You Can Go Your Own Way: The Categorical Imperative of the Bikescape

We are utility cyclists. We are pathfinders. We see more from the seat a bike. Part of the pleasure of riding in an urban environment is that the terrain, the “bikescape,” is always shifting. For a season a road, a sidewalk, or a building will be under construction, and the traffic pattern will be altered. A new bridge may be opened or an old sidewalk closed. Bike lanes, turn lanes and stop signs may be added or removed.

The new Jordan Bridge over the Elizabeth River changed the Norfolk bikescape.

After a summer working as a bike guide in Alaska, I returned to my job as a “bike driver” for Jimmy John’s in Norfolk. By my second lunchtime delivery, I had once again found the flow around the flat campus grid of Old Dominion University. But then I stumbled upon a new traffic block. The sidewalk from the central quad to the registrar building passes under the administration building. It is a remnant of the original, Brutalist collegiate architecture.

“BICYCLES DISMOUNT,” it boldly declared, “NO GOLF CARTS.”

What the cuss?

My inner rebel kicked in. I was not about to dismount and walk my bike a hundred feet at the widest point of the sidewalk. It made no sense. I was on a delivery. I wasn’t going to sprint past the central staircase or the hallway doors, but I also wasn’t going to dismount either. I compromised by slowing down to the speed of a jogging soccer player. And I kept my head up and on the swivel, making sure that I wasn’t riding too close to blind corners. In short, I rode in a safe, predictable manner.

But the sad reality is that there really isn’t a better way to to get to the north side of campus. There is a mishmash of Colonial brick paths and Modernist concrete walkways that wiggle around magnolia trees, urban arterial corridors, parking lots, permanent walls and temporary plastic fencing. It is a campus that was designed to look good from a car. But is not necessarily the most pedestrian-friendly. And while great strides have been made in adapting ODU to bicycles, there still remain chokepoints, hazards and riding prohibitions in the bikescape.

On my return to the shop, I chose to bypass the admin building. Unfortunately, the most direct detour sent me onto cobblestones and a blind curve on a six-lane, high-speed urban boulevard. I couldn’t see the oncoming, forty mph traffic because of the quaint brick walls protecting the campus. On the other side of the brick wall, the sidewalk dropped off into what had once been cobblestone car parking. I had a choice in how fast I approach Hampton Boulevard. If I kept my speed up, it would be easier for me to merge into traffic. But if there was a car whipping around the right-hand curve, I would be in danger of skidding out on the slippery cobblestones if I had to jam on the brakes. The trees, parking meters, signposts and curbs made for a cluttered crash zone if I screwed up.  If I slowed down before the cobblestones, I would just have to sprint again to get out of the way of loaded semi-trucks, buses, and minivans. Staying on the sidewalk wasn’t an ideal option because it was narrow, riddled with cracks and root-heaves, and blocked by branches. Sharing the road with intermodal semi-trailers seemed safer than getting whacked in the face by a crepe myrtle branch. I took my chances on the boulevard, and crossed over onto the slower side streets at the first traffic light.

When I got back to the shop, I asked my fellow bike drivers about the new sign. They said it had been up for a month or so, they understood what may have motivated its installation, but they, like me, were tempted to just ignore it, just like drivers every day ignore speed limit signs and pedestrians ignore DON’T WALK signs.

I majored in philosophy at Old Dominion University. As I rode home that day from JJ’s, I listened to the Drunk Ex Pastors apply Emmanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative to airline passenger behavior on their podcast:

If everybody acted the way I do, would the world be a better place?

Or as Kant put it,

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

The Categorical Imperative is a more nuanced approach to the bikescape than our traditional, draconian, black and white traffic laws. Instead of simply banning certain behaviors, the Categorical Imperative encourages us to use our best judgment, to be courteous and considerate.

For instance, while it might make draconian, abstract sense to ban all bicycles from sidewalk everywhere (or vice versa permit bicycles only on sidewalks), it doesn’t necessarily create a safer bikescape. We don’t want our toddler on a kick bike in the middle of a boulevard. We also don’t want 40kmh triathletes on the sidewalk. What we really want is for slower traffic to be on the outside of the street, and faster traffic to be on the inside. It’s how both our interstate freeways and complete streets are set up. We don’t need to ban bikes from using sidewalks, but rather we should expect them to do so at the speed of a walking human. We don’t need to ban cyclists from traffic lanes, but rather we should expect them to be going as fast as the slowest vehicles.

We don’t need to ban the kids from the road.

We want to create rules that encourage the best in people, not punish everybody for the offenses of the least thoughtful.

Pass when it’s safe.
Yield when there is traffic in the intersection.
Stop when there is a pedestrian in the crosswalk.


Or as a neopagan bumper sticker put it, Do what ye will, but harm ye none. 

Author Wesley Cheney led bicycle tours down Alaska’s White Pass for Sockeye Cycle Co, and delivers freaky fast sandwiches for Jimmy John’s in Norfolk, Virginia.  He broadcasts his ukulele performances on Periscope.


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