Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Free from cars, but not from responsibility

I learned last week about Car Free Savannah, a new local advocacy organization focused on "human powered transportation." There's a lot to like in the group's mission statement and I'm looking forward to seeing what they accomplish. However, I disagree with some of the advice for pedestrians and cyclists dispensed in the "How Not to Drive" section of the Car Free Savannah Web site. For example I offer this passage:

Same road, same rules, same rights?

Kind of.

A bicycle is supposed to follow all the rules of traffic, just like a car. In practice, though...

Experienced cyclists rarely wait for a red light to change. Cyclists don't require signals to tell them about what other cars are going to do. They have no blind spots, can hear their surroundings, and aren't likely to be moving more than 20 miles an hour. If they are, they're definitely paying attention.

If you watch an intersection where cyclists regularly cross, you'll notice that they're watching traffic, not lights. It doesn't matter what color some bulb is, either a vehicle is coming, or it isn't. Car accidents happen because drivers trust that a glowing bulb means the coast is clear, or that a one-way sign will keep traffic flowing in one direction.

Bicycles are not often considered when traffic laws are written, roads are built, or communities are 'planned'. After riding for a while, most cyclists see traffic laws as rules to a game they're not invited to play.

Yesterday on my ride home from work, I was passed by a cyclist who was taking the lane. No problem there, except that he sailed straight across Victory Drive against the light in the left turn lane. From there he continued riding the centerline of Habersham Street, so that cars were squeezing between him and another cyclist riding in the bike lane. I presume he was making up his own rules to a game he wasn't invited to play.

About an hour later, I took a spin around the neighborhood on my new single speed bicycle (more about it in a future post). I nearly collided with a cyclist in full costume who crashed a stop sign at the corner of 49th Street and Atlantic Avenue. The only thing that alerted him to my presence was the shriek of a 26-year-old Mafac Racer brake. If I had been driving a car, he would have likely ended up on its hood. I suppose he didn't require a sign to tell him what to do.

If these two characters are "experienced cyclists," I hope I never become one.

It seems to me that bicyclists sometimes want it both ways. We want respect from motorists and full access to the streets. Yet, we exempt ourselves from the rules of the road. Which is it? I don't see how we can expect to be protected by the law while simultaneously placing ourselves above it.


cleverscreenname said...

I guess there has to be a compromise based on common sense. I rarely have a problem with a car passing me, even in a "no passing zone." Common sense would state that since there is nothing coming and it would probably be worse to follow (I can go pretty slow at times) to just go ahead and pass.

Same goes for cyclists and red lights. I usually wait for a light, even if there are no cars coming, just to avoid the wrath of the Essuvees. Bikes can't trip sensors, so if a light is completely deserted, then I go for it.

I guess my policy is I obey the car rules as long as there are other cars around (out of respect), yet there are some rules that just don't make sense to apply to bikes (such as deserted traffic lights).

Jim said...

Those weren't experienced cyclists you saw. Experienced cyclists would have had enough close calls or all-out collisions to convince them of the folly of such carelessness. A lot of new cyclists try to emulate what they believe more experienced riders are doing, and it usually goes wrong at some point. For me, it was thinking I could get away with going the wrong way on a one-way street for a couple blocks. I got hit by a car. Now I am more careful.

Ed W said...

I've been a steady bicycle commuter for about the last ten years. One real joy is that I see the same motorists day after day, and they come to expect a cyclist on the road somewhere. I rarely have problems with the 'regulars'.

But I do believe it's necessary to follow the rules of the road, in effect, 'driving' a bicycle. It makes cyclists predictable, and that's one key to safety. Some motorists will never accept that cyclists have an equal right to the road. Too bad. But by riding legally and responsibly, we can influence some motorists without ever saying a word to them.

Someone stuck in their car in traffic will see a cyclist, and think, "Hey! I could be doing that!"