Friday, May 23, 2008

Bike Culture

Il mio amico Felkerino asks for my impression of Bike Culture in DC. He seemed a bit unsure of himself, with the self deprecating: “We’re not Portland, but still …”.

Well, before I launch into an observation of Bike Culture in the nation’s capital let me make a significant though subtle disclaimer:

I am not a ‘bike expert or even a well traveled bike geek for that matter. I don’t get around much so my frame of reference is a pretty small frame. Still, I have been to DC and Portland so, I can compare the two to each other.

I also want to just say that my view of Portland bike culture suffered a significant adjustment after the ‘hand-built bikeapalooza’ (North American Hand Built Bike SHow) last winter. The event was held in Portland, and just seeing all those bikes, meeting the makers and soaking in the ‘culture’ was great. After the event however there was a bit of trash talking about the city chosen for next year (Indianapolis) and how it wasn’t worthy, especially after Portland. There was a small but vocal band of bloggers who allowed as how Portland was the center of the cycling universe perhaps the event just ought to be held there until somewhere else finally does become worthy. In short order the conversation shifted from the event and the great bikes to the superiority of Portland cycle culture. It wasn’t really quite that bad but you get the gist.

This Portland-centric theme was a little disappointing, and brought Portland down a notch or two in my opinion. Not trashing all Portlanders here, the Portlanders I ride with are all top drawer folks, but an attitude was expressed and it did affect me, so there you have it: my disclaimer.

I’m happy to report that there IS bike culture in our nation’s capitol, I was only here for a week or so, but in that time I learned a few of the nuances of DC bike culture:

In DC cars have the right of way, and traffic controls seem to be ‘advisory’. Let me explain: When I rode PBP in ’03, I passed a few miles in the company of an Englishman. As we rolled into Brest I observed that there seemed to be a ‘cavalier’ attitude by motorists toward traffic lights. He explained that norms varied from country to country.

In England, he said, obeying traffic lights is mandatory. Disregard them and in short order there will be consequences. In France, traffic lights are more or less advisory: Obey them and you can’t go wrong, but disregard them and you are at some risk. If you are involved in any kind of accident while disregarding, you will be found at fault and will also face dramatic consequences. In Italy he said, traffic lights appear to have nothing to do with traffic regulation, they are treated as nothing more than lovely and entertaining decorations placed there to amuse and entertain.

So, it appears to me that DC motorists are on the French system. As might be expected peds are at some risk in DC, but cyclists seem to be beery high risk on the roads. And of course, being a city designed on the European model, the boulevards are so big that changing lanes or crossing expansive intersections could mean crossing three to six lanes, a frightening prospect during rush hours.

At first I saw very few cyclists, and most were kitted up in euro-pro team garb on light, racy bikes. I theorized that this approach was appropriate as the brightly colored jerseys and shorts helped make them more visible to the oblivious drivers, and the light, racy bikes made the occasional cyclist more nimble and a little more able to ride defensively.

As time went by, I detected more layers of DC Bike culture:

I walked around the town A LOT! Well, a lot for me, and in my travels afoot I think I uncovered routes that commuters and other less ‘flashy’ riders use.

I never encountered any fixed gear hipsters, though on the last day I did see one person tooling along on a nice single speed. My route back and forth between the hotel and the place I was working took me right through George Washington U so the effect of an urban university surely skewed my view. Still I think the eye sees what it looks for, I saw bikes.

In the morning I found a steady stream of commuters rolling along on the paths and walks of the mall. There appears to be a loose knit collection of trails and paths that facilitate cycling allowing riders to avoid surface streets. That’s good and bad: It allows bikes to avoid bad drivers, but it also is a testament to the fact there seem to be no dedicated bike lanes. This in my mind is at least part of the reason motorists are oblivious of cyclists: The environment conditions them not to even look for riders, and seeing cyclists riding pedestrian infrastructure just reinforces the attitude that bikes don't belong

I'm writing to you from Dulles Airport, my day started much earlier, at National. My flight was overbooked, so I ended up getting a seat on ‘the next available flight’. Little did I know that it would be about 12 hours later at a different airport!

If you enjoy ‘people watching’, this has been your kind of day. 12 hours in a cosmopolitan, international airport provides a steady stream of people to watch. It’s been ‘long’ but I’m thankful it wasn’t Omaha or some other less diverse locale. I’ll be happy to get home, to my own bed, to a chance to get away from people, to soak in the peace at Rocky Acres.

I was planning to ride the Oregon 200K tomorrow, that’s definitely off the schedule now. I’ll get some riding in, if there is decent weather I’ll perhaps ride out to the coast. Before the flood I was working up a permanent from Tumwater out to Westport, maybe I’ll get a chance to log some of those miles.

Ciao, Johnsoni

1 comment:

  1. Well observed, Dr. C.

    D.C. has a few bike lanes now but not yet on the downtown arteries. You are right, with all the paved and gravel path along the National Mall, many of us don't use the streets unless the pedestrian traffic is too dense.

    Next time, if you can bring your bike, we'll do a D.C. scenester tour: the fast folks on Hains Point, the fixers up near Whole Foods on P Street, the commuters coming over the bridges.

    Your pal, Felkerino