Saturday, February 13, 2016

Getting a little of my own back

Bank Street in Old Ottawa South is four lanes wide: two lanes of traffic, two of parked cars. If you're on a bike, you stay on high alert, watching for opening doors, watching laneways and driveways for people turning in and out, and having cars skim by you in the traffic lane, pinching you between them and the parked cars.

So I was doing that yesterday, biking along in the door zone in the northbound lane, when I heard a guy in a crappy blue Civic coming up behind me. There was no one in the oncoming lane. This guy, however, was not about to move out of his lane for anything, and he zoomed past me about a foot and a half off my left shoulder, aggressively close. And honked at me as he did, just a little tap, but combined with the way he was driving, I took the honk to mean, "get the hell out of the road."

As I followed him up the street I saw him duck and weave through traffic, just like you might expect. I grumbled to myself that I wasn't running my camera, and that he'd just wrecked my mood - on Winter Bike to Work Day no less. 

Feeling grumpy, I cranked up the hill. But then I realized, at Sunnyside, that I was catching up to him at the red light. There's something satisfying about that: all that dodging and weaving in and out, and the woman on the bike passes you. I filtered up past the line of cars at the light, looked in the window at him, muttered, "What good did all that do you anyway?" and then the light was green. 

Ahead, I had to take the inside lane because of a line of parked cars at the curb. Fortuitously, I was right in front of Aggro Civic. So I signalled, moved left, and took the lane for about a block, right smack in front of him. 

And oh, the revving of engines and the squealing of tires when I finally moved over (in front of the library) and let him pass. Twenty or thirty whole seconds had passed while he was stuck -  oh God oh God - behind a bike.

The thing is, I knew he was an aggressive driver; I was actually doing the safest thing by moving over and taking the lane, but I was very aware that there was a pushy guy at the wheel right behind me who had already honked at me for existing. Pissing that kind of driver off is always risky. You're likely to make them more dangerous. And being even a little confrontational, when the power difference is so huge, takes some guts: car-on-bike road rage is a scary prospect.

But it was also - maybe because it took some courage to do - darn satisfying. 


Then, when I mentioned the incident on Twitter, someone accused me of being "petty." "Not a great way to get people on your side," he said.
But every day, I get a half dozen of these microaggressions, from careless, ignorant, or actually hostile drivers. Several times a day, my safety is actively threatened by drivers, just while I'm getting from one place to another. I yell, I honk my horn, I flip them off, the driver continues on their way oblivious or - worse - smirking: "Heh, did you see her jump? Har har." There's very little you can do: you can't catch up to them, and if you provoke a confrontation, well, they're in control of a deadly weapon and you're not. Sue me if, this time, I was a little proud of myself for claiming a bit of my own back. 

To paraphrase Atwood - "drivers are afraid cyclists will inconvenience them; cyclists are afraid drivers will kill them." The longer that goes on, the less interested I am in being nice about my place in the road. It is not fair that my safety should be threatened on an ongoing basis just for moving around in the world. 

I'm also not interested in getting anyone - especially Aggro Civic - "on my side." There's no "side" to be on, there are the rules of the road: which I was obeying. And this guy isn't going to be suddenly convinced that bikes have a right to the road by my cowering out of his way. No one will be convinced that cyclists have a right to the road if all we do is jump out of the way, endangering ourselves in the process of trying, very hard, not to ever ever be in the way of a driver. 

Saying I should have backed down from taking the lane out of some kind of interest in "furthering the cycling cause" is like saying to the suffragettes, "No one likes a shrill woman, can't you be nicer about wanting to vote?"

If cyclists don't get in drivers' way, they're invisible. The assumption that, regardless of the situation, the best thing a cyclist can do to keep the peace is stay out of the way - that assumption is actually dangerous. It puts the cyclist off at the side of the road where she can be ignored by the drivers, it makes cyclist's behaviour less predictable, and it trains the drivers to think whatever happens to a cyclist is her own fault. It also lets drivers continue to forget we exist.

No, that guy didn't learn a lesson. He didn't decide that cyclists are human beings with rights to the road. He was probably confirmed in his opinion that cyclists are stupid, reckless, self-righteous, annoying, deserve to be run over. I don't actually care. He didn't gun it dangerously past me in a narrow lane again, and his own impatience got him all upset and angry. My work here is done.

Sunday, February 7, 2016


One of the advantages of riding a cheap mountain bike is that I feel like I have all kinds of license to add shit to it. Pretty much from the time I put two Beamer headlights from MEC on the handlebars several years back and realized that two headlights are not just brighter than one, they're also cuter (see my profile picture on this blog), I've generally taken up as much space on the handlebars as possible. It doesn't hurt that the cyberpunk fan in me likes the aesthetic of the clobbered-together, wired-up apocalypse-survival vehicle. Some days it helps to feel like you're ready for World War Z.

(On days when I particularly hate every human being behind the wheel of a car, I'm glad you can still access Bob Fishell's Spike Bike stories, which date back to the 80s and which still come flashing into my mind occasionally:

The year is 1998. The Federal Government is the puppet of a consortium of the 20 large corporations which run the country. State and local governments have been completely taken over by real estate developers, whose goal it is to turn America into one giant suburb consisting of subdivisions, apartment complexes, shopping malls, and office parks.Bicycles have been all but outlawed. The Bicycle Act of 1992 made it illegal to appropriate tax dollars for bike lanes, paths, etc., and included a provision that "those persons riding bicycles on public roads do so entirely at their own risk." The law was originally intended to stem the flood of imports of Japanese bikes before foreign trade was cut off entirely in '94.
However, the ramifications of this law were much more serious. If a cyclist were to be injured or killed by a motorist, the motorist could not be prosecuted or even sued. It is open season on cyclists. One man fights back....)

Some of my additions have been more successful: others - like the short-lived half-a-two-litre-Coke-bottle I bolted to the down tube in an attempt at a makeshift front fender - less so.

Right now, I have no room left on my handlebars, what with the gearshifts, two headlights, legally-mandated-but-essentially-useless bell, GoPro camera mount (thinking of moving that, now, because large swathes of the camera's field of vision now have things like headlights in the way), and my latest and proudest addition: a vintage AirZound airhorn.

Gifted to me back in December by a friend who dug it out of her workshop and handed it over in the middle of a solstice party conversation about biking, this little horn is noisy. Really, really noisy. It puts out something like 120 decibels.

Hooked up to what looks like a 500-ml air canister which you can refill with a bike pump and which sits nicely in the bottle holder, it screws on to the handlebars with a quick release clamp. A button on the top of the back end of the horn sets off an ear-piercing blast.

I have to ride with my left hand over the gearshift if I want to keep a thumb on the button through sketchy intersections, but it's worth it. If only because I then go through the intersections almost hoping someone will be a jerk. Because I will blow them off the face of Christmas.

I think I'm even happier that this horn looks pretty vintage compared to the ones on sale out there on the interwebs: adds to the 80's-tribute apocalyptopunk look.

Of course, as soon as you've hooked up an air horn to your bike, you start picturing what else you could put on it if it were legal (and if this really was the Spike Bike dystopia). It didn't take long before friends asked, on my Facebook post about the horn, when I was adding the flamethrower or plasma gun for rush hour. Discussion of the logistics of the flamethrower had another friend suggesting, "Better install it under your seat so it aims backwards and melts bumpers of the tailgaters. Pilot light should be shielded though so it doesn't fry your bottom."

When I told my brother about the horn, he suggested I could hook it up to a generator so it just sounded all the time when I was riding. I could just roll down the street cocooned in a protective cone of deafening noise. Not sure whether that image cracked me up more, or trying to figure out how long it would take before people - Ottawans in particular - complained to someone in authority about the "aggressive, bullying, noisy cyclist."

"Cyclist accused of being ACTUAL menace to the public: news at 11."

The friend who gave me the horn rides motorcycles: her wife suggested a "cow's-tail," which I had never heard of before but which, she explained, is a colourful leather braid, about two or three feet long, that clips to your handlebars with a quick release. If people get too close, you yank the braid free and can whack their windows with it. "Wakes up the texters," she said. "Maaaaaaaaay not be entirely legal though."

So I mentioned my occasional fantasy, of a three-foot-long horizontal stick attached to my back rack, with a spike in the end of it, so people passing too close would key themselves in the process. (Think about it: I'd have damaged their cars, yes: but only because they had, demonstrably, been breaking the law. Yeah, I bet I'd still get sued. Interesting legal conundrum though.) 

Naturally, #ottbike rose to the occasion:
Sure, a flag might be less aggressive, but we're in Spike Bike mode here. (I have also considered the much less confrontational route of marking where a metre from my bike is, on my GoPro, then filming a commute and counting how many people pass inside that distance. Not that I expect any major action from it - like tickets or anything..)

To be a bit more serious, I've found it kind of amazing how many questions I've seen online about whether or not it's legal to put an air horn on a bike. (Hint: if you can buy one at MEC, they're not illegal.) Really, in the Ontario HTA, there aren't many restrictions on what you can attach to a bike: there are more rules about what you must attach: a silly bell, front and rear lights, those "strips of reflective material" that no one but no one actually has on their front and back forks. But the idea that an air horn - essentially, just a noise maker like a bell, but at a volume that will penetrate to the interior of a car and be salient to a driver in the way that a bell, or your shouts, won't be - would be illegal for some reason just speaks to how submissive people think cyclists should be. Don't take up space, don't block traffic, don't make anyone slow down. . . and for heaven's sake don't be as loud as a car.

Tough. Got an air horn: not afraid to use it. Just be glad it's not a flamethrower.