Changes are rarely sudden. More often than not, things evolve over a prolonged period of time, sometimes so subtly that changes are only perceptible in hindsight. Even then, it’s not always easy to know what changed.
This problem struck me recently when I began thinking back on my own history as a bicyclist. As I thought back, I wasn’t entirely sure at what point in time I became a cyclist.
I could ride a “two-wheeler without training wheels” (in children’s parlance) by the time I was five years old. Was I a cyclist? Or was I just a child with a new toy?
I’m a cyclist today, so one could make the argument that at the age of five I was, in fact, in the infancy of my career as a cyclist. However, at the time, no one could anticipate the role cycling would play in my life. In the moment, I was a child testing out newly learned skills. This is an example of how time changes perspective and redefines the meaning of things.
As I got older, the role my bicycle played in my life changed. It went from being a toy to an object of freedom. With increasing maturity, the bicycle expanded my horizons. First, I traveled throughout my neighborhood. Then, I ventured outside of my neighborhood to new, unexplored places. And, finally, I became old enough to use my bicycle as a mode of transportation. I could ride, unfettered, as far as my legs and lungs would take me.
I was completely free and I never considered my safety for a moment. As far as I knew, there was nothing to be afraid of. If I kept my eyes out for obstacles or debris, I knew I wouldn’t fall. Nothing other than a crash seemed to pose any danger.
During my adolescent years, when I was feeling particularly invincible, I owned a sleek black bike. I chose black because I thought it was cool. It never occurred to me that it wasn’t visible to others. Visibility was not an issue in those days.
Bikes were bought for practicality or for aesthetic reasons, for oneself, not with the motives or actions of others in mind. Neither I, nor anyone I knew, owned a bike light. I had never even heard of a “blinky,” otherwise known as a rear flashing light. No one had thought of designing such a product because no one needed it. Why not? I wondered.
Was the world different then? It might have been: I rode untold miles on my black bike, often in dark street clothes, with nothing more than reflectors on my wheels for visibility. My young eagle eyes were able to make out the sharpest curves on unlit roads, allowing me to fly through the night. I would never ride as fast today, not even with my ultra high-powered headlight. It would seem unsafe.
Back then, no precautions were necessary. At first, this might seem attributable to my youth, but a closer inspection reveals a different story.
In the past, I rode in all conditions, rain, snow, sleet, and darkness, without incident. I made no preparations. I had no worries. And I never even had a close call. Nothing bad ever happened.
Today, I spend a lot of time considering safety issues related to riding a bike. Even though I still don’t consider visibility when choosing a frame color, I consider every other possible way to make myself seen.
I own an arsenal of front and rear lights, reflective gear, multiple pieces of screaming yellow and green clothing, and three helmets (to suit various conditions). In addition, I have multi-tools, patch kits, spare tubes, and a portable pump. And, just to make certain I’m absolutely safe, I always carry a phone with me when I ride.
In daily life, I don’t feel any less safe than I did as an adolescent. Maybe I see the world as less safe due to the amount of negative information we’re constantly fed via the Internet and mass media outlets. But, the cultural changes which have led to a less safe world do not impact my daily life to a great degree.
Whatever has changed has something to do with cycling. It may have something to do with driving. It may also be a function of the roads, or more specifically road culture.
The road culture within which I ride today makes me less safe because I play a different role in a different landscape. The scenery and the actors have changed.
With our always connected 24/7 world, time is always moving forward, with no downtime. Drivers, cyclists and all other travelers have been involuntarily entered into a race to get somewhere before something else happens because, in modern times, life is in perpetual motion.
It is from this incessant motion — which creates many things to watch at one time — that the danger arises. Each road cyclist becomes little more than a speck on a constantly changing landscape of multiple moving objects. In this context, a cyclist is less distinct.
Perhaps this means that the world is not really any less safe, but rather that it has become a cacophony of unnecessary distractions. This may signify a need to simplify the way we do things. Identifying and returning to what’s fundamental in life such as walking, cycling and speaking to people in person — to reduce the level of compulsive connectedness — could make the world less harried; it might also make cyclists safer and more visible.
In short, cycling has probably not changed. And the world itself has probably not become significantly less safe for cyclists. Instead, the context in which cyclists operate has changed. In a sea of moving objects, cyclists can be overlooked and they can fall victim to distracted, hurried drivers who are racing against time with only half-opened eyes.
Awareness of these changes can help a cyclist to increase his or her own safety. But, awareness is not enough. Education about cultural issues that make all road users less safe is necessary to induce societal changes for the better.