The joy of commuting

March 22, 2014 § 41 Comments

I have three commuter routes in the morning.

The best one takes an hour, drops down Hawthorne to the coast, wends through Lunada Bay and Paseo del Mar, drops down by the Cove, picks up the bike path at RAT Beach, then goes up Emerald through the neighborhood by Victory Elementary and over to my office on Hawthorne. The ride has scenery, a couple of short climbs, and I arrive at work completely relaxed and ready for the day’s nap.

The mediocre route takes about twenty-five minutes. I go down Silver Spur, take PV Drive to Via Valmonte, then snake over to Anza and go straight up Anza to Spencer and my office on Hawthorne. This route has traffic all the way along Anza once you cross PCH, but the traffic is rarely hostile. Anza has a bike lane in some places, and a faux bike lane in others that is packed with parked cars ready to door you any second. When I take this route I arrive at work not very relaxed because the cars are so close for most of the ride.

The hell route takes twenty minutes. I bomb down the other side of Hawthorne at 45 mph side by side with the cars, the buses, and the trucks whose brakes are frying on the descent. Drivers chop me at very high speeds and occasionally honk even though I’m passing them. Once I’m on Hawthorne past PCH it’s a war zone. There are four lanes, and I control the entire right lane. This makes a lot of morning commuters very angry. I could add a couple of more “very’s” and still not capture the rage that many cagers express at seeing me in my lane. About half the time I take the hell route a cager yells at me, and I always yell and gesture back. I get to work tense and feeling like I just escaped death or serious injury.

“Hey, you, get offa my cloud!”

Yesterday morning I was stopped at Hawthorne and Torrance. I was the first one at the light and there was a long line of cars backed up behind me. Next to me was a late 1990’s gray Chevy pickup. The cager was in his late 50’s, badly overweight, and wearing slacks and a dress shirt. His hair, such of it that there was, had been slicked back. I could smell his aftershave.

“Hey, pal,” he said, indicating that we were almost certainly not going to be pals. “Get up on the sidewalk. You’re backing up traffic.”

“Hey, non-pal,” I said. “I have a legal right to be in this lane.”

“No, you don’t. You’re on a bike. Get on the sidewalk and let the cars pass. You’re blocking traffic.”

At that moment a big city bus turned from Torrance onto Hawthorne and pulled up to the bus stop just past the light we were stopped at. “Yes, I do have a right to be here. Just like that bus, which is also ‘blocking traffic.’ Or maybe he needs to also get on the sidewalk?”

The guy got really angry. “You’re breaking the law!”

“No, I’m not, and I don’t see your badge, so shut the fuck up.”

“There’s no need to curse!” he screamed.

“There’s no need to be a square-headed dick, either.”

The light turned green and he sped off. I kept smack in the middle of the lane and sure enough, as happens all the way down Hawthorne, the traffic behind me waited until the neighboring lane cleared, then safely passed by, one by one. I had won the battle, but had lost the stress war.

Get a car, maroon!

Although I have three routes to work, there’s really only one route home, and that’s the fastest one, back down Hawthorne. I’m always tired and always want to get home quickly because, beer. Yesterday was Friday and I was leaving at 5:30. Hawthorne traffic is always angry, but the two angriest times for cagers are Monday morning and Friday late afternoon. This is because on Monday they have to go the place they hate the most for the next several days, work, and on Friday they have to go the other place they hate the most, home, for the next couple of days. If every commute ended in a bar or strip club or all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, cagers would be a lot happier.

I made it most of the way to Sepulveda without incident. Then, about a hundred yards before the light, I heard the telltale sound of a cager to the left of me slowing quickly because he’d been texting or listening to music or fiddling with his knob only to discover that he needed to move two lanes to the right so he could get into the right-turn-only lane and turn onto Sepulveda. The only thing between him and his multi-lane change was me, and as always happens, the cager becomes enraged that an otherwise last second clean-lane-sweep is going to be thwarted by a puny bicycle.

By now we had stopped in the traffic waiting for the light. The driver had long blonde hair and looked like he had come straight out of a police profiling manual under the heading “Typical Unemployed Surfer Dude on Drugs.”

He leaned over and began speaking through his open window. “Hey, asshole!” he shouted, not even bothering to try and trick me with the “pal” thing.

“What’s up, shitwagon?” I answered.

“You think you’re a fucking car? Get out of the fucking road before I run your ass over.”

“You think you’re a traffic cop? Shut the fuck up you sorry ass drug runner before I video your license number and file a complaint for civil harassment and the cops strip search your anus with a cattle prod.”

“Get on the fucking sidewalk! Bikes aren’t cars!” he raged. The traffic began to move, he waited until I had passed him, then shot over into the far right lane and raced down Sepulveda in a squeal of angry rubber.

Use it or lose it

The obvious question, paraphrasing an email from a friend who saw me commuting on Hawthorne the other day, is “Why in the world do you drive on that awful and dangerous street when you have much better alternatives?”

The answer is because it’s quick, and although stressful it’s not any more dangerous than the other routes I take. When I ride in the center of the far right lane, cagers pass me safely. This isn’t always the case on Anza. What seems dangerous, the proximity of cars, is actually safe when I’m in the lane with a bright taillight blazing away, especially in the daytime.

The other answer is that I have a right to ride in that lane. Why should I let cagers intimidate me with their ignorance? Why should cagers get all the fast, well-paved roads? Riding where I have a legal right to ride isn’t something I have to justify, any more than a person has to justify wanting to eat at a lunch counter or go to a movie. In tandem with that is the fact that every time a cager sees a biker in the lane, like it or not the cager is getting educated. He’s learning to expect bikes in the street, where they belong, not on the sidewalk, where they don’t belong.

I’ve seen downtown L.A. over the last five years go from being a place where bikes were a rarity to being a place where motorists absolutely expect to see bikes in the lane. I’ve yet to see a bike-cager encounter in DTLA like the ones I regularly experience on Hawthorne. Exercising your right to be in the lane is the best possible way of teaching cagers that you have the right to be there.

I’ve often thought that if bikers would commute down the bigger, more hostile roads in small groups it would be awesome. The sight of ten or fifteen commuters in a lane would make a much stronger message than some lone dude pedaling like crazy while screaming like a lunatic and flipping off his harassers. Maybe.

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