Sunday, December 7, 2008

Escaping the Rat Race

My dream is to retire to a small town that doesn't have a rush hour, preferably one small enough that I won't even need a car to get around.  Let's just call it Port Townsend, for sake of discussion.  But until that glorious day arrives, I'm stuck in a big city with a big traffic problem that will almost certainly not be solved in my working lifetime.  So I'll have to learn to make the best of what I've got.

For the most part, this is pretty easy to do.  I have a great job, a house that suits me and my family well, good neighbors, a good community.  Most of my shopping can be done within a two-mile radius of my house; my church is just a mile down the hill.  But there are times when I have to venture further afield, and that's when the reality of Seattle's traffic problem becomes unavoidable.

Which brings me back to my job.  I live in Lake Forest Park, and I work in Fremont.  There is no good bus connection.  On days when I do drive, I'm drawn unavoidably into what I call the rat-race mindset.  I rage at drivers who accelerate too slowly or drive too slowly or cut in front of me or do anything to stymie my intentions.  On those days when southbound Aurora backs up past the zoo I sit helplessly, knowing that any alternative route I might contemplate will only be slower and more frustrating.

I've gotten better at adopting a fatalistic equanimity in the face of the fates thrown my way by the capricious traffic gods, but it takes constant effort to maintain it and I frequently fail. Fortunately the Burke-Gilman trail offers a stress-free alternative that never fails to satisfy:  bike commuting.  I've been a regular bicycle commuter since 2001.

When I first started commuting by bike I carried my lunch and a change of clothes in saddle bags and just enjoyed the scenery.  Eventually I grew so accustomed to the scenery that I needed some distraction, so I bought a radio that would fit with my helmet and started listening to NPR during the ride.  Recently I've discovered the joys of listening to podcasts and audio books on an iPod while riding.  But whatever I'm doing, one thing that I don't experience is the stress of the rat race.  It simply is absent from the trail.

I've done some thinking about why this is.  I believe the primary source of stress in traffic is an inability to be able to drive where you want, when you want.  If you want to drive a steady 40 mph, it's stressful to be forced by heavy traffic or ill-timed red lights to slow down or stop.  Some drivers react to this by driving aggressively, which according to some psychological studies is enhanced by the anonymity of the automobile.  Rude behavior of others adds to the stress.

On the trail, by contrast, you can almost always get around obstructions — slow bikers, pedestrians, or roller-bladers (which for some inexplicable reason seem to have nearly disappeared from the trail this year).  You may have to wait for a few seconds for an opening, but then you're through and biking where you want, when you want again.  Stress-free.

There was only one occasion I can remember where the rat race intruded on the trail.  As I approached the south University of Washington campus, I encountered a large group of charity riders.  I mean large.  The trail was backed up at the 15th Avenue traffic light so far that I had to wait through two red lights.  I was stymied.  The group was too large to pass, and they were slow.  I felt the surge of adrenaline signaling increased stress levels caused by the inability to go where I wanted, when I wanted.  I sucked it up and got through the U district eventually, but there were still hordes of trail rookies in front of me, blissfully unaware that trail etiquette called for them not to cluster in big groups that prevented us regulars from passing.  I finally escaped down to Northlake Way and raced westward along the street, working off my frustration in a burst of speed much greater than my normal trail pace.

Once in awhile a stressed-out biker will tarnish the trail with a rat-race attitude, aggressively weaving through congested spots rather than waiting a few seconds for an opportune time to pass.  The rarity of this occurrence makes me think it's likely a trail novice who hasn't yet learned that the Burke-Gilman isn't his private velodrome.  I like to believe that the trail exerts a calming influence that will eventually win over the most hardened road-rager if given enough time.

But in case I'm wrong, let me end this column with a plea:  please do not bring the rat race to the trail.  The day may come when the traffic has increased to the point where congestion is a real problem, and then even the most zen-like of us will be back in the rat race.  But let's not rush it.  Let it develop in its own sweet time, and who knows, maybe Seattle will keep building new trails quickly enough to handle the increased traffic that we all expect, and we'll never have a bicycle rat race.  We bikers could have our own little Port Townsend right here in the middle of the big city.  Now that's something worth dreaming about.

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