Civility on wheels

I was rarely without my bike as a child. I grew up at a summer camp, with acres of trails, woods and other kids to ride around with. Sleep and family-style meals were the only needs that kept us off our wheels. It was probably shortly after I got my driver’s license, or first paying job away from the camp, that my bike slowly receded to the back of the garage.  

A few years ago I started thinking about my bike again. I wasn’t so much prompted by nostalgia, as I was the hypocrisy of talking to my clients about making their homes — and lives — more sustainable, and then getting into my car to drive approximately 20 blocks to my home on the other side of downtown. But simply put, I was terrified to bike through the city. Eventually, guilt proved a greater force for me, and though terrified, I began my foray into semi-regular bicycle commuting a few years ago.

My skill and confidence have gradually increased to the point that I now find the commute both invigorating and introspective. Lately it’s given me time to process my frustration with politics, and has provided unexpected parallels to the current divisive political climate. After reading a quote in the Star Tribune from Rush Limbaugh decrying that “We need to wipe these bastards out,” referring to members of Congress who voted in favor of health care legislation, I thought “now here’s a man unlikely to yield to a bicycle commuter.” There are rules that allow bike and bus to share the road, and I can’t help but wonder if those same rules are capable of bringing even a modicum of civility to the nation.

Rule number one of bicycle commuting: the rules apply to you. A rider should bike as if he or she were driving a car. Still, there is a moment at every stoplight, when the biker thinks but I am not a car and wishes to run the light. Sometimes the move is defensive — to get ahead of the bus, or because you are not a heavy metal machine capable of triggering the light — but most times it is simply because we like to believe the bicycle gives us exception to the rule. Congress seems to find exception, too. Whether the party in power is revving in Reconciliation or idling in Filibuster, it’s helpful to remember that the rules apply to — and in the case of Congress, were probably made by — you.

Second, always make eye contact. When I’m approaching an intersection, I make sure I’ve got the attention of any drivers with whom I’m about to cross paths. There is acknowledgment in the act: I see you and I will not run you down. I would like to think this approach would calm elected officials and talking heads.  The vitriol lack of respect in Limbaugh’s comment — sure to be defended as “entertainment” — incites the very same carelessness as accelerating through an intersection with your eyes closed. Eye contact is crucial to respect, if not survival.

Third, be bold. Fear is a powerful thing. I began this experiment by mapping a safe, if somewhat circuitous, route. Now, with a few miles on my tires, I take a more direct route, complete with left turns across on-coming traffic. Not without fear, but because it gets me where I need to be with greater efficiency. For those voting for health care, I commend your bravery. For looking beyond the threats of the “American People” and producing something to benefit the people of America. What passed may not get everything right, but kudos for mapping out a course and hitting the road.

Bryan Anderson lives in Stevens Square.He works for SALA Architects on East Hennepin.