Saturday, November 9, 2013

Sousveillance nation

Sousveillance (/sˈvləns/ soo-vay-lənsFrench pronunciation: ​[suvɛjɑ̃s]): most commonly defined as the recording of an activity by a participant in the activity typically by way of small wearable or portable personal technologies.

Lately I've started to realize just how many people are riding with cameras on their helmets or handlebars. Yesterday, my Twitter feed blew up over a video on YouTube of a cyclist being ticketed (back in June) for taking up the whole lane at a pinch point. (The #ottbike hashtag went a little nuts with tweets to and from pretty much every officially-tweeting Ottawa Police Service representative.)

The cyclist fought the ticket successfully, I assume because the city's own website says:

Cyclists are required to ride as close as possible to the right curb of the roadway, except when:

  • Travelling at the normal speed of traffic
  • Avoiding hazardous conditions
  • The roadway is too narrow for a bicycle and a motor vehicle to travel safely side-by-side
  • Tiding alongside another cyclist in a manner that does not impede the normal movement of traffic
  • Preparing to make a left turn, passing another vehicle, or using a one-way street (in which case riding alongside the left curb is permitted) 
Well, I'd call that pretty clear. . . the first three are clearly demonstrated in this guy's video. He's going at the speed of traffic; the potholes are terrible; the road's too narrow to share.

Cyclists, increasingly, are getting cameras, and they're doing it to defend themselves, primarily, maybe with a side helping of educating the public. It's a lot like the dash cam situation in Russia, where because of insurance fraud and corrupt police - and because the courts prefer video evidence to eyewitness accounts - a huge number of drivers are recording everything that happens. Having a dash cam can actually lower your insurance premiums in Russia, I understand. (Bonus: you might get some truly crazy footage.)

Cyclists are in much the same position: if  you're nearly right-hooked, or passed too close by a heavy truck or a bus, or when you're given a ticket for taking the lane when there was reason to do so, it's way better to have evidence rather than your subjective opinion. I can't count the number of times someone's done something dangerous around me and it all happened too fast to identify the car or the plate number, and good luck catching up to a car to get that information. Then, if you actually want to make a complaint, you're stuck with how it felt to you, which isn't as concrete as camera footage.

So cyclists start recording. Some cameras record for a set amount of time, then loop, so you can 'set it and forget it,' and only pull the footage if something happens. You're just always recording, every time you roll out there onto the road. Clip on your helmet, kick your leg over, turn on your camera, and step on the pedals. It sounds a little crazy to me, but also like a recognition - that camera's part of your safety system, like your lights and bell and helmet.

YouTube channels like BikeViewCA are full of video clips demonstrating close calls, dangerous stretches of road, and confrontational drivers. (There are also clips showing beautiful days and exhilarating rides, but they're outnumbered.) And it's getting so that non-cyclists know about the cameras, too: there's this angry driver who sees the helmet cam and shouts, "Yeah, I hope you're getting this on camera!" at the cyclist while yelling her (faulty) convictions about the rules of the road.

I've thought about getting one myself. Today, watching the driver of a pickup truck towing a trailer have a complete meltdown because the person in the lane in front of him had stopped, third in line, at a red light, thereby blocking his access to the right turn he clearly desperately needed to make now now now - well, watching that, I thought again about pricing out GoPros. Sure, I want it so I can defend myself. Like the Russian drivers, we cyclists need to be proactive, we need to keep tabs, we (apparently) need to "sousveil."

But I'd also love to be able to share some of the gorgeous rides I've been on (and I admit I would also have fun taking it out rock climbing). I once biked with one hand and filmed a large chunk of my ride home along the Riverside Path with my iPhone, with the intention of someday making it into a video so my parents could see my awesome commute. (Still haven't done that; still might. I have the background tune all picked out.)

It begins. . .

This afternoon was the first actual snow of the season, and as first actual snows go, it was a good one: leaving a fine white layer on the grass and rooftops and leaves, and soaking down the streets. And, naturally, I was downtown at my office when it began, so I got to ride home in it. As I type, I'm thanking Quetzalcoatl for creating hot chocolate - one of the really nice things about the snowy season.

So, here comes the winter. We knew it was coming. I know that by spring I'll be desperate for a chance to ride without my shoulders hunched, my brain on overdrive working on balance and watching for ice. But for now, I don't mind that much that it started snowing today. Here goes: that time of the year when I get to feel really badass because I didn't put away the bike.

I don't mind the cold. You can dress for that. I don't really mind the wet, you can dress for that too, although I wasn't dressed for it today and the inside of the left leg of my jeans got soaked up to about six inches above my knee (the other leg was rolled up to keep it away from the chain).

What gets me is the dirt. The incredible amount of spontaneously emerging fine black grit that appears the moment it's "winter," clings to everything you wear, and finely powders the floor of wherever you keep your bike.

That, and when it's actually, actively, snowing it's much more difficult to see, because you're blinking at a rate of about three times a second.

Oh, yeah, and on the first snow? I really mind not knowing whether the drivers around me were good little Canadians and got their winter tires put on before November kicked in.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A little learning is a dangerous thing

On my street, there's a left turn lane where it intersects with a main, four-lane artery. My street itself is quiet and small. I don't think twice about the left turn: I just slide on over and wait at the light or head on through if it's green.

I was doing that this afternoon. Signalled, merged left, pulled up at the red light in the middle of the lane. Then a silver minivan pulled up beside me, on my right - halfway in the left turn lane, halfway in the right, but angled enough that it looked like he was planning to turn left. "Whoa, whoa, what the fuck, buddy?!?" I shouted, startled.

For once, the driver heard me, and responded. He rolled his window down and said something, I don't remember exactly what, asking why I was upset.

"What are you doing? Are you trying to turn left?" I asked him. (His turning signal was not on.)

"Yeah," he said.

I sensed a "teachable moment" and went for it. "So am I. So you're supposed to pull in behind me and wait there."

"No, I'm not," he said.

"Yeah, you are. You're supposed to wait, and make your turn after me."

"Not according to the Highway Traffic Act," he said.

"Ohhoho, yes according to the Highway Traffic Act," I answered.

(What I didn't say was, "Have you read the HTA? Because I have..." Let's have a look at the Ministry of Transportation's Driver's Handbook page on this rule, shall we?)

He cut me off. "No, I can pull up here because I left you a safe distance," he indicated the three feet of space between his door and my handlebars.

"That's not the point, you can't just..." I said.

"I'm sorry if I scared you, but I did leave a safe distance," he cut me off. He sounded so maddeningly certain.

Then the light turned green, and in a Pavlovian reaction I just started into my turn, out of some kind of dread of being in the intersection having an argument while the light was green. And lo and behold, the minivan driver started into his turn at the same time. I threw my right hand out and shouted, "See, that is NOT SAFE!" and as I dodged the cars coming out of the other side of the intersection and made it safely, and with some relief, to the right-hand side of the street, I really hoped that he'd been smart enough to figure out what was wrong with his logic. Maybe he'd figured out that if I'm moving to the outside of the street, and he's moving to the inside of the street, our paths kind of inevitably cross. Making him, sitting on my right side, nowhere near a safe position for me.

Or maybe he just thought I was a panicky woman on a bike and dismissed the whole thing.

I wish I'd had time, or the self-possession, to stop in the intersection and explain the physics to him. How if he's beside me as we both turn left, he's going to have to either cut me off (dangerous) or complete his turn behind me (which he should have been doing anyway). But I didn't. I hope he came to the realization when he was forced to brake and let me continue my turn in order not to sideswipe me. I appreciate that he actually spoke to me, in fact - it's a rare driver that does.

But I'm also a little disturbed by his quoting the "rules" so wrongly. It's like the recent campaign to get people to adopt the three-foot rule has drowned out all else. Worrying: maybe the city should be spending that public service announcement money on more general bike-literacy for drivers, rather than on one rule to the exclusion of others. Because the only rule this guy knew was that he needed to be three feet from me. Knowing that, he figured he was A-OK to do what he did.

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

- Alexander Pope