Tangents and Guests

Monday, July 17, 2017

You're In My Two-Wheeled Prayers

Bus operators and bicyclists are sometimes at odds when it comes to sharing the road. Maneuvering a 20-ton vehicle among other vehicles, pedestrians, skateboarders and cyclists can be tricky, but a little cooperation is in order to do so safely.

We're constantly scanning a 180+ degree view around our vehicle, including what's behind us. One day however, I was twice surprised at busy intersections by bicyclists who not only ran red lights, but casually pedalled across the paths of five lanes of traffic. In the far right lane, I saw my light turn green, but as always, I glanced left to be sure nobody was running the red light. There was. He was holding a 12-pack of beer in one arm and simultaneously looking at his cell phone held in his other hand. No hands on the handlebars, and either not caring or unaware he was pedaling directly in front of rush hour traffic that likely had waited through three light cycles for our chance to proceed. It was amazing that everyone waited. Nobody jumped the gun as soon as the light changed, none of us honked at this fellow. Perhaps we were all shocked at his blatant disregard for his safety. No shirt, no helmet, no apparent common sense. Maybe he believes his own safety is dependent upon others to ensure. Luckily for him, he made it safely through.

A few hours later, at the same intersection, I saw another bicyclist run the light. This one seemed aware of what he was doing. Helmet-wearing and seemingly aware, this one received several horn honks. He wasn't in a hurry to clear the intersection, even though he entered it a second after his light had turned red. I sighed, knowing Portland's impatience on the roads can often result in human tartare. It scares me, because I truly care about the safety of my fellow Portlanders.

My hat is off to the majority of our two-wheeled fellows on the road. Many are professional and courteous, aware and safety-conscious. They use hand signals, wave at drivers who yield the right-of-way to them, and are keenly aware of their surroundings. It's refreshing to see. In the past, I've been very critical of the self-propelled two-wheeled public. Sometimes, I've been unfairly harsh. Since my last brush with Bike Portland enthusiasts, I've had to re-evaluate my feelings about those vulnerable souls who brave traffic to pedal rather than pollute their commute. Both my brothers are avid bicyclists, and my father rode his recumbent 75 miles on his 75th birthday. He was once hit on his bike by a car traveling 50mph. I'm aware of the dangers bicyclists face on the streets, and I'm sympathetic to them. They're 100-200 pounds on two wheels without anything protecting them from the glass and metal beasts they ride near. I'm guiding a 20-ton beast among them, and I'm very mindful of their safety especially when they're not.

As a bus operator, I'm trained to constantly scan my surroundings. Bicyclists can sometimes be difficult to see in a rear view mirror, especially if it's of our right-side convex variety. I do my best to see them, but I'm human. Sometimes, they exhibit behaviors that aren't easily predictable. When you're pedaling along a busy city street, please practice safety. Here's some things bus drivers need you to seriously consider.
  • If there's no bike lane, remember we can't see directly behind our bus. If you can't see our mirrors, we can't see you. If you're behind a bus that slows and pulls to the curb to service a stop, please wait. It usually takes about 10-20 seconds for us to complete this maneuver. If you're impatient and decide to pass the bus on its left as I prepare to pull back into traffic, this is a very dangerous time for you to do so. Most of us use the yield light feature on our bus to warn traffic we're ready to roll. It's also a state law that other vehicles are required to allow us to merge back into the travel lane when our bright red triangle is flashing. A few seconds is certainly worth your well-being. We want you to arrive safely home, but we're not superhuman. We expect you to follow the basic rules of the road, because you're considered a vehicle as well. Please exercise common sense near vehicles that are thousands of pounds heavier than you.
  • If you come to a stop-signed intersection and see a bus to your right, please don't just roll through. We're all required to yield to whoever is to our right. Just because you're pedaling doesn't give you priority. Any intersection is very dangerous to bicyclists and pedestrians. You share responsibility for your own safety with those around you. Do the right thing. Stop first and assess the situation. Yield as necessary, and only go when it's safe (and legal) for you to do so.
  • Be predictable and use hand signs to let us know when you're going to enter our path ahead. We'll slow down and let you roll into that left turn. We just need to see your intentions. Eye contact with the operator is vital to your safety. Rolling into our path without knowing we're there, or expecting us to read your mind and react to your sudden maneuver is a recipe for your own funeral.
  • When boarding a bus, please await us off of the street, preferably on the curb. Make eye contact with the operator, and wait until we stop. Do not step in front of a moving bus. I will immediately deploy my parking brake for your safety, before opening the bus doors. I can't speak for every operator, but this is how we're trained to deal with bicyclist passengers. This ensures the bus won't move when you step in front of it. When we've given you the signal it's safe, please put your bike on the rack. The securement bar always goes on the front tire. When you're ready to exit the bus, please come to the front and inform me you're going to step in front of my 40,000 pound vehicle to remove your bike. If there's not another bike on the rack, be sure to return the rack to its stowed position when you're done. Thank you!
  • Remove any items from your bike that are a vision barrier to the operator. We need to see through your bike to avoid any obstacles in front of the bus. Turn off your lights, make sure the bike is secure in the rack. Neither of us want your bike damaged.
  • When exiting the bus, remind the bus operator you're taking off your bike. My current bus route is 10 hours long. During that time, I serve an average of 20 cyclists. We cannot always remember whose bike is on the rack. If you exit the rear door, walk the entire 40-feet of our bus and then step in front of it as we're ready to depart the bus stop, you could be killed. Once you're out of the danger zone in front of the bus and the doors are closed, we're intent on re-entering traffic. Your exit from the bus is complete, as far as we're concerned. This step is extremely vital to keeping you safe. Please always remember to remind us you'll be removing your bike.
  • If you arrive at a stop as a bus is leaving, do not EVER touch the moving vehicle. Your doing so will place you in imminent danger and will NOT result in our stopping to board you. Just a few years ago, a bicyclist did touch a moving bus on 82nd Avenue, and then slipped and fell into the duals. He was dismembered and instantly killed. Was this tragedy the driver's fault? No. It was dark, rainy and he had already scanned behind him, not seeing anyone else. The bicyclist slipped and fell in between the dual wheels. It's very annoying to miss a bus, and everyone expects us to stop and let you board. Sorry, but when the doors close and the bus starts to roll, you've missed it. When a bus pulls away, don't expect it to stop. Everyone on the bus was at their stop on time. Wait for the next one, and you'll arrive home safely.
  • When riding on 5th or 6th Avenues in downtown Portland, stay in the left lane, reserved for non-transit vehicles. The right lanes are reserved for transit vehicles ONLY. They are not de-facto bike lanes. Your being in these lanes is not your right, and it's illegal while also extremely dangerous. A light rail vehicle weighs about 100,000 pounds. They can't stop on a dime. Neither can a bus. While it's dangerous to ride on sidewalks, it's infinitely more safe than riding in a transit lane. If a bus honks at you for zipping between the auto lane and the transitway, don't flip us off. You're treading on deadly ground, and our horn is only to remind you we're there, vigilantly watching you and keeping you safe.
After several years on this job, I've evolved. Bicyclists once pissed me off, and some of my earlier posts were overly-critical of two-wheeled conveyances. I was falsely accused of being aggressive, an over-honking mass of fury recklessly hurtling my 20-tons without empathy. I had to look inward and re-evaluate my driving psychology, and it led me to be even more vigilant in ensuring your two-wheeled safety. When you flip me the bird now, I no longer react to this temper tantrum in sign language. It would be nice however, to see a friendly wave from those whose ridiculous antics I've anticipated, sparing you a painful trip to the hospital, or a painless one to the morgue.

This post might result in some angry responses from our two-wheeled fellow Portlanders. I tried to set a conciliatory and protective yet educational tone here. We must work together to ensure your safety. We save many lives every day, but safety isn't a value the media recognizes. When someone is injured or killed, the headlines always say "Bicyclist Hit by Bus." You'll rarely see a story recognizing how many cyclists are saved by the constant vigilance of your civil servants who roll buses safely for years without incident.

Please be safe out there. Thank you for eschewing the polluting alternative. We value your noble sacrifice and work hard to ensure your safety. Please remember us in your prayers, because we are often your guardian angels. Peace be with you, two-wheeled neighbors.

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