From David Schomer, Espresso Vivace
Nothing beats a bicycle for urban transportation. A bike is fast and small, never boxed in, and you park it right in front of wherever it is you were going. You smell the air and feel the weather, lungs and legs pumping. It is blissfully quiet and ultra-cheap to own and operate. But mixed in with trucks, buses and angry car-commuters it can be dangerous.
Since my discharge from the Air Force in 1978 I have ridden about 100 miles per week in and around Seattle. This experience includes 30 years of commuting from Fremont to Capitol Hill. Add it up…that’s over 200,000 miles, so I would like to share some of my experience with you and hopefully make you a safer rider.
Ride your bike with courteous authority. Perhaps no activity demonstrates the benefits of empathy and kindness towards each other (the components of courtesy) than the sharing of urban roads to move around. And a lack of courtesy, or simple mistake, can lead to a situation where a driver is deliberately threatening your life. We are generally a passive, polite bunch in Seattle, but on the road acts of rudeness can carry a potentially lethal response from another person. The reckless disregard for life shown by frustrated drivers is beyond belief sometimes…
Why is that? What can cause normally sane people to leap out of their cars brandishing guns, or ride up some other drivers bumper endangering them both, over territorial aggressions, real or imagined? Lets take a quick look at the genesis of road rage.
Some people, especially “type A” personalities, can experience a hormonal rage when they are blocked from getting where they are going. It’s an ancient visceral system, the reptilian brain stem, that dumps a load of fight or flight juice, (largely adrenaline) into their system. This is a very powerful stimulus; in pre-historic times preparing the organism for a life and death struggle. Of course, drivers override it. Day in and day out the chatter brain clamps down on the hormonal urge to smash something. This “Id” is a relatively recent development of the human mind. Your identity, who you think you, are and who you would like to be, resides here. The message comes from the seat of morality and conscience in the brain, a recent development called the frontal lobe, (probably only about 50,000 years old). And this modern mind is not nearly as powerful as your reptilian knob. So a trapped driver, especially a commuter, suppresses the rage they feel over and over again…(I can almost feel sorry for them if they are not rushing up on me, horn blaring, when I’m walking or riding. Almost… )
Until one day, maybe, the juice wins. Maybe they just lose it and zoom around your bike with about 12” clearance, horn blazing, and roar up to the next red light or jam. Or blast through the sidewalk where a mother is wheeling her stroller. The constant frustration causes a normally sane individual to have a brief psychotic break and intimidate innocent people with life threatening force, for the crime of existing where the fucking car wants to go.
(Car commuters destroy our city, and turn Seattle into a hostile, dangerous place. As a person who walks to work, and cycles, I see so much of the rage in these drivers. For a healthy city nothing is more urgent than offering people alternatives to the car…).
Vehicles, bikes, and people moving around together in a city with limited pavement are actually engaged in a cooperative dance with lethal consequences for mistakes. It’s the ultimate theatre of human interaction and it’s all around us all the time. So, courtesy must rule the roads…. (An example is your bike sitting in the right hand lane at a long red light, which is also the right turn only lane. The poor donkey in the car behind you is seething because there is No Reason for you to be sitting there. Have some sympathy and get the hell out of the way. Move your bike into the center lane so drivers can make a free right. Don’t move to the right, up against the curb or you will be trapped there. (Once in S. Lake Union a van actually pushed me up on the sidewalk because they cut the corner on a right turn from Thomas onto Fairview sharply).
So I never block a car without a good reason. The car donkeys are always blocked and frustrated, and they hold 3000-pound hammers. If I cannot achieve at least 70% of the posted speed limit and safely occupy the lane, I choose another route. You have every reason not to antagonize them with poor bike placement.
But if you need to take the lane, do so with firm authority.
One reason I love cycling so much is to cut an elegant, beautiful line with my bike. A rider, perfectly balanced, is a beautiful thing moving through the world.
A balanced, straight rider can also absorb a nasty pothole and stay up, and she is more easily predictable by the drivers around her. Authoritative line, coupled with courtesy, assists the drivers to regard your bike with respect. Respect is the coin of the realm on the roads, give it and earn it.
The only two times I have gotten hurt on a bike were the result of mechanical failure. Once my front wheel pretzeled on me and I looked like I had gone through a cheese grater, but no broken bones. Another time my rear wheel came off in a sprint and I broke my collarbone down an 15th Ave W. (A road I would never, ever ride on with my current level of experience).
So, if you pick up a Lime rental check the wheel fasteners, tire pressure, and lift each end of the bike and spin the wheel. Does it wobble? If so, check for loose or broken spokes. To quickly check spokes just rest a pen or your comb on the spokes on the spinning wheel. The loose spoke is easy to hear.
Low tire pressures can lead the wheel to collapse if you hit a severe pothole. And of course verify the integrity of the brakes, good pads, well adjusted, and firmly attached to the bike. (And for wet weather, disc brakes are vastly superior).
Mechanical integrity includes your helmet. Never ride without one that fits you well and has a tight chinstrap. (Years ago we lost our beloved Brian because he rode right off short stairwell in the trail down by Lake Union. His helmet slipped up during the fall because his chinstrap was loose. He hit on his forehead and never regained consciousness).
Quad Aces- the formula
Awareness-always ride with 360 degrees of awareness of your surroundings. Your hearing is very important so never wear headphones. Use a small mirror to see behind you. (In Tucson, I was riding home from the Precision Equipment lab on Davis- Monthan Air Force, base about 12:30 pm. The road was dark and empty. A car did not sound right coming up behind me….too crunchy. With no time to look, I ditched the bike and the driver blasted through on the shoulder right where my bike was two seconds ago. Maybe a drunk or a sociopath, I’ll never know, but I certainly saved my life by hearing him or her).
Analyze- What is each vehicle doing? Get in their head and figure out what they are trying to do at the moment. Are they on-tilt? Do they see you or are they distracted? You have to be able to sense this very quickly.
Anticipate- Try to intuit their intentions with the clues you have. If you accurately anticipate their path, and intentions, you can figure out where you need to place your bike to be safer.
Avoid- Move the bike where it needs to be, fast.
Tricks and Traps
Hole in the Wall: If a line of cars is stacked up not moving some Good Samaritan will stop short of a cross street in order to allow a left turner, coming the other way, access to the intersection. The left turner will not think about a speeding bike riding next to the cars. And, you can’t see them coming until its too late. It’s a nearly perfect bike trap. And, it happens all the time descending Pike and Pine. Go very slowly around the donkeys if they are stacked up.
Hook Shot: This seems unlikely but has happened to me several times over the years. You’re on a wide street with shoulders, and a car is inexplicably driving slowly and then begins to drift to the right shoulder as you come up behind them. They are getting ready to execute a quick U-turn. Plan on it and avoid the hook shot.
Four Way: It is extremely common for a driver to look left, look right, and drive straight into you if you’re in the intersection right in front of them. Always go for eye contact before proceeding through a four way stop.
Shared Path-pedestrians: I use extreme caution passing people walking on a shared bike path, like the Burke Gilman Trail. They are absolutely unpredictable so ding that bell. They are capable of anything at any time. It is so common for them to suddenly turn and walk without any discernable reason or warning, right into your bike that I call it “Did I leave the oven on?” (And I kind of think it should be a walking path. A place where you may have a relaxing stroll without being hyper-aware of speeding vehicles, like you do all the time walking near the roads).
Rain Riding: The main differences are your traction, and the ability of drivers to see your bike. Especially fresh rain, when roads have been dry for a while, creates a very slippery road. Allow longer braking distances by riding more slowly. You can assume, in the rain, that drivers cannot see you in their mirrors. I’m especially careful passing parked cars for this reason. I look for the cars front wheels to be turned towards the road and if I see that I check for a driver in the vehicle. Loaded gun with wheels turned means I’m already anticipating them to pull out suddenly.
Train Tracks: Treat all steel, tracks or manhole plates, like ice in the rain. On streetcar tracks try to cross the front wheel at a 45 degree angle or greater. Riding around these is quite technical and requires your full focus. My new riding buddy, David, an expert cyclist, had a bad fall on the tracks recently. It was because a car was merging into his lane without seeing him and he was distracted. His wheel dropped in and he went down hard. If it’s a streetcar route, choose another road.
Safety gear: Always be highly visible, with neon clothing and bright flashing lights. Run the lights even on sunny days. (Mike McGinn I am talking to you). Use cycling gloves with padded leather palms. The pad protects the nerves in the hand from slow compression damage and the leather will keep you from shredding your skin on the concrete.
I ride with a nice little bell, made by Krane, and featuring a truly beautiful sound with a 20 second decay.
Disc brakes are a must in Seattle.
And the king of safety gear, a good helmet that fits and is well adjusted. Safety glasses or shades are required and you should add a visor to keep sun and rain out of your eyes.
And for confrontations I always carry pepper-spray, easily accessible.
Sharing the road-bike placement: I like roads with dedicated bike lanes. Dexter got a lot better when they added that lane years ago. The city wanted to place parked cars between the bikes and the traffic but that creates more problems. The new lane on 2nd Ave downtown is designed that way. People get out of their cars and step right into the bike lane, anticipate it, avoid it…
I rarely ride sidewalks, pedestrians are absolutely unpredictable and I think that should be their area.
Go to the front if donkeys are stacked at a light. They have comfort and safety by being in the box, but you have freedom and mobility-use it. (Of course you are courteous with your advantage, do not go to the front and then block everyone).
Approaching any intersection the first place to detect motion is the wheel of the car. If it moves, I’m anticipating they are coming out.
Stay out of the door zone, they will absolutely open a door without looking and that is a nasty event.
Sociopaths: When some ass almost hits my bike I chase them down. If they just did not see me and they apologize, no problem. But over the years I have had many encounters with people that think I should not be on the road and express their opinion by endangering my life. I classify them as sociopaths, someone willing to put you in a wheel chair because you have delayed them a few seconds in their mad rush to the next light.
Now, I’m an embarrassing hothead in these situations and that is not effective, and perhaps dangerous as well. (See above, hormonal rage). Here’s what works- get out you phone document the conversation on a video. (And if they threaten you with violence on the video, police will help you right away. It’s called harassment and punishable with jail time).
The video accomplishes many things at once. First it will calm you down. The act of activating the phone and selecting video engages your rational mind. And it should have a sobering effect on the driver as well. (If this tactic actually escalates the situation you should quickly and smoothly blast them with your always-handy pepper-spray, and get away fast). The police can do nothing if they do not witness vehicular intimidation. Don’t waste your time calling the cops, instead say “Really, you’re going to commit reckless endangerment while you have an ID tag on your car? You’re not anonymous out here.” Once you have the video, and license plate, you own them. If they have any shred of rationality going this will finish the encounter.
And it must be said that compared to 30 years ago drivers are a lot more respectful of my bike than they used to be. Of course this is negated by cell phone distraction but it’s worth saying.
I can honestly say that I feel safe on my bike in Seattle.