Sometimes on your bike, you find just the right route and all is well. And sometimes, you end up on a controlled access freeway with semi trucks whizzing past at 80mph.
I just found this picture again today while I was looking for something else. It’s from my fall bike trip through Montana/Wyoming/Idaho; more specifically, I took it as I was blundering my way out of Missoula.
For a purportedly bike-friendly city, Missoula and the surrounding area was probably the low point of bike friendliness for me. Despite the promise of real grocery stores where I could restock my fresh food supply, despite my desire to stop by the Adventure Cycling Association headquarters, despite my plan to find a ridiculously humongous lunch somewhere, I’d almost bailed on Missoula entirely. Why? Because it was nearly impossible for me to find a bike-friendly way into it from the highway I’d been riding on. I had no idea how far it was — i.e. how much longer I had to put up with shitty biking along broken sidewalks — and I was totally unsure if the way I was going was even actually going to lead me into Missoula proper. No, I didn’t have a map, but that has never really been a problem before in cities, I just stop and ask, or it becomes obvious. No such luck on my way into Missoula.
And on my way out, I did have a map, but I still somehow managed to end up on Interstate 90, a road that you’re definitely not supposed to be on if you’re not in a motor vehicle. And then I was stuck on it for like 7 miles before I could get off. Definitely not my favorite part of the ride.
It strikes me that this — the accidental and potentially super dangerous route choice — is the kind of thing that you don’t really think about if you get around only via car. When I asked my aunt in Idaho about a good way to bike from her house in the country to downtown Boise, for example, she had no idea what to tell me. “This street has a sidewalk,” she said. Or, “I think I might have seen people biking on this street once.” Basically, she had no idea. Not because she’s ignorant (she’s not), but because to her any street is fine. She never even has to think about it because in her car in the US, she will only exceedingly rarely get stuck in a situation where her life is actually in danger because of the inherent condition of the road. Roads are built for her in her car; she doesn’t have to think about routefinding the way I do on my bike.
And what do I think about? I think about which roads might have bike lanes. Which roads will have less traffic. Which roads will have people who expect to see me there. Which roads make it easier to cross other major arterials.
On bigger bike trips, where I’m totally unfamiliar with the area and unsure what to expect, sometimes I get it wrong. Sometimes I do stupid things and end up on the interstate. But sometimes I do what seems wholly reasonable — like Martin Greenough, who was hit by a car while riding a super scary street that is actually marked as a good biking option on Portland’s bike map — and still end up in shitty situations. And in those cases, I’m really, really glad for people’s forgiveness and humanity.
It’d be awesome if on some glorious day in the future, I and anyone else on a bicycle didn’t have to think so hard about which route is less likely to lead to death. And in the meantime, I’m very thankful for the people who pay attention when they drive and remember that we’re all human beings doing the best we can trying to share the same space in this world.