Over the last year and a half or so, I have taken up biking as a hobby again. Thanks to Bush’s Global Warming TM though we often get days during the winter that feel more like spring. Today was such a day: blue skies, temperatures in the 60s and low humidity. And since I had the day off, it was a good day for my first bike ride of the year.
I kept my bike ride modest: to Vienna, Virginia and back along my favorite bike trail: the Washington and Old Dominion Trail. The ride was about twenty miles altogether and took about two hours. It felt good to reconnect with my bike again. I mentally berated myself for not doing more of it lately. Our winter has been relatively mild so far and a bike ride is such an improvement over doing a workout at the local Gold’s Gym. In many ways when the weather cooperates, winter is the ideal time to bike. In the summer, I can return from a bike ride covered in sweat and with gnats and assorted tiny bugs all over my exposed arms, legs and face. Bugs are not a problem during the winter. The result is that when the weather is tepid in the winter like today, it is the optimal time for a bike ride.
I live in Fairfax County, Virginia. It is an increasingly cosmopolitan county just outside the Washington beltway. It is also turning from a county that tended to vote Republican to a reliably Democratic county. In general the further you live from the Beltway, the more Republican that Fairfax County becomes.
Consequently, by heading east on the W&OD trail toward Vienna, Virginia you move toward “blue” (solidly Democratic) territory. Head west on the W&OD trail and you move into “red” Loudoun County, (which is now showing signs of turning purple).
I have noticed real behavioral differences from the motorists I encounter depending on the direction I bike on the trail. The trail winds through a lot of suburbia in both directions. Therefore, bicyclists on the trail encounter many at grade crossings. (Fortunately, there are often bridges that take the trail over the largest roads.) Consequently, my fellow bicyclists and I have many opportunities to interact with motorists. The behavior I have experience has become so predictable that it is now beyond dispute in my mind: the further east I go into “blue” areas on the trail, the more courteous the drivers I encounter become.
On the other hand, head west on the trail and drivers can become ruthless. If there is a traffic light, you can usually cross safely but somewhat warily. If you have to cross a road by first yielding to the traffic, be prepared to pedal across the road quickly. The drivers are likely to try to accelerate if they see you trying to cross. I have also had drivers curse at me, even though my behavior was entirely lawful. The vast majority of them seem to drive their cars as if bicyclists do not exist. When they see us, they seem almost startled. “My goodness,” is what I imagine they are thinking, “It’s a bicyclist!” You would think we are Martians or something.
The W&OD trail crosses Hunter Mill Road between Reston and Vienna. While there are signs on the road asking motorists to yield to bicyclists, what really surprises me is that drivers routinely follow the law. Moreover, they do so quite happily. I nod or wave to them and they smile, nod or wave back. It is a nice feeling. The same thing often happens where the trail crosses Sunrise Valley and Sunset Hills Road in Reston. Once inside the Town of Vienna it gets even more courteous. It only gets a bit chancy crossing the major thoroughfare of Maple Avenue. Fortunately, there is a crosswalk there. Crossing Park Street or Cedar Lane in Vienna is not a problem. It is highly unusual for drivers not to stop for a bicyclist. Drivers in Vienna, as well as Falls Church, are very courteous and respectful of bicyclists.
Bike in “red” Loudoun County though and things can get dicey. Right now crossing Church Street is especially chancy, since the road is under reconstruction and you have to bike down to a traffic light. Further, out in Loudoun County, such as where the trail crosses Ashburn Road or Belmont Ridge Road it becomes just plain dangerous to be a bicyclist. This is SUV and pick up truck land and you are in something resembling country. The cars are going fifty miles an hour or more on a two-lane road. They really do not want to decelerate for some annoying bicyclist, particularly when they are coming swiftly over the top of a hill. I have learned the hard way to give drivers a lot of leeway out on the trail’s western side.
If you make it on the bike trail to Leesburg a bicyclist must be very careful. When you get your walk light, you had better hoof it quickly. The drivers are unlikely to be looking for you. From the looks of things, Leesburg does not get many pedestrians or bicyclists. I suspect the automotive culture is much more engrained in that city.
I have observed this phenomenon so many times now. I am starting to wonder if people are just naturally more courteous in blue parts of my state than in red parts. When I am in red territory, as a bicyclist I often feel that drivers do simply not see me. When they see me and especially if they have to modify their behavior by tapping their brake or something, watch out. That is when you are likely to get frowns, curses or their middle finger. Apparently, I am interfering with their high-speed automotive experience.
We all know that bicycles (with some exceptions) have equal rights to roads. The sad reality though is that bicyclists are wise to avoid riding on thoroughfares. It is just plain dangerous to do so. The shoulders are full of gravel, garbage and the occasional pothole, if we are lucky enough to have a shoulder at all. (They tend to appear and disappear depending on whether a housing development is nearby.) We bicyclists must exercise extreme caution when crossing any thoroughfare that is not in a residential neighborhood. It is nice to know though that my odds of survival seem to be much higher as I bike into “blue” territory. If safety were my primary concern, I would be better off limiting my biking to blue territory all the time.
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