Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Bike Path Culture

I'll summarize what I've said many times before -- I ride on bike paths; I enjoy a break from riding on roads. At this time of year, path riding can be a bit unnerving, however, given the glut of users of varying ability and the majority who seem to lack personal awareness skills. But overall, I recognize bike paths for their essential place in the infrastructure of a bicycle-friendly community.

For several weeks I've been thinking about blogging the very topic that tonight I was reminded is as pertinent as ever. In fact, it may be growing in significance as we pursue more "bike friendliness" along the current US trend of dedicating and paving more bike paths.

Regularly I read an argument that goes something like this: Without more bike paths (i.e. separate and PROTECTED surfaces for cyclists) communities cannot capture a large portion of folks who are motivated to ride more yet are intimidated by the thought of riding on streets. Strangely, as a seasoned cyclist, I am more unnerved by riding the bike paths in peak season. In fact, if my goal is to get somewhere on my commute, riding the bike paths can present more obstacles that challenge my safe egress than most busy streets I ride.

That's not the point I wish to make, however. I want to ponder for a moment the notion of the bike path and what it means not only to cyclists but its greater implications to motorists.

I was just over halfway home tonight when I maneuvered onto northbound Xerxes Ave. This is a busy four-lane but I ride about a quarter mile before it transitions into a two-lane semi-residential road again. Like France Ave a quarter-mile west it's a beautiful north-south direct route. However, a major shopping center and two freeway interchanges introduce a steady flow of traffic accustomed to driving fast and desiring to get someplace in a hurry.

I've often thought: What awesome spots to introduce bike signage and/or bike lanes to acclimate motorists. But in my personal assessment Mpls would rather spend money on trails. Perhaps there's even lobbying for expensive dedicated trails versus bike lanes that utilize space that's already paved because motorists don't want to deal with cyclists. That's certainly the popular movement afoot with bike advocates across our land.

Headed north at a pretty good pace I caught a yellow light at Hwy 62 (a freeway on-ramp). I could have run it but there were plenty of cars around so I opted, as I usually do when drivers are watching, to follow the rules of the road. I figure I'm presenting a better image for cyclists at large. I care about that.

I put my foot down at the signal. I heard a horn blast from the car directly behind me. A second or two passed, then a voice from the car window shouted, "This isn't the goddamn bike path. Get on the sidewalk." I paused and unclipped my other foot. I started to turn and actually contemplated laying my bike across the lane and walking to the driver's window to call bullshit in his ignorant face. But I bit my tongue, held my finger and waited for the light to change. Then I rode on not once acknowledging his belligerence.

I've heard comments like this plenty of times in the past, but this one struck me differently given its semantical qualities. Here are a couple of other common lines that get shouted. Let's see if you notice the difference:
"Get out of the fucking road, asshole."
"Ride on the fucking sidewalk, dumbass."
The difference, of course, is the mention of "bike path." The ignorant driver who chose to yell at me wasn't smart enough to know I have a legal right to ride in the road but he was aware that bike paths exist and wasn't afraid to exert his belief that's where cyclists belong -- exclusively was his implication. (Bikes Belong ... where?)

In the cycling mecca of Mpls (#1 in the nation, baby) who couldn't be aware that bike paths abound? But is this a good thing? As a transportation cyclist, I put forth a dissenting voice. It is not a good thing insofar as the growing divide between cyclists' perceived safety and the tangible loss of recognition among motorists that bikes should be allowed a spot on the road worthy of all the respect that is alotted fellow motorists. (Even though that might not be saying much these days.)

Cities and states can spend as much federally subsidized money as they like but they will never succeed in crafting a network of bike paths that get every cyclist where s/he needs to go without setting a tire on a common road. In most cases cyclists must ride on roads for a large portion of their commutes. Why should we begrudge that and avoid roads if the law supports our riding decisions?

A quick answer: Because public opinion is shifting -- thanks to advocacy groups that devote massive amounts of funding for bike paths. That means bikes should go there and get out of the way of motorists.

I've posed a challenge perhaps by linking bike paths with commuting because I don't think that was ever the intent. In a city like Mpls, god help the hapless soul who chooses to commute on many of the paths. I drive occasionally and I have been stuck in rush hour traffic enough to proclaim that I'd kill myself sooner than deal with that everyday reality.

Ironically, the congestion of the bike paths in fair weather sends my mood south as well. In the grand scheme I'm happy people are riding bikes, getting exercise. But no matter the intent, the paths have become the freeways of recreational cyclists much the same way legislation has benefitted the recreational cyclist. (Jim Oberstar = Poster child for middle aged recreational Trek rider. Must you always wear lycra and pedal a road bike in your photo ops?)

People are on bikes. Isn't that good? I suppose, but I surmise it's still a classist feeding frenzy of privilege. Godammit, I want people to wake up and take cycling seriously as a lifestyle -- not as a fucking hobby. If you're driving to a trailhead on the weekend or riding your $6K road bike on your days off you aren't doing the cause of biking any justice. You're not reversing the consumer trend in America and you're not challenging the automobile paradigm, you're simply paying off your legislators to grant you a place to play.

Sorry to spoil your fun, people, but bikes aren't simply toys.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


What's on tap?
Southern Tier IPA & 422; Full Sail Session Lager

Conundrum of the Week
The salsa in the fridge tastes like kim chee and the fresh jar in the cupboard tastes like marinara sauce.

Who's driving this space-plane anyway?
Two weeks ago I left for a ten-day stint in Japan. I get back and we have two failed attempts at plugging the Gulf oil leak and another failing one in the works. What the fuck, people?

Oh sure, blame British Petroleum BUT let's pick another reason to hold Obama's feet over the coals; let's crucify the high levels of government and draw partisan lines over unilateral (dare I posit non-governmental?) issues. I grow tired of the victim scenario ... along the lines of: "Oh, I can't believe these shining beacons of corporate greed could have let this happen. I mean, there are RULES and REGULATIONS and such, right? It must be THE fault of whomever is in power."

Think about your own job. How much shit do you have to deal with that was created by people above you, below you -- people you may not even like? But they stirred the pot, made downright crappy decisions and now you're left with the white glove and the butterfly net, expected to make everything right.

Culpability. The stark reality of this -- the blood is on us all. Each and every one of us are holding smoking guns. After all, we are the nation that commands cheap energy at any and all costs. The kicker? Look around you -- do you see any tangible evidence that this latest oil disaster has changed anyone's habits? Have you overheard any talk at the office coffee machine (err, sorry ... on Facebook) about this other facet of oil-mania? Forget community detachment, obesity rates, psychological malaise, global warming -- this is an apocalyptic reminder of the true costs along the full cycle of oil consumption. Yet, beyond pointing fingers at blame it seems few care. What a privilege to assert. How very American.

What did you really log on to write about?
Jetlag. When you fly back from a place that is 14 hours ahead of your home time zone you learn a lot about yourself. You behave in ways that are most shocking. You think, "I really ought to be able to just convince myself I'm not feeling psychopathic in this moment." Fortunately, it soon passes.

There are the upsides, too: Lucid dreams that are so vivid and joyful within 30 seconds of closing one's eyes: Appreciation for the old and familiar: Clarity that can only be gained by experiencing another reality for an extended period of time. I revel in this. It is perhaps the greatest personal benefit of my current job.

Another benefit is that I am up uncharacteristically early. This morning I cleaned several months' worth of blackened burner residue from all six stations of our antique range's cooktop. I scrubbed and scrubbed with citrus cleaner then resorted to oven spray. I washed all the laundry from my trip. I changed light bulbs and swept a few lingering piles of dust. I cleaned out all the old contents of the fridge (but missed one container of salsa).

So what?
This evening I watched the kids. I was determined -- after being a sleepy, jetlagged crank yesterday at this time -- to power through the urge to nap and do something fun. I suggested a walk. Sylvia countered a bike ride. Despite the lethargia I hitched the Burley trailer and Sylvia grabbed her bike.

We pedaled away from the house -- Sylvia on her bike and me towing the trailer with Willa aboard. The pace was remarkably slow. Here and there an occasional trackstand was necessary. I steered us toward the bike path. I wanted Sylvia to learn some new skills about riding around other people. She powered up several hills and pulled her bike over the railroad tracks. She also pedaled a muddy, graveled detour without being phased. Eventually, I had to load her and the bike onto the trailer. It is worth noting she rode 2.2 miles on her own.

Where are you going with this?
That short trip on the bike trail was not exactly care-free. I was tensely looking over my shoulder and reminding Sylvia to keep to the right. The path warriors are never at bay and sure enough a half dozen or so buzzed by us panting, knock-kneed and piston-pedaling along. Some said nothing, others seemed to whisper and others gasped abruptly 'On your left." I'm a critic for certain, but not until tonight do I think I fully realized why the lycra-clad give cyclists a bad name in most circles. Much to their (and our) demise, they transform the bike trails, streets and byways into ribbons of narcissitic pursuit, forging the carbon-copy type of speed-defined dominance. Still, we crawled on greeting the smiles of some who slowed enough to notice the utter joy that is a child learning to ride a bike.

I don't know exactly why I was compelled to note the mileage when Sylvia gave in, but I did. As the minutes ticked onward, it occurred to me she had surpassed a national milestone. You know that one about the majority of Americans' automobile trips being two miles or less?

"Holy shit," I thought, "My five-year-old daughter has just ridden her 12-inch kids' bike farther than most adults think possible."

Both kids and the bike loaded, my 100 lb+ burden-in-tow seemed like a balloon full of helium. We made our detour to the beer store. On the way back we swung by the seedy beach on the east side of Cedar Lake.

The kids played in the water as I pointed out the gregarious activity of Red-Wing Blackbirds flittering all about.

We rolled on to the abandoned rail dock that is now a gravel road west of Linden Yard. It's one of my favorite detours on the morning commute and a frequent stop on the way home. From there a few short, steep paths climb up to Kenwood. (Secretly, I always hope this egress for vagrants keeps the rich folks on their toes.)

I sipped a beer while we explored the paths. Sylvia and Willa practiced pied a canarde as well as a variation of glissading on the way back down. Willa settled on the most instinctual method of descent -- the ass slide. I was delighted as they both asked to go up one more time and test their new skills. Right there, in real-time, I could see their confidence growing.

Perhaps what we need is more opportunities for people to learn and more openness to these opportunities. Even amidst settled routine there is spontaneity awaiting the receptive mind.

Drop your baggage and follow your kid for 5 minutes. S/he will show you something you'd forgotten long ago.