A BOSTON COMMUTER JOURNAL
BY THOM PARSONS
ILLUSTRATION BY JULIA GREEN
Don’t Die on the Road (Or Die Trying): A Guide to Commuting in the City
Ed. Note: Blogger and mountain bike racer Thom Parsons was inspired by our “Overcoming Commuting Obstacles” article in issue #15, and decided to resume biking his 35-mile commute after traveling by car for a while. In this column he’ll relay his experiences with more than a dash of humor, because sometimes if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.
“WHEN I SEE AN ADULT ON A RAZOR SCOOTER, I DESPAIR FOR THE FUTURE OF THE HUMAN RACE.” –H.G. WELLS
A friend recently brought up some valid concerns about my commuting style.
Please allow me to explain myself in a way that makes me sound like a total jackass. I’ve been commuting in Boston for over 17 years. Two of those years were spent as a messenger. During all that time, I have only (unintentionally) made bodily contact with a car three times, and the cars sustained more damage than I did. (Side mirrors are apparently held on by Scotch tape and chewing gum.) This has led me to this obvious conclusion: I’m indestructible. As you read this, remember: you might not be indestructible, so adapt your riding style accordingly.
What follows is a list of rules that I live and ride by. All right, it’s not so much a list as a bunch of random thoughts conveyed in no particular order. Be alert — there are half-eaten bits of nearly unrecognizable valuable advice scattered throughout this garbage pile of idiotic gibberish.
RULE NUMBER ONE
The first and only real rule of commuting in the city (or anything, really) is: USE YOUR FREAKIN’ BRAIN!
Actually, that motto could be applied to a lot of things. We could replace most warning signs. “Do not use hair dryer in shower,” “Product will be hot after heating,” and “Warning: knives are sharp!” all could become, “USE YOUR FREAKIN’ BRAIN!”
THOU SHOULD PROBABLY NOT KILL
Sounds simultaneously very familiar and not quite catchy enough, doesn’t it?
My prime directive is really “Don’t endanger others.” This means not hopping onto pedestrian-strewn sidewalks and blindly blowing through lights before assessing the situation. If life were a zombie video game and the object of riding through the city were to kill as many zombies as possible, then buzzing through walk signals, weaving between pedestrians, and riding down sidewalks would be a great way to...kill zombies, but it is not a good way to not-kill living, breathing people. You probably aren’t going to feel bad about mowing down a brain-eating zombie. However, you might feel bad about mowing a live person down. Unless you’re a sociopath. Of course if you’re a sociopath, you’re probably not reading Bicycle Times, you’re reading Sociopath Times. I hear they have a really interesting piece on Charles Manson’s favorite recipes for holiday desserts this month.
“From the world of darkness I did loose demons and devils in the power of scorpions to torment...and then I made an apple crisp that is to DIE for!” –Charles Manson
WATCH OUT FOR THE MAN, UM, DUDE
Cyclists are an oppressed minority group living in a world designed and created by The Man, the SUV-driving-texting-with-one-hand-latte-in-the-other-hand-MAN. The way I choose to deal with this is admittedly more Weather Underground-eque than Gandhiish. Yes, I blow up cars. No, that’s made up. I do assert myself, hold my ground on the road, and take very little to no crap from car drivers. I’m a skinny little man with a big fat mouth (who is very good at planning an exit strategy). More on that in a minute.
TRUST NO ONE
Do not trust directional signals on cars, do not trust other cyclists, do not trust drivers waving you on, and sure as hell don’t trust adults on Razor scooters. Do trust that people will do the dumbest thing possible at the worst possible time. That is the only rule that people follow (except for you, you’re really smart). This is your war — cars are your enemy.
SAME ROAD, DIFFERENT RULES
Is it legal for me to ride through a red light if there isn’t a car in sight and no one (especially the law) is watching? Technically, no. Not in Massachusetts, anyway. Is it dangerous? Absolutely not-ish.
know how I know that there isn’t a car coming (and the law isn’t watching)? Because on a bike, I have 360° unobstructed visibility and superior hearing to those enclosed in metal boxes. I’m like a super-being compared to them. I refuse to not take advantage of my super powers. You hear that, The Man? You can’t keep me down. I do what is safe and reasonable, not necessarily that which is 100% legal. Do I carefully roll through a red light in the middle of Harvard Square in Cambridge in the middle of the day? Hell no! There are hundreds of people watching, hundreds of people who are going to see me cruise through that light and think, “What a douche, I hate bikers,” and then go off and burn down a biker village. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the guy who foments a biker My Lai Massacre.
Membership has its privileges...with great risk comes great reward...America runs on Dunkin’ Donuts.
DRIVE TOWARD THE LIGHT
Having a rear blinky light is a great way to ensure that anyone who runs into you from behind did it on purpose. Only 5% of U.S. citizens intentionally kill people on a daily basis. The odds are in your favor. Front lighting is much more important. This alerts oncoming drivers of your presence and makes it ever-so-slightly less likely that they’ll cut you off, and it helps pedestrians see you coming so they can step out in front of you not because they are oblivious, but because they are A-holes.
SPEED IS YOUR FRIEND
Always take a bunch of amphetamines before riding your bicycle in traffic. It will raise your alertness level, and the psychosis you may experience as a side effect will make you more in tune with city drivers.
Oops, wrong kind of speed.
The closer you are to traffic speed, the better off you are. You’ll feel more comfortable riding just out of dooring range (the outer part of the bike lane) without cars buzzing you at twice your speed. Believe it or not, cars will respect your place (or just be too nervous to function) when you’re traveling closer to their velocity.
My mouth has helped keep me alive. Letting out a big “YO! HEY!” or “BIM!” from thirty yards out as a door is beginning to open, a pedestrian is about to launch themselves off the sidewalk, or a car is edging out in front of you can save your ass.
Silence = Getting Wrecked.
LOOK OF DEATH AND EYE LASERS
Stare a car that is about to cut you off or do anything vaguely sketchy down. I don’t mean look sideways at it — turn your head and let them know you are watching. It is much harder for them to make the conscious decision to run you down and kill you that way. “Wow, that cyclist has eyes...like a harp seal...or one of the Kardashians...I feel my foot letting up on the accelerator.” Think “Death lasers out of your eyes” and mouth the words “I will ride over you.” And mean it. Unless they read lips they won’t get it, but it’s all about the attitude and the body language, anyway.
Commit, own your actions, and don’t hesitate or you will be lost. Oh, and talk to your doctor about laser eye surgery. I hear they can do that now.
Let’s say you’re entering an intersection, a car is approaching coming the other way, maybe they have their blinker on, maybe not, either way you know they are going to turn into you. Point at them, not like you point at a muffin at the bakery, “Hmm, I’ll take that one...what is that, Banana Nut?” No, do it like Champ Kind in the fight scene in Anchorman. “You! You’re next,” it says. Like you’ve got a pair of brass knuckles in your other hand and you’re about to punch the car in its fliippin’ car face.
WATCH THE TRAFFIC, NOT THE LIGHT
At an intersection, especially with a multi-lane road, watch to make sure traffic has come to a complete stop. Every morning I see drivers blow solid red lights from ten car lengths out. This is not the time to stand up for your rights, Bob Marley — wave your arms up and down, or have staring contests with drivers. Unless, that is, you feel like ghost riding your bike into the intersection as the light changes, but that would be extreme, even by my standards.
DON’T DO THIS
I’ve heard that when someone is being charged by a grizzly bear they should blow up two large trash bags and wave them up and down to make themselves appear much larger. I can’t imagine this actually works. I can imagine that when the rangers find you, they are totally psyched to have two large trash bags to scoop what’s left of your mangled carcass into. I sometimes employ a practice similar to this which does work on hordes of jay-walking pedestrians. I sit bolt upright, take my hands off the bars, and wave them up and down and yell, “WHO WANTS A HUG?” It completely freaks people out.
In summary, don’t kill people (unless they’re zombies) and always use your freakin’ brain.