Friday, September 5

Gapping the Bridge

As a cyclist, I believe that if you want equal rights to the road, you need to accept equal responsibilities. By not taking the responsibilities of the road, you're marginalizing yourself (and other cyclists as well) and it can be inferred that you don't have the rights of the road either. The right to be noticed, the right to not have a car pull out in front of you, or to pass you and immediately turn left in front of you.

On the other hand, sometimes there are areas where you can't follow the road rules. Or just don't want to enough to ignore them. Example: waiting at a red light. Often, bicycles can't trigger whatever mechanism senses a vehicle and changes the light. This is when it makes sense to treat the red light as a stop-sign. That's not to say blow through; stop, look, and go when it's safe. In my experience this sort of thing is pretty standard.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire is a great town. I've lived in the area for about 18 years. I just moved to Portsmouth proper about six months ago; before that I lived in Kittery, just across the Memorial Bridge to Maine. For those not familiar with the area, I'll describe the bridge: It's got a steel grate deck which is safe if you are a decent bike handler and conditions are dry. Then it has a sidewalk on either side, with a guardrail partitioning them from the road. On the up-river side is access to the control tower, and that's the side the drawbridge operators and attendants are on, with equipment sheds that are about the size of a porta-potty. On the ocean-side of the bridge, the sidewalk is clear. It is roughly the same width as the State Street sidewalk that I mentioned yesterday, you can walk three-abreast.

Oh, both sides also have a large signs reading "Cyclists must walk bikes on sidewalk". Forgot to mention that.

Now, when I lived in Kittery, in my apartment right over the bridge, for about three years, I'd ride my bike to Portsmouth daily. This was before I was racing or anything, too. And when I'd go over the bridge, I would often ride the sidewalk. I mean, the distance from my house to my work was so short, that the bridge consisted of about half of the voyage. Why bother taking the bike if I have to walk half of it? Now, I would always cross the street to ride on the side that the workers weren't on. I'd go slow (under 5mph) and squeeze myself way, way over to the side to make room for anyone that might be coming my way. I would never pass someone from behind. I'd just go slowly at a distance behind them. In other words, I'd be respectful of the people, if not the rule itself. I mean, if I held the bike on my shoulder and just ran with it, cyclocross style, I'd be a way, way bigger hazard. The women jogging with their babies in strollers took up a wider profile than I did and moved faster. And back then, the guys seemed to tolerate me, one even said "I don't mind if you ride, just don't pass anyone."

Maybe it is the slight ambiguity of the sign that makes me indignant. What does "Cyclists must walk bikes on sidewalk" mean, anyway? That they must be on the sidewalk, and they must also walk them? Or that if on the sidewalk, they must walk them? Or does that mean that if they are walking them, they must do so on the sidewalk? I might want to try walking the bike not on the sidewalk, just to see what happens.

Anyway, I don't have much cause to go to Kittery and cross the bridge any more. It's been about 4 months since I've been over it, or at least since I've ridden the sidewalk. However, about a month ago, I went to Sea Hags Seafood on Badger's Island to pick up some fresh fish. I guess it was a little misty that day, the steel was slightly moist and I decided not to ride the steel grate deck on the way back in to Portsmouth. I'm going really slow, I'm hugging the side, there is absolutely no one else on the sidewalk, and I'm on the opposite side from the bridge workers. Suddenly a worker angrily yells from the other side, "WALK THE BIKE!"

One's natural inclination at that point would to be startled and immediately dismount and walk the bike. This is wrong. I figured if they wanted something from me, they were going to have to earn it. I kept going. A few seconds later, they guy up on the drawbridge control tower got on the PA thing that they use for talking to boats that don't have radio and yelled at me. Boy, they were bringing out the big guns. Someone must have recently pissed them off. I stayed strong. I was more than halfway across the bridge when they said "Portsmouth police are on their way!"

Portsmouth is a fairly safe town--it has one of the highest per-capita police. But I still don't think that they have someone on call for people riding their bikes on the bridge at 10:30am on the Monday morning. I was more than halfway across the bridge, I was going to be over it in about 45 seconds. But getting a ticket on a bike is only cool if it's for speeding--it's not cool for reckless endangerment, operating under the influence, or traffic violations. I doubted that the cops were going to come, but I had fresh, raw tuna in my messenger bag, and I wasn't particularly in the mood for a stern talking-to. Moreover, I've heard tales of the bridge guys tackling cyclists. I didn't want to be on the receiving end of that sort of thing, so I booked it the rest of the way and then went home.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that occasionally it's okay to break the rules, if you're respectful about it. That's what I did for three years while living in Kittery, and it was always without incident. However, occasionally someone will react zealously. In a circumstance like this, then you've just lowered one person's opinion of cyclists in general. But someone that's going to zealously be a total dick about a minor traffic violation probably wasn't worth wasting your time thinking about anyway.

I'm curious--what do my readers think about this?

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