The (Bike) Path of Least Resistance

IF THE GRASS is indeed greener, then the other guy’s bike path is probably smoother. I live in Vermont, where the biking is as scenic as advertised, especially if you’re accustomed to taking your life in your hands and pedaling between Cambridge and Boston during rush hour.

But even here a bike ride can be an episode of “Fear Factor,” minus the life jackets and safety nets. The road rage that some motorists feel toward other drivers pales before the antipathy they have for bicyclists. This month two Burlington, Vt., riders were hit by cars, one of whom was riding on a sidewalk. Both vehicles fled the scene. September also marks the anniversaries of my friend Marc Tischler’s two bicycle accidents in the Green Mountains. The first left him with a broken neck and broken ribs. The second left him with a concussion, a broken pelvis, and more broken ribs.

Now, Tischler is no daredevil. He’s a cardiologist. In 1999, he was commuting to the hospital and medical school where he works. In 2007, he was taking a leisurely spin near his house. The first accident involved a pickup truck. A witness reported that she thought Tischler had been hit by the truck’s side mirror as it passed him. The pickup didn’t stop and was never heard from again. The second accident may have involved a vehicle, but we’ll never know: Tischler was found unconscious on the road and has no memory of the 48 hours that preceded that accident, including the picnic he had had with his wife moments before it occurred.

I bike, too, and so I’ve always been unnerved by Tischler’s accidents. And yet neither experience disturbs me as much as the time a pickup passed him, honked, and pulled over. The driver emerged from the truck with a tire iron. He wanted to make it clear that he was the alpha male and any guy in Lycra bike shorts is – and let’s not mince words – a weenie. Tischler had to apologize for commandeering a slender strip of the road’s shoulder.

There has always been an uneasy détente between vehicles and bicycles. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on a dirt road or scooting through Harvard Square. And as Tischler can attest, this isn’t a face-off between equals. The cardiologist admits he is now too scared to bike, a loss he feels acutely.

There’s no logical reason for the hostility. Sure, a bicyclist’s presence means that a driver must slow down and pay attention. But there may be something deeper going on, too: A bicyclist has the potential to make anyone feel guilty for guzzling gas. Or envious that they are not on a cycle. I know when I’m biking past a road crew, I feel like an entitled fop from the leisure class: I’m in the hot sun by choice, not because my paycheck requires it.

Moreover, bicyclists aren’t perfect neighbors on the asphalt. Sometimes we ride two abreast, sometimes we zip through red lights. Once I hurt an animal: A garter snake. Accidentally, I turned it into snake salad when it darted into my gears when I lurched off the pavement near a marsh. (For those of you eating breakfast, I will spare you the recipe.)

But there is so much to be gained from biking – for drivers, too. Obviously, biking doesn’t replace mass transportation and it isn’t feasible if your commute is more than a few miles. But it minimizes commuter congestion, it’s nonpolluting, and it inspires no one to chant, “Drill, baby, drill,” like a lunatic sports fan.

And it’s good for you.

Consequently, I applaud Boston’s goal of becoming a first-rate biking metropolis, and the programs it has launched to broker peace: More bike lanes, bike racks, and commuter efforts such as Bike Friday. These initiatives add a veneer of “official” approval and encourage vehicles to give riders a break. I don’t know if similar programs in Vermont would have spared Tischler any pain. But they might have kept him where he belongs: On two wheels.

(This columnn originally appeared in the Boston Globe on September 29, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.