I realize I have written a great deal lately about how, since COVID, I have observed driver behavior rapidly deteriorate. Sure it’s anecdotal, but I’d like to think that I am hyper-aware of what I see on our roadways, both as a bike commuter and an occasional driver. Furthermore, today, I had a realization that I don’t think I have ever had before while running errands after work.
I chose to drive to work today, in part because my car had been sitting idle for several days, and also because I intended to run a few errands after work that I needed to finish on the earlier side. When I left my place of employment after an eventful day, I pulled up to the light at East Henrietta Road, a multi-lane stroad connecting Rochester with Henrietta, New York, a suburb that plays home to strips of car dealerships and big box retail.
The light turned green in my direction, but I halted my vehicle as not one, not two but three cars ran the red and flew through the intersection in the other direction. I shook my head, as this seems to be the new normal that I witness it every time I leave my work.
Eventually I made the turn onto East Henrietta, where I encountered someone with tinted glass weaving through traffic at 20 mph over the speed limit. Another car cut into my lane in front of me, causing me to slam on my brakes. As I approached South Avenue, a car blatantly pulled out of a driveway and took up the entire lane, waiting for traffic to pass so they could turn into the lane in the opposite direction I was headed. I reached another light in which the light turned green in my direction, only to watch FIVE cars continue to turn left through the red arrow. I reached my retail destination and got out of my car, only to see a pickup on the street likely doing 50 in a 30 as he sped by.
On my way home, I witness more blatant red light running, encountered a “dude I can’t see your headlights in my mirror” tailgater and finally, had someone blatantly pull out in front of me, causing me to slam my brakes and swerve with the car behind me stopping inches from my rear bumper.
During this drive, I had a thought I had never had before. From my work to where I ran my errands and home, I could have easily ridden my bike if I had more time… I’ve done it countless times before. And because I could have mimicked this route using car-free trails and side streets instead of main roads that I take in my car, I literally said to myself “I would have felt safer on a bike.”
When you bike for transportation, you become obsessed with finding the sparsely-driven side streets that parallel major thoroughfares. You geek out about the trail that might increase the length of your commute, but also ensure that you survive said commute. Instead of seeing highways and main vehicular arteries as givens, you look to any routes that minimize the chances that you will encounter the increasingly hostile driver-centric environment.
While it may have taken longer, today I realized that the combination of trails and secondary streets I would have taken to reach my destination on my bike would have made me feel far safer and less anxious than being in a car at rush hour on main roads. The night before, I had ridden my bike on nearby Meigs Street, a narrow home to a residential neighborhood featuring frequent speed bumps and alternating on-street parking. I always take this street when I want to access downtown Rochester, as it is one of the few streets where a bike rider might be able to travel faster than a driver. These kinds of streets are the ones we, as bike commuters, seek to safely explore our communities and reach destinations. I would have gleefully ridden this street to access the stores and shops on my list of errands if I had more time.
The frustration, the increasing lawlessness and subsequent and legitimate feeling of danger on our highways, stroads and main thoroughfares is the quiet epidemic that feeds our anxiety, or at least mine. I’m not a psychologist but I am as aware of on-road behavior as anyone in my community and I can emphatically attest to the hypothesis that COVID changed the on-road behavior of the driver.
Patience is thin. Aggression is out of control. Selfishness is king. Regard for life is diminished. This is the growing reality of our American roadways in the wake of a time that tested us all.
In a bizarre plot twist, I now find ways to avoid driving as a means of feeling safer. Rochester’s quietly robust and ever-growing network of trails, cycle tracks, bike lanes and bike boulevards are creating a two-wheel transportation environment that removes the cyclist from the danger of on-road conflict. It’s far from perfect, but if you ask me now if I feel safer reaching most destinations in my city by bike than by car on the main thoroughfares, I would choose biking. When we invest in the infrastructure that allows bikes to sidestep the fray of automobile chaos, we get a glimpse of just what that can mean for safe and equitable mobility in our communities.