“Don’t cut me off while I’m biking. You’ll get a finger and either a spark plug or u-lock through your windshield.”
Is this confrontational relationship with drivers the answer for cyclists? What is to be done, and how do we get there?
I’m going to borrow a bit from John Rawls for our social contract. Imagine you put on a veil where you know nothing about yourself. This veil blinds you from knowing who you are and what you do.
What laws and rules for society, specifically for cyclists, would you choose? Since you don’t know whether you’re a “Soccer Mom” or ride by “One Less Car”, it would be irrational to skew a law to the advantage of either. Only truly just and fair laws would emerge.
Some people bike for both the commute and exercise. Some just want to play polo. Others are competitive and want to race. All of these are great reasons to go out and ride. The fact is people bike for fun: whether for exercise, commuting, playing polo, or racing; people do it because it brings them pleasure and enjoyment. And people as a whole respond to incentives.
This is a two part issue that relies on both sides. I do believe cars and bikers can co-exist and have a symbiotic relationship (and I’ve never even been to Portland). Here’s how we get there:
First we must figure out a way to communicate to others what exactly a biker is. How do we put the human factor back into the equation? Drivers often forget that the cyclist they just buzzed could be their husband, their neighbor, or their daughter’s best friend. In a world of now, the mental link is lost.
One way to establish this is through a relationship between the citizens (read: all citizens) and local government to bring together and improve community. The Saddle Sores Bike Club in Richmond, VA has adopted a major biking artery in the city. They clean it up once a month, removing debris and trash, just like the Adopt-A-Highway program.
Gene Stroman of the club says, “After four clean-ups we got a sign that says ‘This artery adopted by Saddle Sores Bike Club.’ We hope that drivers and other citizens will see us out there, or see our sign posted, and realize it’s everyday people that are being active to benefit their community.”
The Cutthroats Bike Club in Richmond stepped up and held a holiday bike drive, complete with a dance party and talent show. Teaming up with the Neighborhood Resource Center, they raised money to put disadvantaged youth (up to 18) on bikes for the holiday, those that rely on a bicycle for transportation the most.
Richmond is no goldmine for bikers compared to the DC area. Namely, there are a total of two bike lanes in the greater Richmond area, though the Mayor has made wonderful strides and commitments to change this.
Oddly enough, drivers in Richmond are much more accepting toward bikers riding on the street and sharing the road. That’s a stark contrast to some of the experiences I’ve had in the Greater DC area, where it almost seems bikers are expected to ride on the trails (Vienna, I’m looking at you). Adding the human factor into the equation would help mend some of the animosity between drivers and bikers.
But the bikers aren’t off the hook either. Wild maneuvers, blowing through lights without slowing down, antagonizing cars, and flipping the bird hardly help. Bikers can increase awareness through what I like to call ‘Critical Manners.’ Critical Mass, as I’ve found in DC and Richmond, is really nothing more than Critical Sass: bikers take over as much of the road as possible in a large group to show their unified strength. A Critical Manners ride would not try to dominate, but show that even in large groups, sharing the road is about just that: sharing the road with other modes of transportation.
Another way to get information out is to host free Bike Symposiums. RideRichmond hosted a free Biking Symposium at VCU designed to educate newcomers and old-timers in the city on all the activities available on bikes, and the safety and laws surrounding them. The incentive? Attendees received a free blinky light set.
And we could always easily have a ‘bike week’ in the area. Possible events to keep fun and education free? A Biking Symposium, Safety Dance Party, Bike Polo Tournament, Bike Swap (public park), Bike Round-Up (minor tune-up), Bike Registration with Police, Goldsprints, and maybe even a Pizza Ride and screening of Breaking Away.
Sometimes I wonder why Richmond, with two bike lanes and no Bike-Ped coordinator, can pull something like this off, yet DC with WABA, FABB, BikeArlington, and all the co-ops and shops can’t.
Remember our social contract? I do believe that if everyone put on the veil, they would support what’s come to be known as the Idaho stop. Cyclists are allowed to treat red lights as stop signs. This creates an incentive for bikers. Cars inherently travel faster than bikes, so why punish bikers for using an alternative mode of transportation?
Unfortunately, the cyclist will always get the short end of a stick vs. a car in a collision. And even if cars follow the two-feet passing law, any cyclist will tell you two-feet really isn’t enough on most roads: cyclists ride to the right and drivers sit on the left. 2 feet perceived by the driver is often much less than actual 2 feet.
At the end of the day, you don’t have to spend $3,500 on a bike and wear a spandex skin suit to go out and have fun. Biking is for everyone. If you’re looking to expand your horizons, or even learn more, there are plenty of bicycle co-ops in the area that are looking for volunteers to help educate and ‘share the love’ of biking.
Michael Gilbert is a new resident of Alexandria after living in Richmond for many years, where he was involves with RideRichmond, the Velocity Bike Co-Op, and Saddle Sores Bicycle Club.