Monday, August 07, 2006

Mea Culpa

Biking is a frequent media topic in Chicago. Mayor Daley's efforts to promote biking recently came up in the news after the release of the Bike 2015 Plan, an ambitious proposal to expand Chicago's bike routes and other measures designed to encourage bikes over automobiles. The resulting news articles about the plan inevitably refer to the bike versus automobile conflict after the meat of the story has played out. Within days, letters to the editor show up regarding this non- topic. Normally this part of the paper just slows my progress to the comics but a well placed "bike" in the header manages to snag my attention.

The bike letters usually fall into one of two categories, bikers pissed at threatening drivers and drivers pissed at aggressive bikers. Letters from bikers usually rattle off anecdotes of SUVs running them off the road or nearly killing them while their drivers are yammering on cellphones. Letters from drivers complain of bikers ignoring the rules of the road and recklessly bounding through traffic and careening off pregnant mothers and old ladies. I find myself relating more to the drivers' complaints as I practice defensive biking and ride on busy streets as little as possible thereby avoiding dangerous drivers. But I also sympathize with the drivers not because I encounter rude and aggressive bikers at the wheel; but because I am a rude and aggressive biker.

"Hi, my name is Steve.." (Response from audience, "Hi Steve!")"...and (said sheepishly) I'm an obnoxious biker (followed by clapping and encouragement)." I don't see myself as the bike messenger slaloming through crowds and traffic variety of obnoxious biker. I'm more of the since I'm moving anyway I'll just blow through this stop sign variety of obnoxious biker.

On two occasions I can definitely say I really, really pissed off a motorist. It was spring and soon after taking the bike out of hibernation. I was riding down North Winthrop at a nice clip on my way to work. After escaping the hazards of North Sheridan Road, I was happy to be riding more or less stress free. I came upon West Granville, a four way stop that at that hour was usually car free. A guy, who in that instant I judged to be a tradesman of some type, was stopped in his compact car and about to continue on with his life. Then here I come screaming through the intersection nearly giving him a stroke as he slams the brakes and shouts that bikers have to stop too. It is amazing how much information can be absorbed and communicated in such a short time frame but I doubt he noticed my dilated pupils, panic, and simultaneous contrition as I swerved and sped on my way. I could have attempted some sign of remorse or apology but at the time I was too preoccupied with not dying.

One would think that an intelligent and conscientious person would have learned something from that experience. Apparently this was not the case since within a week (or maybe even that same day-it was a few years ago mind you) I was exploring a new route and zooming home on North Greenview near West Pratt (I'm not sure of the exact location as I have been hesitant to return to the scene of this more obnoxious sin). Again I was enjoying the momentum of cruising speed and smugly passing cars along my way on the narrow side street. I came upon a three way stop with cars all over patiently taking turns before proceeding. Then here I come and pull the same crap as I did at Winthrop and Granville.

Pissing someone off and getting yelled at is humiliating. Pissing someone off, getting yelled at and deserving it is more humiliating. Pissing someone off, getting yelled at and deserving same from the teenage driver of a beater is even worse. One of my victims of my latest fit of obnoxiousness seemed to be a neighborhood college kid. That instance was also the closest I've ever been to getting badly crunched. I had sped past an oncoming driver about to make a left turn and somehow angered the kid in my flow of traffic as well. As I said, it was a while ago and I'm foggy on the details. But what I really remember is immediately thinking to myself yet again, "Boy was that stupid."

With thirty minutes left in my ride I had plenty of time to ponder my second asinine act. I thought how a local TV news correspondent (with the neighborhood kids jumping and waving in the background) reported my death and the unsaid theme would be a foolish and arrogant cyclist getting what he deserved. Then the newscast would cut to a spokesman from the Chicago Bike Federation commenting that I was an anomaly and most bikers are safe and courteous. Then they'd have a comment from the kid driving the beater saying it happened so fast and that I should have known better than to ride so fast in traffic.

Once burned, twice shy apparently doesn't completely apply to me. I still run the occasional red light, don't obey every stop sign, and sometimes I even bike on sidewalks. But for the most part, I am much, much safer and courteous than I use to be. The thought of being considered yet another lawless biker with the too-cool bike gloves and too-tight shorts still sticks with me. I realize the minimal effort and time I'll save weaving through traffic is just as pointless on a bike as it is in a car. But it is pretty pathetic that it took forty years to finally figure that out.

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