Friday, February 26, 2010

Cell Phones, Bicycles, Unemployment

Thursday evening I find myself at the Bike Church, looking for a run down beach cruiser. As usual, I end up spending as much time shooting the isht w/ the bike mechanics as I do testing out rides and of course we get to talking about bike issues, life and the like.

One amigo knocks out the high Santa Cruz rent by piecing together old bicycles and selling them to friends or other folks w/ the financial means. It helps too that he lives with a lot of people and scrounges free food the big corporate grocery stores throw away. Obviously he ain't rich but he's damn good at fixing up bikes.

My other amigo also has many skills but as he points out, unemployment in Santa Cruz is like 13%, in SF it's 9% (don't quote me on these numbers....even if I'm quoting him) and he may be skipping town as early as next month as he can't find a job. It's a crappy situation and I end up steering the conversation to something not as pressing, at least not yet: Penalizing bicyclists for using cell phones.

Both amigos have ambivalence about state senator Joe Simitian's proposal to start penalizing bicyclists for using cell phones while riding...then again, neither of them have read the newspaper report about it (I've taken the liberty of printing out a copy and posting it at the Bike Church).

Homie #1 points out that it's hard to ride a bike and talk on a cell phone in the first place, and most of the time, folks are going super slow, like dragging one foot on the ground slow. They also unfortunately tend to weave around when doing so and he would rather fellow riders put the phone down and focus on the road. I totally agree I say but ask if this merits declaring the behavior illegal when there are so many other ways to discourage it? I mean, you aren't required to wear a helmet (if you're over 18 that is) but that doesn't mean helmet use can't be encouraged and statistically increased via public safety campaigns, as most bicycle advocacy groups already do.

Homie #2 says people are going to do stupid things no matter what the laws state and that you can never get everyone to comply. Bicyclists should be accountable to the same standards as cars. I counter that traffic laws should be proportional to the type of vehicle being used - Bicyclists aren't allowed on freeways for obvious reasons, so what we're talking about here is really parity - Bicyclists on cell phones don't kill anyone, cars do. Yes, but they can still cause accidents he says. I agree, and say this doesn't mean we need to give the police another excuse to pull us over and fuck with us. Public safety campaigns can be just as effective and certainly not as punitive as fines. Homie #2 says, okay, fine, you won me over. He then admits he does ride and talk on his cell on occasion. I laugh.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bicylists Against Superfluous Traffic Laws

My initial reaction to reading about a career politician seeking to criminalize the relatively benign act of talking on a cell phone while riding a bike was,"this is f**king stupid." Then I took a deep breath, went outside, stood in the rain to cool off, came back inside, reassessed my feelings, they're still the same, this is totally f-ing stupid.

As reported in today's Santa Cruz Sentinel (or as us local folks call it, the "Senile"), state senator Joe Simitian thinks it would be groovy to increase the fines for drivers who get caught using a cell phone and then apply the very same law to bicyclists, for as we all know, there is an epidemic of us out there riding, talking, and running into one-legged old ladies and handicapped children. And as usual, many fellow riders I talk to are either indifferent or think this would be a good idea.

Well, I've never been known for taking popular stands so here goes nothing...

The idea that traffic penalties designed for cars should be applied to bicycles is based on the underlying but seldom articulated premise that technologies are neutral and don't carry an inherent bias. This premise cuts across political and class lines as our society is at heart a technophile society, which is to say, if you ask a republican or democrat if technology is the key to progress for humanity, 9 times out of 10 they'll say yes.

The way this plays out in the real world is that a bicyclist can be pulled over and given a ticket for running a stop sign in an empty intersection, for under the eyes of the legal system, we are the same as cars....even if we all know this to be untrue. The fact that there's indeed a difference between a motorized vehicle and a non-motorized vehicle doesn't factor in to a legal system that is blind to the built in bias that comes with any given technology.

Ask yourself this: Does a bicyclist talking on a cell phone pose an equal or greater risk as a driver doing the same? If not, does the risk merit additional laws that can start at a fine but escalate to jail time if they are not paid? Should riding a bicycle require a type of driver's license for that matter?

These are important questions that I suspect will not be addressed by proponents of the legislation at hand.

Instead, the debate over this issue (if there is even going to be one) will falsely focus on safety - not personal discretion, individual autonomy or freedom. And as stated earlier, bikes are inherently safer than cars, cell phone or not - to argue that there's a major problem on our hands that must be solved by declaring certain behavior illegal and punishable by fines and whatnot is simply absurd.

Well, I for one, do not support criminalizing something as benign and unprevalent as riding a bike and using a cell phone. (And this is coming from someone who doesn't even like cell phones). Silly legislation such as this deserves a silly acronym for those against it - I propose we create BASTL: Bicyclists Against Superfluous Traffic Laws. If you wanna join this up and coming "special interest group," the first thing I encourage you to do is get on your cell phone or email account, call or write any of the following people and tell em' you ride a bike and you don't support another superfluous law. okay, go!

Senator Joe Simitian's Santa Cruz Office 831.425.0401 or

People Power 831.425.0665 or

Santa Cruz Senile

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Remembering To Wave

I don't care much for traffic laws. At least as they currently stand when it comes to bicycles, and, particularly when it comes to stop signs and red lights. Still, I recognize the importance of communicating clearly with drivers, especially when blowing a stop sign, and especially when the car has reached it a few seconds before me. Imagine then, my chagrin while riding shotgun in a sports car two days ago, when a spandex clad Lance Armstrong-looking dude rolls through a 4-way intersection up on the Westside without so much as a nod or wave.

The driver sitting next to me knows I'm an ardent bicyclist and does her best to cover up her annoyance and put a positive spin on what just transpired.

"See how I let that rider go through even though it was my turn?"

I try not to say anything as for some reason I've just become the spokesperson for every bicyclist who's ever broken a traffic law. I mean, I could honestly give a shit less that we came to a full stop a few seconds before Armstrong arrived at the intersection. And yeah, technically he was in the "wrong" but considering we were at the top of a hill, for a bicyclist, losing momentum at this point would really hurt, plus, Armstrong was no doubt clipped into his pedals - coming to a full stop was simply not an option.

Still, I can't get away from the fact that he didn't nod and signal his intentions to us. I mention this to the driver in an attempt to assuage any perceived insult.

"I always wave," I say, which is true - that, plus some direct eye contact and 95% of the time, I never have a problem running a stop sign. You'd be amazed how much people will oblige you if you wave.

My friend sneers and guns the engine. It's not what she wanted to hear. I add, "It was very nice of you to let him pass." The mild amount of tension dissipates. She drives on.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Baby Not On Board

I won't go into the details on how I came to be hauling a Burley kid's bike trailer early last week, suffice to say, there wasn't a kid in it. But as I pulled away from the Westside and headed downtown, I figured, why not take advantage of the situation? I mean, cars occasionally still sport those "Baby On Board" signs, what if I forwent the King St bike detour (oops, I mean, "bike boulevard") and simply took the whole right lane down Mission St?

I mean, the signs Caltrans installed in the wake of 2 dead bicyclists a few years ago don't clearly state bicyclists may use the entire lane, even though legally we can. This basically translates to people like me risking the occasional horn or middle finger when exercising this right of way on Mission Street.

But what if it appears that I'm hauling a kid behind me? Would the minor harassment stop? Perhaps the trailer would have a calming effect on drivers, like a magical "don't honk, think of the children!" force shield or something...I decide to test this theory out.

Brain: From Fair Ave to Almar, so far so good. But from here on out, it's gonna get hairy...

The light turns green. I brace myself. I hold my ground and do my best to haul ass and keep up w/ the cars but it's a lost cause. I pass CVS/Longs, I reach a red at Bay, everyone's chill.

Brain: What if a semi gets stuck behind you? What if some assbag in a Sequoia crunches the Burley and pulls you under? What if....The light turns green.

I keep my pace steady this time. Any second I expect someone to quickly pull around on my left and yell something that'll make my ears burn. I pass the gas station on Walnut that seems to be kaput (I think, good, screw em'), I pass Union Street, a bike lane begins, I breath a sigh of relief. Amazing, I think, no hassle, no car drama. Maude Flanders "Think of the children!" factor. I look back at the Burley behind me, it's still intact, the Bridgestone is still intact, I'm still intact. I think, oh baby, I'm definitely on board.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Nevermind the red light, I'm on a bicycle

The other day, in the intersection of Ocean and Soquel, I saw a bicycle riding crossing guard (off duty or on her way to another street) stop at a red light, look both ways, then pedal through.