Columbus, OH USA

Pedal Pusher
June 2008
by Greg Knepp

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Of streetcars and car wars

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A front page article in the April 23 Columbus Dispatch describes a grizzly encounter between a cyclist and a car full of “college-age” men. Evidently there was horn-honking and cursing; the cyclist reports steadying himself by touching the vehicle of the offending youths – a no-no among car worshipers. A plastic bottle was hurled by one of the rowdy young men. Then things got weird. Apparently the cyclist pedaled into an alley to cut short the confrontation, only to be chased down on foot by one (or more) of the youths, who caught the cyclist and beat him pretty badly. The Dispatch article continues by using the incident to admonish cyclists to ride safely, courteously and follow the traffic laws to a T – this even though the article gave no indication that the cyclist involved was doing anything amiss. In fact, the whole dreadful affair may have had more to do with drunken, unruly punks than bicycle-induced road rage. Most regular cyclists have accounts of run-ins with car bullies.

In the very same Dispatch, one Tony Knapke, in a letter to the editor, bemoans the city’s proposed downtown streetcar project, writing “The money would be far better spent on making the city more conducive to bicycle traffic by increasing the number of bicycle-path miles and dedicated bike lanes in the city.”

I’m not so sure that more bike-specific infrastructure leading to more bicycle-car segregation is the answer. We have lots of bike trails in Columbus, but they’re mainly recreational; few are heavily used for routine transportation. This is because most bike paths go through parks and otherwise out-of-the-way areas. On-street bicycle lanes are fine, and when a third or more of in-town transportation is done by bike, then I’m sure the political motivation will manifest itself in such a way as to set aside such lanes on existing streets. Right now, however, closing certain lanes to all traffic except bicycles would likely anger the motoring public even more. And to what end? There’s no reason bikes and autos can’t share the same streets. As for streetcars, I like the idea of anything that takes unnecessary automobiles off the road, even though streetcar tracks pose a risk to inexperienced cyclists. Furthermore, streetcars offer a sound alternative to folks who can’t or won’t cycle, but would be happy to do less

One thing is certain: the transportation picture as it is developing in Peak Oil America is becoming quite confused. The center is collapsing and members of the happy-motoring crowd in suburbia (most Americans) are on the verge of open panic as they watch gasoline prices soar. Some auto dealers are no longer taking used SUVs in trade. Talk of resurrecting the passenger rail system abounds as the airline industry tanks (getting a 747 to defy the law of gravity takes an ungodly amount of fuel). COTA ridership is up, mopeds and scooters are selling like hotcakes, and our otherwise modern and forward-thinking mayor is pushing the hundred-year-old concept of running trolleys up and down our town’s main thoroughfare.

It’s hard to say how cyclists should react to the changing circumstances. As driving becomes more expensive and therefore more precious, certain motorists may display an increased degree of open resentment to those less dependent on automobile travel. And some drivers may be genuinely confused about where bicycles belong. If they believe that bicycles belong on sidewalks, it may be because they see so many cyclists riding there. Unless you’re a four-year-old riding a tricycle, do your pedaling on the street. Walk your bike on the sidewalk. As I’ve pointed out in previous articles, walking is a superb form of transportation. Cyclists routinely run red lights and stop signs - not good! And riding against traffic is positively suicidal. These activities send a bad message to motorists, pedestrians and other cyclists.

Mainly, we need to understand that bicycles are only a part of the total transportation matrix that is morphing even as I pen these lines. We cyclists are bound to grow in number and influence, and as we do, we will need to be more mindful of our responsibilities to share the road – its rules as well as its space. We get no special treatment simply because we’re “green.” As cyclists we must demand respect from others on the road while obeying the same traffic laws required of motorists. I don’t see any need to relegate cycling to wooded paths or special lanes. Time, patience and experience will smooth out the relationship between the drivers and the riders. In fact, most riders fit into both categories. Cyclists will become more skilled and more responsible as drivers become more tolerant.

In the short term, however, a rider on a bicycle is no match for a resentful, drunken demon behind the wheel of a four thousand pound GMC Sierra. It seems inevitable, of course, that some riders will want to even the odds a bit by packing weapons of their own. In other words, things may get worse before they get better. And the victims will not all be cyclists. Much unpleasantness will ensue as America descends cold-turkey into the tumult of petroleum withdrawal.

Paradise Garage, 941 N. High St., is open Mon. - Thurs. 11-8, Fri.-Sat. 11-9, and Sun. 10-6. Call 614-299-0899.

Greg Knepp is a Short North cyclist


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