Tuesday, May 3, 2011

commuting encounters

I'm half-way through my commitment, working at the shop for the two busiest months of the year. It's a good time to put in some hours: it's consistently busy so the time flies, and the riding is not so interesting right now. It's that awkward season between winter's snow riding and the dirt trails opening. Riding to work on the pavement is my main form of biking right now. As Jon says: I'm pretty good at biking 9 miles fast.

During the commute, there's lots to watch out for. Glass on the paths, potholes and mispositioned curb cuts. Motor vehicles, of course. People and dogs and piles of gravel. Last week I had a few moments of frustration. First, there was the pedestrian on Lake Otis Parkway. I saw him from a distance as he looked at the bus schedule. I slowed a little as he stepped away from it. I called out to him. As I drew closer, he looked at the traffic that was coming from the other direction, stepped in front of me then began crossing the street. He neither heard nor saw me even though I was shouting to get his attention.

Finally, as I rode past, I said: Dude! You just stepped in front of me! He stopped in the street, turned around and looked at me with a blank stare, white cords dangling from his ears. Yes, I should always expect that pedestrians have tuned out and won't hear me no matter how loud I ring my bell or shout "Biker! Biker behind you!" I'm used to car drivers not paying attention and not seeing me; it becomes more annoying when it's a pedestrian.

A truck driver did notice me a couple days later. He noticed Jon as well. We were riding in. I was on my road bike and we'd decided that rather than biking on the root- and frost-heaved path along Abbott Road (between Elmore and Lake Otis), we would ride on the road. There was still lots of gravel on the shoulder, but we managed to find enough clean pavement between the white line and the loose gravel to make for a fast ride.

Then I heard some shouts and the words "bike path!" hurled at me. As the pickup drove by, I raised my hand in a wave and a peace sign. Whatever. Then he yelled at Jon, who also waved. (Jon later told me he thought the driver was someone from one of the other shops teasing him. I've had friends do that to me: shout at me to get off the road, then wave madly as they go by.) Just after he passed Jon, Jon made a left turn and I followed so we could cut through a parking lot. The driver was paying attention through his mirror because he turned into the next driveway for the parking lot and headed my way. I stopped and prepared for a chat.

It went something like this:
Truck man: You should be on the path, not on the road. Me: I was riding in the bike lane. TM: That's not a bike lane; it doesn't have a bike painted on it. Me: I'm on my way to work. I ride on the road because there are so many intersections on the path and people don't stop at them to look. More people are hit by cars on the path than on the road. Drivers turning right are dangerous. TM: I don't want to hear your reasons. I'm sick of you bikers everywhere. I have a bike but I ride it on trails, when I'm hunting. Me: Well, I'm on my way to work.

The encounter happened so fast. I'm not entirely sure of the order of the comments. His volume was rising (along with his blood pressure) as he became more excited. I felt strong. I knew I was right. He was the one who instigated this encounter when he could have just continued past. It was just after 10 a.m. and maybe his day had started out crappy and he was taking it out on us, but I figure every encounter is a chance to educate. Perhaps I should thank him for noticing us.

Me: I just appreciate that you're watching out for cyclists! TM: I'm going to call DOT about this. Me: That reminds me, I'm going to call DOT to get them to sweep the shoulder. Truck Man grumbled and was turning red. Finally he began driving away and headed out the parking lot, returning in the direction he came. I don't think Jon had a chance to get more than a few words in.

It's strange; about half our route is on paths and just before we'd hopped on this short stretch of road, Jon and I had been talking about bike safety. Earlier that morning I'd read a Compass piece in the paper by a friend of the cyclist who was killed in early April after being struck and dragged by a car. Anchorage police had ruled the accident to be the fault of the cyclist, but the writer wasn't convinced. I'm not convinced either. An experienced cyclist is ever cautious. Aware of the danger spots on our familiar routes. We make choices based on past experiences. We know where it's safest to ride.

Jon and I made a choice last week to ride on a short stretch of road. I was riding safely and felt safer than I do when riding on the path. I don't want anyone to think I'm a big risk-taker. Far from it. I'll ride the road when there's room and it's clear. I'll ride the path when the road isn't any good. I'll hope the cars give me some space when I'm on the shoulder and will stop before the path when I'm on the pathway. Yeah, it could happen. But I'm not counting on it.

Whether riding legally on the road or on the path, my goal is to get to and from work safely. Is it too much to ask other people to pay as much attention to their surroundings as I do? Whether they're in a motor vehicle, on foot or on a bicycle. Sharing the road and sharing the trails aren't just nice sentiments, they are good practices that require people to be alert. I'll do my best to keep my eyes open and to give people plenty of room. Including when I'm in my car.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post! It is really quite sad that those of us who choose to commute by bike have to spend so much time thinking about our safety in doing so. When we get into our cars, do we fret about all of the possible ways we could be injured? I'd say generally no.

Maybe if more drivers took one week to bike commute, to understand the sense of nakedness one feels on a bike, that they would be more vigilant about paying attention while driving. Then again, maybe not.

www.bikecommuteordie.wordpress.com has some interesting takes on the hazards and joys of bike commuting in the Anchorage area.