Monday, May 10, 2010

Sister Cities

By way of a disclaimer, I should make it clear that I had never used a bicycle in any consistent way since I was in high school. I tried for a brief period of time to use a borrowed bike to get to work when I had an office in Marina del Rey. I experimented with this new discipline by trying it out on weekends, but I was quickly driven into submission by the masses of enthusiasts that filled the bike paths between my condominium and my office. (The reason I attempted the experiment at all was because I could make almost the entirety of my trip without every having to share the road with any motor vehicles.)

Now I live in the Civic Center of San Francisco, and almost all of my needs to get from one place to another can be achieved on foot. The exceptions that require a car are few enough that I feel pretty good about having "environment-friendly" practices. On the other hand I realize that both of my forms of mobility now seem to place me in an adversarial situation with the bicyclists. At a time when social theorists argue that we are becoming more and more detached from each other, it sometimes seems as if the cyclists have united into a community based solely on "defiance of the other;" and that defiance even has a ritual celebration at the end of the month (Critical Mass) that has earned itself an entry in Wikipedia.

The primary target of defiance, however, is not those who choose alternative means of transportation but the general "rules of the road," the ones we all have to learn in order to pass the test required to get a license to drive. Here in San Francisco the question of getting cyclists to obey general traffic laws comes up from time to time, usually as part of negotiations for more bike lanes; but then it quickly fades into obscurity. After all, cyclists do not need licenses; and it is hard to imagine that we would ever see the laws enforced by impounding offending bikes. So those who drive live with the anarchy that surrounds them among both cyclists and pedestrians; and those pedestrians who read the Chronicle get periodic reminders of how "natural selection" treats those who do not both honor the rules of the road and "walk defensively."

I sometimes wonder whether or not San Francisco is more problematic than other cities because the population is more politicized, but I have recently discovered that conditions are not much different in New York. On May 2 the Op-Ed page of The New York Times ran a piece by Chris Raschka, who takes his cycling seriously, entitled "Braking Away." From a rhetorical point of view, Raschka introduces himself to us in a way that seems to justify the defiant stance that has become so familiar to me here in San Francisco:

Like a goat in a cattle drive, I was jostled by a delivery van on Ninth Avenue, went over my handlebars because of an out-of-town driver on Seventh, and was casually bumped into by a limousine driver on Sixth who stopped and got out to see if I had damaged his side-view mirror, while I lay unattended on the sidewalk.

Having made his point, however, he then gets to the heart of his essay, which is his decision to abandon his usual practices and start honoring traffic lights. His defense of this position reminded me a bit of the sort of logic that would get Spock to raise his eyebrow and offer his "Fascinating" one-word judgment:

The reasons for this are not as obvious as you might think. While it is true that my running of red lights in the past has led to one big traffic ticket and one court summons, fear of retribution is not the main thing.

Nor is concern for my own safety the primary reason. My legal record notwithstanding, I’ve never been a hell-bent rider. Certainly, I didn’t want to hit anyone. And, yes, I believe a bike-friendly city deserves friendlier bikers — but these, too, are ancillary reasons.

No, for me, the real reason for stopping at red lights — seriously, not even right on red! — is simply to see if it can be done.

Frankly, it is not easy. In the old days, reds meant merely coasting for a second, looking left or right and charging through. If I lingered even a moment too long waiting for the Midtown traffic to clear, I was sure to receive the scorn of New York’s bike messengers. One even gleefully shouted, as he passed me by, “Amateur!”

Now, forget about it — I might as well be an alien. First of all, I am the only one. I have never seen another bicyclist waiting at a red light simply because it was red. Children ride past me and snicker. Bankers, with their suit-legs neatly clipped, pedal by on their folding bikes and cast silent derision my way. Even gray-haired matrons whiz past me, the sprockets of their three-speeds clicking out a steady refrain — an accusation, really: chump chump chumpety chump chump chumpety chump chump.

As an outsider I could only wonder whether Raschka was seeking a more individual path for the "defiance culture" of his peers.

However, my personal entertainment only really began today when the Times ran a couple of letters in response to Raschka's piece. One of the writers, a Ms. Barbara Quart, came so close to reflecting my own position that I shall reproduce her contribution without modification:

Chris Raschka is indeed, as he claims, one of a kind. Not only do the mass of bikers on downtown streets go through red lights, but far more unpredictably, they often go against the direction of traffic, or even up on the sidewalk.

While bikers were endangered 10 years ago, these days elderly people with fragile bones like me face grievous injury from bikers every time we cross the street, perhaps never to re-emerge from the hospital we are carted off to. And there’s no way to even identify and hold responsible the fast-moving culprit.

The city, in encouraging this deluge of bicyclists upon us, has abdicated responsibility, and must begin to issue license plates and establish a set of regulations.

Tell it like it is, sister! I just wonder whether or not Quart ever had to deal with a cyclist as defiant as the one I encountered, who tried to pedal at full speed between the sidewalk and a Muni bus that had just stopped to take on passengers! (Yes, this was a narrow passage, rather than that of an often-encountered half-hearted attempt to pull out of traffic at a bus stop.)

The other side of the story came from cyclist John Yohalem:

In “Braking Away” (Op-Ed, May 2), Chris Raschka never mentions the principal reason most of us bikers do not stop for red lights: pedestrians in New York do not stop for red lights. They cross against the light, and if they see a biker coming, they do not notice him. If I paused for every red light, I’d never move at all. When I have the light, I have 30 pedestrians to wade through. I try not to hit anyone. I thank those who pull back for me.

I suppose this is where my own defiance comes to the surface. The sad truth is that coexistence between pedestrians and any vehicles is extremely difficult in a crowded metropolitan setting; and, in a city with hills as steep as those of San Francisco, those who cannot negotiate the terrain clearly need alternative means. On the other hand, I have to wonder whether or not Yohalem and I inhabit the same reality:

When I lived on the West Coast (San Francisco and Seattle), pedestrians stopped for red lights (or they got tickets) and so did bikers (or we got tickets). Unless everyone obeys the traffic laws (double parkers, say!), it’s unfair to single out one group for violations.

For my part I have never seen either a pedestrian or a cyclist cited for a traffic violation in San Francisco, but I do remember a friend who was ticketed for jaywalking in midtown Manhattan! So this may just be one of those cases in which each of us constructs those memories that best serve the point we are trying to make. In fairness to Yohalem, the incident I recall took place long before the current enthusiasm for cycling had emerged; but this was also a time when, on a regular basis, I would join the masses of rush-hour pedestrians going in both directions on the sidewalk as I made my way (on foot) from Grand Central Station to Carnegie Hall. We may have been a large herd, but we all seemed to honor traffic lights in those days.

My guess is that all of this amounts to arguing over symptoms. The "disease" is a "pandemic" inability of cities, at least in the United States, to deal with the current levels of crowding. This is not just a problem of cities lacking the resources to pursue solutions. I would guess that, even before the resource question arises, there are deeper problems of lacks of both will and imagination. In just about any utopian vision that has been conceived, every individual has "breathing space." These days we only encounter those individuals in television commercials; and, because we now accept such commercials as fiction, we may have abandoned the idea that we have the resources to recover that "breathing space." Perhaps disregard for the environment is prevalent because so many sectors of the population feel antagonistic towards that environment; but the problem is that, if we are all wrapped up in hostility towards the problem, we are ill-equipped to give serious thoughts to solution. The result is that we shall find ourselves in yet another situation in which we succumb to a helplessness that can only beget rage.

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