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Transportation Transformation
Dana Williams
I know many bicyclists who never drive in cars and rarely ride in them. I know other bicyclists who drive and ride in cars regularly. I fall in the latter category. I find it particularly intriguing that I go through a psychological transformation when I get off my bike and step into my car.

A similar transformation occurs when people park their car in a parking lot (often in these ugly suburban strip malls) and get out to walk through the parking lot to where they're going. In both of these mode-changes people seem to re-evaluate their relationship to the terrain and exert themselves differently for each.

Thus, a new pedestrian will be aghast at cars that don't respect their trek through a parking lot, although they themselves perhaps minutes before impatiently waited, muttering under their breath, about others taking their “sweet ass time” to cross the road. Likewise, a driver will seethe with furious anger at waiting for a bicyclist, while the cyclists themselves are openly indifferent to the driver's frustrations.

An automobile driver's impatience seems to stem from the fact that roads are really designed, wholly indeed, for them. And since cars can go amazingly fast compared to all other forms of transportation that share the roads, they are incredibly empowered to use that advantage. People mentally factor in their ability to drive above the speed limit when planning to go somewhere. Cyclists, on the other hand, very much acknowledge that they cannot go remotely as fast as the speed limit, and operate on that knowledge.

Another psychological dynamic is at play since drivers are “entombed” in “metal coffins” and rarely (even in the summertime with windows rolled-down) communicate with those around them in a personal fashion. How many times have we seen other drivers clearly mouthing profanities or complaints against us (for real or imagined infractions)? Or seen people flick us off or wave their hands angrily? Or lay on the horn for many long seconds to vent their frustrations?

Conversely, how many pedestrians on the sidewalk will curse at others, scream at them, give each other the finger, or swerve dangerously towards them? Few, if any, I think. Of course, sidewalks are usually far less congested and walkers are less likely to kill each other walking at their 3 mph pace. But, I think it's the ability for walkers to see each other for many long seconds before encountering them. One can smile, nod, ignore, acknowledge, speak to, stop and talk to, etc., in a way that auto drivers cannot. Drivers, on the other hand, are so removed from others on the road, and tend to take on a “me against the world” mentality. Road rage runs rampant.

Is it any wonder that bicyclists will frequently take to sidewalks to deal with the more chaotic and unregulated traffic there, even when it is often illegal to do so? I often take to the sidewalks to avoid the dangerous and deadly roads, especially busy ones, and am happy to swerve in and around pedestrians. I value my life, and will happily bend and break laws to preserve it and survive.

Sidewalks also function as meaningful places of community and interaction. People will gather on them, and can legal stop in place and not move without being a danger to others. How can one appreciate such things on fast-moving roads?

Still, it is amazing how one's own psyche can shift its priorities when moving from a bike to a car. It's almost as if just being on the road causes one to accept the basic premise of transportational Darwinism, even if it's against the will of the driver themselves. If one wishes to drive slowly, or even at the speed limit, they will become a danger to others driving far faster on the road, let alone becoming an object of scorn and disgust of others. Honks, close swerves, and angry gestures will likely rain upon one who uses caution on the road by those with “places to go”. And I'm guilty of this too!

How can this be reconciled? I suppose banning cars might do it, but think of the ramifications of that! People would actually have to stay in their neighborhood and meet their neighbors! Businesses, stores, and services would actually have to locate in a decentralized fashion... think of what that would cause to the urban-sprawl fans! I tease, of course, but what really is the implication when we embody such a hyper-aggressive car culture and translate it into the rest of our society?

01/11/04