‘Bama Bikes, Part II
In my earlier post I discussed the problems of biking in my small town in Alabama, from the disappearing sidewalks and absent bike lanes to the lack of bike racks and debris underwheel. To these barriers must, sadly, be added drivers: drivers who do not seem, on the whole, to be malicious, just rather clueless. It’s not that they want to hurt you, it is simply that, in their mind, you don’t exist, or shouldn’t exist, and the fact that you do exist and that you are biking or walking your bike in front of them in a cross walk or a right of way is an incredible surprise, as if Genghis Khan and Marilyn Monroe just beamed down from Jupiter on a polka-dot Woolly Mammoth and are dancing in front of them. While I feel bad that they are so obviously surprised, even frightened, to see me, a strange Genghis Monroe on my Mammoth, I also feel that their lack of seeing reflects poorly on driver attention, not just in terms of bikers and pedestrians, but in general. It does seem that driving discipline here is lax: possibly the constant texting, talking on the phone, applying make-up and chatting, and driving of vehicles so high that they could be classified as mezzanine floor apartments cause, curiously, a certain lack of attention to the road and everything and everyone on it—who knew?
Certainly, my first biker/driver encounter was less than benign, and perhaps indicative of the bad side of ‘Bama biking. I was biking down a street and signaled a turn onto a side street. I had gone no more than 15 or so feet down the side street when I saw a black SUV approaching the street quickly. Not only did the driver fail to stop at the stop sign, but she turned right in front of me, forcing me to quickly stop in order to avoid a collision. I gestured to the stop sign, trying to indicate to the driver, a young woman, that she had blown through it, and that I had the right of way. Not only did she not seem to understand what she had done, but she gave me the finger and drove off in a spurt of gravel. Perhaps she thought that I was gesticulating in a rude manner, but I was not—and even if I had, there would have been a reason for such bad behavior on my part: fear. After all, bike versus SUV is not a fair comparison in any way, and my body and my bike would have borne the brunt of any vehicular encounter.
Despite this less-than-pleasant incident, I hope to continue biking for a multitude of reasons. For one, a proud tradition: biking has long been tied to freedom as a very democratic form of transit, one in which just about anyone can participate to some degree. In example, biking is tied in some very interesting ways to women’s freedom, to greater mobility, sociability, and even changes in dress in the nineteenth century. I’ve been reading a history of London, which includes a discussion of new forms of recreation and parks in the Victorian period and its aftermath. The book, by Peter Whitfield, contains a wonderful drawing from some time in the 1890s of women in fancy hats, lacy blouses, and long skirts riding on bicycles in Battersea Park, one of the city’s new parks. Whitfield mentions that Battersea was one of the centers of the period’s cycling craze, a craze in which women had a significant role.
Women’s participation in cycling was aided by developments in bicycle tech, particularly the move from the Penny-farthing bicycles with their huge front wheels, which were considered dangerous due the distinct possibility of taking a header, and thus tended to attract only agile young men, to the so-called safety bicycle (the modern bicycle), which was low to the ground; these bicycles were an important factor in encouraging women to try cycling. Access to bicycles allowed women to travel further and faster than before, as well as to carry goods and children with them easily: a personal and professional advantage.
Cycling even necessitated changes in women’s fashion in places such as Britain and the United States, as women found long skirts and numerous petticoats an obstacle to easy biking. The solution was to replace skirts with bloomers (baggy pants), and, in some instances, to adopt men’s cycling suits. These changes marked the beginning of the move to our modern dress. The problem of skirts still remains, however, and when I began cycling again I had to remind myself to bring shorts to wear under my skirts unless I wanted to give TMI to everyone in sight. Despite some skirt malfunctions and various other difficulties, I am dedicated to biking as much as possible, although doing so it not always easy.
In contrast to the cycling craze of the 1890s and the popularity of biking in the early decades of the twentieth century, contemporary biking, particularly in urban areas, offers some intriguing questions/concerns. One is why relatively few people bike despite the advantages of doing so, and how to address whatever holds folks back from biking. Another question is why those who choose not to bike often treat those who do with disdain, even anger. Part of this might be explained by the kind of surprise I mentioned above, a feeling that the appearance of a biker is a Genghis Monroe Mammoth situation, to which I suggest that more, not less, bikers on the road might be a solution. Another potential part of the reason for drivers to react in this manner is that some bikers don’t respect road rules as much as they might, and these bikers cause everyone on the road a problem. Of course, there are many drivers who do not respect the rules either, so the misbehavior of some cyclists is no reason to treat many cyclists poorly, and the lack of attention to road rules by all parties is a reminder that we all need to catch up on our rules homework.
Unfortunately, despite the positive aspects of biking, cyclists are often treated as second-class, if that, citizens. Monies go to highways and road construction, rarely to bikeways, and cities rarely seem to consider bikers’ needs in urban planning or transit decisions. This is curious given that biking offers benefits on both an individual and communal basis. By choosing to bike rather than to drive, bikers reduce air pollution, congestion on the roads, damage to roads (and thus to the tax-payer’s pocket book), all the while getting great exercise that not only benefits that individual biker but, in that biker’s healthier body, ensures lower health care costs. Bikers also have a much more profound opportunity to connect with their environs than drivers. Exposed to the problems of air pollution as well as other issues, such as trash and other road debris, in a way that drivers are not (one of the great ironies being that while bikers are making the streets and air less congested, they are the ones who get to breath in the pollution from which the drivers, who generate it, are shielded), bikers are not only aware of these problems, but highly motivated to do something about them.
After my recent biking adventures, I’m making a list of changes I’d like to see and places to contact to try to get these, including the local university’s and the city’s planning and transportation departments. Then I’m going to leave my stuffy basement office for some fresh air, freedom, and fun, courtesy of a ride around town on my beloved beater bicycle.