Communication in commute

Do we need more versatile roadways or a productive conversation between bikers, drivers and pedestrians?

Jenna Beyer

In a giant step toward making our city bike-friendlier, the Minneapolis Department of Public Works has developed plans to install a new kind of bike route near campus. The project was announced last week at a Marcy-Holmes neighborhood meeting and may be finished by next winter. Nothing pleases me more than the idea of a street that puts bikers in the middle lane, giving them priority over cars âÄî a bike boulevard, if you will âÄî but something keeps me from getting excited. Maybe I have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Maybe IâÄôm cynical. Or maybe I canâÄôt help but feel that, no matter how many bike lanes, bike boulevards and magic skyways we put up in this city, we arenâÄôt getting anywhere until pedestrians, bikers and drivers really understand each other. As a bike traveler, IâÄôm very happy in Minneapolis. I feel safer here than in any other city IâÄôve cycled through, large or small. We have lots of bike paths âÄî even a greenway âÄî and drivers usually demonstrate an awareness of bikers. But even though I pride myself on being safe and alert when I ride, IâÄôve experienced and witnessed my fair share of evil eyes, horn honks, shaking fists and cyclists skittering nervously off the bike path. Our public transit fundamentals are lacking. The deficiency was duly illustrated last year when a vital bicycle thoroughfare on our campus was closed for the better part of the school year. The University of Minnesota didnâÄôt bother to map alternate bike routes âÄî which are scant âÄî for several weeks and failed to explain how it was somehow safe to walk down only the very middle of the bridge. If not totally shafted, bicyclists were disrespectfully displaced. IâÄôm not going to argue that it was a great idea to bike across the pedestrian portion of the bridge during high-traffic hours. It wasnâÄôt, though many tried it at first. (Twice, in my case.) Stubborn decisions executed repeatedly and brashly by a few worsened our reputation to the point where the biker became a respectless target dummy. I overheard many conversations about âÄúthose awful bikers and their dangerous biking,âÄù silently wondering how they would have felt if the inside of the bridge had been closed and the outer portions marked âÄúCyclists Only. All Others Will Be Fined. Sorry To Double The Time Of Your Commute.âÄù Washington Avenue Bridge thus marked a continuation of the âÄúbikers on the mallâÄù debate. Yes, itâÄôs technically a sidewalk. But itâÄôs an extremely wide one, and if pedestrians could pick a side to walk on in a straight line, weâÄôd just go on by. It would also help if the University would finish the eastbound bridge bike lane that abruptly congests by the new Science Teaching and Student Services Building. What the pedestrian must realize is that he or she, if moving in a predictable pattern, is no obstacle for cyclists. Any regular biker dodges shards of glass swept to the sides (bike lanes) of city streets, carelessly parked SUVs, giant potholes and meandering people on a daily basis. Obstacles are expected, for to not expect them is to get hurt, and the more one rides, the keener oneâÄôs awareness of speed and space becomes. Indeed, it seemed safer to ride my bike in the crowd of the pedestrian bridge than to walk it across, my pedals scraping the ankles of those around me. Of course, all behavior requires consideration of circumstance; in traffic, itâÄôs necessary to make safe choices whether in flip-flops, a space ship or a hang glider. That said, what bothers me most about my own breed is presumption and carelessness. It irks me when friends assume right-of-way at a four-way stop or insist that itâÄôs OK to ride on a city sidewalk, if only for a few blocks. Biking is often more difficult, especially in winter, but bikers choose it. Until we really are on a bike boulevard, cars are not obligated to forego road rules. Dare I suggest we give cars a little more credit? My experience with adult humans tells me they are not eager to harm another at the first convenience, and the drivers IâÄôve had exchanges with over the years seem to think I had endangered my own safety. We may have chosen the most eco-friendly, self-sufficient, enjoyable and economical mode of transportation, but letâÄôs not assume it gives us priority. Fellow bikers, letâÄôs not betray the legal equality weâÄôve gotten on the road by breaking rules we have fought to establish. Be aware that the behavior of one represents the attitude of the whole. Use proper judgment. Follow road rules when they apply. Be mindful that non-bikers donâÄôt always speak bicycle, and remember that sometimes itâÄôs OK to walk a few blocks. And while IâÄôm at it, campus walkers, please get out of the West Bank bike lane, for all of our sakes. I hold fondly the memory of a man I used to know who would approach the windows of those who cut him off and have a reasonable conversation with a driver about sharing the road. Something about our society âÄî perhaps the prevalence of cars and our routine separation from strangers âÄî makes us think old-fashioned discussion is taboo; in fact, itâÄôs very productive when done respectfully. Perhaps what it all comes down to is that bikers and non-bikers speak different dialects of the language of the road. As spring nears, I encourage everyone, myself included, to consider each journey on the road a conversation with all who share it and be willing to broaden our personal vernaculars. Jenna Beyer welcomes comments at [email protected]