The faces in the Municipal Building at the Practical Bicycling Seminar are the same sort that roll by me biking to work every day: students and wage earners in their 20s, a chunk of thirty-somethings, and a dash of 40-plus folks salted in. We're here by choice. Not a pleasant one, but a choice all the same: Either pay the fine we were issued for bicycle traffic violations or come to this two-hour class.
My ticket was $64. That's what blowing through a red light on State Street gets you. The foot cop wrote me up while we stood there on the curb. A metro bus wheezed by, the windows blinking with hairy eyeballs. Dang bus commuters.
A signup sheet makes its way up and down the rows of tables in Room 300, the act of which jumpstarts conversation. The actual words "the man" are never spoken, but among the most verbal it's clear he's the one responsible for bringing us together on a work night. Up front, Madison Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Arthur Ross checks his PowerPoint, glances at the wall clock, and brings the room to order.
The next two hours are going to be a cross between transportation education and anger management therapy. Ross, with kind dark eyes, gentle voice and soft bearded features, appears to be just the man for the job. He even looks a little like Freud.
"Let's begin by going around the room, introducing ourselves, and telling why you're here."
Hoo boy. Big mistake. The untapped anger is swirling around the room like piss jetties.
"I'm here because police would rather go after bicyclists than rapists," blurts a guy in the back. A 50-ish woman wearing an expensive-looking scarf speaks. "This is punitive," she says, waving her arm to indicate the seminar space. "Punishment first, education second."
Geez. These two take all the fun out of being mad about being here. Honest bike commuters would agree that they represent an obnoxious section of our crowd whose motto is, "I ride my bike instead of burning fossil fuel, so people need to just back off." Is there anything more indignant than a liberal with a bike ticket?
Ross allows the river of whine to flow through the room, calmly deflecting the barbed complaints the way a Ninja dodges throwing stars. After few more bitter testimonials, it hits me. It's brilliant to start out the class by giving hostiles an opportunity to bleed out.
Formal instruction begins; a blend of wipey board and PowerPoint. The younger the biker, the more available he/she is to the experience. The 20-somethings seem okay with a couple hours of class time that will put money back in their pockets. Older bikers are more stubborn, preferring to ride a soapbox than a bike seat tonight.
State statutes define a bicycle as a vehicle. I didn't know that. Did you? "Think about that," Ross says. "That's empowering. You have the same rights to the road that a car does," he tells us, slowly turning the tone of the room around by using our self-righteousness as a lever for education.
Safe, multimodal transportation starts with complex feats of physical engineering that rely on the most fallible of all dynamics: human behavior. Ross takes exception to the word "accident," as in "bike-car accident." He shows a newspaper headline that uses the phrase. He prefers, as does the U.S. Department of Transportation, the word "crash." "These aren't acts of God. There are no accidents, only choices. Good ones and bad ones."
There were an estimated 2.35 million injuries on U.S. roads in 2008. About 80% of them were avoidable, Ross says. "From a public health standpoint, if these were stats about a preventable disease, people would be working night and day to fix the problem."
Demonizing drivers is a bike commuter's favorite pastime. As for drivers' attitudes about bikers, Ross points out that when cyclists disobey the rules of the road they're manufacturing their own stereotype.
Out at the racks after class, the newly reformed unlock their bikes, strap on helmets and wave goodbye. I use the word "reformed." I should speak for myself. My fellow classmates had no way of knowing it, but I'm the Charlie Manson of the bike sect. I've run the 10 stoplights between my house and my office every weekday for 20 years for a total of 20 lights round-trip. I did the math. Cutting the number in half to account for catching some green, that's 48,000 red lights.
This means I approach a light with muscle memory that tells my legs to pedal rather than stop. In the two weeks since taking the class, I'm better. I ain't born again, so don't be shocked if you see me blast through an occasional red if there's no traffic. But I'm no longer a cold-blooded killer.
And in addition to transportation lessons, I picked up some valuable tricks about audience engagement from Arthur Ross, patient teacher and bike mentor, making Madison a better place to live, two wheels at a time.