Biking is one of my favorite recreational pastimes, so signing myself up for a week of nothing but was far from a chore. Because I have biked many places both recreationally and as a commuter, I’ll start with some observations from my past biking experience that will provide a backdrop for what I see as challenges to get people out of their cars and onto their bikes. Because we are surrounded by a car-centric culture, my main focus is having people pick transit alternatives to the car and in this post, I’ll be discussing the bike as it fits into that larger transit picture.

I have been a commuter to work on a number of occasions, most consistently in the summers of 2006 and 2008. During the summer of 2006, I worked at a burrito shop in uptown Minneapolis, a hip and trendy area of the city where there is a busy nightlife with many bars, shops and restaurants. For this job, I biked almost everyday I worked, my favorite shift being the late nights when I would work until 3 in the morning or later after bar closing. I would ride home around a few of the Minneapolis lakes with either my iPod playing or simply listening to the water and the metallic whir of my bike as I pedaled home. I liked the feeling of being able to hop on my bike and simply ride, with no traffic or worries, dripping in sweat after a long day of work.

In the summer of 2008, I worked at The Evergreen State College and biked to work almost every morning. I found this experience to be very pleasant for a few reasons. Primarily, I found biking to my place of work invigorating and intrinsic in the waking process. As a person who tends to sleep until noon if the opportunity presents itself, a morning person would not be an accurate description of who I am. Combine this with a general sense of spite and bitterness to “the man” for making me wake up at this hour to be at work for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and you’ve got yourself a tired, slightly crabby employee. I found that after only a few blocks of riding, I was pretty much wide awake, noticing my surroundings, working up a bit of a sweat, and generally in a better mood than I found myself in if I were to ride the bus or worse yet, drive.

Many of the obstacles that would deter me from riding such as bad weather, long distance, difficult terrain, or time constraints were not present for these two summer commuting experiences. This is fundamental in understanding what it takes to get people out of their cars and into the streets. Because the automobile is given the benefit of the doubt in our current system, any transit alternative to the automobile has to go above and beyond what the car’s perceived benefits are. When I discuss a transit system, I mean a system consisting of various modes and methods available for public use, such as a subway and bus service, as well as sidewalks and bike lanes. When thinking of various transit systems, I imagine the person who would be the hardest sell on using the system, and start designing from that point. With this person in mind, the antithesis of the public transit user, the smallest details will be considered to entice this person to use the system instead of driving.

When I was done with work for the day at Evergreen, the ride home was usually relaxing and calm, something to soothe myself after a long day. On this ride home though, as some of my co-workers would pass me in their cars, often times with no other passenger, I would notice a feeling of slight superiority rising within me. This was not the first experience with this feeling nor would it be the last. As it has been and continues to be part of my biking experience, it deserves more exploration to find out why it arises and what that tells me about myself and the context I find myself in when I bike. This feeling is not something dripping from every pore as I ride and I would say for the most part it isn’t present for the duration of my rides. But when it does come up, it sticks with me for a while and my thoughts focus on it for the duration of the ride.

There could be many origins for this feeling and I’ll try to list a few. Foremost, when I see people in their cars while I’m on my bike, I understand the car is contributing pollution to the environment that I am not. Second, I feel that as a biker, I am putting in a greater amount of work than those who have chosen to drive a car. Finally, as kids and teenagers, my friends and I biked quite a bit. On more than a few occasions, we were yelled at, cursed at, honked at, chased down or generally treated like shit, seemingly for simply being young and on our bikes. Obviously most people were pleasant and never bothered us, but it is the negative experiences that stand out. This never deterred us from biking anywhere, but soon we were imagining the things that we would like to do to the loud mouth assholes who yelled at us from their cars.
“What if we carried rocks with us and the next time some guy mouthed off we threw them at his windshield?”
“What if we simply got off our bikes and threw them threw their windshields?”
Other violent ideas and images came to our minds, but as this is a (mostly) family friendly site, I’ll let your imagination run wild. The point is that we didn’t understand why people would harass us while we were biking on the sidewalk. These above mentioned reasons must have something to do with this feeling of superiority that occasionally arises when I’m out there on my bike. What effect would this have on other’s who are considering riding?

Not only do I feel a sense of superiority when I see others in their cars, this seems to embolden me into a sense of entitlement of the road. When I ride, I am subservient to the automobiles on the road. The autos have claimed their stake as the primary vehicle on the road, and my only option is to check my behavior and make sure it is in accordance with their rules. But I can do things that cars can’t and I take full advantage of these when I can. I don’t wait for red lights when I don’t have to, I cross the street at points other than the crosswalk, I move when and where I want to move. It is all part of the crafty freedom that the bike allows me to express. I can slip in and out of locations that bulky cars could never imagine. I am agile on my bike, I turn when I want to, I follow a different set of rules. The rule of common sense guides my actions when I ride.

I have to ask myself: is this wrong? Let’s flip the question on its head. Do driver’s not feel a sense of entitlement to the road, amongst themselves but especially over bikers? Am I getting caught in a trap of shallow emotions, something I know I can’t win but still persist with anyway? Is this system creating tensions between drivers and riders that need not be present if we set things up another way?

In his book Pedal Power, J. Harry Wray explains how perceptions of the world change with the mode of transportation one is using. He describes how the bike rider notices and interacts with the environment, is subject to it and overall is presented in a position of vulnerability. I too have noticed things on my bike that I would never see or experience inside of my car. This past week I’ve had to avoid broken glass tossed to the side of the road, conveniently out of sight and mind of drivers as they zoom by but clearly in the front of my mind as one shard could easily end my ride.

The city of Olympia does a decent job at providing bike lanes in some areas, but certain parts of town are left without any and the ones provided often lack features that would make many riders feel comfortable. Much of downtown Olympia does not have bike lanes and because bikers are not allowed on the sidewalks downtown, they are forced into a road that is not fitted for their needs. Take 4th Avenue for example. It is a one-way street with parking on both sides. There are no bike lanes and traffic is fairly fast paced, which pushes bikers to the side of the road in between moving traffic and parked vehicles. I have plenty of experience riding in urban traffic so this situation neither surprises or unnerves me. But the world isn’t made up of people just like me (you should all be thankful for that) and so we must think of the timid, nervous or new rider who has a need and right to feel safe as a legal vehicle on the road.

Another problem with the streets that do have bike lanes is the lack of separation from moving traffic. The bike lanes are only separated by a white line dividing the driving lane and the biking lane. Furthermore, the bus stops are placed in the sidewalk to the right of the entire road. This means that when the bus needs to pull over to a stop, they pull right into the bike lane, which, as I have experienced, never leads to good things. My choices are to stop and wait for the bus to leave the bike lane, ride around the bus into traffic coming towards me, or sometimes, if the bus leaves a bit of room in the bike lane, ride through and hope that everyone who is getting off the bus has already done so. This same problem occurs when cars are attempting to make a right turn. In my riding experience, there are countless examples where drivers simply don’t look around to see if there is a biker attempting to cross the street or simply going with the given green light. It is an absolute must for every bike rider to be aware of their surroundings and ride very defensively. I always assume that the driver is not paying attention to me and proceed at dealing with traffic from that stance. Drivers can pay less attention and more often get away with it, whereas if I were to do this, it could easily cost me my life.

Every person riding a bicycle upon a roadway shall be granted all of the rights and shall be subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle. By the written law, as stated in the previous sentence, drivers of cars and bicycles are equal, but any rider will tell you that by the law of the streets, we are second class. We are simply not treated the same as the driver of a car is when we occupy a space on the road. When there are no bike lanes and we have to take a space in traffic, drivers get annoyed that we can’t keep up with the speed of traffic. When we are in a bike lane, drivers often don’t know how to react to us. Some will slow way down so as not to pass, and as I understand drivers being hesitant and nervous for the safety of a biker, this really is the worst way to handle the situation. It creeps me out and makes me nervous to no end. I don’t want a car behind me, I want the cars away from me. Other drivers come too close and don’t seem to notice that they are inches away from clipping me and possibly dragging me under their car. The best driver will give you a wide swath of space and pass quickly around you, making you feel safe and protected away from the moving vehicle.

In later posts, I will go further into my experiences and deeper into suggested improvements to make the experience of bicycling more pleasant, which in turn will lead to more bikers.