Sunday, July 1, 2012

What's so Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understranding

June 27, 2012 – What’s so Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding?

            Lately I’ve been reading about cyclists’ run-ins with rude, aggressive, or oblivious drivers. I even blogged about my own recent mishaps. Many have chimed in that the majority of their riding experiences are positive – a sentiment I share. Among the myriad reasons that I bike, my favorite is the smile it puts on my face.

            Nevertheless, it can be a challenge to free ourselves from an “us versus them” mentality when we’re on our bikes. Those of us who bike for transportation contend with an often-hostile environment that is rarely designed for the needs and vulnerabilities of the pedal-powered. I try to bike safely and considerately – whether I’m on the bike path, in a bike lane, in traffic, or – when all else fails – on the sidewalk. Even so – given the vagaries of urban biking, I understand why cyclists do some of the things that tend to infuriate both pedestrians and motorists (and even, sometimes, other bike riders).

            First of all, there’s something about the psychology of riding. Maybe it’s even physics – some variation of Newton’s law about a body at rest remaining at rest and a body in motion remaining in motion. We want to remain in motion or, when that’s not possible, at least stay perched on our seat, both feet on the pedals. There is some primal resistance to stepping down. Yet those cyclists who refuse to stop create a dangerous, and frightening, hazard – weaving in and out of traffic, disregarding red lights, passing unsafely on narrow paths. So what’s the solution? How can we establish peaceful coexistence among all of us – absent my fantasy of waking up to discover that complete streets and broad, well-maintained paths miraculously sprang up overnight everywhere?

            When drivers and cyclists see each other as enemies, it’s easy to vilify each other and consider ourselves morally superior. I’d guess that many of us who make a lifestyle choice to ride bikes think, at least a little bit, that we are better stewards of the environment and more physically fit than the car-bound, yet feel that we are underappreciated (if not viscerally hated) by the public at large. Perhaps, being part of a minority group, we hunger for the social cohesion we find among the like-minded. But what does this sense of superiority get us?

            The other day, as I was stopped on my bike attempting to cross the GW parkway at the crosswalk, a runner beside me became enraged when car after car zoomed by in the rush hour traffic. While it often takes a few minutes until the cars in both lanes of traffic stop, it’s just a small inconvenience; surely nothing to lose one’s cool over. But let’s face it: we live in a “me-centric” culture. Most of us want what we want and we want it now. I’m just as guilty of succumbing to annoyance at the obliviousness of tourist hordes, lines of segways (grrr) in the bike lane, or fast riding bikers who don’t bother to warn when passing.

I try – not always successfully – to bring my yoga practice into these moments. I recently read: “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die,” a quote attributed to the Buddha. Maybe we need to bring a little old fashioned “petal power” to our “pedal power” – and just enjoy the fact that we have bikes to ride, bodies that are strong enough to ride them, places to go, and things to do. Some years ago, when I got the vanity plates YOGINI on my car, I became very conscious of my driving. I felt that, if I was arrogant enough to proclaim myself a yogini, my considerate driving should be a reinforcing message about the transformative value of yoga. Knowing that many bike riders aren’t exactly poster children for good citizenship, I feel that it’s important for me to be a good bike riding role model: to (at least mostly) follow the rules of the road when I’m riding in traffic, always politely warn when passing on the multi-use paths, and – when there is no safe alternative to riding on the sidewalk – ride slowly, yield to pedestrians, and thank them when they are kind enough to move aside. My thought is that the nicer we are and the happier we seem when we’re riding our bikes, the more the grumpy people stuck in their cars will consider the two-wheeled alternative.

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