Friday, January 20, 2012

how your ride affects what you see and how you see it

A while back, I was on vacation in Oregon. My reading included Pedal Power: The Quiet Rise of the Bicycle in American Public Life, written by DePaul political science professor Harry Wray, who makes many astute observations about contemporary America. I highly recommend the book.

After getting home, I started thinking about my impressions of Portland, Oregon. I got around primarily on foot and by public transit, with some time on a bike. Before leaving Portland for points south, I got a rental car for going to destinations that were not easily accessible by public transit. Portland was a pleasure to navigate without a car. On my one stop in town after getting the car, parking was a hassle. I was happy once I got away from the car.

At home in Chicago, I try to drive as little as possible. In a densely populated area, the car can be more of a trap than a source of freedom. We've reached a point where congestion and road rage can have a very damaging effect on our physical and mental wellbeing. Endless hours are wasted in traffic jams, creating a greater sense of urgency about reaching one's destination and enough frustration to motivate risky behavior. The current price of gas, combined with congestion, is igniting rage even in otherwise reasonable drivers. As a culture, the pleasure of our journeys has been mostly replaced by grimly creeping in traffic towards the destination.

This morning, I was visiting a few neighborhood destinations by car due to the cold weather.  These are places I usually visit by bike, and the lack of parking I encountered today made me appreciate how much easier these trips are by bike.

Traveling in neighborhoods where I am a minority, I've sometimes been the target of hostility when I am driving. BTW, it's a 20-year-old Honda Civic, not some fancy car. I've been yelled at, spit at, cut off in traffic, and been on the receiving end of nasty racial slurs, all while driving reasonably, without hostility. If I ride my bike in those same areas, at the same times of day, the response is more friendly - a smile, a wave, a little kid riding alongside smiling and just being a kid. If I'm waiting for a bus, the response is usually neutral or friendly. I am not isolated by the car. We are on equal footing.

If one's mode of transportation affects how one is perceived, this can also affect how experiences a place. The bike is a means of transportation that is affordable to all income levels. It promotes interaction with the environmental and is not threatening. In contrast, a car is a bubble around its occupants, more likely to create social isolation, with potential to injure or kill others.

One's mode of transportation tends to affect one's feelings about and reactions to a place. A car junkie's perception is often all about how much time is spent sitting in traffic and how much hassle it is to find parking. There may be beautiful gardens, interesting shops, interesting architecture and other small-scale pleasures along the way. A pedestrian would probably see them and be able to stop and check them out. A cyclist would have a reasonable chance of doing the same. Either might have conversations with others while waiting at lights. A driver would probably miss them entirely, preoccupied with getting through the next light before it turns red, or angry at being cut off by another driver or simply traveling too fast to notice them.

The culture of a place also affects one's perspective. Portland is considered one of the most bike friendly American cities. Its bike infrastructure is a big factor. Chicago is in the next tier of bike friendly cities. Bike infrastructure has vastly improved its bike friendliness compared to 20 years ago. However, infrastructure only goes so far. Portland is a peaceful, mellow place. In my experiences there, road rage was rare. In Chicago, the opposite is true.

We will never be nearly as bike friendly as Portland until Chicago experiences a significant cultural shift away from rage and hostility on our streets. This may happen when enough people get out of their cars if bike and public transit infrastructure continue to improve and expand to meet the demands of increasing ridership. It will require increasing maturity and tolerance on the part of both cyclists and drivers. Too many Chicago cyclists fail to understand that rude and reckless behavior will hurt ALL of us, because it provokes similar behavior from drivers.

Sorry, folks. Sometimes the truth hurts. To get good karma, ya gotta give it - to cars, pedestrians, and other cyclists. Otherwise the bad stuff you dish out will come back to bite you in the a$$ sooner or later. Let's try for peace in our lifetimes on our streets. If enough of us get out of our cars, it can happen.

Now we've got a unique opportunity to get better bike facilities in our neighborhoods.  The city's Streets for Cycling 2020 Plan offers regular people a chance to ask for bike lanes and bike boulevards in locations that matter to them.  The next public meeting happens on Wed. 1/25 at Woodson Regional Library.  I hope you can be there to ask for bike facilities that matter to you.

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