Clearing the Fog
in the
War of Words


  logomachy--1. A dispute about words. 2. A dispute carried on in words only; a battle of words.
logomachon--1. One who argues about words. 2. A word warrior.



Two Wheelers’ Three Laws of Motion

I recently cast a cold eye on Becca Hutchinson’s complaint that drivers in Newark, DE, don’t show proper consideration for her when she rides her bike to work. My impatience with her didn’t arise just from her bad writing and the fact that she sounds like a humorless scold who wants everyone else to change because she feels unhappy. Based on my own experience, I believe her problem is the result of her own self-centered bad attitude.

For three years during and after grad school, I lived and cycled in Newark. I have been a bike commuter in Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh, and this past Summer I commuted by bike to a consulting gig in Center City Philadelphia, where I learned that the way to deal with traffic is the Way of the Urban Deer.

Urban Deer

Three decades ago a writer in a cycling magazine described cyclists as “urban deer”, slipping silently through the noisy city, flitting along their own invisible trails, unhindered by One-Way signs or traffic signals, fleet, agile, alert, and aware. Some people might conclude from this description that cyclists scoff at the rules for cars and pedestrians, but that is wrong. We just interpret them differently, in the light of the Two Wheeler’s Three Laws of Motion: Don’t get hit. Don’t hit anything. Don’t stop.

But make no mistake. Bicyclists’ ability to flout the letter of the law—OK, flagrantly disdain every scintilla of order and restraint—depends on automobiles’ adherence to the law. We can run red lights and ride between the lanes because we know that drivers wait for the green and keep in their lanes. In turn, we mustn’t do anything that inconveniences or startles a driver. We don’t interrupt their traffic flow; they let us ride to our own rhythms. Viva USA!
Anyway, whenever a driver gives me an opening, I wave my thanks.

Granted, in Newark, Becca doesn’t have the advantage of learning the True Practice of the Way of the Urban Deer from its Supreme Adepts, the bicycle messengers. Listen and take heed, o pilgrim! The key is not to think of yourself as fighting the cars for the road, as Becca does. To the urban deer, the road and the traffic are one, as the pebbles and flowing water are one to the brook trout.

I learned this from watching the messengers, like this encounter on the Chestnut Street bridge over the Schuylkill River.

Learning the Way

I had started following the messenger when he passed me on Chestnut. We were moving as fast as the cars on the bridge when he left the bike lane and moved left to ride the center stripe. I knew why he wanted to avoid the curb lane. Just across the bridge there’s a light: the bike lane disappears, cars make right turns, and the pavement looks as though it was last repaired by Ben Franklin.

A gap between cars gave me an opportunity to get on the center stripe, but I didn’t do it the way the messenger had. I cautiously took a position in the right lane, as though I were a car, then moved to ride the stripe. Conceptually, I was riding on a stationary road trying to avoid the cars whizzing by. The messenger rode the traffic flow the way a fish swims in a river. The lane he wanted was the “lane” on the centerline between two rows of cars. The entrance to that “lane” was next to the left bumper of the car ahead of him. He just swam diagonally through the traffic to the entrance and rolled down the “lane” between the cars.
When I had started bike commuting into Philly, the morning ride took 45 minutes. After watching and learning from the Supreme Adepts, I brought the time down to 30 minutes and sometimes less. For example, a few mornings after I followed the messenger, I was coming down the hill toward 42nd St. A college kid on a trail bike swung onto Spruce and pedaled hard up the long hill toward 40th St. This was a challenge.

I caught up to him as he slowed behind a truck blocking the bike lane at 41st. I swung to the centerline, passed the truck on the left, and zipped across the intersection. The kid must have taken it as a challenge, too. When I slowed to check the cross traffic at 40th, he passed me. On the flat beyond 40th, a solid line of cars kept me on his fender in the bike lane, but as we headed down the slope toward 38th, I again cut through traffic to the centerline to swing around the pedestrians and the cars turning right. I was across the broad 38th St. intersection before the kid even entered it, and sailed smugly down the hill toward the river.

As was now usual, I rode the painted line between lanes across the Schuylkill bridge. When a bus’s butt blocked me, the driver in the right lane made a space for me to get around. When she came even with me at the light, she smiled up through her window and says “You be careful”.

Cherry cocky

Finally, a word of caution. After a couple of weeks of building skill and confidence, I got into the cherry cocky zone, that level of experience just past the first flush of competence, which afflicts pilots (I’m told) and motorcyclists (as I know from personal experience). I began taking chances without realizing they were chances.

And sometimes I took chances that I knew were chances.

One morning in University City, a bus blocked the curb lane, and a large Fed-Ex van was in the next lane. I rolled between them, feeling anxious as the sky closed above me. There was very little chance that the drivers knew I am there. I had to duck to get my shoulders under their mirrors. I beat them across the intersection, but they passed me and again blocked the road at a light. Without a thought, I went between them again, this time pedaling to keep my speed up. (It is counter-intuitive, but faster is better in tight spaces. You spend less time in the danger zone.) I ducked the mirrors, popped out in front of the bus as the light changed, and was around the corner before they started moving.

Imagination is the enemy of action.

For details, see my bicycle-commuter log.



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