Sunday night at 11:00, I was bundled up for the cold and out of breath as I ascended a hill in Mt. Lebanon. I had just been to a Bible Study with a group of friends, and had decided that the bicycle was the route of choice. What would have been a 10 minute car ride turned into 10 mile hour and a half long suffer fest. My nose was snotty. My beard was frozen. And I was having the time of my life.
When I tell people some of the tails of my bicycle commute, I usually get looks of astonishment. When I tell folks that I ride from my house to the seminary with a certain regularity (though not after last night, I'm spent!) they look at me as if it's impossible that a man of my stature could pull off such a feat. They're probably right. But still I ride. I love it.
But there's this other question lurking just beneath the surface, one that I think found its way to the front of our consciousness in Pittsburgh in recent days. Given all the choices, why on earth would any sane person submit themselves to the traffic and trouble of cycling as a way of transportation? When Susan Hicks was struck and killed this weekend in Oakland a couple of conversations started happening around the city on social media and other places. Cyclists like myself started asking why there aren't more protected bike lanes in our fair city. Motorists started to wonder why they should give up precious real estate for lanes for these vehicles. And those that love me have started asking if all of this is worth it, if maybe it's time to hang up the bike, at least when it comes to riding in traffic.
I don't think so. First of all, cycling in all its forms, but especially as a commuter, brings joy to me on a level that not much else has. Have you ever jumped in your car to drive somewhere, only to discover you have arrived at your destination without remembering what had happened in between? While that happens to me regularly in a car, it never happens to me on a bike. I'm aware of my surroundings. I notice things I might not see otherwise. I am present. There's no radio. No distractions. Just an hour or so of time to myself in my own head. Even on the coldest or rainiest day, that's a feeling worth suffering for.
There are of course benefits. I am more fit as a cyclist than I had been my entire life leading up to this point (if I could simply step away from fast food, I might actually be a healthy and productive human being!) I always chuckle to myself when someone who is drastically overweight is upset with me as they speed by in their car, only to stop just a few miles up the road at the gas station. Cars cost gasoline and make you fat, and cycling runs on fat and saves you money. Go figure.
There's also the incredible environmental toll that all of these cars are taking on our world. This isn't some lefty thing, just go ahead and Google pictures of your city in the 1940s (not that far back, is it) before the car had ascended to it's level of dominance. Beyond all the carbon emissions, our cities are designed for mass quantities of cars, For more on this, check out the book Why We Drive. It's a short little book that changed a lot of the way I look at cars and our using them. Now, I still have a car, and I use it pretty frequently. But if even a few trips a week by bike can make a difference, why not?
But here we arrive at our problem. The road system is set up for cars, and in certain ways makes things very dangerous for the cyclist. When bike lanes are announced or suggested anywhere, folks run to all kinds of defenses. They'll make the city look ugly. Drivers pay for the roads (technically not true, everyone pays for the roads through local taxes). Why should we change for cyclists? But as this story from this weekend shows, there's a chance that we could save lives by investing deeper into cycling infrastructure. Like I said, I drive as much as the next guy, and I am willing to sacrifice a little vehicular convenience for the sake of safety. I'm not convinced that riding a bicycle should be as potentially lethal as it has become in recent years.
So what ultimately am I saying? A few things:
1) Be aware and kind to cyclists. The number one kind of person who is a threat to me is the distracted driver. If you don't see me, there's a higher likelihood that you're going to hit me. Pay attention! Most of us (myself included) ride with enough lights on our bikes and persons to qualify as a Fourth of July display. Almost everything I own these days is at least slightly reflective. I'm not trying to hide by any means! So it's up to you to keep an eye out for me and my cycling kin. I'm also shocked at how many people honk, harass, and swerve at me because they want to pass me. If 5 minutes of drive time is worth my life to you, you might want to re-evaluate your priorities. (Incidentally, think of how bike lanes would help with this. I'd be out of your way, allowing you to break the speed limit all you'd like!)
2) Cyclists should stop being dumb. People will often counter my arguments about cycling by referencing cyclists who run red lights, salmon up one-way streets, and nearly take out pedestrians, and asking why we should be given any kind of special treatment. This isn't a bad argument, because these "cyclists" who do that are morons. I will confess to occasionally treating a stop sign as a yield particularly when a hill climb is involved (something that other cities have found actually help on a few levels), but some of the other potentially life threatening behavior of cyclists needs to stop. If you are a cyclist, for the sake of our safety and those around us, quit being dumb.
) Safety should take a higher priority than convenience. Yes, I recognize that it can be annoying to be stuck behind someone cycling (or driving for that matter) slowly. That's no reason to risk someone's safety. I recognize that bike lanes can change long held traffic patterns and create confusion. That's no reason to risk someone's safety. It turns out that the people who sit atop bicycles are human beings, like the rest of us. We should treat them as such.
Who knows, 15 days (!) from now I might change my mind with new priorities in my life, but I plan to keep riding. I plan to ride in my happy little suburb where I get large swaths of country road to myself, and I plan to ride in the city, next to busy commuters and buses and whatever else can get thrown at me. To those of you who don't get me, that's ok. I barely get myself sometimes. But in the meantime, let's work together to build a safer, more attractive, and environmentally conscious city.