Monday, August 31, 2009

On Being Obvious & Oblivious

Just look at me and you'll know I'm no weekend warrior. My bicycles are an old English three-speed, complete with the white patch on the rear fender, and an American-made three-speed outfitted as a grocery bike.  Both bicycles demand an upright riding posture that screams "vehicular bicyclist." I ride in street clothes, which usually consists of a button-up shirt and trousers with cuffs turned up to mid-calf. I almost always ride with a bag or two (more depending on what errand I'm running and which bike I'm on), my bell is quite loud and frequently used, and I've recently taken to wearing a helmet (not one of those silly racing jobs, either, but a proper Nutcase). I don't flinch in traffic, but I also don't take any risks. I'm out there, traveling by bicycle, not deluding myself into thinking I'm going to race in the Olympics, and not running lights or dodging across crosswalks like some reckless kid.

So why, with all this obvious effort to be a vehicle, and to be recognized as such, did a completely oblivous driver making a left turn almost run me down just now as I passed legally through a green light? The answer, quite simply, is that if I'm going to be a vehicle, I'm going to get treated like one, including being subjected to all the stupidity, ignorance, and arrogance of every other vehicle operator on the road. The more I ride and the more I think about it, the more I realize that we need to stop thinking about cars versus bicycles, and start thinking more broadly about what it means for us all to be vehicles moving through space, sharing the road, and just simply trying not to bash into each other. I'll do my part, will you?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Foolish Scorchers, the Dramatic Ending

4. And when the gate arose again,
Those scorchers had good luck;
Though it becomes not tongue nor pen,
To tell just how they struck.

(I don't get it, do you?)

SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, 12 July 1896.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What is a Bike Person?

This post was precipitated by a couple of days spent last week with Adrienne, who co-authors the blog Change Your Life, Ride a Bike! and her husband, who came for a visit. They brought their bikes, and we had a great time riding around, discussing all manner of topics, only occasionally bicycle-related. It got me thinking about the idea of “bicycle people” and “bicycle culture.”

It seems endemic to human nature to assign group identities to individuals. This appears to be reasonable on an evolutionary level, since identifying a person as a member of a group hostile to one’s own would be important for survival. Likewise, identifying friendly people and even potential mates as members of congenial groups, or assigning positive group characteristics to the groups we are most likely to join, helps us identify what is worthwhile and positive about ourselves. As much as we like to think of ourselves as solitary apes, we really do thrive as members of groups.

The problem, of course, comes when the identity of the group is taken to stand for the identity of the individual, or when others make assumptions about people based only on the characteristics of the group they are perceived to belong to.

Both Adrienne and I run bike blogs, we both ride quite a bit, and (I’m making an assumption here) we both spend a fair amount of time thinking about bikes and riding, so it seems reasonable to assume that we might talk mostly about bikes. This was not the case at all. Our bikes were, of course, physically present, but they were simply our transportation. Granted, we discussed their finer points and virtues, compared notes on little squeeks and rattles, talked a bit about strategies for urban riding, etc. The bikes were a commonality, to be sure, for we wouldn’t have even met were it not for bikes, but they do not define us as people, or limit the good we can see in others.

It is a common lament in Bike Blog Land how divided the broader “bike culture” can sometimes be. Every kind of bike and every style of riding has its own group of devotees, and every group has a set of perceptions about every other group. This is often lamented in terms of the possibilities for collective action that are lost by dividing “amongst ourselves.” The assumption is that we all have a shared set of concerns and interests if we could just get beyond all the silly posturing and attitudes. But what if we don’t?

Automobile drivers (which many bicyclists also are) don’t typically feel a sense of underlying kinship with other drivers. In fact, most drivers tend to have a pretty low opinion of other drivers. Why should I have (or want to have) a favorable impression of someone or friendship with them just because they choose the same mode of transportation as I do?

Bike bloggers also tend to emphasize the great people we meet while riding, but we also tend to assume to some degree that they are great because they also ride bikes. But what if that has nothing to do with it? What if some people are just nice and we get along with them really well, and what if some people are just jerks and we would rather not spend time with them? What if riding a bike has absolutely nothing to do with it?

The Foolish Scorchers, Part III

3. But like a hail-stone from on high,

That seeks the mother earth,

That gate descended from the sky,

And caught them in the girth.

SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, 12 July 1896