Image Credit: Dave Moulton's Bike Blog. He says it better than me but hey, I like writing.
The next time you hop in your car, say, to go to work in the morning, try the following exercise:
-Every time you drive past a side street or driveway on your right, check to see if anybody is pulling out. If they are, stop for them and let them out. After all, they might not be able to see you and could end up driving right into your side.
-When you get to an intersection that has a green light and a sidewalk or bike path on your right, don't just drive through. Get out of your car, find the button to activate the crossing signal, and when the signal shows "WALK," walk alongside your car though the intersection. Then you can get back in and drive away.
-If you have a car coming up behind you, watch out! There's a good chance they might pull up alongside you and attempt to take a right turn up ahead of you, hitting you on the left side or cutting you off completely so you run into their side.
-If there's a path alongside the road you are driving on, and there are people on it jogging, pushing strollers, or walking, be sure to slow down to their speed and pass by them carefully. If you drive by them at your normal speed, they'll be pretty upset and you might hit them!
-Frustrated yet? When you get to a red light that is triggered by a sensor, don't go when it turns green unless there is another car there. Just pretend the intersection sensor couldn't see you and that the light hasn't turned green at all. If you are alone at the intersection, just stay there through the light cycle and wait for somebody to pull up behind you to trigger the switch.
It's April second, not April first, and this isn't really a joke. That said, I'm really not suggesting that anybody goes out and drives the way I just described. If you did, it would get pretty miserable pretty quickly. You wouldn't get where you were going very efficiently, and you probably would look for some other way to get to work. If you're a cyclist, though, you are often expected by the motoring public and by transportation planners and policy makers to ride your bike exactly like that. Less importantly (but more annoyingly) the jerk with the snowmobile parked askance in the bed of his truck decorated with stickers of Calvin peeing on (insert opposing brand/team/country here) thinks that's how you and I ought to ride, and he's not alone*. People who don't ride bikes regularly almost categorically do not understand why some cyclists would choose to ride on the road when there is a perfectly good path right next to it. Many of them think cyclists are being arrogant when they ride on the road. Some of them (like my friend in the pickup) even go so far as to make their opinion known by aiming their two-ton hunk of metal right at the cyclist they want to communicate with and blasting the horn in their ear at the last minute. Bonus points for Doppler-ed expletives out the passenger window.
Well Mr. Guy in the Truck, here's an exercise: why don't you hop on this bike right here. No, there's no throttle to twist and nothing to "rev." (There is an as-yet undiagnosed disorder called "Male Revving Disease." See also leaf blowers, chainsaws, motorboats, cars, drills, Dustbusters and anything else powered that can be construed as having a throttle.) OK, here's a little plastic hat to keep you safe. Now, you go ahead and hop on that bike path and get yourself to work. Oh, did that car coming out of its driveway not see you? Too bad. If we are on the Burlington Bike Path, it's going to be your fault, since you must have blown through one of the no-less-than-four-hundred stop signs on the path where every street, driveway, squirrel trail and place that somebody might walk someday has been given its own special red octagonal lollipop. OK, you made it past that disaster, so keep heading down the path. Can you hear that car coming up behind you at twice your speed on the street? Is he going to turn into that side street up ahead of you on the right? Who knows? You won't know until he does it, and he wont know you're even there until... Thunk. You'll need to remember to repeat that thought process on the bike path each and every time you hear a car coming up behind you.
So nobody hit you on the path today. The morning jogging club is up ahead now, shoulder to shoulder and pushing strollers better equipped to carry a small family's belongings to a homestead somewhere in the west than a baby. Ring your bell to get them to move over (you do have a bell, right). What? They didn't move? Better slow down to their speed. Maybe if you ask nicely. Oh, now they're sneering at you, giving you the "you're going to run over my child- I just know it" stinkeye. You've lost some time, but at least you're safe on the path. Here comes an intersection. The cars parallel to you have a green light, but you have a little orange man sign. Better hit the button and wait until the light cycle goes around to wherever they programmed in the walk signal. Now walk that bike across the crosswalk. Don't ride in the crosswalk- you wouldn't want to set the bad example of the lawless cyclist on your first day out, would you? You're on your way again. Oops- the bike path just ended. Hope you're good at traversing loose dirt and hopping that six inch curb back on to the street. Oh, and all the while merging with traffic- otherwise it's a dead stop and you're off the bike again.
So you're on the road and come to a red light at an intersection. Nobody's around, and darned if that light won't change. Well, you're just going to have to sit there and wait for a car to come trip the switch.. Or you know, break the law by running the light. Even better, let's make it a busy four-way intersection on a five lane road and you need to turn left, from the left-turn-only lane. All lanes excepting the left turn lanes at the intersection are on a timed cycle, but you're on a sensor. Better hope somebody with more steel than you shows up to trip the switch, because even if you wanted to run the red arrow there's no safe way to make this left, what with all that through traffic.
I have what I consider a relatively pleasant six-mile commute to work. Everything I just described is present along that commute, and riding my bike on the road and following the rules of the road eliminates all of the problems above except for the traffic light one. I would like to assert that most rational people who bicycled the route to work that I take - more than a few times- would make the same decisions about whether to ride on the road or the parallel path. Although it didn't stop me from trying here, this doesn't seem to be a concept that can be communicated through description and visualization. I'd like to suggest something to anybody who has seen a cyclist on the road where there is a path and thought "why doesn't he just ride on the path that we (because only drivers are taxpayers, a rant for another day) paid for." Take a ride. See what it's like. Have somewhere to be and use a bike to get there. And if you're one of those guys with a truck who like to "buzz" cyclists to show them what you think about them being on your road, just remember that guys driving 18 wheelers pay for "your" highways, and I don't see them trying to run you off the interstate.
*Bill Watterson deserves something better than having his beloved creation turned into vinyl decals of a boy urinating. Show some respect.