Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Tale of (Biking In) Two Cities

Riding my bike in Florence is quite an experience, a very different one from the experiences I had in Minnesota. The streets are smaller, the pedestrians more like to be in the middle of the street than on the sidewalk, and the surfaces range from smooth tar to stones that rattle your teeth (more on those another day). There are a lot of bikes and bikers in Florence, ranging in age from 5 to 85. Yesterday I saw an elderly lady in heels, a jaunty cap protecting her updo, big Sophia Loren glasses and a fur coat regally coasting down the street on her way to the center of town. She would have looked positively royal if it weren’t for the beat up bike she was riding. You just don’t see that in Minneapolis.

I am used to Minnesota roads and drivers…we are a peace loving people until we get behind the wheel of a car. Suddenly we become very territorial about the space we currently occupy as well as the space we are entering. These are the kind of people that will spend five minutes saying "No, you first", " first" at a door but can't wait five seconds for someone to merge into traffic. I don't know if it's all the snow, or our slghtly uptight ethnic heritages that make us snap in these situations, but I have seen people transform like the Hulk from mild-mannered soccer mom to a crazed driver forcing another car off the road. The really scary part is  that you never know when or what will make someone go over the edge. As a biker that's pretty scary.

Two years ago I sold my car and became one of the bikers trying to get around Minneapolis. I didn’t realize till then just how difficult is was to bike there. Yes, there are bike trails and there are bike lanes in some areas. None of these amenities went from my home to, say, the grocery store, or to school, or directly to anywhere that I needed/wanted to go. This has left me literally out on the streets without a strong steel frame, seat belts or air bags for protection. Just my quick reflexes and survival instincts. It’s a miracle I’m alive (see preceding paragraph.)

I have had people try to see how close they can get to me with their mirrors, try to bump my rear tire (I don’t pedal fast enough), nearly door me, and once (this is my favorite) I stopped to let a car go by in a parking lot and the woman spent 2 minutes yelling at me through her closed windows (it was hot people, was she supposed to cool the whole neighborhood?) because I “looked” like I might try to cut her off. I think that’s what she was talking about, as I said, the windows were closed.

Florence has been a different experience for me. There are lots of bikes here. There are also a lot of motorized vehicles here. The traffic is chaotic, there is a tendency to use the horn a lot and they excel at making a space for their car in a moving column of traffic. Here in Florence when the lane enlarges to one and a half cars wide it becomes a contest to see who can fit their car, motorcycle or bike through the hole and gain a one car advantage. When there are multiple lanes it’s more like watching leaves on a moving river than the nice orderly traffic we are used to in Minnesota. They have bike lanes on some streets. Most often they are actually on the sidewalk instead of on the street. However, they also don’t go directly from my home to the places I want to go. Obviously, my needs are not part of the curriculum for any city planning classes.

What’s different about riding in Florence is that somehow these people share the road with each other. No matter what you are driving, you are welcome on the road as long as you understand that you are responsible for yourself. They won’t actively try to run you over. OK, maybe because they have to be somewhere and hitting you would definitely slow them down, but who cares about the motivation when the end result is that I can go out on the road and not feel threatened like I did in Minneapolis? I’m gonna like being here.

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