City Paper is not for tourists
Gear Prudence: I heard you’re quitting. That this is it. That you’re filing this column and then you’re out of the bike advice game. Why are you hanging it up? Who will give us bike advice now? How will we ever go on? —Thanks. Hope Everyone Learned About Some Things. Go Pedal.
Dear THELASTGP: You heard right. Five years and approximately 300 bike advice questions later, the Gear Prudence column is coming to a close. GP is riding off into the sunset and retiring from the extremely lucrative, high-stakes world of bike advice. Sure, this will leave readers unmoored and without any help in sorting out bicycling’s most vexing questions (Presta or Schrader? 700c or 650b? Why is this asshole STILL honking at me?), but it’s time.
In July 2014, Courtland Milloy, not for the first or last time, wrote about bicyclists in the Washington Post. If you haven’t read it, don’t bother, but if you did, you might recall the words “bullies,” “terrorists,” and “broomsticks.”
Maybe your hackles were raised, because raising hackles is the entire point of writing a column full of slapdash generalizations and self-righteous invective against hypothetical bike escalators on Meridian Hill. Fulminating against Those No Good Bicyclists is a tried-and-true (and tired) method to generate scads of clicks and comments, and Milloy is only one in a long list of cranky columnists nationwide who’ve penned a “bikelash” piece or two.
Say what you will about Courtland Milloy—I will forever be grateful to him, because without his silly column, there’d be no Gear Prudence, which was born as something of a rejoinder. (The first GP even tackled what to do if someone sticks a broomstick through your spokes: Stay upright and use unread newspapers, including the hyperbolic takes within, to pad your fall.)
Truth be told, when I started writing Gear Prudence for City Paper, I thought it had about six months. A bike advice column was a novelty, and how much bike advice could people actually need? (1. Wear a helmet. 2. Don’t fall down. 3. ??? Thanks everybody, that’s a wrap!) But over the past five years, I’ve come to understand the near bottomless well of topics that bicyclists wrestle with, and the surprising paucity of guidance available for those dealing with the travails of bicycling in D.C. Sure, “follow the law and use common sense” is an easy thing to say, but when it comes to bicycling in the city, it’s hard to know what sense is common, and strict adherence to the law as written is as likely to get you run over as it is to get you home safely. There are few universal rules, and no training whatsoever.
Most urban bicyclists’ riding résumés go something like this: “learned to bike at 6, came back to biking in adulthood for whatever reason.” (Mine was because we got a puppy and I needed to leave work at lunchtime to walk it. Biking two miles each way was the fastest way to do it.)
Aside from getting over the considerable psychological hurdle of giving cycling a shot, would-be riders face few barriers to entry. Bikes are relatively cheap, and the existence of bikesharing has, for many, made them even more accessible. The difference between someone who doesn’t bike and someone who does is just one ride. One ride becomes two, and then you’re doing it every other day, or maybe you’re fully converted and you’re doing it every day for every trip and that’s just how you get around now.
Nowhere along the way do most people complete the equivalent of driver’s ed for cycling, and no one ever has to trudge down to the DMV to take a written and road test to earn their biker’s license. But even if the city enforced some kind of training, certification, or uniform understanding of the legal obligations of and best practices for urban cyclists, one only needs to think of drivers to see how this and “follow the law and use common sense” come up short in reality.
Advice columns are for the gray areas, the ambiguous, the unclear. Bike advice fits neatly into this genre. Given the range of backgrounds of people bicycling, the lack of agreed-upon conventions, bicycling’s niche status in our overall transportation milieu, and the potential for misunderstanding that arises in almost all interactions between strangers in public space, the gray areas are abundant. The questions kept coming.
Writing Gear Prudence caused me to think constantly, and somewhat deeply, about the sundry scenarios one might encounter while riding a bike in D.C. and the best ways to handle them. Every time I left the house, it was another chance to see what people on bikes did and didn’t do, and to contemplate why. Each new column was an attempt to express a coherent worldview related to the proper way of being a person who rides a bicycle.
After years of wrestling with the serious and not-so-serious qualms, hang-ups, grievances, and calls for help from people riding bikes in D.C., I’m ready, as a kind of swan song, to share my accumulated wisdom and parting thoughts on five of the column’s biggest recurring themes.
1. What the heck am I supposed to do?
The population of the District of Columbia has increased by more than 100,000 people since 2010, and the percentage of D.C. residents who commute by bike has more than doubled from around 2 percent in 2009 to around 5 percent now. Capital Bikeshare launched in September 2010. The system hit 20 million rides total in April 2018 and is on the cusp of 25 million right now. In short, today’s D.C. has both a lot more people and a lot more people on bikes. And they are confused!
Whether it’s dealing with wrong-way cyclists, runners, delivery robots, or scooters, cyclists continually need help navigating the unexpected, tricky, and dangerous situations they encounter. They seek help because many of them are new to biking or recently re-discovered it after an absence, and because the roads and transportation culture do not account for the experience of a person traveling by bicycle.
Most bike lanes are supposedly inviolable white stripes that provide little in the way of protection or help, and the lack of a contiguous, dedicated bicycle network often deposits cyclists in places where they are either unwanted or unanticipated. People ask how to handle the situations they encounter on the road not solely because they are new to biking, but also because the answers are neither intuitive nor readily apparent. It is not always obvious how to make a left turn, how far to the right they’re supposed to ride, what to wear, what to bring with them or how to carry it. In spite of bicycling’s recent rise in popularity, it’s still a marginal activity, especially among commuters. Rules learned as a child or behaviors developed while riding for fun on the weekend don’t translate especially well to most kinds of city riding. It’s no surprise that so many people have so many questions about how to deal with seemingly mundane yet shockingly complex problems.
If GP offered any guiding philosophy on dealing with the myriad complications of cycling in D.C., it was this: Do your best. Cyclists can face crazy situations that come with no clear or instinctive solution. That’s not their fault. The best way of coping is to keep two questions in mind: What do I need to do to keep myself safe, and how can I do that without imperiling anyone else? If these questions are your lodestar, you can often (but not always) see yourself through hairy situations.
2. Why do bicyclists…?
There is nothing quite so mysterious as a person who rides a bicycle. Don’t they understand that this choice is Out-Of-The-Ordinary and Very Against the Grain? Untangling the reasons why some bicyclists might do something in some situations is no easy task for a bike advice columnist. Guessing people’s motivations is never easy; doing so based on a subjective description of those actions after the fact by someone who is aggrieved or confused makes it nearly impossible.
For the record, I don’t know why the parent yelled at you for biking near her kid. Or why the woman on the trail didn’t have her lights on. Why is that person’s helmet on the handlebars instead of on his head? Beats me. It is shall forever be a mystery to me, too, why the guy wasn’t riding in the bike lane when there was a bike lane right there.
The best I could ever do was to attempt to provide insight into the kinds of things cyclists think about when they’re riding. That said, there is no single Bicyclist Way of Doing Things, and while the transportation mode one selects for a trip might prompt certain behaviors, it by no means guarantees them. Behaviors don’t come from the bike, but from the person on it. And people can be jerks!
Is the gap between people who ride bikes and the people who don’t unbridgeable? Are we forever condemned to perpetual misunderstanding and distrust? I don’t know. Maybe.
One thing I’ve found to be useful is reconceptualizing my understanding of “cyclist” away from a fixed identity (He rides a bike. He must be a cyclist.) to a temporary state of being (He is a cyclist now because he’s riding a bike, but once he’s off, he’s not).
What a person does when they’re on a bike is no more a referendum on the activity of cycling than my burning cupcakes is a referendum on the utility of baking. Depersonalizing bike riding and shifting it away from an activity done by a specific group of people helps break the perception that all bicyclists must conform to some kind of common code that can be readily deciphered. The backgrounds and motivations of people on bikes are just as diverse as the groups who walk, or ride Metro, or drive. It might be easier to understand (or cast aspersions) if “cyclist” were a monolithic identity, but it’s not, never has been, and never will be.
3. Bikes and relationships: It’s complicated.
Within the category “all bicyclists” exists a subset of people who proudly make cycling a central part of their identity. All of their home decor is bike themed. They bike on first dates (and leave their bike at one night stands). They get mad when their dates pretend to be avid cyclists and aren’t, and are mean on Twitter when someone says anything impolitic about biking. They wear bike-themed Halloween costumes four years in a row. Within any subculture, there will be people who identify strongly with it, and cyclists are no exception.
This has a way of creeping into people’s relationships, and it can get complicated. A bike blocking a first kiss is surmountable; needing to store eight bikes in the first apartment you’re sharing with your girlfriend is trickier. Leaving your wife with your lame relatives over the holidays so you can go for a long ride? Trickiest of all.
It isn’t just romantic relationships where the cycling lifestyle proves to be fraught. Professional relationships are likewise strained by bike-based conflicts. Whether it’s a smelly co-worker, a colleague who takes a favorite bike parking spot, or the extremely unfortunate mistake of flipping off the CEO, biking highlights and sometimes heightens these squabbles.
There is nothing unique about bicycling that makes it especially fertile ground for awkward situations. A bike isn’t a prerequisite for befuddling or strained personal interactions (though, I admit, it seems to help). But there is something about biking that causes people who fall for it to fall hard. Maybe it’s the endorphins, maybe it’s the very visceral connection between person and machine. There’s a kind of pervasive enthusiasm that some people feel about bicycling that seeps into their lives and inflects all subsequent interactions, for better or worse.
4. Bicyclists and drivers: It’s even more complicated.
You can’t write about bikes without writing about cars. OK, you could, but you’d miss all the frisson. The tension. The drama. As much as people on bikes confuse everyone else, riding a bicycle unlocks a new way of thinking about cars and their drivers. For many, it unleashes an obsession. Ride a bike for long enough and really muse on car culture, and you become like Carrie Mathison on Homeland or Charlie on It’s Always Sunny: You start connecting the dots. You start to feel your synapses light up. You start to lose your mind.
City streets are vibrant and mixed places. Cyclists and pedestrians and UPS drivers and workers from Fort Myer Construction digging and repaving even though they just dug and repaved—they’re all there. But our overall transportation culture is one that conceives of streets as places primarily for the movement and storage of cars. (In D.C., around 35 percent of households don’t have cars. This fact is hardly reflected in the allocation of our public right of way.)
That there is tension between people on bikes and people driving is foreordained considering the way we’ve set up our streets. But what makes it more fraught is the cultural expectation that the automobile is supreme and everything and everyone else on the road is subservient. Tailgaters; drivers blocking the box; Uber drivers passing too closely, damning it all and just taking the lane—these are all sources of anxiety and concern for people on bikes.
Even most cyclists have internalized a way of thinking where the worst possible outcome is a driver being temporarily inconvenienced. (People who only drive have definitely internalized this—hence the anger at speed cameras, the resentment at predictable and inevitable congestion, and the road rage. As a society, we’ve adopted the idea that what’s not so important is the fast and convenient movement of people; what is important is the fast and convenient movement of people in cars. If you don’t believe me, ask 50 bus passengers stuck in traffic behind 10 singly occupied SUVs.)
All things considered—and I’ve spent a lot of time considering this—I still believe that most drivers are more apathetic than antipathetic to people on bikes. Yes, there are assholes and bullies. And worse. That they are unavoidable is unfortunate and that they are capable of causing an inordinate amount of harm due to a disparity in vehicle weight and sheer callousness is an indictment of our larger transportation culture.
But most people driving, like most people on bikes, are less intentionally malicious than simply playing out the crappy hand they’ve been dealt—a road design and transportation culture that makes conflicts inevitable and prioritizes the wrong things.
5. Advocacy and the future of biking in D.C.
Sometimes the questions about advocacy were explicit—how to get DDOT to install a bike lane or how to convince an ANC commissioner to not hate bikes—but for the most part, how to improve and normalize biking writ large lurked in the background. More people are riding bikes now than ever before. We have more bike lanes, trails, and cycletracks than ever before. But the pace of change is slow and it doesn’t feel like the culture surrounding bicycling has moved very far. The same arguments and bogus tropes—Bicyclists cause congestion! Bike lanes cause gentrification! HELMETS! What about my parking?! Bicyclists don’t follow traffic laws!—live on unabated.
While D.C. has made some progress in developing its street infrastructure, in my opinion, the city has not yet sufficiently embraced cycling’s ability to cleanly, quietly, and efficiently move people as a solution to its transportation problems. Districtwide disparities in safe bike infrastructure frustratingly persist. Advocates can push, but the days of bold, transformative, enthusiastic vision from politicians seem far off. This is a tragedy. Our streets remain deadly, and the relentless march of irreversible climate change means that clinging to the status quo is both untenable and morally suspect.
You can choose to ride a bike, but you can’t choose what the streets looks like. The people in charge—from the ANCs to the Council to the Mayor—hold sway over public space. Five percent of people biking to work is a lot for America, but not a lot in terms of electoral impact. Even in bike heaven Copenhagen, nowhere close to the majority of trips are taken by bicycle. (It was 24 percent as of 2017, which is still a ton.) While D.C. is nominally committed to Vision Zero—ending death and grievous injury on our roads by 2024—reaching that goal feels no more likely, to me at least, than it did five years ago. In 2018, 36 people died on DC’s roads. In 2017, it was 30. In 2012, it was 19.
The Council’s newly introduced bills could contribute to turning the trend around. Changing the way our streets look, but more importantly, the way people use them, requires a considerable and sustained commitment from those in charge. Advocates need to do a better job presenting a vision of why better streets and safer streets matter, and people in charge need to do a better job translating the promises they make in fancy PowerPoints into reality on the streets themselves. It is not inevitable that this will happen. While D.C. and its bicyclists have made great strides, they still have very far to go. —Gear Prudence
This is it. I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank everyone who submitted a question over the last five years, and everyone who made the mistake of nattering on about bicyclists in my company. Your queries, your opinions, and your incredibly wrong hot takes about biking have made writing this column a joy.