30 July 2008

A Cyclist's Plea

Another guest blogger here, with a topic that is near and dear to my heart: commuting via bicycle. I've previously expressed some of my frustrations on my blog. (Shameless self-promotion - check!) But my frustration had reached a new level. I'm more prone than ever to yell and curse at people. It's not something I'm proud of, even if I can recognize that 90% of the time it stems from fear.

I've been thinking lately that it all boils down to respect. Respect for rules, sure, but more importantly respect for others. For their safety on the one hand, and for their simple right to exist and choose a different mode of transportation than you on the other. At least that's how it feels, sometimes - that drivers have no respect for cyclists' right to be on the road, and no consideration of how terrifying their practices can be.

Let me preface the rest of this with the admission that I am far from perfect in my cycling. I've been known to jump onto the sidewalk, and to 'turn left' by crossing with the pedestrian signals at traffic lights. For these reasons my growing frustration is distinct from that of my mother, who can't fathom why anyone (cyclist, driver, pedestrian) would knowingly break the rules.

However, I am exceedingly careful not to endanger anyone else when I do these things. I go slowly on side walks, and try to stay out of the way of cars and people when I'm cheating by scooting into the crosswalk. I try hard to minimize discomfort for others when I decide to break the rules, but I also refuse to martyr myself by hanging out in the middle of a crazy intersection hoping to have time to turn left without a car sideswiping me first. In short, I take care, try not to take myself too seriously, and to be courteous.

So why on earth is it so difficult for others to do the same? Is it the white noise of the city traffic making everyone angry? Or just a deep-rooted belief that one's own life and schedule is the most important? Why is it so important to get 3 cars lengths ahead that drivers roar past me in the right hand lane - a lane that is usually dotted with parked cars, anyway? Are they really oblivious to how unnerving it is to have a vehicle accelerate past you so abruptly, squeezing you dangerously close to the curb? Don't even get me started on those who use our precious few bike lanes to try to pass someone before a red light, only to get stuck with 6 angry cyclists whacking the car trunk or door as they try to maneuver around or past it. Acting like a jerk in traffic brings it out in everyone else, perpetuating and intensifying the jerkiness.

Professional drivers are notorious - I've had a complete stranger, but fellow cyclist tell me to 'watch out for the cabs' as he pulled away from the bike rack. I understood precisely what he meant. I get that it's their job to be quick, but does that mean they absolutely can't check their blind spot? Tour buses have also be proving dangerous of late. I was convinced I was about to see someone get flattened by a bus two days ago. In a bike lane, no less.

I've been lucky - my worst accident was a result of trying to avoid a car, but didn't end up involving one. I have a number of friends who haven't been so lucky - one got the door prize but was relatively okay; another got knocked over, rolled across the car's hood, and the driver pretty much left her on the corner in shock. Just this weekend someone related a recent accident where a driver hit him at an intersection and proceeded to imply that if he had been wearing more appropriate bike attire (as opposed to his office clothes, it being Monday morning) the accident might not have happened.

What do these incidents all share? A shocking lack of respect and a shirking of responsibility. In each case, the cyclists had the right of way. In each case, the drivers took off as soon as possible - no offer to take the cyclist to an emergency room, no exchange of numbers. I wonder, sometimes, whether these drivers would be a little more compassionate, a little more respectful - not to mention careful - if they were to spend a week, or even a day cycling.

All of this said, it's not only drivers who are idiots. I came close to an accident with someone just yesterday because she was wearing headphones while cycling and so didn't hear my frantic bell-ringing. These ipod-wearing cyclists strike the fear of God into my atheist heart -- yes, they worry me that much.

Lastly, I know that I can be impatient with cyclists when I'm in a car, and impatient with both cyclists and drivers when I walk. But I try to stay calm and put myself in their shoes unless it's a matter of intensely dangerous actions, in which case I feel free to judge. All I'm getting at is that if more people paid just a little more respect to others on the road maybe, just maybe, my morning and evening commute would feel less like a big ol' risk.

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