As recently as ten years ago, I had never heard the term “road user.” I rode a bike; I drove a car; and I walked. But, I never imagined myself as a road user. Nor did I think of anyone else as a road user.
Road use advocacy changed all that. So did the growing liveable streets movement. These concepts broadened the meaning of what a road was for.
Prior to that time, roads were for driving motor vehicles. Slick, paved stretches were designed to allow cars to roll freely from one place to another — or so it seemed until people realized how exclusionary this was. Roads belonged to all of us. Yet we did not all own cars; some of us abstained from car use voluntarily, others abstained by necessity.
In order to be inclusive, it was deemed that everyone — regardless of mode of transportation — had a right to use the roads. Therefore, everyone who wanted to use the roads was to be given the opportunity to do so. Once road use was no longer exclusive to cars, we couldn’t all be referred to as “drivers,” so we became “road users.”
The cyclist in me liked this idea. Even though I had been riding a bike for years, this gave me a title and a sense of entitlement to do what I had always done — ride my bike on the roads. Only now, I was not just a nuisance to hurried drivers, I had a right to be there. I took this right seriously and never gave it much consideration until I had a strange experience.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to take a ride, fairly late at night, to catch up on what I perceived as an inadequate number of miles for the summer season. What would have been my spring riding time was taken up by more pressing matters. Cycling had to wait. So there I was riding along in a familiar Boston suburb, in nearly total silence, enjoying a blissful state of mind, when something unexpected happened to me.
I had begun to descend one of the steepest hills on my ride. During the day, when visibility was good, I always cruised down that hill at a minimum of 30 mph. At night, this road’s sharp curves and nocturnal animal life warranted caution, so I slowed down to around 25 mph.
Up ahead, I heard a sound I couldn’t recall hearing before. It was a scraping sound of some sort. Yet I couldn’t tell what was scraping against what. I searched my mind for recollections of such a noise, but I came up empty-handed. I couldn’t even guess whether the sound was coming from the side of the road or on the road.
Instinct told me to slow down. Something might be in the road. And I didn’t know what I would encounter or whether I would be able to stop in time.
Peering through the darkness, I thought I saw a moving object in the road below. It was only a shadow, but I was 99 percent sure I’d seen movement. I strained my eyes to get a better look. Unfortunately, my headlight could not cast any light that far ahead and there were no street lights on that part of the road.
The sound grew closer. I was approaching something; but what? Finally, I could almost feel vibrations from the scraping. I was that close. My light shined on what appeared to be the shape of a male moving down the middle of the pitch black road. To my complete and utter dismay, this moving object in the middle of a dark, winding road was a skateboarder.
I reflected upon all the times drivers had commented on how hard it was to see a cyclist at night. They always brought up the subject of dark clothes, and the absence of lights and reflective gear as impediments seeing us. We were described as “invisible,” and this was their excuse for not driving carefully around us.
How to properly pass a skateboarder wasn’t clear to me. He was weaving back and forth across the lane to control his speed down the steep hill. I would have to pass him on the left, a dangerous maneuver under any circumstances made worse by the darkness.
Approaching him slowly I called out “bicycle on your left” to alert him to my presence. My purring, freshly tuned bicycle was barely audible, especially in comparison to his roaring skateboard wheels. He didn’t flinch or fall. He stepped off of his skateboard and looked towards me.
“Excuse me,” he said, “Do you know where Boston Post Road is?” I was decent enough to stop at this request. I did know. But it was at the top of the hill we were standing on and he was riding a skateboard — hardly a good method of traveling uphill.
“It’s up there,” I said, pointing to the top of the hill. “Where are you going?”
“Believe it or not,” he continued, “I’m traveling from Framingham to Waltham.”
“On your skateboard?” I asked rhetorically.
“Yeah,” he grunted with a nod of affirmation.
Since it was obvious that walking up the hill wasn’t a good option, I gave him directions to Waltham by way of going down the hill. Granted, it was a circuitous route, but it avoided a trek up a steep hill.
“By the way, it’s very hard to see you in the dark,” I informed him. “Don’t assume that cars will see you. Be sure to watch for them and get out of their way.”
“I’m flashing my phone behind me for visibility,” he said. Well, that certainly was a creative form of safety gear, I thought.
“That’s a good idea,” I replied, to encourage him, even though I hadn’t been able to see the lit screen of the phone he carried in one hand. He must have been flashing it at cars and didn’t hear me coming on my bike.
I wished him luck in his journey to Waltham and rode off. I heard the grinding skateboard wheels start to roll, and listened to the sound of them scraping along the asphalt until I picked up speed and glided back into the silence.
Up until then, I had not given much thought to skateboards as an alternate mode of transportation. Not only do they qualify as human powered transportation, but they can be carried indoors. I began to see this as a good transportation option for more agile travelers who were not afraid of surprising other road users in the dark.
As far as I know, there is no law against skateboards using the roads for transportation, although there are restrictions for their recreational use in certain public areas. I don’t know if this was an isolated incident or the start of a new transportation trend. If it is the latter, maybe someone should market better visibility gear to the skateboarding crowd lest some of them get flattened by unsuspecting speeding cars on winding, narrow roads.