Like most of you, I learned to ride a bike as a kid. I rode my bike around our town to visit friends, to get to ball games, and to go to school. The grade school was lined with bike racks. High school was different. We walked to high school and did not ride bikes. I am not sure how this developed, but the convention was firmly entrenched. Maybe because we expected to get driver’s licenses in high school, biking to school seemed like little kid’s stuff. Of course, teenagers don’t really use logic to determine what is fashionable or not. We followed other dictates in high school that now seem to make little sense. Thus, in this era before backpacks or book bags, girls carried school book in one fashion and boys in another. None of us wore hats in the winter even though temperatures could get below zero, and I am not talking Centigrade here, but we did wear ear muffs. So as convention dictated in my town, daily bike riding ended when high school began.
I still rode occasionally through the years, but I was not a regular bicyclist again until I was near 40 when both my doctor and my body told me I had to give up running. All my running, however, and it was a lot, had made me addicted to exercise. I replaced jogging to and from work and long training runs with biking to work and beyond. One activity, however, did not really substitute for the other. I had learned to run in the City. I knew how to deal with traffic, vehicular and pedestrian. I did not feel unsafe on the sidewalks and streets. I could enjoy the views from the bridges and the waterfront paths. It was different on a bike. Of course, I had to pay close attention to cars and trucks. The City then made few efforts to be bike-friendly, and the comparatively few bikers around then almost always seemed to come as a surprise to drivers who weren’t expecting them. But moving vehicles were only a small part of the problem. I quickly learned that bikers were invisible to many exiting parked cars. Time and again people opened a vehicle door into my biking path forcing me to swerve into the portion of the road where cars drove. My heartbeat would increase from more than the exercise. And then there were the jaywalkers coming out between parked cars, a common experience. Now don’t get me wrong. I jaywalk. I do not like cities where pedestrians wait for the light to change even though no cars are in sight or where walkers won’t cross in the middle of the block when it is convenient. (Yes, I am looking at you, LA, but also Madison, and sort of Washington, D.C.) But at least back then, while the jaywalkers may have looked out for the cars, trucks, and buses, to them bikers were almost invisible. Again, I often had to swerve into the car lanes to avoid the pedestrian, and again the heart rate went up from more than exercise,
I don’t always learn quickly. I biked to work for several years before I would accept the fact that while running to and from the office had actually relaxed me, biking the same routes often left me jangled. Then the day came when I thought the gods were talking to me. After biking to work, while making coffee, I looked at the newspaper and spied the obit of a biker who had been killed the previous day in a car accident. I went about my business and thought that news was out of my mind, but going home that night, I turned a corner on my bike and saw a man on the pavement next to a mangled bike next to a bus. The man was not moving. I did ride my bike home that night, but I never again rode it to work.
How about you? If you have biked in a city, have you, or how much have you, been afraid?
P.S. I do now occasionally ride a bike in the City. I avoid certain areas that I think will be problematic for me on a bike, but it is clear to me that the City is now better for bikers than when I gave it up as a major activity—more and better bike lanes and both drivers and pedestrians more aware of bikers. The world sometimes does get better.