At the start of winter break we headed up to Santa Rosa for brunch with some of our more distant family members, cousins by blood and marriage whose diaspora covers Northern California from San Francisco to the mountains near the Oregon border. With our youngest still in need of a midday nap and our hosting cousin’s remote mountaintop location, the forecast was definitely a trip by car.
An unexpected bonus of this trip was our kids’ first real connection with their near-own-age cousins, twins from Truckee that they’d orbited around during their last meeting but never really felt comfortable enough to play with. This time they made friends.
This time, we were also the sole representatives of the urban living contingent. I spent much of my childhood in small towns and as a result I don’t feel enormous curiosity about what childhood there is like. I remember it well. I tend to forget, given that we live in a city with thousands of other people who live in cities, that the prospect of raising children in a city is intimidating at best to the many American families who’ve spent their lives in a more rural locale. They envy us public schools that offer instruction in over a dozen foreign languages (and who wouldn’t; our son speaks freakin’ Japanese! And it’s free!) and the class-size reduction grant that his many impoverished classmates secured, but not the lottery that assigns those schools or the neighborhoods where they’re located (and who would).
In addition to asking us about how frequently we fear muggings, which is basically never, as most of San Francisco is simply not that dangerous compared to other cities, they wonder a lot about what it’s like to drive in the city, and to park in the city, as their visits there have been uniformly horrific on these fronts, and I can’t argue with that. Also I would not deny that car break-ins are epidemic in San Francisco and nonexistent on the tree-lined streets of Truckee. For the first time we kind of came to grips with the fact that what with the newfound commitment to riding our bikes, these aren’t often issues for us anymore. But of course instead we got the most common response we get when we mention that we bike with our kids, which is that we might as well open their veins with a straight razor and let them bleed out into the gutter.
The evidence for what is safe by any mode of transportation is difficult to parse. I know from talking to my colleagues at the General that there are intersections in this city so dangerous that they suggest, not totally in jest, that pedestrians wear helmets while crossing them. And of course near us there is the notorious intersection of Masonic with Oak/Fell, which I would prefer not to traverse by any means whatsoever but can rarely avoid. My cousin was killed when her car ran off a rural road. It’s probably safer to go anywhere in the daytime, and to stay inside altogether after the bars close.
I feel pretty safe biking on the separated bike/pedestrian paths through Golden Gate Park. I feel pretty safe leaving the city by car on a weekend at 7 am when our kids have been up already for two hours but no one else is on the road. Beyond these easy decisions, I start to feel like I’m back in my old game theory class with Matt Rabin, who used to insist that we justify how anyone could leave the house in the morning given what he called the 2nd Amendment problem, which is that there might be a lone gunman ready to shoot you right outside, which would be so terrible that it would justify staying at home forever no matter how remote the probability of it actually happening was, which no one does. Although I think he may have taken this particular intellectual problem out of regular rotation after the Beltway sniper attacks.
Anyway if the car v. bicycle commute were solely a question of personal safety while traveling on roads, the decision would heavily favor the car. Riding inside a padded can among other padded cans is safer than riding on a glorified paper clip among padded cans. But instead it’s entangled with questions of cost, the opportunity to leave the road entirely, avoiding traffic, skipping yet another sedentary activity, the pleasure of the experience, and the chance for our kids to spend some time outdoors. All of these considerations heavily favor the bicycle.
These discussions of safety, in any context, have grown increasingly tiresome to me after reading The Gift of Fear, which neatly summarizes many fears of violence: “At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.” Similarly, drivers are afraid that cyclists (and pedestrians) will annoy them, while cyclists (and pedestrians) are afraid that drivers will kill them. I don’t respond to the threat of being killed by men, although it is quite real, by never leaving the house, choosing to live in a “no Y chromosomes allowed” commune, or having a sex-change operation. And I don’t respond to the threat of being killed by drivers by getting off my bike.
Increasingly I have begun to feel that one of the biggest issues in our lives was watching our lives slowly being strangled away, as we shuttled from one commitment to another, trapped in padded cans, without ever really figuring out where we were headed. We have found that riding our bikes is a chance to step back a little from the expectation that going somewhere is always about getting somewhere, and we find that we enjoy the ride. I don’t think this is unique to life in a city. So far this gain has felt worth the risk and then some. And of course, when our kids aren’t on our bikes they’re often riding the bus, which would win in a head-to-head bus v. car collision in the same way that a car would win in a head-to-head car v. bike collision, and that surely improves our overall transportation safety averages. Granted, it’s rare that a bus crushes a car. But that’s sort of the point.
Anyway, it was especially odd to hear this safety shakedown from someone who in fact rides a bike in a pretty committed way, although his mountain bike’s tires have never been sullied by touching pavement. Instead the bikes ride in a pickup truck (where they’re safe?) Our conversation eventually segued into the question of how to haul around older kids, since letting them ride their own bikes in the city when they got older was something no responsible parent would ever do, evidently, and I said that it was certainly possible at that point to transition to cargo bikes. But I noted that cargo bikes were a bit expensive for most people; many ran up to $2,000 (and I personally think that any price with a comma in it qualifies as expensive, although I suspect that such figures are in our future).
“$2,000 isn’t much to spend on a bike,” replied a man whose bicycles serve the same purpose in his life as a television.
Same planet, different worlds.