The problem of America's congested roads has long been simple: too many tires vying for a fixed amount of pavement. But with a growing bicycle culture joining the car culture, the difficulties have expanded greatly. The conveyances now travel at very different speeds, follow different rules of the road and expose their operators to vastly different levels of physical vulnerability.
Let me start with a disclaimer: I am no fan of the car culture. I use buses, trains and my feet, as well as my car. And I'm a fair-weather bicyclist who sticks to routes with little traffic.
But the rise in all-conditions, all-traffic bike commuting is causing considerable anxiety and injury or worse — and for all concerned. Here's a real-life example:
I'm driving at night on a city street with two narrow car lanes. This is a college neighborhood in which students habitually emerge from between parked cars, wearing earbuds and dressed in black.
As I scrutinize the shadows for darting students, a bicyclist materializes on my right. She passes me in the tiny space between my Honda and the parked cars, offering a high sign. I give her a high sign back out of friendliness but also out of relief that I hadn't veered three inches to my right and done her terrible damage.
The cyclist was clearly operating under a set of dangerous assumptions: That I had eyes on the back of my head possessing superhuman powers of peripheral vision. That the extra eyes were wearing infrared goggles able to detect bodies in the dark. That I was not intoxicated or texting or otherwise distracted.
Different dynamics govern bicycle-pedestrian interaction. Amateur cyclists traumatized by motorized traffic often try to share the sidewalks with pedestrians. But when the coast is clear on the road, they whiz through crosswalks, frightening those on foot.
My father was hit by a bicycle going the wrong way down a one-way street. He had looked before crossing, but not in the direction from which no traffic is supposed to come. He ended up in the hospital.
Meanwhile, tragedies befalling bicyclists are legion. In San Francisco, a 24-year-old riding in a bike lane was killed when a truck made a right turn into her. It is really hard for a trucker to see a silent low vehicle coming along the right. When the driver was not cited, controversy ensued.
My sister commutes by bike in Boston and offers accounts of death and near death. A friend died after his bike slipped on the snow and fell under a truck. In this case, no one was really at fault. The story sharply curbed my interest in bike commuting, however, though not my sister's.
You be the judge. I'm driving at rush hour on a busy four-lane with no shoulders at the sides. We're going uphill, and there's a slow-moving bicycle taking up the right lane. Actually, he was doing great, considering the demands of pedaling up a steep slope, but he did slow traffic behind him to 12 miles an hour. Because the hill was long, drivers knew they were in for an extended crawl unless they veered one lane left into the stampeding traffic.
Now, the cyclist has a legal right to be on the road. But he is creating a traffic jam and raising blood pressure all around him.
How does one factor in all the factors? You want to encourage biking, but there really has to be separation from motorized vehicles and pedestrians.
Of course, bicyclists should honor the laws of the road. Harder to enforce, though, are the laws of common sense.
(A member of the Providence Journal editorial board, Froma Harrop writes a nationally syndicated column from that city. She has written for such diverse publications as The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar and Institutional Investor.)