Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Indignity of Commuting by Bicycle: Same Attitude, Different Infrastructure

With the Tour de France nigh ("nigh" is pretentious for "near"), I'm pleased to announce that I will be rendering ("rendering" is Curating 2.0) a Tour de France-themed blog on the Universal Sports website. As with my Universal Giro d'Italia blog, I will endeavor to bring the sort of insight you can only get from somebody who's watching the action on TV, meaning that by the time you read my blog you will be at least twice removed from the actual race. Still, I would not want my objectivity and impartiality to be tainted by proximity to the proceedings, which is why I declined Universal's offer of passage to France as well as my own BSNYC/RTMS-stickered Smart car in the caravan, complete with giant roof-mounted Rip Torn bobblehead. The blog will begin sometime tomorrow, and I will direct you to it via either this blog or my Twittular account as soon as I know what is happening myself.

But while the Tour de France is a world away (unless you're in France, which is apparently a real place where actual people live), it's arguably more worthwhile to take a look at the sort of ordinary cycling many of us engage in every day. If you're in Portland, "ordinary cycling" means engaging in pizza binges or wandering off someplace and doing yoga, but for the rest of us who inhabit that little neighborhood called "reality" it simply means commuting. Of course, bicycle commuting varies from town to town and from city to city, and each locale boasts its own unique and endearing features. For example, in New York City, we have "shoals," and here is a fairly typical one that formed in front of me recently:

Forming the very tip of the shoal is this gentleman, wearing the classic t-shirt-and-half-shorts combo, and as you can see he has placed himself well forward of the traffic signal and entirely in the intersection:

Behind him is a "Beautiful Godzilla," riding a très chic Geared Bike With Front Brake Only (or GBWFBO):

Granted, this shoal is a magnificent and edifying display of New York City's cycling diversity, stretching out into the intersection like Tibetan prayer flags of bike-dorkiness. However, while waiting for anything else--an ATM, a movie ticket, a same-sex toilet--the unwritten rules of humanity to which most of us adhere would dictate that the most recently-arrived human would duly take his or her place at the rear of the queue. This is an age-old concept that has served us well. However, for some reason people feel it is acceptable to completely invert this concept when bicycles are involved, and to me this indicates an inherent and fundamental wrong-headedness among cyclists that we would do well to address.

This is not to say that drivers do not also invert (or at least disregard) laws both implicit and explicit. Consider the fairly typical New York City sight of a driver coming to a stop in the middle of a crosswalk:

In the driver's defense, though, he was quite engrossed in his "old school" Day Runner:

While our phones have now become "smartphones," this has happened at the expense of our own intellects. Indeed, our phones seem to have sucked the brains right out of us to feed their own, for people are increasingly walking, cycling, and driving right into certain death as they stare mesmerized into their handsets. For this reason, more and more municipalities are passing laws against things like driving while texting. However, these laws presumably do not prohibit use of the "classic" analog data organizers, and I can't help wondering if this loophole will mean a sudden resurgence in items like the Rolodex. (Yes, people actually used these.)

I rode along with this particular driver for some time and he barely looked away from his appointment book, even while in motion. It's worth noting that the driver was a Hasidic Jew, and there's a certain irony to the fact that he presumably observes certain laws with precision (the diet; Shabbat; the cultivation and maintenance of hairy tendrils) yet utterly disregards others (stopping before crosswalks at red lights so that others may live). Still, as the old saying goes, when life gives you potatoes, make latkes, and I found that, because he only remembered to start driving again when the person behind him started honking, he effectively stopped traffic and gave me a substantial head start at each light. Yes, for at least a block I'd have the entire street to myself:

Incidentally, you might have noticed the white chevrons on the street. These have been turning up everywhere lately. My understanding is that they're to alert motorists to the presence of bicycles, but in practice they seem mainly to serve as the irony quotes around your "legitimacy" as a cyclist. Still, I'll take what I can get, and so assiduously has the city been adding bike lanes that I sometimes find them actually putting them down right in front of me as I ride:

In this case, the markings are being laid upon a newly-paved street, but sometimes they just paint right over the old crap:

Even on the Big Dummy this section is jarring, and I expect to one day encounter a bike lane that has been painted over an actual flattened cyclist.

After successfully negotiating this section I encountered an SUV belonging to (presumably) some DOT workers, which was parked right in the bike lane:

Despite ample legal parking mere feet away across the street:

I can forgive an official vehicle parked in a bike lane if there's no place else to stop and the business is fairly urgent, but it's a bit irritating when there is plenty of parking and all they're doing is shaking a fence:

At that point they simply become like that douchebag friend-of-a-friend who comes to your house, puts his feet up on your coffee table, and leaves the door open while he urinates just to show you how comfortable he is.

Of course, bike lanes remain a hot-button issue in New York City (as opposed to a hot-box issue, which is best left to a gynecologist), though to some degree it's just a construct of the local media. First there was that whole "Hipsters vs. Hasidim" thing, which was more about the alliteration than anything else, and was compelling less because it was an actual issue and more because it gave everyone a chance to witness a slapfight between the two dorkiest groups in New York City. Now, there's a brand-new bike lane that runs along Prospect Park and through Park Slope, where the people who think they're saving the Earth by buying incredibly expensive groceries live:

It's an impressive installation, complete with cyclist-specific traffic signals, though it's met with resistance for the usual array of reasons with varying degrees of merit: it creates traffic; it takes away parking; the cyclists are menacing pedestrians; and so forth. Generally speaking I think bike lanes are a good thing and I mostly like this one, but it also underscores a fundamental irony in that it's right next to the park:

The park is quite pleasant to ride through--more so than the bike lane--though it's also open to motor vehicle traffic during rush hour on weekdays. Personally, I'd be willing to sacrifice the new bike lane for a car-free park, but for some reason the city seems unable to wrap their minds around the concept of a park that doesn't have cars in it. I guess it's not a "deal" unless everybody loses.

Still, as I said, I like the bike lane, and it's probably safer to use it at night than to ride through the park, where nefarious nocturnal activities still do take place. Actually, they take place during the day, too, for I recently encountered someone shooting what can only be some kind of bizarre chef porn:

And unfortunately, it's inevitable that many cyclists will continue to fuel opposition to the bike lane with their actions. For example, I was using it yesterday evening when I found myself behind what appeared to be a couple of people sharing a bicycle:

They were laughing and carrying on boisterously. However, there were too many voices for a couple, and as I passed I realized they were in fact a threesome:

Naturally, bar ends came into play, for when it comes to bicycle components they are truly the instruments of the damned:

Notice also that in ultra-smug Park Slope the reusable shopping bag has become a status symbol (even though they're riddled with bacteria):

This one's especially desirable since it's from Safeway, which we don't even have in New York City, so it shows she's both smug and well-traveled.

The trio seemed rather intoxicated. This was confirmed to me by the Safeway bag owner's cigarette, which in true drunken fashion she was smoking right down to the filter:

In the smug universe, smoking's not bad for you or anybody else as long as you don't use plastic bags.

Needless to say, the rider seemed quite proud of himself:

This being Park Slope, I imagine they were coming from a party, where both women had a bit too much fine wine, artisanal cheese, and locally-sourced crudités. This made them particularly vulnerable to the man's seductive views about "livable streets," the BP oil spill, and the Elena Kagan Supreme Court confirmation. Then, he uttered the coup de grâce: "My bicycle's parked outside. Do you ladies want to come check out my compost pile? I live next-door to Paul Auster." Once at the brownstone, he dimmed the lights, turned on NPR (NPR is the Park Slope equivalent of Barry White), and they started "gettin' sustainable."

No wonder people are complaining.