Sunday, October 7, 2012

Sharing the Road as a Christian Act?

It doesn't come up often in my bikey and academic circles, but I spent a good portion of my childhood afternoons entertaining myself at a Lutheran church where my mom was the office manager.

Sometimes I pondered the meaning of a wooden sign that said "No Jesus, no peace; know Jesus, know peace." Other times I watched these Hanna-Barbera "The Greatest Adventure" videotapes.

I also read the bible a lot, skipping over all the lists of names and marveling at the racy stuff I found about spilling one's seed on the ground and prostitutes. My point is, I know a thing or two about bible stories. I grew up with the idea that Jesus inspired faith through his own faith in humanity, that the bible's stories about his kindness were meant to teach us how to share our lives joyfully with others.

Do people think about being Christian when they're driving?  This morning, my mom and I biked through San Juan Capistrano at a quiet hour, speeding to catch the 7:34 train that would carry us to CicLAvia in downtown Los Angeles. As we passed the Mission Basilica, San Juan's historic Catholic church, ringing bells lightened my heart, and I felt like a living connection between the town where I was born and raised and the city where I found a sense of purpose as a bike advocate.

Nearly twelve hours later, we biked back the same way. Having floated up to cloud nine at seeing the hundred thousand happy faces of people biking and walking through central LA, I plummeted down to earth again when we passed the church and a man nearly hit us with his car. There is a back entrance to the church's parking lot that opens onto Camino Capistrano, and there is an entrance to the train station's parking lot directly across the street. He was pulling out to the right while looking to the left, and we were turning left into the same lane. I was within a few feet when I realized I would have to call out to get his attention, because he wasn't looking forward while his car came accelerating towards me. "Hey!" I called. The man looked up, clearly startled. Then he screamed, "get out of the street!" His window was down, so I thought I could explain that we were using the road lawfully, but when I attempted to speak to him he hit the gas and swerved around my mom, burning rubber and nearly fishtailing in his rage.

You know how when you go to the library and check out a book, it's yours to use for a while. You followed the correct procedure, and you're walking out the door. What if somebody came up to you, shouted "that's mine!" and grabbed the book out of your hand? Wouldn't you think, um, somebody doesn't know how to use a library. So what's the deal with people using public streets and then telling other lawful users that they don't have the right to be there? We get told as bicyclists over and over that our right to occupy space is meaningless in the face of someone else's. It's a very dehumanizing and frightening experience.

Usually when a motorist treats me like dirt, I don't have much recourse. They go on their way, thinking that I'm wrong for using the road, probably not questioning their own ignorance regarding the laws governing the street upon which they are operating heavy machinery. But after this man sped off past the church, I decided that in this case I could appeal to a moral authority, so I went to find a priest. Since he was pulling out of the church parking lot and I saw a number of other people hanging around outside the way people do after church, I thought that a mass had probably just ended. I didn't find a priest, but I did find a notebook on a table inside the church where I explained what had happened and urged the clergy to talk to their parishioners about how they are using streets alongside other people, not enemies.

What if churches preached sharing the road? What would our streets be like if pastors reminded their flocks to remember that we travel among people who should be treated in ways consistent with how we would like to be treated? What would it take to make that connection, between what you hear about in church and how you treat your fellows on the road?


  1. Hah. Maybe "sharing the road" could be someone's "random act of kindness" for the day.

    Drivers are just too self-entitled in LA, but that's mostly because of enviro design IMHO. I think that most won't really act on what they are preached, unless there's an explicit sign on the very street saying "share the road" or "bicycles OK"

    Interestingly enough, going to church means going in your car in your nice clothes, least within the Catholic parishes I've been in. Biking would eff up the "nice clothes" part. I wonder if you could find a culture of churchgoers where most of the followers ride a bike there.

  2. I just finished reading "Fighting Traffic - the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City." Author Norton. If you haven't read it, it's a must (even though it almost entirely ignores bikes!). It describes how "motordom" - those profiting from cars - succeeded in changing the definition of a "street" from a public good to be shared by all, to a commodity belonging to car drivers exclusively. This understanding of the street is now so thoroughly accepted that those priests may not grasp what you're talking about.

    and Brian, if you think biking has to eff up "nice clothes," you haven't been checking out the dozens of Cycle Chic blogs from around the world.

    1. I have that book sitting next to me now! The time has come to get through it. My mom just got a copy of it, too, so I think we're going to have a mini book club.