Friday, February 27, 2009
You can't get much cheaper transportation than a bike. Or a more natural one, either--ah, muscle power! In the Netherlands, the national mode of transport is the bicycle. Not surprisingly: the cities are flat (where I live is considered "exceptionally hilly"), the streets are small, and the taxes for gasoline are painful. But I've been using a bike long before I became an ex-pat. My main mode of transportation in Philadelphia was also a bike, and public transit for meteorologically terrible days. I've since drawn some conclusions about bicycling in general, and hope to pass on some words of advice:
Conclusion #1: Jackasses are everywhere. You know who I'm talking about--the guy who rides on the wrong side of the street. Or the jerk who shoots through red lights like they don't exist. Don't be a jackass--ride on the right (unless you're in England) and at least pause to make sure there's no oncoming traffic before you ride into an intersection.
Conclusion #2: Parking your bike in front of doorways is a guaranteed way of getting it removed. Most cities in the Netherlands have regulations stipulating where you can park your bike, how long you can leave it there, what lock you should use, and when those parking hours are available. The rules are in place to prevent bike mobs from taking over sidewalks and entrances, and are enforced without mercy. In Philadelphia, which has no such rules, bikes which are left blocking the entrance of doors would just be shoved aside, but also sometimes taken, if the perpetrator were stupid enough not to have taken the hint. Please don't be a jerk and park your bike in front of a door. Any door.
Conclusion #3: Drivers are jackasses, too. If you assume every driver will be a road-hogging menace to bicyclists, you can't go wrong. I've met drivers who, in reverse, simply chose not to see me. Drivers who, in spite of there being three extra lanes with which they could use to pass me, chose to brush by with just the barest of space. Drivers who simply don't look before they make a turn (I was actually hit by one of these, fortunately it was a jam-packed street and I wasn't hurt beyond a scraped elbow). In other words, never assume the driver that's pulling up to the intersection will yield. Assume that he won't, and you'll stay alive.
Conclusion #4: Hand signals actually work. Hand signals are mostly dismissed by cyclists on both sides of the pond, but they actually work pretty well, provided you start using them before you make the indicated turn. This is especially critical for left turns on a two-way street, as the opposing traffic will usually slow down to enable you to make the turn.
Conclusion #5: Blind spots are bigger; or, just turn your head and look! This may seem strange, but the truth is when you're on a bike and you have to check behind you, you MUST turn your head. Especially when it's dark--most of the time, I can get away with a quick glance to the left and count on my peripheral vision to see the car, but when it's dark, I have to look over my shoulder. I can't tell you how many times I've been surprised by a car I could've sworn wasn't there when I looked.
Conclusion #6: Mom was wrong. When we were little my mom used to tell us to hug the curb, so that cars wouldn't hit us and we wouldn't obstruct traffic. When I started riding in Philadelphia, I quickly learned not to: people don't look when they open their doors. Not only that, riding as close to the curb as you can actually decreases your visibility to cars, and it forces you to take a snaky, windy, runaround around parked cars. A driver might lose sight of you, figure you've parked, only to be completely surprised when you pop out from behind a parked car (and in no position to stop in time). When you're on a bike, visibility counts most for your safety. Stay visible. Riding in front of a pissed off driver is better than popping up like a whack-a-bike in front of a nice one.
Conclusion #7: Helmets won't save you from yourself. I'm a bit on the short side, and this is doubly so in the country where women are regularly 5'9" and my 6' boyfriend is considered "short". Most of the bikes here are therefore made for significantly taller people, which means I have "issues" staying on mine when it's stopped (therefore I try not to stop). Helmets may save you from a crash with a car, but they probably won't do much if you're a klutz.
Conclusion #8: Headphones + Bike = Darwin Just. Don't.
Conclusion #9: Proper air pressure is a much bigger issue when you're the one doing the pushing. I know people who can't be bothered to check their tire pressure at all, unless the tire is visibly flat. I'm pretty sure they would do it religiously if they were the ones providing the energy, though--properly inflated tires make life a hell of a lot easier on wheels.
Conclusion #10: You don't always get what you pay for. It's generally true that a more expensive bike will be better than a cheap one--except in the secondhand bike market. You do have to sift through a lot of crap, but there's a lot of good stuff out there and it doesn't have to cost a fortune. My best bike was found in the trash room of my apartment building--I paid $35 to have the flywheel fixed.