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Riding Shirty

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bicycles
Just because you’re on a bike doesn’t mean you own the road.

What is it about riding a bicycle that brings out the self-righteous creep in so many of my fellow New Yorkers?

Please don't misunderstand. Despite a lifetime’s fascination with internal combustion, I am, in fact, an ardent cyclist and enthusiastic supporter of self-propelled transport. Indeed, I am convinced that increased bicycle ridership could cure many of this country’s ills. Fuel consumption would fall, along with traffic congestion and air pollution; obesity, heart disease and diabetes' epidemics would likely abate. I read about a study recently, for instance, that showed that the average person loses 13 pounds when they start biking to work regularly. That can only be for the good.

Very few among us, myself included, couldn’t stand to lose 13 pounds., even if someone like me wouldn’t necessarily lose that much. That is, when I’m not biking I’m often driving old cars, which means I haven’t gained as much to start with as I should have (though you might not know it to look at me) because, aside from a persistent lack of air conditioning which probably causes me to sweat more than you, many days I burn additional calories having to push-start old cars, or just plain push them -- to the side of the road, after some mechanical calamity has suddenly presented itself for my executive review, often with a loud graunching noise, while I am, metaphorically speaking, a bit like Captain Hazelwood (he of Exxon Valdez fame) below decks, catching up on paperwork.

Two enthusiastic supporters of self-propelled transport. (Flickr Photo by State Library of Victoria Collections)I support the creation and expansion of bike lanes and the rights of bicyclists to be treated courteously by motorists. I regret that countries like China are ripping out bike thoroughfares to encourage use of motorized transport. It has only been with the heaviest of hearts that I’ve bid farewell to the utopian fantasy I’d long held that one day we might live in a world of bicycles, trams and high-speed trains, with cars thrown in only for laughs and emergencies. The facts are in, people want cars whether they need them or not.

Still, that doesn’t mean that more and more of us aren’t riding. This is clear every weekend when thousands of New York City residents pedal across the George Washington Bridge and then head my way, north up Route 9W towards the leafy Hudson River town where I live. Here, they will stretch, loiter, preen, carbo-load, single-mingle and eventually split. The lovelier the weather, the more of them there are.

At first, I thrilled to the sight of swarms of bicyclists descending upon our sleepy hamlet. But it’s been some time since I came to dread them. And it’s not that they make a mess or clog the sidewalks, which they do. Or that roughly two-thirds of the bicycling population (and 95 percent of non-bike-riders) really ought to stay as far away from spandex as possible. The form-fitting material is not just de rigeur for riders these days, but from the looks of it, failure to wear stretchy miracle fibers while cycling appears to have become an offense punishable–by long-term incarceration, encouraging novices and even the most casual riders to suit up in the most unflattering costumes.

Fortunately, it’s easy enough to avert your eyes when citizens, decked out in their new, psychedelic second skins, decide to start pedaling away years of Cinnabon abuse. Less easy to overlook is the incredibly low standard modern bicyclists seem to hold themselves to when it comes to observing the rules of the road. The bad behavior has reached a crisis here in Rockland County, N.Y., and it only seems to be getting worse.

You're going to have to pedal faster to escape this guy. (Flickr photo by xxjoyceeyxx)I am familiar of course with the double standard held dearly by too many motorists, as I was fortunate enough to be able to live in Boston, the crucible of bad American driving technique, while attending law school. Living in Jamaica Plain, not far from a major rotary that hosted at least two major accidents every week, I got to document firsthand a key rule of the road. It goes like this:

1. If I’m in the rotary (what the English call roundabouts), I have the right of way.
2. If I’m entering a rotary, I have the right of way.

It’s a highly predictive rule – people will always do the most selfish thing possible, you can bank on it – but it’s also predicated on the principle of mutually assured destruction. Two cars are going to hurt each other just as badly, more or less, so while yielding to no one in principle, in practice you better first make sure that someone is yielding to you.

Yet, it seems I must add (though I can’t figure out why because it’s so obvious), that this rule is a whole other can of peas when applied to bicycles and cars. In fact, it does not apply. It’s one (appalling) thing for bikers to menace other bikers or pedestrians, as many do. But to menace cars while pedaling is insane. Except, to witness many of the cyclists who ride through my town, you would think that they’d somehow figured out how to override the laws of physics, practically daring cars to hit them.

"That'll be the last time that sign tries to tell me what to do!" (Flickr photo by tkw954)When you’re riding your bicycle on a busy, narrow, two-lane highway, it seems plain you ought to ride on the ample shoulder provided. For the very good reason that when you slow to eight miles per hour going up a steep hill, the motorist behind you may either stop dead, risking being rear ended by the car behind him, or he may be forced to cross a double yellow line to avoid you and thus hazard a head-on collision with a passing Peterbilt. The only other choices are knocking you off your mount, injuring or possibly killing you, or honking loudly, scaring the wits out of you and, chances are (if you’re already dumb enough to ride in the middle of the road), the other cyclists riding beside you, rather than ahead of or behind you. Yes, you would think the wisdom of riding single file would be too obvious to state and yet packs of cyclists, sometimes four or five abreast, clog our state highway on any given Saturday, as if this were not obnoxious, provocative behavior, as well as dangerous. Does no one realize how bad, distracted and/or impaired many of these drivers are?

In addition to abundant stupidity in the bicycling community, one also sees a surfeit of bad manners, rooted in anger. Besides those who leave behind the rules of the physical realm, there are many who seem anxious to discard society’s general rules of politesse and comity. How often do I see cyclists choose not to stop to let pedestrians cross at lights? Or indeed fail to stop for lights and stop signs at all? Or refuse to yield to cars entering the road ahead of them? How often? At least as often as I see idiots texting while driving.

One day I was backing out of a driveway. Two fancy pants cyclists were approaching about an eighth-of-a-mile away but I calculated I’d be long gone before they passed my driveway. Instead they sped up. And cursed me and my small children for having the audacity to require them to bleed off a little speed. Then one of them spit on our car and then they both flipped us the giant double electric bird. I don’t know about my children, but the experience continues to haunt my dreams.

Another time, I was driving an electric car, one of those lame efforts, c.2008, governed to go only 25 mph to avoid having to comply with federal safety regulations for cars that go faster. Twenty-five happens to be the speed limit on the river road through Grandview, N.Y., but that didn’t impress the six cyclists on racing mounts who banged on my roof as they passed me flat out, then three abreast and snarling at me to speed it up or stop to let them pass.

"Move it or park it, Kitman!" (Flickr photo by The Suss-Man (Mike))Like I said, I’m all for bicycling. But just because you’re on a bike doesn’t make you a better person than someone in a car, necessarily. I know the virtuous, holier-than-thou feeling that sometimes sets in when I’m riding my bike. But, biker friends, you’ve got to resist the self-righteous impulse. God is not on your side. Riding rude makes people hate you, for one thing, and, for another, you’re representing not just all cyclists but our bicycling future. Don’t ruin it for the rest of the cyclists. And, too, as someone once said, “Can’t we all just get along?”
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