Don’t Expect Apologies from Motorists

I think Gandhi would want me to make these posts less mean. But I think he would appreciate that they are provocative. And I have to say writing these posts is very therapeutic. I think I must have bottled up all the abuse I’ve gotten from motorists over the years, and now I’m letting it go, letting it go onto these pages. I’m sure there are readers out there who will think that I must be an angry quick-tempered person. Actually my friends think of me as unusually mild-mannered. In fact one friend once challenged my other friends thusly: “Let’s see if we can make Larry angry!” They failed. But for some reason I do get upset when a motorist puts me in mortal danger and I get even more upset with they scold me for it.

You may think my claim in a previous post that “bicyclists existing” makes motorists mad is an exaggeration. The fact is, bicyclists are inherently unwelcome in our culture. The following story illustrates what I am talking about. I remember once my wife and I were waiting at a red light on our bicycles. A car pulled up behind us and started honking and honking. When I realized they were honking at us I managed to squeak out something like “we have a right to be here!” That made the motorist mad. He stormed out of his car and shook his fist at us and challenged me to a fight. The light changed and my wife and I beat a hasty retreat. A more recent example: my friend and I were biking next to each other on a remote country road with no traffic in sight. Suddenly a motorcyclist came up behind us honking wildly and shaking his fist before zooming off. I can understand a motorist feeling upset because they have to slow down to go around (though it’s not illegal for two cyclists to ride abreast, just impolite if someone wants to pass). But a motorcycle! What’s with that?

Motorists often harbor the assumption that bicyclists (and pedestrians) will always stop for them since their car is bigger than your bicycle, so it is in your best interest to stop for them, right? I mean, you don’t want to get hurt do you? I know this fact from my days as a bike courier. I’ve developed a little dance I do for asserting my right-of-way just enough to encourage a car to stop, but not enough that my life is in danger. I do this by maintaining my speed while keeping a swerve space ready. Often if I suspect a car will cross my path from the right I move left. Drivers behind me may think I’m being erratic and unsafe when in reality I am ensuring my safety.

Once when my wife and I were biking toward an intersection where we had the right-of-way I saw a car on the right pull up to a stop sign. I instinctively moved to the left and prepared to swerve if they failed to yield. My wife however continued on. The car leaped forward straight toward her, and stopped within inches of striking her. In that split second I honestly thought I had just lost all hope for future happiness. I was dizzy with relief. I stopped and tried to express this thought to the driver without using any swear words. The driver didn’t say anything and drove off.

I lot of people will think I’m exaggerating in these posts. I’m not exaggerating as much as you think. The only way you will know how much I am exaggerating is to get on your bike. Try biking 10 miles a day for several years on the streets of a big city (except Portland Oregon :-)). You will see what I am talking about. You will experience not only daily routine abuse, but you may even enjoy some spectacular life-threatening experiences. Don’t expect apologies.

More “Should Bicyclists Follow the Same Laws as Motorists?”

This post continues answering the question from a previous post, Should Bicyclists Follow the Same Rules as Cars?

One argument I’ve heard to promote the idea that “bicyclists should follow the same rules as motorists” is that bicyclists need to earn the respect of motorists before bicyclists will be treated as equal partners on the street. Give me a break. First of all there is a demeaning attitude here that bicyclists are like children and motorists are like adults. Secondly, there is a hidden assumption here: motorists in general follow the rules and bicyclists have to be brought up to their level of morality. This is laughable. In our culture motorists break the rules so routinely they are no longer aware they are doing anything wrong. Ask your friends what their average speed is on the highway. Most will brag about how fast they go above the speed limit, and how fast they can get from point A to point B. They will likely continue like this until you let on that you are testing their morality. Then they will start giving you reasons why it’s okay to break the speed limit. I’d say the percentage of motorists who routinely break the speed limit is close to 100%. I know this because as an experiment I drove from Ithaca to Washington D.C. at exactly the speed limit (generally 55 or 65 mph). I did not pass anyone for the whole 350-mile trip. These are the kind of people bicyclists are supposed to emulate?

In our culture motorists routinely and blithely break another law: they don’t yield the right-of-way to pedestrians in crosswalks. (I should note that California is refreshingly different in this regard.) Motorists in my area feel their role is to “allow” pedestrians to cross if the motorist is feeling generous that day. Motorists have pedestrians trained to wait at the curb until the motorist says the pedestrian can cross. I like to disrupt this paradigm. I like to assert my right-of-way. When I step off the curb into a crosswalk motorists sometimes have to come to an abrupt stop. Sometimes they honk. Sometimes they give me a condescending wave of their hand saying they are allowing me to cross. Listen up: I don’t need your little wave. I’m going to cross whether you “allow” me to or not. I have the right-of-way.

Something about bicycling is inherently friendly. When I see another bicyclist on the road I give a friendly wave and they wave back. If we are going the same way, sometimes we chat (if we can hear ourself over the car traffic). But for some reason when people get behind the wheel of a car they become crazy mean like animals (although to be fair I should note that very few animals kill for sport). Why is that? My office overlooks a busy street in downtown Ithaca. Every few minutes someone honks and someone yells an expletive in response. The first someone then steps on the gas to make a loud automotive growling sound intended to express their displeasure and to surge past the second someone. And what sorts of offenses cause these sorts of displays? A car took more than three seconds to start after the light turned green. A pedestrian stepped into the crosswalk. A bicyclist wanted to turn. A bicyclist wanted to go straight. A bicyclist wanted to stand in one place. A bicyclist existed. Bicyclists frustrate motorists no matter what we do. So why should we follow the rules? We are cursed if we do and cursed if we don’t.

Aspiring bicyclists should know that there are deranged motorists out there who get a kick out of knowing they hold your life in their hands, and knowing there is nothing you can do about it. Some motorists will swerve at you just for fun. Once when I was on a bike tour in Alaska riding on a long stretch of lonely highway we saw an oncoming car in the distance. Curiously, the car changed lanes so that it was coming straight toward us. As the car got closer and closer our alarm grew. Some of us dove into the ditch. At the last second the car swerved away from us. Bicyclists are vulnerable to psychopaths, and following the rules won’t make you any safer. However breaking the rules might save you: I once had to ride onto the sidewalk to escape from a motorist who was trying to run me down. He followed me onto the sidewalk but I managed to stop behind a phone booth. Thankfully he wasn’t willing to smash into the phone booth to get at me. What had I done to him? He was angry because I had occupied the left lane in preparation for turning left.

I’m not saying all motorists are immoral or psychopathic. Some of them are also simply not paying attention. A couple of years ago in Ithaca a right-turning motorist ran over a pedestrian. The motorist was a small man in a big SUV. I suspect he had trouble seeing over the dash. After rolling over the pedestrian he continued on, blissfully unaware he had killed someone, until police caught up with him shopping in a grocery store miles away. How do you protect yourself from someone well-intentioned who doesn’t see you, no matter how many blinking lights and fluorescent jackets and little flapping flags you are wearing? You avoid putting yourself where the accident is about to happen. You make sure you are not next to or in front of a right-turning vehicle when that light turns green.

Motorists can afford to follow the rules. The rules keep them from running into each other and bending their fenders. For bicyclists the stakes are much higher. Bicyclists can’t afford to follow the motorist’s rules. Instead they must follow the real rules of bicycling safety: be alert, assert your right-of-way, get in front where people can see you, take short cuts to avoid dangerous intersections, keep a swerve space, keep moving, and don’t stick around in danger zones.

Should Bicyclists Follow the Same Laws as Motorists?

As a bicyclist who has an aggressive biking style I sometimes hear people tell me (or shout at me) “bikes should follow the same laws as cars”. From my perspective this is a ridiculous statement. And yet even bicyclists say this. I don’t understand how anyone who regularly rides on city streets can believe this. I’m not advocating recklessness. Of course a bicyclist should look both ways before crossing. Of course a bicyclist should never endanger a pedestrian. Of course a bicyclist shouldn’t put responsible motorists in awkward positions.

Certainly there are reckless bicyclists who wear hoodies and endanger themselves and others. I am just as outraged as any motorist (though I am secretly glad that they are reckless with a bike rather than reckless with a car). But more often I see safety-minded bicyclists breaking the law in order to improve safety. I routinely come across situations where following the same laws as cars is absurdly inconvenient, unsafe, or even impossible. Here are some examples:

  • Near my house there is a stop light that can only be triggered magnetically by a car. Whose bright idea was that? Pedestrians and bicyclists have to choose between waiting for a car or breaking the law (by humbly looking both ways and crossing if it’s safe).
  • In Ithaca West State Street has many stop lights as a traffic calming measure so that cars don’t zoom down the street (as they are allowed to do on flanking Seneca and Green streets). Side traffic is minimal at all times of the day. Pedestrians routinely cross against red lights. I suspect the city wants to encourage pedestrians here, and having pedestrians illegally crossing the street is another method of traffic calming. Why should bicyclists be subject to the same traffic calming designed for cars? Compared to cars, bikes are inherently calm!
  • One of the leading causes of death of bicyclists is motorists turning right and cutting off (and crushing to death) the bicyclist. When I come up to a stop light I like to pull ahead of the column of cars so that I am in front of them and visible to them. Sometimes (if there is no cross traffic) this entails pulling ahead just as or before the light changes. Also, turning right on red (even if it’s posted as illegal) is the safest way to get out of the danger zone. I haven’t been crushed yet!
  • In Ithaca there is a confluence of three busy highways so dangerous it is given the sinister name of “The Octopus”. Even though biking on the sidewalk can get you a $150 fine in Ithaca, bicyclists prefer that possibility to navigating The Octopus. I once saw a bicyclist here venture off the sidewalk. He was struck by a motorist as he crossed in a crosswalk. The motorist scolded the bicyclist and the bicyclist (whose bike was ruined) apologized to the motorist.
  • Another common situation I encounter is coming up to an intersection where there is an oncoming stream of cars turning left in front of me. If I try to assert my right-of-way the oncoming motorists sometimes honk and shake their fist at me. That’s if I’m lucky and they actually see me. When they don’t see me I have to use my momentum to swerve out of the way. I’ve had some close calls this way. This situation is caused by motorists blindly following the car in front of them while turning left (and often exacerbated by them talking on a cell phone). My solution at these problem intersections is simply to run the red light if I have the opportunity. That way I’m not in their way, they’re not in my way, and we can all go on our way, no harm done.
  • Country roads have their own issues. I recently had to turn left on a busy highway. My turn was at the top of a hill, so instead of turning while biking uphill I turned before reaching the hill and illegally rode a short bit on the wrong side of the highway. I did this so that I could get across the highway while I was still going fast enough to merge with traffic and cross. I did not want to get stuck straddling my bike in the middle of a busy highway.

These last two examples exemplify a general rule of bicycle safety that they don’t teach you in school: there is safety in speed. It may seem counter-intuitive, but as a bicyclist you should avoid coming to a standstill. It is a sad fact that motorists routinely don’t yield the right of way to bicyclists. As long as you are moving you can swerve out of danger. If you are at a standstill in front of a car you are deadmeat.  Unlike a motorist, you can’t simply step on the gas if you need to. You have to use your wits, your agility and your momentum. And you may have to break some laws to maintain your momentum

This kind of focused and fast riding requires skill. As a bike courier in Washington D.C. and later as a bike commuter in Chicago, I learned this skill to survive, not to irritate motorists or satisfy some sort of death wish. In the book Pedaling Revolution I was pleased to read about other bicyclists who have also concluded that speed equals safety. It takes a certain leap of faith to go faster to be safer. It’s a leap that aspiring cyclists will have to make on their own since the prevailing bike safety philosophy is to wear lots of protective equipment and wait for cars to run into you.

Another lesson here: never trust a motorist to yield the right of way. Always have a backup plan, whether legal or not. Be prepared to ride on the sidewalk to go around a car that looks like it might cut you off. Be prepared to pull into another lane if it looks like someone might pull in front of you. Do whatever is necessary to keep a swerve space ready. Look around you, thing about where everything is headed, and “try not be where an accident is about to happen”. Motorists don’t have to be this careful in city driving since the stakes are perhaps at most a fender-bender. For you the stakes are your life. If you’re off the bike path, take out your earbuds, pay attention, and and bike paranoid dude.

Pop quiz: you are biking. You come to an intersection where you want to turn right but the intersection is marked “no right turn on red”. A car pulls up next to you and it appears they also want to turn right. Do you a) remain beside the car and wait for the light to turn red, trusting that they will yield the right of way to you? Do you b) pull in front of the car where it’s safe and wait? Or do you c) illegally turn right on red? If you read paragraph five above you will know the correct answer to this. If you answered a), it was nice knowing you and my condolences to your family. If you answered b), be prepared to take some abuse from the motorist behind you. But if you answered c), enjoy the freedom that only comes from riding sensible human-scale transportation.

Sometimes bicyclists break laws because our streets in general are designed as if bicyclists don’t exist. Here’s an example:

  • Across the street from my house my neighbor Nancy used to yell at bicyclists riding on the sidewalk in front of her house. I told her that there was a lot of bike traffic on our street because our street leads to a pedestrian bridge. This bridge can save a bicyclist a mile of uphill biking. (Ironically one of the best assets for bicyclists in Ithaca is poorly accessible to bicyclists!) I told Nancy that because of the fast car traffic on our narrow street bicyclists preferred to bike on the sidewalk. Nancy discontinued haranguing the bikers and instead got the city to install a stop sign and speed limit that slowed traffic on our street. Now more bicyclists bike on the street instead of the sidewalk. (However another problem is that it’s a one-way street and they have to bike the wrong way to get to the bridge. Also bicyclists must ride on the sidewalk to get onto the bridge—technically a $150 fine.)

This last example can I think be generalized: if many fine upstanding bicyclist citizens are consistently breaking the law, there is something wrong with the law or the road design, not the people. Don’t take it out on the bicyclists!

Let’s face it, traffic laws exist because cars are lethal things in need of regulation; bicycles are not. When people say “bikes should follow the same laws as cars” I hear “once again we are too lazy to consider how bikes are different than cars and design our roads accordingly”. I hear “once again we are going to leave bicyclists to fend for themselves and then make them wear lots of safety equipment because we can’t be bothered to make room for them on our roads”. And “once again we are going to spend gadzillions of money on automobile infrastructure but for bicyclists we’ll paint a little line on the road and tell them good luck.” Bicyclists don’t have the same rights as motorists. Why should we have the same responsibilities? Don’t get me started.

The bottom line is that bicyclists should follow law—laws that meet the needs of bicyclists. This kind of law is still rare, but I’ve seen some examples lately: the sign at the top of South Hill that says “bikes can use full lane”; the sharrows on North Cayuga Street; the “bike boxes” in Portland Oregon that encourage bicyclists to wait in front of a line of cars at red lights. However, it may be a while before we have more of these laws made for bicyclists rather than hand-me-down laws made for motorists. The best we bicyclists can do in the meantime is to be respectful of pedestrians and do what’s safest, be it legal or not.

don’t ask me to drive

I recently made the decision not to drive. Surprisingly, the reactions of my friends and family (a predominantly open-minded bunch) have ranged from mild concern to outrage. “Supportive” is not in that range. This puzzled me at first. I understand that this decision will put a burden on others, in particular my wife. But the fact is she already does 90% of the driving so this isn’t a big change for us. This will also put a slight burden on my children. Again, our lives are already set up to minimize driving. My kids both walk to school and my wife and I walk to our offices, so this doesn’t affect our regular schedule. And lastly this will put a slight burden on my friends for the few times a year that I drive them somewhere. What can I say? I’m sorry. But I have to do what I have to do. (Note that I’m still willing to ride in a car—I’m a hypocrite I know. And certainly I’ll drive in emergencies.)

Why do I have to do this? Is it to save the planet? Global warming and all that, right? That’s a nice idea but actually I’m kind of afraid of people who want to save the planet. I’m not one of them and I try to avoid them. Is it because I want everyone else to stop driving too? Setting a good example and all that, right? I won’t stop anyone from joining me, but actually I am doing this for very personal reasons that most other people don’t share. I’m doing this because I am a bicyclist. If you are not a bicyclist then you won’t understand my feelings about cars. Over the last 35 years I have been honked at, cussed at, crowded out, and physically assaulted by motorists. I have endured a transportation system that makes very little accommodation for my needs, where the norm is a smug assumption by motorists that I am a nuisance rather than a fellow traveler. Why should I continue to be a part of a system that is so biased against me? I refuse to cooperate with our transportation system as it is.

I can completely understand if others don’t share my feelings. Few people have my history as a bicyclist or have spent the time that I have mulling these things over. Do what you have to do. But don’t ask me to drive.

My feelings about biking were recently brought to the surface after we visited Portland Oregon. There I was overjoyed to see a thriving bike community. At the Portland airport I picked up a book called Pedaling Revolution about the successes of Portland and other cities. I read it cover to cover on the flight home. I suddenly just knew that I had to stop driving. It wasn’t a decision so much as a realization about what was expected of me, perhaps what Quakers call a leading. I have a strange mix of reluctance and insistence about taking this on.

We are fortunate to live in a city (Ithaca New York) where we live three blocks from a thriving downtown with dozens of excellent restaurants and several theaters. We live two blocks from a three-mile trail through the woods. And there is a cool farmer’s market, a science museum, an art museum, a mighty fine college and a world-class university all within a two-mile radius. Except for the hills and the snow, it’s a biker’s heaven. And if you encounter either of those impediments, it’s no big deal to walk (or to use our electric bike).

I foresee a time in the near future when my family can live without owning a car. When a car is absolutely necessary we can use the local carshare cars. We only make three or four driving trips a week already. One of the few remaining reasons we drive is for grocery shopping. It’s less expensive (and more fun) to go to the big grocery store out on the strip and buy six bags of groceries than it is to bring home groceries from the tiny store downtown. But going to the big store would be impossible to do by bike. Or would it? In order to answer that question I recently purchased a bicycle trailer and I plan to start shopping with it this week. Wish me luck!

My two lovely assistants help test drive my new trailer.
Two lovely assistants helped me test drive my new trailer.