Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rock, paper, scissors

This week an online article came to my attention describing the ongoing Via Linda climb cyclist/resident conflict.

The Via Linda climb is way out in east Scottsdale near the city's border with Fountain Hills. The article does a sufficient job describing the conflict to anyone who doesn't actually travel up and down that dead-end road, but the gist, in case you're not much for following links, is that hundreds of cyclists each weekend ride up and down a hill on a dead-end residential road, and the residents are not happy about that. Does it even matter what the specific controversy is?

The Via Linda climb is one of my favorite climbs, not so much because of its physical characteristics but because so many cyclists are out there each Saturday morning. I ride with two groups that feature that climb as the highlight of their Saturday morning ride every weekend.

Sometimes I spin up the hill leading others; sometimes I struggle up it holding on for dear life to stronger riders' slipstreams. Often I fail; often I succeed; and each time I sprint those final meters before the cul-de-sac at the top of the climb I'm greeted with yet another feeling of accomplishment.

The article does a good job of journalistic professionalism by presenting both bicyclists' and residents' sides in the conflict. I was impressed with it and learned a little more about the history of the road and its associated quarrel, which was well underway before I ever knew of the climb. And so I read the article with a sense of satisfaction.

Then I read some of the readers' comments. Wow.

The surprise was that the article generated so many comments. The non-surprise was that most of the comments fall into either the pro-cyclist-anti-motorist or pro-motorist-anti-cyclist camp.

This brings me to this post's topic of the rock, paper, scissors game of motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians.

I've spent a lot of time throughout my life as a member of any of the three groups, and with that experience I think I've come to understand pretty well the psyche of each.

The bicyclists are my preferred group, being as how the bicycle is my preferred method of travel. Bicyclists are usually strongly anti-motorist, or at least they are when they're on their bicycle and not driving their SUV. Bicyclists' anti-motorist rage often leads them to feel a bonded kinship with pedestrians, fellow sharers of the motorist-inflicted dangers on the road.

But pedestrians don't really care much about motorists because the two groups are well segregated, owing to the distinction between road and sidewalk. Pedestrians--at least, the ones who don't often ride a bicycle--instead, in fact, hate bicyclists. Often more so than motorists do. I learned this fact firsthand as a bicyclist when a pedestrian tracked me down at the library after I had ridden too close to his girlfriend on the sidewalk several hundred meters away. He poured his blue sugary slushy drink all over my bicycle. Sacrificing his sky-high glucose level for righteous justice came only after he stood eye to chin with me and demonstrated a very authentic eye twitch of anger +1. Again, the point: pedestrians in fact hate bicyclists and feel no kinship with them.

Then there are the motorists. Fat, lazy motorists. No one likes motorists--even motorists hate other motorists--but the hatred is more of a seething, pitying exasperation rather than a pure rage as demonstrated by my pedestrian friend at the library. Everyone realizes that motoring is equivalent to selling out, kind of like begging for scraps from the kill rather than joining in on the hunt and actually doing something useful and helpful. But motoring taps into humans' twin primal urges for comfort and loud music, and so motoring is the de facto standard for transportation in most American cities. Motorists are sometimes frustrated by pedestrians at crosswalks but generally reserve their real antipathy for bicyclists. Bicyclists with their special lanes on the sides of roads that limit the potential width of SUVs. Bicyclists with their red-light-running anarchical disregard for the law. Bicyclists with shaved, toned legs in delicious Lycra serving as a reminder that motoring to work and spending a mere forty minutes on a treadmill in a florescent-lit gym three times a week just ain't cuttin' it.

And so it is. It's like rock, paper, scissors save that bicyclists take the brunt of the roadway anger.

Past that righteous rage, past the exasperation, past the cynicism, the bicyclist eventually emerges with a Zen-like indifference to the game. Motorists are assholes, but so are bicyclists and pedestrians. We're all in each other's way; that's the nature of traffic.

So I, as a bicyclist, resort to my trusty passive aggressive slave ethic of resentment. After all, what's more likely in a hundred years: that there will be more automobiles or that there will be more bicycles? In case you're doubtful, I suggest you consider the actual definition of the word unsustainable.

Goodbye automobiles! Hurray!

But one must be careful what one wishes for. The imminent, slow death of the car won't change people's underlying sloth. It's not as if, with oil production far past its peak and the American population reduced to competing with the rest of the world's billions on a frighteningly more equal playing field, people will gladly embrace sneakers and spandex and use human power to transport themselves.

No, the automobile, even with all its awful destruction and pollution of both man and nature, holds back a far more evil, more sinister transportation vehicle. And for all the times that I bemoan my fate to live during humanity's blink-of-an-eye age of the automobile and to see that glass as half empty, I force myself to see the other half and to appreciate the fact that my hatred is directed towards automobiles and not horses.