Riding between the lines

I understand it if people honk at me as I ride my bicycle downtown and cut across three lanes of motor traffic. There is an implied reciprocity between cars and bikes. I get that. I am infringing on space that is reserved for the thoroughfare of huge, multi-ton vehicles.

I deserve a honk, an occasional middle finger and maybe a concussion if I drive recklessly in an automobile’s designated space. But why does nobody give a damn when my space is infringed upon?

Portland has been rated Best Cycling City in the USA by Bicycling magazine since 1995, largely due to the generous crisscross of options that cyclists have in choosing a safe route to travel downtown.

There are bike lanes on roughly one in four downtown city streets. The streets with bike lanes on them are generally broad, with lower speed limits. The bike lanes themselves are clearly marked with solid white lines and little figures of people riding bikes in them every hundred yards or so. What I can’t figure out is why drivers assume this means it is a luxurious turning lane, provided just for them.

They look nothing like the neutral bikers stenciled on the roadway. They seem to ignore that broad white line as if it was merely an optional guideline.

I ride along in my own lane, enjoying our mutual reciprocity. I keep out of the way of the autos, and do not infringe on their lanes. But up ahead is dipshit in a Hummer who wants to make a right turn. Instead of going up to the intersection and turning, he merges – into a 4-foot-wide bike lane.

And then, he suddenly finds he has to pause for pedestrians to cross the street.

So what am I supposed to do? I am cruising at 35, and I have a split second to make the call: do I slam on the brakes and hope it hasn’t been too long since I replaced the pads, or do I make a quick glance over my left shoulder to see if it’s safe enough to pass on the left?

According the social contract I have entered into by riding on streets dominated by automobiles, I generally give the right of way to automobiles at all times when in their lanes, period. Do I have a right to cut over into the auto lane, since an auto cut into mine? Does the impoliteness and recklessness of one member of the auto class give me the right to cut off another, endangering my own life because someone else is too boorish to respect my lane?

No, I usually plow right into the back of the offending SUV. I’ve got this wicked cracked reflector right on my handlebars, and I make sure to drag it nice and long across the custom paint job. A little reminder of what happens when you don’t respect a biker’s space.

Sure, I might get knocked up a little, but I wear a helmet, and I’m in control of the speed of my crash – usually. A few stars in front of my eyes are worth it, giving a little payback to the blind behemoths in their tanks.

Whenever I drive downtown I like to give a cyclist the right-of-way for commuting responsibly. There are many other cyclist/drivers in downtown Portland who are alert, safe drivers, especially in consideration of cyclists.

But they’re not the only ones on the road. There are enough bad drivers that a daily ride means defensive cycling.

That’s not a bad default state of mind to have when you’re biking. Occasionally even responsible drivers will lapse in attention, and it is always the cyclist’s responsibility to be on the lookout. It’s his or her own ass on the line.

So I suppose I should be thankful to all those bulldozing Hummers for keeping me on my toes. But it’s all about reciprocity; keep riding in my lane and you’ll have to keep paying for new paint jobs.

Chaelan MacTavish can be reached at [email protected].