Tuesday, August 14, 2012

This lane was made for you and me

Approaching campus on my trusty Schwinn this morning, I started coughing from the exhaust in the air. At times it's pretty difficult to breathe in stopped traffic, or even just walking on the sidewalk, with all of the fumes coming out of cars' behinds. Add to this the regularly nerve-jangling dance with the dangerous negligence and outright rage of so many drivers, and it's enough to spoil my outlook on the day and to drain any last inklings of sympathy for what folks are paying at the pump.

St. Louis's Cranksgiving 2011, one of the largest bike-propelled food drives in the nation
A couple friends recently returned from Amsterdam, where people have had the foresight to build places around walking and biking and transit, with infrastructure that actively and unapologetically discourages driving. Why do we stubbornly continue to make everything bow to cars in this country? Do we really love them so much? They don't deserve it.

There are big and small signs of change, I know, ranging from a planned high-speed train in California (the nation's first) to a minor but helpful increase in bike parking in the St. Louis neighborhood where I live (now I can lock my bike at the local grocer). My employer, Washington University, provides an all-paid regional transit pass to full-time students and employees and also charges a significant fee for parking on campus. So there are a combination of incentives in place there to encourage alternative transit--yet the sprawling parking lots remain packed throughout the school year. What will it take for our society to make a real honest-to-goodness crack at our dependence on cars and oil?

Organizations like Trailnet are on the right track. Advocating for long-range plans and policies that are cyclist- and pedestrian-friendly, Trailnet notes that these two commuter groups comprise 12 percent of all trips and 14 percent of fatalities but only receive a combined 1.6 percent of federal transportation funding. That needs to change in drastic ways, and Trailnet and other such organizations are on it. There need to be far more of us on it, though, too. Me simply feeling angry or frustrated about the situation does nothing.

Tonight I attended a short Shift Your Commute training event at Trailnet's downtown St. Louis offices, and it was just really encouraging to be there. I'm not a very serious cyclist--my bike is a cheap single-speeder, my clothes are regular non-spandex-y ones, I still get pretty afraid riding in moderate traffic, and I still hop on a bus or train more often than I do my two-wheeler. I was worried the fellow attendees and the Trailnet people would all be super savvy about this whole thing. But it wasn't that way at all. I came away excited to keep at it and reminded of so many reasons already to be glad about going car-less, despite the gaping need for more societal support and infrastructure.

The thing that really stuck with me was something one Trailnet employee suggested for dealing with drivers that endanger one's safety, fail to leave enough room when passing, or simply don't understand the rules of the road and don't respect cyclists as fellow commuters. Rather than shooting such drivers the death glare that is more often than not my go-to defense, the Trailnet lady says she will sometimes pull up beside the oblivious/reckless person's vehicle at the next stoplight, motion for them to roll down their window, and politely explain how their driving just put her at risk. "When you passed me back there, you nearly sideswiped me. Please allow several feet next time. I share the road with you."

It may seem a small thing, but I'm going to give it a try. Kindness and education work wonders, right? It can't hurt to apply them on the street.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Bad ones

A “‘still small voice’ is calling,” wrote the young Emily Dickinson, and “people are listening, and believing, and truly obeying … the place is very solemn, and sacred, and the bad ones slink away, and are sorrowful—not at their wicked lives—but at this strange time, great change. I am one of the lingering bad ones, and so do I slink away, and pause, and ponder, and ponder, and pause, and do work without knowing why—not surely for this brief world, and more sure it is not for Heaven.”

Dickinson penned this in the context of the Second Great Awakening, but her sentiment is suited for today, too. Unwavering confidence in rigid ideologies pushes forward with popular conviction and very little patience for regular, honest reflection or rethinking. And if you don't get it, if you just don't see it that way, and you're not on board, you can't believe, can't claim the same all-encompassing hopes, can't write the others off so easily, or you just don't *know* the way they do, you feel a little off and pretty out of it and somehow guilty and stubborn and like you're the jerk ruining it for everyone else. Meh.

Bad ones, unite! There are worse things than pondering and pausing, mourning and doubting, reevaluating.  (Things like certitude, war, snakes, city driving, and Facebook, for instance.)

Okay, back to work.