Thursday, December 9, 2010

Increasing rudeness on the trail

As I've posted before, one reason I love bike commuting is to escape the rat-race mentality. The ability to go where you want, at the speed you want, without being hampered by heavy traffic, leads to a calmer ethos on the bike trail than you find in a car at rush-hour. But perhaps bike commuters are beginning to pay the price of their own success. As more of us take to our bikes, tensions inevitably will rise.

I had two experiences within a week of each other that lead me to believe we are beginning to see a transition. In the first, I was approaching 15th Avenue NE in the U District from the east. There's no traffic light there, but there is a stop sign, so I always do a "biker's stop" before crossing, meaning that I slow down enough that I could stop cold if I had to, and then assess the situation as I approach the street. In this case there was another biker in front of me who came to a complete stop, so I moved left to pass, checked the traffic, and saw that the only approaching vehicle was a shuttle bus coming from the south. Since I could easily cross before it got near I accelerated across the street and settled back into my ride.

A block or so later the biker who had stopped caught up with me and started yelling. From her perspective it appeared that I had simply powered through the stop sign, making me one of the bad guys giving bicyclists a bad name. I defended my actions (in the heat of the moment I claimed to have actually stopped, whereas the truth was that I had merely slowed down), but of course there was no agreement. It ate at me for awhile, and then I put it aside as an unfortunate misunderstanding.

A few days later I was approaching 65th from the north, slowed to a crawl, and then proceeded when the lone approaching vehicle slowed and was apparently waiting for me. As I crossed I waved, as I always do, but when I got across the street I heard a string of invective from the driver. Evidently I had misunderstood his intentions. This incident disturbed me even more than the prior one, because it made me wonder whether in fact I was as much in the "good guys" camp as I had thought. Could it be I was actually one of the aggressive bicyclists that everyone hates?

These two incidents have made me change my behavior. Although I had considered myself one of the more conservative riders on the trail, I have become even more conservative. But after much reflection I have come to the conclusion that I really am, and always have been, one of the "good guys." The fact that I'm encountering more conflict recently is, I believe, due to the increasing tension that increasing numbers of bicyclists causes. Drivers have had more negative experiences with bikes, and are therefore quicker to lose their cool. Other bikers, stung by bikers' increasingly bad rep, are quicker to judge their fellow commuters. It all leads to greater tension, and the beginnings of the rat-race mentality I so much want to escape.

I think we've reached an inflection point. Seattle has recently been named one of the most bike-friendly cities in the nation, but we're still nowhere near where some European cities are. We're moving in the right direction, and we have recently crossed a threshold where car drivers encounter bikes with such regularity that it's no longer just the odd circumstance when a road is shared by both cars and bikes, it's the norm. But we don't yet have a good enough network of trails and bike-only lanes to bring some order to the process.

As a hopeless optimist, I see all this as generally a good thing. More bikes is better, and though the inevitable conflict it engenders is unpleasant, the future is bright. Let's see if we can all keep this perspective. And if you happen to see agressive behavior by a biker with a big black trunk sporting an "I brake for lemonade" bumper sticker, give him the benefit of the doubt. He's doing the best he can.