06 August 2008

Bikes vs. Cars = Trouble

It was bound to happen. In a country that has spent the last 50 years of its existence worshiping the almighty automobile, we had to imagine that this day would come. America is starting to realize, gently and collectively, that our cars might not be so good for the environment and our pocketbooks. And some of us are taking steps to remedy that; riding our bikes to work, taking public transportation, and carpooling. And some of us are just getting angry.

There was an article a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal about the confluence of these groups on the streets of Los Angeles. I suppose LA is an easy target for these types of stories since everything is so spread out and since our car culture is still so resistant - the distances that cyclists have to go here are always longer, their encounters with cars more frequent, and perhaps, more frightening. But the problem isn't confined to Los Angeles. All across the country cyclists are running into trouble. Last month in Toledo, a cancer survivor and bike commuter was murdered while riding his bike to work; it was his first day of bike commuting. In New York City last week, a cop body checked a cyclist on a Critical Mass ride, and it was caught on video. And in Seattle, which I've just discovered is a cyclist's happy place, a Critical Mass group clashed with a motorist who "felt trapped" by the sea of bikes around him - and then he proceeded to run over a couple of them to get away. This story is especially illuminating because it shows the bias the media and most of society still exhibit when it comes to cars. The motorist comes off like the victim in the story when the reality is, he's the one who has a vehicle and used it as weapon to run over some people. Two cyclists in this case have been charged with assault when the guy who was driving the car hasn't been charged at all.

And then there's the flip side in this equation, when cyclists get angry back. Case in point, Portland, aka the most bike-friendly city in the country, where cyclist-motorist relations have recently gotten way out of hand. These events, while bizarre, demonstrate that bikes are not going away any time soon, and bikes and cars are going to need to play nicer on the roads if everyone is going to stay safe.

Here's a few steps I think cyclists could take to make themselves less of a target on the road:

Obey traffic laws. If you're going to act like a car then you need to obey the same traffic laws as cars, at least until they pass bike-specific road rules. Just think of how annoying it is to see a cop car run a red light and then think of how motorists must feel when bikes do the same thing.

Avoid riding in rush hour if possible. I know it's impossible for many commuters but see if your office would give you flex time by avoiding rush hour. Less cars to deal with means less opportunity for conflict.

Practice defensive bike riding. If you're riding on a road that has little or no bike lane, don't yield to cars. Get in front of them. Yes, you'll probably piss them off but you have a right to be there as well. Also there's a lesser likelihood that a car will run you over head on rather than sideswiping you. It's sad to think of it this way but it's harder for a motorist to get away with straight out running a bike down than what could be seen as an "accidental" sideswiping.

Defend yourself. I've been thinking a lot about this lately. What do you do if you feel menaced on the street late at night? Do you pull out your Mace or some other self-defense tactic? Well, motorists who menace cyclists are no less dangerous. If a motorist starts harassing you while you're riding your bike, Mace them, Tase them, or whatever you need to do to get away safely.

For god's sakes, wear your helmet. It never ceases to amaze me how few people wear their helmet in Los Angeles. I realize people here are obsessed with looks, but cyclists too? Really? No matter how careful you are when you're riding, you're going to get hurt a lot easier if you don't wear a helmet, and sadly, people won't sympathize with you nearly as much either. In a perfect world we could all let our hair down when riding, but we are far from perfect....

These tips are just one cyclist's take on how to ride safer. Use your common sense on the road and let's hope that motorists use theirs as well.


Will Campbell... said...

Excellent post. Found your blog from a link on Curbed LA.

I had no idea about the Toledo incident. Very sad.

As to your steps, the only one I'm most guilty of not adhering to stringently is law obeyance. I certainly stop and wait out all red lights and yield to motorists when they beat me to two-way or four-way stop intersections, but if on approach there's no cross traffic (after checking, of course) I just keep on moving through a stop sign.

And for as much as I commute (daily across L.A. between 26-30 roundtrip miles depending on my route) I'm a wuss sometimes when it comes to taking the lane. On most of the roadways I have room to ride to the ride, but on a couple really busy sections I find myself being a gutterbunny by choice. Gotta work on that.

Thankfully I've never had to use it, but after a couple encounters with belligerent motorists, I now have pepper spray mounted on my bike frame. Just in case.

Anyway, enjoyed your post and look forward to more.

Hogers said...

"Get in front of cars?" Yeah, that's really gonna help biker-car relationships. Idiot. That's like driving 45mph in the fast lane on the highway.

And you wonder why motorists get pissed at bikers?

LArider said...

Good post, I just have to disagree with your opinion on "defending" yourself. Pepper spraying someone would really be asking for trouble, and never forget, they are driving a vehicle and if angered, will hit you without a second thought. Unfortunately this will always be the case and the best course of action, in my opinion, is to pull over and let him get on his way. I know it sucks, but 9 times out of ten, you will escape unscathed which is the ultimate goal.

emKem said...

@ larider....yeah, I debated about that one and I tend to agree with you. I suppose it doesn't hurt for the rare instance where someone actually gets out of their car to come after you though. But at that point perhaps you should be calling 911 on your cell phone as you ride away....

@ Hogers....spoken like a true motorist ;o)

Will Campbell... said...

larider's advice is good, but as he states there's that 1 in 10 chance of engaging motorists who are spoiling to take their hostilities out on cyclists, whiich is good enough reason to be prepared to defend oneself. It's exactly why I carry pepper spray, to use as a last resort only when the level of aggression escalates to the threat of bodily harm. Thankfully I've only had one occasion about a year ago where I've had to advise a motorist about to exit his vehicle that I had some and was ready to use it, and that was good enough to diffuse the situation back down to just a lot of loud foul language and insults.

Anonymous said...

I would also add that in addition to wearing a helmet, a defensive bicyclist should NEVER wear earphones.

Anonymous said...

My commute is about the same distance as Will Campbell's. In 16 months of riding daily from West Hollywood to Glendale, I've only had three or four incidents with angry/unsafe drivers. I start my commute at 6:15 in the morning to avoid rush hour. However, in a city where the evening rush hour lasts anywhere from 2 to 7 depending on the part of town you're in, it's really difficult to plan around it in the evening if you have a long commute.

I would echo the comment about not wearing headphones. In the absence of a rear view mirror, my ears are the best tool I have for knowing when cars are coming up on me.

Finally, I wouldn't say that Hogers comments above reflect that of a "true motorist" - just a jerk motorist. I run across a lot of really kind, courteous, and - most importantly - aware motorists every day who appreciate that the road belongs to bikes and cars alike. Last week a young driver stopped to apologize for cutting me off (he hadn't shoulder checked). Had I spewed profanity and hatred as he was cutting me off, that probably wouldn't have been the case. Not all motorists in LA drive like jerks, but it doesn't take many jerk drivers to make the roads unsafe for cars and bikes alike.