Thursday, January 11, 2007

The best drivers are also cyclists

Fast reflexes and a detailed appreciation of just how dangerous it is on the highway give cyclists the edge over other road users
by Nick van der Leek

Where I live in South Africa there was a furor recently between cyclists and car drivers. Car drivers accuse cyclists of being arrogant show-offs who think they own the road, and cyclists accuse drivers of driving recklessly, and sometimes with purposeful negligence. I don’t know the sentiments of the rest of the world on this issue, but I do know a computer game has been invented called Carmageddon, which is about running over cyclists and racking up points for each ‘hit’. So it’s easy to find oneself under the impression that cyclists are universally seen as an irritation on roads.

And it’s easy to see the point of drivers who are impatiently on their way somewhere. A cyclist becomes just another obstacle on one’s way to work or some other destination.

It’s easy to become infected with the entitlements of easy motoring. These are plenty. After being without a car for a year in South Africa (and this is a country where not having a car equals transportational paralysis), now I’m fully mobile once more. And I’ve quickly moved from enjoying the freedom and independence of being able to get to where I want to go when I want to, to having increasing expectations and needs about how I get what I want, and how I get to where I am going. Quick example: When I want to draw money from an ATM, I prefer to park right beside the ATM than drive into a parking lot and have to walk a little further. I know of at least three locations a reasonable distance from my home that allow me to park literally within 1-2metres of an ATM. The same applies to buying incidentals like a chocolate, or milk or bread. It’s possible to stop your car right by the door of convenience stores at gas stations. This being the case, I’m quite reluctant to park several meters away and have to waste time walking across a parking lot. These are just some of the entitlements we’ve gotten used to, and that’s just the beginning.

Drive-thru is one of the most obvious. At a nearby KFC, when it gets to around 5pm or 6pm, the number of cars approaching the restaurant snake right around the building and form a queue into the highway. It’s obvious that the people in cars outnumber the people actually visiting the restaurant. Plenty of shops are designed entirely to fit alongside a highway or road system, and we prefer to use the one over the other entirely in terms of car-based accessibility (or parking). A good illustration of this is a gym in my city which is situated closer to the outskirts. It’s possible to find a parking bay right beside the entrance to the mall, or very close to it, almost throughout the day. Another popular gym is situated in a waterfront mall system where there is a continuous queue for parking. While the other gym is far away, the fact that parking is convenient is a huge plus factor. After all, who wants to walk into the gym feeling irritated, having driven around for half an hour in search of parking. More and more of our daily processes are based around the convenience of where we can drive ourselves. It makes sense from a motoring perspective.

But from another perspective, many of these conveniences we expect, and feel entitled to are incredibly absurd. The extreme version of wanting front row access to every amenity is the drive-thru with a traffic jam that basically goes on forever. It’s simply not possible or viable to have as many vendors out there as cars who need them when they need them. It’s also patently ridiculous that even small groups of ordinary people should expect to be spoilt and have their whims catered to at such an individual level. But the reality is we do expect to have easy access in our cars, and we also expect – and it’s an implicit expectation – we expect the roads to be ours as well. We’re so busy getting to where we mean to be going, with our personal climate control, soundtrack and communication devices ready to obey at our fingertips that we simply can’t tolerate anything coming in our way. We just don’t have time or the mental space for it. The people where I live have a very low threshold for someone in a car in front of them who doesn’t quickly pull away when the traffic light turns green. Even in suburbia cars will impatiently overtake, not because they get home sooner as much as they feel their right to use the road the way they want to is being impeded, even if very slightly.

The title of this article is that the best drivers are cyclists. Here’s why. People in cars seldom have the revelation that there’s a world going on outside their cars. They drive over cats, and birds, the rain pelts harmlessly off the glass, the wind sails soundlessly over the shell of the vehicle. Opening the windows may help drivers connect a little more to reality, but on a highway this is seldom possible with the roar of air around the vehicle. People in cars become very, very disconnected with the world. And while it may seem normal to want to drive to within a meter of a shop, or an ATM, or a restaurant, it’s actually not viable in terms of community. An individual yes – at times – but not for everyone all of the time. And so having a car grants each of us an incredible amount of personal freedom and independence, but there are limits involved. There must be.

These limits are not a few either. There are many dark sides, plenty of consequences to our addiction to easy motoring, and I’ll only mention a few here:
- pollution (on a global scale, causing a radical meltdown in weather patters that ultimately erodes entire ecosystems)
- obesity (in terms of drivers who become increasingly lazy, increasingly loathe to walk anywhere or go to any extra effort to get to where they want to be)
- irrationally high death tolls (14 000 die a year in road accidents in South Africa, and plenty of those deaths are based on people simply becoming irritated with how they are getting from A to B)

Cyclists are the antidote to the side-effects mentioned above, and several others besides. Cyclists don’t pollute while on their bicycles, and they are the most appreciative of those days, especially early mornings, that dawn bright and clear. Cyclists appreciate clean air.
Cyclists tend to be some of the scrawniest human beings on the planet, so obesity isn’t a problem for them. And anyone who cycles over 100km to get somewhere (but really, just to be out and about), can’t be lazy.
Cyclists are keenly aware of just how dangerous it is to be on the road. Not only in terms of themselves versus the cars on the road, but in terms of other cyclists, in terms of hazards on the road, and in terms of what they see drivers doing on a daily basis. Beyond these basics, cyclists also have to have the keenest of reflexes.

What almost everyone forgets in the debate around cyclists versus drivers is that cyclists are also drivers. The difference is they have a respect, recognition and understanding that life is more important than convenience, even if it seldom feels like that in modern society.

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