Southern California should be a bicycling paradise. The weather is perfect, the roads wide and the terrain favorable. Given our natural advantages, we should have named one of our cities after the Madonna del Ghisallo, the patron saint of cyclists.
So why don’t we have better cycling infrastructure? Holland and other progressive countries have beautiful networks of bicycle-only highways that take you anywhere you want to go.
Why don’t we? Blame the bicyclist’s natural predator: the automobile. Cars suck up public money and real estate as greedily as they consume fossil fuel, and drivers see bicycles as unwelcome competition.
As far as I can tell, most drivers are not actively trying to kill bicyclists. They just don’t care whether we live or die. If a driver wants to turn right 6 inches in front of me without signaling, that is, apparently, my problem.
A few drivers go out of their way to be polite, waving cyclists through busy intersections or giving us a few inches of extra room as they pass. These people make it a joy to ride, and I just wish there were more of them.
Sadly, there are a lot of hostile drivers out there. It is difficult to get a driver’s license if you are an illegal immigrant, but it is easy to get one if you are sociopath. Hostiles not only believe that cyclists don’t belong on the road, they also want to hurt us. They honk, yell, throw things, buzz us and occasionally run us over. They are a minority, but even one can wreck your day.
What is most disturbing is that drivers seem to have a license to kill when it comes to cyclists.
When a driver hits a cyclist, he or she will invariably say, “I never saw her.” And they almost always get away with it. It is rare that a driver is ticketed, let alone charged with a more serious crime, when a cyclist is injured or dies at the hands of a motorist. Cyclists are, to drivers and to the law, invisible.
Despite the perils, I love to cycle. I commute from National City to the University of San Diego two or three days a week and ride 400 to 500 miles each month.
Why do I ride? I could claim to be an environmentalist, but I am as indifferent toward the Earth as anyone. Last year, I put enough AA batteries into the landfill to make Iron Eyes Cody cry for a week.
I do have one environmentalist fantasy. I want to ride up to a Prius at a stoplight and berate the driver for destroying the Earth just as surely as if he drove a Hummer, only a bit more slowly. They have it coming.
I do not ride for economic reasons. I rode almost as much when gas was 50 cents a gallon.
Like most cyclists, I ride for selfish, intangible reasons. I love the long stretches of quiet when I can reflect and be alone with my thoughts, punctuated by moments of terror when I am helpfully reminded of the fragility of mortal life.
Fortunately, others are more virtuous. The biggest local do-gooder cycling event is Bike to Work Day. Organizers try to get people out of their cars for a day, hoping that they will start riding bikes. This will leave more gasoline for SUV and Jet Ski owners.
This year’s event was a revelation. I finally figured out why there seem to be fewer bad drivers on the road these days. They are all riding bicycles. With gas prices so high, there are swarms of new cyclists on the road. Most of them have no idea what they are doing. Bike lanes are suddenly much more crowded, and I don’t know which group is worse, the slowpokes blocking my way or the maniacs who want to pass me.
It is now common to see cyclists riding against traffic, their heads down and pedaling at me like two-wheeled kamikazes. My happy, peaceful and solitary commute has turned into a gauntlet of mindless cyclists, riding like zombies after their queen has been decapitated.
It is no longer enough to be on guard against automobiles. Like a limping member of the Donner family, I now have to watch out for my own kind.
So please, go back to your gas-guzzling carbon belchers (yeah, Prius owners, I’m looking at you). Drive your Hummers, Escalades and Civics. Use up all of the world’s oil in the next 10 years. I don’t care.
What I learned from Bike to Work Day is this: To heck with the Dutch, I really like cycling alone.
Del Dickson is a professor of political science at the University of San Diego.