much slower climbing, since I was a confirmed masher back then): not generally fast enough to be seriously dangerous under the circumstances. The speed limit for cars, on the other hand, was 45 MPH for most of the trip: a speed that would have meant much more risk for serious injury to myself and others, not to mention property damage and so forth, if something happened.

As such, I rode my bike everywhere, and I learned to love the freedom of cycling.

I have stopped being in denial about my desire to race bikes (even if I turn out to be really bad at it), so I'm going to stick a toe out and guess that my fierce distaste for the idea of being restricted to cycle paths only, while primarily driven by the idea that autos have no real right to be the sole occupants of most roadways, also derives from the knowledge that cycle paths are no place for speed-demons clocking 35 MPH on a training ride.

However, I do think there are many more good reasons to ensure that bikes continue to be allowed in the roadways where we're presently allowed.

Maybe I'll try having this same conversation with some drivers.

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