Monday, February 20

Vicious Writing, part II

Regarding: The final paragraphs of “Vicious Cycling,” an article by Laura Hauther

At the end of the article entitled “Vicious Cycling,” in a recent issue of the Los Angeles Alternative, Hauther introduces a current campaign in Los Angeles to improve cycling conditions. The campaign is centered on the implementation of street markings called “Sharrows,” which is an abbreviation of their full name: “Shared-use arrows.” Shared-use arrows are: a picture of a bicycle, similar to the bicycle painted in bike lanes, with two arrows above it pointing in the direction that traffic should legally travel. This symbol is painted in the middle of the traffic lane. There is no delineating marker segregating this symbol from regular traffic. It is away from the parked cars on the curb. It is situated such that it runs directly under the middle of cars as they drive in the traffic lane. The message the sharrows unequivocally convey is that the traffic lanes are not “car lanes.” They are “shared-use lanes,” to be used by all vehicles under California Vehicle Code, which includes bicycles. The particular focus of the sharrow, rather than increasing awareness of bus or motorcycle rights to the streets, is BICYCLES.

Hauther states, “Detractors fear it could be a step toward segregating and restricting bikers, and since bikes are already allowed full use of the lane, certain cyclists feel it’s unnecessary.” Both of these arguments are irrelevant to sharrows. As for the “detractors,” there is no way that sharrows can restrict bicyclists, as- mentioned in the exact same sentence- bicycles are already allowed full use of the lane, according to California Vehicle Code. The sharrows are reinforcing a law that already exists, and creating no new distinctions between places that bicycles may exist and places that they may not. Sharrows increase the visibility of bicycles on the street by creating a lasting reminder, on the asphalt in front of all vehicles as they travel, that the streets are for bicycles just as much as they are for other vehicles.

As for the “certain cyclists” mentioned above, they either have not ridden their bicycles in traffic lanes for long in Los Angeles, or else they are more comfortable with hostility on the road than the majority of cyclists. While many cyclists are aware that they have the legal right to the entire road- to exist as a vehicle in every capacity: taking the entire lane when traveling, crossing the second and third lanes of traffic to reach a left-hand turn lane, etc.- most motorists are not aware of these rights. Any cyclist in Los Angeles that has traveled as a vehicle on the road for a month or longer has been honked at or yelled at to get on the sidewalk or to get a car or just called terrible names. This hostility, which has escalated into physically dangerous and even fatal situations (in the case of New York City), proves a very clear necessity. The necessity is for all controllers of vehicles on busy city streets to be aware of the legal imperative to share the road. Sharrows will do that necessary job, which is currently not being done by any infrastructural device in Los Angeles.

Hauther goes on to say, “The other option is the method of Vehicular Cycling-treating a bicycle as a form of transportation equal to motorized vehicles, with the same rights and responsibilities. These bikers follow the same rules as drivers: fully stopping at all stop signs and traffic signals, using the full lane of the road instead of bike lanes. Vehicular Cyclists believe this gives them greater visibility, making it more likely drivers will treat them with consideration and respect on the road.” This is the SAME option that sharrows reinforce, not ANOTHER option. Sharrows make vehicular cycling more safe and, hence, encourage vehicular cycling. There is absolutely no conflict between vehicular cycling and riding a bicycle on a street marked with sharrows.

“But the bike does not always win.” And so the final three paragraphs of the article go the way of so many recent articles about bicycling published in Los Angeles periodicals. Hauther describes the scene of a car-bicycle accident during a large group bicycle ride. This closes an otherwise thought-provoking look at some aspects of the Los Angeles cycling community with a reinforcement of the fears of otherwise well-intentioned Los Angelenos who just can’t seem to incorporate a bicycle into their arsenal of transportation options. We are invited to look at a transportation subculture, and marvel at the ingenuity flowing out of it into other aspects of life in Los Angeles, invited to ponder the thoughts and dreams and work of so many tireless, joyful and well-intentioned creators of culture and experience, and then given a foreboding, simplistic reason to not become a part of it. We might get hit by a car. Hence, we should keep driving our cars and leave the bicycles to those who don’t value their own lives.

In a car-bicycle accident, it is undeniable that the motorist is less likely to get hurt than the person on the bicycle. The physics of such a collision is clear: greater mass, sometimes greater velocity, give a car a much greater kinetic energy which will be imparted to / lost upon the body of a bicyclist in truly tragic ways, if a collision occurs. The beautiful thing about many of the bicyclists on the street in Los Angeles is that they do value their own lives. That is why they ride a bicycle instead of locking themselves in a metal box and spending hours of their week sitting still in that stale, monotonous routine that car-drivers almost affectionately label “traffic,” or waiting for the sometimes unreliable buses to take them where they need to go.

The bicyclists not only value their own lives, but they value everyone else’s life. To ride a bicycle in this place and time is a rejection of people being murdered for oil. Bicyclists may not have a big metal box around them, providing them limited protection from an oncoming metal box, but they also don’t have hundreds of dollars a month going to oil companies as an incentive for the companies to acquire more oil, with whatever means necessary. To ride a bicycle in this place and time is a rejection of the idea that only one’s own safety matters. A bicyclist will be hard-pressed to murder someone else in a collision. On the contrary, cars murder people every day. The larger the car, the more murderous . . . and, ostensibly, the more safe is the passenger inside.

So the real piece of foreboding, not very simplistic, information any would-be bicyclists in Los Angeles must accept is that, by deciding- yes, it is a decision- to drive a car in the city, they are making a declaration of their lack of concern for the safety of people around them. Bicyclists are aware that they may die in a car-bicycle collision. Motorists must be aware that they may murder someone in a car-car or in a car-bicycle or in a car-pedestrian collision. Cyclists sometimes joke about cars being the Weapons of Mass Destruction on the streets. The term car “accident” is farcical, because there is evidence everywhere that cars cause serious damage, in numerous ways. Choosing to drive is a direct denial of that evidence, or else an acceptance of it. The larger the vehicle a person chooses to drive, oftentimes for the express purpose of protecting themselves, the greater the affront to everyone around them on the street.

A friend recently made a graphic design of a bicycle with the subtitle “This is Our Sword,” perhaps delineating the transportation alternatives that exist in the typical Los Angeleno’s arsenal. There are cars- the weapons of mass destruction that are meant to get somewhere the fastest, with the greatest capacity for carrying. At the same time, they travel with much noise and excessive needs for fuel. They are a dirty technology and, in the end, especially in congested LA streets, they often don’t serve their purpose of getting anywhere fast. Then, there are bicycles- the swords of transportation, svelte and graceful, a classical technology that is still effective and requires no fuel input and produces no pollution.

The final paragraphs of “Vicious Cycling,” instead of focusing on bicycles “not always winning,” should give consideration to whether a car can EVER “win.” A cyclist or a motorist or a pedestrian lying motionless in the street is an all-around loss. In terms of fueling oil wars and in terms of polluting air with particulate matter and noise and in terms of contributing to the sedentary lifestyle that kills so many and in terms of causing tangible damage on our own city streets, cars will never “win.” It’s time for coverage of the fascinating bicycle subculture to get real about the options. Weapon of mass destruction or sword: here’s to consciously making our decisions.


m said...

thanks for a well-reasoned rebuttal to the article. The article left me feeling conflicted -- am I glad that cycling is getting press or irritated with the cursory treatment of the so-called Vehicular Cycling? What other than Vehicular Cycling could possibly help make cycling more mainstream and earn us respect from motorists? Sharrows and other strategies can only come in addition to the sensibility of Vehicular Cycling. I recently moved from Oakland, where I regularly enjoyed the freedom and relative safety of Berkeley's bike boulevards, and used a sharrow lane in downtown Oakland. I find opposition to such strategies here baffling. Anything to make bikes more visible is a positive contribution to the city.

ubrayj02 said...

Hey don't forget about the other, very important, part of the article - wherein it states:
"The Kitchen’s such a hit it has inspired a spin-off: Nestled in the heart of Highland Park, not far from Mr. T’s Bowl, the East L.A. Bike Oven opens its doors every Wednesday night, offering free boxed wine, pan dulce and DIY bike repair."

Yeah! BIKE OVEN in the freakin papers. I feel like the Orphans from the movie "The Warriors" ("Show him the article man, we got a heavy rep.").

Last night's Bike Oven was freaking off the hook. It was beer and tacos, and there was talk of a women-only night, and some other activities in the spirit of the Bike Kitchen (that truly fueled my desire to do something like this in the first place).

Come by, Wednesday nights! 130 W Avenue 42, Los Angeles, CA 90065.

taffy_mclafferty said...

WHO ARE these bikers who oppose sharrows? It sounds like an invention of the author, in the interest of creating some dramatic tension in the article. I could imagine someone preferring bike lanes to sharrows, but I can't imagine anyone who bikes vehicularly and couldn't see that sharrows would be a help.