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Kalikiano Kalei

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Two-Wheeling in a Four-Wheeling World...
2/16/2012 11:54:34 AM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]

More 'wheeling and dealing' on the subject of the toxic nature of automobiles, the diminishment of America's quality of life, and thoughts on the joys of human powered two wheeled transportation.

TWO-WHEELING IN A FOUR-WHEELING WORLD…


I have been a dedicated cyclist for as long as I can remember. Although I first began my association with bicycles on three wheels (a favorite childhood trike at age 4), it wasn’t long before I discovered the sublime enjoyment that pedaling a two-wheeled vehicle can provide when the weather and surroundings are amenable. Today, these many years later, I use a bicycle exclusively for my daily commute to and from the office, a round trip of about 10 miles (and I still keep two motorcycles primed and ready in the garage for those occasional moments when only a spirited motorized sprint down a nice empty rural stretch of twisty country highway will satisfy the spirit).

Things have changed remarkably since my own adolescent affinity for two-wheeled vehicles grew back in the 50s, mostly due to a burgeoning demographics and millions more automobiles and trucks trying to navigate congested streets and highways originally constructed for far lower rates of vehicle use. Adding to this is the fact that modern vehicles are generally faster, more maneuverable and more powerful than they used to be, and that they are being driven more and more frequently by a population of younger and highly distractible drivers, who today possess lower levels of driver training than ever before. Consequently, riding any two wheeled vehicle on today’s crowded American streets and highways is an increasingly hazardous proposition and it takes a firm sense of commitment to persist in being what most non cycle driving automobile drivers regard as a ‘second-class road citizen’ (i.e. bicyclists and motorcyclists). I was acutely reminded of this fact yet again today in the zero-dark hours of the early morning on my way to work, but it’s not as if such moments of perspicacious clarity are rare and infrequent for me, given the distracted and often downright careless driving behavior evident in many motorists I come across.

In this latest encounter I was about 10 blocks from my destination, on a street that has a series of four-way stops controlled only by stop signs (not traffic lights). Since there are typically on a small handful of motorists about at such moments in the early pre-dawn hour (about 5:30 AM), I usually don’t bother to come to a full stop at these intersections, but rather continue through them at speed after determining that there are no vehicles within view. The temperature was quite cold (in the mid-30s) and there was a stiff 10 mph headwind adding to my discomfort, so I was in no mood for trifling mid-course annoyances as I came to the first of these four-way crossings and sailed through, vaguely aware of the car that was behind me and slightly to my left as I approached the juncture. There were no other vehicles anywhere within sight, but as I entered the crossing, the driver of the car behind me elected to give me a long blast on his/her car horn, apparently an expression of righteous indignation that I had dared to not come to a full stop before proceeding. The nerve of me!

When this happened I was too cold and irritated to unlimber my left middle digit from the bike’s handle bars and flip this cretin off as he/she richly deserved, but I was certainly relishing the thought of how satisfying it would have been to do so and under normal circumstances I would have had no compunctions about it whatsoever. Probably owing to my cold and discomfort, I elected in this instance to simply continue my path through the intersection and ignore the jerk, but it had the predictable result of prompting me to agitatedly mull this event over in the several remaining blocks of my ride.

A block further up, at the succeeding four-way stop intersection, I fully expected more of the same rude treatment from this idiot, but this time the jerk was silent and we continued on our respective ways, the jerk doubtless indulging his/her smug, self-righteous conviction that here was yet another scoff-law cyclist: one of those irritating two-wheeled anarchists who flaunted the rules of the road, to the extreme annoyance of all who drive about safely encapsulated within several tons of steel protection…and probably also a communist, a pervert, a low-life scumbag, or any one of the other deprecatory pejorative associations fondly ascribed by god-fearing motorists to bike-lane hugging cyclists they feel are an insufferable nuisance to have around (on their roads).

The unhappy fact is that in California (and in most other states) the motor vehicle code (Cal VC) states that all operators of two-wheeled, non-motorised vehicles (that’s us, Mabel!), while fully entitled to all road-rights of automobile drivers, must also comply strictly to the same rules and regulations incumbent upon motorists. Despite the fact that this is clearly spelled out in the code, those words apparently fail completely to illuminate the dark little chambers of thoughtful reflectivity that one assumes must be hidden away somewhere in the cerebrums of motorists. Somehow, in that teeny, tiny little fragment of frontal lobe that motorists dedicate to rational thought, the first part of this dictum is either overlooked or forgotten, while the second part of it assumes (not without great irony) the status of holy writ just brought down the mountain on not-fully-dry clay tablets by a semi-crazed Jew who looks a lot like actor Charleton Heston in biblical drag.

The result of this selectively diminished driver awareness is typically that any bicycle operator who has the temerity to move out of the debris-strewn, potholed bike lane to centrally occupy the main vehicle lane is frequently viewed by impatient motorists as little more than an illegal and highly annoying obstacle to progress (think: open-season on the duck preserve) and usually the least that a cyclist may expect from such an assumptions is a long horn blast of disapprobation (the worst? Becoming fresh road-kill on the front bumper of someone’s SUV).

While the state statutes regard bicycle and automobiles as essentially fully equal and totally congruent in terms of their mutual rights and entitlements, this fact invariably fails to register in that previously referred to tiny fragment of frontal lobe in motorists reserved for automobile/bicycle interactive analysis (hence the indignant horn blast mentioned earlier). The fact that a four-thousand pound, 250 horsepower, four-wheeled vehicle can never, despite the wildest distortions of pure reason, EVER be considered the complete equal of a 27 pound bicycle powered by a 160 pound human being, somehow fails entirely to be recognized (let alone admitted by either politicians or ordinary motorists).

Certainly no one is his right mind would seriously suggest staging a road race between a human-powered bicycle and a hopped-up Ford Mustang on petroleum steroids, yet that is what this daily contest boils down to in its repetitive daily reality: a demand that bicyclists compete evenly with motorists in their high-powered surrogate army tanks for their respective rights and entitlements on the roadway. The sheer enormity of this dandy little ‘legal’ absurdity defies imagination, let alone the confines of practical reality, but of course it is actually the result of an unwillingness to accept that fact that no one (at least no politician) wants to spend taxpayer dollars to design and build separate bicycle paths that are physically separated from roadways (such as are often found in many European nations). Thus the convenient little lie that bicycles and automobiles are entirely equal continues to exist largely unchallenged (except by us cyclistas) and we two-wheelers continue to quietly endure the result of this imbalanced reasoning until at some point something inside snaps and the formerly polite, cooperative, compliant and public spirited cyclist (who likely really does believe in sharing equally, if at all possible) undergoes a spontaneous Jekyll/Hyde transformation and turns into a little two-wheeled reactive monster with anarchistic tendencies!

It doesn’t take much experience negotiating the mean streets of modern America to quickly formulate an awareness that the ONLY way a bicyclist can ever be the full equal of a vehicle-driving motorist on streets and roads is by artfully bending the rules, cutting legal corners, and twisting the odds a bit in favor of survival. The main object of sharing a road with cars for a cyclist boils down to, and will ever be, maintaining as much physical separation and distance from the latter as humanly possible, at all times. In many instances, this means planning ahead so as to not find one’s self in an awkward spot in close proximity to impatient motorists (who will unfailingly NOT yield the right of way to a puny cyclist whom the rules clearly states has it). That frequently translates to maneuvers wherein a cyclist will proceed through a stop-sign (if there are no other vehicles about) so as to avoid encounters such as the one I described above. It also means applying street smarts and intuitive analysis to all street situations at least 50 yards or more in advance of one’s path and taking whatever steps may be appropriate, since while an automobile can accelerate quickly with a mere tap of the gas pedal, a bicycle’s responsiveness is limited entirely to how much raw muscular effort a rider can apply to his pedals (assuming even then that circumstances, positioning, weather and all other factors are favorable, of course). It’s hardly a comparative or evenly matched process; think of it as a battle between a soldier armed with a pea-shooter and another holding a modern automatic weapon at the ready, if that helps. Or perhaps a nation armed with nuclear missiles engaging another one defended by camel-riding Bedouin tribesmen. No matter what the analogue employed, cars and cycle ain’t nohow, noway equal in any possible sense. And it is sheer, homicidal idiocy to think otherwise.

Of course, some means of bending the rules to enhance survival odds are better (and safer) than others. Typically, this means that cutting corners safely mandates a liberal application of rational thought, emotional balance, and safety awareness. Unfortunately, these prerequisites are frequently in somewhat short supply among many younger bicycle riders and that deficit can often make the difference between ‘bending rules safely’ and literally begging for the vitriolic enmity of motorists who (typically) lack any vestige of safety awareness themselves. I myself always make a point of ignoring the constraints of the vehicle law ONLY when intelligence, experience, proprioceptic sensors (i.e. ‘seat of the pants’) and all available evidence demonstrates that it is safe to do so. The typical motorist doesn’t see things that way, of course, but then he’s driving the four wheeled equivalent of an M1A1 Abrahms Main Battle Tank and they just aren’t amenable to adept, swift maneuvering like bicycles are. Furthermore, to continue the analogue of cars being figuratively armored tanks, if motorists adopted tactics similar to those street-smart maneuvers used by many cyclists, the streets would quickly degenerate into mad chaos. The point may, by virtue of the foregoing comparisons, be fairly allowed that again, cars and cycles are not equals, thus all this legalistic bullshit about requiring everyone to follow the SAME set of rules equally and without exception is exactly that: bovine cow-exhaust of the finest fragrant essence.

As members of an ordered, so-called ‘civilised’ society, we Americans are generally constrained to recognise and comply with a massive set of codified rules and regulations that our social bureaucracy has established, so as to permit the most effective cooperative interaction attended by the least amount of aggravation and/or discord. These rules are not absolutes, however, being merely an attempt by human society to facilitate social harmony and reduce disorder among its constituents, but far too many people think of laws (which are merely uniformly legalized agreements after all, or rules for which the violation of same carries a legally mandated penalty) as absolutely inviolable. In fact, the old aphorism ‘rules are made to be broken’, aside from being all too true in a practical sense, constitutes a nod to the necessary realities of regular daily life, since without rule-breakers and those who creatively ‘bend’ existing rules, civilization would become oppressively static, devoid of reward and completely stultified. Read: totally joyless.

There are a great number of famous quotes on the subject of rules and the ‘necessity’ of breaking them to keep life fresh, interesting and positive, as any GOOGLE search will affirm. Several of my personal favorites are the following.

“I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.” –Robert Heinlein

“It is a good idea to obey all the rules when you're young just so you'll have the strength to break them when you're old.”  -Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain)

“The fewer rules a coach has, the fewer there are for a player to break.”  - John Madden

“Any fool can make a rule, and every fool will mind it.”  - Henry David Thoreau

“If I didn’t break any rules, I’d miss out on half the fun in life.”  -Kate Hepburn

An important point to recognize here is that not all rules are good, wise, well-conceived or circumstantially appropriate. Simply because someone or some body of someones decides to initiate and make legally binding a behavioral requirement doesn’t make that rule perfectly suited to functionally resolving the perceived problem it may have been intended to address. When it comes to the daunting complexities of how to enable grossly dissimilar vehicles to cooperatively (and safely) interact on dangerously congested streets and roadways, many aspects of the existing vehicular code are not only counterproductive, at times they can be absolutely dangerous to many of us. By expecting puny, human-powered two wheeled vehicles to compete head-to-head on an equal footing with massive motorized vehicles weighing 28 times as much as a cyclist and his bicycle, the practical result ends up putting the cyclist at a disproportionately grave risk, since human nature being what it is, no Corvette driver will ever fully respect the rights of a cyclist any more than Stalin respected the rights of his citizens, or Hitler those of the Jews. Power and strength are, regardless of fanciful and idealized sentiment, the primary and final determinants of all human interactions on the planet, just as they are in the animal world. It is an unhappy fact that despite all our vaunted ability to exercise reason, whenever there’s any sort of contentious interaction among individuals, the functional bottom-line will ever be ‘might makes right’ as our overly-hyped ability to govern our actions rationally wimps out to the strident demands of our baser animal instincts.

Thus, whenever a large Ford 4WD pickup faces off against a bicycle on the street, it’s a no-brainer which individual will usually observe all (or most of) the appropriate niceties and which will not. Intimidation is, of course, a very integral part of the power/strength interactive process employed by all animals in deciding who will be treated with respect and who will not. To think otherwise is simply worse than foolish, since just beneath that thin veneer of ‘civil reasoning’ we humming beans possess lies a highly reactive and emotional beast governed hugely by instinct and a dangerously primitive brainstem. This is such a profoundly fixed axiom of human interaction (the notional that we are animals with the theoretical asset of also being able to think rationally, hah-hah!) that the only time an exception might occur is when the person behind that huge steel monster truck’s steering wheel happens also (by some happy coincidence) to be a sometime, or now and again, cyclist (thereby able to consider things from the vantage of the hapless two wheeler).

I have long felt that in the best of all possible worlds, an important part of any thoughtfully conceived vehicular driver’s license program would require that the motor vehicle driver applicant also be required to spend some time on a bicycle’s seat, learning about the ‘rules’ of interacting with larger four wheeled vehicles from the disadvantaged and ‘inferior’ aspect of a cyclist. Naturally, in any large nation or social group, such niceties are simply impossible to institute, due to the impossible logistical demands imposed, but it would certainly go a long way towards drawing cyclists and motorists closer together (at least in theory) into a more mutually harmonious relationship (well, perhaps not harmonious, but at least into closer understanding of each other).

But to return to this morning’s unhappy encounter, simultaneous with all the annoyance I felt over this jerk’s behavior, I also recognized and acknowledged the fact that not everyone has the broad-minded awareness of all the component considerations implicit in such unharmonious face offs. For example, it isn’t outside the realm of the possible that the driver of that vehicle might see and interpret my ‘scoff-law’ behavior as encouragement for him to perversely engage in similar maneuvers. That is, to ignore stop signs and blow right on through them himself…a consequence that could have truly serious implications for all of us, cyclists and motorists alike. Naturally, when considered by someone who lacks the fine discriminatory ability to analyse all the factors exhaustively, the ‘inferior’ thinker might feel “If he can do it, I can do it”, not realizing that there’s a whole world of difference between a bicycle proceeding safely through a stop sign regulated crossing and a 4-5 thousand pound juggernaut doing the same thing with reckless abandon.

In actual fact, I observed an example of this in the behavior of a driver I regularly encounter on my daily commute who travels the same route. This small Honda Civic driver routinely ignores stop signs and sails right through them, just like many bicyclists do, and seeing that certainly gave me considerable pause for thought. But again, the reactive and indignant assumption by a pissed-off motorist is likely ‘If he can do it, so can I’, but that again assumes that all bicycles and all cars are exactly equal and perfectly similar (at least in terms of their physical performance and driving capabilities), which of course they are not! Clearly and obviously, the inescapable conclusion any analytically adept individual must come to is that since cars and bicycles have absolutely nothing in common other than their occupying the same space together, bicycles should not be governed by the exact same rules of engagement! Is that impermissibly deferential to suggest? Well, in today’s PC America, in which the erstwhile ‘rights’ of the minority all too often dictate the norm for the majority, I’d say no…it’s merely another ‘politically correct’ adjustment that begs to be made in our society.

A case in point to support this is that in some states (Idaho being one) a far more enlightened vehicle code permits bicycles to slow slightly and proceed through a stop sign controlled intersection without stopping, should it be safe to do so and in the absence of other traffic. But it also clearly prohibits motor vehicles from taking any such liberties, making a legal point that bicycles and cars are…once again…NOT the same. This opens up the door to arguments that, since circumstantial evidence supports the argument that these vehicles are dissimilar, full recognition of this fact should be acknowledged and action taken to separate cars and bicycles in the best interests of safety.

Naturally, the fly in the ointment here is that most ‘average’ Americans are fairly simplistic when it comes to understanding many of the finer distinctions of life that our complex daily affairs confront us with. Just as this ‘average’ American misperceives ‘freedom’ as being the right to do as one pleases, whenever and wherever (that is, devoid of any sense of burdensome personal responsibility), and may feel that the concept of American ‘freedom & equality’ is best defined by a literal interpretation of complete and total socio-economic equality on all parameters, so too would the ‘average’ motorist reactively resent what he felt is ‘favoritism’ (e.g. legal recognition that bicycles and cars are NOT equal and therefore shouldn’t be subject to the same basic rules of operation). Conservative reactionism is a profoundly basic behavioral component of many Americans, who fail to understand the myriad finer norms and nuances of social interactions, and regard such dual standards as prejudicial (and therefore ‘un-American’). Unenlightened reactivity is a constituent aspect of many groups such as those delightfully misguided ‘Tea Party’ conservatives we regularly see making delusional ignoramuses of themselves in national politics, but it is also the hallmark of narrow-mindedness and provincialistic short-sightedness in general (think: non-rocket scientists).

The danger implicit in this is clear enough, but when you take an emotionally immature, perhaps intellectually challenged individual and turn him/her loose behind the wheel of a 4-5 thousand pound killing machine on public streets and he/she reacts in the manner just described, the consequences can be horrible to contemplate. We already face serious public safety hazards posed by immature motorists who now think absolutely nothing of running red lights in their vehicles; compound that hazard substantially by adding-in a hostile reactivity factor (provoked, perhaps, by a cyclist who has just breezed through a marked crossing), and homicidal rage/death isn’t far off the game board. And as we all know, any physical collision at all between a bicycle and a car ends in death (or at least severe injury) for the cyclist (but not for the motorist, safely protected as he is by an impervious metal exoskeleton weighing several thousand pounds and surrounded by multiple passive and active safety systems).

By refusing to accept the fact that bicycles and motorized vehicular traffic ought properly to be physically separated in the best safety interests of all, we are setting the stage for many, many unfortunate events that adversely affect health and safety on American streets and roadways. In recent decades in Europe, a whole new era of urban safety planning theory has resulted in a dawning awareness that the heretofore standard model system of carefully regulated traffic laws and safety standards may not be the best means of ensuring safety for all users of the roadways, after all. In several European cities this school of thought has resulted in the removal of all stop lights and stop signs at roadway intersections on an experimental basis, the idea being that when there are no visible controls governing motorists, drivers will instinctively interact responsibly, cautiously and safely in their own best interests. That presupposes, naturally enough, that all drivers possess a sufficiently high level of social responsibility, awareness, understanding and personal accountability, qualities that are remarkably deficit in ‘average’ American life. Given the typical lack of a suitably developed sense of personal responsibility that characterizes so many of us ‘average’ citizens in modern America (particularly evident among the emotionally immature individuals that comprise such a large segment of our population), one can’t help but wonder if such a system would stand a vestige of a chance in our highly mechanized urban transportation environment.

However, having said that, the fact remains unaltered that in the end it’s all about money, and in any human society ever devised those who have the money dictate the terms of life for all the rest of us who don’t. As long as vested personal transportation commercial interests (read: corporate entities in the automobile manufacturing and energy industries) dictate the terms of our existence, enough taxpayer money to tackle this problem of bicycles and cars sharing mean streets together will never be made available. Elected representatives (read: politicians) these days must by necessity be at least successful millionaires (in order to win expensive elections) and no millionaire (or billionaire) yet (save perhaps for Warren Buffet, bless his wise little elfen self) has recognized that America’s automobile culture has become pathologically toxic, not just to basic health and safety, but to every aspect of America’s vaunted ‘quality of life’, and diverted sufficient funding to enable establishment of healthy alternate transportation infrastructures (facilitating use of bicycles certainly, and perhaps even of motorcycles to a substantially lesser degree).

It’s a good thing I retain a good grip on my own medulla or at moments such as the one described at the beginning of this piece, I would have been sorely tempted to use my hidden, superdooper X-ray vision to instantly incinerate the yahoo who had the temerity to rudely express his indignation over my own well-developed set of bicycle survival tactics at 5:30 AM, on the way to work. Most regrettably, and contrary to Shakespeare’s tender admonishment by Portia (in The Merchant of Venice) that ‘…the quality of mercy is not strained…it droppeth like the gentle rains from Heaven’, my first impulse to exhibitions of emotional reactivity (like the rude horn honking that set me off this AM) is to reactively hope that God immolates them in the lowest level of Hell for eternity.

My, my…another human behavioral paradox, so it would seem….that as gentle and humane a person as myself can revert to a raging animal in mere nanoseconds when the circumstances are right. Whoda thunkit? Be well, friends, but stay well off my flank when I’m out on the streets on my two-wheeled conveyances unless you want a face-full of attitude from this world’s greatest living authority on everything!

Aloha kakou, Kalikiano


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The Wisdom of Les Miserables: Lessons From the Heart of Jean Valjean by Alfred Garrotto

What can a 21st century seeker learn about life, love and spirituality from a 19th century French novel? Plenty...  
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