Why “Bike Friendly” Often Isn’t

Friendliness is an attitude, not a lane

It took me a few years, a couple of pretty bad run-ins with a variety of cars, and a move to a new location without any bike infrastructure to come to this conclusion. I cannot recall where I heard this quote, but I think it applies; “The US is a place where people don’t say what they mean, or mean what they say.” And this seems to apply double to any city that proclaims its “bicycle friendliness.”

I lived car-free in a city with arguably one of the nation’s most “bike friendly” mayors. During those six years I rode to and from the office the majority of the time and averaged daily round trips from 40 to 80 miles (I worked for a company that moves people around between offices constantly). I helped where I could. Every time a new initiative like the Seattle Bicycle Master Plan came along I attended city council meetings and took part.  I also took part in recreational and commuter social clubs. Back then I was deeply involved in the bicycle culture and really enjoyed my time in the saddle.

Lately, I’ve been much less involved although I still spend plenty of time at the cranks. What I’ve come to realize is that regardless of the time I spend working at bicycle advocacy the attitudes of drivers, my most routine challenge on the road, remains unaffected. Most drivers tolerate my two wheeled presence on the roads; we treat each other with an matched indifference for those few moments during any day we may be near enough to one another for it to matter. And then there are those few outliers that feel compelled to stand out from the crowd, who endanger my continued existence for a lack of patience, or tolerance, or simply because they need someone anywhere to rub up against.

Here in Boulder there has been an exceptional amount of work done to promote safe bicycle travel. Plenty of bike lanes and sharrows. Boulder has some multimodal paths that connect parts of the city and protect riders and pedestrians from all motor traffic. Bike parking tends to be a scarce, but where isn’t it. Overall, here in Boulder, cyclists have it pretty good.

But here in the US, even our very best will never measure up to the Netherlands where the least exceptional suburban housing development has amenities we do not even realize we are missing. And the reason is not because we, as a people, skimp on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and we do. The reason the best in the US cannot measure up to the worst across the pond is because we routinely confuse infrastructure with temperament.

Of the five “accidents” I have had while exclusively biking in the Seattle area four of them were obviously motivated by anti-cyclist rage, the fifth, and arguably the worst, was just an inattentive driver in a rush who tried to flee the scene after t-boning me. And right there is the difference, here in the US cyclist (those people you see riding bikes) are perceived by drivers as a nuisance and a potential agent of delay. And that attitude is accepted, even regularly promoted.

Friendliness is an attitude, not a lane. The world over, in any automobile dominated country, it is possible to find plenty of anti-bicycle sentiment. Everywhere except the Netherlands.

A standardized web search for the US or Australia seeking key terms like “country”, “bike”, and “hate” usually turns up plenty of trash like this cut from Australia’s version of Top Gear.

“Oh bikes are so annoying,” goes the standard refrain. The excuses for bad motorist behavior are plentiful. My favorites are always the generalities; cyclists wear lycra and they never follow the rules get so much air time that they log jam any possibility of real discussion.

If you do a similar search for the Netherlands, you’ll get web results a hundred deep about why the Dutch hate to wear bike helmets. Blog posts, videos, and photos about the most bicycle advanced culture on the planet hating the wet-paper seatbelt of a safety device the rest of the world is compelled to dawn in order to stave off paralyzing fear.

You will be hard pressed to find invective indicating that roads are made for cars. And you’ll start to believe that the entirety of the entertainment news industrial complex was abducted by little grey men before you find a news caster publically ranting that motorists should just mow cyclists down.

Regardless of what you think about cycling specific infrastructure, helmets, or any number of bicycle related topics I believe the one thing that cycling advocates should all be trying to figure out is why the Dutch don’t hate bikes. Given the nature of their streets and the preponderance of cycling that takes place on them these people should be casting the same generalizations and prejudiced motor centric remarks that the rest of the world seems happy to encourage. Because they have that many more people in the saddle on any given day they should hate lycra that much more. There should be Dutch broadcasters ranting that it is a Dutch patriotic duty to drive your H2 down the fietspad of Groningen.

The Dutch have so many more opportunities to experience the edges of cycling culture in a negative way. Why is this not their experience?

Washed Out

Here comes another one, here it comes again.

About this time last week I was faced with a decision: prepare to head out for my weekly visit to the LittleSpec writing group, or believe the forecasters and stay home to prep for potential flooding. I chose the latter and at the time I experienced a few pangs of regret. Fourmile Creek, directly behind our townhouse, was flooding while I prepared dinner with drizzle wafting down from the heavens, but that only meant it had become a ditch compared to its usual summer trickle.

Topaz, just a little west of us.

However, by about 22:00 that night, my trust in those brave men of science (responsible for forecasting weather) was affirmed. The water had completely covered the bike path that is situated between the creek and the flood wall just beyond our back patio and was continuing to rise rapidly.

It was the late walk for the dogs and as soon as the door was open I realized the difference. The rain no longer fell like a gray mist. Instead, it poured from the sky like there was a pressure pump pushing from behind. The creek roared like a line of jets waiting for clearance on a runway. And I had to put leashes on both the dogs to get them to go outside. If you have ever met my girls you might understand that this is not normal behavior.

Keeping it real during a lull along Fourmile Creek.

From that point on I felt compelled to stand vigil over my house and family. I think what bothers me most about this is the certain knowledge that had the water come over the flood wall I would have been equally powerless in dealing with it; the vigil was totally self serving and completely useless.

During the down time we lost power briefly a couple of times. I turned it off every time I heard that there was a “wall of water” headed down the drainage. Ootek was packed and ready to leave in the moment we realized that sheltering in place might not be a good idea. Throughout I slept only fitfully, with the window cracked and the sound of torrential rains and First Responder sirens blaring throughout the night.

Boulder Creek sort of passing beneath Broadway. This is a lull in flow.

The good news is that some writing got done. Lots of cleaning and plenty of playtime was had. We tried to watch out for our neighbors too, and hopefully in the process improved our relationship with the people who live closest to us.

Right now, there is a storm system moving in from the west (different direction than the systems that have constantly hit us for the past week). I’m listening to the sound of rat fans running across the street as people try to dry out their houses. That and the sound of thunder whipcracking the Flat Irons.

Scouting by Fat-Bike up stream from the house. This bridge was pretty much all that remained from this intersection of bike path, street and civic improvements. I had to turn around and try another way.

We got so lucky this last week, I’m not even sure I will ever fully realize the scale of our fortune. We are seemingly located on an island in a flood plain. So my message at this point is to count your blessings wherever you may find them.

Landslides in the foothills click to see a close up

Just so the offer is made crystal clear: I also know that we have been lucky compared to friends and family nearby. If you need help I have tools, a strong back, a good set of work boots and gloves, and an awesome truck. Please let me know when and where.

National Guard Chinook bringing survivors in from Lyons, CO.

Oops

Today was ‘adventure day’ for Aral and I, we loaded up the trailer and went for a ride on the fat-bike for most of it.

I’m bummed because I made some pretty good time (considering I was pulling about 60 lbs of baby and junk) up Boulder canyon five times, but I left my GPS at home. Boo for me, its sitting her 100% charged.

The whole time I was just getting more and more stoked. Despite the heavy load that’s about 30 miles of climbing on mixed dirt and pavement on top of what I rode just getting around town today. Feeling strong, feeling ready for the Divide.