Thursday, July 16, 2009

Honkless in Boston

Five days now riding in Boston, hundreds of miles, and no one's honked at me. I haven't even had motorists teach me a lesson with gunning their engines or driving too close. I could get used to this pretty quickly. The only other times I've had it this good were in Fredericksburg and in France. Fredericksburg was great because on the rural roads there is no traffic, there's no conflict. But here and in Paris and the Riviera, there is conflict, there's lots of traffic, but the motorists are somehow exceptionally accommodating. On my cooldown from today's ride I tried to reason why.

Talking with Lauren and my mom, they were thinking that because of the ubiquity of cyclists and pedestrians, because of the defensiveness of the drivers, and because the drivers themselves are also often pedestrians and cyclists, that they have an empathy to cyclists they see during their commutes. This is probably all true, but Bostonians and the French are also very different. I wondered what commonality existed that would contribute to this, for me, very rare quality of good behavior towards cyclists.

I believe it is the lack of anonymity and the strong connection to place that exists in both cultures. In car-centric cultures you know no one. You never interact with anyone except for retail staff and even then it's typically in revolving door bix box chains in which you'd never see the same employee twice. This isn't a rant against suburbia, only an observation that in suburban car cultures one travels from their buffered detached home to their buffered automobile to their buffered cubicle and back. We're ever widening shopping aisles so that even when we're out we don't interact. You don't even have to hand your credit card to the cashier--it's on your side of the counter so you'll never have to touch another human being again.

And in these communities there's certainly no attachment to the land, to the schools, to the towns or to each other. We move based on the conditions of the market. We move to better schools instead of improving our own. We live in a place without any attachment to that place. Sometimes there are very good reasons for that, but it doesn't change the fact that it's been a good while since we lived in the home in which we were born, that our neighbors were our old classmates, that we even really knew our neighbors beyond knowing that they annoy us.

In this environment, one in which no one knows you and no one notices you, it's very easy to behave badly. Aptly, I swear like a sailor, but I don't do it at home; not much anyhow. That's because I don't want to behave badly in front of my mother. But if you cut me off in traffic, get out a pencil because I'm going to lay down some stuff you've never heard. It's the same in a town or on the road in that same town in which people know you or will notice you. You are far less likely to behave badly. Someone might tell your mother.

Bostonians have a very strong connection to place, to their town. My stateroommate on the USS San Jacinto was native to this city on a hill and he used to talk about how his grandfather had helped build this house and that church and how his family went all the way back to...blah blah blah. Jeff Gottfredsen; you can bet that he'd think twice about honking or flipping someone off in traffic. They'd tell his mother.

But it's not fear of getting in trouble, not entirely anyway. It's respect for your neighbors. It's seeing the person in front of you in traffic as a person, not a car that's in your way. You'd never shout at a person on the sidewalk and again it's not because of fear--you just don't treat people that way. And here, these Bostonians see each other as actual people. In suburbia, they can behave badly because they don't consider that person in the car ahead as anything more than an inconvenience, certainly not as a human being, as a neighbor. And they see cyclists the same way. Not as a person on a bicycle, but as an inconvenience.

In Boston a cyclist is an actual person, and one that may know your mother.