After a 10-year break, I rediscovered bicycling about a year and a half ago. I had been going like gangbusters for a year, riding around like I was a young 20-something again, when BAM, I ran into an unseen prong sticking out from an improperly placed detour sign (thanks, PennDOT!) and spent a few weeks with a good case of road rash and a really sore shoulder. Oh, and I got a nice dent in my helmet (fortunately, since I was wearing one, not in my head).
Since that incident -- and especially since the two cases last month of bicyclists being killed by cars along Penn Avenue in the East End -- I've become a lot more conscious of potentially dangerous situations on the road. I've been reminded that it's not inanimate objects causing most of these dangerous situations -- it's humans, encased in their two-ton metal shells.
In just the span of a few weeks, I've noticed enough erratic, bizarre and downright scary behavior on the part of motorists to make me start to wonder: "Who are these humans, and who decided it was a good idea to let them drive cars?"
Here are just a few examples of humans-driving-cars that I've witnessed lately ...
1. Here I am, riding along, holding my line about 4 feet over from a line of parked cars (which you absolutely need to do to keep clear of car doors that might suddenly open without warning), feeling relaxed and comfortable.
2. I become aware of a car starting to speed up to get around me ...
3. As the car pulls alongside (putting it halfway into the opposing lane), I notice that the passenger side window is down, and through it I can see the driver glaring at me and yelling at the top of his lungs.
4. While he's focused on being angry at me, instead of on the road, he neglects to notice that his car is fast approaching another car coming towards him.
5. The cars suddenly swerve to miss each other at the last second.
6. After all that, the angry driver is forced to stop at a stop sign some 250 feet later.
1. Biking to work one morning, I notice a line of cars backed up from the stop sign before the major artery ahead.
2. Out of nowhere, a black Acura zooms past me and then cuts right back in front of me to get into this line of cars.
3. Cars start to make it through the intersection, but the Acura stays put. I notice that the driver has turned around in her seat and is fiddling with something in the back seat.
4. I take this opportunity to pass her car. As I approach the stop sign, I suddenly hear her speeding up to pass me yet again, pulling up alongside me at the stop sign.
5. The well-dressed driver gives me a look of death before she rolls into the intersection, all of five seconds faster than if she'd been "stuck" behind me.
1. On the way back from a visit to Trader Joe's, with the white walk signal shining in my direction, I'm slowly walking my bike in the crosswalk at a very congested intersection with traffic backed up in all directions.
2. A bus is stopped halfway into the crosswalk, so I gingerly make my way around it, trying to be watchful for what might be happening on the other side.
3. Just as I put one foot past the bus, a white car that had been stopped on the other side suddenly roars ahead through the red light, missing me by just a couple of feet.
4. A little shaken, I make it to the other side and see that the car had been able to make it about 50 yards before being stopped by another long line of traffic at the next light.
5. Whew ...
My New Mantra: 'Comfort-Zone Cycling'
I live in Regent Square, and I used to use the bike lanes on Forbes all the time to get from my house to Squirrel Hill. With very rare exceptions, I don't use them any longer. Why? I realized something: A strip of paint is really not very good protection from 4,000 pounds of metal barreling down the road at 45 mph.
What do I do instead? I take the sidewalk on the south side of the Forbes Bridge to the trail in Frick Park, ride up the South Clayton Trail to reach the main entrance of the park off of Beechwood, and then take back roads to Squirrel Hill.
Let me just say, I had no idea how much stress I was feeling as cars went whizzing by me on Forbes until I felt the peacefulness and quiet of the parallel ride on the Frick trails.
On a good day, most humans are on their good behavior, and on rare occasions even offer to give me the right of way to let me through an intersection. In the course of a ride, I typically see only one or two humans behind the wheel of a car being extremely obtuse (and blissfully unaware of just how much danger their tons of metal are posing to nearby pedestrians and cyclists). On a bad day, they can be texting as they drive, or drunk, or just angry at the world. That strip of white paint is not going to help you much when someone veers across it after accidentally moving their steering wheel an inch or two.
Here's my new biking policy, one that sprang into my head in the weeks following my bike accident: I don't bike on roads where cars can be going more than 25 mph (thus no major arteries, like Forbes, even with bike lanes). Period. When humans behind the wheel do start acting obtuse (or worse), the chances of coming to harm in low speed areas are substantially less. So I stick to side streets in residential areas and park trails and our now-pretty-extensive network of riverside trails. (They are here partly thanks to the city's great friend, the developer Mark Schneider, who sadly died in a bike accident last month.)
And I'm not the only scaredy-cat -- John Pucher, a professor at Rutgers, has noted that women, children and seniors are severely under-represented among bicyclists in the U.S. today, and here's the No. 1 reason he identified: the perception that biking in the city is not safe. Which is a massive shame, because no city can truly become "bike-friendly" until everyone can feel safe cycling on an everyday basis. Statistics show that the more cyclists there are on the roads of a given city, the lower the rate of car-bike accidents. (Maybe people get used to seeing cyclists and get over their motoring superiority complex?)
Even with our relatively low percentage of bicyclists, an aversion to cars doesn't have to limit your ability to get around Pittsburgh by bike today. The key, though, is knowing where it's comfortable and relatively safe to bike -- information that hasn't been readily available. This thought inspired me and a few colleagues to come up with a new concept for a bicycle map of Pittsburgh.
The idea is that there are large "islands" of mostly flat, mostly residential streets in Pittsburgh where it is generally comfortable to bike around at leisure. What's crucial is knowing how to bridge these "islands" from one to the other using the safest, least stressful routes possible. The result is a new bike map we call "Pittsburgh's Comfort Zone Cycling" (which is available as a free download at bobsmaps.com).
Until the day we wake up and find ourselves with dozens of miles of physically separated bike lanes interconnecting neighborhoods, or the day Google perfects its robots to take over driving for humans (which may come sooner), there's no shame in being afraid of cars. The good news is that it is possible to bike around in Pittsburgh in relative comfort -- the trick is just knowing where to ride.
P.S. Yes, there may be some of you thinking that I should also be asking, "should humans be allowed to bicycle?" Believe me, I've seen bicyclists pull off some crazy stunts (like the cyclist who weaved through a dozen stopped cars on Penn at the light at Bakery Square and then merrily ran the red light). But hello, the biggest danger any cyclist poses is to him or herself. Not so the motorist; there is a serious difference that is all the difference in the world -- 4,000 pounds of metal vs. 40.
Bob Firth is president of Informing Design (firstname.lastname@example.org). First Published August 12, 2012 4:00 AM