Space Issues and Ugly Ducklings

Growing up, I lived in a small town of about 500 people. Our back yard abutted an expansive cornfield. Neighbors lived across the street and behind their yard stood another cornfield.

Streets were tranquil and what little traffic there was plodded along. Stoplights? None. My sisters and I could ride our bikes from one end of town to the other, sometimes without ever having to touch our brakes to pause for oncoming traffic. We were the only traffic and it was beautiful.

Space. We had lots of it in that little town. Sometimes it was boring, but when I was on a bike, I loved it.

Tandem panda shot

After moving to Washington, D.C., I kissed that kind of space and pace goodbye. Every day cars clog the roads. Narrow trails around the city fill with bike commuters rushing to and from the office.

During the spring and summer months, groups of tourists bus into town and converge on the National Mall to take in a little history and to stroll around the monuments together.

Pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers constantly have to share space. Rare are the moments when I have the path or street to myself.

The outskirts of town offer multi-use paths, but as more commuters choose to bike commute, the greater the congestion on these narrow spaces as well. Cyclists are limited in their ability to choose alternate routes because they are dangerous and unsuitable for bikes due to the volume and speed of the car traffic.

Currently, cyclists are smooshed into an awkward hybrid of movement amid already-crowded roads and paths. Pedestrians sometimes frown at or ignore us and drivers honk and yell at us to get on the sidewalk. Cyclists try to make do in an inadequate transportation system.

When I’m out in the city, I try to be mindful. Ride my own pace, safely pass pedestrians on the left, and respect other cyclists and cars in the hope they do the same for me. I assume that no motorist sees me and I’m always on the lookout for a right hook. I operate under the pedestrians first rule, even when they get confused and somehow end up in the bike lane.

Commuting home by the Washington Monument

It’s tough to be perpetually mindful in these overcrowded areas that aren’t ideal for anybody. Basically, I have to turn on a tape in my brain every time I venture out onto the roads or paths: be aware, be peaceful, and stay steady.

Constant vigilance can fatigue a person, but outsized and overpowered on the road, it’s the best approach I’ve got. Yeah, we all have rules to follow, but the fact is people don’t always follow them (drivers, cyclists, pedestrians). People get tired, distracted, and who knows what else. Sometimes we’re not as careful as we should be, and that can be disastrous for the little guys on the road, i.e., my bike and me.

While D.C.’s streets don’t set up ideally for any group, cyclists are the ugly duckling of transportation, with a few miles of absurdly narrow, disconnected bike lanes and the occasional sharrows. The lanes interspersed throughout the city are often crowded, bumpy and sometimes full of trash or horse poop. And sometimes runners or parked cars. Bike lanes are not for running or parking. They are, supposedly, for bikes.

Usually this doesn’t get me down too much. Generally, motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, and even the crazy squirrels are ok and I’m just happy to live in a place where I can ride my bike as my main form of transportation. But there’s the occasional bad apple or near mishap, and it’s tough to feel like getting on the bike the next day.

Sharrow shadow panda

Despite the shortcomings of bike transpo, it has improved my quality of life and I cannot imagine my state of misery if I had to cage myself in metal every day or go subterranean on Metro. And even if they are not ideal, bike lanes and sharrows send a visual message that cyclists have a place in our city.

I hold fast to the belief that bicycling is the best form of travel and transport, and that gradually others will recognize that and make meaningful changes so that cyclists become integral to the transportation infrastructure, rather than a haphazard add-on.

I confess to being impatient. I wish the future was now, that cyclists had a thoughtfully interconnected network of roads and multi-use paths to ride throughout the city ample enough to encompass the growing cycling population.

A truly bicycle-friendly city. Maybe someday we’ll get there and the ugly duckling will turn into a beautifully lugged swan or something. In the meantime, I’m grateful for my bike and glad for all the people who happily make space for me, be it on a multi-use path, the National Mall, or the streets.

Life in D.C. is nowhere near life in my little town, where my sisters and I virtually owned the roads on two wheels, but it’s a better city for bicycling than many other places in the United States. I just have to keep riding my bike, hold my ground, take the lane when necessary, and let my voice be heard.

9 thoughts on “Space Issues and Ugly Ducklings”

  1. Phoenix has plenty of space, out of its sprawl, and very few bike commuters, which from the POV of someone who commutes by bike, are both, generally, good things, from a space perspective anyway. That also means, though, that we are still at the stage where motorists are unsure what we are (“Hey, is that a guy on a bike?? Riding to work?? What the heck?) which has its own challenges.

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    1. That is a curious change in perspective. I have found in cities where people are not used to pedestrians or bikes that they are not paying as much attention to the periphery, especially at intersections. They’re really focused just on other cars.

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  2. Well said MG. I will endeavor to remember your words the next time I think about raising my “you’re number one salute” to an inconsiderate motorist.

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  3. I agree. Well said, MG. As I said in my blog post last night, the conflicts between runners and cyclists on the Mount Vernon Trail are already on the increase. And it’s not even March yet. I too recall riding on quite side streets of my youth. Unfortunately, my very first ride without training wheels ended up with me t-boning a 58 Chevy. (True tale.)

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  4. Be aware, be peaceful, and stay steady. Great cycling in the city mantra.
    I admit I get the urge to yell and curse, but it’s true that only makes me madder and never seems to make jerks feel remorseful. So I try not to take risks, I pretend I’m invisible to cars, and I consider it a victory whenever I remain calm in the face of jerky behavior by others.

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