I’ve been moving a little slower the past few days after the weekends events, and when it comes time to mount the bike and head home from work, the slower pace continues. I haven’t needed to rush, the evenings have been beautiful, and I’ve unusually had a fantastic tailwind. It’s been easy, fast, effortless, and thoroughly enjoyable.
This is in stark contrast to those around me. The Clipsal 500 is on in Adelaide, and I ride more or less straight through some of the more congested areas due to the road closures from the race. Traffic (those on four wheels, anyway) is backed up. People are freaking out. Everyone is rushing to go nowhere fast.
Except me, although, I’m not in a car. But that’s cars in the standard urban environment for you: 20kph, 60kph – it’s all the same. Nothing really changes to your physical environment in a car. There is no sense of being outside, the wind in your face, the smells and sounds, no increased heart rate or good-time inducing hormones. Without the feeling of massive horsepower, feeling the lateral g-forces of being on the limits of traction, or the sound of your engine at full throttle, you really get nothing in a car. No satisfaction from the process of getting yourself from A to B. It’s all so passive and over short distances (~5km) there really are no advantages unless the weather is particularly foul. I think that’s why people do everything they can to make driving more exciting, like huge stereo systems, HD multimedia displays, far more horsepower than necessary, dropping the hammer from one red light to the next. These things offer some distraction from the highly demanding but completely unrewarding task of urban driving. It’s like children acting out in class because they’re bored.
I’m not talking about thrill seeking in a general sense. Everyone does that to a greater or lesser extent, whether it’s jumping off a cliff, doing a nudie-run, or buying something really expensive. People do all kinds of things to feel alive, no matter how much it doesn’t make sense to someone else. What I’m talking about the basic act of driving normally versus cycling or walking to one’s destination. With one, you often arrive alert, fresh, and invigorated, and with the other you arrive, at best, in the same mood you got in the car with, but all too often, more stressed, more annoyed, and more irritable. Not always, of course, but often enough.
So that, I figure, is one of the reasons why we feel the need to rush about in traffic: to complete, as quickly as possible, what is supposed to be considered a modern convenience, the task of driving in traffic.
People are incredible…
In the last 48 hours on my ride to and from work, the unthinking need to rush has been on full display and pointed squarely in my direction. I was in the middle of the lane for a few seconds in order to turn right at a T-junction. So you know the situation exactly as it happened, it was as follows:
I was travelling on Prescott towards Swaine, which is both a short distance between the roundabout and the terminus of the road, and also contains a speed hump at the halfway point, which means that I am never slower than any vehicle in that stretch of the road, and likewise for the previous section of Prescott. Add to this that there were two cars ahead of me that were queued up and waiting to turn into Swaine, meaning, quite obviously, that there was nowhere to go. At the speed hump, the old man in the SUV behind me honks, and then yells at me through his window to “stay in the bicycle lane!”. He appeared to be quite agitated.
I’m getting better at responding to this kind of irrationality, but this still made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and my cool became fairly luke-warm. I turned and just looked at him with a look that hopefully said, “are you serious? We’re going the same speed, there are two stopped cars not 10 meters in front of us, and I’m actually about to turn right, so what about this situation doesn’t make sense to you?!?” (ok I was shaking my head at him too, just to be sure…).
What was he in such a rush for? If I wasn’t there, absolutely nothing would be different about his situation other than the fact that there wouldn’t have been a cyclist in his view. But rush he must, even if it gets him nowhere.
The next morning, a few blocks away from where old mate was loosing his mind over seeing a cyclist in front of him, a middle-aged woman in a new Land Rover was about to do the same. Like the previous evening, I was exiting a roundabout and approaching a school-zone, in slow-moving traffic. The second parking spot after the roundabout on the left is open, and the second car in front of me stops to parallel park in it. The car in front of me goes around it, and I follow. A school crossing, with orange flags out and students around, is directly in front of us, and I am maybe a car lengths and a bit away from the car in front. I hear the lady in the Land Rover mash the throttle, and think, “What’s happening? There is nowhere to go, and no room between me and the car in front? What’s she up to?” Not letting that stop her, I turn to see that she’s out in the other side of the road, passing me as I stare at her with a now familiar look on my face, as she glares at me in disgust. She shoves herself in front of me, and traffic slows to a crawl just after the crossing.
I’m pissed, obviously, and decide, out of spite, to pass her and slide through on the left, because there’s room, I’m on a bike, and they’re almost stopped. I’ll admit, it was an emotional act of retribution, so I’m more or less reacting in kind, but still. So I’m back out in front of traffic, with a slight downhill towards the next (busy) intersection not 50 meters away, with a car already stopped and waiting to turn. I’m also squarely in the lane to communicate the point that I think she’s a complete div and if she’d like to pass me again she’ll have to really make the effort. Again, not the purest of motivations, but that’s the truth. Lady Land Rover has now caught up, seconds before the blocked intersection ahead, and is now furiously passing me to she can stop and wait in front of the cyclist rather than behind, as I give her a big thumbs up. I stop behind her, making quite sure she can see me in her mirror, shaking my head at her and smiling in disbelief. The guy on a motorcycle who was behind us the whole time pulls up and asks me “what’s wrong with people?” and we have a short but commiserating chat about what just happened, and then we all go our separate ways. Nobody’s life any better or worse-off materially, but everyone less positive about this fine morning than 20 seconds ago.
Why can’t people just be more rational? I count myself in that group, given my attempts to make her appear stupid. In cities, travel times are not all that variable between rushing and driving at a reasonable pace. Rushing, once in the car, is not really all that profitable. Given the slow relative speeds of bikes and pedestrians, hurrying can make up a decent amount of time on one’s journey, but depending on the journey, it often still isn’t worth the effort. Not compared to leaving a few minutes earlier. I think that this probably doesn’t matter, though. If we don’t feel like we are doing our part to get somewhere quicker, stressing about it, making noises and motions that look and sound and feel like rushing no matter how much we know it won’t help, we feel better about our attempts to control our surroundings. We’re doing something.
Anyway, I’m getting off topic. This was supposed to be about bikecycling and how awesome it is compared to everything else in the world. Well, and maybe just chilling out a bit… Unlike more passive forms of transportation, cycling slowly is just as enjoyable as cycling in a rush, and in many instances, more so. I really enjoyed my ride home the last few days, even amidst the throngs of people who would absolutely have been better off riding a bike.
Again, to be fair, I and many, many others still irrationally rush through our trips around town by bike. I’m still the normal kind of stupid that plagues most people, and traffic still offers a bit of its crazy to all those who find themselves in it, but the difference between travelling reasonable distances by bike and by motor vehicle is still astonishing in how they, on average, effect people’s moods and well-being.
It’s like eating something with one kind of utensil and the food tastes passable. It’ll do, but you’re not going to enjoy it. But, then you pick of another type of utensil and somehow the same food is bursting with flavour. That’s cycling. That’s what the humble bike can do for you, if you let it. Same journey, far more enjoyable.
This is definitely, one hundred per cent, one of those situations where doing the very thing that annoys you is actually the answer to the problem of that thing annoying you.
For the absolutely massive quantities of people who travel less than 10km to work, and even less than 5km, cycling really isn’t going to cost you any significant amount of time, and it’s far more enjoyable. It’s cheaper. It’s good for your mental health as well as your physical. Walking is great and isn’t simply to get you from your office to your car, but you can cover so much more ground on a bike with comparable effort. Bikes, for millions of people, are quite simply the most rational choice of transportation for a large portion of their journeys.
It’s not going to transform you from a jerk to a saint all by itself. I can attest to that, and I was also talking to someone the other day who was telling me of a few situations where he was confirming the absolute worst stereotypes possible about cyclists (people, really) and didn’t think anything of it. It won’t keep you from wanting to rush around, either, but mostly, it’s the best form of transportation for journeys of reasonable distances.
So go on – get on a bike!
Header image: source