Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Green Light, Black Dress

"The light's green dude."

I hadn't noticed the bicyclist who'd rode up behind me as I waited at the intersection, my attention was on the blond in the short black dress to my left across the street. He was right though, the light had turned green, and before I could say, "Sorry, thanks for the heads up," he was already past me, pedaling away.

As I turned my attention back to the road, it occurred to me how mellow our exchange had just been: "The light's green dude," not "Hey asshole, quit staring at sugartits and go!" I'd like to think this says as much about how bicyclists tend to interact with each other as it does about how easily I get distracted by the opposite sex.

If you ride, you know that on a whole, bicyclists are pretty friendly towards other bicyclists. We're more likely to greet each other with nods or "Good morning" and unlike drivers, much less likely to start screaming at each other if someone cuts us off. The main reason for this (I'd argue), is the medium of the bicycle lends itself to peaceful, less confrontational exchanges simply by virtue of the technology involved.

When the guy behind me told me the light was green, it wasn't an urgent message - I wasn't really blocking him and only had to move over a tiny bit for him to pass me up. Contrast this with being stuck in a car behind another car, where your options for maneuverability are severely limited. There probably isn't a driver in the world who hasn't fought back the urge to go completely batshit when trapped in traffic, sporadically tapping the gas pedal, blood pressure shooting through the roof. Between bicyclists on the other hand, there is no such thing as road rage.

Even when it comes to dodging other riders coming in the opposite direction, I rarely get angry. (Okay, there was this one time when a homeless guy and I accidentally got into a game of chicken in the middle of an empty street. Luckily, I'd had enough sense to see he was a little bit more deranged than me and backed off). West Cliff Drive for example, has tons of bike and pedestrian traffic going in both directions on the wide sidewalk and no one gets hurt. Bicycles simply don't bring out aggressive behavior.

There are exceptions of course, but this usually boils down to the presence of cars. Notice, you rarely have pedestrians and bicyclists trying to square off. Drivers on the other hand, when not honking or shooting at each other, are always quick to get furious at bicyclists.

Speaking of honking, it's interesting to consider how the gentle "ding-ding" of a bike bell is really meant for pedestrians and other bicyclists but not cars. That is to say, while bicycles engender a friendly and peaceful atmosphere, there's just no way for a driver to tell another driver in a polite manner "The lights green dude."

Friday, May 16, 2008

Bike to Work Week, A Group Ride & $128 a barrel

Out of all of this week's bicycle related events, the highlight for me had to be decorating the front basket of my townie w/ flowers, drinking a glass of wine, and then riding throughout the neighborhood as the sun set. That is to say, Tuesday's People Power sponsored group ride down Mission Street (above) in the right hand lane in support of installing "Bicycles May Use Full Lane" signs didn't do much for me. It was assertive but lacked spontaneity, but obviously that wasn't the point of the ride - How else was the city council gonna feel like there was a mandate?

The sad part is, despite hundreds of riders showing up to the City Council mtg, People Power didn't get approval for either of the two signs they were hoping for:

Instead they got a picture of a figure on a bicycle riding in the middle of the road in front of a car. (Sorry, couldn't find a pic but the article about it is here: http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2008/05/15/18499646.php)

I suppose you could make an argument about how a stick figure on a bicycle is more aesthetically pleasing than a "BIKES MAY USE FULL LANE" sign or conversely, how it's important to spell things out for the driving population. Either way, the bureaucrats and lawyers spent many-a-hour detailing the legal nuances of all the sign options and the City Council folks made a decision that People Power will have to live with. I certainly wouldn't call it eating shit but I wouldn't call it getting what you ordered either.

Fittingly, this year's Bike to Work Week festivities also left me w/ mixed feelings and for the same reasons. For all their good intentions, the Bike to Work Week folks' method for getting people out of cars and onto bicycles is the time tested carrot and stick technique only there's no stick. I mean, not for nothing, but if we're going to close down the north end of Pacific Ave for the free breakfasts, why not close down the whole street for the entire day? Because that would be inconveniencing commerce and cars, and we can't have that.

The truth is, we cannot simultaneously create a proper/modern infrastructure for bicycles without cutting into the privileges of cars. As anyone contemplating leaving their car at home and riding a bike will tell you, the fear of getting hit by a car is a huge factor in discouraging people from riding. And yet, if we had more bike paths (i.e. completely separate and buffered spaces for pedestrians and bicycles to move) where cars would be banned, you'd see many more people riding.

I suppose that's why so many bicycle advocates are secretly smiling as oil prices skyrocket - It's accomplishing precisely what we haven't been able to do by asking nicely. Of course, $5/gal is a stick that doesn't discriminate who it hits, so I'm smiling while I can.

Monday, May 12, 2008

My First Crank Mob Experience

If the sight of a bicyclist being tossed in the air like a baton by an oncoming car wasn't enough to sober me up - the sight of some bro's Nissan Pathfinder's back window being smashed by angry bicyclists surely did the trick.

For the record, the bros had been asking for it when they made the mistake of trying to muscle their SUV through a mob of bicyclists who'd just seen one of their own have an unexpected meeting with a windshield in the opposite lane. They'd made a bigger mistake by getting out of the car and starting a shoving match. For the record, it was plain stupidity on the part of the bicyclist who'd pulled out onto oncoming traffic and gotten hit that had set the whole thing off in the first place.

And to think, we hadn't even been riding for 10 minutes.

For almost half a year now I'd been hearing about the famed bicycle street party known as the "Crank Mob." From what I'd been told, it was a departure from Critical Mass in that there was a small group of folks that knew the route ahead of time and more importantly, the idea was not to try and tie up car traffic. It was suppose to be a chill party on wheels.

Arriving at the town clocktower a quarter till ten (the start time) Friday night, I had briefly considered popping into the Rush Inn for a last minute pint but the atmosphere outside was too alluring. It was like New Year's Eve for bicyclists, with close to 200 riders, all crowded onto the concrete island generally known as the town protest site - everyone just itching to tear up the road.

But this was a party, not a protest. The tone being more Andrew W.K. than Fugazi. Case in point, when the clock struck ten, and hoots and shouts reached a fevered pitch, the party organizers stood on the nuclear attack monument and briefly stoked the crowd with what sounded like, "We Want Fun!" peppered with "USA, USA!" Upon hearing this, I turned to a fellow rider and asked, "They're joking, right?" He just shrugged.

* * *
With one foot on the sidewalk, I am watching sirens approach. A crowd has gathered outside the Front Street parking garage across from Longs and Trader Joe's. The girl who got hit is standing and seems to be fine. A middle aged man is commenting to his wife, "Those guys in the SUV should have just waited for the crowd to disperse on its own." He's right - As the cops arrive, most of the riders have already disappeared, and the bros are standing around w/ a broken window.

Figuring I'd seen enough action for the night, I start to make my way home. A few riders pull up next to me asking for directions to the 711 on Ocean Street - Apparently, the ride is only just beginning. I tell them just up the street on the right, figure what the hell, and follow along.

At the corner of Broadway and Ocean it's as if the accident never happened. There are more bicyclists out here than even the Mystery Rides of years past. (At least it feels that way) Someone blows a whistle and we're off again, this time, heading up hill towards Seabright.

The road is a dark sea sprinkled with little blinking red lights. Of the occasional cars that come by in the opposite direction, most slow down to a crawl, either out of concern or consternation at the spectacle of so many people on bicycles. We ride in both lanes, kamikaze style, I'm cringing at the thought of witnessing another collision but so far, everything seems to be fine. We reach an intersection and circle around waiting for everyone to catch up.

The more impatient drivers start to honk and rev their engines but more and more bicyclists keep coming. Before the situation comes to a head we're back on the road, aiming for the boardwalk.

Despite whatever disapprovals mainstream bike advocates may utter when put on the spot about unpermitted (e.g. uncontrollable) rides such as these, none will say they aren't exhilarating experiences. Given the choice between spending a Friday night dishing out $10 for a few hours inside a theater and riding with hundreds of people down a wide mostly empty road, anyone with a pulse will pick the latter.

But the dominant culture doesn't appreciate unexpected glitches in the TGIF, dinner, movie, bar-hopping, max-out-your-credit-card-because-there's-nothing-else-to-do matrix of post-industrial America; No, by the time the Crank Mob started circling the intersection at the entrance of the Pier, tempers were flaring up again.

As car horns began to blare, the circling Crank Mob continued to hold the space, then as often happens, one driver decided to push their way through the crowd, leading to a few bicyclists yelling and spanking the car in retaliation, leading the driver to step out and do his best John Wayne impression. In an effort to de-escalate the situation, Crank Mob organizers tried to coax folks away from the intersection towards the Pier. But like any party that has had too many fights, the mood was going sour. Some bicyclists yelled at others to quit antagonizing the drivers, while others took the opportunity to cool the angry cars off with water (this resulted in some very intense shouting/posturing from said drivers).

As I rode away, figuring this was about as good as it was gonna get, I kept thinking back to what a bystander had asked me at the site of the first incident, "What happened here?"

"Gas prices protest. Oil hit $126 a barrel today, haven't you heard?" I replied, too embarrassed to say this had all been a bad case of one bicyclist's reckless riding amplified by a bunch of fools in an SUV, amplified by a mob of rebellious bicyclists, amplified by a dominant culture that leaves no room for any adventures outside of the ones that can be bought and sold.

"Are you being facetious?" She asked.

"Yes, no. Sort of..." I really wasn't sure. What I am sure of is if the intentions of the Crank Mob had simply been an apolitical party on wheels, it certainly didn't seem to be ending that way - if not in words, at least in deeds. And for me, that's the definition of a good party.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Peak Oil is knocking at our door

$100 a barrel. Wow - Is it okay to freak out yet? $112 a barrel - How about now? $122 a barrel - Um...am I the only one getting a little nervous?

For years I've been riding a bike and doing everything I can to encourage others to do the same. Still, I've always been conscious of how the bicycle is no panacea for the ills of industrial society and the limitations of individual action in the face of a dominant culture that simply will not voluntarily change.

And although I've come to the conclusion that the fate of industrial societies ultimately rests not in the hands of humanity but in a power much greater (Earth), for what its worth, I'd like to offer a few general "public policy" suggestions for the years ahead...

Land reform: Gas prices will eventually make transporting produce and meat hundreds of miles via trucking to far-flung cities no longer a viable option. We must immediately begin rezoning urban areas for farming purposes. In other words, the parking lots and single-use business spaces gotta go. Considering it's going to take a while (some folks say at least a decade) before the soil underneath the pavement heals, we really ought to start tearing up the asphalt now.

Waste reform: Our world of cheap disposable goods in coming to an end. Reducing consumption, reusing and repairing what we already have should be emphasized over recycling (that's been the slogan for years but for some reason, no one gets it). Composting organic materials at home should be commonplace; the permit process for composting toilets should be streamlined - Water is too precious to be flushed down the toilet.

Labor reform: Reduce the work week substantially. If big box supermarkets aren't going to be able to supply affordable food because transportation costs have gotten too high, people must be allowed to spend more time at home, growing and cooking their own food. Furthermore, limiting the hours of offices and stores will save energy and allow the economy to slow down in a more graceful way as opposed to the crash and burn scenario that is unfolding now. In other words, we need a 6 hour work day, and a 4 day work week, more people doing less work - as opposed to the corporate down sizing logic of less people doing more work.

Well there you go - Consider the aforementioned suggestions just brain seeds for anyone reading this to think about as oil climbs to $200 a barrel.