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.
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.