Guest blog by Dan Kamalic
As a six year transplant to Rochester, I’ve had some time now to reflect on my experience cycling here versus other cities, and I’ve come to a pretty stark conclusion: Rochesterians seem to have no idea how good we have it here.
You see, I travel all over the world with my bike (or at least I did pre-COVID) for either my day job or night job. For the day job, I do computer stuff for decent money. For the night job, I sing opera professionally for not-as-decent money. I’ve gone back up from half-time to full-time for the former now that all of my performances for the latter are on hold due to the pandemic, and that’s given me the opportunity to bike ONLY in Rochester for the past year now. This has only further convinced me that it’s just plain unfortunate that we keep getting ranked lower in “bike friendly city” polls than many cities that, in my experience, are just not nearly as pleasant to bike in.
Aside from the bounty of beautiful nature just a short ride from the city, the thing that really makes the difference in Rochester is that people are actually friendly, and that includes when they’re behind the wheel of an automobile. They don’t have to deal with horrible traffic, they don’t seem to be in a terrible rush, and they don’t seem to be generally miserable — they seem to be happy and outgoing in a very “Canadian” way.
Of course you get a few jerks here and there, but they’re astoundingly few and far between. I was shocked when I first moved here at how friendly and non-confrontational drivers were to me by comparison with Boston, New York City, or even bike meccas like Portland, Oregon. It was months before a driver even so much as said a word to me, and when it finally happened, it was to express concern for my safety, not to curse me out. I’ve joked that I’ll take ten thousand miles on Rochester’s streets with friendly drivers and no bike lanes over ten miles on Boston’s streets with ubiquitous bike lanes and psychotic drivers.
“What Rochester lacks in bike-specific infrastructure or warm weather, it makes up for tenfold in its unusually low percentage of homicidal drivers.”
Now, this ain’t no Sanibel, Florida (if you don’t know, look it up!), so we can’t do anything about the weather, but the bike success of snowy cities like Minneapolis prove that’s not really an issue. Rochesterians are hardy folks, and dressing for the weather is second-nature to us. And the driver attitudes really do make all the difference.
I remember when I first moved here from Boston in 2014, that first, incredibly snowy winter, I saw a man sloshing up the bike lane on East Ave in the middle of a pounding snowstorm, towing his child in a baby trailer and running his dog on a leash. I remember looking over at my wife and saying, “I bet NOBODY has honked or yelled at that guy today, or told him he’s a bad father.” What Rochester lacks in bike-specific infrastructure or warm weather, it makes up for tenfold in its unusually low percentage of homicidal drivers.
Now, if we could only get our infrastructure to be as good as our drivers seem to be, we’d be over the top! But we’re not going to get there by courting die-hard year-round enthusiasts. There aren’t enough of those. And we’re not going to get there by courting people who have convinced themselves that anyone who rides a bike outside of a spin studio has a death wish. Those people are just too hard to win over, at least at the beginning.
We’re only going to get there by courting the vast numbers of people who are on the fence. Especially during the pandemic, these would-be cyclists are finally starting to consider their bike as an option for getting themselves outside, livening up their commute, or getting some exercise. And these are exactly the people who need to hear that cycling is safe — statistically safer than driving. They need to hear that there are enough warm months in the year to make biking worthwhile even if you pack it away for the cold. And they need to hear that the right clothing for cold weather is most likely stuff they already own. They need to hear that it’s easy to ride in the street, even without bike lanes, and that there are tons of riding groups here — including casual cycling groups like the Unity Rides and Slow Roll — where people can get used to it by riding together with others.
I think this is the key here — we need to normalize bicycling, fighting a cultural shift so powerful that it killed our own subway system. And the only way we normalize it is by constantly showing regular people that Rochester is a fantastic place to bike.