Riding Vulnerable In LA

To piggy-back on something BikinginLA put up a couple of days ago. The last post there turned on the issue of mortality. Picking up on a really sobering post by Bike Snob NYC, BikinginLA wrote about confronting that question of mortality:
But unlike other forms of transportation, cyclists must share the road with cars, SUVs, trucks and buses, as well as any number of obstacles and road hazards, with no protection other than a helmet, glasses and a thin layer of padding between our legs. Which makes us particularly vulnerable.
Well put and well said.

It reminded me, I suppose, of something I was trying to think about when I last wrote about Judith Butler and her Precarious Life. There, she was trying to work through the implications of letting discussions about a common vulnerability and mourning enter into our political discussions. What I think I was trying to say in my roundabout way was that starting discussions about cycling around the issue of vulnerability is important.

Gary at Gary Rides Bikes put up a good post the other day about a rider who was riding the wrong way in a bike lane. When Gary pointed out that fact, he got a decent curse for his trouble. While it might be a stretch to talk about that situation relative to this question of vulnerability, I think you can argue that if you start riding from a position that assumes your vulnerability, you ride a lot differently than you do if you start riding from a position of capacity. If you understand you're vulnerable just like everyone else (though there are degrees of it), I don't think you cut into the opposing bike lane, because there's no way that someone else can plan for it.

One of the great things about being on a bike is that the whole roadway - from asphalt to curb to sidewalk to median to what have you - is opened up. I was riding back from UCLA the other day and waiting to make a turn onto Westwood. A guy on a mountain bike pulled cleanly around me and took off tearing down the sidewalk. He caught air off of a couple of curbs before sliding ahead of traffic and kicking it down Westwood. I turned right at Le Conte, so I didn't see where he ended up, but he was probably fine. My point, I suppose, is that he wasn't riding like someone who was vulnerable. On the one hand, I respect that. There's something to be said for being aggressive in traffic, for pushing yourself on a bike, for showing other cars that you don't have to drive to get where you're going quickly. At the same time, that's not how I ride.

One of the first rides I took after moving into our new place a little more than a month ago was an easy ride over to the Trader Joe's at 3rd and La Brea. Easy enough ride, down Kenmore to 4th, right on 4th down to La Brea, and then up La Brea in traffic to Trader Joe's. My one issue on that first easy ride was with crossing Rossmore. It's an stop sign for east/west traffic, but the north/south traffic has the right of way. After waiting a little while for traffic to clear, I tried to push through. I made it, but I spent the rest of my ride home thinking about how I shouldn't have cut through when I did. I can't help but think how vulnerable I am on the bike.

To be on the bike is to take on a new and kind of terrifying vulnerability, but I don't think it's to take on a position of weakness. I'd like to think of my vulnerability in positive terms. If I know I'm vulnerable, I look at drivers at a stop sign to make sure they see me; I try to make eye contact and thank them visually for recognizing me on the road; I try to smile at pedestrians, simply because I can; I try to get out of the right lane at stop lights so cars can make their right on red; and if they do come through, I try to smile at them again. I would really like to believe that biking can offer a new kind of sociability in this city. Being vulnerable makes me almost hyper-conscious about what's around me, because I have to be; driving my car the other day, I realized I pulled through a stop sign just as a pedestrian was about to cross. I didn't do it intentionally, but when you're in a car, you don't feel vulnerable to pedestrians. Driving a car affords you that luxury, rightly or wrongly. It's an attitude that makes being a pedestrian in this city an occasionally hazardous occupation. And this isn't to say that you're not vulnerable in a car - it's more that driving affords you the luxury of not thinking about your vulnerabilities. After all, there's a cell phone, climate control, comfortable seats, the radio, GPS units, and whatever else might take your mind off of the road. And while I've seen people bike while talking on their cell phone, and bikes with all sorts of gadgetry, there's something so simple about being on the bike: It's you, the spokes, two wheels, and the wind in your face.

Yesterday I was biking around the neighborhood, running a couple of errands. I turned left off of 4th, back onto Kenmore, and coming over the hill just south of 3rd, I could look north over Wilshire Center, up past Los Feliz and the east edge of Hollywood, up to the Observatory and the ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains up there. It was edging past afternoon, and the air was starting to fill with that soft Southern California light that everyone writes about, the kind of low slanting light that hangs in the damp air coming in off the water and glows. There were people out selling things at the corner of 3rd and Kenmore, a woman running across the crosswalk trying to catch a bus, the smell of pupusas and tacos, a nod from the man selling fruit in the white truck always parked near the Jons parking lot. And that's it: That's my vulnerability.

You can bike and not think twice about vulnerability. After all, plenty of people are invincible, whether it means catching air on curbs or swerving through bike lanes on a whim. But to start riding from the position that we - cyclists, drivers, pedestrians, people - are all vulnerable opens up something new, I think. I want to believe it. I really do.


Anonymous said…
Today's cars are designed to isolate the driver from the surrounding community; to create a self-enclosed environment in which drivers don't have to interact with the world around them. One of the many joys of cycling is that it gets you out of the various cubes in which we live the vast majority of our lives, and presents an opportunity to move, not just through, but as an integral part of, the world around us.

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