It was dark by the time I was riding my bike past the scene of the accident, but things looked serious. A crowd of police officers was somber and tense. An empty SUV parked in the middle of the cordoned-off street had a dent in the front right quarter panel near the headlight that was ominously deep. A few fresh blankets lying on the curbside deepened the darkness around me. The next morning I learned that a pedestrian had been pronounced dead at the scene.
I’m a dedicated, fair-weather bicyclist, and now that the weather has turned from winter to fair, I and many others — including pedestrians — will once again hit the streets, sidewalks and trails.
I am not a competitive rider. I ride because it’s good for me physically (it beats going to a gym), it’s good for the environment, and it’s good for me spiritually and psychologically.
This is not a finger-wagging piece, where the avid cyclist rants at homicidally distracted or intoxicated or hurried motorists. According to Minnesota’s Office of Traffic Safety (OTS), half of bicycle-vehicle collisions are the bicyclist’s fault (most commonly, ignoring a traffic sign or signal) and half are due to driver issues like inattention and distraction. Believe me, I’ve witnessed some very reckless cycling (27 percent of cyclists killed had consumed alcohol according to the OTS) and I’ve made my own share of mistakes.
But given the physics involved, every cyclist and pedestrian knows that they can be both very very right, and very very dead. The car wins every time.
One of the pleasures of commuting on a bike is that, depending on where one works and the routes available, one can be above the commuter fray. Much of my commute includes the river roads and the Greenway that slices east-west across south Minneapolis, and the cyclists on the route are a cheery crowd. We are good to each other. There is no rage.
What is so settling about riding a bike is that there is a limit to how fast one can go. Like paddling in the Boundary Waters, surrendering to the physical limits of your canoe and your muscles and the whims of Mom Nature inevitably induce a certain calmness and serenity.
In an automobile, however, one can always go faster — either by pushing the pedal a little deeper, or by splicing and dicing or simply boring our way past slower traffic (which is, generally speaking, everyone else). Being in a car can make us feel like we’re running just a little behind; a nervous urgency percolates.
An experienced cyclist knows that he or she must capture the eyes of the oncoming motorist, because the eyes will tell you whether the driver sees you or not, and that is the paramount traffic signal. We are not trying to stare a moral hole into you. We are trying to figure out whether you might hit us.
And so, at traffic lights, I sit on my bike and watch the eyes of passing motorists, particularly those who are punching the accelerator through an “orange” or even thoroughly red light. Or those who are taking a left turn across traffic on the red, because they feel they have waited long enough and the other 30 people involved in that intersection haven’t. You see in these drivers’ eyes a certain despair: They are running 20 minutes late for their meeting with Happiness and Inner Peace and they will not be stopped. Their eyes stare straight ahead, into the distance, where the shame of their selfish behavior — and the eyes of their fellow motorists — cannot find them.
America has been called the Third World of the Soul: We must have everything, now!, or we will have nothing. And the automobile is our great accomplice in this delusion. It allows us to get there fast, wherever there is, so that we will be there sooner, and get more of what there has to offer.
Or … a person could try getting there slow and settled, in perfect time, on a bike or on foot. It’s worth the risk.
Craig Bowron is a physician and writer in St. Paul.