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.

1 comment:

Fonk said...

I agree, bike paths can be as much a detriment to the cause as a help. As you say, bike paths are generally designed for recreation, and most don't really get you where you need to go if you're using your bike for transportation. We need more money dedicated to bike LANES, not bike PATHS.