Monday, May 24, 2010

Sharing the Road Goes Both Ways

As part of my cultural anthropology dissertation project on bicycling in Los Angeles, I've been thinking more and more recently about communication between different kinds of road users. How do bicyclists indicate their plans for the road immediately ahead to drivers, pedestrians, and other cyclists? Well, for starters, a lot of them just don't.

I have things like this happen quite often: I pull up to a signal, waiting in a traffic lane for the light to change so I can proceed, and a bicyclist rides past me through the intersection. Or I'm pulling up to a four-way stop in a neighborhood, and an oncoming driver who got to the intersection a wee bit before me is signaling a left turn across my path. I slow down and balance myself to let the driver pass quickly so I don't have to stop fully, but another bicyclist rides past me into the intersection. The driver stops, and at this point I've put my foot on the ground, and the driver waits for me to get going again before turning.

Does it annoy me that my efforts to share the road as a bicyclist get undermined by people who ride without paying attention to anyone around them? Oh boy does it ever. Do I also think that there's nothing I can really do about it? Yeah.

I think one of the biggest barriers to bicycling getting taken seriously as a mode of transport by drivers at large is that so many people ride bikes without knowing (or caring) about their rights and responsibilities as road users. Where are new cyclists supposed to learn about this stuff anyway? 14 year old boys in my neighborhood who decide to save up and customize a fixie probably aren't reading educational pamphlets about safe riding. And most schools do not offer bike education. Do they even offer driver's education anymore?

I wonder if the cyclists who don't follow traffic laws or use hand signals think that they are rebels for riding bikes in LA. I wonder if they feel that they have the right to ride however they feel, since drivers are their natural enemies anyway.

For me riding a bike means making a statement about community. Riding a bike does more to humanize my city than driving does, what with all its isolation and pollution. When I ride my bike, I pay attention to the ladies crossing the street in front of me with their grocery carts, I hear the silly music coming out of open car windows, I see the man waiting patiently for the cars to clear so he can cross the street mid-block. Biking makes me feel like I'm part of the landscape I'm riding through. So when people bike without respecting their surroundings, it looks more to me like the antisocial statement of driving than the social statement of biking.

There's definitely a fine line between respecting other people and being cowed by aggressive drivers, and I don't think cyclists should stand for intimidation from every 3,000 pound smoke belcher that wants to run us off the road. Maybe my fantasy about people respecting each others' rights to travel by making eye contact, using hand signals or blinkers, and even just talking when they're right next to each other must wait for some future where everyone's right to the road has been equalized through some magic formula.

In the meantime, I'm going to continue to wait for the light to turn green, 14 year olds on customized fixies be damned.