Category Archives: Humans!

Pedal revolutions

mistwashmonumentIt’s winter, which may have something to do with the big, twiney thoughts that are absorbing my attention most of the time, to the point where Jeezuschrist could you all just stop calling me, don’t call us we’ll call you, I AM ON THE BIKE AND I AM BUSY.

I’m not much of a phone person under ordinary circumstances, but lately, every time that little robot noise goes off, I want to fling it into the Potomac.

I read this a while back, and the ground-level truths of it took up residence in the corners of my consciousness, and they’ve been growing seedlings there. Like the kindergarten time-lapse movie of bean sprouts, I can almost see them growing, unfolding bright green leaves that shake me with little moments of realization. Oh. Oh. OH.

If it was a snake, it’d’ve bit me. All that frustration, all that deep perplexity over why our culture makes insane choices to value parking and traffic “flow” over minor things like, oh, human lives. Why didn’t I see it before? It’s capitalism. It’s not that we don’t know the consequences of these choices; it’s that we’ve trapped ourselves in a huge edifice that’s built on priorities other than keeping people alive and well — namely, money — usually expressed, in “stakeholder” meetings about bike & ped infrastructure, as “the needs of local businesses” (which, in a capitalist society, amounts to a sacrament).

Choose money over people, power over people, and what you get is death. Nearly 40,000 in 2015, the largest single-year increase in 50 years. We’ve institutionalized prioritizing profits over people, and this is the price. Well, this and the fact that one century very soon our planet will cease to be habitable.

You can see why I don’t want to answer the phone.

greenfencenearWhat can be done? Saving ourselves and our planet would require radical changes, and we all know what they are, and I’ll bet you every penny I will ever see that we’re not willing to make them.

So what I personally do, mostly, is ride my bike and try not to despair. I try to encourage other people to use their cars less. To consider that there are alternate ways of managing many of life’s day-to-day demands beyond the private metal box.

I wave at small kids on bikes and hope for the best. And I rage. I DM furiously with like-minded friends. I suspect the climate scientists are in a similar lather of despair and conscious deep-breathed getting on with daily living.

I didn’t intend to write this post. I meant to write the other post that’s been in my mind the last few months — the one about how much I love winter riding. Either I’d forgotten how I feel about winter riding while I was living in a place with mild winters, or it’s something that’s changed in me. Winter is the time with the best solitude, and on (or off) the bike that’s (almost) always what I crave. It’s an analog for how we move through life — alone with our thoughts. If we’re doing it well, we move gracefully, fluidly, birdlike. If not, we might stumble a bit, occasionally fall, but it’s not such a big deal to get back on and pedal away from those occasions.

I’m thinking of changing careers, just slightly, and I keep getting caught a little on the thought that all I really know how to do is ride. That’s not strictly true, of course, but I have increasing trouble sitting still for anything else. Maybe I’m just conscious of time passing, of fleeting moments being all I or anyone, or even the earth has anymore. I want to keep flying, breathing, shifting smoothly through the air because that is where I am me. If I could write while riding, I would. If I could take photographs to show you what I see without having to stop and maneuver a camera, even a damned-easy phone camera, I would do this constantly. But I can’t, so it’s rare that I hook myself into paragraphs, or stop to try and grab that little scene.

Mostly I just keep thinking and pedaling. Did I think I would be turning into a revolutionary as I aged? No, I did not. But the bicycle has many surprises.

PS. Do try not to troll me with your urgent political viewpoints and BUT BUT BUTs. I meant what I said, I have no desire to be capitalismsplained or any other splained, and I will throw you into the Potomac.

Darker

I’ve been thinking that most people probably aren’t very aware of their dark side. That doesn’t mean it isn’t an operating force in their actions, and it doesn’t mean they don’t fear it, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Many people express their darker selves when they’re behind the wheel of a car. And when they’re on the Internet. Both situations offer power and anonymity. The opportunity to hurt without consequence.

In a car you can bully someone you’d never feel comfortable threatening in person. Someone bigger than you. Someone stronger. Someone older, or more accomplished. Someone who would command — and possibly demand — your respect, if you had to look them in the eye.

On the Internet you can threaten, humiliate, libel, and ridicule someone you’ve never met and will never have to face.

Many people take advantage of these two situations to scare, hurt, and threaten other people, to knock them down emotionally or physically. I wonder if more people act out while driving and/or on the Internet than don’t.

It takes a certain strength of mind to remember the humanity of others when they can neither see you or touch you. When they’re saying something you don’t like, or doing something that “gets in the way” of where you want to be, or what you want to do.

It takes patience. It takes humility.

If you’re not the one in the empowered position, behind the wheel, way up high in that SUV, you may be a little more familiar with the edges of your dark side. With the landscape of what you are capable of, given the right set of circumstances.

Let me tell you about my dark side.

I know what it feels like, rising. I know the size and shape of it. I know its roar. I know exactly what it — and by extension, I — am capable of.

I also know that it responds to the cold logic that runs through my mind when I’m processing a bad situation. I know that as incendiary as it is, it still filters through my awareness, and I still make choices about what I am going to do. Choosing through an enormous storm of rage is a very weird feeling, but it’s one I’ve felt a lot.

I will tell you that most people have never seen my dark side, not even a glimpse, though many have seen (or heard) me angry. I will also tell you, and I am deadly serious now, that you do not want to meet my dark side.

I have had to spend a lot of time getting to know my dark side because it is there to protect me from danger, and I’ve been in danger — real, you-might-die-now danger — more times than I can count. I’ve had to find out just what the limits are — how much control I have, what the decision-making process is like from within a white-hot rage. It’s not a pleasant experience. But it’s worth knowing, for real, who you really are, when you’re pressed up against the sharp edge of your mortality. Because of these terrible experiences, I have come to know my most dangerous self, and it is well-integrated into the rest of me.

What I’ve discovered is that: a) it’s a source of strength, b) it would enable me to kill someone if that were the only viable choice, and c) it is still me. C) means that for the most part, like Mal,

If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.

I used to joke that I had to leave New York before I ended up dead or in prison. It wasn’t altogether a joke. If I ever kill you, it will probably be because you have hit me with your car, and I will either be unable or unwilling to tell my big dark rage to stand down. And I probably won’t regret it.

What’s It Going to Take?

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.

IMG_8792We 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.

Gathering at the park
Gathering at the park beforehand

What is safety?

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!”

wideroad
Just because a road has a bike lane doesn’t mean I want to ride on it.

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.

Construction signs blocking bike lanes - an all-too-common sight in PDX.
Construction signs blocking bike lanes – an all-too-common sight in PDX.

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.

Here’s a string of them zigzagging along the bike lane.

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…

“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.”

bumps!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.

 

These streets

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.

I know that the streets are a place.

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.

Too many people drive like they're here...
Too many people drive like they’re here…
...When they're here.
…When they’re here.

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.

post1_drivelikeA 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.

post1_elms