Friday, July 10, 2009

Sharing the road

I first rode a motor scooter in Naples, Italy. It was a one day affair. If you think Boston's traffic is nerve-wracking and Boston's streets are narrow and tangled, there are other congested cities that make Bean Town seem like a cake walk.

I haven't owned a car for twenty-six years. After my first and only automobile, I never wanted the hassle, the expense, or the experience of being a car owner again. I ride in them from time to time and I do know how to drive one, but an automobile isn't for me. For twelve years, a bicycle was my only means of getting around aside from my feet. For ten years after that, for reasons that were simple at first and more complex afterward, I rode a motor scooter. For the last four years I have owned a Kawasaki Ninja 250R, the smallest bike Kawasaki makes and its best selling. When I moved to Boston, the Little Ninja came with me.

Though my Ninja is small, it likes its engine to rev at 8000 rpm. It can travel at 75 mph for hours cool as a cucumber, purring contentedly all the way. It wants to race. It doesn't like Boston. Idling in traffic, the thermometer needle is always just shy of hitting the red zone. I ride a bicycle most days now to get around the city. It is usually quicker, but sometimes I have to take the Little Ninja out for a trot, rarely downtown but through Roxbury or Hyde Park or Dorchester, or along Day Boulevard bordering the Southie beaches.

After so many years being one of the littlest things on the road, I feel I am smarter than automated traffic lights. I've spent many hours navigating tight spaces on two wheels no matter what means were employed to propel them. I've always driven/ridden defensively. I think one drives a bicycle a scooter or a motorcycle, not rides one so I will use the former verb hereafter. People ride in things over which they don't have control. Bicyclists, scooterists and motorcyclists have control, they must. To call what they do riding is disrespectful to what a two-wheeled navigator actually does. I don't trust that all people on two wheels are smarter and more aware of their surroundings than the average driver but I trust them more than the people who drive on four while listening to the radio or talking on the phone.

Anyone who drives on two wheels will tell you that there is a world of difference between country roads and city roads. Among motorcyclists, an urban driver is called a 'street warrior.' Like any warrior, an urban motorcyclist has his or her senses honed keen, ready for anything. The adrenaline and endorphins are not pumped for aggression, rather, they flow for use in defense and escape. The same razor sharp skills are required of bicyclists and motor scooterists. Pedestrians too. City living sets ones senses alight for fight or flight. Good, common sense is usually the best option. Know when to push forward. Know when to yield.

Cars take up a lot of space. They are the main cause of gridlock. Trucks are less worrisome. Someone who drives a truck, no matter the size, all day does it as a profession and truck drivers are usually the most experienced and talented drivers on the road. I wouldn't go so far as to say cars are enemies to two-wheeled vehicles, how can any fellow citizen on a public roadway be an enemy? They are like any other annoyance in a public place, something to watch and avoid if you don't want any trouble.

A line of cars stuck behind a red light, with road rage understandably simmering is something to be avoided and bypassed if possible. There is usually ample space between the passenger side of the travel lane and the curb for two-wheeled vehicles to pass without bothering anyone else. All two-wheeled vehicles can share this space in peaceful coexistence with the right attitude: we are all in this together and we are not the ones causing this collective misery. Being small sets one free.

Boston's automobile drivers tend to obey the rules of the road. Anecdotal evidence to the contrary I have generally found Boston drivers tolerant and gracious, much to my surprise. According to the last Census, roughly 5000 people commute in the Boston Metropolitan area by motorcycle, about 1% of the total. 17% commute by walking or bicycling, which legally includes most motor scooters. Bicycles and scooters with engines under 50cc capacity are regulated by law to use the right side of the road.

Nobody looks dumb on a motor scooter or a moped. They look different, perhaps, but in Naples, Italy they are as common as pizza. The same is true in many cities all over the world. I am a scooter man from way back and I take umbrage when someone disparages a scooterist, or Vesperado, if you prefer. Between leg power and a five speed drive train harnessing 4000 horse power, small scooters dwell in a gray middle range that is respected by few and harmful to none. After all, in a scooter crash, who is most likely to get hurt? The driver with two hundred or so pounds of metal grinding him into Boston's rough pavement.

Motorcycles are not supposed to drive in the breakdown lane. As licensed vehicles, they are supposed to behave like cars. Only a fool would expect a zebra to behave like a horse. When opportunity knocks and a motorcyclist can get ahead, can you blame him or her for doing a little lane splitting? Only if it endangers anyone else, and it rarely does if the driver is smart, experienced and sharp. No one appreciates a show-off, a drunk driver or a menace. A sober technician can weave through traffic like a surgeon cutting around a bowel obstruction. It doesn't matter what motor is employed. Everyone envies a hero who acts outside the paradigm.

There is plenty of room on the side of the road. It is unfenced and expansive, where people of different inclination can get to know each other, communicate their intentions and move along peaceably with malice toward none.

Everyone needs to be patient and tolerant to travel from one side of Boston to the other and arrive at the destination with a level head and contended sensibility. A little camaraderie goes a long way to make a trip not only tolerable, but pleasant. If you steer two wheels, you and I are of like minds no matter what you are driving and no matter what I happen to be driving at the time. Everyone is trying to get from Point A to Point B as quickly and with as little trouble as possible. If we communicate our intent to pass and signal where we are going, all the rules of the road the Commonwealth has written into statute won't matter. Driving two wheels needn't lead to anarchy. The collective act should build a broad community of fellow travellers that the majority of road-sharers respect and envy.


Anonymous said...

WH King,

Your attitude is commendable, seriously. I'm so tired of all the hyperbolic hate out on the internet, I have to give you a big thumbs up.

P.S. I am an equal opportunity commuter with a motorcycle in my basement that needs just a few hours of work to get back on the road. I need all the encouragement I can find and you set a great example.


Whalehead King said...

Thanks Josh. Put in those few hours and get that bike on the road! I addressed this topic again in 9/1's post and I intend to pick it up the thread yet again this evening.

...and you're right: there is too much hate, and not just on the internet.


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