Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bicycle commuting.

I am a bicycle commuter.

Sort of.

I don't have a "real job", you see. I'm a freelancer. Lately, I've been freelancing with a super fun, very small company around 3rd & Bryant. I live around 21st & Guerrero, which means this commute is about 3.5 miles. Since I am a giant scaredy-cat about getting back on a bike ever since I went over its handlebars like an idiot, I rode the bus one or two mornings. It's a fairly easy bus commute. Walk from my place to 20th & Folsom, grab the 12, get off at 4th & Folsom, walk down 4th to Bryant, hang a left. Simple.

When I did this, it took me 40 minutes. It's .5 miles to the bus stop and .3 miles from the bus stop to the office. Let's just say I have a history of never catching the 12 in a timely manner - waiting 15 minutes is not unusual. I don't know if it's the bus or me, but this happens pretty regularly. All of that means I have to leave my house at 8:15 if I have any hopes of getting to the office by 9:00. 3.5 miles away from my house. 

So I sucked it up and got back on the bike and took a nice, not terribly scary route to work. And you know what? It wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. I ride down 20th to Folsom and take it all the way down to 4th, where I jump on 4th for a couple of blocks and then head down a back alley so I can ride into their parking lot. I feel fantastic when I get there. I want to fill my body with water rather than over-sugared coffee. Riding seven casual miles every day makes me feel better, more healthy, stronger. 

But let's talk about why bike commuting is a bitch. Folsom has a bike lane once you pass 14th. Great. Except Folsom is lined with businesses, and businesses get deliveries, and delivery vehicles park in my bike lane. So now I have to check out what traffic is doing and whip around the vehicle taking up my lane, and cars get pissed, and I get pissed. (The other day, a Bud Light truck around 11th & Folsom was parked entirely blocking the car lane so that the bike lane was completely clear. I yelled out a thank you to him as I rode past, because I legitimately appreciated that.)

Taxis are the worst. They have absolutely no regard for other vehicles on the road, and that might be fine if you're in a car, but I'm not. Drivers in San Francisco think they're used to cyclists, so they know how close they can comfortably drive to me. Here's a hint - your comfort zone from the inside of your SUV is significantly different from mine, on top of my 35 pound bicycle (it's a late 70's mixte, leave it alone). I may be a cyclist, but I am not a terribly good or adaptable one. It is me versus a car for twenty minutes every morning. 

And nighttime is worse. Coming down Harrison is terrible. No bike lane. Despite the fact that it's something like a six lane road, cars get pissed off that I'm there. And fair enough - at my fastest, I'm probably clipping along at 20 miles an hour. If someone was doing that in front of me, I'd get angry too. 

The worst is when I can't figure out what a car is doing. When we're both trying to anticipate the other's actions, it gets dicey and awkward. Someone needing to turn right across my bike lane when I'm approaching an intersection is like running into a brand-new co-worker at a sex shop. And not in the tame "I just dropped in to grab condoms" section, either. Neither one of us knows what to do and so we're both going to dance around awkwardly until someone figures out how to duck out of the situation. 

There are signs all over this city reminding cars that bicycles have the right to take up an entire lane, but no one really gives a shit. If I take up an entire lane, I've got cars on my ass waiting for me to speed up. If I ride to the side, cars are going to nearly side-swipe me trying to pass in a lane that they don't really have room to pass me in. And that's saying nothing of someone opening a car door without looking, allowing me to run head-first into it. 

But I love it. I do. I don't mind walking in to work all sweaty with my pants rolled up. I've learned to not mind the honking. I'm a considerate cyclist - I'm not diving in and out of traffic unless I have to because something in front of me is blocking my path. I don't run red lights - I have a tendency to stop at yellows because I know I'm not actually fast enough to get through an intersection. I panic when the walk lights don't count down their seconds, because I don't know when the light is going to change, so I speed the hell up. I only become an asshole the second time you honk at me when there is clearly nothing I can do to change our situation. 

Cyclists and drivers hate one another. Hate. And we are all self-righteous. I am better than you because I am on a bike. I am getting exercise, I am seeing the city block by block rather than setting my car to auto-pilot and ignoring my surroundings. I roll up next to people in the morning and we occasionally have conversations, while you are caged up and will never interact with another human being between the time you lock your door and the time you arrive at your destination. You've got the morning radio show, I've got nature. You pay $50 a month to push metal plates around, I get my exercise twice a day as a side effect of how I get to and from work, and the city is my gym.

But we act like assholes. We are all better than one another. I get that cars are irritated with cyclists. If I was in a car and someone in front of me was going twenty miles under the speed limit, I'd honk my horn and act like a jerk too. If I've got somewhere to be, never mind the fact that they're propelling themselves with their feet and I know they can't go 45 miles an hour. And cyclists weave around unpredictably, and who knows if they're going to run a light... Look. I get it.

I get angry when drivers seem to do things out of spite. The other day, coming toward the mission on Folsom passing under the bridge, a giant F-350 who had been honking at me flew by me really, really close. I would have been fine, but it made me really nervous, so I swerved a little. Could have fallen. And sure, that's because I'm skittish and not very good at what I do - but all I'm saying is that you're not proving a point. The way you "win", with your two-ton+ vehicle, is by hurting me. The bicycle and I barely break 200 pounds. We are tiny and slow. You are not winning by proving a point to me. 

Through all the rage and indignity, I simply can't get enough. I had a slight mental breakdown to The Roommate on Saturday when it occurred to me that I'm still really, really scared on a bicycle. The slightest thing goes wrong and I am completely powerless to recover from it. But it turns out all I can do is just keep riding the damn thing, and eventually it'll get easier. The other option is being caged up. That doesn't even sound like me. 

I've read two stories today about cyclists getting hit and injured at busy intersections. How about we all try to be safe and not act like assholes? And this is directed at you too, cyclists. You know we're jerks. I get the indignity and that we're trying to take our streets back - but whether we're proving the point or the car is, we're the ones at risk for getting hurt. Let's keep this shit fun.

(P.S., a side note to The Roommate. It appears I am doing this for myself, after all. Sorry I had forgotten about that.)


Bong said...

Take the Urban Bike Ed Classess offered by the San Francisco Bike Coalition.



Highly highly recommended. You will learn a lot of stuff, some quite counter-intuitive, but true.

Tag said...

Take Howard back instead of Harrison. It has a bike lane. Switch back at 11th. Good luck!

New to the Bay said...

@Tag: Honest to God, I didn't know Howard had a bike lane. Roommate and I took it once and screwed up, not hopping back to Folsom at 11th, therefore getting really confused as it went under the bridge/turned into S. Van Ness. We looked like idiots and I thought we were going to die. Thanks for the tip!