Good drivers, bad cyclists and a new kind of traffic

Published in the November/December 2009 issue of Momentum: the magazine for self-propelled people.

Do bicycles change the way we communicate?

Cycling Vancouver
With no windshields to mute it, this traffic talks to itself.

I was really looking forward to my dental appointment – the adjustment to my night-guard would be pain-free; but more importantly, I would enjoy a long ride across town on one of Vancouver’s traffic-calmed commuter bike routes to get there. I hadn’t done a good spin on it since before I’d left to live and cycle in India a year ago. When I returned I worked from home and – you’ll only hear this from a cyclist – I no longer commuted as much as I wished. I was curious: had traffic changed while I was away?

I set out in golden autumn air that shimmered off storefronts selling felt hats and pumpkin spice lattes.  One foot on the road, one foot on my pedal, I waited for a green light at a busy intersection. A coal-gray Pathfinder pulled up along side me at the white line.

“Hey, hello,” called the burly driver across his girlfriend in the passenger seat. I peered into the open window of the SUV, not quite sure what to expect.

“Just so you know…” he motioned to the roadway on the other side of the intersection, “I’m going to pull up ahead of you when the light turns green, okay?” He smiled, and I gave him a thumbs up and grinned back.

I coasted down to where the road intersected my turnoff near Main Street, made a little manoeuvre to switch roads, and this time waited for a green light with a fellow cyclist. She wore a white blouse, brown skirt and a white helmet. We both pushed down on our pedals when the light turned green, and she flashed me a smile and said, “Beautiful day for a bike ride, isn’t it?”

“Yeah!” I called after her, “A perfect bike day!”

I continued pedaling westwards and slowed at a four-way stop to check for traffic. A fellow on a department-store bike blew past, noodled a wobbly track stand, and creaked on. Others pedaled behind him as if the stop sign and intersection didn’t exist.

I joined a clump of cyclists and winced as they turned without signaling, drifted the wrong way around traffic islands, and ran red lights. Some rode too close to slamming car doors, and others skimmed past pedestrians on zebra crosswalks. A woman rode by in the opposite direction, her helmet on backwards. A man thundered through a hospital zone in his big ring.

The road sloped downwards, and I came to a stop behind a silver sedan at an intersection. It had nosed past the stop sign and now rested on top of the pedestrian crossing. A woman with a white cane waited patiently on the corner then – not hearing the car move – called out, “Thanks for give me the right of way!”

Sunlight streamed through hand-wide maple leaves, and the street was quiet except for the creak of a dry chain and the chirp of a pedestrian crossing signal.

I leaned around another traffic circle and watched a small-framed woman step off the curb. She held a street map in front of her as she walked into the middle of the residential roadway. She paused without looking up and I steered wide to her right. Then she whirled around and started back to the curb.

“Whoa!” I roared, “Look out!” She looked up, startled, and I could almost hear her think: that’s not a car… it’s too quiet… what is it… doing on the road?!”

I slowed to cross a pair of railway tracks, rode up onto the sidewalk, clicked out of my pedals and locked up to the bike rack in front of my dentist’s building. In forty-five minutes I’d experienced good drivers, good cyclists, bad drivers, bad cyclists, good pedestrians, and bad pedestrians. Together, they are traffic, but it’s a different kind of traffic.

This traffic communicates. It grins, creaks, yells, chirps and bellows. With no windshields to mute or deafen it, this traffic talks to itself; to the vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians that comprise it; to the street that hosts it; and to the city that birthed it. It sounds like people, not machines.

A part of me misses the quiet days when this unmarked route was a speedy secret between us daily commuters. But another part of me celebrates that – though it’s still young and loose and uneasy – the city’s new kind of traffic has found its own voice.

Ulrike Rodrigues lives, rides and writes in Vancouver, Canada and can imitate an air horn when necessary. Read other Adventures of Mitey Miss columns.

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