Monday, July 20, 2009

The unlukiest and luckiest man alive

Today, on my way to meet with a City Bike story subject, I left my wallet on my lap as I was fuelling my bike; I usually don't get off my bike to gas it up. When I took off, the wallet stayed between my leg and the tank (I guess), and slid off...somewhere... I was passing Fruitvale on the 880-S when I realized my wallet wasn't making its comforting indentation in my right ass cheek (you in the back! Stop giggling!), and I pulled off the freeway to look for it...not in any of the 114 pockets of my Aerostich, not in my tankbag, not in my pants...oh Lord! Not again! Visions of numerous calls to credit-card companies, waits at the DMV and social security office...nooooooooooooooo!

So I rode the 8 miles abck to the gas station and asked around...have you seen my wallet? No. Have you seen my wallet? No. "Be sure to cancel your credit cards," said the clerk, helpfully. "Me and my family are homeless and living here, so we can keep an eye out," said the homeless guy.

Dejected, I rode home and reported my cards lost, found my passport (which doesn't expire for another year, luckily), and got back on my bike to go to the DMV. But on a whim, I checked the gas station again, carefully retracing my stepse. I then got on the same freeway onramp I had used before, thinking about my new race-compound rear tire, and how I should go easy through the turn. At the slower speeds, I was able to scan along the side of the road and...

A familiar blue rectangular shape among the debris! I rode to the top of the ramp, where there is a large shoulder, and parked. I hopped off the bike and ran the 40 yards down the ramp along the narrow elevated catwalk, running to the other side when I could see there were no cars coming for 75 yards.

Yes, there it was. Most everything had fallen aout and incredibly, was still scattered in a debris field for 10 yards along the low curbing. All my credit cards, some of my business cards, even a reciept or two. But no cash? Had somebody picked th ewallet up, stripped the moolah out and tossed the shell out the window?

Nope; 30 yards up the ramp a Twenty was resting against the opposite curb, and I think that was the sum of all the cash I had in there!

How lucky is that?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Books Review: Bodies in Motion and Traffic

Bodies in Motion, Steven L. Thompson. 417 pps., Aero Design & Mfg. Co., $19.95

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt. 416 pps., Knopf., $24.95

Steve Thompson’s Bodies in Motion begins by relating an experience that’s probably happened to you in one form or another. On a hot summer day in 1965, he was riding his motorcycle to lunch when it slid out on some slippery pavement, high-siding him onto the ground. As he surveyed the bloody wreckage of himself and his bike, a white-haired lady in an Oldsmobile pulled up, lowered her electric window, said disapprovingly, “young man, you’ve gotten glass all over the road,” raised the window and drove off.

Two members of the species homo sapiens sapiens, but clearly not on the same page. And that incident put the question into Thompson’s mind: why do some people dig motorcycles and some people just do not? We all know that there is something different between motorcyclists and non-motorcyclists, and Thompson lays out his case for what that is in his book.

In Tom Vanderbilt’s book Traffic, the question is different: Why do so many people insist on driving like assholes? And what can society do to encourage better behavior? I read both books recently and thought it would be interesting to contrast the questions, assumptions and conclusions of the two writers.

Of course, as a motorcyclist, Thompson’s POV is much more interesting to me. But it’s also more interesting because it’s non-traditional as far as books on transportation go. It’s much more like a scientific paper, using biology, psychology, anthropology and physics to figure out what the hell’s wrong with us, anyway. He looks at traits in our ancestors – like a proclivity for swinging through trees, or taking risks to be better hunters – that may be stronger in motorcyclists, as well as the cultural forces that direct transportation choices. He then digs still deeper, trying to figure out why some riders like cruisers and why others are obsessed with speed and power. He even commissioned a study at Stanford’s Smart Product Design Lab in 2001 analyzing vibration from nine different motorcycle models with “archetypical” engines; V-Twins, V-Fours, thumpers, even a CBX Six-cylinder.

It’s not as esoteric, but for a frequent rider in the murky swamp of Bay Area traffic jams, Vanderbilt’s book offers plenty of insight. He conducted much of his research with traffic engineers and planners, and the perspective, while entertaining and packed with gee-whiz factoids (example: men honk more than women, but both men and women honk more at women then they do at men) is much more detached in its tone than Thompson’s book, seeing people in vehicles as factors to be managed. And how they should be managed is what is most surprising. After a few chapters, it is clear that rules, regulations and traffic cops don’t necessarily make us safer or help traffic flow. The afore mentioned assholes on the road may not even be making things worse: when drivers wait to merge at the last second, traffic actually moves faster, where early merging is the cause of many snarls. The best way to keep things moving and everybody safer may even be to eliminate lanes, traffic lights and crosswalks altogether.

What I noticed in Traffic – and I don’t think even Vanderbilt really picks up on this – is that in general, people don’t like being in cars and trucks, especially when they are boxed in by thousands of other people trapped in their cages. What Thompson shows us is that motorcycles, with their ability to lean into turns, accelerate swiftly and slip between gaps, feel more natural to the human body, a body evolved to swing from trees and freely explore the open veldts and savannahs of East Africa.

That’s why these two books complement each other so well. Both books are entertaining, well-written, even scholarly. Traffic shows us the artificial misery of the car-centered environment and what it does to human interaction, where Bodies explains why motorcycles are so liberating and rewarding to those with a genetic and cultural disposition to two-wheeled machinery. Vanderbilt has little to say about motorcycles, and I think the book suffers for it, as motorcyclists don’t display the behavior that other road-users do. Thompson illuminates why we’re different.