A few weeks ago, after tipping back a few too many beers, a friend of mine opened up about his girlfriend and their loving but altogether contentious long-term relationship. The one constant? Non-stop arguing over topics big and small (mostly small). Though they’re rarely super-serious, purée-each-other’s-emotions heavyweight bouts, the scraps are consistent enough to merit front-and-center billing on the cute, weird Pinterest board that is their romantic life.
Talking, and drinking, about it helped him come to a realization.
“Dude,” he said, eyes bugging in terror like he’d just spotted the crest of Godzilla’s head rising from the bay. “I think she actually likes fighting.”
This got me thinking about two local groups whom I’ve long suspected secretly get kicks out of battling each other: Philadelphia’s motorists and Philadelphia’s bicyclists. Now that the weather’s finally broken, plenty of locals are pumping their tires and greasing their chains in preparation for three full seasons of city biking. And just as quickly as the bipedal crowd has emerged from the freeze, so too have the bad attitudes. Bikers screaming at drivers! Drivers screaming at bikers! Pedestrians screaming at both of them! Quick, everyone — corner the urbanite closest to you and tell them how much they fucking suck!
There's something about the sour relations between cars and bikes that has always confused me, and I think it has to do with the fact that I’m a member of both sects. I own two bicycles as well as a car, and I rely on both modes of transportation on a daily basis. (Like most, it skews more toward the saddle in the temperate months.) On my bike, I've been cut off and nudged and screamed at and "doored" by cars, even when I’m minding my own business in a designated lane. In the driver's seat, I've been cut off and nudged and screamed at and "tapped" by bicyclists, even when I'm minding my own business at a red light.
Why? Barring the theory of latent conflict obsession that I borrowed from my beaten-up buddy, I think it simply comes down to an unwillingness to see things from the other side, whether we're commanding four wheels or two. One automatically assumes the other is angry, reckless and out for asphalt-drawn blood, so we respond accordingly in the most hyper-defensive Philly way possible. Maybe I'm too optimistic, but I think a few minor tweaks in the way bikers and drivers interact and understand one another can nudge us toward a place of mutual understanding — or at least safer commutes and lower blood pressures.
I don't expect anything about Philly car-bike relations to change overnight. But here are a few truths that I hope pushers of both types of pedals will at least consider.
No one is infallible.
Dave Barry said it best: "The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we all believe that we are above-average drivers." I'd like to extend this to cyclists, too. I'm honest enough to publicly admit that I fail to fully pause at South Philly stop signs (which is illegal) about as often as I zip through red lights on my bike when I see there are no cars coming (also illegal). Yep, I bend the rules — sorry mom, Jesus, Stu Bykofsky, etc. Lock me up if you must, but I have a strong suspicion I won’t be alone in the clink.
Does this make me "part of the problem"? That's one way to look at it. I think it just makes me another normal person living by de facto traffic standards. This is why I try not to freak out when a fixed-gear blows by me at a busy intersection, or when a truck jumps a four-way even though it's my turn to ride through. If you are a bicyclist or driver who rides by the letter of the law, all day every day with no exceptions, congratulations, you are a better person than me. You are also a liar.
Lose the persecution complex.
On Portlandia, Fred Armisen has a killer character named "Spyke" who's a right skewering of the militant city cyclist. ("Ugh — cars, man. WHY?!") I especially loved this recent clip of what happened the second he got a whip of his own:
It's silly comedy, sure, but it sharply illustrates the ridiculous self-victimization I've witnessed from both the biking and driving camps. I don’t think most drivers are out to get cyclists, but that doesn't stop some riders from acting like a Subaru Forester unloading boxes in a bike lane is grounds for an international war crimes tribunal. I don't think most cyclists are out to get drivers, but that doesn’t stop the driver of that Subaru Forester from vowing to slay any kid on a single-speed who rolls within 10 feet of his crappy bumper (which probably has a "COEXIST" sticker on it). Is it really worth all the stress and angst? As Philadelphians, we already have so many other things to freak out about. Are we losing anything by making that list one item shorter?
The other day, I was driving in Chinatown when I came up on a guy on a bike riding in the middle of the lane — which, for the record, is a completely legal act, even if I personally feel that rolling to the side is a more comfortable and efficient technique. Causes fewer arguments, in my experience. (Nicholas Mirra of City Paper, who also works for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, has a smart column today about these types of gray areas.)
He cocked his head around, noticed me, and gestured for me to go around him, which I did. For a second, I was sore about it — who the hell is this dude to tell me how to drive?! You get out of my way. Then I realized what an unreasonable dick I was being. With one simple hand motion, he summed up everything that a driver-biker interaction should be. He was very aware of his surroundings and communicated clearly to the cars around him how we can all coexist (non-bumper sticker edition). I was able to drive faster and arrive at my turn quicker. He was able to keep biking the way he wanted to bike, safely, calmly, and legally. Everyone won. And yet it was so telling that my gut told me to scream "fuck you!" out of my window. If I, and we, can work on eliminating that childish mentality, we'll be well on our way to happier streets.
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