Monday, April 04, 2011

Floor Wax or Dessert Topping?

People ride bicycles all over the world, in a variety ways. There are light, fast, carbon racing bikes ridden by people who wear lycra clothing and whose shoes make a clicking sound when they attach to the pedal. There are stately upright bikes ridden by stylish citizens who don't work up a sweat. There are bike messengers delivering the last bits of paper and other artifacts that somehow still can't be downloaded in our increasingly digital age. There are people on bikes hauling water from wells in Africa, snow bikes tracking across the tundra, BMX kids doing tricks at the skate park. In a million places, in a million ways, people are riding.

And yet, for all its virtues and versatility, we who love bicycles and advocate for their more widespread use often find ourselves, as a recent article in the New York Times stated "Caught Between Sidewalk and Street." We may have started with a useful metaphor or a compelling image and told ourselves that this is how we change the world. And in truth, we are right, we do change the world with our images and stories, but no image or story is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And if we're not careful, we find ourselves run over by our own rhetoric.

"Vehicular Cycling" is a concept that has some value, but taken too far it quickly passes from sense to insanity. I realize that on the streets where I live and ride most drivers are not looking out for bicycles, but for other cars. Not wanting to be in blind spots, I ride where I will be seen.

But riding where the cars are does not make me a car. If, like the woman in the Times article, I find myself in traffic yelling "I'm a car, I'm a car", I would certainly understand if someone thought me insane. A bicycle is a vehicle with a lower top speed and a much less mass than a car. To ignore these basic facts, these laws of physics, is not a wise course of action. Thus "taking the lane" may be legal and it may be my "right" but I may not choose to debate that point on every road with every harried soccer mom in a two-ton SUV. In my experience the most "effective cycling" is pragmatic cycling and if a quieter street or a separated bike path gets me where I need to go, that is where I will be.

Some folks argue quite eloquently for "everyday" cycling without special clothes or safety gear such as helmets, but their rhetoric can also go too far and the message can go astray. I find a lot I agree with on the site at: but I find "Wheeled Pedestrian" loses me by saying "Cycling. It’s as easy as walking, but faster…."

Riding a bicycle is not as easy as walking. It's different. I don't have to think about locking up my bike when I walk to the market. I can't coast when I walk. I can walk places that I can't bike and I can bike in places where I wouldn't wish to walk. The wheeled pedestrian metaphor isn't making me think of cycling in a new way, it's making me think of ways the metaphor is wrong.

One place I diverge from some of the "wheeled pedestrians" is that I often find some personal value in placing a helmet on my head. While I don't advocate mandatory helmet laws, the "you don't wear a helmet while walking" argument never sways me. I carry a lot more potential energy when I'm in motion on my bike than I do while walking. I'm not a "wheeled pedestrian", I'm a person on a bike. And a person plus a bike is not the same as a person plus a pair of shoes.

In selling our mode of transport, we sometimes sell ourselves short. We ride a vehicle, but our vehicles are not cars. We can slow to walking speeds, but we are rolling, not walking. A person on a bike is neither a driver nor a pedestrian. They are a person on a bike.

In the early days of Saturday Night Live, Dan Ackroyd and Gilda Radner debated whether Shimmer was a floor wax or a dessert topping. Chevy Chase explained that they were both right, Shimmer is a floor wax and a dessert topping. It's delicious and just look at that shine!

My bike isn't a car and it's not a pair of shoes. And I'm pretty sure it would make a lousy dessert topping and it does nothing to shine my floors. But, as Grant Petersen noted, a bicycle is rideable art that just might save the world.

Bicycles are unique machines that amplify our human effort. A person on a bike can be faster that a person on foot, freer and more graceful than one trapped in a wheeled box.

I don't know the proper place for every bike in all the world, but I do know the right place for one bike, right now. It should be out in the world, with me turning the pedals.

Enough writing for now, I have a bike I have to get rolling.

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


Lisa said...

To be fair, here in NZ biking IS mostly as easy as walking.

We complain about car drivers attitudes and the entrenched car culture, but I think we're getting off more lightly than most 'developed' nations. (Not to say things are ideal, by any stretch!)

Matt said...

that was refreshingly nuanced. thanks Kent

Susan Tomlinson said...

Well said and amen to all that. Sometimes I take the lane, sometimes the sidewalk, sometimes the side street--it all depends on what looks safest at the moment.

By the same token, sometimes I wear lycra and ride my carbon bike, sometimes I wear street clothes and take my commuter or Xtracycle. But I always wear a helmet.

Peter said...

"Thus "taking the lane" may be legal and it may be my "right" but I may not choose to debate that point on every road with every harried soccer mom in a two-ton SUV. In my experience the most "effective cycling" is pragmatic cycling and if a quieter street or a separated bike path gets me where I need to go, that is where I will be."

I think you misunderstand "effective cycling"
I would love to use quiet side streets and recreational bike paths without intersections to get around.

But side streets seldom have right-of-way to cross major streets. And safe trails seldom go when I need to go. So I tend to use medium to large streets to get around.

Effective Cycling is about getting around safely and effectively. In urban areas, getting hit from behind is a very rare accident ( rural areas are different). Get hit by a mirror as a vehicle squeezes by you is perhaps more of a risk. But the real risk is getting T-boned by drivers coming out of driveways (minor intersections), getting right- and left-hooked in intersections, and getting doored by parked cars.

"Taking the lane" in narrow lanes prevents getting squeezed and doored and proper lane positioning near intersections ( which may require "taking the lane") prevent hooks and t-boning.

Side paths make you less safe because they tend to make the bicyclist less visible and cross intersections badly, increasing the intersection risks that dominat urban safety. Most of our bicycle facilities make bicyclist feel safer while not actually making them safer, at least directly.

Copenhagen analyzed before-and-after safety as they put in various bicycle side-paths and lanes and found they all decreased the safety of bocyclists and other road users. For the reasons I mention above.

The Dutch have gotten around this by building sidepaths with bike-only signal phases at most intersections, and having lower over-all traffic speeds. Of course, all those signal stops slow down bicycling dramatically. But that's fine in dense urban centers and I'd be happy with that in areas in the USA that are pretty dense.

But I'm not going to get myself killed by using a poorly designed sidepath even if it gives the illusion of safety.

Jim Laudolff said...

Keep posting these Kent. Over the last 6-7 years (did you know you've been posting that long?), your writing has been a light of sensibility that's helped me evolve into a safer and more thoughtful cyclist (well that's what I call myself anyway).


Anonymous said...

A difficult topic to discus but you do fine work in your typical "low-key-thought-provoking-oblique-we're-all-in-this-together" style. Difficult because you are unable to convey all your cycling background and study in an essay and unable to provide a common definition for all your terms. (Hence Peter's extended comment.)

-BTW Peter, an articulate presentation and useful definition of "effective cycling". Thank you for your effort. Not that I would presume to be an expert on the topic but I expect the term to bring up multiple images depending on an individual's cycling background. (Susan doesn't use the term "effective cycling" but her comment alludes to "effective" cycling, at least for her.)-

Anyway, back to the essay, thanks for the opportunity to think about and discuss the topic of "riding my bike" in an open manner. A quote that I refer to from time to time and that I keep at my desk is by Alan Alda:

"Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you."

Not that I WILL change (my opinion at least) but being willing for what they say to change me frees up the dialog. So, thank you for speaking... and listening.

Cheers, Gene from Tacoma

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