Yet cyclists, despite our behavior - and often against our own best interests - are totally vulnerable: no air bags, no steel-reinforced doors. All we have to protect us from motor vehicles, scooters, roller blades and other cyclists, are foam helmets – and a little bell.
The first time I had doubts about my own one-ping bell was the second time I rode Lucille, which happened to be in a torrential down pour. It was before I had dared to use NY bike lanes, and the cyclists I encountered in the Park were few; but I was sadly disappointed in my ability to signal them. My bell went from the sonorous, “Diiiinnnnnng!” so satisfying on a sunny day, to a clunky, fairly inaudible “Dnk.” A non-signal if ever there was one. Useless, and somewhat humiliating. The high school loser of bells.
Now let's face it: there are a few situations where nothing is gonna work. We know this as pedestrians, and as such we have our eyes peeled at every cross walk (and often in between) so as to simply avoid them. Take for instance yesterday.
I was finishing a ride down Riverside Park, had stopped at West 20th Street and was waiting for the light to cross the West Side Highway. The light turned green. Veteran New Yorker that I am, I take that as a vague indication that crossing is possible. The actual order I follow is this:
1. Light turns green (that's nice).
2. All lanes of traffic have stopped, or are going so slow I can tell it's immanent (better).
3. The cars behind them have also stopped, or are stopping (rear-ending a car into an intersection can really mess up my hair).
So, two of three lanes of traffic closest to me had stopped. There was a third lane on the far side still open, so jury still out. I was tempted to cross, but waited, more out of habit than anything else. And then I witnessed what I've heard about so many times but never actually seen: some (texting?) driver blew right through the intersection and a solid red light (yellow had long ago disappeared) at full speed, oblivious. I stood with pedestrians on either side, silent, our mortality in vivid bas relief on the West Side Highway, with one thought unspoken: What If? What if we had crossed? What if that had been me?
It’s a thought whose conclusion is too terrible to follow, and one we keep out of our minds so as to be able to sleep at night, but these things do happen. I hear about them all the time. All you can do is be careful. It doesn't matter if you're on a bike or not. These hazards have been with us long before texting, and even long before automobiles.
And then there was this, a classic sort of double negative that probably made perfect sense to the actors involved. I was stopped (as a pedestrian, btw) at the bike lane intersection on West 22nd hoping to cross and looking in both directions. As I stood there, two cyclists, both riding in the wrong direction got the identical idea to cross paths at the same time - I saw their tires actually touch as they nearly collided. One promptly reached out and punched the other one with his fist. "Ow! F*cking P*ssy!" was the response as the injured party careened back into his lane rubbing his arm. "Why'd you do that?!" And with that, in a sort of Doppler vernacular, they proceeded down 8th Avenue (which goes up), continuing to swear and bat at each other, mindless of pedestrian or bike (or car) traffic, until they vanished from sight (and sound). "Hey," I called out, 'You're both going in the wrong direction!"
No one was listening.
Situations like this you have to simply avoid. Pay attention. Anticipate. Or better yet, stay home and order take-out. Let the delivery guy who's bringing the Chinese wreak the havoc, while you stay innocently at home watching re-runs of The Real Housewives of Orange Country, oblivious of the destruction you have set into motion.
Or you can get a whistle.
When she gets like this, there's no persuading her.
The easiest thing? A whistle. It's what messengers have used since the beginning of time - and of course the police (who've been with us just as long, it seems). I've been told it's illegal for anyone else to use one in traffic, but plenty of people do it anyway.
The down side is, to really have it handy and not just wear it as a piece of jewelry, you have to keep it between your teeth. This cuts down on the easy breathing that is one of the great joys of cycling. But when you're in traffic (OK, a bike lane, I remain a ninny), not breathing might actually be an advantage. And today, when I used my whistle for the first time, it's as if I were suddenly speaking an international language: all of a sudden the tourists who had walked so nonchalantly in front of me before, refusing to move in spite of my repeated bell soundings, suddenly paid attention and got out of the way - fast. Drivers hear it too; accustomed to the connotation of law enforcement, they no doubt metaphorically check their zippers, and second guess their decision to cut me off. By the time they realize they've been had, I've cycled easily by (these incidences take place at approximately 2mph, but still make life easier for me in the bike lane).
If I know I'm headed for a ride in the Park, Lucille's bell is adequate. Even in the rain, I don't really need it on a greenway, because I'm usually one of the only ones riding. Bicycling in (bike lane) traffic however, is another matter. If I'm going to depend on the kindness of strangers, they have to know I’m there first. A whistle will raise their awareness. With luck, their kindness will follow. And it’s easy for any cyclist to use.
You know how to whistle, don't you?
Put your lips together and blow.