Saturday, January 16, 2010

Bicyclist's lament: Road Hazards


My efforts to become a bicycle commuter generated a spate of thoughts, many of them during rides. It is, admittedly, an insignificant stab at doing my part to reduce the use of fossil fuels. It has, however, raised a gamut of questions about how we live, and why, and how we should approach the coming issues of the age.

As trite as it might sound, bicycling has driven home this: it's hard to be different, to choose discomfort and take risks, just because it seems like the right thing. How often does "the right thing" turn out to be a stupid thing? Riding a bicycle in a car-filled world is lonely. It's -- and this emotion took me by surprise -- embarrassing.

Then again, sometimes it's wonderful.

A confession:

The intention to start biking regularly sat idly in my mind for a long time, a kind of perpetual New Year's resolution.

It was easy to put off. We lived on a steep hill, and getting home was a bear. My children were involved in sports and music, there was no school bus, city bus schedules were horrendous in my neighborhood. Easier, it seemed, to wait until they were driving. Ironic, certainly, that in my mind more drivers in the house should precede less driving. Is this the human condition? The American condition? What a lesson for our children: transportation costs take a back seat to soccer and violin lessons.

But aside from all that, there was a more powerful deterrent. Biking is dangerous.

When my kids were small, a friend crashed his bike and suffered head injuries, requiring months of rehabilitation, followed by years of struggles with depression.

Shortly after, another friend was following her husband down a steep road with their six year old son in the car, when the husband crashed, and died in my friend's arms.

My husband, on a recreational ride, moved onto a graveled shoulder when a car passed, lost control and flew over the handlebars. He suffered minor injuries, but it scared the daylights out of me. After this spate of accidents, my bike collected dust for almost ten years.

Fast forward to 2006. My oldest was a new driver, and the Bicycle Idea was beginning to stir again. Yes it's dangerous, but what are the odds, really, especially if you are cautious, alert, follow the rules of the road? A friend and teacher has bicycled almost exclusively for 20 years, including on vacations, and he's fine.

In May of that year, an avid local bicyclist, a well-known and beloved researcher and community activist, died when she collided with a truck during a training ride. OK, she was a serious biker, who rode fast on back roads. It was horrible, but not the same as a city commuter?

In June, 2008, a young man in his twenties riding downtown without a helmet was killed when his bike collided with a car. A white "ghost bike" surrounded by flowers, marks the intersection to this day. A local paper reports that the woman who hit him, absolved of legal responsibility (it appears he may have been careless), still cannot bring herself to drive, and has been harassed by people who call her a murderer.

In November, 2008, a friend, bundled up on a cold morning, was hit by a car and suffered multiple injuries. She spent three weeks in an induced coma, and 14 months later is still working her way back to her previous, active life.

Were the gods speaking to me? Don't do it! Who cares? Be safe! Your family needs you.

No. The gods were not speaking to me. This is a fact: bicycling in a car-filled world is dangerous. The question is, is it worth the risk?


If gods are speaking, it feels like this is their message. One person bicycling is insignificant in the movement toward less reliance on fossil fuels, but it is still movement. Every driver that passes, even if it's only subconsciously, registers -- oh, a bicycle. Oh, it is possible to get around without a car. Bicycling is, literally, as one reporter recently described student protests in Iran, voting with your body.

Besides, other things shifted into place.

My husband's office moved, and we followed, moving to a house that is closer to town, in a flat neighborhood. My youngest got her license, and the oldest headed off to college. A young mother bicycling in traffic is one thing. A post-50 woman, with time on her hands and adult children is something else.

So, the old bicycle was greased and the gears adjusted, fenders, a rack and all-weather pannier added, as well as a bell, head and tail lights. A friend donated a reflective vest, the kind you can buy at Sears, and worn by road workers. After a couple of soaks, a hooded rain jacket and pants were added to my wardrobe; and after catching a pant cuff on the pedal and almost tumbling, velcro strips to snug around my ankles.

There! Everything set! This is going to be fun!


1 comment:

  1. On the plus side...biking, like walking, puts me in touch with where we live. Birds, squirrels, trees and flowers in bloom. And I talk with fellow bikers and pedestrians waiting at lights. I talk with people holding signs asking for money. I am part of things--not an observer as I am in a car. Also, bikers must be perpetually alert. My husband and I recently returned from 3 weeks in India, where driving seems similar to Julia's description of biking here. Seatbelts are unknown, lanes of traffic are nonexistent, it's indescribable! Yet there are so few accidents, even in Mumbai or Kolkata, that when someone is hit or killed it is written up in the paper. Drivers in India are perpetually alert. Cyclists in Eugene are lulled into a non-alert state by their other life as drivers. Drivers hit cyclists (and pedestrians) because in our culture most people pay about as much attention to driving as they do to's all automatic rather than conscious. Just my opinion...


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