So, yesterday was an exciting day!
I've been evangelizing the joys of bike commuting to my sister, who lives in Orlando, FL. She finally cracked and bought a bike a few months ago, and sent me an email yesterday exclaiming "I love biking!!" It makes me so happy to be able to share this thing with her. Emboldened, I decided I was ready to ride my bike again for the first time since my crash.
The first issue was that everything is pretty wonky. My shifters are bent and crooked, and my seat is not on straight. I briefly considered working on it a little, but decided not to distract from my main task, which was to just ride around the block a few times like old times and not jump out of my skin every time a car came up behind me. I quickly put air in my tires, snapped my helmet, and got out the door quickly before I lost my nerve.
I live at the bottom of a hill on a busy street with no bike lanes. Cars normally tear down the hill at 45+ mph (the speed limit is 35). It's easy to do -- you can't help but speed up down these hills unless you're consciously trying to go slow. I walked my bike down to the corner to avoid riding on this road.
I got on, pedaled a few feet, and had a moment of brief triumph before cars started coming up behind me.
I was okay-ish with the cars. I felt nervous, but I think this kind of "exposure therapy" will help over time. I don't mind hearing their noise so much as feeling whoosh of air that comes when they get very close and rush past me. I turned onto a shared bike/pedestrian trail, rode it to the end, then turned on a different road (with a bike lane) to come home.
I found myself wishing I had a sign taped to my back that said, "Was hit by a truck on 11/5/13. This is my first time riding my bike again. I'm scared. Please be considerate." But the drivers who were sharing the road with me yesterday had no idea this was my first ride since the crash. They probably didn't assume I, or any other cyclists, had been in a crash at all. When I'm driving, I'm much more likely to think of other things on the road as obstacles, not as human people with human fears. I would certainly not think of myself as the object of someone else's fear.
A while ago I found a video I want to share that tries to do exactly that -- to humanize drivers and cyclists to each other. More than anything else I've seen, this sums up what I wish I could tell anyone who shares a road with cyclists.
The problems between cars and cyclists is often described as part of a "culture war." In any context, I think "culture war" language is unhelpful and deeply damaging (for more on this, I like this book), but it's especially unhelpful in this case because we all have a clear and obvious interest in having safe streets and not killing each other out there. The video effectively transcends these by making honest appeals to our shared interests as people. It acknowledges that many of the same people who ride bikes also drive cars.
Some of the letters admit the inherent annoyance of having to share the road with anyone -- let alone a very slow person (a cyclist, if you're a driver) or a very aggressive-seeming person (a big car, if you're a cyclist). Yet, the letters also reveal the fear beneath those annoyances. Most drivers are terrified of hitting cyclists, just as most cyclists are afraid of cars on the road. A letter written by a driver says, "It's everybody's worst fear: taking someone's life, or even injuring someone. I can't imagine the guilt I would feel -- not only for the person I injured, by for everyone else in that person's life."
A cyclists confesses that she knows "cyclists can be annoying. We may ride in your lane, force you to slow down and wait before turning." Another letter-reader continues, "the thing that a lot of motorists don't realize is that they put themselves in whatever position they feel is the safest."
One very moving letter about a cyclist's fear really hit home for me. He says, "I've had a really hard time getting back on my bike since the accident because I'm afraid that every car I hear coming from behind is going to hit me, and I just don't want to ride that way."
In my experience, I find it's really easy to get into an anit-car mentality, especially, you know, after being hit by one (the driver was MIA at the scene, I never saw him, and we never spoke.) It's hard to describe the white-hot rage that comes over me when I think about him.
Still, for everyone's sake, it's so important to remember that the man who hit me is a person. He's someone's son. He has friends, and maybe family, too. He got up for work that morning and drove around in his work truck. I can picture him in his truck, drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup and listening to the radio. He was probably tired, maybe stressed. These aren't excuses, but reminders to myself that the person who hit me is a person, not a villain. Safer road conditions depend on the ability of drivers and cyclists to regard each other as humans, not as annoyances, obstacles, or enemies.