It’s spring. We’re already weeks past our first 80˚ day, baseball season starts tomorrow, flowers have bloomed and immediately become confused. And just as predictably, editorial pages and comment sections are fertile with vitriol hurled between cyclists, pedestrians and cars.
Cyclists: Cars are all trying to kill us.
Drivers: Cyclists all ride like assholes and we should be allowed, nay, encouraged to actually, seriously kill them with our mighty, righteous vehicles.
Pedestrians: Please, neither of you, kill us.
Oversimplification of this nature is rampant, and speaking as someone who wades into the heart of downtown traffic on two and four wheels, during rush hours bad and worse, several days a week, about the only thing we should be able to agree on is that not a bit of it is simple.
And that’s the crux of my approach to cycling in the city, to be perfectly honest, is that i’m never a simple equivalent to a car or a pedestrian. It’s not that it’s merely inconvenient for me to pick one or the other, it’s that my instincts for safety require a blend between the two. You can correctly interpret this as breaking more than one (only-enforced-in-Cambridge) law, but you can also look at it as the result of my consideration of the whole of my interactions with traffic of all kinds at any given point of time, and picking a safe solution. In more than one sense, i’m operating my bike the best i can using the space afforded to me.
Let’s look at some examples of what an asshole i am.
- Running a red light. This is the number one cause of suburbanites who never even go into the city except for a Red Sox game filling the Globe‘s comment sections with justifications for being allowed to run over cyclists. This isn’t a huge surprise, given that famously, er, competitive Boston drivers, can’t enjoy seeing me roll on through while they have to wait. A very few cyclists will do this straight through crossing traffic, which i am not nearly good enough to do, and do not wish to do and won’t discuss further. Having said that, for the most part, i look at most empty red lights (also: walk signals, 4-way stops) as the equivalent of a flashing yellow; i slow, sometimes to a near-stop, i look carefully, and proceed if safe.Why do i think it’s okay to do this? 1. First and foremost, at a red light, i am surrounded by cars and have zero speed, and this is when i am most vulnerable—i am safer when i am moving, visible to you, and further away from you, the driver. Even a small head start means i can ride further away from car doors, not get squeezed into a gutter, and just gives me a greater margin for error. 2. It really does cost me effort to get back up to speed, and it does nobody any good at all for me to sit there at an empty intersection. 3. The only way this affects you the driver is that you may have to pass me a second time; i promise, i can ride in a straight line as long as you can drive in one.
- Rolling up alongside stopped cars. Alternately, “making a third lane for ourselves.” People don’t like us looking down into their cars as we go by, fear for their mirrors, and as always, don’t like the idea of us gaining advantage upon them. Lately, i notice a lot of cars not-so-coincidentally get real friendly with the curb or the white line when i’m behind them, in the interest of squeezing me out. Obviously, this is dangerous enough by itself. Why do i want to get by you? So you don’t suddenly make a right turn directly in front of me and i get squashed like this poor guy. It is safest for me to be in front of you. If i can’t make that happen, i’m going to find a gap in the line of cars and take up the entire fucking line, because that is the second safest place i can be.
- Taking up the entire fucking lane. Trust me, we prefer not to do this. We can feel your eyes burning through the back of our helmets. When i do this, it’s because i can’t be sure what the cars around me are going to do, and i need to communicate my path very clearly and leave myself room to move. It means you can’t make a sudden turn through me, you can’t pass me as i need to get over a lane, and you can’t force me to stop just ’cause some car stuck his nose out of the driveway. It goes without saying that if i think someone’s entering the street or swinging wide their +5 Vorpal Door of Cyclist Killing, i am going to take the lane, too.
- Crossing with pedestrians. Like i said, the letter of the law is that when in the street, cyclists should be acting like cars. Correspondingly, i shouldn’t be able to take advantage of a walk signal to go. But i do, provided i don’t interfere with pedestrians, for the same reasons i’d roll through a red light, except this is even safer for me. On the off chance i do impede a pedestrian, even though i am careful, i apologize, since i am the one who’s in the wrong.
- Stopping in crosswalks. Where it’s safe, i’ll almost always pull all the way ahead of the crosswalk, so as not to impede pedestrians, but i need to be seen. Either way, i do need to be ahead of the stopped cars.
- Things i do not ever do: Ride on the sidewalk (doing this is for pansies), ride through crossing traffic (near suicide), Ride the wrong way up the street (okay, maybe that one stretch atop Beacon Hill if it’s late at night and empty)
What i don’t want to do is pretend that any of this is law-abiding. Plainly, it isn’t, but it is a way of abiding. It’s not a cheat, it’s not an attempt to screw you while you’re stuck in traffic, reading the Herald and listening to Dennis & Callahan (do i stereotype much?) and cursing my relative mobility. Hell, i’m saving your precious tax money.
And even if it was, dear driver, solely an attempt on my part to get home faster than you. Even if i was the worst exponent of hipster-kind, blasting through busy intersections with impunity, leaving screeched brakes and jostled pedestrians in the wake of my fixie, that still doesn’t ever, not ever give you the right to even joke about running me over. Dead is dead, and there ain’t no comin’ back. So take a breath, realize that this is a big city and you’re not going to get through the day without someone annoying you somehow, and on the road, just like in every other part of life, you can’t kill those who do.