The Notion of Social Cycling

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safe tga

It was moments ago, at roughly 1:15 p.m. on Monday, July 6, that I enjoyed my first, to-the-bone, all-encompassing-drenching experience as a commuting cyclist. Riding only from Kingshighway to Grand, what started as a drizzle ended in a near-drowning, with the best moment of the ride coming at the corner of Wyoming and Grand; there, a young couple pondered a run to their car from the doorway of Lulu’s Local Eatery. I looked over at them. They looked over at me. Then, they walked right back inside.

Good call.

To date this summer’s been a weird one, full of rainstorms that come suddenly and then linger for hours, like univited houseguests. It’s been a bit of a drag, a different reality than the sweat-it-out-summer I’d planned. But there’s been a far more annoying aspect to this transportation and lifestyle change: rudeness. When I hear about St. Louisans and their legendary friendliness, these days I wonder where that rep comes from; and, frankly, I’m wondering if it’s me allowing isolated incidents to become “a thing” in my head, or if there’s really something to be said for seeing the world differently from the seat of a bike.

In the span of a few weeks, I’ve come across an actual list of situations that’ve caused some anxiety. One: a car passing too closely on Arkansas, as I rode to work; I followed this one as far as Shenandoah and Compton before giving up the chase. What did I plan to do when catching them, anyway? Two: walking my bike into an intersection, with the walk signal, only to have a van pull between me and the sidewalk. Minor words exchanged. Three: more words exchanged, this time with a trio of goobers who were insisting that I’d stolen their bike. Four: a car window lowering, the young passenger making eye contact with me as a I waited at the corner of Gravois and Cherokee.

It wasn’t a surprise, but still rankled, when the kid flicked his cigarette at my feet. Five: various hoots’n’hollers at night from pedestrians, none of whom necessarily provided a threat, but did cause at least a moment of… what? Concern? Worry? Hard to say, but radars go off and take a minute to turn off in the brain. I don’t like it.

That most of these took place within a mile of my house makes me a tad paranoid. Is the world in my immediate neighborhood a more agitated, edgy place than I imagine? Is it just a matter of seeing things from two-wheels, rather than four? And if this is what I get as a middle-aged, average-looking dude, is it worse for women? I’d guess so, I really would. But what do I know?

So, I’m asking. Is it just this weird for me? Is it this way for you, other cyclists in this town? Or am I just living in a pattern, in which a behavior’s boomeranging a bit?

My response since that kid flipped a spent smoke at me has been simple. Wave more. Smile more. Nod more. Say “hello” more. The mix of responses is, in fact, a real mix. There are some blank stares, but a lot of positive vibes come back, too. Sometimes, the look or comment is a quizzical one, the person surprised that another human being’s taken a moment to acknowledge that shared space between.

Please don’t assume that I’m pretending to change the world here. This is as much an experiment on myself, as on anyone. I’m not a social creature by nature. But as a human on two wheels, moving through a shared space, it’s a neat trick to keep the mind and spirit just a little more active, that moment of attempting to share a bit of kindness.

Maybe, it’ll wear off.

Maybe, it’ll stop raining.

Maybe, one before the other.

Not sure.

Anyway, “HI!”

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  • Devin in South City

    My favorite phrase you use is “acknowledging the shared space.” It seems like there is less opportunity to share space with another human being. Or maybe it’s that the space in which we encounter others is so much larger that we don’t actually have to share it. I find that I am more selfish and put out by the existence of others when I drive.

    As far as my experience bike commuting is concerned, I’d say that the least friendly place I’ve biked was College Station, TX, where I was cussed at and gawked at frequently. About once a month, though, someone would pull up on me at a stoplight and ask if I needed help or needed a ride…God love ’em.

    St. Louis feels pretty middle of the road to me. But I think smiles, nods, and waves are the best way to stay safe but also to remind myself that those are human beings behind the wheels.

  • jhoff1257

    Ahh, the “legendary friendliness” of St. Louisans. St. Louis people are nice and friendly, to outsiders. Not friendly enough to let them into our little cliques, but respectable at least. The difference is how we treat each other. My dad got in a car accident on 64 out in Chesterfield many months ago. He told me while him and the other motorist were standing on the side of the freeway 4 people screamed “fuck you” out of their windows as they drove by. I don’t generally have issues with St. Louis or their attitudes, but we do treat each other like shit, especially when we get behind the wheel of a car.

  • Steve Kluth

    This is why I no longer bike in St Louis. I moved here in late 1987. I originally lived in Shaw and worked at the pre-expansion Science Center, what should be a quick commute up Tower Grove and west on Clayton. After about six months, I went to using my car exclusively. When my bicycle was stolen I didn’t even bother buying a new one because it was just too unsafe.

    I used to cycle year-round when I lived in Madison, WI, so it wasn’t the weather. I didn’t even own a car back then. This was also true when I went to school in Green Bay. But Mr Crone’s experience mirrors my own and it’s why I’ve never believed in the friendliness of St Louisans.

    • jhoff1257

      Not to discount what happened to you, but in defense of St. Louis your experience was nearly 40 years ago. Might not hurt to try again, seems many of the other people commenting here are getting by just fine these days. You take the bad with the good.

      Also Madison and Green Bay, Wisconsin are small towns that don’t really even compare to a city the size of St. Louis. Especially considering how much larger the City was nearly 40 years ago.

  • Kevin B

    A friend emailed me this link because he knows I commute by bicycle from the south side to the north side and I got caught it a huge rain storm last week too. I was very surprised by your impression because I have not had a single unpleasant encounter on my bike for several years. There was that one lady that wanted me to pull over to the side at
    Goodfellow and Natural Bridge so she could turn right, but hey I’m sure
    she was in a hurry.

    Of course on the north side one has to watch out (in a car or bike) because of the rampant disrespect for traffic lights and stop signs. But then again I usually blow through them too–so fair is fair. I wave at porch sitters, other cyclist, and some drivers and I find that most people return my waves — although some of the porch sitters seem surprised.

    Any way you slice it riding to work beats driving to work any day — I always get to look forward to the ride home which makes the whole day better and I burn a few needed calories. And before people get mad about me running though stop signs, remember you can do it in your car as well if you are willing to accept the consequences. I’m willing to take whatever consequences come my way.

    • Michael B

      I appreciate your attitude and friendliness to those around you, but I have to disagree with your thoughts on blowing through stop signs. I do mind if people do it in their cars, as the consequences aren’t just for them, but also for me on my bike. And they are very serious consequences, including severe injury and death. I only coast through a stop sign if I am absolutely sure there are no cars or pedestrians there. Otherwise, I come to a rolling stop (as most cars do) because, hey, it’s hard to start peddling fresh from a full stop at every city stop sign. On a bike, I can see and hear so much more than someone can in their car, but even if I was to come into an accident with another pedestrian, the consequences would be far less dire than if a car were to do the same thing.

  • Magician

    TGE! Everyone is different and there are some assholes and some nice people – most who avoid bikes and couldn’t give a damn. People are way nicer when I have my kid seat on my bike than alone for sure.

    One thing bike people could do is back off the entitlement – expecting to get fair and equal treatment while blowing most stops is a little contradictory. Second is that riding is still not prevalent. The last time I rode my bike to work 4.5 miles away I was told to “get a car!” I’m a friendly person but not everyone is in a mood to reciprocate – hey at the same time, driving sucks too.

    • kjohnson04

      One of the reasons bicyclists blow stop signs (I’ve done it a few times, too) is the ridiculous amount of stop signs here. If you stop at every stop sign, you’ll end up burning through you brakes and your brake lines (I’ve done both).
      And yeah, I’ve gotten that “get a car” line, too. If we all did that…we’d never get where we’re going.

  • John R

    I know Trailnet and others have group rides throughout the region, but have we ever had anything like the epic Detroit Slow Rides? I think their weekly rides are regularly topping 3,000 folks these days. Rolling through the City with hundreds of fellow Saint Louisans would be so freaking awesome and help build community.

  • Jamie D. Jessop

    Hmm, no… there are some pissed off people out there. They want to mess with you, they want to draw you not their misery and are just WAITING for you to say something. …then three or four of them will get out and bang you up right nice & rob you if you do, or worse. I’ve been riding my bike and scooter and driving my construction truck around this part of the city for a long time and a LOT of miles, and there are just plainly some pissed off people out there. They could give two-shits about your safety, well-being or any thing about you. They’re likely pissed you are riding a bike. They’d be pissed if you were walking. God forbid you drive a car because they’d be pissed at that too. They will make sure you understand that the 4 cylinder “whatever” they are driving goes faster than your bike or scooter. …and by god, they’re important and on important missions to get to where they are going and damn sure ain’t waiting on you. So… I roll, whatever, take the side streets or the ally. And hell, when you find your route it is usually faster anyway, rather than waiting at the main routes with all those assholes.

    • kjohnson04

      Truth. I love alleys for that reason. Much faster.

  • Catherine

    I do have to admit, though I feel significantly less vulnerable on a bike than I do walking, I still avoid riding new routes alone at night. I just can’t beat a car in a race. Things like good street lighting, walkable streets (so I can almost always ensure people will be out walking), and familiarity with the area help with that sense of safety as a woman on a bike — as I’m sure they do others as well.

    All of that being said, there is nothing like exploring a city on two wheels. As Alex mentioned, since I started bike commuting a year ago, I have met more people and seen more interesting things than I have from a car in 25 years! There is just nothing that makes me happier than a smile and “hello!” from a stranger that sees you biking by. Thanks for this, Thomas!

  • Alex Ihnen

    Cycling in the city over the past couple months, I’ve certainly (re)gained a new perspective. Everything is more fine-grained on a bike: the topography, the weather, road maintenance, other people… It’s a great experience. In the last two weeks I’ve met a IU graduate who also raced in the Little 500, and a WU scientist riding the same bike I’ve been eyeing for a few months. You simply don’t meet people when you drive. There’s bad too, but I’ve honed my grin & wave to near perfection when someone gets aggressive. This is definitely the way to go for more than one reason – in a physical confrontation my bike (and me) will lose to a car, and it’s easy to ascribe intent when you feel vulnerable (as you will riding a bicycle in St. Louis), but I believe that a lot of the revving engines, passing too close, etc. aren’t ill-intended. And anyway, you can’t let that get you down. All-in-all, there’s no better way to start and end the work day than a bike ride.

    • Thomas Crone

      You’re right on all counts. I’m just a sourpuss, I guess!

  • A.J.

    I recommend the book “The Enlightened Cyclist: Commuter Angst, Dangerous Drivers, and Other Obstacles on the Path to Two-Wheeled Transcendence” that touches on this in a funny way.

    Something about the anonymity of a screen (computer monitor, windshield, or smartphone) makes some people behave like morons (internet comments, road rage, texting others photos of your genitals). Godspeed in your pursuit to be quick to forgive. I yearn for a St. Louis that’s a nightmare to drive a car around like a jerk and thus it’d be a great place to live, walk, and bicycle.

    • Thomas Crone

      Thanks, I’ll look for that book.

    • kjohnson04

      It’s on my reading list now.

  • kjohnson04

    I understand what you’re talking about. it at times seems like a cruel world when you are on bike or walking. The supposed ‘St. Louis friendliness” is never present. Drivers here generally rude and inconsiderate. They will routinely speed up and then pass too closely, the use of horns to intimidate; tailgating, cutting you off; blocking they bike lane, or in the case of Tower Grove, use the bike lane as travel lane, disregarding markings. Rarely, you see considerate drivers; I suppose those are just good people in general.

    What’s worse is what they do to bus drivers. Speeding up to prevent the bus from reentering the travel lane; speeding up to pass (crossing the double yellow, a certain moving violation), then driving very slowly.

    Cyclists in general are considerate of each other; We wave hello to each other when passing on the street; virtually indistinguishable from when you walk past people on the street. It is more of a trick to engage drivers.