Vicious Cycles: “Share the Road” begins at home

illustration by Steve StreisguthLet’s face it: bicyclists are better than everyone else. 
No carbon emissions —  unless you’ve just had a particularly nasty slice of pizza. No gas pumps. We keep the trouser clip industry alive. You can practically hear the crank and chain and hub and wheels going sustain-ability, sustain-ability as you pedal along.

I’ve been riding my bike around Philadelphia for years now, just about every day that it hasn’t been monsooning or snowing (remember snow?). And as the city’s cycling culture continues to grow — more bike lanes, more bike racks, more bike shops, more Share the Road signage, more cab drivers shaking their raging fists — it feels good to be part of a community. There are times when you’re moving along Pine Street in Center City, on Walnut in University City, across Spring Garden, all around town, when you find yourself in a virtual peloton of fellow commuters, café-goers, students, medical residents and nurses still in their scrubs and clogs, moms and dads with kids on bike seats or perched on those wobbly trailers, restaurant workers — everybody doing their bit to help the environment, keep their bodies fit, save money and get to where they’re going quickly, neatly, on a beautiful brainstorm of an invention. Two wheels, a frame, handlebars, a seat — genius!

Except… as cycling becomes an increasingly popular mode of transport, egregious behavior is on the upswing, too. Competitive commuters whooshing by on your left and on your right, no warning. Fixie pixies flying through intersections. Bike messengers. Wrong-way cyclists. Sidewalk cyclists. Smartphone cyclists.

I’m not saying I’m Mr. Perfect on my bike (or off). I go through stoplights. I’ve even been pulled over by a police car, flashers and siren on. (Indignant and in disbelief, I asked the officer why he doesn’t ticket SEPTA drivers when they go through red lights in their 15 ton buses — I’m lucky I wasn’t cuffed.) I’ve made stupid moves in a rush to get from Point A to Point B — inching between lanes of cars and trucks, waiting impatiently in a crosswalk for the light to change, oblivious to the pedestrians I’ve unwittingly blocked. And those wheelies on my mid-century English three-speed, so show-offy!

But we need to take a page from the Slow Bicycle Movement, the Slow Food Movement, the slow-your-ass-down movement. If you’re a cyclist who thinks that someone in a car barreling down a city street at 50 m.p.h. is a cretin, or that guy on the Harley heavy-revving at the corner, waking the squirrels and the birds and the rats, is a fool, shouldn’t you display a little more civility, courtesy, consideration — mindfulness, even — when you’re on your bike?

I learned to ride when I was a kid in New York. (My father’s idea: Take me to the top of a hill in Central Park, put me on my bike, give a push and watch as momentum kept me upright all the way down. I don’t recommend this method to parents who want their pipsqueaks to grow up all fuzzy with fond memories, but it works.) I love bicycles. My wife and I have a basement full of vintage machines — a Japanese city bike with a winged front fender ornament, a shiny orange Peugeot mixte with its Antwerp license plate still attached. Hand-built lightweight steel road bikes with Nervex lugs. Don’t get me started on lugs.

And I collect photographs of movie stars on their Schwinns and Rollfasts and backlot beaters — hundreds of photographs. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire and Brigitte Bardot and Julie Christie — icons of glamour and style, humanized, brought down to earth by the simple act of climbing astride a bicycle and wheeling around. Stars, they’re just like us.

But can you picture Audrey Hepburn rocketing straight for that cute hipster couple pushing their baby stroller and trying to make their way across the avenue? I like to think not. 

As we continue to champion the idea and the act of cycling — Philadelphia was recently ranked sixth on a list of the best bicycling cities in America — we should champion the idea and the act of real, let’s-all-get-along inclusiveness, too.

Steven Rea is the movie critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer and author of Hollywood Rides a Bike, from Angel City Press.

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