Afterthoughts: That Guy

Biking, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.
Illustration: Matthew Kawika Ortiz

Did you hear the news? The City and County of Honolulu recently announced that it will install a bike lane on South King Street. Not just a skinny little row of paint stripes, either—by the end of 2014, the plan is to convert the entire mauka-most lane of the street into a 2.5-mile, two-way bike lane, all the way from Alapa‘i Street to University Avenue.

I’m so excited. So. Excited! This new lane might mean I no longer have to be That Guy.

You know That Guy. He’s the one pedaling along in the middle of the lane, bike light flashing, often with a mini traffic jam of cars trailing behind him. Don’t you hate That Guy?

I know you do, because I commute on my bike along King Street every weekday, and, while I love cycling, in Honolulu, it can be an … adversarial experience.

Mornings aren’t too bad—I think people are still too sleepy to get worked up, but after work, when everyone’s stressed and eager to get home? I can’t begin to count how many times a driver in a big truck (It’s always a big truck, somehow. Or a BMW.) has revved his engine repeatedly behind me, before swerving crazily around me. Or pulled up alongside me with the window down to yell at me. Or just buzzed past me at 40 miles an hour, inches from my handlebars.

All of these drivers telling me, in their own special fashion, that I’m in their way, that I don’t belong.

But I keep being That Guy, commute after commute, not only because I do belong, legally, and I’m stubborn, but because it’s the safest way of biking in the city, short of terrorizing pedestrians on the sidewalk.

See, it’s easy to forget when you’re inside one, but automobiles are heavy, scary machines that pack a lot of inertia. And when one whips past your unarmored body, inches away, it makes you feel extremely vulnerable. It doesn’t help that my imagination at this point is vividly stocked with previous run-ins with cars: I’ve been knocked to the ground by a driver who “didn’t see me.” And I’ve seen a friend of mine sideswiped off her bike and into the emergency room by an angry guy in, yes, a huge pickup truck.

Therefore, I ride defensively. I’ve found that riding close to the curb invites cars to squeeze in next to me, often too close and too fast for safety. The only way to get an acceptable buffer zone is to take the lane, and force cars to switch to the next one over.

The Hawai‘i Revised Statutes back me up on this: The relevant statute permits riding farther out in the lane, “when reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including but not limited to fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes) that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb, on the edge of the roadway, or on the shoulder off of the roadway. For purposes of this section, a ‘substandard width lane’ is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side-by-side within the lane.”

The fact that it’s legal doesn’t make it popular with drivers, of course. And I do understand the frustration of being stuck behind That Guy. Now that I own a car (after a decade of two-wheel-only transportation), I’ve found myself more than once grumbling when stuck behind a dawdling bicyclist. Gah, so slow … move, bikey! My empathy and aloha spirit are all too quick to disappear when I’m behind the wheel and running late.

Which is why I’m so stoked at the prospect of a dedicated bike thoroughfare. Maybe it’s like Robert Frost said, good fences make good neighbors, and the only way bikes and automobiles and pedestrians are ever going to get along is if they each have their own space on the road. If even I can’t empathize with cyclists, maybe human nature is just not set up to share, at least not in rush-hour traffic.

So thanks, City and County of Honolulu, and everyone who has been a part of making this new bike lane a reality. You’re about to make me a more likable person.