Idle Thoughts

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The only thing more common than lifted diesel pickups and car washes on every corner in suburban Utah is the sight of cars idling. They idle at the drive thru’s, in front of businesses, houses, schools – everywhere. They idle in all weather – hot, cold and perfect. They idle with people inside them and with people running an errand.

When I first got here from the San Francisco Bay Area it was summer so I thought it was just the heat that was getting to people and they just had to keep the AC running. But I soon realized it was just custom. People in Utah just don’t think about the environment the way they do in California. I think a lot of people in California believed that their individual actions did have an impact. Maybe it was years of dealing with water shortages or seeing LA go from a smoggy disaster in the ’60’s and ’70’s to having relatively clear air today that led people to think they had to do something. Well, living in Utah is like stepping back 50 years in time. Car culture is big here. People spend big money on their cars and they take care of them. Within a mile of me there are at least 4 car washes (or Auto Spa as some are called) and they are always busy.

And talk about going back in time – there are more drive-thru’s here than the set of ‘American Graffiti’. I could see it if it was a time saver but when you see 10+ cars lined up I KNOW it takes less time to park the car and actually walk into the store to order. So, it’s not about convenience – there’s something else going on here – people just love being in their cars.

You see these signs all over SLC but I don’t know if they are having any impact at all

idle-free

Doesn’t anyone make a connection between their actions and the pollution we get here along the Wasatch front? Utah is a pretty red state so there is a lot of blather about being business-friendly, but isn’t individual responsibility one of the (supposed) attributes of the Right? If so, when are the drivers in Utah going to take some ownership for the pollution they cause and our terrible air in the Winter months?

 

10 Rules for Utah Drivers

I moved here from California just over a year ago and was surprised to find that Utah drivers are worse than California drivers. They are more aggressive, less careful and more dangerous to other road users. The ONLY good thing is that it’s very rare to see someone get flipped off – I’m guessing that is mostly due to the old adage of ‘An armed society is a polite society’.

If you are new to the Beehive State here are some rules that will help you fit in:

  1. Speed – all the time. It’s your right.
  2. Don’t slow down for congestion. See #1.
  3. When entering the highway, merge IMMEDIATELY to the fast lane. Those drivers in front of you are too slow.
  4. Is there someone in front of you? Pass them no matter what speed they are going.
  5. Are there double lines on the road? See #4
  6. Are you pulling a trailer? See #5 then #4
  7. Turning left across a road? Just do it – that approaching driver will slow down.
  8. Stop in the crosswalk. Pedestrians are wimps.
  9. Right turn on red after stop in Utah? Yes. But drop the ‘after stop’ part.
  10. Driving a pickup? Jack it up. Then jack it up again.

Terrifying Two

I’ve had bike commutes from 6 to 20 miles before moving to Utah – some on narrow mountain roads around Santa Cruz and some on busy Silicon Valley streets both with and without bike lanes. I’ve ridden after dark on narrow 2 lane roads and some of my best memories are the ride back from Watsonville to Santa Cruz at 7 or 8 pm in the Winter with just a few cars on the road and a bit of a chill in the air. Larkin Valley on a crisp winter morning is particularly memorable. Even commuting this narrow road late at night wasn’t scary since the traffic was light and with my bright lights on I was probably more visible than in daylight. Plus I always assume drivers thought I was a bit deranged and gave me just a bit more room.

Larkin Valley serenity

Larkin Valley Morning

I’ve ridden busy Silicon Valley roads mostly with bike lanes but some without. Some drivers seemed unconcerned with my safety and drove too closely or pulled out in front of me but mostly I felt fairly safe. I think the reasonably large number of cyclists was a constant reminder to drivers that we were out there and although they might not have liked us they figured they had to accommodate us.

So I’m fairly comfortable around cars in a variety of conditions. But I still surprise myself with the level of trepidation I feel every time I do my 2 mile commute to work. I finally understand the fear that others feel when riding in an unwelcoming environment. I also realize the importance of numbers – just having more bike riders on the road makes us all more visible and I think drivers pay a bit more attention.

 

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6+ Lanes Crossing under the Interstate

The main road to work is a 6 lane feeder to Interstate 15. There is a bike lane but speeds on the road are 40-50 mph and I’m just one lone kook in the way. In California, I felt like drivers actually acknowledged me and acted with some sense of caution. In suburban SLC, I feel like I’ve gone back 20 years where car drivers have all the rights and cyclists just need to stay out of the way.

Just past the highway overpass shown above is an exit ramp from the Interstate. Those lucky drivers have their own lane coming onto my road but that is right where I have to move right to re-claim my bike lane. I’ll slow down in my lane before getting to the ramp then signal right – sometimes people give me a break and sometimes they don’t. Then the next issue is the disappearing bike lane below (ironically right after the ‘Right Lane, Bikes Only’ sign where my bike lane disappears into a right turn lane right where the right-hand car lane behind me disappears at the same time. I’m not really clear what the message on the sign means since the right turn lane is clearly meant for cars. So I have the occasional idiot using the disappearing lane to pass drivers in the middle lane all the while my bike lane is being consumed by a right turn lane. So I carefully take the lane while signalling and just hoping people look up from their phones long enough to see me. Once I make the right turn I do a quick u-turn so I can use the traffic light to cross my busy road. The thought of using the left turn lane in this direction of travel would be suicide. So then I get to sit at the light for a minute or 2 and count the red light runners – there are always a couple.

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The old disappearing bike lane trick

So that’s it. Literally not even a 2 mile commute but it’s a hairy one.

In defense of Utah government, I do have to say that one of the pleasant surprises moving here is the large number of bike lanes on arterial roads and the seeming willingness to include them on new construction. However, as regular riders everywhere know, we rarely have continuous bike lanes and mixing uses on very busy roads is off-putting to many. A separated bike lane would go a long way towards encouraging others to get on a bike to commute and run errands. As the roads are today, the barrier is pretty high for many people – thus the low participation rates in Utah compared to California.

 

When Seconds Count

use full lane get over it

awesome sign courtesy of http://cyclingsavvy.org/hows-my-driving/

Riding through downtown Mountain View the other night I had an encounter with an aggressive motorist who just couldn’t lose a few seconds behind me. I was ‘taking the lane’. It’s an expression that many of us cyclists know but I would wager that only a small percentage of dedicated motorists have heard. I started midway through one block as the road narrowed due to parked cars on either side. I signaled as I moved over and when he came up behind me at the first stop sign he honked a couple times. When I didn’t move over after leaving the stop sign he laid on the horn continuously. So at the next stop sign I put my bike down in the middle of the street and walked back to his car (yeah I’m one of those guys without a kickstand). His window was open so I yelled ‘The law says bikes have the right to the full lane’. His incredulous response, ‘The whole lane?’. ‘Yes – the whole lane – read about it’. I then walked back to my bike, picked it up and rode the 20 feet to my destination. His parting words, yelled through the window – I kid you not – ‘Share the Road’.

So it’s been a couple of days now and I can’t help thinking about this. Mostly drivers aren’t that aggressive around here. I get clueless drivers, distracted drivers, but rarely threatening drivers. When someone is honking at you just a few feet behind your bike you can’t help but think that the next step the driver will take is to push you aside. If you drive a car please understand this.

Besides the obvious threat to me, I was riding in a fairly dense urban area where pedestrians are constantly crossing in the middle of the block and I would guess the average speed of a car is only 10-15 mph due to all the starts and stops. So even if he got past me he would be stuck behind another car at the next stop sign and I’d probably be riding HIS bumper for the next few blocks.

Here’s a street view shot of the stop sign where our ‘discussion’ took place. The blocks are about 100 yards long and at 7 in the evening there are cars parked in every available spot – sort of like you see here. It’s a 4-way stop sign so everyone should wait his turn and in the next block is a stop light where he will likely get caught again.

Villa streetview

So I have to wonder – How much time would this driver have saved if I hadn’t been ‘in the way’? This line of thought lead immediately to the realization that he didn’t care. He was doing something important and I was on a BIKE so I must not be doing anything as urgent. He owns a car to GET FROM POINT A TO POINT B AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE and I was interfering with his plan. So my not-very-fast-moving brain then thought, ‘I wonder if a sign could fix this?’. We’ve all seen the ‘Share the Road’ signs

share

And we see the occasional ‘Bikes May Use Full Lane Sign’ like this

Use full lane

However I realize that the problem with the sign above is that it implies to many motorists that it is an exception that applies only where the sign in posted. If they don’t know the law, how would they know that bikes are allowed to use the full lane when the cyclist deems it to be the safest option?

So my little brain then said ‘Maybe we need a new kind of sign posted at various places around the city’

That sign would look like this

full lane everywhere

A Few More Definitions for Cyclists



Chain: Archaic method for connecting the cranks and rear wheel of a bike to provide forward motion. Dirty and greasy and the subject of continual efforts for at least 100 years to find a better alternative. Yet chains continue to combine the benefits of low cost, efficiency and relatively good reliability and have kept most ‘improvements’ at bay – at least until the ‘string drive’ came along

2015-04-18 11.07.13

salsa vest

Vest (gilet in the UK): Probably the most useful piece of clothing to own. Keeps your core warm without getting your arms too sweaty as when wearing a jacket. Can regulate your temperature with the simple movement of the zipper in temps from 45-65F.

High-vis: The popular bright lime green color worn by middle-aged cycling club members and others who want to survive on the road even if it means derision by the roadies wearing all black.

carbon

Carbon fiber: Woven high-strength material infused with resin that lightens your bike and wallet at the same time.

Kickstand: Controversial piece of hardware attached to the bike that keeps the bike from falling over when parked. Most won’t work on high-end bikes because the attachment method can crush carbon or thin-wall metal tubing. Enthusiast cyclists wouldn’t use one anyway since it is a feature similar to high-vis clothing and a dividing line between ‘racers’ and everyone else.

Fenders (mudguards in the UK): Useful piece of kit that covers the wheel reducing the amount of water spray that hits the rider. Another item that serious riders disdain unless it’s the minimalist version (such as SKS Raceblades) that can be used during training but never in a race where there is a shared joy in suffering.

Use full lane

Share the Lane sign: Cyclists think: ‘I can use the lane’. Motorists think: ‘Those bikes better get out of my way’. The more modern sign ‘Bike may use full lane’ is becoming more prevalent.

Velominati: Keepers of ‘The Rules’. 95 somewhat tongue-in-cheek rules on how to be a ‘legit’ cyclist. It gets superfluous after Rule #5 which is ‘Harden the F*** Up’. How can you talk about acceptable clothing colors, tire colors, tan lines and the like if you believe in HTFU?

Driver’s Ed: Class where motorists can learn such useful phrases as:
– ‘I didn’t see him’
– ‘She came out of nowhere’
– ‘Those bikes go too fast’
– ‘Those bikes go too slow’


Singletrack trail: Narrow trails that mountain bikers long for. Typically 4 feet wide in California and 1 foot in Idaho


Right turn hand signal: The old-school way of signaling a right turn is by using the left arm and pointing it up like you’re asking a question. Made sense in cars about 60 years ago before turn signals but makes no sense for bikes since cyclists can just indicate with their right arm. No idea why we still give cyclists this option since the only car drivers who understand this archaic signal are probably too old to be driving anyway.

But You Look Like Such a Nice Person

Zombies
Image credit: Saber-Scorpion.com

On my commute here in Silicon Valley I see drivers run red lights every single day. And I’m only talking about the most blatant violations. You know, the light for the other street has turned green and the driver is just entering the intersection.

When I look in the car, I often expect to see some kind of monster behind the wheel or an evil WW II fascist caricature. I mean – how uncaring and self-centered must one be to drive a 2 ton hunk of metal through a spot where pedestrians expect to safely cross just to save a minute or two on their commute? But no, almost everyone looks like a decent person. Men and women, aged progressives in their Priuses, the Mom with kids in car seats – they all do it.

It isn’t getting any better so I wonder what the cities plan to do to alleviate this danger. In some areas they have increased the time before the other light turns green but this only seems to have encouraged the red light runners since they know they have a few extra seconds to enter the intersection. It makes me wonder why we don’t have red light cameras on a large scale. Have the car lobbyists won on this issue? Have they convinced the cities that the right of car drivers to run red lights is greater than the right of pedestrians to cross the road safely?