Occupy the Lane
Streets are our predominant public spaces in our cities and neighborhoods. If you measure all of our streets compared to that of our parks and plazas, the streets cover far more area. Historically the street was the gathering place for commerce and socializing, not merely a place for transportation. But then came the automobile. And since the earliest auto owners — not to mention the manufacturers and gasoline companies — were rich and well-connected, they were the ones who rewrote the traffic laws in the 1910s to favor speed over access. By the late 1920s, after gasoline taxes had been instituted in many states, people came to think of our streets as commodities to be bought with gas taxes for the purpose of moving motor vehicles at high speed. Only two decades earlier our streets were seen as a Commons that was managed for the benefit of everyone and for purposes beyond mere transportation. One could say that our streets today are ruled by a form of tyranny; the Tyranny of Speed. If you aren’t going or can’t go fast, you don’t belong.
As the London group Reclaim the Streets argued, our streets were taken from us and sold back to us for the price of gasoline. This is true for most aspects of The Commons as technologies have advanced: agriculture became agribusiness, stories became published books, songs became recorded and marketed music, forests became tree farms. Our economy is based in large part on the conversion of The Commons into money.
And today we’re even losing the freedom to use our parks as a real Commons. No sitting, no laying down, you must have a permit to have a gathering. Keep moving people; you could be shopping and helping the economy grow.
Not everyone has the time to occupy a park or plaza; some of us are fortunate to have jobs, even good ones; but we can show solidarity with the other Occupiers by spreading the occupation across time and space in our own more modest ways.
The bicycle is an excellent tool of Occupation. But I am not talking about Critical Mass. Critical Mass presumes (depending on who you listen to) that bicyclists can’t travel our streets safely as they are, that we have to travel in large groups in order to protect ourselves, that cyclists need special accommodation, that motorists are evil and cyclists must be protected from them with special laws, and that the rules of the road were written for motorists, not cyclists.
Let me address this last point before moving on. We have to differentiate between rules and laws. Rules grow out of the culture somewhat organically. Even if one person develops them, we follow them by consensus if they work. There’s no police or formal court to uphold them. Laws are the formalized versions of those rules as they’re implemented by our governments.
The first formalized traffic rules were developed by a man named William Phelps Eno in the early 1900s and adopted by many cities as their official traffic laws. In 1905 less than one in a thousand Americans owned an automobile. Eno didn’t develop his rules for them; he saw autos as a passing fad. No, the rules for vehicular traffic were written for drivers of horse-drawn vehicles and bicyclists.
A number of us have learned that adhering to the rules for vehicular traffic is the best way to drive a bicycle on our public streets, and what’s more, controlling a lane — riding near the middle of the lane — is the most effective way of reducing conflicts and crash risks. I won’t go into the details in this piece; it has been covered extensively elsewhere, especially on CommuteOrlando.com.
While the rules for traffic have remained the same, the laws in most states have been changed to favor motorists over bicyclists. They place motorist convenience above bicyclist safety and comfort. Cyclists have had to fight to ensure they could operate in the safest possible manner, which often entails controlling a lane rather than hugging the edge. In most states today bicyclists are required to keep “as close as practicable” to the right edge or curb, but with many exceptions for safety. The times and places which meet those exceptions are actually more common than the times and places which don’t.
While lane control is primarily a practical safety strategy, it can also been seen as a political statement. It is a way of saying that speed is not the primary rule of traffic; that “first come, first served” is; that the basic right to travel in the safest possible manner must take precedence over the desire to travel at higher speeds. That those wielding power cannot be given so much advantage over those who do not wield such power.
We see the Tyranny of Speed expressed in online newspaper comment sections when cycling is discussed: “If you can’t keep up with traffic you have to get out of the way.” Should speed take priority before liberty, before health, before clean transportation, before a civil and communal public realm? Is getting to one’s destination a few seconds sooner more important than cutting the amount of money we send to oil barons and Middle Eastern sheiks and instead keeping it in our communities? Occupying the Lane is one powerful way to answer, “No.”
Bicyclists and motorists are not “natural enemies.” We’re all simply people who desire to get where we want or need to go in a reasonable time period and in reasonable comfort and safety. Only a tiny proportion of motorists act as bullies, and even that would be reduced if cyclists stood up to them. Most motorists, when lane control is explained to them, understand and appreciate it. They’d be very happy to share the roadways with assertive, predictable cyclists who communicate clearly and cooperate with their fellow road users.
Segregating cyclists into reservations or ghettos (bike lanes and sidepaths) only reinforces the belief that we cannot learn to share. Separation is more often the problem rather than the solution. By putting bicyclists “in their own place,” motorists can just forget about us. Which they do. Until it’s too late. Which is usually when they’re turning at an intersection or driveway.
Just as Occupiers have learned to use the tactics of non-violent protest, bicyclists can learn the strategies of sharing roadways — confidence, consideration, communication and cooperation.
As London’s Reclaim the Streets put it:
The street is an extremely important symbol because your whole enculturation experience is geared around keeping you off the street. Inevitably you will find yourself on the curbstone of indifference, wondering “should I play it safe and stay on the sidewalks, or should I go into the street?” And it is the ones who are taking the most risks that will ultimately effect the change in society.
The “risk” in this case is not a physical one. Cycling as a vehicle driver does not add physical risk, it reduces it. No, the risk is social. It’s standing up to a taboo whose time has come and gone.
The great mythologist Joseph Campbell warned that if wish to make meaningful change in the world, we must define ourselves by what we wish to see, not by what we oppose. I hope those in the Occupy movement will take that to heart, whether they are in a park or on a street; posting on Facebook or Twitter, on foot, in a car, or on a bicycle.Culture, Politics, Traffic Law