Where was I going with this? I don't know. On to the tips!
1. Sidewalk riding is inevitable. Believe me, I already know all the anti-sidewalk riding platitudes. It's something children do! No wonder people hate cyclists when they're knocking over old folks and the disabled on sidewalks. Ovary up! And I agree, largely, with most of them: the best place for a bike to be is usually on the road. But I notice that people in the cyclosphere most adamantly opposed to cruising the sidewalks come from NYC, Portland, or other similarly bike-friendly places. Well, shit, it's not exactly hard to avoid the sidewalks if you live in Portland, you know? If we move to Baltimore City this summer, I'm not going to ride the sidewalks anymore either: for one, it's illegal; for two, the maximum speed limit in the city is 25 mph, which means actual car speeds of around 35, and I feel comfortable riding in that kind of traffic.
|A typical sprawl-land sidewalk in Alexandria, VA.|
Yeah, this is MUCH better than riding on the street.
And here's the thing: I've ridden five-miles-long stretches of suburban sidewalk and seen not a single pedestrian. People in suburbia just don't walk anywhere, so why shouldn't someone use it? Well, there are still some good reasons: sidewalk maintenance lags behind road maintenance (I've seen sidewalk potholes that would swallow a young child), there are often obstacles like telephone poles and mailboxes, you have more chance of getting a puncture from broken glass (although the only puncture I've gotten so far has been from a carelessly tossed beer bottle on the road). Plus, sidewalks are just not as pleasant to ride on as roads, being by their very nature of inconsistent width and composition, and prone to ending at random intervals. (I don't know how obligate pedestrians with physical disabilities deal with it... sometimes you're walking/riding along, and you either run into a section with no curb cuts, or there's just no sidewalk for a block for apparently no reason. And while it's fairly easy for me to cut onto the road or someone's front lawn for that block, it's a lot less easy for someone with a disability. Just one more example of how sprawl oppresses everyone.)
So, you might have to ride on the sidewalk, but there are things you can do to be less of a jerk about it.
• Always yield to pedestrians. If a pedestrian is elderly or disabled, or there are a lot of pedestrians (again, very unlikely in suburbia, but a possibility), hop off and walk around them. This does mean having to keep a fairly slow speed but your speed will be slower on the sidewalks anyway.
• When crossing a street on a sidewalk, act like a pedestrian. Of course, cars are supposed to yield to pedestrians crossing on the sidewalk too. But in actuality, if you're an obligate pedestrian you know that pretty much every car is out to get you. So wait for the walk sign if there is one, and if not, be timid as a mouse.
• "Timid" is how you should ride most of the time when you're on the sidewalk. You're really NOT supposed to be there, so act like a tourist, not a citizen.
2. You are a novelty. I know I'm not the only cyclist in Towson. I have seen them: almost always male, usually African-American, often riding BMXs. And of course, there is a lot of biking at the college, judging from the number of chained-up fixies around campus. But even if they see us every day, to the suburban/small town driver you will always be just slightly less odd than a guy in a clown suit riding an ostrich.
Having recently attended driving school, I know that future drivers of Maryland are given next to no instruction about cyclists. There was a brief mention of the three-foot rule, a comment from the instructor about how "bicycles shouldn't be on roads," and that was it. And of course, bicyclists don't have to attend any instruction at all in order to ride, which is as it should be (requiring a license to ride would mean the death of cycling). But still, one thinks that a comprehensive driving program (it was thirty hours of instruction) would include some information about the most commonly encountered non-motorized vehicle on Maryland roads. But I guess one has to carve out time for rape apologism.
Drivers express their surprise at seeing a cyclist on the road in a number of ways. The most common response is "bike!" said in the same manner as "dog!" or "fire!" Not really that annoying. There are also the people who will tell you to get on the sidewalk if you're on the road, and vice versa. (And no, we don't have bike lanes here, it's one or the other, folks.) And then there's the lady who, when coming up from behind me, slammed on her horn with all her might and kept it on as she passed me, her beady blue eyes glued to my face like I was the Devil's daughter. Please don't be that lady. Just... don't.
3. Get confidence, stupid. Yeah, so even though most of this entry is about how you should ride on the sidewalk if you feel scared, when it's safe for you to be on the road, own that road, motherfucker. This is something that has taken me awhile to learn, since I find traffic terrifying even when I'm in a car. But roads were originally built for cyclists and pedestrians, and even though it's not a good idea anymore to jog down a 30 mph road (although I've seen it done... no sidewalks sometimes, remember?), if you're on a bike you have as much right to be there as a car. You may not be able to go as fast as a car, but it's a speed LIMIT, not a minimum speed. Sorry, Autobots, you'll just have to spend an extra two minutes on the road today, on your journey from your sealed-off air-conditioned office to your sealed-off air-conditioned home.
I'm sure there are more things I could mention about being a semi-suburban cyclist but it's very sunny out so I think I'll go for a ride.