Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Your mission, chump: ride a bike in the city


My suspicions were confirmed by last Thursday's story ("Mission: Not Impossible," Paul McHugh, Feb. 17, 2005) in the SF Chronicle: even cycling experts think riding a bike in San Francisco is difficult and dangerous:

Gaze at rush-hour traffic on city streets for about 30 seconds, and any notion of transforming yourself into a brave urban bicyclist might seem like Mission: Impossible. However, experienced wheelmen say this dream is indeed achievable for most. All it requires is everything you've got (emphasis added).

McHugh draws on a book by a former bike messenger, Robert Hurst, and the expertise of Bert Hill, who teaches clinics for the SF Bicycle Coalition: "First and foremost, remain in the present moment when you ride. Don't wool-gather, or you'll harvest road rash instead. Hazards abound; don't drift into denial. Instead, use awareness of danger to help you stay focused."

Best too to dress as if going into combat before you get on your bike in the city: "...always, always, ride wearing a quality helmet and gloves. Abrasion-resistant clothing is a plus."

Hill tells McHugh that 45% of all accidents on bikes are "solo falls," and only 18% involve another vehicle. Hence, prospective bike riders better learn how to take a fall, just like boxers must learn to take a punch: "When you start to go over, get your arms out, but don't make them stiff. Use them to absorb initial impact, yes, but even more to steer your fall into a body roll. Want to practice falls? Take a class in judo or aikido."

Hurst: "The successful urban cyclist counts on nothing but chaos and stupidity," including, crucially, his or her own for choosing to ride a bike in the city in the first place.

McHugh ends his article with some Polonius-like advice to city bike riders: "Never run a red light. Don't forget, you're an ambassador. Leaving a line of upset drivers in your wake is like planting a string of land mines for the next cyclist. You might encounter some of those drivers again on your return commute."

Yes, and the main point McHugh makes in the article is this: riding a bike in the city is an inherently dangerous activity.

Many city cyclists are poor ambassadors for their dangerous, foolish avocation, running red lights, intimidating pedestrians out of crosswalks (McHugh doesn't mention this, but it has happened to everyone who walks a lot in the city), going off on motorists and bus drivers, and generally acting like buttholes. Yet this behavior by individual cyclists is the perfect analogue to the political arrogance symbolized by Critical Mass---screwing up rush hour traffic downtown on the last Friday of every month.

The whole bike thing is completely oversold in SF, because the bike zealots are very aggressive politically. They seem to have a number of kindred souls in the Planning Dept., since the Planning Commission recently rubber-stamped the notion of making the San Francisco Bicycle Plan Policy Framework part of the General Plan without a CEQA review, though the document will clearly have an impact on the city's environment---on roadway planning, housing, parking, lane design, lane changes, etc. Just as important, no matter what the issue under discussion is in the city, the bike Nazis---excuse me, I of course mean the Cycling Community---will be at the table making sure that whatever is being discussed meets with their approval. And they are not just pro-bike, they are anti-car, anti-parking, anti-anything that makes it convenient for any of the 367,570 people in SF that own a car to drive and park in the city. The bike zealots are like a religious cult that is gaining more political clout all the time, because they are the darlings of our delusional progressive culture, even though they are no more than 2% of the population.

Several weeks ago, when I made some comments like this at a Planning Commission meeting, Leah Shahum, Executive Director of the Bicycle Coalition, almost sprinted up to the podium after me to refute my heresy. She said that the bicycle community is not a minority "cult," since they just had a press conference with Mayor Newsom on the steps of City Hall, etc. Well, yes, that's my point: even though they are a small, fanatical minority, the bike zealots have been successful so far in foisting their dangerous hobby onto the larger political community. I'm one of the few members of the city's political community who thinks they are actually a negative political influence, especially and increasingly, on housing issues. They like housing developments that don't provide enough parking for residents, because...well, you tell me why. Because cars are evil, and we're all supposed to ride bikes?

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2 Comments:

At 10:02 PM, Blogger argh_rats said...

So, I'd imagine you've had a bit of feedback from this sort of thing, and I know that really, that's part of (the main part?) of the point. I have to say, however, that before you villify cyclists and imply (or outright say) that they are dangerous, why don't you try riding a bicycle in traffic yourself? Personally, as a cyclist, I find your comments rather insulting (as I'm supposed to clearly) and rather well.... stupid is the word.


You mention very obviously that cycling in the city is an inherently dangerous activity (and this is true in most cities) the reason it is dangerous is NOT the cyclist. Yes, statistically, the single-vehicle crash may be the most common, but there are two factors I think you should also consider.

1. As a mechanic who sees MANY cyclists bringing their bikes for repair after being hit by cars, I have to say that the vast majority of cyclist-car collisions go ureported. For every cyclist who has a police report, I see five who have not called the police. This, obviously, is bad for them, but it is also bad for all cyclists because statistics are skewed due to unreported collisions.
2. Many "solo-falls" happen because a cyclist is trying to avoid a collision with another vehicle (generally an automobile).


Yes, cyclists do indeed demonize car drivers, but having been threatened by more drivers than I know how to count and struck by two, I have to say, there is sufficient cause for complaint on behalf of the cyclist.


I've seen you say elsewhere on this blog "Right. After all, why should the Department of Parking & Traffic want to allow freeway traffic easy access to the freeway? This is absurd on its face. For generations cyclists and pedestrians have dealt with motor vehicles turning on the same light they use to cross intersections. Why is this particular intersection singled out for special attention? Because the Bicycle Coalition and its fellow travelers in city government are increasingly allowing the safety of cyclists---a tiny minority in SF---to trump all other considerations, including the commonsense notion of easy freeway access for motorists."


It seems to me sir, that the safety of any citizen of any city should be considered before convenience of any citizen. I ask you to consider the situation reversed, with yourself in your automobile and someone with a similar attitude towards smaller vehicles driving a large truck.



Why don't we try an experiment? That is to say, why don't we try one besides you riding a bicycle in traffic. Let's see what the statistics look like if every time you list a bicycle statistic, you list the corresponding automobile statistic, just for comparisons sake.


I understand the desire to get where you are going in a quick, easy, efficient manner, I don't disagree that issues on all sides should be looked at before legislation that affects everyone is instituted, but I do disagree that the convenience of the many should come at the cost of the safety of the few. Furthermore, one of the primary reasons there are so few cyclists is the danger you mention, and the article you quote mentions, which comes from multi-thousand-pound vehicles. I will, once again, take the liberty of a quote from elsewhere on this blog. " But for the rest of us---the elderly, the very young, the handicapped, the sensible---it will never be an option."


Cyclists as a group, are just as diverse as car drivers are, if not more so, be it in attitude, race, gender, class, intellect, age, education, any standard you wish to judge people by, but first and foremost, cyclists are people, just as drivers are, and one reason that the specific groups of people (with the exception of "the sensible" which is immature and deliberately inflammatory) aren't part of the cycling community (for the most part, all of those groups are represented within the cycling community) is that there are LARGE, DANGEROUS BEASTS that they have to share the road with. If the automobile was not the dominant feature of the roadway, you'd see changes in all of those demographics.


It is very possible for virtually anyone to be transported by human power, even if they are incapable of doing it themselves on a bicycle.


I also wish to make mention of your specific mention of cyclists "intimidating pedestrians out of crosswalks (McHugh doesn't mention this, but it has happened to everyone who walks a lot in the city)". I have to say that this is EXACTLY what a cyclist feels when in traffic. Just as pedestrians have every right to be in the crosswalk and not be intimidated, so also do cyclists have the right to ride their bicycles on the street without fear of death. Furthermore, as a frequent pedestrian, I have to say that cars are FAR more threatening than cyclists.


I also would like to address a comment you made regarding your vision of a car-free future "If your anti-car crusade ends up making traffic worse for cars, it will also make traffic worse for Muni---the main means of transportation of thousands of city residents---not to mention making traffic worse for emergency vehicles." I have to say, having been a participant of a number of Critical Mass rides when an emergency vehicle needed to pass through, what happens is truly amazing. Bicycles, when in use, require a bit of space for rider comfort and safety. When a cyclist is alterted to the fact that an emergency vehicle needs to get through, they simply pick up their bike and MAKE ROOM! It's really astounding to watch a street suddenly clear before a firetruck or ambulance. If the same number of persons were in automobiles on the same road, the emergency vehicle would be stuck there for a considerably longer amount of time attempting to weave around the cars which are unable to move out of the way because of the other cars around them. The vision you seem to have is a mix of mostly bicycles with some cars and emergency vehicles, whereas the vision we have is of bicycles, and, for the amount of time they remain necessary, emergency vehicles.

 
At 3:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's fun is to be behind two bikers on a country road who ride side by side so you cannot pass! Then after they get tired of holding you back, they fall into a single file line so you will pass and they can be left to the scenery after showing you whose boss of the road. My response is to stay on their tail once they go into the single file, and tailgate them. Bikers are obnoxious. It's true.

 

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