Of Bicycles and Cars

Amittai Aviram – August 2022

What Happened

On May 13th, 2022, I was hit by a car while I was on my bicycle. I was almost killed. I was on my way home from Copley Square, in the Back Bay area of Boston, to my home in Dorchester. I had taken the shortest route, coming down Massachusetts Avenue ("Mass Ave," as we call it), through the South End and past the historic Boston Medical Center. Crossing Melnea Cass Boulevard — essentially a highway — I entered the industrial Newmarket district of South Boston, which has no bike lanes and is generally unfriendly to bicyclists. Passing the South Bay Shopping Center on the left, with its endless expanse of parking lot, I reached the end of Mass Ave, where it abuts Columbia Road, which I must cross, straight ahead, to take the smaller and more residential East Cottage Street to Dorchester Avenue. There, turining right, I had more or less a straight shot to my home.

As I mentioned, there is no bike lane on that stretch of Mass Ave. Moreover, the right lane becomes a turn lane — so, to avoid being hit by cars turning right as I attempted to ride straight ahead, I would have to merge left into the center lane. As I approached the intersection, the traffic light was red and cars were stopped, allowing me to ride between the right and center lanes in hopes to reach the pedestrian crossing in front, which would be the safest place from which to cross Columbia Road. However, while I was moving ahead, the light changed, cars started moving, and I had to look behind me, signal, and merge left. To my relief, just as I got into the center lane, traffic stopped again for another red light. I centered myself behind a stopped car and waited, my left foot resting on the pavement.

I felt myself knocked off my bike and screamed. The next thing I knew, I turned my head left to look behind me and saw that a car had pinned me with its bumper at my waist against the car in front. "Back up! Back up!" I yelled. After what felt like minutes, the car did back up, releasing me to fall on the pavement. I saw my bicycle underneath the car, scraping against the pavement. I heard the driver jump out, slam the door, and yell to the crowd of stopped motorists, "He was weaving in and out of traffic, and he cut me off!" I was lying with my torso on the ground and my legs in the air, knees bent, moving from side to side to try to find a position that was not excruciating, while people were yelling at me, "Don't move!" Prone as I am to questioning myself, I wondered, Was it true? Or rather, had I done anything that could even be interpreted as my weaving in and out of traffic and cutting him off? I remembered a similar rage coming from drivers, especially whenever I had had to turn left. I yelled, somewhat weakly, "I was making a left turn!" He repeated his accusation, and I yelled, again to the crowd, "Please!I need help!" A driver stopped in the left lane came out with his cellphone, called for help, and assured me that help was on the way.

Again, it felt like a long time waiting. Eventually, I heard the siren, and, a while later, the EMS arrived. While I was waiting, I had heard more people yelling that I must not move. Later, after I had been taken to the Boston Medical Center that I had just passed, I learned that my left tibia and fibula had been snapped in two in a compound fracture, the end of my bone pushed through the flesh, and I had lost a lot of blood. I had extensive internal bleeding in my pelvis, several pelvic fractures, and severe bruises in both feet and along both legs. Probably because of one of those pelvic fractures, my right sciatic nerve was pinched, causing me crippling pain — probably what I first felt when I was waving my legs from side to side to find a tolerable position.

Much later, I figured out that the car must have hit my left leg with its bumper, the same leg on which I had been resting with my foot on the pavement. It hit me from behind with enough force to break my bones and push one of the dangling pieces through my skin. My bicycle apparently also hit the car in front of me with enough force to cause damage noted on the police report. The cracks in my pelvis must have come from the bumper squeezing me at the waist against the car in front after my bicycle had already gone down and under the oncoming car. All this suggests, not that I had cut the driver off, but that he had lurched into me and then slammed the brakes — that he had paid no attention to the stopped traffic until it was too late. Was he looking down at his phone? Texting? I will never know. In any case, he obviously put his immediate effort into his own exoneration rather than checking on me. I also learned later that he was driving without a license.

At the hospital, surgeons inserted a titanium reinforcement rod into my tibia and closed my leg back up. I stayed there a week for them to make sure that I had stopped bleeding internally and was on the mend. I then spent 16 days in a rehab hospital, forced to hop on my swollen right foot with a walker so as to keep my weight off my left. Now, two months after release, miraculously, I can walk on both legs, without support, at about half my normal speed.

This event has thrown me into a quandary about continuing to ride my bicycle in Boston, given its notoriously aggressive drivers — most, apparently, ignorant of normal bicycle practices and hostile toward them. This comes amid an apparent general escalation in aggressive and distracted driving all over the USA. But giving up on getting around by bicycle has its own costs.

Bicycles and Me

I have gotten around by bicycle more or less all my adult life, as a matter of deep conviction. Although I have gone out on my bike with friends for recreation, the bike for me is about transportation, not recreation. This has been central to my identity. I commuted, shopped, and visited friends by bicycle — in New Haven (CT), New York (NY), Columbia (SC), Ithaca (NY), Bamberg (Bavaria), and Boston (MA). Even when I owned a car — in Columbia — I took pride in driving it only about once a week, to haul groceries. But, just as often, I loaded my groceries into a duffle bag on my back to take on my bike. When I used to take my bike in for repairs in a small shop in Columbia, the senior mechanic — the owner — would ask, "Do you use your bike for transportation or recreation?" I answered, truthfully, transportation, and this, to my great relief and gratitude, moved my repair up in priority, since I had no other way to get around except walking the long distances in that sparse town with its great stretches of parking lot and driveway.

Cars are Evil

My choice to get around by bicycle and not by car is not silly, crazy, or immature. It was, and still is, a deep moral and ethical life decision. It was a choice against cars. Cars exmplify how technology is sold to the public with the promise of making out lives better, where the reality is far otherwise — largely because, as it happens, the real motives driving technology are mere profit and have nothing to do with improving our lives. All my life, I have heard about "America's love affair with the automobile," but was never, myself, in love with the automobile. This is an example of a certain compulsory, homogenizing habit in American rhetoric and propaganda that I leave for some other day's discussion.

The most obvious reason not to be in love with the automobile is its contribution to climate change, and, more broadly, its destructiveness to our shared environment.

From the USA Environmental Protection Agency's website, we learn the following:

"Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation account for about 27 percent of total U. S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest contributor of U. S. GHG emissions. Between 1990 and 2020, GHG emissions in the transportation sector increased more in absolute terms than any other sector."

And from Our World in Data, we learn that passenger road transportation — cars, buses, motorcycles, and taxis — accounts for 45.1% of the overall transportation chunk of our contribution to global climate disruption, or about 0.27 x 0.451 = 12.2%. This is "only a tenth," but it is the largest chunk of the largest chunk. Buses contribute only a small portion to this chunk, and motorcycles are far more energy efficient than cars, so cars really are the major contributor.

Needless to say, the contribution of bicycle transportation to greenhouse gas emissions is negligible, even if you include — as you should do — emissions involved in the manufacture of bicycles.

But the damage car culture does to us and to our world goes beyond its direct contribution to climate disruption. Obviously, cars make us depend on the production of fossil fuels, thus addicting us to an extractive mode of capitalist production that concentrates wealth and empowers oligarchs and tyrants around the world.

Electric vehicles may help somewhat in the long run, but only when most electricity is generated from carbon-free sources such as solar and wind energy. Until then, we are merely moving fossil fuel use from the highway to the power plant. (On this point, see Michael Moore's controversial documentary film Planet of the Humans.)

It is because of cars that we have built an environment that now requires them — another addiction. Homes and businesses are spread far apart to make room for driveways and parking lots. America, and now the rest of the world, engaged in a decades-long campaign to move people — at first, notably, White people — out of concentrated cities and into suburbs, where they would be isolated, lonely, and bored, passing their hours watching television and consuming drugs. Cars are an individualistic mode of transportation that fosters atomized, individualist subjects. Suburbanites would travel to European cities, or to malls presenting cartoon-like simulacra of the dense and sociable cities that they had lost.

The American suburban way of life — a mid-twentieth century version of "the American dream" — was sold to the public in part through a mythic association of cars with freedom and of suburbia with "nature" and the "natural," in opposition to the diseased and depraved city — a concept of the city now revived by the American right wing's opportunistic use of a rise in crime to foment a new wave of panic. But life as seen from a car or a suburban picture window is strictly removed from nature and causes nature to become unreal. It is nature as seen through a windshield, as breathed through an air conditioner, as unheard over a stereo system. It is essentially the same as the nature and the human community filtered through a television screen.

As a bike commuter, I had to dress for the real weather — not the overheated or over-air-conditioned artificial weather inside vehicles, but the weather, sometimes not so pleasant, in which my fellow creatures dwell. I was part of the real world. I could smell the air and hear the birds. And, speaking of hearing, we are so inured to the noise generated by cars that we almost never notice it. It is constant and almost ubiquitous. When I go hiking, I have to go a long way to stop hearing the constant whoosh and drone of passing cars. Now, granted, a bicycle in ill repair may make noise — squeaky brakes or a knocking crank. But, for the most part, the sound you hear when a bicyclist passes by, if you hear anything at all, is the soft animal sound of breathing. You might hear bicyclists talking or laughing together.

Car culture produces garbage everywhere — the city and the country — thrown out of car windows — because people in a moving car feel no connection to the world outside their windows and thus no responsibility. Car detritus — tire fragments, broken glass, car wrecks — fill every space not immediately maintained for its private property value — the spaces at the edge of town that you will see from a train window. Two summers ago, when the gyms were closed amid the first wave of COVID 19, I went out for a long bicycle ride — for exercise and recreation for a change, rather than transportation. I was on a country road south of Greater Boston in the middle of the afternoon, with almost no traffic. Suddenly, a police car passed me on my left, stopped in the left lane ahead of me, and put his flashing lights on, blinding me. I slowed down and peered into its window to try to understand what the officer thought I was doing wrong. The next thing I knew, I hit something beneath my bike and could not brake in time to avoid falling off and hurting my knee. (The knee still bears a benign bump.) The policeman was evidently trying to warn me but instead so distracted me that I missed the object directly in front of me — a pale blue plastic kiddie pool, which had apparently fallen off the roof of a passing car. It would have endangered anybody on the road. How could the driver have been so disconnected from the world around him or her as to miss the falling pool?

Once last winter, I was trying to find my way on foot from my office on Boston College campus to the Chestnut Hill light rail station. Unfamiliar with the area, especially in winter, I got lost. The GPS on my phone was getting confused signals and passing them on to me. I tried to flag down passing cars to ask for directions. Not a single driver stopped. They all kept their windows shut, looked past me, and behaved as if I were some sort of dangerous maniac. Why? I presume because I was walking and trying to get their attention. They must have encountered people before who would come up to their windows and ask for money. But I was yelling, "I'm lost! I need directions!" They had so insulated themselves from my world that they saw me as nothing but a nuisance — and drove on. (I did eventually find my way, but it was hard and took a long time.)

This disconnection with the world, this obliviousness, corresponds in the physical realm to people's widespread disengagement and cynicism in the political realm. In this prevailing depoliticization, there is no room for collective action — there is only room for each person to "get his own" or "get her own" before the whole system collapses. It is this same disengaged, depoliticized, I'll-just-get-my-own-now attitude that tempts people to follow over-the-top cynics such as Trump, whom they trust to "know the tricks from the inside." And, ironically, those celebrity swindlers know one more trick: how to hoodwink their followers — which is what this game is really all about. (I owe these observations on depoliticization, cynicism, greed, and Trumpism to Matt Christman, interviewed by Daniel Denvir on his podcast The Dig, episode "Dead Generations w/ Matt Christman.")

The process of luring the public out of cities and into car-dependent suburbs also involved the notorious destruction of thriving urban neighborhoods and the rending of social fabrics with highways cutting through them. At the same time, the boundary between the city and the country was undermined to create the suburb. This sprawl continues to destroy wildlife habitats to make way for houses, highways, shopping centers, and parking lots, encouraging more human settlement at the urban-wilderness interface, exposing humans to forest fires and floods, forcing non-human animals into contact with humans, and making inevitable the introduction of new pathogens such as COVID-19.

Just as car culture distorts the urban and rural landscapes, it also distorts human behavior. Since car culture has expanded the physical distances through which we must move for even the simplest purposes — to buy food or to see friends — we are forced to travel these distances, typically by car. Yet we expect to arrive at our destinations with the same immediacy that we would have had, had we not traded our natural forms of settlement and motion for the new scales of car culture. Drivers expect to arrive as quickly as they would have done by walking across the street or down the block. They routinely underestimate travel times by not accounting for the search for parking, let alone accidents and construction detours, and not to mention normal traffic lights and congestion. So drivers are frustrated and angry at every lost fraction of a second. The light barely turns green, and the driver behind you honks the horn at you, as if your foot's transition from brakes to accelerator has imposed an unacceptable burden upon that driver. Drivers then — inevitably — express their frustration and rage through their driving — because cars are already designed to feel like extensions of the driver's body, and we naturally express our emotions through our bodies. The aggressive driving around us, in turn, ramps up the overall unpleasantness of driving, feeding into a vicious circle. My collider's self-exoneration, pointing the finger of blame at the victim bleeding on the pavement, seems but a small example of this pervasive road rage. (In one study, a majority of drivers expressed their rage toward people on bicycles by associating them with cockroaches and mosquitoes. Some of these drivers used their cars deliberately to endanger bicyclists.)

Driving to get around is not only frustrating and hence dangerous, it is also boring — and hence dangerous. As a good driver, you are supposed to rivet your attention immediately ahead and on any possible dangers for which you must imagine defenses. The human is forced to follow the logic of a machine instead of the machine accommodating human nature. It is not natural for us to be on constant alert when the possible danger is almost never realized. So we become at once bored and exhausted. To escape this boredom and to distract us from the discomfort of constant vigilance, drivers listen to the radio — or dance music — or they talk on the phone — or they watch television — or, indeed, they read and write text messages.

As I mentioned earlier, car culture is sold to the public with the mythic promise of individual freedom — but what is free about wasting hours of every day merely getting places, struggling against boredom and exhaustion, battling against the aggression of one's fellow drivers, and obeying the sometimes opaque commands of the GPS system?

The GPS systems on which so many drivers depend have made people ignorant of even their local geography. Ask a person walking down a street to work for the name of that street — "Uh, just a second" — the embarrassed gaze drops to the phone for guidance. Streets have no names and no spatial relations. The GPS system says, "Turn right!" "Turn left!" And we obey. Technology has the net effect of causing people to behave so like machines that they would be better off being replaced by them — the self-driving car or truck.

But self-driving vehicles will not free us. Software will make mistakes, because its creators are human and make mistakes, so the drivers-turned-passengers must still keep constant watch, only now they will not even have any physical engagement in the process.

Finally, car culture undermines class solidarity. Poor people, working-class people, feel that they have no other option than getting around by car, nor even the mental time or space to consider alternatives, and are forced by high housing costs to live in places far from work and not served by public transportation. To them, a White person on a bicycle is yet another mere irritant, another image of privilege, another object of resentment. I was hit while riding through a working-class area, by a driver who lives in another working-class area. Before my accident, on my way to campus on my teaching days, I used to ride through a long stretch in working-class Roxbury. Near the end of Martin Luther King, Jr. , Boulevard, I had to make a left turn. Though I always looked behind me, signaled with my outstretched left arm, and merged slowly to the left to get into the left turn lane, on several occasions, drivers from far behind me sped up to pass me, rolled their windows down, and yelled indignantly that I should get off the road. I have noticed in general that drivers are confused about the need of bicyclists to follow the rules of the road regarding left turns. In this case, the ignorance about normal bicycling practice seemed compounded with an underlying explosive rage and resentment.

The Individual Dilemma

The problems that cars encapsulate and that bicycles go some way to help solve are large in scale and shared among us all. Their solution must be collective, social, cultural, and political, not merely moral and individual. That said, there is a place for individual moral action in building up that collectivity to push forward a solution. Every bicycle commuter becomes a member of a cycling nation and a movement for change — every cyclist represents an attempt to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

After my accident, one of my best friends called me a fallen hero (or, anyway, a wounded one) in the battle against car culture. Another shared his own deep emotions about this struggle against car culture. Both are fellow bicycle commuters. Other friends and family, not so committed to the "bicycle way," so to speak, have urged me simply to give up getting around by bicycle, at least in Boston. One friend, in New Haven, a committed environmentalist, who had never been hit but had come too close too often, long ago gave up on commuting by bicycle, even though his trip to work is a mere six miles, a 35 minute ride. His survival was at stake.

So I am faced with some options:

I do not want to be a fallen hero. I do not want to have to give in to the seeming inevitability of human aggression and cruelty on the road, the predictable result of the forms capitalist industry has taken. And this dilemma is where I find myself now: to give up on getting around by bicycle is an immense moral defeat and a significant sacrifice of something essential to my being — and yet, of course, like anybody, I want to survive.