Bike lover, bike hater: Depends on whether you’re on four wheels or two

Columnist May 17, 2012

I am riding like the wind, coasting down Capitol Hill, bursting with righteous indignation.

It takes just five minutes on top of this bike for me to know I am good for the environment, healthy, frugal, smarter than all of y’all.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Whoa! Slow your roll, Virginia boy. Can’t you see that I’m busy saving the Earth on my bike? That SUV of yours takes up half the city. I bet you live on a huge cul-de-sac, in a McMansion with your own septic system and sad little saplings planted by the developer who chopped down all the mature trees to build that monument to yourself. I bet you don’t even recycle.

I roll my eyes at you, shake my helmet head at your obvious ignorance.

And, yes, we do think like that when we are on our bikes and you’re stalled in the crosswalk, picking your nose and contributing to the epidemic of traffic congestion, pollution, global warming and stretched nostrils.

Friday is national Bike to Work Day. Try it, and you’ll see how quickly you, too, will loathe cars.

Why are you parked in the bike lane, taxi?

Stupid suit, you’re not so important that you have to text while walking.

Hellooooo? Can’t you see the red light, iPhone Barbie?

It’s hard not to let that snarky, internal monologue get like this on the days I bike to work. But on the days I do the kids’ car pool and end up behind the wheel?

These selfish, ridiculous bikers think they own the road!

Oh, yes, two lanes of traffic slow to a crawl after their Lycra cabooses. They sail through intersections, ignoring red lights, using their righteousness to justify total ignorance of all regular rules of traffic.

“Why did that man yell the F-word at you and throw his sandwich at our windshield?” my child wondered aloud one day, after an angry biker chucked his lunch at us.

I hit the wipers. Jelly and cream cheese. Ugh.

On the sidewalks, pedestrians get clipped, rushed, dinged and frightened out of their Cole Haans.

My internal arguments flare up again. “Hey, I’m keeping four cars off the road by doing the car pool today. Stick that in your inner tube hole!”

The numbers of bikes on the road in the District has increased about eightfold in less than a decade. That doesn’t seem to mean fewer cars on the streets, but rather more cases of all-out war.

And in fine Washington fashion, it’s vicious and vehemently argued no matter what side of the bike rack you’re on.

Just last month, a biker who slapped a car that nearly hit him ended up with a broken jaw after the driver got out and took revenge with his fist. The report of that incident on the Prince of Petworth blog generated an endless back-and-forth on the “car slap,” which is the next level up, apparently, from a biker’s middle finger.

Or see the “On-your-left tales of woe” thread on the Bike Arlington Forum, where folks went on for eight pages about the politics of “calling your passes,” letting people know when you’re passing them.

Few interactions in everyday living become as quickly and hotly inflamed as the bike/car/pedestrian demolition derby.

When I’m biking, I can totally see why. I’ve been run off the road, wedged between tour buses, car-doored, bumped into a sewer drain, honked at, hooked, yelled at and scared out of my mind.

When I first started bike commuting, I imagined it all European and chic and stuff. A cute little city bike with a basket in front, usually filled with a bouquet of flowers and a fresh baguette. I’d be in my skirt and my heels, of course.

My first bike commute was seven years ago, on an August morning. I was among about 1,800 other people who pedaled to work at that time, and we were still relatively uncommon, with few bike lanes and even fewer drivers who cared to share the road.

When I got to work, my jaunty linen jacket was sweat-stained; my face was red. In the bathroom, I flattened myself against the wall tiles and the metal stall to try and cool off. I now understood the Great Bike Commuter Shower Hunt.

Clearly I didn’t get that city biking is a dirty sport. Out come the shorts and T-shirt.

Ahhh, much better. Now I feel a bit of kinship with those really serious bikers, the ones in Lycra, with saddlebags and clip-on shoes. I smile and wave at the tattooed couriers, with their fixies and dark shades.

They’d sometimes do a chin-raise acknowledging me and my ungainly commuter bike.

And now, with a commuter population of about 8,000? I am the lowest of the low. A biker subspecies.

“Renter!” one of the uber-bikers yelled at me as I blocked his turn waiting at a stoplight on my cute, sturdy Capital Bikeshare bike.

A commenter on a recent Dr. Gridlock chat agreed about my lowly position as a bike sharer.

“In fact, BikeShare cyclists are the worst of the lot, worse now than couriers,” he wrote. “They simply have no clue how to follow the rules of the road.”

Whoa, wait a minute, Lycra boy.

Capital Bikeshare now accounts for more than 1,000 bikes, and an average of 4,000 rides a day, in the city, with more bikes and riders in Arlington County. And the program is set to spread further into the suburbs, with plans for racks in Rockville, Alexandria, Bethesda, Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Friendship Heights and Forest Glen. Even College Park and Howard County are considering them.

There are a heck of a lot more SUVs out there. You think arguments about paint color at a homeowners association are vicious? Just wait. The politics of suburban biking are going to make Congress’s debt-ceiling debates look reasonable.

Enjoy the ride and tweet me your worst biker/pedestrian/driver story, @petulad. To read my previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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