Thursday, November 24, 2011

Invisible Routes (by Mark Canizaro)

My friend Mark Canizaro originally posted this on his double-secret blog on 11/10/11. I talked him into guest posting it here. -- Kent

Invisible Routes

A friend thanked me today for showing him a new cycling route last week. He said it with a significant amount of surprise. He's a very experienced cyclist. We had ridden a pleasant route on a neighborhood street, bypassing a bad arterial with almost constant conflicts. At the time I had to take some shit for not riding on the really bad street we usually ride on. This is not the first time.

I am truly baffled by this.

There is finally some talk on the internet about driver privilege. It's about time! I feel like I've been a lone voice for a long time, and frankly not a very effective voice. I'm glad the discussion is spreading. It's time cyclists stopped blaming themselves.

It worries me how many cyclists both fall victim to this kind of thinking, and by repeating it, propagate it further. I know many cyclists, car-free, bike transportation people, who insist on riding on the most unpleasant roads... "because we can". I am very capable of riding in heavy car traffic, I've done it successfully for over 30 years. I know the law well and I know we have a right to do it. A legal right and a moral right.

I passionately believe, as i have for 40 years, that bikes are transportation not toys. I believe... I know that we are equal to (and often superior) to cars. These ideas are becoming more widespread, as they should.

But why are so many cyclists afraid to admit that bicycling is fun?!? Why do so many cyclists make such a strong effort to make their own ride unpleasant? It's like they think we have to suffer for it to be acceptable... just because people in cars are suffering. Maybe they think if they admit that riding is fun they will somehow lose the right to be part of the transportation system? That's an understandable unconscious fear I think we all struggle with. (There's a future blog post in that idea.)

But that concern is based in the cultural idea that we, as cyclists, are doing something inherently wrong and it seems many of us feel we have to pay for that by suffering as much as possible. What's so wrong with riding down a pleasant street instead of jumping into the middle of an angry polluted mob of death machines?

I'm not saying we shouldn't be on major streets, and I don't want to be misconstrued in any way that makes it seem like I'm trying to move bikes down the hierarchy below cars. Bicycles should be allowed on any street and streets through shopping districts should be made as (truly) bicycle friendly as possible. But really, as cyclists, we need to be a lot better at route finding. Enjoying the commute makes cycling more legitimate, not less.

I'm not talking about doubling the distance or anything. On occasion the more pleasant routes are a tad longer, usually they are the same distance -- and even when they are longer, a quarter of a mile here and there seems well worth it to me. (I like riding my bike!) There are a few cases where the nasty route is considerably shorter, but that's rare. And in many of those cases, considering all the factors, I would still advocate for the pleasant route.

I don't understand why cyclists absolutely freak out when a pleasant route is suggested over a nasty one. The resistance is huge. And it happens almost every time I suggest one. I automatically brace myself for it now. They often shut me down before I finish the sentence, like I'm being vulgar, or more likely, breaking a taboo.

They never come right out and say it, but it's clear that many cyclists think there is some kind of surrender involved in riding a quiet, pleasant route rather than a miserable route full of cars. As if it were a moral lapse, a spiritual sacrifice, an ideological flaw, a personal weakness or a political capitulation to commute by bike and actually enjoy it.

Perhaps they have a unresolved feeling transplanted from other modes that commuting, getting from one place to another, is supposed to be very unpleasant, so if they actually enjoy it, they are cheating, not doing it right; might as well just forget it and drive a car. And that's the experienced riders, most new or prospective cyclists, after they get over their surprise that there ARE other routes, react with concern to a suggestion of a residential route for fear that it might be longer or more hilly. I understand that fear, although I think it is misplaced in a couple of ways: it's often not longer and so what if it is!

Strangely I find that when pushed into the more pleasant route, most people prefer it, but they feel very guilty! Time and distance aside, there is just so much more benefit from riding the backstreets. It's better exercise, great experiences, educational and just fun. It is living well.

Sometimes in our car-head, motorist privileged culture people just forget that there is any landscape, any city scape, any neighborhood, any real estate that is not on major streets. Everything else becomes invisible. This is a serious mistake.

So I'm not suffering. I'm not wishing I was in a car and I'm not wishing I was on that highway fighting with cars. I'm enjoying seeing, experiencing, learning about and enjoying my city, the people, the weather, the landscape and my ride through it. I absolutely love experiencing these streets, being a part of these neighborhoods. Being there. It's why I ride.


Anonymous said...

I find that most people I talk to don't consider the possibility that the best route for a car might not be the best route on a bike. Once they realize that there are more pleasant ways to get to where they go, they start riding their bikes to more places. I haven't encountered hostility to better routes; only ignorance of their existence.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

I agree with you, and I've noticed that during my commutes this year in Paris, I've been gradually figuring out the quieter, less trafficked (and less polluted!) routes to take. It does take both local knowledge and a willingness to explore to find them. And they are more complicated; instead of getting on a major road and following it for a long distance, I often have to do a number of turns from short street to short street. Now it's second nature for many of my routes, but the initial investment in learning them was high.

I've also had some bad experiences with posted cycle routes in England that are designed to avoid major roads. Some of them go to absurd lengths to do so. The National Cycle Route 5 between Oxford and Woodstock sends travelers for a mile or so along a narrow, rocky path next to a canal instead of having them go on a busy road with a bike lane. The National Route 51 in Kidlington takes cyclists on narrow paths connecting residential cul-de-sacs.

Many such official, or quasi-official, bicycle routes are frustrating for anyone who wants to ride more than 8 mph. Maybe that's a source of some of the hostility--the assumption that a route on side streets is not only longer and potentially hillier, but also unsuitable for riding fast?

Unknown said...

Pleasant & fun are what I ride for.
I find the road less traveled to be a great way to ride. I seek routes for my commute that minimize traffic. As a driver and a rider it is my experience that riding the lesser traveled roads is the most fun. Drives in dense traffic have a lot on their plate. I prefer not to be part of the scrum.

Anonymous said...

Generally I agree with you, but I think there's a balance. Taking a costly detour, versus a major road can make bicycle commuting impractical. But often side-streets are just as fast, and much more pleasant.

One other advantage to bicycles is the sheer number of possible routes is much larger. So do try different routes and see how they are, even if you think your current route is optimal! It's an amazing feeling to shave 5 or 10 minutes off a route you've been riding for a year or more :)

Either way, we all win when the best routes for a cyclist are both comfortable and direct. Cycling infrastructure ho!

kfg said...

This is not simply a matter of cyclists. The same phenomenon exists between drivers and motorists.

I know many drivers who will extend their distance of travel a considerable amount to make some of it on an unpleasant freeway, just because that's what you're "supposed to do" I guess, rather than take a direct and pleasant secondary route.

The guy with the old MG knows all those faster, nicer back roads and prefers to be on them. They're fun.

Some people just grit their teeth and endure the transit, some look for an excuse to go somewhere to enjoy the ride. Bikes, cars, trains, roller coasters, whatever, you'll find the same thing.

Dr Codfish said...

Busy roads, with higher traffic are often not faster for cyclists. Starting and stopping at traffic lights slows me down a lot. A side street, or non-arterial route with fewer stops can be faster (on a bike) even if it is longer.

Yr Pal, Dr C

Philip Williamson said...

Thanks for posting this, Mark. I'm surprised by the resistance to pleasant routes. Why would anyone opt for 8 minutes of pain over 10 minutes of pleasure? That's like choosing a bowl of okra over a pint of ice cream.

I'm like you - I like to have a nice time on the bike. I like to have a nice time driving, for that matter.

tacomee said...

I think cyclists here in Tacoma are somewhat more likely to use side streets than cyclists in Seattle. I'm not sure why. In fact, a know more than a few riders who seem to try to ride on some dirt path and/or back alley every commute.

Anonymous said...

Traditional street grids are our friend. They make it easier to find parallel, quiet routes.

Cul-de-sac suburban spraw design is the worst. Basically forces you into major streets.

Bob said...

Great post - THANKS!

I HATE riding in traffic. Just because I have a legal right to do something doesn't mean I am required to do so.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Kent. I completely agree with the points you made. Sure, I could shave off a couple miles of my ride to work with a less pleasant route on arterial streets, but choose a lengthier way that takes me down side streets in adjoining neighborhoods, through parks, and along trails. It's all about enjoying being on your bike. I feel more connected to the community I live in. I notice the seasonal changes in things. And now I'm taking in all the Christmas lights. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Dustin in Seattle

Ron Hoover said...

My morning commute starts before 0600. Not much traffic at that time, but I will still take the secondary and tertiary routes since those streets are in better shape.

brad said...

Here's the problem with taking secondary streets: you have to negotiate every intersection with cross traffic. riding an arterial features fewer close calls with cars coming at me perpendicularly. On my commute the section on the "bike boulevard" that hasn't been made into one but is only a side street is my most dangerous section (Fremont Ave N from 83rd to 106th). By contrast, 15th Ave W with is essentially a 7 lane limited access expressway from downtown to Ballard and if I ride the bus lane, is fast, flat, and safer, if slightly noisy.
If you go over a bridge in Seattle, you are on an arterial and you will also be on the fastest route to wherever you need to go. It will be the flattest way between your two points (why do the cars get all the flat routes?). You will also enjoy directional priority so you might as well stay on it.
Take Eastlake: it's horrible for cyclists, to the east and you have climb a bunch of hills, ride on some sidewalks, ride through a couple of freeway onramps, and wait for some super long lights. To the west, you have to zigzag through some parking lots and the steepest alley you've ever seen. On Eastlake, you just have to remember to take the lane through the planter strips and you're golden. Piece of cake, and you just saved 20 minutes getting from UW to downtown.
Do I hear a rebuttal?

mrk. said...

Brad, it's funny that you bring up Eastlake.

After 4 or so years of avoiding the 'designated' route (up and down on Fairview Ave E, west of the arterial) i used it twice this past week. I enjoyed it. And yes, it probably did take 3 or 4 minutes longer than riding on the arterial.

I do sometimes ride Eastlake Avenue (i did so very frequently when i lived down there). I despise the Boylston route east of the Arterial and will not ride it.

But the vast majority of the time i ride Franklin Ave E, (between
Eastlake & Boylston). It's residential, (doesn't have traffic lights) and is usually about as fast as Eastlake, but less of a fight.

No, I'm not saying we should NEVER ride on arterials, and i'm not even saying that pleasant routes are as fast from A to B as the ugly ones (although the in the majority of the cases any time savings is far less than 'optimum' claims).

My piece was not suggesting we should ALWAYS ride pleasant routes but rather was about my surprise at how many cyclists refuse to EVER ride pleasant routes.

Yes, on secondary streets you can have the problem of having to cross arterials without a traffic light. But it's not always a problem. When i choose to ride secondary streets, i choose my routes to try to avoid that as much as possible.

Take 12th Ave for example, an important connection through the Central District from the International District to Capitol Hill. It's REALLY not fun to ride. I usually scoot over to 13th Ave as soon as it starts (at Remington Pl). And yes, i have to cross a number of arterials along the way (the only light is at Madison). I don't do it for speed, not at all, i do it because it's more pleasant, avoids the fight. But you know what i've noticed? When someone is riding along with me on 12th and i turn off onto 13th, i almost always beat them to my turn off (Harrison St). In this case, the difficulty crossing arterials is more than balanced out by not having a traffic light to wait through every couple of blocks.

I enjoy riding the more pleasant routes and most days any extra riding time (usually quite minor) is a very happy price to pay.

- Mark

mrk. said...

Yes, i'm very frustrated with that ridiculous section of Fremont Ave, for exactly the reason you mention. The city thought that naming it a bike boulevard but making no effort at all to actually make it one was enough. Makes me mad.

It is very noticeable that cars get the flat routes. I regularly find it bizarre that in a hilly city like this, almost 100% of the time the designated bike route has serious climbs while the car routes are the flattest possible. It shows how car centric the thinking is.

- Mark