Being intelligent inside an ape is like being human inside a car. You’re saddled with a prognathous mask for a face. You’re incapable of words and must resort to loud, alarming noises. Your every motion is absurdly powerful—a dangerous state of affairs because you’re subject to sudden accesses of rage.
I thought I had blogged about the prodigious walking of Wilkie Collins back when I wrote about him for the LRB, but I don't seem to have.
In The Woman in White, Collins's hero Walter Hartright is eternally walking. His first vision of the Woman in White, in fact, comes during a walk from Hampstead to his apartment in the Inns of Court, a distance of slightly more than four miles. But even though Walter begins his walk after dark, he takes the long way home:
I determined to stroll home in the purer air, by the most round-about way I could take; to follow the white winding paths across the lonely heath; and to approach London through its most open suburb by striking into the Finchley-road, and so getting back, in the cool of the new morning, by the western side of the Regent's Park.
According to Google, if in your walk from Hampstead to the Inns of Court you insist on going by Finchley Road and the west side of Regent's Park, you nearly double your trip, to slightly more than seven miles long. No wonder that Walter later, in a high frenzy of sleuthing, scoffs at fear of distance:
"How far is it to Knowlesbury from this place?" [Walter asks.]
"A long stretch, sir," said the clerk, with that exaggerated idea of distances and that vivid perception of difficulties in getting from place to place, which is peculiar to all country people. "Nigh on five mile, I can tell you!"
It was still early in the forenoon. There was plenty of time for a walk to Knowlesbury, and back again to Welmingham. . . .
Though hobbled by something he called gout, and addicted to opiates, Collins himself walked vigorously. Biographer Catherine Peters reports that during an 1873 book tour of America, Collins was dismayed to discover that Americans did not carry walking-sticks and did not like to go on walks. From New York, Collins wrote home to a friend of his chagrin:
I . . . thought nothing of a daily constitutional from my hotel in Union-square to Central Park and back. Half a dozen times on my way, friends in carriages would stop and beg me to jump in. I always declined, and I really believe that they regarded my walking exploits as a piece of English eccentricity.
Collins's constitutional measured about five miles.
Another thing I’ve long meant to blog about: car diapers. I wonder whether they exist outside Park Slope. In how many American neighborhoods do parallel parking, overprotectiveness, and automobile vanity co-exist? The car diaper is a large sheet of rubber that is draped over a car’s rear fender in order to protect it from the scratches and scrapes incidental to parallel parking. They aren’t called car diapers, of course, by their purveyors. Indeed they seem to have sort of self-consciously aggressive names, like “Bumper Bully” and “De-Fender.” But car diapers is what they look like. Some are attached by shutting them half in and half out of the trunk, so they flop over the fender, usually with a cut-out so that the license plate remains visible. A driver rarely scrapes up another car’s rear fender while parallel parking, because one always has a clear view of the other car’s rear fender. It’s one’s own rear fender that one scrapes, by misjudging the distance behind. So a car diaper is a responsible and civic thing to own—an admission of one’s incontinence as a driver, or anyway, as a parallel parker. Still.
To be fair, I am in no position to make fun of car diapers, seeing as how I am an inveterate user of book condoms, also known by the trade name Brodart Just-a-Fold III Archival Covers.
Probably I am willing to mock car diapers because of the same character flaws that have made me a cyclist. So while I am bashing car culture, I might as well throw in this observation: On the streets of Park Slope, the most dangerous driving seems to occur when drivers are in the throes of the illusion that they are “catching up.” To explain: If a driver feels that a safe and pleasant speed on a residential street is 15 miles an hour, but an obstacle (such as a double-parked delivery van) temporarily forces the driver to slow down or even stop, he often responds, once he has passed the obstacle, by “catching up.” That is, he suddenly accelerates to thirty miles an hour, and holds that speed for half a block or more. What he is “catching up” to is where he thinks his car would be if he hadn’t been forced to slow down. It wasn’t his choice to slow down; it was (and I am rankly indulging here in a fantasy of driver’s psychology, which isn’t such a stretch for me because I, too, drive) somehow unfair that he had to slow down. By revving the engine, he expresses his anger at this injustice and recovers for himself the timespace that the universe, in the form of a double-parked delivery van, had tried to take from him. On a bicycle, too, I suppose, one might try to “catch up” to one’s fantasy-unobstructed self after an obstacle, but I don’t think it happens very often. I don’t find myself ever doing it, maybe because it would take a burst of muscle power that isn’t generally available. In a car, though, the engine is always ready to give you more speed than is safe; the cost of “catching up” in a car isn’t to one’s energy supply as a human organism; it takes the form of an added hazard to oneself and to those who have the misfortune to be sharing the street with you while you’re doing it. Car drivers, become more zen! You are where you are. You do not have to catch up to where you think you are.
To be fair and balanced, now that I have dissed place-anxious drivers, I will say a few words about a similar risky and unpleasant habit among my fellow bikers. This long-harbored meme goes in my head by the name of, How Fixies Cause Global Warming. Not really, of course, or anyway, not by very much, but let me explain. What I am objecting to is a practice that has been well described by Bike Snob NYC: when a hipster on a fixie comes to a busy intersection, he does not stop on the near side of the pedestrian crosswalk and wait for the light to change. Oh no, he considers that the momentum that he has built up in his bicycle is too precious to squander by stopping, so he passes over the pedestrian crosswalk and then, just inside the intersection, circles back and forth, in a sort of flattened figure 8 pattern, hoping against hope that there will be a break in the crosswise traffic that will allow him to sneak through. When he does find such a break in the traffic, I sigh with relief. He is gone from my life, at least until I catch up to him at the next intersection. When he doesn’t find a break, however, he himself becomes a considerable obstacle. He almost always finishes his flattened-figure-8 performance with his bike stationary after all and positioned sideways, blocking my path into the intersection. He almost never realizes when the light has finally turned green, because (1) he is too far into the intersection to have a proper view of the traffic light, and (2) he is too “street” to pay any attention to traffic lights generally. So when the light turns green and I’m ready to go, he’s sideways, in my way, and squinting in the wrong direction. And the final aggravation: when he does start moving, because he’s on a fixie, he’s starting his bike in the equivalent of seventh gear or whatever, and he . . . moves . . . the . . . ped- . . . -als . . . ve- . . . -ry . . . slow- . . . -ly . . . . If he had a real bicycle, with some low gears and some high ones, he would be able to start quickly from a full stop, and get out of my way.
The reason momentum is so precious to fixie-riders isn’t because they have a better grasp of physics than other people, nor necessarily because they’re in worse physical condition, but because it’s hard to start riding a bike in seventh gear from a full stop. So fixie riders try not to stop at all, and they end up cluttering intersections whose lights have turned green. Once this is understood, it is a short step to realizing that the decision to forgo gears must be a tremendous waste of human energy generally, and any waste of energy, even the energy generated by hipsters eating power bars, is a contribution to global warming, so fixies cause global warming. Q.E.D. (As I admitted before, not by very much. But, you know, some.)
Last summer, I got a new bike, much easier to ride and much zippier than the hand-me-down I’d been using. A little high on my new confidence, I was for about twenty-four hours a somewhat aggressive, even reckless biker. I don't remember my sins very clearly, but I probably sailed through red lights, rode on and off the sidewalk, and cruised down one-way streets the wrong way.
It didn't last, because I discovered that I didn't like the experience of seeing my life flash before my eyes. I reformed abruptly and rigorously. My principle became, roughly speaking, bike in such a way that even relatively inattentive drivers can be expected to see you and know what you’re going to do next. Also: don't be annoying to pedestrians. I began halting at red lights and stop signs. (Later I relaxed this somewhat, almost to Idaho rules.) I made sure to bike in the bike lane, if there was one (or on the outer edge of it, if biking inside it was going to put me within swinging distance of the opening doors of parked cars). I stayed off sidewalks. And I never, ever biked the wrong way down a one-way street.
Gradually I became hoity-toity about my righteous biking. I glared at cyclists who came at me the wrong way down a one-way street and began to refer to such transgressors by a moniker that blogger Bike Snob NYC invented for them: "bike salmon." I shook my head at cyclists who insisted on riding on the side of the street opposite the bike lane. I clucked my tongue at cyclists who didn't even bother to slow down at busy intersections.
I was therefore interested, and a little chastened, to read in Jeff Mapes's Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities, that moral indignation about the adherence of bicyclists to traffic laws is absent from the Netherlands, the utopia of cycling, which has, Mapes reports, "the lowest per-capita vehicle death rate in Europe," about a third that of the United States. Except for the requirement that bicycles on the road at night have lights, Dutch police do not enforce traffic laws on cyclists. Explains Mapes:
The Dutch don't see much sense in going after cyclists and walkers when the only people they are putting at risk are themselves. "It's their choice," shrugged [Amsterdam top traffic-safety official Jack] Wolters. . . . The statistics seem to bear him out. . . . One influential 2003 study, by researchers John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra, found American cyclists were at least three times as likely to get killed as Dutch cyclists, while American pedestrians faced at least six times the danger of dying.
Such laissez-faire will probably not arrive in America. For one thing, there’s no question that it’s dangerous to ride a bike lawlessly. According to Mapes, a 1996 study by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center found that "as many as a third of all bike accidents involved simply riding against the flow of traffic," and a 2003–2004 Orlando, Florida, study found that "nearly two-thirds [of bike accidents] involved riding on the sidewalk or another unsafe choice by the cyclist." But the Dutch attitude has nonetheless thrown a monkey wrench in my moralism.
To look at the problem through the most rose-colored glasses possible, might bike salmon merely be a sign that biking is on the rise? What if most bike salmon are like me on my first day with my spiffy new bike? If so, and if they survive, they'll eventually settle into abiding by the law. Moreover, when you first start biking in a city as byzantine as New York, the street patterns are novel to you (streets good to bike on do not often coincide with streets good to drive on) and highly confusing, and a newbie sometimes finds himself following a series of well-marked bike lanes into a virtual dead end, the only exit from which is by the bad choice of bike-salmoning (Bergen Street ending at Court Street, when the cyclist wants to reach one of the bridges over the East River—I'm looking at you here). As a cyclist learns the map, he becomes less likely to repeat such errors. If bike salmon are by and large newbies, they will in all likelihood reform with time, the way I did.
But to try out the Dutch way of regarding it, why should I care if they don't? I might care, magnanimously, because I don't want them to die, and I might care, a little more abstractly, because, as a commenter to my previous post noted, lawless bikers could spoil the good name of bicyclists generally, and contribute to a political backlash. But am I responsible for the anger that motorists might feel? It seems unfair for me, as a cyclist, to have to adopt motorists' displeasure as my own, simply because I fear it as a political force, especially when the motorists might be mistaken in their anger. The Dutch facts suggest that irregular cyclists, by making the streets less predictable, force motorists to pay more attention, and when motorists habitually pay more attention, the streets become safer—for motorists, as well as everybody else. Of course lawless bikers offer this (perhaps hypothetical) public benefit at enormous cost to themselves—at the potential cost of death, in fact, which I can't recommend.
At the end of the day, then, I still do wish that all cyclists went the right way down one-way streets, but maybe I won’t tsk-tsk the bike salmon any more. (Can I ask something, though? If you’re a bike salmon, and you and I are headed for a collision, would you mind being the one to swerve into the car lane? Because I didn’t sign up for that.) It would, after all, be swell if motorists paid more attention to the road. The trouble is that motorists hate to have to pay more attention.
Their disgust has to do, I think, with the asymmetrical nature of the warfare between cyclists and motorists. As I vaguely recall from high-school physics, the damage that a moving object can do is proportional to its momentum—its mass times its speed. A 5000-pound SUV going 35 miles an hour is therefore about 81 times as dangerous as a 150-pound cyclist on a 30-pound bike going 12 miles per hour.* The worst thing a motorist can do to a cyclist is kill him, and the worst thing a cyclist is likely to be able to do to a motorist is saddle him with the guilt of having killed. But guilt enrages in a way that fear doesn't, maybe because people are softies underneath, and would rather run the risk of being killed than of killing. (Between the certainty of one or the other, the choice might be different, naturally.) The only way a motorist could level the playing field would be to drive 81* times more prudently than the average bicyclist, and that may not be humanly possible.
* Correction, July 27: My memory of high-school physics is even hazier than I knew. As several commenters below have pointed out, the damage that a moving object is capable of is proportional not to its momentum but to its kinetic energy—its mass times the square of its velocity. So the SUV in my example is not 81 times but 236 times more dangerous than the bicycle.
A couple of weeks ago, while I was waiting in the bike lane at a red light in Williamsburg, a fellow cyclist passed me and ran through the light just as it turned green. The driver of an SUV, who had been waiting at the same light, edged up to me. “I saw what that guy did to you,” he said. “Do you want me to hit him?” He didn’t seem to be joking. Terrified, I assured him that I didn’t want revenge.
The SUV driver probably was joking, of course, and as is often the case, I was slow on the uptake. But I suspect that beneath his joke, the rage he felt on my behalf may have been in earnest, because I’ve sometimes felt a similar rage when I’ve been passed while driving. Which set me wondering: Why don’t I feel the same rage when I’m passed on a bike?
A moralist might answer that bicyclists, as people, are more humane and ethical than car drivers, but I don’t think that’s true. In general, bicycling may be more ethical than driving, because the carbon dioxide in car exhaust raises the world’s average temperature, but bicyclists aren’t more ethical than drivers, in their essences—or so I believe, mostly because I myself happen to switch between the two kinds of vehicles. The rage must have something to do with the nature of cars.
A more plausible answer is that cars are bulky. If you’re driving, and another car passes you, there may not be an opportunity to pass it in return, even if it slows down, for several blocks. In a narrow street, if a car in front of you suddenly decides to double-park—to pick up a passenger or make a delivery—you’re stuck behind it for the interval of the errand. To be passed by another car aggravates your chances of delay; something has in fact been taken from you. I understand that in bicycle races, bicycles can obstruct one another, but this almost never happens when cycling merely for transportation. If a fellow bicyclist passes you and then slows down or stops, you simply pass him again, no hard feelings. On a bicycle, passing doesn’t usually involve the possibility of blocking.
A somewhat subtler explanation, however, may lie in the different forces that power the two kinds of vehicle. If a fellow bicyclist passes me, he’s going faster than I am, either because he wants to or can. If he wants to go faster, then it’s probably because I don’t feel safe going as fast. Since speeding bicycles don’t kill nearly as many people as speeding cars do, I’m not likely to resent his speed. I just prefer a lower level of risk for myself. In such a case, the most hostile sentiment I could summon up would be something like, “Hope you don’t wipe out, guy.”
More likely, though, he’s going faster because he’s able to go faster. In other words, he passes me because he’s in better shape than I am, because he has more energy at the moment, or because his bike is more efficient. And these are factors that, even if I’m not happy to have to acknowledge them, I have to respect, because they’re more or less the same limits to motion that I, as a human animal, have had to be at peace with since around the time I learned how to walk. I can’t simply will my bicycle to go as fast as any bicycle that passes me. Or rather, I can will it to, but I then have to work to make it happen—work that I’ll feel in the ache of my muscles and the flow of my sweat. If that sounds a little sexy, that’s because it is: I’m not likely to rise to the challenge unless the exertion it will require strikes me as pleasant. If I don’t have the energy or the appetite for it, I won’t mind letting the challenge go, because I’ll understand myself to be reserving my energies and appetites for something else. It’s all about my pleasure.
The case is very different behind the wheel of a car. As a matter of physics, cars are fueled by the controlled explosion of hydrocarbons, but as a matter of psychology, they are fueled by mere will. To make a car go, you don’t have to work up a sweat, tire out your muscles, or burn off calories. On a racetrack, one driver passes another to show off the superiority of his car, but off the racetrack, most cars are capable of driving faster than the legal speed limit, and are therefore practically identical, give or take negligible differences in acceleration time. In daily life, therefore, the decisive force behind the passing of one car by another is mere cussedness. As is well known, the supply of cussedness, in general and in any single individual, is limitless. Compounding the problem, cussedness does not dispel itself, when exercised, in happy-making endorphins. It breeds more cussedness, in oneself and in the person it is directed against. The reason that it is so infuriating to be passed and cut off by a fellow driver is that nothing finite is at stake. The action of passing costs a driver no energy and proves nothing about his strength. It expresses no more than a wish to get in front of you; all he did was dip his right toe a little faster and a little harder than you. It isn’t easy for the cut-off driver to find within himself the greatness of spirit needed to say, “Yes, behold, you are a little more cussed than I.” For one thing, such a statement isn’t likely to be true. One is almost always as full of cussedness as the next guy. In such circumstances, fresh supplies of cussedness well up from deep within one, unbidden. Or rather, bidden—by the next guy’s cussedness.
The cycle of resentment doesn’t even occur to a cyclist, unless it spills out of one the automobiles on the road beside him. So I was startled by the SUV driver’s rage, and he was nonplussed to discover I didn’t think myself aggrieved. The difference is part of what makes cycling so lovely, though I wonder if it’s harder for cyclists and motorists to communicate with each other from such distinct states of mind.