It’s become a familiar refrain at #bikingtobeers gatherings. “What is it going to take to get PBOT (Portland Bureau of Transportation) and the city’s political leadership to take action to make our streets safe?” And the answer is always: “It’s going to take deaths.”
I remember Jonathan Maus of Bike Portland (I think that’s who it was) tweeting something to the effect of “I’m worried we’re heading to a dark place,” referring specifically to the hazardous situation of aggressive drivers “sharing” Clinton St. with families riding to school. I’ve been feeling the same way about bicycling in Portland overall, and it seems to be gaining momentum like a giant snowball.
And now we’ve arrived at the dark place. It’s ugly, and it’s frightening. Six people riding bicycles have been hit and seriously injured or killed by drivers in the Portland metro area in the past month. Two in the same spot, at SE 26th and Powell. Two in the past week, including 22-year-old Mark Angeles, who was killed the day before yesterday by a driver who failed to yield while turning left at SE Gladstone and 39th.
Alistair Corkett, also 22, lost his leg when another left-turning driver failed to yield at SE 26th and Powell on May 10.
Peter Anderson, 37, was hit and injured today while riding with the right of way on a green light in that same intersection.
Tonight I stood over my bike at the intersection where Mark was killed, in a crowd of about 150 people. We stood quietly, observing a moment of silence — for approximately 20 minutes. There’s a ghost bike there for Mark, and the protest ride was called “No More Ghost Bikes.”
There were also flowers piled around the ghost bike. And members of Mark’s family crying.
We stood, and watched. We were spread across the full width of Gladstone. People drove through the intersection along 39th, some of them hustling in that way people do in cars, where it seems like nothing in the world matters so much as that extra second they might grab by pushing ahead of another car — or around a person riding a bicycle.
I watched the two women at Mark’s ghost bike crying. They hugged each other for a long time. It was a very human scene. A hundred people on bicycles, standing still, watching them cry.
I thought about how exposed we all are, on the bike. Just our bodies, out in the air, moving through space on these small simple machines. We are basically naked out there, a little cloth over our bones and skin, but nothing much. We move like birds do, and that is beautiful, but it is also a vulnerable state.
I thought how, oddly, I felt safer in that phalanx of riders than I ever have while riding in Portland.
I thought about the people driving through the intersection, rushing, annoyed, thinking about the precious seconds they were losing. I thought, here a whole person was, on Wednesday, who isn’t alive anymore. A young person, just graduated from college. People are crying for him right there, those two women who loved him, and now he’s gone. I don’t think seconds are precious at all, except maybe in the sense that if those seconds had gone differently, if the person driving the truck had waited a few seconds, Mark would be alive, and his family wouldn’t be crying. They might be going home to dinner right now, or maybe he’d be getting a beer, like we did after the ride.
We locked up our bikes, four of us, and went into Hawthorne Hophouse, and sat down at a booth, and then PJ quietly pointed out that sitting in the next booth was Alistair Corkett. I was worried about bothering him — he was there with his brother and his mom — but in the end I was glad we got up and introduced ourselves, and told them where we’d just come from.
I was struck by how young he looked. I was struck by the look in his eyes — a little scared, I thought, a bit in shock still, perhaps, and also brave and determined and very much alive. He got up, hopped nimbly to the other side of the room. When they left I saw the empty space in one leg of his shorts. So young.
The moment we’d peeled off from the larger group at the ride’s end, I’d felt sort of naked without the giant crowd of riders. Immediately less safe, through we were still riding in a group, two by two. As we left the bar, I rode a block or two with Kyle, whom I’d ridden next to for most of the ride, and then we split off in different directions, and I was one rider again.
I spend the vast majority of my time riding alone. It’s more by default than by choice, though of course there are things I like about riding “feral,” as Velouria of Lovely Bicycle puts it.
But there was a power to simply being in that large a group. We were nothing more than the same individual fragile humans we always are, and yet we could take the entire road, all of it, without fear. People in metal boxes suddenly couldn’t terrorize us.
There was more. I looked in at the faces of people driving in the oncoming lane, and the ones who weren’t cheering or waving looked…nervous. There was something intimidating, apparently, about a crowd of people that large, simply riding bikes. We weren’t shouting or doing much of anything except riding — and waving back to those lovely, supportive drivers.
And I thought, There’s something in this. The difference between the way we get harassed and bullied and threatened as individual people riding on our little steel birds (hush, carbon), and the way the same drivers had to treat us with respect (whether they wanted to or not), when we rode in mass numbers.
How to take that difference and transform it into a solution for the dangers we face every day, I don’t know yet. But there’s something there — a hundred exposed, vulnerable humans together are no longer quite so vulnerable.
When I first moved to Portland, I was surprised to find that, for all the city’s bikeyness, there wasn’t much in the way of real infrastructure. There are plentiful bike shops, bike parking at most local businesses, bike wayfinding signs, bike-themed bars, bike maps, and many other elements of bike culture.
The city encourages bicycling, but the most important element — infrastructure to support it — is the weakest link in the chain.
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time, but I’ve also been wary. People who live in Portland and those who dream about it as the Bikey Promised Land are pretty attached to the idea that this is a bike-friendly place. And some of them get angry when I suggest that it’s not.
Others have admitted to me (often with a bit of wariness themselves) that they were surprised, as I was, to find the road environment an uneasy mixture of bike friendliness and bike hate. In the last 18 months or so, the balance has shifted firmly into the unpleasant column, and more of us who live here and ride these roads every day have begun to talk openly about the problems we’re experiencing, not just intermittently, but incessantly.
There’s something on every ride. Usually a whole bunch of somethings. Is it the constant barrage of New York? Not yet. But there are disturbing indicators that that’s where we’re heading, and not at a 20 mph greenway pace, either. (Not that anybody drives that slowly, whatever the speed limit signs say.)
The combination of an exponentially increasing population migrating in from car-centric cities and suburbs (nearly 10,000 in 2014 alone), and a local transportation bureau that, while well-intentioned, is hamstrung by a difficult political climate and its own tendency to proceed at a glacial pace, is hurtling us into a very unpleasant and, if I’m any judge, damned dangerous future.
Portland’s existing infrastructure was predicated on low-traffic streets which are not low-traffic anymore, and on a cultural norm of politeness and willingness to conform to traffic laws, which is no longer the norm.
Before we move on to specifics, let me preface this by saying that I know what it’s like to ride with no infrastructure whatsoever. I’m not a spoiled, ungrateful Portlander whining over imperfections in an awesome system. I began my daily riding career in the New York City of 2001. That city had no bike lanes, and almost no one was riding. I used to see the same half-dozen messengers going to and from work on the Queensboro Bridge. Those were the cowboy days, the Wild West.
I rode through that city’s changes, through Janette Sadik-Khan’s heroic and often contentious battle to humanize the streets, through the bikelash, complete with lawsuits trying to remove a protected bike lane on Prospect Park West, the removal of another bike lane because of pressure from a religious special interest group, ticket blitzes for bogus offenses (e.g. NYPD squad car parks in bike lane, tickets cyclists for legally riding around it). I know what it’s like to be in a hostile environment. So when I tell you these streets are getting hostile, please believe that I know what that means, and where it leads.
What’s wrong with Portland’s bike infrastructure, anyway?
In many ways, what’s wrong with Portland’s bike infrastructure is a primer on what’s wrong with U.S. bike infrastructure (where any exists) in general. Perhaps the best way to get at this is by looking at a few key principles that govern infrastructure in a place where it does work — the Netherlands — and at which Portland is failing.
Virtually all bike routes in Portland are on roads shared with cars. The vast majority of bike infrastructure here consists of standard, unprotected, on-road bike lanes and sharrows. In other words, paint.
The only paths that are (theoretically) closed to motor vehicles (I’ve encountered motorcyclists driving on them) are “multiuse” paths, which are shared with pedestrians (and dogs, and horses) — and are too narrow to be shared safely.
Portland’s “bicycle boulevards” were developed as a stab in the direction of separating bicycle and motor vehicle routes. Unfortunately, not only are these streets still open to motor vehicles, but most have become favored routes of drivers wishing to shortcut around the traffic on arterials, or simply to avoid stop signs (bike boulevards have fewer stop signs than neighboring streets). In many cases, the frequency of aggressive driving on bike boulevards has made them less comfortable to ride on than streets without a bike route designation.
Design intersections to eliminate conflicts between bicycle and motor vehicle traffic, and to protect bicyclists.
Portland is notorious for leaving bicyclists to their own devices at tricky intersections. There are many variations: the bike route that crosses an arterial with two lanes of traffic in each direction, with no traffic light and a center island that’s too narrow to comfortably accommodate a bicyclist for a two-stage crossing (16th and E. Burnside, 39th and SE Couch or SE Ankeny); the bike lane that disappears at the intersection, with an unhelpful “bikes merge into traffic” sign; the four-way (or even more) intersection with blind corners and no stop signs in any direction (most intersections in Alameda and Laurelhurst).
One of the major issues in the recent redesign of the heavily traveled N. Williams bike lane has been the lack of safe treatments at intersections. Standing outside the New Seasons Market at N. Williams and Fremont one Friday afternoon at rush hour, I was transfixed by a steady stream of near-misses as drivers crossed the left-side bike lane to turn left onto Fremont. That intersection desperately needs a separately signaled treatment like the one used for intersections on Ninth Ave. [pdf] in New York City. Of course, NYC has its own issues with infra disappearing where it’s most needed.
A classic example of “intersection oversight” is the short new multiuse path that was built to (theoretically) provide bike access from Vancouver Ave. to Portland International Raceway (site of many OBRA bike races) and the (shabby, torn-up) path adjacent to it that continues around the Columbia Slough to Smith and Bybee Lakes. It’s a great idea, and a sorely needed connection, but the city built a scant mile of nicely paved path that ends abruptly at an absolutely terrifying untreated crossing of Denver Ave. To complete the linkage to PIR and the Slough path, the bicyclist must cross a complicated, staggered intersection consisting of four lanes of highway traffic, on a blind curve, with no traffic signal or other safety provisions, and several on- and off-ramps and service roads coming together.
Create a connected network of high-quality bicycle routes, so that bicycling is both safe and convenient for transportation.
When I first moved here and began learning my way around town, I kept thinking that I was missing something. There must be a network of useful, safe bike routes that I just didn’t know about. You’d think they’d put that information on the bike map, but then, I’d never found NYC bike maps to be helpful (by the time the NYC DOT created an official bike map, I’d been riding there for years).
Turns out, neither I nor the map were missing anything. There’s no network. The bicycle boulevards meander in roundabout wiggles, and when following any recommended bike route, there are difficult crossings of what I think of as barrier roads (wide, high-speed “stroads” with no traffic signals to help the bicyclist or pedestrian cross).
The city is sliced north-south by one freeway and east-west by another, and bicyclists can only cross at a few places — none of which prioritize our safety by offering protected or separated lanes or a bike phase in the traffic signal.
Essentially, if you have to get somewhere by bike, you’re going to be “sharing” the road with drivers, many of whom interpret that phrase as meaning they’re entitled to shove their vehicle right up next to you to “share” a single lane. Welcome to “bike-friendly” Portland.
Not infra per se but also a safety hazard
For reasons that defy logic and good sense, the city of Portland allows on-street parking on both sides of the street, free of charge, usually right up to the very edge of the intersection. This creates several safety hazards:
Visibility is frequently hampered, meaning that a driver or bicyclist has to pull far out into the intersection — into the path of traffic — before he or she can see said traffic.
Double-sided parking artificially narrows the streets, creating unsafe conditions for bicyclists when impatient drivers insist on “sharing” that narrow lane, or buzzing past within inches, often into oncoming traffic (or another bicyclist).
Lack of enforcement
Anyone who’s ridden on a bicycle boulevard/neighborhood greenway knows that the posted speed limit of 20mph is followed by exactly nobody — except perhaps the bicyclists. One of the most dangerous elements of our driving culture (and by “our,” I mean the entire US) is the universally accepted view that a posted speed limit is to be treated as a minimum, not a maximum.
Not only is it considered acceptable to exceed the speed limit, there’s a stigma attached to driving at or under it. “You’re driving like an old lady! Speed up! Pass that bicyclist now!” And this attitude persists regardless of road conditions, which in a frequently rainy part of the world, translates to dangerous driving before you even add in distraction/inattention, drunkenness, and aggressive behavior.
Just yesterday, I was forced up against a line of parked cars by a pickup truck driver going 45-50mph on the Clinton St. neighborhood greenway (speed limit: 20mph), aiming right at me and revving his engine.
There’s precious little enforcement of speed limits in residential areas, and when sting operations are conducted, they mostly pull over bicyclists — because they’re easier to catch. The only truly effective method of speed limit enforcement is traffic cameras, which of course we don’t have.
There’s also no good way for a bicyclist to report harassment and dangerous driving — you can call in a license plate number, but unless (and probably even if) you got video showing the driver’s face, the police won’t take action.
Not to mention the fact there seem to be zero consequences for drivers who completely disregard what bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure there is.
“America’s Best Bicycle City” is collapsing under entropy
The night I rode 30 miles in a 60mph windstorm to attend a meeting with about 20 other bicyclists from all walks of life to ask PBOT to make changes address the safety issues on the Clinton St. bicycle boulevard, I was encouraged by the apparently receptive attitudes of the PBOT staffers. Since that time, I’ve been discouraged to see that while individual staffers’ concern or sympathy may be genuine, the decision-makers at the organization are utterly unwilling to act, even when citizens give them exactly the support they say they need to make changes.
And then there are the — to my mind bizarre — decisions like this, and this. Got a problem with right-hooking in the bike lane? Just take out the bike lane! That’ll solve everything….Huh?
(Re)building a city so it works for people takes courage; it takes real leadership, and that means a willingness to make changes that won’t be popular with absolutely everyone beforehand. That means responding to businesses worried about losing customers because of fewer on-street parking spaces with data on the proven benefits [pdf] of protected bike lanes for businesses (e.g., retailers on 9th Ave. in NYC saw a 49% increase in sales after the protected bike lane was installed, compared with 3% increase in sales among Manhattan retailers overall). It means putting people’s health and safety first, which should be a no-brainer for any city, especially the “City That Works.”
It means understanding that making a trafficky, limited-visibility crossing (such as SE Salmon and 30th Ave.) safe for bicyclists and pedestrians requires more than simply putting a sign up warning drivers that there may be bicyclists and pedestrians trying to cross there. It means building physically separated and/or protected bicycle paths, even though they’re a bigger investment of financial and political capital than painted lines.
We have to build infrastructure for the species we are, not the species we hope to be. That means planning our streets, cities, and towns in a way that ensures that the inevitable human error (or aggression) does not have fatal consequences.
At last night’s #bikingtobeers, I wondered aloud something that’s been bugging me — how can members of our local transportation bureau who are also bike commuters drag their heels about building real infrastructure when they’re experiencing the problems firsthand? I got an interesting answer (in reference to one bike commuter at PBOT) — “He’s a vehicular cyclist.”
The debate between those who want protected infra and those who argue that no infra is needed and that people on bikes need to simply assert their status as vehicles “just like cars,” and “everything will work out fine” has been going on for years, and it’s not going to get solved today. But wherever you stand on the subject, it’s hard to argue convincingly that vehicular cycling will work for children, or to debate the fact that places with high-quality infrastructure have high rates of bicycling — and those with poor or no infrastructure have low rates.
The truth is that people will do what they feel comfortable doing, not what is theoretically possible, or what someone tells them they should be doing. The country with the highest bicycle mode share in the world — the Netherlands — is, not coincidentally, also the place with the most complete network of high-quality infrastructure designed to make cycling both safe and convenient. For everyone.
As someone who’s ridden in extreme traffic situations, I’m often asked why I care so much about infrastructure. Why should it bother me? Aren’t I “strong and fearless”?
Setting aside (for a moment) the fact that it’s important to me that where I live be a place where anyone, and everyone, can ride safely, comfortably, and conveniently, there is a vast difference between what I can do and what I want to have to do on a daily basis. Our culture has an unfortunate tendency to conflate bravery with fearlessness. Yes, I’ve ridden up Lexington Ave. at rush hour, mixing it up with the taxis in the left lane (because that’s actually the better position than the right, with buses stopping to discharge and pick up passengers). Yes, for years I braved a 30-mile commute in the most intense, nonstop bullet-dodging traffic imaginable.
I was terrified the whole time. I still am. Every time I get on my bike, I have to shoulder the anxiety that sits heavier than any backpack. Most days, the love of the bike itself — the pure beauty of pedaling, of moving myself through the air — is strong enough to convince me to keep riding. But not every day. And it’s getting harder as I get older, both because the accumulated weight of years of stress, hostility, and near-misses is wearing on me, and because I’m physically less resilient than I used to be. My muscles may be stronger than ever, but I don’t heal as quickly from injuries, and there’s no getting around the fact that the bones of a 50-year-old are brittler than those of a 30-year-old.
So I care more about having real (read: protected, separated) infrastructure as I get older. I want the place I live and ride to be safe for me and for the five-year-old who’s waving madly at me, spilling over with that special, luminous pride that comes of getting the knack of balancing on two wheels for the first time. Believe it or not, our needs are exactly the same. And we both deserve it.
Sitting in an otherwise promising community meeting with members of PBOT (Portland Bureau of Transportation)’s active transportation division, discussing safety issues on the Clinton bicycle boulevard, I was struck by a very false note. “But this is really a very safe bike route,” said one of the PBOT folks. “The death rate is low.” (I am paraphrasing based on my recollection, but it’s a close paraphrase.)
The death rate is low. I remember feeling a dark pang in my chest as I heard that, and brushing it aside to stay present with the discussion.
But it stuck with me, the realization that the people in charge of designing and implementing infrastructure for bicycles, pedestrians, and yes, cars, consider safety to mean: “not too many people have died.” I couldn’t help but picture the promotional campaign: “Use our bike lanes – you probably won’t die!”
I’m aware that it’s part of transportation planners’ jobs to quantify what constitutes a “safe” place, and therefore talking about death rates isn’t irrelevant for them, professionally. But I’m not sure there’s an adequate realization of how that translates to real life – of what safety means to the person who is trying to decide whether or not to ride her bicycle to the grocery store, or to pick up her kids from school, or to work during rush hour.
A few people in the meeting pointed out the importance of “subjective safety,” and there were nodded heads, and I don’t think our local transportation bureau is unaware that safety can mean different things to different people. And yet.
Using the term “subjective safety” relegates it to an add-on, a “nice to have” extra that’s not used for planning purposes. It would be nice if the “slow and cautious” riders could feel safe using our bike network. But because they’re so slow and cautious, the fault is really with them. They’re safe; they’re just too scared to know it. This is the subtext of many discussions of bicycle infrastructure in the U.S., and I think it does us all a disservice.
And more than that, it’s hamstringing our transportation planning. Placing the onus on the bicyclist (or potential bicyclist) to “feel safe” when the infrastructure consists of nothing but paint and wayfinding signs (aka. sharrows) contributes to a vicious cycle of failure in active transportation planning.
We get the mode share we design for. If we design for a few diehard souls, that’s who will ride. If we want a real mode share, we have to build the network for it, not just demand that bicyclists accept the painted line of crumbs we’re offered.
Furthermore, and I hope some transportation planners are listening: Not feeling comfortable riding with car traffic at your elbow is not a sign of timidity; it’s a sign of intelligence, and a simple indicator that one’s basic animal awareness of danger is functioning properly. Too many discussions of transportational bicycling polarize cyclists into “strong & fearless” and “timid & cautious,” as well as a third category describing those who are “interested but intimidated.”
There’s a common assumption that the more experienced a cyclist is, the more comfortable he or she is with riding in “challenging” (read: dangerous) traffic environments. I’d argue that more exposure to dangerous situations does not necessarily breed comfort with them. Because what’s making the situation uncomfortable isn’t the perception of danger, but actual danger.
I’m about as strong, skilled, and confident in my bike handling skills as they come, and I find riding in aggressive, close-driving traffic fucking nerve-wracking. I can ride in a vehicular style. I can ride the speed of car traffic. I can anticipate drivers blowing through stop signs, turning without signaling, cutting me off, right-hooking me, opening their doors wide without looking, passing an oncoming cyclist wide and right into my path, and a whole mess of other shit. I can avoid a lot of problems that occur on the road. That doesn’t make me comfortable doing it.
The longer I do this bicycling-for-transportation thing, the more I want a real, protected bike network. After a decade in New York City (I began before bike lanes were a twinkle in Janette Sadik-Khan’s eye) and three years in increasingly un-bike-friendly PDX, I’m exhausted. I’ve got what is essentially combat fatigue, and it gets triggered by near misses, and buzzing, and unwarranted honking, bullying, and all the other shit drivers dish out without even considering that there’s a human being on the other end of it.
I’ve spent years fighting the “good fight,” and have spent probably hundreds of hours controlling my own adrenaline-fueled fight or flight reflex. My feeling is, I deserve to be able to ride my bike where I’m going in peace. It’s okay if it rains or snows or sleets on me. Just give me some real safety. “You probably won’t die” doesn’t cut it. The fact that I haven’t died yet has a lot more to do with skill and luck and the veteran bicyclist’s positively feline complement of “lives” than it does with the streets of anywhere I’ve lived being truly safe places to ride.
Postscript: Dr. Rachel Aldred of Westminster University is doing pioneering research documenting bicyclists’ experience of safety (or lack thereof) in the U.K. After writing this post, I noticed an eerily similar post on her blog. I’d say “great minds,” but in this case it’s just the universal (crummy) experience of being a bicyclist in a car-centric culture.
“So there was this SUV…” he said. I nodded, “Yeah, I know.” And it occurred to both of us that he didn’t even need to finish the story, because we both knew how it went. If you’re a bicyclist, you know the rest without being told.
I went on a little adventure this weekend that involved a great deal of unavoidable, intense freeway driving. It was a remarkable experience, and not in a good way. Eight lanes of cars, trucks, SUVs, motorcycles, and so on, traveling at speeds of 65 to 80 mph (or more), bobbing and weaving from all directions, as drivers flitted in and out of tiny gaps with an apparent suspension of belief in the laws of physics.
I seemed to be the only one on the road who was aware of how fast we were actually going. When I met up with my friends and choked out my horror at the gauntlet I’d just been through to get there, this impression was confirmed. Everyone looked at me and shrugged. “Yeah, it’s the freeway.”
What it was, was dystopia. The air was hazy with smog, the road surface was chewed to pieces by constant battering with multi-ton vehicles, there were huge chunks of torn-up tire like driftwood along the margins. I narrowly avoided a pothole that was at least 3 feet deep, wide enough to have trapped my rental car like a hunting snare.
It struck me, both during the nightmare driving, wiping sweat off my palms every few minutes so I could maintain grip on the wheel, and later, while I was looking down from the airplane window at our small, fragile planet, that none of this was necessary. That we are killing ourselves and our one and only home, for no reason other than an inexplicably stubborn dedication to traveling in single-occupant vehicles, rather than in safer, more efficient, less-polluting public vehicles, and on completely non-polluting bicycles. For the sake of “saving” minutes and seconds made artificially precious, we have normalized carnage to an extent that is shocking, if you step back and look at it from a human scale.
So there was this SUV whose driver decided it would be a good idea to split lanes with the car I was driving. It happened too quickly for me to honk, and there was nowhere to go, since I was in a lane next to another car on the other side, and I’m lucky to be alive. And that was just one moment of a hundred terrifying near-disasters. But that’s just “normal” car culture.
When I first began riding a bicycle as a serious means of transportation, I was living in New York City. It was 2001, and the World Trade Center had just collapsed after terrorists hijacked several airplanes and flew them into the buildings.
When it happened, I was a mile away, and could see the buildings burning, gashes of flame across them as if they’d been bitten by giant teeth.
My boyfriend had either ridden his bike to work or taken the subway, and I had no way of knowing which. If he’d taken the subway, he’d have been coming up through World Trade Center station right around the time of the attacks. I couldn’t reach him on the phone.
For two or three hours I couldn’t reach him on the phone. I remember standing on the street with tears running down my face with no awareness of how they got there, thinking, “This is how people on the news cry. They don’t know they’re doing it.”
Then he walked into my office, ghost-grey, with soot and ash covering him entirely, eyes, mouth, nose, body. He said nothing, just walked into the bathroom and stayed there for ten minutes. He came out still choking, having had to wash the grey powder out of his throat so he could speak. He grabbed me and we left.
Turns out he had ridden to work that day.
After that day, I began riding my bicycle in the city. Sixteen miles each way, from Queens where my boyfriend lived (he was too traumatized to let me out of his sight, so I gave up my Manhattan apartment) to my job in Soho. The long way, through Midtown and across to the Westside Highway, then down to Bleecker and back over. Mostly because I didn’t know any better; years later I learned how to cut through Long Island City into Brooklyn and thence to the East Village over the Williamsburg Bridge.
I learned the hard way how to manage intense city traffic. I learned fast, because it was do that, or don’t make it where you’re going. The first two weeks I iced my knees every night, and could barely move on weekends. After that it got easier. My body hardened up, my awareness sharpened, my reflexes – well, let’s just say one night at my sister’s house I grabbed a falling glass of water in my left hand, mid-air, without spilling a drop. Shocked, she started calling me Spidey.
I realize this sounds like bragging, and in a minor way it is, but I want you to know how I came to this biking life. I could spend a hundred years writing and probably never be able to fully describe what living on the bike means to me, but there’s a good reason stories begin at the beginning. And the beginning of this story is a terrorist attack, and a need to not risk getting trapped underground in the time of nightmarish uncertainty that followed.
I was out in the rain tonight, on a grocery trip that turned into a non-grocery trip because all I really wanted to do was get out and ride, and at some point I started having one of those imaginary conversations in which I’m trying out language to explain something that the other person is unlikely to grok. What I was saying to this non-specific, nonexistent other person was that I don’t just choose not to drive because I’m concerned about the environment (I am), or because I like riding everywhere I go (I do). I don’t wish I had a car when it’s raining, I don’t want a ride from someone when I’m tired, and it’s not stubbornness or trying to prove a point.
I actively dislike being in cars. During the rare times when I’m riding in or driving one, I feel awful. It feels like we’re going way too fast, even at speeds considered low by motor vehicle standards. I’m keenly aware of how little attention other people in the car, and in the other cars on the road, are paying to the complicated road environment. I feel trapped in an airless box, unable to react naturally. Unable to dive for the snowbank, unable to twitch and avoid the rabbit leaping into my wheel, unable to do any of the hundreds of subtle maneuvers my body knows how to do to keep me and the bike up and moving and unharmed.
Few things in life put you as intimately in touch with your physical being as riding a bicycle. On the bike, I inhabit all the corners of myself – muscle, flesh, bone, nerves, sight, sound, feel, balance, breath, beating heart. I know myself on the bike, and while I’m riding it, the bike is more part of me than a separate thing.
You want me to give that up to keep from getting rain on my face?
The question I hear most often from non-cyclists is “What do you when it…[rains, snows, sleets, simply gets cold out]?” Those of you who get around by bicycle already know what I’m going to say.
There’s no such thing as “bad” weather; only inadequate gear.
One of the beautiful secrets you discover once you start riding a lot is that weather just isn’t that big a deal. In fact, one of the things I love most about my life on the bike is the feeling that I live outdoors. For at least a part of every day, I experience what’s actually going on out there. Sometimes that means challenges. There’s ice stinging my face, the ground is slippery, I’m getting splashed with mud, I’m getting wet, I’m getting blown around and have to muscle the bike to maintain control. I love that.
I’ve raced a storm, lost, and gotten soaked. I’ve been knocked off the bike by a gust of wind, jumped free, and landed on my feet. I’ve ridden onto a bridge on a rainy day and realized, just in time, that the bridge does indeed “freeze before roadway.” It was a sheet of glass, and I had to walk the entire span, holding the guardrail with one hand, with the bike sliding out from under my other hand.
I’ll never forget my first ride on studded tires one night on a solidly iced Manhattan Bridge. That time I was thrilled when I saw the ice (if you have studs, you want to use them!), and I laughed the entire way. There was the New Year’s Eve ride in ice pellets and fancy dresses. The ride through the blizzard to the dance party. You get the idea.
Most of the time I just ride on, having very few problems at all.
Having said that, over the years, I’ve developed some strategies for winter clothing that others may find helpful.
Cold-Weather Clothing Strategies
First of all, there’s cold and there’s cold. And then there’s Minneapolis. If you live in the snowbelt (or heck, Alaska), you already know, probably better than I do, how to keep yourself warm (and your brake cables operational). If you’re newer to this winter riding thing, however, read on. And when you’re done, go check out these awesome people for tips on handling the various surfaces winter may throw at you.
Layering. Yes, everybody says this, but it’s important to know which layers to use for specific conditions.
Layer 1: Baselayer. The basic idea is to have a thin layer next to your skin that will wick moisture (yes, we still sweat in winter) away from the skin. That means either synthetic, silk, or wool. Cotton is evil. Put the cotton away until spring. Your non-hypothermic self will thank you.
Layer 2: Midlayer(s). Rule of thumb: Two thin layers are warmer and more versatile than one thick one. Warmer because two layers will trap a little air between them, and air is insulating (that’s what makes down warm; the fibers are hollow). More versatile because cycling produces a surprising amount of heat, and if you’re overdressed, you’ll get sweaty, and then the sweat will do what sweat does – cool you off. Which is not ideal when it’s 10F out. Put on, peel off, it’s the winter two-step. My personal favorite midlayers are wafer-thin merino wool sweaters.
Layer 3: Outer shell. Depending on your local climate, this should be wind-blocking, and/or waterproof. (Waterproof layers generally cut the wind pretty well, too.) In cold, dry weather, I wear a softshell jacket. When the temp drops below the teens, I may add a down vest outside of the jacket (the better to take on and off easily). In cool, wet weather, my outer layers are a rain jacket and rain pants (and rain socks, damnit! I hate wet feet).
Dress evenly. Many bicyclists overdress their top half and underdress their legs. This is a recipe for getting sweaty and chilly. Your legs are going to get you home; treat them nicely! Below about 30F, I’ll add a lightweight baselayer bottom under my cycling tights (if I’m wearing those), or under whatever else I may be wearing on the bottom. I’m also a huge fan of knitted legwarmers. I find that my ankles & lower legs are always happier in them, and I can stuff a hanky into a legwarmer for easy access when I come to a stop and have to contend with a river of snot.
Those are the basics, but most of keeping warm happens in the details, namely the extremities. Hands, feet, face, ears, neck. So let’s devote some time to the most susceptible parts of us.
Head/face: Hat, neckwarmer, balaclava (or as we used to say in #bikeNYC, baklava) – you’ll want some or all of these. I prefer a simple tube-style neckwarmer (also called a cowl) to a scarf because it’s easier to pull up or push down on the fly, and won’t come unwrapped and then get tangled in some part of me or the bike. I wear either a knitted cap with earflaps that tie under the chin (over my neckwarmer to keep out drafts), or a wool cycling cap with earflaps I can tuck the neckwarmer into.
Some folks go full balaclava, and I have no quarrel with that (I’ve been known to do a thin balaclava with a cap on top for extreme cold), but I find that a tall neckwarmer plus earflap cap allows me more flexibility and is almost as warm. Pull neckwarmer over nose when needed, scrunch down when my glasses fog up, etc.
Hands: Obviously you’re going to need gloves, mittens, or lobster claws. As with most things bikey, there are various schools of thought. Mittens are the warmest and give the crappiest control. Gloves give most control, but you’ll lose digits when it’s seriously cold out. Lobster-claw style gloves give some of the benefits of each. In my experience, any glove or mitten made for bicycling is not going to be as warm or as waterproof as something made for skiing. It will also cost about twice as much. Don’t ask me why. So go to the ski shop.
Also, as with anything else, when the temperature gets seriously cold, adding liners will often make more of a difference than you expect. Liner gloves also mean you have something between your bare hands and cold metal when you pull off your big gloves to lock up. I use a variety of options, including silk liners and wool liners in cycling gloves, lobster claws with an added silk liner, and ski mittens for when it’s fucking serious out. Ski gloves and mittens typically lack a terry patch for wiping your nose, so stuff a hanky in your sleeve, legwarmer, or back pocket. Military surplus stores are great places to find cheap knitted wool gloves for liners.
Pogies: These kooky-looking things are a great option if you have one bike or a dedicated “winter bike” and don’t want to mess about with sixteen layers of gloves. I haven’t used them, but icebikey friends of mine swear by them.
Feet: I will be honest with you; feet are my bete noir. Everybody’s got something that’s an extra challenge to keep warm. With me, it’s my toes. I have a whole bag of tricks for my feet. The basic rule is wool socks rule. I start with tall wool socks (lightweight or midweight ski or snowboard socks), and depending on the weather, there may be a wicking liner sock inside the wool sock, or two layers of wool socks, with or without a chemical toewarmer pack sandwiched in between (or on top). If it’s raining, I wear lightweight ski socks with rain socks over them (Rocky makes some good ones). Or I may just ride in waterproof boots. A nice setup for snowy weather is waterproof hiking boots and BMX pedals with Hold Fast straps. That way, when the inevitable happens, and the bike starts to slide out, you have decent traction on the foot you put down to catch yourself (ask me how I know).
If you simply must ride clipless, you’ll have to invest the damn money in Lake Winter Boots. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Eyes: Cold wind will not only sting your eyes but also make them tear up, and then your tears freeze and you have eyelashcicles. Cycling glasses are helpful until they fog up (hence my neckwarmer maneuvers), and in deeply cold weather you may need to move into vented ski goggle territory.
One last tip: If, despite your best efforts, you’ve miscalculated and find yourself getting sleepy after having been cold (especially cold and wet) for a while, pull the fuck over and get yourself into a bodega, mini-mart, anything indoors to thaw out for a few minutes. Getting sleepy or disoriented are signs of hypothermia, and you don’t want to fuck with hypothermia. (Trust me, I’ve been there.)
After reading all this, you’re probably thinking, screw it, I’ll drive/take the train/bus. Don’t. You’ll be missing out on some awesome riding, and the incomparable feeling of being able to get around under your own power in almost any circumstances. Plus, if it’s super-cold, your car isn’t gonna start anyway.
The thing about winter is, you very quickly get to know what you need to wear for specific conditions. Gearing up becomes automatic, and there’s nothing quite as satisfying as getting the layers just right, and feeling comfortable on the bike, arriving at your destination an invigorated, rosy-cheeked superhero.
“You’re a runner,” she said, meaning I use my bike to escape things I don’t want to feel. She had a point.
But the opposite is also true. Sometimes I don’t know I’m feeling anything until I’m 12 miles out and have sloughed off the carapace that accumulates when I’m stationary, indoors, or around people.
My Twitter stream sounds like I’m constantly running errands. Like everyone’s, my daily life entails lots of little missions. But I also have a habit of lining up bike errands for myself nearly every day so I have an excuse to get on the bike.
The cat was out of wet food today (thank you, Cat!), so I rode out into a typical November day – rainy and cool. I started to go the most direct route…and then turned around. When I get the detouring instinct, I try to follow what it’s telling me, because it knows what I need better than I do, and that’s not necessarily cat food (though I did buy that, because: Cat). As I looped through one neighborhood, and another, and another (neighborhoods here are wee), the day began to be beautiful. I don’t mean that the sun came out. I mean that mine did.
Over a golden carpet of heart-shaped leaves, through rows of rosy trees, and do you know how many different colors grey can be? You do if you live in the Pacific Northwest. They are all bewitching: bluish, purplish, like so many dove-wings hanging above you.
Rain falling on my nose, delicious.
Yesterday I’d gone for a long ride, one of those times when I don’t even pretend to be riding for a purpose, other than because I need to. I rode the bike that’s a part of me, as if we are a bird together. It’s the one I keep in the house, because it might be made of a piece of my heart. It’s steel.
For the first hour I was angry, tangled like some tough old cocoon. When I got to the farm just outside of Gresham and looked at the lambs, their little legs dark in the mud, a dream I’d had that morning came to me:
I had wings, but they were ugly, made of flesh, and only half-grown. I hadn’t even known they were there.
And then I was crying a bit, on the bike. It used to be I could only cry while riding through the park at night alone.
In that moment I understood that my wings were stunted because I’d been told they were something to be ashamed of. That was why they’d been hiding there all this time, half-grown against my back.
I rode 20 more miles then, through the hobo camps along the Springwater at dusk (ride fast, dodge but don’t stop), turned on my light, listened to the geese. At one point I thought a bike was coming up to pass, but it was the wind.
Stopped at the grocery store (sometimes the non-errand rides get errands thrown in). Carried a half-gallon of milk on my back. Fed the cat.
I’m not always home when I’m in my house, but if I ride I usually arrive at myself.
There are things that only bicyclists know. Riding home on an October evening, I know what the people in every house I pass are making for dinner. I know where the wild grapes grow, because I ride through wafts of their fragrance. I know how to traverse a thick patch of broken branches, wet oak leaves, and half-squashed horse chestnuts without going down.
In a car, a street exists only as a linkage between places, like a blood vessel connecting organs. Time spent in the car feels in-between. Something to be gotten through as quickly as possible.
The designs of modern cars encourage a state of subawareness. Insulated from road noise and vibration, with tinted windows, elaborate entertainment and navigation systems, cars increasingly foster a sense of containment and exclusion from the outside world.
Why do you think all those car commercials show the driver moving through an empty, noiseless city? The ideal is to not have to notice the time spent driving.
Anything that detracts from this insulated experience becomes an annoyance. People riding bikes or trying to walk across the street are “in your way.” How dare they make you pause, pay attention, or (gasp!) move your foot from the gas pedal to the brake? Damn those little people.
Riding a bicycle, on the other hand, is an experience of heightened awareness – of what we see, smell, and hear; of the physical effort of pedaling and climbing; of our passage through space. And because we ride in an environment that is strongly biased toward the comfort and convenience of people in cars, rather than toward the safety of those on bicycles or on foot, there is also the constant awareness of potential threats.
I’ve spent enough time on a bike in American streetscapes that I tend to see and process objects and movements quickly, to the point where I can often predict what a driver is going to do before he or she does it. I also notice pedestrians moving between cars, small animals darting out from the side, cats meandering into the road, and lots of other things many people miss.
But that’s not the kind of seeing I’m really talking about. On a bicycle, I experience the reality of motor vehicles in a way their occupants aren’t and may never be aware of. I feel the whoosh of air displacement as they pass by (often too close). I hear how very loud they are. It never ceases to amaze me that some drivers think they need to honk to “let me know they’re there.” Trust me, I know you’re there. It’s like riding next to a dragon.
A friend of mine was describing an incident earlier that day where a driver had passed so closely that she’d nearly been swiped. The driver parked and my friend rode over to tell her that she’d nearly hit them (pointing to her children sitting in the bike’s cargo box), and the driver responded, in a not-especially-concerned tone of voice, that she’d had “no idea.”
Leaving aside the question of whether this particular driver was lying, it’s true that many people who drive dangerously around bikes aren’t even aware that they’re doing it. They don’t know where the edges of their cars are, and more importantly, they don’t know what a car really is, from the outside, in the real world, as a large metal object moving through space.
So what we have is the person who’s piloting an incredibly fast, powerful, dangerous machine being less aware of his or her surroundings and less connected to the world outside the box than he or she will be upon exiting the vehicle. And then we have a person on a bicycle trying desperately to anticipate and avoid the dragon’s next move.
This is our reality. And the only way to truly explain it to someone who doesn’t know is to take them for a bike ride on these streets, these beautiful, terrible streets.