I'm not the kind that plays for attention. In the background is where I feel comfortable; my husband and children say I even wear mouse-coloured clothes. My mouth is not fast, or loud. But yesterday I stood up at a town meeting and made the room gasp.
The meeting was about how to get sustainable transportation in our town. There were maybe 80 people. There were presentations about how much traffic was coming from where, there was talk of edge-of-town parking lots, public transit, and bicycle routes. And of the necessity to have broad participation among the residents. I agree with all that, especially the last bit.
And I learned a new word: "sharrows". These are bicycle symbols with double arrowheads, painted onto the asphalt of streets to indicate that someone official thinks that yes, bicycles really are allowed there, and please share the road with them. Sharrows are pretty. And some bikers, and some drivers, have told me that they do make a difference.
I cringed when I first saw the sharrows on my town's streets. They were seemingly placed at random; there were no lane markings, like in the photo taken in Manhattan. They looked pretty forlorn. Besides, I just don't think drivers should be encouraged to roll over bicycles - not even in effigy.
I've tried biking the sharrows. They didn't make me feel safer. Within minutes I was back on the sidewalk.
So at the town meeting I gathered my courage and made myself stand up, introduce myself, and say, "Let me offer you a vision: I see myself and my family riding our bikes all over this town -- without this." And I held up my bike helmet.
A gasp went through the room.
Through the ringing in my ears - remember, the attention makes me nervous - I heard someone say, in disbelief, "No helmet?"
Suppressing a sweat-inducing feeling that I've been recognised as a freak, a weirdo and a bad mom who would let her children bike without their helmets, I took a deep breath, and said, "No helmet. The reason I wear my helmet is that it's not safe out there on a bike. If we made it safe: if we had real bike paths, physically separated from the cars and from the pedestrians, we wouldn't actually need the helmet."
I blabbered some more about the need for clear rules of the road that everybody knows, and about Europeans and their children not wearing helmets on their bikes, and then I was politely cut off - for lack of time, you see.
I didn't have time to explain that without helmets, you would get a lot more moms, and our children, out on bikes, and generally ladies and gentlemen who are prettier than me and who don't see themselves putting on a helmet. The only thing worse than helmet hair is hat hair: I get that.
Certainly I didn't say how I felt about the sharrows; after all, a few town residents had worked extremely hard to get even that concession.
The truth is, I think relying on the sharrows to keep bikers safe is like doing birth control by meditating before sex. Sure, it makes you mindful. But with cars it's like with sperm: if you really want to keep them out, you need a physical barrier. In the case of cars, the barrier can be as cheap as a row of concrete logs laid end-to-end on the street, 5 or 6 feet out from the sidewalk. (You would no longer need the parking spaces).
But it's okay that I didn't get to say all that: I had made an impression at that meeting, and I went home happy. I don't expect bike paths to appear in my town next week. Not even next year. But I've planted a seed, and the ground seems to be reasonably fertile. I followed up with an Email full of bike-path ideas for the committee.
What I learned from my two minutes of public speaking:
Even though I'm just a mom, nothing official in my town, it was necessary for my voice to be heard. If I didn't pipe up, how would anyone know that I support bike paths in town?
It would have been more effective if I had brought some bike-riding friends willing to say the same thing. Our group voice counts for a lot more than the sum of the individual voices.
It's okay to be ambitious with your visions. In reality, there will be compromises, anyway. The important thing, for me, is that we get bike paths. If helmets are still required, I will be happy to ride those paths with my helmet on.