Striking A Balance

I do my best not to think, but sometimes I can’t help myself. One thing I’ve found myself contemplating in recent years is the way we (and when I say “we” I mean people who champion the use of the bicycle) talk about cycling deaths. So often they’re senseless, infuriating tragedies that betray a host of biases, injustices, and misguided policies–but how do you call attention to all this without reinforcing the popular notion that you’d have to be crazy to ride a bike?

I had this very much in mind when Outside asked me to write about the recent crash in Nevada, and here’s my attempt at making sense of it all:

One thing I’ve learned in my years of being advocacy-adjacent is that it can prey upon your emotional well-being, which I attempted to address in this paragraph:

Even those of us who have been riding for years, who are willing to toe the line with drivers day after day, and who would keep on riding even if the streets were flowing with molten lava (what’s a good tire tread for lava anyway?) can fall prey to the deleterious effects of incessant outrage. Spend a couple hours on the bike, and while you may or may not have a negative encounter with a motorist, you’ll almost certainly finish the ride feeling happier than when you started it. Spend a couple hours reading bike Twitter, and you’re guaranteed to wind up despondent, infuriated, and profoundly disgusted with humanity. Moreover, you’ll then take that disgust along with you on your next ride. And when you feel contempt for your fellow humans, I’ve found that negative encounters with them have a funny way of multiplying. It’s one thing to hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but when you assume the worst of everyone, you’re sure to get it.

I’d go so far as to say this applies not just to bikes but to life in general, and that we’d all do well to pull ourselves out of the muck of media bias and Internet discourse every once in awhile and get back to living our lives firsthand–something that’s getting harder and harder to do in an era when governments are mandating isolation and online immersion. You can work yourself into a lather over bike-haters and the latest climate change hysteria, or you can bask in the joy of riding your bike outdoors–and if you want to help make the world a better place, I’d wager doing the latter is more effective than doing the former.

I mean seriously, if you wallow in negativity too much you can’t even go to the supermarket without having an existential crisis:

Trust me, I’ve been there. Cycling and grocery shopping are not without their hardships. However, when you’re riding you should do your best to focus on how good it feels, and when you’re grocery shopping you should be grateful to be filling your cart with food when so many people in the world have no idea where their next meal is coming from.

(And is is not to pick on Peter Flax; as I say, I’ve been there. I understand the need to broadcast your outrage, and how easy it is to find it reflected in every facet of human endeavor. At the same time, I also understand the need to tune it out and get on with life. You can call it denial, I call it self-preservation.)

Speaking of carrying on with bikes and with life in the face of adversity, while somewhat less daunting than death, weather can be a very real concern–and of course one can lead to the other. We got a fair amount of snow last week, which has left the streets a mess, and it’s my Midlife Crisis Fixie that has kept me going:

This is the only bike I’ve been riding since the snow fell, and while cycling trends may come and go, certain fundamendal truths remain–and one of them is that fixed-gears make very good winter bikes. (In an urban environment, anyway.)

Also, weather evokes its fair share of outrage from the advocacy set, and this is the time of year when they decry the state of the bike lanes:

On Berry Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, riders were forced to swerve out into traffic to avoid the snow still packing its dedicated bike lanes.

The blocked lanes come as bike-riding has soared in the city.

According to city records, nearly 900,000 New Yorkers ride a bike regularly, with more than 500,000 cycling trips on a typical day.

I too have been there, pedaling along only to find I can pedal no more:

In fact I was there as recently as yesterday. (Not in the field of brie pictured above, or on that bicycle, which I no longer own, but I did encounter my share of uncleared paths.) I’ve also found myself compelled to impugn the city’s commitment to bicycling and to rail against its apparent disregard for the well-being of people who partake in it.

At the same time, I also can’t help cringing at the outrage, including my own. The riders in the Post article were not “forced to swerve out into traffic to avoid the snow;” they were presented with an impediment to forward progress that they could circumvent in a number of ways, such as carefully merging into traffic or stopping and dismounting. Should they have to do this? Ideally, no; certainly we should be advocating for a comprehensive bike network that is usable in all weather. However, it’s also important to note everyone’s similarly inconvenienced by the snowfall–especially pedestrians, and especially especially children, elderly people, and people with mobility issues, as the Post story does note:

Hidalgo noted that the handicapped are among those people suffering the worst. Parents trying to take their kids out for a walk are getting stymied, also, the advocate said.

“If you’re using a walker, if you’re using a wheelchair, if you’re using a stroller, the city’s pretty much sticking up its middle finger at you right now,” he said

Having struggled with snowed-in bike lanes, and having struggled to clamber over mountains of snow with two children in order to board a bus or to cross the street, I’d say that addressing the latter should be a much bigger priority. Even as a driver (and remember, as a driver the city is prioritizing my convenience, as the advocates love to point out) I could find plenty to complain about, but of course I’m not going to do that, because the only thing worse than a whiny cyclist is a whiny driver. And of course the greatest irony is that here in New York City, even when the bike lanes are snowed in and the snow’s piled so high on the corners that you can’t cross the street, you can always get around on your bike…because the constant car traffic keeps the street clear.

Might as well make the best of it.

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