Monday, October 31, 2011

The Everyday Spooky

Low Light, Cycling
I am going to be honest here: I considered doing a contest or a funny story for Halloween, but I am just not in the mood.

After a few days back in the US, I have to admit that cycling here has required some major re-adjustment on my part. Having initially set out with the same relaxed attitude I'd acquired after only a couple of weeks in Vienna, I immediately experienced a "welcome home" reminder consisting of close-calls with doors flinging open, drivers refusing to yield when I have the right of way, the works. Cycling here is spooky. Having not ventured abroad for over a year prior to my recent trip, I guess I've managed to trick myself into forgetting that.

Once in a while I write about how much conditions have improved here in Cambridge and Somerville since I began cycling in Spring of 2009. But just as often I question myself: Have they really improved that much, or have I just become more aggressive, less sensitive, and more willing to accept risks in response to the reality of how (bad) things are? Probably a bit of both, and it's so difficult to see objectively. Coming back from Las Vegas a month ago, cycling in Boston seemed like paradise. Coming back from Vienna, it seems like a war zone. 

While I maintain that I am "not an activist," of course I care about cyclists all over the world having safe and pleasant travel conditions. Everyday cycling should not be a scary experience, and some day I hope it won't be. 

42 comments:

  1. indeed, it's hard to escape one's surroundings and all the dynamics which make up the ways in which we move about in space. we can adapt and perhaps attempt to improve them, if only by being responsible ourselves, and of course that puts us all in the category of being an activist.

    welcome back -- here's to safe pedaling!

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  2. Well, my daily commute is in suburbs and not in the downtown but I noticed that probably ~95% of drivers are really nice to me: they yield, the see me, the leave enough space when they pass me, etc. The remaining 5% is large truck drivers who either: (1) don't care about bikes, (2) have troubles passing on a narrower road because of size of the vehicle they drive.

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  3. bostonbybike - I think that even my definition of "are nice to me" changes based on how bad things are overall!

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  4. Well written Veloria. We can all hope for a time when each and every human being is given ample respect and consideration regardless if on a bike, in a car or walking.

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  5. So what exactly do you like better over there, is it the infrastructure or are the drivers more law-abiding, or is there more?

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  6. Anon - Basically yes, but it doesn't sound like a big deal when phrased that way. So instead, think of it from the cyclist's perspective and let's start with the premise is that what's different is the stress level. After cycling in Vienna, I realise that what I consider "no stress cycling" in the US is in fact stressful. It's a jarring difference.

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  7. I think you're definitely activist. There are 724 posts here to support that observation! :-)

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  8. I still think this is interesting, seeing that you used to be pro-VC. Looking forward to a post where you discuss what changed your mind.
    Tom

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  9. Tom - I think my early posts that were enthusiastic about VC ("vehicular cycling") were somewhat misunderstood (by VC-ers eager to recruit new supporters) as promoting it at the expense of infrastructure, which I never, ever did. In 2009, I had no choice but to embrace VC in Boston, because that was the only method to get around here; there were hardly any bike lanes. So I bought the book, made sure to understand all the codes of behaviour, braced myself, and went for it. That is not the same as preferring it if given a choice, if you see what I mean. In the instances where I did say that I preferred VC, it was with the huge qualifier that I preferred it in comparison to dangerous infrastructure, such as bike lanes entirely in the door zone, etc. That I still stand by.

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  10. Sadly, the only way I find to reduce stress and increase my safety is to "take the lane" a good portion of the time. That eliminates the dooring and the close passing, although I suspect it occasionally antagonizes the drivers behind me.

    Luckily in my area they put up with this without any overt displays of hostility. Don't know if that is true in the Boston area as I've only cycled there a few times.

    It's a shame because this would not be required if drivers looked before opening doors and passed with care. But I have found the percentage of drivers who don't do these things is high enough that I feel I have to be the one to control behavior.

    Same with right and left-hooks in intersections.

    No amount of typical European bicycle facilities can correct for the bad behavior of the minority of our drivers.

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  11. I'm with you on this-
    The worst times for me to get on the bike are after I've not been on it for a while. There's a form of mental toughness that you have to cultivate to ride in the US, even in a "relatively" bike friendly place like Somerville/ Cambridge/ Boston. Even when I take short jaunts on the Vassar street protected lanes, I find myself relaxing a guard that I don't even consciously realize I'm keeping up. It's a bit like opening your mouth to speak and realizing that you've been unconsciously clenching your jaw.

    After a few days of letting down my guard on vacation, it's hard to get back on the bike sometimes. I think that this might inform the tone of US bicycle discussion which you discussed in your post "Easy or Difficult? Parallel Narratives"

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  12. Oh, and I'm right with you on VC. I think VC is a necessary skill for all urban cyclists, and yet I dream of a day when I'll never have to use it because all my routes will be on protected infrastructure (a girl's allowed to dream right?)

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  13. It is likely you have gotten more aggressive and more hardened to the conditions. Any cyclist has the same experience. I do not like having to be so aggressive, but find day after day I experience rude dangerous drivers, have to be bold and take the lane where appropriate and even yell! If you remain scared, you just won't ride. And there are days I pedal slow and cautious like a turtle on the shoulder because I do not feel up to it.
    You had some time away and came back unprepared again. If I do not bike for a few days, and then once back on the bike I am plenty scared, but get used to it again. I am more and more contemplating a move to another area where the only way to get around isn't the highway. If you ever do decide to move into the country, consider very carefully the roads, routes, traffic etc..
    And you are an activist, embrace what cycling was brought into your life.

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  14. I feel most stressed during rush hour. Most of the time, I feel pretty confident at other times of day. Traffic is light enough for me to hear and see cars individually, often allowing me to make eye contact. During rushing hour, my biggest stress comes when I have to pass a long line of stopped cars. I never know when one will suddenly decide to make a right turn into a parking lot, or even...veer into the bike lane for no apparent reason. This hasn't happened to me yet, but I've seen it happen twice to other cyclists, causing my heart to nearly stop as car and bike seem to occupy the same space and time. Fortunately, both incidents were merely close calls, not tragedies. Ugh. I feel confident in my abilities until I need to ride during rush hour, then not so much.

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  15. "During rushing hour, my biggest stress comes when I have to pass a long line of stopped cars. I never know when one will suddenly decide to make a right turn into a parking lot, or even...veer into the bike lane for no apparent reason."

    Yup, that's happened to me. No turn signal, just suddenly veering off to the side. In the US, I expect cars to behave this way and am very vigilant - which I guess in itself adds stress.

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  16. Velouria-I agree 100% with you and CJ. I practice VC,and am semi-teaching it to my 9 year old son (who rides with me lots around town). Unfortunately,being this time of year,most days for he and I to have opportunity to ride together (week days specifically),it's after he gets in from school (around 3:30PM) settles in from the day and has an early dinner...by then,it's around 5-5:30PM-evening rush. Of course,we stick to roads designated as "bicycle routes" (which by coincidense and location have less traffic),but seeing how close some drivers pass he and I un-nerves me at times (while he hasn't said anything,I can tell by his desire to either ride on or go back,it does him as well).

    Good post on an important subject. Hope you had a great trip back,my friend,looking forward to next post :)

    Steve

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  17. Velouria - was your comment earlier that Austrians follow the rules of the road beeter than Americans and that's why it is less stressful in Vienna?

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  18. Peter - That, plus the laws protecting cyclists are much stricter/harsher there in the first place.

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  19. I never realized how much of a paradise Portland was, until I tried cycling in Chicago. Everyone (both drivers and cyclists) is really aggressive, there's just a lot of traffic, the roads are bad. It was pretty stressful.

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  20. @ CJ
    That's why I've almost completely stopped "filtering" It's just easier to stay in the lane and wait, unless traffic is completely gridlocked.
    I lose a bit of time, but I find it much less stressful to not have to be worrying about who might veer into my path, or throw a door into me.

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  21. Along with our cycling freedom does come greater vulnerability, and while I also dream of separate infrastructure everywhere, I know it will take forever to happen. Meanwhile, some simple courtesy and consideration for others, on the part of a few selfish or thoughtless people would make all the difference. On the occasions that I drive, I realise how good we cyclists have it, not having to sit in a box behind other people also stuck in their boxes, often without any freedom to manoeuvre or place to park. No wonder they get so cranky ! Stay safe.

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  22. I was a cycle commuter in Portland in the 60's, when it too was a war zone. I figured out the rules of VC myself as the only way to survive.

    At this point now I have lived 42 years in Europe, cycled in about four or five of them. (I have never owned a car.) In all that time over here I have NEVER been shouted at by a car driver, nobody has EVER thrown anything at me from a car, no car has ever perposely cut me out. It's not that these things are against the law, but rather that they are not even conceivable behavior.

    Infrastructure or more polite drivers? I would say that it's about 90% polite drivers that goes to make up a "cycling paradise". I would call it "civilised behavior".

    Two years ago I returned to Portland and tried cycling shortly. Still felt like a war zone to me. My biggest problem with drivers over here is people who seem to insist on giving me the right-of-way when I don't actually have it. That can put you in some dangerous positions.

    Leo

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  23. Might be a little extra-bad today because of the frosty-induced less-than-wonderful visibility. You can't expect drivers to slow down, just because they can't see where they are going.

    From the department of drivers-in-hurry, there were some trees down in Lexington, some sticking out just a bit into the road. On the backside of (at least) two of those trees, was the debris from car mirrors that had not survived their encounter with the tree. Obviously the tree's fault, since it was not wearing safety yellow OR any reflectors.

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  24. Honestly, this is why I switched to riding on the sidewalk. No kidding. I know all about VC, have taken the classes, read the books, etc. I want my bike ride to be a pleasure, not an exercise in risking my life. I have to slow down and stay super alert, but I don't mind. And, yes, I know all about the dangers of sidewalk riding, and I adjust my behavior accordingly. As someone once said, if you cannot ride safely on the sidewalk, then you do not have the cycling skills to be riding in the street.

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  25. I do live in Portland, and I've experienced people giving me the right of way when it's not really my turn. It's very awkward and could be dangerous since other drivers might not realize what's going on.

    @Cyler: I guess I didn't really think of it as filtering when I'm in the bike lane. I think of filtering as riding between cars where there is no lane. For example, I take my place in line when I'm turning left rather than filtering alongside cars already in the turning lane. I'm like you in that I'd rather just wait my turn. If I'm traveling straight, I just stay in the bike lane. The traffic near my house sometimes backs up a half-mile or more. It would be a long wait on a bicycle if I got in line behind all those cars!

    Come to think of it, people would be confused about why I wasn't using the bike lane. Many would assume I was trying to turn left and try to yield and let me through, which is something people tend to do in my neighborhood whether you are using two wheels, four wheels, or on foot. People try so hard to be polite. The problem is many are dangerously inattentive.

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  26. I think this is almost purely cultural. Drivers in Philadelphia treat pedestrians and other drivers no better than the treatment you describe for bicyclists.

    I do think it has gotten a bit worse; 10 year ago I didn't hear drivers shouting profanities at other drivers for stopping at red lights, and it was unusual for them to shout at bicyclists riding in the middle of the lane in congested city traffic. (They didn't yield to bicyclists, but yielding to motorist was also random).

    Since they now express their anger at other drivers who follow the traffic code, it doesn't surprise me that they rarely yield to pedestrians, and object to bicyclists that leave bike lanes (even when the bike lane disappears abruptly).

    In short, Leo, in the US it is acceptable to ignore signs and traffic signals, and to throw objects at bicyclists (unless they are armed police in uniform).

    I think the stress/war zone is coming from congestion with law enforcement limited to parking tickets - I'm not sure you can be any less vigilant as a driver or pedestrian. With no importance attached to the rights of bicyclists or even pedestrians, all the local designs I've seen have the flaws you mention - door zones are considered a standard, not a hazard. They certainly don't reduce my stress.


    AD

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  27. AD & Leo - my conclusion after years of back and forth US-EU is that it's only cultural insofar as culture develops out of law. Meaning: When drivers are sincerely scared of going to jail, they are more respectful of cyclists and pedestrians. I do not believe there is anything about European drivers that make them inherently friendlier other than fear of punishment.

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  28. I've been biking in the Boston area since 2001 and, while I absolutely recognize that it is still an "invigorating" experience to ride here, there is no doubt in my mind that conditions and the behavior of drivers have both substantially improved over that time.

    I don't think there are any fewer jerks; rather, all the people who aren't jerks have gotten enough practice driving near cyclists to pass them more safely, etc.

    All that said, I still feel my shoulders relax when I get onto the Minuteman, etc.

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  29. I have a very similar stream of consciousness quite often - Portland, to me, feels pretty good for cycling most of the time, and visiting other places in the U.S. makes me feel grateful for living here.

    But, visiting Amsterdam and Vilnius last year was a whole different story. Coming back to Portland, I felt the same thing - suffocated by car traffic, bullied by people's behavior. Our attitude towards public space, and particularly the public space that is the road surface, is totally, categorically different here.

    I also hope that changes dramatically.

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  30. "I still feel my shoulders relax when I get onto the Minuteman"

    Ha! Yes : )
    Especially when that horribly disorganised transition in Arlington is over and it's all smooth sailing until Bedford.

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  31. Now I'm really jealous! (having never been on a bicycle in europe)

    I suppose it's all relative though, as shown in your comparisons of Las Vegas vs. Boston. I always thought the most obvious difference between europe and the U.S. is that everyone here feels entitled to drive a ginormous SUV thinking it's a 'safety issue'. They probably feel so safe they assume they can also keep yakking on their cell phones and texting while driving.

    I thought the automobiles in europe were generally smaller... small is good.

    I'm all for riding on the sidewalk, (like Anonymous suggested). Sorry, but when it's a matter of my life vs. civic rules, my life wins.

    :0)

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  32. I'm thrilled by the explosion of bike lanes and cycling awareness here in NYC; I'm not thrilled about the increase in cocky and brazen cyclists and the lack of courtesy I see on the road.

    Cyclists who don't use bells or issue a warning such as "on your left" as they overtake you without a wide enough berth; cyclists who speed through red lights, who ride the wrong way in the bike lane, who don't hand-signal. Many times I've been stopped at a red light only to have someone blow right past me from behind and narrowly avoid getting hit by a car who had the right of way. This behavior only increases the lack of goodwill between drivers and cyclists.
    (Angry drivers who tell me to "get off the road" when I'm riding in the bike lane are another story, but I won't vent that frustration any further.)

    I lived and cycled in Boston for several years and, apart from the behavior of many bike messengers, didn't experience recklessness to this extreme from other cyclists. My memory of Boston cycling is actually quite rosy :)

    Is obnoxious cycling a phenomenon exclusive to NYC, or a general trend? Or is it just me, becoming less tolerant of risky behavior as I get older?

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  33. People in Europe also grow up with the bicycle first. All motorists here likely biked as a teen and young adult for years before ever getting a license to drive.

    Getting a driver's license here in NL can get into the thousands of dollars. It's not a 15 minute test and 25$ cash down at the local DOT after you've read the book. Many cannot afford to get a license until they are out of university and have stable employment. That means most people use a bike until they are 25 or so.

    If all Americans had to use a bike until they were 18 or 25, attitudes would change dramatically. It wouldn't be a kid's toy anymore but a serious form of transport.

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  34. It seems like you are not the only one having this experience. You should check out A Plea for Tolerance and Can Better Infrastructure put us on the Path to a New Cycle? from the Folding Bikes Blog - another Boston area bike blog I frequent.

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  35. "Once in a while I write about how much conditions have improved here in Cambridge and Somerville since I began cycling in Spring of 2009. But just as often I question myself: Have they really improved that much, or have I just become more aggressive, less sensitive, and more willing to accept risks in response to the reality of how (bad) things are?"

    You simply get used to your surroudings as they are the environment you are stuck with. Your brain understands and accepts that, however unsexy...

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  36. Do you have a post in the archives that sums up why your blog is not designed to include activism? Is it that it spreads you too thin? Or that there are many other blogs that focus on that?
    Peter

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  37. Peter - only because I am not interested in it. There is also this post that touches on the topic. Oh, and this.

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  38. Thanks. I re-skimmed the earlier posts and you have clearly explained that the political aspect of actions seems to limit you or limit the movement to normalize things. I see your point, honestly. I don't expect you to comment back nor did I intend to have this mushroom into a big debate. I just wonder if your approach could bring about normalisation of cycling without an activist approach or at an activist least aspect to it. Would the Minuteman Trail have been created without cycling activists? I have no idea and I know that I do tend to ask questions that can't be answered definitively. I guess my reaction is a bit sad to think that activism can turn off cyclists to the point that they aren't interested in advocating for safer conditions and infrastructure even if they believe they are necessary. Please don't take this last comment as a shot at you or your stance on things.
    Peter

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  39. Peter - No offense taken. I respect activists, I just don't identify myself as one. I also feel that some (not all) approaches to activism are counterproductive.

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  40. "I also feel that some (not all) approaches to activism are counterproductive."

    Agreed. But you gotta love that they are trying.
    Peter

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  41. Not "spooky" but worth noting: the Passive-Aggressive A-Hole Encounter.

    So I'm riding along a shared-use path adjacent to a poorly designed door-zone bike lane, and I'm giving every pedestrian absolute right of way, even stopping as necessary and getting off to walk my bike. And as a glide along the right-hand side of the path, past a couple who are walking toward me on the left-hand side, the guy waits till I'm almost past and then says, almost under his breath, "There's a bike lane."

    I stop, turn around, and catch up with him.

    "Excuse me," I say. "You're right. There is a bike lane. And this is a shared-use path. Bikes are allowed here. I don't know if you knew that."

    This guy is so surprised, not just to be corrected but also to be called on his passive-aggressive sh!t, that all he can do is flash me a sour passive-aggressive smile and say, "Okay" (in an extremely patronizing tone) and "Have a nice day."

    "Thanks," I say brightly. "You, too."

    "A-hole," I don't add.

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