Iâ??m a cyclist, and in summer, I spend hours and hours sharing the road with cars. Mostly I try to avoid very busy roads, but at times, itâ??s inevitable. Thanks goodness Iâ??ve never had an accident involving a car, but there have been a few tense moments, mostly involving Winnebagos on Highway 101 on the Oregon Coast. They always seem to pass me just as the shoulder gives way, on a steep ascent coming around a major headland, with a 20 mph gust of wind coming from the north, making my bike wobble in one direction, while the draft of the Winnebago pulls me sideways in the other direction. Itâ??s not pleasant.
But cars and bikes are a huge issue where I live in Portland, Oregon. Weâ??re increasingly known for our progressive bike politics; weâ??re the only city of our size with the â??platinumâ?? award from the League of American Bicyclists. There are several active and effective bike advocacy groups and a fantastic bike politics blog run by Jonathan Maus. I really admire Jonathanâ??s blog. Bike politics is a contentious topic, and there is a diverse and vocal group of frequent posters on his blog. One of the hot button issues is that of cars and bikes sharing the road. In the wake of several hit and runs, deaths, and road rage incidents (both car drivers and bike riders raging in the different cases), thereâ??s been vigorous debates about cars, riders, safety, and whoâ??s at fault. Is a car always at fault, since itâ??s bigger? What about cyclists and their responsibility?
Anyway, I was thinking about this, riding my bike down Hwy 101, south from Waldport to Yachats, enjoying a great tail wind, reaching speeds over 30 mph. I love having to slow down on my bike to come under the speed limit. But at that speed, I get even more vigilant of cars coming out on my right. Especially on a tourist route like 101. As a rider, Iâ??m not always visible since Iâ??m not directly in the driverâ??s line of vision. So I have this habit of raising my hand, sort of a like a wave. But in honesty, itâ??s actually more like a commanding â??stop!â?? The intent is to make myself visible, to get the attention of the driver, but at times, it feels more like a sentry signaling, â??Halt!â?? in no uncertain terms.
So there I was with a lot of time on my hands, thinking about this, and wondering, how is that hand signal perceived? Do people feel waved at, or do they feel commanded? Do they sense my anxiety, or do they see a cyclist, zooming along in a cycling kit, looking speedy and athletic, raising her hand in an arrogant salute?
Whatever arrogance I communicate is in fact fear. My bike and I weigh about 145 pounds, and the car weighs 5,000, not to mention whatever else velocity adds to the impact. Does the driver really identify with the 5,000 pound weapon he or she is driving? Just because they are in a bigger vehicle, do they actually feel more powerful on the road than the bike? On the bikeportland blog, and in many discussions, this is assumed to be the case. But it warrants a closer look.
Personally, I donâ??t think bigger size automatically translates into an awareness of power. I think this is the problem with many kinds of clashes involving power differentials. The person with less physical power, or material wealth, or resources insists on their lower status vis-Ã -vis the other; and yet the one with greater size, wealth, resource etc., does not always feel that way. There are psychological dynamics which intervene into what would otherwise be a straightforward social-political issue.
My friend Jan and I were riding earlier this summer in the foothills of Mt. Hood, on some lovely back country roads. It was a glorious summer day and we were enjoying a terrific descent, down into a beautiful valley. As we came around a long winding curve, we saw a car up ahead, slowing down in the middle of the road. Uncertain whether he was turning, stopping, or what, we had to slow down in the middle of a hill, which is difficult. And we didnâ??t know whether to pass him on the right, or if he was turning right. His brake lights kept going on and off, blinkers going left, then right. I felt my anger rise. Didnâ??t he see us? Does he think heâ??s alone on the road? I started to mutter something aggressive under my breath as we neared his car, but Jan silenced me. Look, she said, heâ??s lost. I looked in the car, and saw an elderly man, with a map and papers in his hand. He was leaning out the window, looking every which way, and clearly he was lost or looking for something or someone. Jan rolled up to his window, and said, can I help you? Are you lost? He said he was looking for a house number. I can appreciate how frustrating it is looking for a house out in the country. Driveways can be a half mile from the house, and the house numbers are often hard to read. We stopped and tried to help him for a few minutes, but not once did he acknowledge us, thank us, or talk to us. And then, he just turned around in the road, blocking us off completely, and took off in the other direction. Jan and I looked at each other, amazed.
I guess this guy was really frustrated, anxious or just angry at being lost. Iâ??m sure it had nothing to do with us as cyclists. But as I rode off, I thought of my parents. Theyâ??re great drivers, but they are getting older, and I know they feel more nervous on the road than they used to. They feel as much a victim of the 5,000 pounds of metal as a pedestrian or bicyclist, unsure of themselves, and unsure of other drivers.
Thatâ??s the problem with assigning power to the one with greater size. It doesnâ??t take into account how people feel, how they identify. A purely material way of determining power misses the fact that how we feel about ourselves, or how we feel inside often trumps the outer trappings of power. No matter how rich, powerful, or strong someone is, if she grew up with abusive parents or was badly bullied as a child, chances are she feels less powerful than her wealth or size would have us imagine. Psychologically, powerlessness tends to trump power. Hurt, abuse, insecurity, anxieties, itâ??s unfortunate, but these pesky little things have the power to dwarf the biggest stick, even 5,000 pounds of metal. Which is probably why I will continue my authoritarian salute as I pass by motorists. At the risk of offending them, I canâ??t trust that they are really aware of their 5,000 pound advantage.