Monday, April 23, 2012

Life In The Bike Lane

All photos in this post were taken on the
same ride, within 10 minutes.
I had a pretty serious bike accident about 15 years ago, the first year I lived in San Francisco: riding down Market Street in a light rain, my bike slid on the trolley-car tracks and went out from under me, and I broke my left femur in the landing. The exquisite pain and prolonged inconvenience that followed it were not leavened by mine having been such a very San Franciscoey catastrophic accident.

It is perhaps a measure of how dispiriting a daily NYC subway commute can be that about a year ago I overcame the post-traumatic stress of that event and started riding my bike to work every day. As opposed to spending $104 a month to spend 90 minutes a day crammed into an overcrowded tube full of dead-eyed drones avoiding eye contact and struggling (often unsuccessfully) to stay awake, I've found that 35 minutes on my bike (7 miles each way), in the sun and fresh air, is invigorating.

That's particularly useful for someone like me, who has some difficulty waking up in the morning (much the way a cinder block has some difficulty rolling uphill).  Rather than arriving at the cube farm with eyes half closed and a mind confusedly trying to sort out whether I fell asleep and drooled on that guy's Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual or just imagined it in my customary morning fugue state, I now arrive awake and alert, and that guy who reads D&D modules on the train every day is just an increasingly distant (if uncomfortably vivid) memory.

There are, of course, drawbacks, particularly riding a route that takes me all the way up the busiest, most chaotic thoroughfare in Brooklyn (Flatbush Avenue), over the Manhattan Bridge, and across to 7th Avenue. (On my first few rides, before I discovered the westbound Prince St. bike lane, I soon learned why Jimi Hendrix used "crosstown" -- as opposed to "downtown" or "Beltway" or "stadium" -- traffic as a metaphor for confused frustration.)

It's no secret to anyone who's ever been on a New York (or any city, really, but I'm writing from recent experience) that people are awful drivers and pedestrians barely pay attention to what they're doing, but being on a bike, unprotected by 2,000 pounds of metal and glass, you really get a clear view of just how out of it people are. People step off the sidewalk into a one-way street, in the middle of the block, without looking back at an alarming rate of 27 per block per minute (figures approximate). On average I would estimate that I personally witness no fewer than 11 car-on-car near-collisions per 7-mile commute, and that's each way so like, 35 a day? (I'm no good at math.)
These dudes gave me the stinkeye when
I said "excuse me"

To be fair, the City Of New York has, in an official government capacity, done a lot for bike riders,
designating protected bike lanes all over the city -- and by protected, I mean they lie between the curb and the parallel-parked cars on the block, providing the illusion that one can ride more safely.

These protected bike lanes would seem to be a biker's dream, and to the extent that one is safer from cars, one is certainly safer in one of these "protected" lanes. They are not safer from pedestrians, however, who seem to think that it is the "protected walk around while admiring the tops of the tall buildings on this block" lane. If their growing numbers are any indication, people seem to prefer walking in the protected bike lanes to walking on the sidewalk right next to it. 

Par for the course
The unprotected, paint-only bike lanes, for that matter, are also little more than an annex to the sidewalk. People who walk the street with shopping carts -- not that I want to profile -- overwhelmingly prefer the bike lanes. So do delivery guys pushing big dollys around. Cab drivers love to pull into the bike lanes on a dime to pick up and drop off fares, which would be fine if they bothered to use their mirrors before doing so. You might say, I bet that's illegal! You should report them to the cops! That's a good idea, and I don't have to go far to find one: I'll just tell one of the 17 I pass parked -- guess where? -- in the bike lanes. I will have to hope they don't give me a ticket for riding out of the bike lane to get around them.

I haven't had any accidents in the bike lanes, just a lot of near misses. I had three incidents the same day last week. First, I got clipped by a Dollar Van on Flatbush: its passenger-side mirror hit the back of my left elbow as I rode along the curb on the right. It was more scary than anything, but it was pretty scary. (The Dollar Van, for its part, did not slow down or give any indication of concern that it had just hit someone. In a photo finish worth of Secretariat, Dollar Vans have edged out car-service Town Cars for the garland Worst Vehicular Menace in Brooklyn. Third place is the Chinese food delivery guys that ride scooters on the sidewalk.)

About five minutes later I paused at the big intersection at Jay St. and Tillary St., headed for the bridge; as I stood in the crosswalk at the corner waiting for the light to change, a car-service Town Car came around the corner and a guy leaned out the passenger window and screamed "GET OUT OF THE ROAD!" three times. I shouted back a two-word imperative that stars with F and ends with U, and reached for my bike lock in case he came back, but he didn't. Chicken. Last but not least, on my return trip going home, I rolled through a big puddle of puke, which mercifully mostly splashed on my bare legs and socks and not so much on my shorts or shoes.

That was a pretty bad day, bikingwise, but not as bad as when I broke my leg. Or when my tire blew two miles from home. Or when that guy tried to kill me on the bridge.

I was going home after work, on the uphill slope of the Manhattan Bridge bike lane, southbound to Brooklyn. There were a lot of bikes on the narrow, fenced-in roadway, just as there are every day. I gradually caught up to a very tall man in one of those short-brim biking caps, with a messenger bag, riding sitting up with his arms at his sides, and I settled in about two bike lengths behind him. The bike lane is narrow, there were a lot of bikes coming the other way, and I was getting passed on the left by more serious bikers than myself. I put my head down and kept pace about two lengths back, and the gentleman in front of me turned and glared angrily in my direction. Is he looking for someone back there? I wondered.

A few seconds later he did it again, even more angrily. This time I looked back to see who he was looking at, and in doing so noted a couple more riders speeding up to pass on our left. I turned back around and he was still glaring, and I suddenly realized he was glaring at me.

"WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM!?" he screamed -- not shouted, not yelled, SCREAMED -- in a Jamaican accent. I looked behind me again. "Me?" I said, a little baffled.

I was not following him any more closely than I follow anyone else, or anyone else follows me. We weren't going very fast -- remember, we're on the upslope of the bridge and he's riding with no hands. The bike behind me was at about the same distance. In any case, I decided he must be trying to tell me I'm too close. I start to slow down but remember there's another bike right behind me; I look back and see that bike passing me on the left as another takes its place behind me.

I look to my front again, and as the passing bike moves back into the right lane in front of the angry guy in front of me, three bikes coming the opposite direction go by on the left. Once the left lane is clear of oncoming traffic I turn my head one last time to make sure I have an opening to pass Mr. Congeniality.
Bike lane on Manhattan Bridge.
(Screaming psycho Jamaican not pictured.)

I look back again, and at the moment I see that the coast is clear, I'm disoriented by a collision; the bike in front of me has stopped cold and I have hit it dead on while looking behind me. My bike falls over to the left and I take a second (probably literally one second) to put together what just happened. Clearly I've run into the guy in front of me, but he seems to be fine.

This is soon confirmed when he starts screaming -- not yelling, not speaking loudly, SCREAMING -- "NOW YOU UNDERSTAND!! NOW YOU FUCKIN' UNDERSTAND!" Now it all comes together: he did it on purpose, to teach me a lesson about riding behind him, or something. Along with this revelation comes the realization that this person isn't just a dick but mentally unstable and probably violent. He is still screaming, and a line of drool is rappelling from his lip to his chest. Yeah, maybe let's stay out of any further physical confrontation with the livid 6'5" Jamaican who just made a bike hit him on purpose on a narrow bike path on a bridge, 200 feet above the East River. "NOW YOU FUCKIN' UNDERSTAND!?" he screams for the fifth time.

"Yeah, I understand," I say as I pick up my bike and get back on it. I hope that my tone is getting across that what I understand is that he's a crazy asshole, but I decide not to actually say those words. Instead I proceed on the bridge, now ahead of the person for whom Jah's sacrament clearly has less-than-calming effects, gaming out my strategy for the confrontation that will probably happen when he catches up to me at the traffic light under the bridge, where the path terminates. I confirm that I have easy access to my bike lock and fantasize about the damage it will do.

But he doesn't catch up to me. Apparently, blinding rage makes people ride really slow.

Anyway, people: try to be aware of the bike lanes. Don't walk in them, and if you do, try to be remember that some bikes may come along. Look both ways before you cross the street, because I've been watching you and almost nobody looks -- your kindergarten teacher would be appalled. And if you see somebody splayed out across Market Street with a broken femur in the rain, screaming bloody murder, call an ambulance. That guy is really in a lot of pain.


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