I like cars. I also like bikes. I view them both as mobile works of art: symphonies of interlocking engineering, sighing in quiet motion at times and galaxy-roaring at others. I'm a bicyclist, you see, and a driver. Both.
When I ride my bike in Atlanta, drivers frighten me. They're incautious, distracted, and ignorant of traffic laws. Worse, they have nearly nothing to lose in a collision with me. My bones will crack into splinters and the driver will merely have his or her phone conversation interrupted.
I have reason to worry. According to preliminary data from the University of Georgia, only two of the 127 bicycle fatalities between 2006 and 2012 in the Peach State didn't involve an automobile. And of those 127 fatalities, 21 involved a driver who didn't stick around the scene of the accident.
When I'm in my car, bicyclists enrage me. They're feckless, self-entitled, and aloof. Every red light they run and intersection they clog during rush-hour mass rides is another flowering rust spot on my sport, and there's no one to turn to. Not only do our police rarely ticket bicyclists, they have been known to urge them to ride on sidewalks, which is illegal.
As far as I know, no other interest group actively micturates on its best interests quite with the power that bicyclists do. Surely there can be no worse method of convincing someone to see things your way than by violating traffic laws in an already gridlocked city on a Friday afternoon, when working people are trying desperately to drag their embattled souls home.
Really, though, I'm not blaming bicyclists or drivers here. That would be divisive. No. I am blaming people. Nearly all bicyclists, after all, own a car. Most houses have at least one bike leaning against a wall. It should be easy for us to come together.
As Atlanta embarks on expanding its network of bicycle lanes — $2.5 million worth over the next year or so, and more than $60 million by 2016 — bicyclists and drivers need to learn to co-exist and end the us vs. them debate.
We need to understand each other. And the way to do that is to make it clear that we all play by the same rules of the road. We should be grown-ups and operate within the bounds of the law. And when we do not, our police should ticket us. Drivers and bicyclists. Both. Yes, both, because we're all traffic, and traffic has laws. That includes me — if I deserve it.
Mind you, Atlanta Police officers have important things to do. Our city has the normal allotment of murders, burglaries, and other offenses, which should certainly take precedence, But the APD manages to ticket plenty of drivers.
The force's mission statement is "to reduce crime and promote the quality of life, in partnership with our community." So why don't they appear to be interested in reducing bicyclist crime? I've been ticketed within city limits for rolling a stop sign in my car, but a bicyclist can seemingly run the red light at North Highland and Ponce de Leon avenues, stopping for a moment to find a break in traffic, and expect no more from a watching policeman than a bored sigh.
I have a friend who was shocked to receive an expensive ticket from an APD officer for making a left off Cheshire Bridge Road onto Lenox Road while driving a car. "I have been making that turn daily for years on my bike!" he told me.
A sign hangs over the intersection to warn that it's illegal to make that left, but my friend had never seen it. Or, if he had seen it, years of successfully turning left on a bike had convinced him the sign was only for show.
He had to have been seen on his bike at least once or twice by the policeman who often waits in a patrol car in the adjacent gas station parking lot. But only when my friend transgressed in a car did he get pulled over.
Another part of the problem: Most people riding bikes on the street do not consider themselves bicyclists. What I mean is, they don't feel like they're part of Atlanta's rich and growing bicycling community. They're just people who happened to hop on a bike to go to the store or to the park or to parade through red lights en masse. They don't give two lumps of pet waste about what part they play in the overall course of Atlanta's transportation puzzle. But they do play a role.
Everyone knows it's wrong to run red lights. I have witnessed riders blowing through lights before when on my bike, and I have ridden up next to them and said, "You know, when you ride like that, you make us all look bad."
The general response is sheepish acknowledgement. I don't do this when I'm in my car, because trying to have a conversation with a bicyclist while driving a vehicle is just stupid. Instead, I sit and fume, which doesn't feel particularly good.
Drivers should also relax. You don't have to honk. Wait a few short seconds for traffic to clear, then pass wide. Don't tell bicyclists to use the sidewalk while doing so. Realize that a person on a bike is another person not in a car.
Ultimately, the onus is on all of us to be conscientious people, whether in a car or on a bike. I enjoy the benefits of being a grown man (e.g. wearing suits, being a goofy uncle, drinking whiskey), so I naturally must also honor the responsibility that comes along with those freedoms. We should all do the same.
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