Smiling and waving and riding through.

Here I go into another way-too-long post trying to get my thoughts established, but it bugs me and therefore I think it’s a worthwhile endeavour.

The trigger for this is Tom Babin’s article here.  Go take a little time to read it, it’s very worthwhile to go through.  Even if you’ve read it, it’s worth scanning through again because I will doubtlessly refer to it.

That is far from the only source I’m going to draw from, however.

The next person to play a significant role in this entry is Mia Birk.  If you’re unaware, Mia is, from her twitter bio: “Author, Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet. President, Alta Planning + Design. Co-founder, Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation”  To me, Mia is one of the “PeopleWhoRuinedMyLife” by making me actually care about how my riding appeared towards others and made me have second thoughts about how my behaviour may have repercussions against others.

The third person is an unknown cop who sat in his van yelling at a cyclist on the street.  Okay, the cyclist was me and I would characterize it as “..lording in his van yelling inappropriately at a cyclist on the street” but I will try to be factual and as balanced as I can be.  I’ve alluded to the story in the past, but I intend to throw the whole story out warts and all.

And with that, I will start with my anecdotes.  Do not confuse an anecdote with data.

My ride home from work is as follows.  I start on 11 Avenue SE and McLeod Trail (northbound) and ride eastbound along 11 Avenue SE until I reach the bus barns.  I went through the bus barn parking lot once behind another bicyclist - never again, that’s a busy parking lot and although I actually trust the drivers who park there, I’m uncertain how they view bicyclists going through.  Instead I circle around the bus barns on the streets.  Sadly, that leaves me with a problem: Getting back onto 12 Avenue SE requires a left hand turn across a fairly busy road, after which I have to navigate the risky intersection of 12 Avenue SE / 7 Street SE and MacDonald Avenue SE.  I strongly prefer to ride along the sidewalk on the north side of the avenue, crossing at 7 Street once the traffic abates considerably.  I proceed along the Multi-Use Pathway (hereafter MUP, often referred to in Calgary as the “Bike Pathway”) which is on the east side of 7 Street, proceed under 9 Avenue and continue on the MUP until I reach 17 Avenue SE at the Cushing Bridge.  After that it’s 17 Avenue along the sidewalk all the way home.

I consider getting to work to be much, much safer.  Although it’s the same route in reverse, I’m travelling downhill and with the flow of traffic along 17 Avenue SE and I avoid the fearful side of the 12 Avenue / 7 Street, McDonald Avenue intersection.

I ride this route twice a day, at least 17 times every month – Monday through Thursday each week, plus the first Friday of every month.  I consider myself a seasoned bicyclist, somewhat out of shape, and confident riding virtually everywhere in the city year round now.

Both my anecdotes relate to this exact route.

The first anecdote is when I ran across “The Law”.  I was riding home heading eastbound on 11 Avenue.  I don’t remember the exact day any more, but it was early spring 2010 or late fall 2009.  It was fairly cool weather with ice on the road, and the left hand lane was still closed along 11 Avenue SE for the construction of the Keynote building.

You can see the exit to the Impark parking lot at the gap in the fence just before the red and white sign.  It’s actually pretty safe in my view, although it is far from perfect.  There is a relatively good view of cars trying to exit the lot through the chain link fence, although often the view can be obstructed by parked cars.  The downside of the exit is that 11 Avenue is a one way road and cars trying to enter the flow of traffic often only watch for oncoming vehicles and do not turn their heads to watch for pedestrians (and certainly not bicycle traffic).

I hope you notice the puddle along the roadway.  This is an area that frequently ices up.  I knew that the exit was icy and if a car bombed out of parking lot without looking for pedestrians I wanted as much notice as possible.  So I swung out into the lane to get a better viewing angle on cars coming out of the lot.  For reference, I would have been riding approximately where the puddle ended in the picture.

At that point I heard a horn honk.  My first thought was someone was coming out of the parking lot - no one was there.  The horn blared as I continued across the exit and a cop shouted out of his van at me.

I wish I remembered everything that was said.  It started with the usual, “What are you doing?” “I’m going home,” and continued with the cop yelling at me and myself becoming more obstinate at the treatment I was getting.  It ended with the cop threatening to get out of the van and write me a ticket and me mumbling, “May I leave now?” while not really caring what his answer was, then dismounting and walking my bike along the sidewalk to not give him any more excuse to come after me.

This feels like I should have more of a moral to this, but I don’t really have one.  Frankly, the cop was right.  By the law, I should not have ridden the wrong way on a one way street and it was a perfectly ticketable offence.  In subsequent conversations with cops (both that I do and don’t know personally) the consensus seems to be he could have handled himself a lot better - if only getting out of the van and having a discussion with me directly.  Escalating the argument to the point of threatening to write a ticket did nothing to diffuse the situation or to change either my attitude or my behaviour.  Write one if you’re going to write one, or say, “Hey, you ought to know better,” if you’re not.  Be decent either way.  Instead he just got blown off as another asshole cop having a bad day.

We can hire a thousand cops and have them write up 20 tickets each every day and have a terrible environment where everyone’s afraid to put one wheel wrong.  Turning back to Tom’s question, is it the job of the cops to punish or to educate?  Is it wrong to not hand out a ticket?  Should that cop get out of his van and listen to my reasoning?  Is my perspective skewed because the cop was in a van?  I’d have a ton more respect to the cop if he was riding behind me on a bike and said, “Hey buddy, smarten up.”

I’ll let it hang for a while longer.

I’ve been sucked over to the side of the argument that says there is no excuse for breaking the law.  It is making our job more difficult and we, as cyclists, need good will and infrastructure a lot more right now than you as a rider needs to save 15 seconds running a red light.  So I’ve tried to become more introspective while I ride and more vigilant in following the rules of the road to the letter.

It’s catching, too.  I ring my bell each and every time I pass someone on the pathways.  Usually I exert enough peer pressure in that act alone that if another cyclist is not ringing his or her bell they will start after hearing mine go off two or three times.

So I have a lot of reason to be feeling proud of myself.  Then a couple weeks ago they restricted the lane on 11 Avenue SE to do work on the 4 Street underpass and I changed my route and started going straight to 12 Avenue and taking the lane.  Personally I prefer going down 11th, and still feel it’s safer, but I figure I can “man up” and be a confident rider all the time.  A few days into the new route I noticed someone on twitter complaining about a bad cyclist.

I suppose the first question that has to be raised is just why I’m riding on 11 Avenue and 12 Avenue instead of the actual bike route on 10 Avenue.  Well, I think it’s a bike route, although I admit I had to pull a U-Turn before I found any indication whatsoever that it was a bike route at all.  Here’s my proof.

That’s a fine piece of paint right there.  Now, this is on the far east end of 10 Avenue, there isn’t a lot of traffic, bicycle or otherwise, along that stretch of the road.  Looking at that sharrow, it’s pretty hard to say there is currently a commitment to cycling in this city or that we have adequate travel routes.

But that’s not the real reason I don’t use 10 Avenue.  The real reason can be found here.

Because the city is building the new 4 Street underpass, 10 Avenue just ends right now and there has been no access eastward from the end of 10 Avenue in at least two years.

So let me start my second anecdote and take you for a ride down 12 Avenue.  I was riding along this section in front of the casino, with the turn onto Olympic Way.

You can see very clearly that the right lane is unquestionably right turn only.  I rode up to the lights and was catching my breath when a car pulled up beside me.  “Okay,” I thought, “she wants to turn so I’ll scootch over right to the curb.“  She didn’t turn, so I dismounted, pulled my bike onto the curb and waited.  She still didn’t turn.  “You idiot, you’re going to race off the line and cut over, aren’t you?” I thought.  She did.  I rode across the intersection after she performed her poor interpretation of launch control grateful she was gone and I could ride in safety.

When I’m pushing, I can cruise at about 30 to 35 km/h on my bike, so I’m not far off the speed of the traffic.  People were passing me, only to get caught up in the cue of cars trying to turn onto McDonald Ave.  At that point I start passing them.  However I’ve still got the problem of getting into the left hand lane so I can go straight onto 7 Street.  I signal, two cars refuse to let me in and I have to slow down to let them cut over to turn.  The lady in the third car did not see when I signaled and I was braking at that point and not in a position to be taking my hands off the handlebars to signal again.  I managed to move over through a lane change that would have thoroughly pissed me off if I were driving and stopped at the intersection.

See the guy riding a bike above?  He had a hard time getting to the left lane safely too, today.

Now, as I take a deep breath, this normally wouldn’t be much of a story and certainly not a story worth telling.  That day, there were two cyclists riding along the sidewalk in the above picture.  They stopped at the intersection far ahead of me, had the right of way, and the first vehicle that did not let me change lanes damned near ran the lead cyclist down then and there.  The second vehicle waited, but I was completely certain that I was going to have to perform first aid and call an ambulance - it was honestly that close.

Now I know that I sometimes feel it’s safer to ride on the sidewalk and I will do so when I think it’s my best option, but after seeing the guy was okay my gut reaction was to yell at that cyclist for riding along that sidewalk just the way they had where they were less visible to the cars.  Here’s the photo in the other direction from the exact same spot as above.

That is not just a sidewalk.  That is also a small section of the MUP that leads down along the west side of the Elbow River leading down through the heart of Stampede Park.

And somewhere in this mess is the exact point that I want to make.

I’m riding a bike on 12 Avenue SE and hit a red light.  Legally, I’m to take the lane and keep vehicles queued behind me as I ride through to 7 Street where I stop at the three way stop sign, proceed in turn, then transfer over to the MUP.

The lady who pulled up beside me at the light wasn’t going to wait for cars, let alone a bike.  She was technically street racing off the line, and most certainly performed a dangerous lane change to merge into traffic.  When I arrived at the 12 Avenue / 7 Street, MacDonald Avenue intersection, two vehicles failed to yield to me, both of which cut across my path of direction in order to make their turn.  One nearly collided with another cyclist.  That cyclist was riding along the sidewalk and proceeded through the crosswalk so was plenty to blame on his own accord.  I doubt his wife or girlfriend behind him would have been thrilled to hear that criticism should he have been hit, though.  Even I performed an illegal lane change because I did not signal to the third car.

There is absolutely more than enough blame to go around over a stretch of three city blocks.

And I’m not even bothered by it.  It is “normal!”

And that is the point I want to make in response to Tom’s article.

This issue goes well beyond the simple argument that cyclists have gotten this extra responsibility to browbeat good behaviour into other cyclists here and now so we can get some good will to build some desperately needed infrastructure.  It becomes bigger than yelling at drivers who perform incredibly stupid and irresponsible actions.  It becomes more than being vigilant for the unleashed dogs and the tottling toddlers and the joggers pacing themselves to skull-splitting volumes on an iPod.

Many of the rules that cyclists are defending are wrong, are dangerous, are nonsensical for anyone outside of a car.  But it’s the law.

Well the law is an ass, an idiot.

I have no problem with telling other cyclists to clean up their act and ride safely.  I am not about to tell someone to endanger their life because the laws on the books are ridiculously dated, modal-centric rather than well designed, or outright contradictory.  (Seriously, is that a sidewalk or an MUP?  And is it too fine a line to draw, really?)

I have one, absolute, unbreakable law while I ride that I invariably abide by.  Cyclists must yield to pedestrians.  I’m moving faster than they are, I can cause more damage to them than they can to me, I’m higher than they are and I ought to be able to see better than them.  Every law needs to be held up for inspection.  Some need to be upheld as a no-brainer:  Cyclists need to stop at stop signs.  Guh!

Some really do need to be examined.  If we have crosswalks and intersections, why can’t we have bicycle crossings?  Do we really need to force cyclists to dismount at every intersection to cross at a crosswalk?  Cyclists must stop (full stop, real stop, not a yield, a stop, period) and if it’s safe they can proceed.  Cars must yield to bicycles in the crossing.  Cyclists must yield at all times to pedestrians in the crossing.  Why does this not make sense?  Why can we not create rules that make sense and better reflect how we actually use intersections?  How is this not safer for bicyclists and pedestrians and vehicles?  It’s reducing dangerous, higher speed interactions between us all.  If there are flaws in my reasoning - and I assure you there will be - smarter people than I can create real solutions.  So do it, damn it!

But for right now, we need change and infrastructure so desperately that a lot of us in the cycling community feel that we have to grab the moral high ground right away so we can at least start making progress.  We don’t have time to wait for all the fatties in gas guzzlers to die off.  (He says as he puts down his snack and considers getting extra exercise over the next day or five.)

Laws need to be about making us all safer and creating fewer confrontational interactions and increasing positive interactions.  I’m not just talking about bikes, I’m talking about life.

I’m going to wrap this Dickensian post by directly addressing part of what Tom addressed.

Very often while I’m going to work, I round the curve on 12 Avenue.  Once you pass the curve, parking is allowed and there are always vehicles parked along the road by the time I get on my way to work.

It drives me crazy when someone feels the urge to pass me along that stretch by swinging into the oncoming lane of traffic as we round the curve.  It’s incredibly stupid, incredibly dangerous, and quite sadly incredibly common.  This is before we even approach the parking zone.

I don’t consider it a politeness, I have a very low opinion of the driver’s abilities when they do that.  I need at most four feet - I’d prefer five if I can get it - but there is much more space than that available.  Crossing the center of the road demonstrates that you’re deathly afraid of your driving abilities because I’m 100 percent confident that I’m not about to swerve six feet towards you with no warning whatsoever.

Like Tom, I get annoyed when some driver stops in the middle of the road to wave me through when I don’t have the right of way.  I also get annoyed when drivers fail to yield to me when I do have the right of way.  It’s a very simple concept, why can’t drivers figure it out?

I’m going to quote someone wiser than myself.  From Mia Birk’s Joyride, p. 113.

“I wave constantly at my neighbors and at strangers who stop for me at a stop sign.  Often, they wave me through although they have the right of way.  For many years, I would assert my presumed equality by motioning, “No, you go ahead, really.“  But then I realized that when someone offers me kindness, it’s my responsibility to graciously receive.  Besides, when you’re on a bike, momentum is your friend, and I think that the motorists waving me through must understand that.  Perhaps they themselves bike from time to time.  I always smile and wave in gratitude.  And since this happens numerous times a day, I’m always smiling and waving, waving and smiling, happy, happy, happy as I pedal along, until I arrive at work or a meeting or home feeling pleasantly hungry, energetic, even buzzed.”

On my bike, sure.  I’ll smile and wave thanks and ride on through safely.  And quite possibly question your driving ability.

But when I’m in my car you damned well follow the rules of the road.  Seriously.