Just a couple of days ago, it happened again: the car slowed to pace me as I pedaled down Sunset Boulevard, the window rolled deliberatey down, and a shadowy figure within hunched towards me, squinted against the glare of daylight, and blurted out:
“Excuse me, sir, but if I keep going this way, I will get to Hollywood, won’t I?”
I assured the fellow that he was on the road to stardom, and we went our respective ways.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve given directions to befuddled motorists. It’s not, of course, because I look like some sort of geographical wise man. It’s because I’m on a bike, and they realize they can actually talk with me. It’s damn near impossible, after all, to communicate car-to-car, what with all that distance and steel between you.
A currently popular description of bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians is the unfortunate term “vulnerable user.” But aside from being vulnerable, we are also accessible: unconstrained, unsequestered—in a word, free, free human beings in a human context, which for a social animal such as ourselves is an incessantly communicative one.
Of course I exchange nods with other riders, or with pedestrians on the roadside or the paths, and often indulge in rolling chats with velocipedal strangers I encounter during my peregrinations. Just yesterday I rolled up alongside a young fellow who was in the first flush of love…with his bike. He had been riding only a few months, and had already worked up to 250 miles a week, starting from a mere commute to school. We blabbed along for three or four miles, till I arrived at my first destination of the day.
And Sunday, when I was lazing about on the bicycle bridge at Playa del Rey, with the mountains in the distance to the east, and the brilliant blue Pacific Ocean behind, a middle-aged fellow rolled up on a singlespeed, made a comment about my fixie, and we started chatting. Talked about bikes, family, work, whatever. I hadn’t even been in a chatty mood, but I warmed up quickly, and nearly an hour passed as we flapped our lips.
It happens all the time: the bicycle lets you be part of the city again, in a way that cars obstruct.
The Dutch know this: their bike paths are built with room for side-by-side riding. The contrast with US bike paths is stark. Here, bicycle facilities are often thought of the way car lanes are: as pipelines or sluiceways for an undifferentiated fluid of users.
But we are not liquid: we are aggregates of individuals, and the only way we can know each other is through a wink, a wave, and a word. Or a lot of words….
So much of our road design in the US blocks every form of communication beyond the angry blare of the horn.
But even here, in the nests of bitter solipsism that we’ve made of our streets, the bicycle succeeds in letting us be human with each other.
That is, perhaps, its greatest civic grace.