Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Easier in a car

I recently listened in on several SCAD students debating the practicality of living without a car in downtown Savannah. Bicycle ridership is probably higher among college students than any other demographic group in the country. Getting a new bicycle for the first year on campus, then having it promptly stolen, is a rite of passage for American students. They may put more miles on their bikes during college than they will for the rest of their lives.

Still, some college students cling steadfastly to their cars even in an environment in which automobiles can be a liability.

One student asked an avid cyclist how he transported himself to the malls, both of which are located on Abercorn Extension, Savannah's main corridor of commercial sprawl. His response was classic: "Malls are everything I hate all in one place, so they are easy to avoid." Another asked a car-free peer how she planned to get to Kroger for groceries when it was raining. Would she still be riding her bike then? Her response was right on target. "Probably," she said. "But I might just put on my raincoat, grab my umbrella and walk."

Still, the car cartel wouldn't be swayed. They might concede that life without a car was possible, but some things, they argued, are just easier in a car.

Later in the week I was walking near the intersection of Gwinnett and Lincoln streets. Lincoln is a one-way street at this location, with a single lane available to automobile traffic. There's a bicycle lane on the west side of the street and parking on the east.

I observed a woman leaning up against a sedan chatting with the occupants. Soon, the person in the driver's seat said,"Well, I'll see how far I can make it." Her friend stepped onto the sidewalk and the car lurched into traffic and headed north at about 2 miles per hour. I noticed that the car's right rear tire was flat. Because I was walking in the same direction and moving at almost precisely the same speed as the car, I had an ideal vantage point from which to observe the drama as it began to unfold.

Pretty soon half a dozen other cars were stacked up behind the slow-moving automobile. The operators of these vehicles telegraphed their displeasure by honking their horns and trying to pass in the bike lane. The woman in the wounded car responded by leaning out of her window, turning her head and torso toward the trailing cars and enthusiastically screaming an impressive repertoire of obscenities. Some of the other motorists responded in kind.

I'm not sure who exactly who was driving the woman's car during her exchange with her fellow motorists, because her top half was totally outside the car. She was using both hands to vigorously emphasize the words she was shouting. I suppose the young child in the front seat might have taken the wheel. Eventually, the car turned onto the side street and the disgruntled motorists angrily accelerated to reclaim the 45 seconds that had been stolen from them.

I sometimes see similar behavior in motorists, who are irritated by having to wait to pass me. However, I couldn't create anything close to the Parade of Vehicular Hostility described above, even if I rode my bike in the middle of the street. After all, some things are just easier in a car.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

I'm a fairweather cyclist

One day after my self-righteous comments about single-occupant automobiles, I proved myself to be a big ol' hypocrite. Doubt me? Dig this: I drove to a local observance of International Walk to School Day.

I played a minor role in this event and needed to transport some materials that were too cumbersome to move on my bike. But that's really just an excuse. I'm sure I could have done it had I put some thought into it. It felt lousy to be behind the wheel for such a short trip.

Driving home from work, however, I must admit was truly glad to be in the car. I saw a cyclist with plastic bags on his shoes. His head was lowered as he bravely trudged along. The plastic bags and bravery were necessary because this fellow's ride coincided with landfall of Tropical Storm Tammy. Heavy rain and windblown debris do not make for pleasant cycling. Factor in power outages that disable street lighting and traffic signals and you've got a pretty inhospitable bicycling environment.

I'm proud of the miles I put on my bicycle last month. But I shouldn't be. Very little rain fell locally in September and the temperatures were mild. It doesn't take much dedication to ride a bike under these conditions. There are folks who cycle straight through blizzards, sandstorms, black ice, earthquakes, geyser eruptions, meteor showers and all sorts of other terrible stuff.

This morning's commute was just a bit difficult because of the severed tree parts left behind by the storm. The streets were littered with sweetgum and pecan branches. And palm fronds. This forced me to ride further left than I normally do. Fortunately, most motorists who passed me gave me a little more room than usual.

I encountered another cyclist riding ahead of me just north of 37th Street. He stopped briefly at Anderson Street before riding through the red light. He did the same thing at Henry Street. Legally, only law enforcement officers and drivers of emergency vehicles can elect not to respect red lights. Clearly this cyclist was a very important person on very important business. I presume lives were at stake.

I waited at both intersections for my turn to cross. Still, I reached Gwinnett Street only 10 seconds after he did, riding at my normal (slow) pace.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Still cheap enough to waste

Regular gasoline prices in Savannah are hovering around $3.20 per gallon. The president of the United States of America has urged citizens to conserve fuel. News stories like this suggest bicycles are selling smartly, as motorists grow weary of pouring their paychecks into holes in the sides of their cars.

Yet I've detected little change on the streets of this town. On my commute to work, I see only a handful of other cyclists, but plenty of single occupant automobiles.

I don't expect to people to divest themselves of fuel-inefficient vehicles overnight, but I am surprised to see them left idling for half an hour in the fire lane outside the supermarket. Or for 15 minutes at the front door of the video store. I'm puzzled to see people treating traffic signals like the Christmas tree at the Savannah Dragway, stomping on the accelerator for the holeshot and best E.T. to the next intersection.

Having witnessed this sort of behavior again and again over the last couple weeks, I can only conclude that gasoline is still cheap enough to waste. At least on some things.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue effectively shut down the state's public school system for two days last week to conserve fuel. I liked what Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jay Bookman had to say about this in his column Fool shortage? Unfortunately, not in Georgia (registration may be required). Here's a snip:
We may bounce around the bottom in SAT scores, and almost half of our kids may leave school without a diploma, but hey, what's really important is saving enough gas to run our SUVs, right?

Sorry, I just can't get over the stupidity of that move. Forget the inconvenience to parents caused by Gov. Sonny Perdue's sudden announcement. Forget its utter futility in terms of energy saved. Think instead about the symbolism of it -- to our children, to their teachers, to businesses thinking of locating here.

When things get just a little bit tough, when it's time to separate the necessary from the frivolous, what do our leaders instinctively offer up for sacrifice? Education.

Or, to ask it another way, what does it tell you when high school is canceled, but high school football games aren't?
Is our governor suggesting that school busses, perhaps the most efficient motor vehicles on Georgia roads when it comes passenger miles per gallon, are the problem? Or is it filling station owners? Local television news broadcasts endlessly repeat gouging hotline numbers motorists may ring if they suspect their local gasmonger is trying to cheat them.

Lumbering school buses and evil convenience store owners, they make excellent scapegoats. By focusing our blame on them, we can avoid facing the real problem that got us into this mess: our lifestyles and driving habits, which are too often the same thing.