2013-08-09

Riding a Bicycle in America

Taking the kids home

It's hard to explain the stress of riding a bicycle in America. The danger is often measured simply in number of deaths of people riding bicycles, and it is assumed that if that number is low, that it is safe, and that people riding bicycles are therefore well-accommodated. But the actual stress of riding a bicycle for transportation in America is much more complicated.

In thinking about this, I'm reminded of a story I heard about Billy Corgan, the lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins. When he was growing up, he lived with his father and step-mom. His step-mom was violently abusive of him, sometimes. Other times she was fine. He made the comment that the real emotional trauma for him didn't come from the abuse itself, which was infrequent, but from never knowing when it was going to come. The constant tension and uncertainty.

That is what it's like to ride a bicycle for transportation in America.

You constantly know that:
  1. All it takes for you to die or be seriously injured is for one person to not be paying attention for 5 seconds.
  2. The majority of the population believes that they are in complete control while driving well beyond their ability (often doing multiple other things at the same time), and that of course nothing like killing or seriously injuring someone could ever happen to them.
  3. The majority of the population sees you as an inconvenience, to be passed by whatever means necessary, including breaking the law dangerously. This happens to me almost daily, being passed illegally. Not infrequently, the person in the car passing me illegally nearly collides with other cars, people crossing the street ahead of us, etc, who are all following the law.
  4. The infrastructure (roads, intersections, parking, signage, etc) often creates conflicts between people driving and people riding bicycles or walking. For instance, bike lanes which, by law, a person on a bicycle has to use, that end on the near side of an intersection, and force people riding bikes to merge illegally in the intersection with traffic going potentially 20mph faster than them. Or on-street car parking that blocks the view of everyone on the road or sidewalk at an intersection, and makes it frightening to even pull or walk out into a road at times, since you don't know what's coming, and it makes it a surprise for people in the road when you do pull or walk out into traffic, because they couldn't see you sitting there waiting.
  5. The law is lenient towards people driving, as long as they are not drunk, and as long as they don't hit-and-run. If they are sober and stay at the scene, they are not likely to be cited with much, even if they seriously wound or kill someone. This means that 1.) people only associate irresponsibility with drinking. If you're sober, you feel you're being responsible regardless of how you're driving, and 2.) people have no motivation to be careful, because they know if they cooperate, they probably won't be held responsible for much. It is, for the most part, the responsibility of the person walking or riding a bicycle to make sure they just stay out of the way.
It's not that people walking and riding bikes are dying left and right (actually, most of the people who die on the roads each year - 35,000/yr in America - are in cars), or even that it's very objectively dangerous to ride a bicycle or walk around, it's just that you know that nothing is in your favor when it comes to avoiding injury, except your own vigilance and skill, and that a simple mistake by someone going 35mph could result in you ceasing to exist. The majority of the people driving are doing nothing proactive to prevent injuring themselves or other people, nor is the physical environment around you built to prevent or account for mistakes by the people using it, however good their intentions may be (we all make mistakes, have lapses in attention, etc).

That's simply how it is. It may not be objectively very dangerous, but it is stressful, and mentally and emotionally taxing.

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