Friday, August 24, 2007

Law and Order: Angry Cycling Incident Unit

(Any excuse to work in this sound effect.)

(Updated twice below.)

Three interesting vignettes, all involving people with issues about bicycles, all involving bike-friendly amenities in Portland, and all involving legal theories (some more dubious than others) about the rights of bicycles.

1. The angry passenger

The logistical problems associated with the Bridge Pedal have been covered enough--except for this one: Once 20,000 riders finish the course, there has to be some way for them to get back out of downtown again. Many stayed on at the Bite (Bridge Pedal registration includes free entry); many headed for downtown eateries and pubs; some took the surface streets home--and a whole lot of them got on MAX with their bikes.

Each of the old-style MAX cars has standard room for 2 riders--one crossways at each end the main aisle, outside the driver's door. The new-style MAX cars have four overhead bike hooks per car (two each at the doors closest to the front and rear), but it's not uncommon to have a few more bikes packed around--especially on the Goose Hollow-to-Washington Park run, in good weather. Everyone who rides the MAX knows bikes are a part of the deal, and the cyclists don't much want to get tangled up in the people anymore than the people want to get tangled up in the bikes.

Or at least almost everyone knows this. There was a woman on the west-bound train I boarded (avec bicyclette) at around noon after the Bridge Pedal who was definitely not happy. In addition to bikes on the four provided hooks, there were eight more (I finally counted), and everyone was getting along as best they could, but she was pretty upset. There was a certain amount of righteous indignation in her tone, but also something tinged with a little nervousness. Although these Bridge Pedal finishers were as Portland-polite, granola-fed, and safety-conscious as you could ask for, the look in her eye seemed as if she'd found herself surrounded by hoods on motorcycles at 3 a.m., not bicyclists at noon. This wasn't so much about not having room as not wanting to share it.

It's against the law to bring more than four bikes on the MAX! she insisted. No one moved, and a couple of people--riders and non-riders included--gingerly disagreed with her. But she was having none of it. "I'm going to have the driver make you get off!" she announced--and then began threading her way down the aisle toward the door at the wrong end of the train.

The nearby passengers and cyclists looked at one another--should someone tell her?--as she stood by the door to the (empty) driver's compartment and knocked. Soon she realized that she'd erred, and with as much dignity as she could manage she started back down the aisle toward the front of the train.

A woman in a TriMet uniform, on her way home, was standing near us, and as the seriously disgruntled passenger came toward her, she demanded to know why the TriMet employee wasn't doing . . . something. "I'm not a MAX employee, I'm TriMet," she explained. "I don't have any authority here." The woman demanded her name--which the TriMet woman provided--and continued down the aisle toward her rendezvous with justice. A few stops later I remembered to look down the aisle for her, but she'd left the train.

I finally began to wonder what the rules and regs really were in this situation, so later I called TriMet and spoke to a representative who explained that the most important regulation in play in such a situation was the ADA guarantee that people with disabilities would have access to the Priority Seating Areas. And if a Fare Inspector were on board when the extra bicycles were boarding, and the train was crowded enough that it would be a problem, the Fare Inspector might ask some bikes to hop back off and wait for a less crowded train.

But for a once-a-year event like the Bridge Pedal, my TriMet source told me, and in the absence of a Fare Inspector (a pretty common absence, as most MAX riders know, although I didn't bring this up), it all comes down to courtesy.

It was pretty evident that the other passengers on the train weren't terribly bothered by the bikes. They regarded it as nothing more than an inevitable, occasional inconvenience, like a packed car at a rainy rush hour. If the angry woman noticed this, it must not have made any difference, except perhaps to push her a little harder in the wrong direction.

2. The angry crossword puzzle worker

This incident occurred several weeks earlier. I hopped on a train downtown with my bike, and from the platform I had seen that there was only one open bike hook, so I went in that door. Standing in the space where the bike would hang was a fellow working a crossword puzzle.

I'm a crossword puzzle worker myself, and I respect being in the zone, so I waited until the next stop--it wasn't that crowded--and then said, "Excuse me, can I hang my bike up there?" in the deferential tone everyone uses at moments like that.

The man looked up at me and said, "No," held my gaze long enough to make it clear he considered this to be about making a point as much as answering a question, and then looked back down at his paper again.

Come on, I said, pointing at the "hang bikes here" sign and icon next to him--this is where the bikes go.

Whereupon he explained brusquely that the law required him to move out of the Priority Seating Area if needed, but no law required him to move out of the bike area.

The conversation sort of spiraled downward at little at this point, although some other passengers chimed in on my side of the dispute (if any were on his side, they kept quiet). I did manage to work in the point that it wasn't about the law, it was about courtesy. The C-word apparently wasn't high on this fellow's give-a-shit list that day, though, so he stood his ground defiantly (if you can imagine defiantly working a crossword puzzle) while nearby passengers stared at him, and then got off the train a few stops later.

My TriMet source confirmed that the fellow was legalistically in the right--had I been in a wheelchair instead of on a bicycle it would have been a different matter--but once again, she said, the point is about courtesy. This time, she said, had a Fare Inspector been at hand, the puzzle worker would have been the one who had to relocate.

(Postscript: Don't you hate it when you think of the crushing reply long after the incident is over? A couple of days later after my close encounter with the puzzle-solver, I remembered something I'd learned from Jim Derych, author of Confessions of a Former Dittohead when it comes to dealing with someone who's determined to be intractable: Forget about arguing the merits of the case. Forget about logic and reason and evidence. Just give it up. Go to the fundamental problem that's driving the whole situation: Look the fellow in the eye with your warmest, most sympathetic expression, lean forward, perhaps lay your hand comfortingly on the person's arm, and gently say, Who hurt you? Was your candy stolen in kindergarten by a kid on a tricycle? Did your prom date ditch you for a guy on a Schwinn? Honestly--who hurt you?

Like I said, it's painful when you don't think of it until later. Ah well.)

3. The angry Segway rider

This one didn't involve me, I'm pleased to report. In the Portland Merc a few weeks ago was a letter that's worth quoting in its entirety:
DEAR MERCURY: I was elated when I picked up the "Bike Issue" [Feature, July 19]. That is, until I flipped through it and saw not a single article about Segways, which are by definition bicycles and are becoming more and more popular for Portlanders who want to get around, save the environment, and look pretty dang cool while doing it.

If it weren't for an incident I experienced recently, I would let it go. A couple months ago I was riding my Segway to get some coffee at the 'Bucks on Broadway when a group of pedal bicyclists cut me off in the bike lane. I blew my air horn at them, and a couple of them circled back and rode toward me. I thought they were going to apologize when all of a sudden they jumped off their bicycles, pushed me to the ground, and started yelling at me to "stay the #$%* out of the bike lane with that #$%*ing fruit scooter."

I'm not trying to be petty, but what can we do to make sure this doesn't happen again to me or other Segwayists?

Although I was disappointed to see that gay-bashing has apparently found new territory to explore, I had the feeling as I read this that the letter-writer was confusing etymology with definition: Yes, "bicycle" does have as its root the Latin for "two" and "wheel," but at that point the connection between Segways and bicycles pretty much stops. (Segways with air horns, ditto. Definitions of "dang cool" apparently vary from person to person, too.)

So a few days later, when I was walking down Sixth, south of Courthouse Square, and saw a downtown Clean & Safe service officer tootling along toward me on a Segway, I figured here was the perfect chance to get to the heart of the matter.

I summarized the letter-writer's complaint (a little awkward, since he didn't step down off his Segway or remove his sunglasses) and asked him his opinion. He shook his head: Segways go on the sidewalk, not the bike lane. "Motorcycles have two wheels," he added, "Want them in a bike lane?"

So to the author of the Merc letter, the victim of anti-Segway-ites, the verdict seems to be: Out of the bike lane, back onto the sidewalk. And to the two jerks who hassled him: Take it somewhere else. Courtesy still exists in Portland, if occasionally seeming to hang on by a thread.

(Update 1: Regarding incident #2 above: Shortly after this post originally ran, TriMet clarified--with the aid of its lawyers--its position on access to the bike hooks. Bottom line: Bikers have no particular claim of access to bike hooks if the riders don't feel like moving. Judging by the TriMet statement, courtesy is expected to be shown on the part of the rider, or not at all.)

(Update 2: In 2008, TriMet added signage to the bike hook area on MAX, giving bicycles priority use of the area.)

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