As the mass of pedestrians crossed the street in front of me, I put my car in neutral (yes, I still drive standard) and patiently waited for the happy shoppers to cross the access road separating their parking spots from their shopping centers. For a brief moment, these walkers were able to enjoy the comforts of the established right of way, one I was happy to yield. But in the back of my mind, I remembered when this scene would have caused me to lose my mind.
“Look at all these people, completely oblivious to the fact that there are cars waiting for them to cross,” I might have said a decade ago. And I would be far from alone in making this statement.
Having biked to work for years now, I finally understand what it’s like to be on the other side… to watch drivers in their 3000 pound bubbles, completely oblivious to any other mode of transit, and completely dispassionate about anything or anyone that might be in their way. Concern for the safety of those around them be damned, because they need to get to where they are going 30 seconds faster.
I know this mindset because I used to have it. There was a time when the power of the automobile and my assumed spacial dominance on the road overcame my ability to understand that I was making poor decisions while driving, and that there was a better way. My frustration when anything got in my way throbbed through my body, directing me to shout and pound the steering wheel like a baby not getting his way.
Now that I have been car-free or “car-lite” for years, my mindset is very different. Biking to work made me realize how childish and egotistical my driving mindset really was, and how that mindset led me to endanger my life, and more importantly, the lives of those around me. You see, until you are on the receiving end of hundreds of drivers who have every ability to move over as they pass you biking on the side of the road, but instead choose to come within inches of hitting you at 45mph, you can’t understand how insane our car-driven mindset is on the whole. Until you have almost been hit by a car that was breaking the law, only to have them tell me to wear a helmet or get on the sidewalk, you don’t appreciate the complete disregard for human life in the name of saving a few seconds on the road.
Biking to work has given me more than regular exercise, or a better appreciation for my surroundings, or a darker tan… it has made me realize that it’s so easy to get stuck in our bubbles, where we feel we can cast stones without understanding the experiences of others. Only when you step outside these bubbles and experience “the other side” for yourself can you really appreciate humanity with true empathy. Only when we get off the massive highway of life, only when we stop doing what most people do and really try to understand that there is another way, can we truly see why we drive the way we drive, even why we treat others the way we do.
Having experienced the road from both sides, I can fully acknowledge that my previous driving mindset was reckless, careless, aggressive and just plain ridiculous. Today, I leave a little earlier, drive a little slower, decrease my speed when approaching every crosswalk so that I can clearly see pedestrians… more than this, my energy level has changed as I drive. I’m not anxious anymore, I’m not angry when people or bikes or traffic hold me up. I see driving not as a right, but a privilege, and one that I no longer take for granted. I treat others on the road with far more respect and kindness, and at all cost, I realize and understand that the road is to be safely shared.
Call it a metaphor for life, or just call it a renewed decency based on a different perspective… but biking and walking for transportation has made me a more patient, compassionate and grateful driver, and yes, a better human.