Thursday, March 19, 2009

Over on Crosscut, my old boss Knute Berger has found a trend, and it's not pretty. All along the mossy corridor from Portland to Vancouver, the road rage virus has contaminated the cycling community. He identifies how Portland, probably the nation's most bike-crazed metropolis, has had a rash of two-wheeled altercations. You can find some media accounts here, here, and even in Newsweek.

Here, of course, Friday's Critical Mass incident on Cap Hill has generated so much blog/reader comment traffic at the Times and P-I (and, yes, Stranger) that there's no point in even linking to them. I fully expect to be reading, and perhaps writing, more such stories at least through Labor Day. And then comes the election season.

Anger equals blogging intensity, but it doesn't necessarily translate into votes. King County Executive Ron Sims, a cyclist, has achieved great popularity in making himself Mr. Bike Trail, while only alienating a few property owners on the east side of Lake Sammamish by extending and improving suburban bike routes. Likewise, picking and winning a fight with Lake Forest Park about who controls the Burke-Gilman Trail surely helped him here in the city.

Meanwhile, Mayor Greg Nickels, not a guy one associates with exercise, has pleased many with his embrace of the Master Bicycle Plan. I suspect he could now please a different blogging/voting constituency by cracking down on Critical Mass, telling the group it needs to file a parade plan with the city—to be enforced by the cops—rather than continue its red-light-running, intersection-"corking" ways, which so enrage drivers. Among the blogging camp that decries "bike Nazis," this seems to be the greatest source if ire: That cyclists don't obey traffic laws, that they run red lights and stop signs, consider themselves above the law. And, to state the obvious: Most voters are drivers, not cyclists. Our city's cycle commuting percentage is down around three or four percent, as opposed to about 16 percent in Portland.

To be sure, the vitriolic flame wars are like those side-window screaming matches you sometimes see at a downtown stop light: The cyclist yelling that the motorist cut him off, the motorist shouting that bikes have no business in traffic. Man does that argument get tedious. I'm not proud to say that I've been there myself on a few occasions, from the biker's position. And never have those exchanges accomplished anything, no matter what I've written before. I've regretted every word said in anger to the ignorant driver of some SUV.

Because, and this is I think the take-home for the aggro young fellas in those Critical Mass rallies, so proudly riding their fixed-gear machines without benefit of a helmet (or health insurance, I suspect). Every one of those verbal altercations—and let's hope they don't turn physical—is a potential conversion moment, a sale to be made. Inside every selfish and potentially lethal Hummer is a cyclist waiting to be born—a soul to be saved, if you want to evangelize about it. Instead of lecturing some driver how selfish he is, how he's contributing to global warming and destroying the planet, you could point out that by biking you're giving him a parking space, you're giving him more room on the road, you're giving him better air to breathe, and that by obeying traffic laws you're improving traffic flow, not hindering it. (My best rejoinder these days, when some motorist says that I, pedaling along the curb, am slowing him down is to politely ask, "By how many seconds before you reach the next red light? I am so sorry about that. Can I write you a check pro-rated for your lost wages? How much would that be?")

This is why Critical Mass has a fork in its ass. It's over. It's done. It's tired. It's pointless. The point, as recognized by organizations like the Bicycle Alliance of Washington and Cascade Bicycle Club, is to work with the city and county to improve conditions for cyclists and motorists alike, to mend fences, to reduce the rage that—as Berger writes on Crosscut—cuts across all modes of transportation. There's never enough lanes of pavement, never enough seats on the bus, never enough buses, not enough bike rakes, too few designated bike lanes, insufficient sharrows, not enough ferries. We've all got our complaints, our anger management issues. The blogs and reader comments show that. And man are they tedious to read.

This morning, riding to work, I watched a bike messenger shoot downhill through the stop sign at Western and University. No cop, no stop. Nor were there any cars. Nor any tourists, as there tend to be later in the day at the Harbor Steps. I routinely have to creep my bike through that T-bone junction (and, no, I don't put my foot down or come to a full stop). So, sure, I envied that messenger's little bit of reckless freedom. But if a cop had been there, I'd have been glad to see him give the messenger a ticket. It would've been a sign of progress.


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