Volunteer cops


Nobody can — or at any rate, should — complain about nice weather, but it does have its drawbacks.

Now that the trees are in bloom and the breezes are balmy and the sun rises early and sets late, my bicycle commute, so solitary and contemplative in the winter, is suddenly thronged with fair-weather cyclists, and an amazing number of these are what I think of as volunteer traffic cops. They’re always yelling at you about some violation you’ve committed against the rules of the road — rules which, in many cases, seem to exist solely in their own heads, and may even be made up on the spot.

Full disclosure: I am in fact a great scofflaw even when it comes to the actual on-paper Vehicle Code. I laugh at stoplights, for example, and run through them at every reasonable opportunity. (On the bike, that is: I’m quite law-abiding in a car.)

Now I don’t necessarily expect other cyclists to be quite such an old anarch as I am, but even so, I’m amazed at the psychic investment so many of my fellow two-wheelers seem to have in the notion of law-abidingness.

The so-called bike path I take from home to work and back is not without its charm. It runs more or less along the bank of the Hudson River, except where it’s interrupted by horrors like the cruise-ship terminal, with its pathetic hordes of sad-sack customers wheeling their bulky suitcases on- and offboard. And the Intrepid, that munchkin aircraft carrier, with its clutter of goofy-looking military planes on deck. And the trash-barge pier, where another cyclist got smashed flat a couple of years back by an NYPD tow truck crossing the path, and where I nearly followed him to the Shades last week (though my near-Nemesis was an NYC garbage truck). And worst of all, the unspeakable Chelsea Piers, home of a driving range and other vaguely sportif venues. Apparently exercise needs to be confined to the interior of this shrine, since the city has made elaborate arrangements to ensure that patrons can practically step out of thir cabs into the steam room.

No walking, please, we’re jocks.

So it’s a very compromised design, this path, a grudging, half-hearted affair, but nevertheless very popular.

Yesterday I was heading home and I came to one of these interruptions, where there’s a silly-looking bicycle red light, allowing patrons of some city giveaway or other to take their cars in and out. The light had just turned red, for us cyclists, and there was one of those preposterous SUVs — an Escarole? An Escalator? An Eschewage? something like that — at the head of the line waiting to get out.

I seen my opportunity, I took it. Just as Escarole was starting to roll, I darted athwart his bow. With the usual prey-species startle reflex, he jammed on the brakes, and very likely spilled some of the warm fluids which are said to contribute so much to these people’s sense of safety(*).

After this somewhat juvenile stunt I heard somebody yelling at me. I figured it was Escarolius, and went my way rejoicing. THAT’ll teach him to drive that preposterous folly in this town.

But no. Five minutes later, another cyclist, whom I had barely noticed, a guy who had obediently stopped at the red light, caught up with me. He was one of those head-to-toe Lycra dudes, though the look didn’t really suit his somewhat doughy physique. And he was furious. He unleashed the most amazing torrent of abuse: “what part of red don’t you understand, asshole?” was his exordium. A number of other injurious reflections followed it, which I didn’t quite catch. He concluded with the crushing observation that I ought to get a helmet. (I haven’t worn a bike helmet in the last twenty years, and never will again(**).)

This incident was a bit of an outlier — one seldom ecounters this level of frenzy, and I suspect this chap may have been even crazier than the general run of Amurrican. But on a smaller, less vivid scale, this sort of thing is not just a daily, but a many-times-daily occurrence. I probably get more of it than most, being such a blithe lawbreaker, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that this town — this country? — is full of people who walk or ride out their door in the morning, loaded to the gills with a fund of reproach and censure which they simply have to unload on somebody.

(*) E.g. G Clotaire Rapaille, Detroit consultant : “The No. 1 feeling is that everything surrounding you should be round and soft, and should give… There should be air bags everywhere. Then there’s this notion that you need to be up high. That’s a contradiction, because the people who buy these S.U.V.s know at the cortex level that if you are high there is more chance of a rollover. But at the reptilian level they think that if I am bigger and taller I’m safer. You feel secure because you are higher and dominate and look down. That you can look down is psychologically a very powerful notion. And what was the key element of safety when you were a child? It was that your mother fed you, and there was warm liquid. That’s why cupholders are absolutely crucial for safety. If there is a car that has no cupholder, it is not safe. If I can put my coffee there, if I can have my food, if everything is round, if it’s soft, and if I’m high, then I feel safe.”

(**) My memory is apparently worse than I thought. An old comrade has produced photographic evidence that I wore a helmet on at least one occasion as late as 1998. Busted!

38 thoughts on “Volunteer cops

        • Not really, I think, though maybe I was more gnomic than I should have been.

          My thinking is that it’s the presence of cars that requires the red light. If everybody were on foot or on a bike, no red light would be required. We could operate on visual flight rules, or the way boats operate; there are no traffic lights at sea.

          But cars can’t operate on that basis. They’re too big and dangerous, and they move too fast. Traffic lights are there in order to enable them to do just that — move fast, I mean. If there were a four-way stop at every corner — what would be the point of having a car? Shit, you might as well ride a bike.

          The bike red light is there to enable the cars to pass. Fast. The designers of the path could have just given them a stop or yield sign, but they didn’t. That would have slowed the cars down too much. This is an Americab Department Of Transportation, and as such, it is fixated on moving as many cars as possible as fast as possible.

          Now I don’t agree with this objective, particularly in a crowded place like New York, so I do everything I can to gum up the works. If I could actually figure out a way to sabotage traffic lights — make them go red in every direction, say — I would seize upon it with glee in my heart.

      • I actually registered just to say how much I enjoyed this post.
        Two things.
        Never, ever try this in Bangkok. Drivers there don’t go much for “prey-species startle reflex. Enraged water buffalo charging is more like it.
        Second, I hope someday you get to ride in Copenhagen. One, because it designed as though cyclists matter. Two, because the Danes have the same sensible attitude toward the rules you do. They follow them when they are helpful, but blow them off when appropriate. (OK, some folks can overdo it a bit sometimes.) And they treat the cars as the dangerous beasts they are.

          • next ?

            you’ll forbid
            concrete locomotives
            in fact all pre-fab concrete
            even jersey barriers

            geez father S
            what a fudge pot
            you’ve become

            road iron rules

          • Concrete locomotives free up steel for Escaroles and bike-frame tubing. Even Harry needed his truck.We’re all fudge pots now.

  1. My info on this is sketchy, but there was an experiment done, somewhere in Northern Europe, in which traffic lights were removed and fewer auto accidents resulted. It’s recounted in the recent book “Two Cheers for Anarchism.”
    As a militant pedestrian, my only gripe with some cyclists (some) is that they combine the sanctimony of “going green” with the military aggressiveness of the most obnoxious SUV drivers.

    • There was a qualitative improvement in driving during the post-Sandy blackout of lower Manhattan. The fuel shortage of course meant a lot less cars on the streets. But that wasn’t only it. People drove (and rode) with actual consideration for their fellow road users–unprecedented here, or most place in this country I believe. Rather than make all the lights go red I would put them out.

      As additional evidence, most other countries that have cars. In India, e.g., with not a single traffic light, no formally-abided* rules other than driving (more or less) left on top of a much more diverse range of traffic from pedestrians to ox-carts to auto-rickshaws to buses and HGVs, relative to the potential for shit to go wrong I guarantee you people drive safer.
      American’s are weird. In a lot of Europe (not Naples!) people a pedants re: the rules of the road. Scotland, e.g. Here we’re a nation of rule bending opportunists. Adhering to the bare minimum not to get a ticket yet ready at an instant to use the laws against anyone else the moment some advantage can be gained doing so. I suspect it goes hand-in-hand with the effective principles of our political-legal-economic-education system, of which the way we drive is a significant manifestation, IMO.

      *They do have lots of rules, of course. Fines upwards of Rs 100.

      • Peter, you’re getting to the topic I really wanted to raise. I took too long setting it up and ran into my self-imposed length limit. The cross-cultural comparisons interest me. I have the impression that Amurricans are more hagridden by a law obsession than most, but what do I know?

        • Germans can be law obsessed, but they mostly follow the laws that they try to impose on others. And their law-abidingness can really facilitate useful cooperation too. It is not all negative.
          My sense is that Americans are more selective. Very touchy about the laws that work to our benefit and blithely innocent about those that we are violating. After all, this is a culture that reveres banksters who complain about welfare cheats.
          Perhaps this is a response to the ongoing de-democratization of American life, the way that various social feedback loops are being shut off. It makes us collectively nastier with each other, which in turn dissolves the kinds of connections required for democratic daily life. Speaking of feedback loops.
          I thoroughly enjoyed your irreverence toward the Lycra-clad bikenazi and toward the SUV-uber-alles drivers (one good Godwin’s Law violation deserves another), but there are strong parallels with what we dislike in others. An imposition of our way on others. How dare they drive a car or ride so much faster than me. I think there is a difference, but I am not sure I can pin in down. And I think that is important, because otherwise, I’ll cross over the line from cheerful anarchist to ashole-pretending-to-be-an-anarchist when I am not looking.
          And by the way, I think there should be a place in Manhattan for cyclists who want to train hard and ride fast. But not in what is a bipolar half park, half bike path. Take one of the Avenues, make it bikes only, then sync the traffic lights to a speed of maybe 20 mph or so.

          • you are re inventing

            the sociology of proto totalitarianism
            i’m guessing its “second instinct”-ual
            as well as reiteratively intentional

          • jessica i’m engaged by your

            “..there should be a place in Manhattan
            for cyclists
            who want to train hard and ride fast. ”

            yes let the “state” gather them
            we can
            send in the biked up
            belt bombers

            mock belt bombers of course

            just kinda only
            foolin’ and pretendin’

  2. Word, comrades! Somehow, this cult of military worship has brought the worst self-policing instincts in Merkins. I remember years ago when I first visited Germany, my friend who lived there warned me of the Germans’ penchant for self-policing. I now see the same obsession in America.

    Here where I live, my bike is my only vehicle and in fact, I haven’t driven a car in the past 2 years except for the periods when I pay a visit to Cali. I too cross the red lights and ride the wrong way on one-way streets but everyone else does the same thing and no one chides anyone for doing that. Live and let live! My only problem is with Bixi riders who for the most part are occasional bikers and due to the lack of experience could be hazardous. Incidentally, Bixi’s are the city bikes that you can rent for free if you use the bike for less than 30 minutes, point to point. They’re all over town and even though the city’s been losing money on them, they keep adding new Bixi outposts.

    As for the danger that cars might pose, I myself am more comfortable sharing the road with cars than with fellow bikers, except for the Hasids’ hood, which I avoid 6 days a week unless I want to get run over by a Dodge Van! So far, I’ve had three accidents and numerous near misses mostly due to either pedestrians who’ve hit me in the bike lane or fellow bikers who were on a Tour de France mission. Just a few weeks ago, someone rear ended me as I was stopped at the stop light! She had lost her breaks and couldn’t control her vehicle. I was carrying a heavy load from my trip to the Canadian Tire and couldn’t maintain my balance and so I plopped down on the ground.

    Speaking of a heavy load, I even schlep to Costco with my bike despite the comrades’ objection to shopping at chain stores who don’t sell “locally” produced goods. This one comrade here prides herself in growing her food in her own garden and refuses to shop at Costco but she drives a mini SUV!

    Comrade Smith, you may want to consider wearing a helmet. I had a concussion years ago due to a ski accident and it was horrible. So despite my vanity, I wear my helmet even though it totally cramps my style!

    • The one time I wore a helmet–about two weeks ago–I got knocked off my bike by a driver opening her door. I’m not sure what this proves–nothing! But I do wonder, as with other safety features they actually make us, if not less safe at any rate more careless.

    • Here’s how I think about it: I could fall and get a concussion anywhere — the stairs of the subway, the shower, if it comes to that. I don’t wear a helmet in those dangerous places. Why should I wear one on a bike?

      • Does wearing a helmet when cycling normalize car aggression and make it disappear in plain sight? Does it create a sense of safety that is far in excess of what safety it actually does create? Both on the part of riders and of car drivers
        In Copenhagen, most cyclists don’t wear helmets. But in Copenhagen, there is no kiri-sute* for cars.
        * Kiri-sute was the name in Japan for the right of samurai to kill any commoner they wanted to, whenever, for no reason at all. It literally means cut and throw away.

        • The helmet fetish certainly *stigmatizes* cycling — plainly asserts that it’s a more dangerous activity than activities for which helmets are *not* worn,

          • the merit class egg heads
            tech fontier protection devices
            while peddlin’
            to Primrose Hall

          • boho urban hive
            bike-sters ?

            9 out of 10 :
            once and future
            sprawlville car creeps

          • Jessica mentions a flavor of what I call the Silly Hat Rule: if you want to be sure people dislike a certain group, make members of that group wear a silly hat. The Jews got a lot of this back in the day. I’m not 100% convinced the Muslim head scarf is an exact analogy, however.

          • Michael, I wasn’t going for silly hat rule, but for head wear that indicates subservience to the dominant system and requests its mercy.
            From a different angle, the way it is handled when a car hits a cyclist (with or without a helmet) has a flavor of “she was asking for it”. Look at the clothes she was wearing = they were on a bike.

        • And the papers always take note. Cyclist crushed flat by a cement mixer, but — sorrowful shake of the editorial head — “he was not wearing a helmet”.

          This is of course one of the reasons why I don’t. The scenarios I’m worried about are ones where a helmet is unlikely to do me much good.

          Admittedly it’s a secondary reason. The primary reason is that I don’t believe cycling is an exceptionally dangerous activity, and I don’t want to tell the world otherwise.

    • mst this converge on the troll meme at the bottom of the thought funnel ?

      let us PEE on amerika
      and PEE freely

      but suggesting
      “other nations ” might be more to your taste ?

      i quickly came to loathe R Crum
      when he like
      bob Avakian
      moved to france …that crusty old puppet show

  3. Since Comrades brought it up, I need to chime in here about the “other nations”. As an ex-pat, I love the “collective” values of my new peeps but individually, I find them as cold as polar bears that they are. Conversely, I hate Merkins collectively but I long for the warmth that you can find in them individually. They tell you the color of their underwear and the sexual position that they prefer in the first 5 minutes that you meet them. Nothing is too private for them but with these Quebecois, you always feel like there’s a wall between you and them. The funny thing is that they think they’re warmer than their Anglo counterparts but I know better: same polar bears except for their French accent!

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