or, Les cyclistes s’en fout!
Our study populations will be urban Burkina Faso, metro-Detroit, and Washington D.C.
Before arriving in Burkina in 2007, I had not ridden a bike in years (it had been stolen while taking my MCAT in E. Lansing and I had not deemed it necessary to get another).
There, however, in addition to being showered with a constant stream of skittish lisards and donkey drawn carts, we were quickly fitted both for bicycles and helmets. This was not because we were particularly sporty. It was not even because we cared about the environment and wished to avoid un-necessary emissions; we biked because they biked. We biked as one of many measures to acclimate to the local culture and socially available means of transportation. We biked largely because with poorly developped transportation infrastructure, cycling was one of the few relatively assured means of travel.
So I learned to ride. Again.
Upon returning to Michigan earlier this year, I quickly observed a culture with vastly different perceptions of biking, road-care, and bikers.
The Motor City may have a bangin’ art and music scene, a historically thriving economy, and a beautiful riverfront view of Canada, but when it comes to bicycling, it quickly becomes clear that it is ill-advised (with the exception of a few nicely kept and well used trails: along I-275, Hynes Park, etc) even when the weather and CO2 levels in the atmosphere would say otherwise.
The following is a short list of the comments and actions I encountered:
- “Get off the road!,” “D*uche-bag,” “C*nt,” “SIDEWALK!,” etc.
- Rev-ing engine while passing, edging closer to curb while passing, staring with or w/o giving the birdie, passing, circling a block, and passing again, speeding up while passing, stopping in road and otherwise acting confused and obstructing traffic, etc.
- Smiling and waving me on at stop signs*
- Hitting me (only happened once [#too-much])
Perhaps all these words and actions were motivated by a sincere desire to inform me of my shortcomings. Perhaps not. Perhaps these commentators were even joking (Ho ho)! Clearly, however, all actors were not well-informed that MI law frequently requires bikers to ride on the street and not on sidewalks (which are SPECIFICALLY designated for PEDESTRIAN traffic).
Plus the road conditions in MI are frequently abysmal. You can justify all you want that it’s the weather, the road-workers, or Ohio‘s fault, but the fact remains. Many of our roads SUCK.
This frequently forces bikers further out into the first lane of traffic, leading to more verbal abuse and physical intimidation. However, as before, it should be noted that MI law (see above link) states that while bikes should general ride close to the right hand side of the road, “surface hazards, an uneven roadway surface, drain openings, debris, parked or moving vehicles or bicycles, pedestrians, animals, or other obstacles” are reasons one should be expected NOT to hug the curb.
Seeing all these problems, it becomes hard not to start wishing that MI was a more progressive, less idiotic state that understood environmental reasons behind biking and fixed its roads/added more bike lanes (and while we’re at it, concerns over provisions for womens’ health, etc. WTF MI).
And wishing may have worked a bit, for as the summer dragged on and more people (hit by economic downturns, lay-offs, and high gas prices) hit the road on bikes, less drivers audibly complained (to me).
However, while that cut down on the first and most offensive of my above bullet points, it still did little to alter the remaining potentially destructive bahavior patterns.
When in D.C. recently, I was quite excited to experience a culture that (once again) understood bikers. In this veritable cycling Mecca, cars and bikes are seen sharing the road with respect and dignity (perhaps a stretch, but kind of true). The roads are lined with less pot-holes, and there are even lots of devoted bike lanes.
And this was all before even reaching the actual bike path.
Once riding on this path to Mt. Vernon, I began to feel a state I can only describe as biker zen. I was riding with friends on a path without pot-holes, and I was surrounded by liberal hippies. What could be better?
Until…”move right!” as an awkward looking ape in spandex spits angry words as he passes our group. The riders following him cast us apologetic glances that seem to acknowledge that we had, in fact, already been all the way over on the right side of the path. A little later, “get out of the way” followed by a similarly embarassed cohort.
And that’s when it hit me. In D.C. and many other seemingly progressive areas, we’ve just managed to empower a different breed of idiots. The same types that were picking on bikers from their cars are now able to be impolite on bikes. But now they somehow feel entitled to their cocki-ness through some real or imagined notion of hipster-environmentalist street cred. Or because they’re bikers and people feel bad for the traffic abuses that bikers have historically had to put up with. Or because no one in D.C. ever told them to stop being so ego-centric. Doh.
I guess that’s all for now. I kind of just felt shattered. I wasn’t sure whether to go back to MI and encourage a progressive biker-friendly agenda or discourage the same just to avoid turning our bikers into cocky elitist idiot a-holes. Eventually I realised that the important thing is driver AND biker education. In some small way, that’s the point of this poste. Please, if you are, know, or just care about a biker, spread the word. Encourage an understanding of the law. Learn to share the road!
*this is actually a rather sweet practice even if it is a bit rare and frequently does lead to minor traffic back-ups behind the car waving you on