Saturday, March 20, 2010

I’m all for conversation but maybe you could just shut up for a while

This line from one of our family favorites—The Fifth Element with Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman and Milla Jovovich—probably ran through the head of the cyclist I met on Riverside Wednesday night. I still don’t know what possessed me. Why did I bother to say anything?

I pedaled up behind him westbound on Riverside, catching him at the stop light at Wall by the STA plaza. Good-looking black bike, fully loaded racks with panniers front and back. At least somewhat safety-oriented rider: wearing two rear-view mirrors clipped to his helmet as compared with my one.

Why do I say “somewhat” safety-oriented? He was wearing all dark clothing, his rear taillight was tucked away in near invisibility under the rack, and it was 5:15, the sun dropping rapidly to the west. He pedaled along slowly in the left-hand tire track of the right-hand lane, while I was riding as far to the right as is safe, per the law.

“Good afternoon,” I called cheerily. No response. “Is he wearing earphones?” I muttered aloud to myself. At that, he turned his head and smiled at me. White guy, long ringlets, soul patch, John Lennon glasses. “Hi,” I said, smiling back.

Light changed. Beat him to the next light, but of course it changed and he caught me on the red—kind of like what all of us do to drivers through downtown as they jackrabbit ahead only to wait for us at the next light.

The thing is, I could feel the impatience of the drivers behind us. Not only that, I could see it. They were stacking up behind us (remember, it’s 515 p.m.). If it had been only me they could have passed, but he blocked the lane. "Share the road" isn't just rhetoric directed at drivers—it's aimed at us, too.

While it’s legal for two riders to ride abreast, we weren’t together when he chose that spot all by himself. We were traveling at different speeds and once I got out ahead of those darn lights, I was going to be gone while he would continue to slow vehicular traffic from his illegal spot.

“You really should get over,” I said, glancing back at the string of cars behind us. “So they can get by.”

He smiled at me, his glasses glinting in the sun. “Thanks for the feedback,” he said politely.

I had to smile. “I thought you’d appreciate it,” I said as I pulled away when the light changed. He rode another block, then from his spot behind and to my left he made a wide right turn onto Lincoln and we went our separate ways.

What do you do when you see a cyclist doing something that irritates drivers, maybe making it harder on the rest of us, and you have the opportunity to say something?

Are we all bike educators, in a sense—trying to improve traffic flow, safety and courtesy among cyclists as well as drivers and pedestrians—or should I remember I haven’t been deputized and just shut up for a while?

What would you have done?


John Speare said...

Strictly speaking -- legally anyway -- I don't think his travel line was illegal. Aren't you required to ride as far right as is safe? Who defines safe? I think it should be the one who has the most to loose by a miscalcuation of "safety": the cyclist.

Maybe he's been squeezed too many times by passing cars to feel safe at the right wheel well?

When I ride in downtown traffic, I tend to ride further into the lane than I might in other scenarios. I want people to have to actually pass me -- not squeeze by me. This is especially true for roads that have more than one lane of travel in the direction I'm going.

I also make a point of stopping on the left wheel well at lights so cars wanting to take a "free" right behind me can do so when I'm stopped at a light.

Sounds like he may have been attempting to do this (at Wall and at Lincoln) - if you were in the right wheel well during the red, then red-light-right turners were being held up by you! Not saying that's what was going on here, but that might explain his lane positioning.

If he's holding up a bunch of traffic, I agree that's cheesy and should be avoided just as a courtesy.

I never say anthing to riders that I see doing stupid stuff... unless I know them, and even then, I probably won't.

Anonymous said...

The law that cyclists must keep right always seems like a legal punchline.

Same roads!
Same rules!
But, keep right!

Keeping right can pretty much nullify the whole sameness.

The main problem with keeping right is intersections. Drivers can get mad whether you take the center lane, the right turn lane, or left turn lane (to turn left). Ya can't win.

Best though, in my experience, is to mimic the same patterns as cars in downtown traffic, if you can do so while keeping up with the flow. Often it makes sense to enter the traffic flow (take the lane) as traffic slows at the intersection.

I think staying right at an intersection is usually a poor choice if you are going straight, since right turning cars can hit you. But, it's not always possible to take the lane, and riders have different physical abilities.

Roundabouts can be a pretty good compromise between motorized and nonmotorized traffic. All traffic keeps going right, even if going straight or taking a left, so staying right on the bike can work. Again, depends on speed if it works.

Cars also often park on the right side of streets. Even between intersections you have traffic sliding in and out, and doors flying open. So, there are reasons to take the lane there as well.

Sometimes it's a good mind game to imagine no motorized traffic. How would the rules be different? While slower traffic might still stay right, it would seem that a lot of the formal lane and intersection laws would simply disappear.

In other words, bicycles follow laws that work best for cars, and bicyclists even have additional rules (like keep right, ride on the shoulder, etc) not to interfere with cars. Cyclists have fewer practical choices of where to ride on the total roadway. We may have the same roads, but we get to use just a small ribbon of most of them. Often we have to use the least-maintained part of the roadway, where the broken glass glistens.

Given the tilt toward accommodating cars, when I see another cyclist in traffic, I'm usually just glad we're both still alive. The more cyclists out there, the safer we all are.

Traditional Bike Club Curmudgeon said...

That was you, Barb ? ?? ???

Not said...

I've been stuck in traffic before (yes, really!) both in a car and on a bike. In my experience, I'm much more likely to be stuck behind a car than behind a bike.
Drivers that are upset because they're stuck behind a bicycle are conveniently overlooking their own contribution to the traffic mess.
- Ventura

Willy said...

"I don't think his travel line was illegal. Aren't you required to ride as far right as is safe? Who defines safe?"

"Maybe he's been squeezed too many times by passing cars to feel safe at the right wheel well?"

"I want people to have to actually pass me -- not squeeze by me."

As a person who has been hit from behind by the huge added on see-behind-the-5th wheel style of mirror on a pick-up, only to be slammed into the parked car I was carefully skirting along next to, I couldn't agree more with the above statements by John. That happened 20 years ago and I still have a soft, mashed up spot in my left tricep.

That said, I also agree with his comment about it being cheezy to hold up a bunch of traffic. I take the lane when I need it and give it back when I don't, so the taffic can still flow.

Anonymous said...

Here's a question: how do we educate drivers, who make up 99.9% of the traffic on the road?

For example, how do we educate drivers that, yes, bikes can legally take the lane, and may need to take the lane for safety reasons?

It's easy to express annoyance at bicyclists, who are exposed. Most bike commuters have probably been yelled at--even for legal, safe actions.

There are also classes on bike traffic skills for bicyclists. But, when will there be classes for drivers on bike safety?

The priorities always seem upside down:

1. Wear a helmet!
2. Rider education!

Then, nothing.

Ken Paulman said...

Only time I've ever "corrected" another cyclist was when I was nearly hit head-on by some idiot riding down the wrong side of Howard in front of NCHS. In that case, it was more a matter of self-preservation.

That said, I don't think many people on the road are going to take my cycling/driving advice.

With all the ambiguity over cycling laws, though, it makes me wonder whether the drivers license exam ought to address cycling (and pedestrian) laws a little more thoroughly. In MN, I recall maybe one question about bikes (can't for the life of me remember what it was) along with obscure things like whether you're supposed to signal 150 feet or 200 feet from the intersection (that 50 feet, clearly, can be the difference between life and death).

Maybe Barb or John know whether this is an approach cycling advocates have considered? There has to be some board somewhere that decides this stuff.

Barb Chamberlain said...

I knew this one would draw some comments--thanks all!

I've considered the idea that I should "get out of the way" so a driver who wants to turn right can do so. Every time, though, I think, "Well, if I were a car planning to go straight he wouldn't expect me to move" (assuming there's only one lane heading our direction). Training them to recognize us as a legitimate user of space on the road comes one encounter at a time.

There's this ongoing dance between trying to be less trouble for drivers so they'll be nicer--which only works with people who were nice to begin with--and trying to be consistent and predictable--which only works for the cyclists who ARE consistent/predictable, so drivers still don't know what to expect.

I was immediately sorry I said anything, because I'm genuinely glad to see other cyclists on the road. I was thrilled that he was riding in traffic instead of on the sidewalk, he was wearing a helmet, he clearly uses the bike for transportation. All good things. So this piece was by way of confession.

I also should have added that I'm no Milla Jovovich. He wasn't exactly Bruce Willis either... (that wasn't really you was it, Traditional Bike Club Curmudgeon? :D)


Barb Chamberlain said...

I should have remembered my roller-skating analogy from an earlier post ( one said anything there.


Rachel said...

There's one time when I want to say something, both when cycling and driving, but I never do. Part of the reason is because I'd only have a split second within which to say something... unless I just ran in to them I suppose. The other part of the reason is that I'm far too shy and non-confrontational to do it.

The situation I'm talking about is when someone is riding their bike on the street, in the wrong direction. It both scares me to death (for their own safety) and irritates me (because people like that certainly do not help motorists become more tolerant of sharing the road with cyclists).

I'm always a little bit concerned when I see someone riding without a helmet or without being properly visible at night, but I would never say anything to a stranger about that. It's still great to see people out on their bikes, even if they're not being as safe as they could be.

Of course, while someone riding at night in dark clothes without lights may just not have thought things through, someone who is riding into oncoming traffic definitely made a clear choice to be reckless, and saying something about it probably wouldn't change a thing.

Rachel said...

I wanted to add, as well as fess up, that I'm no 100% perfect rider either.

I'm a strong advocate for following all of the rules of the road (even when no one is in sight, I still wait for that light to turn green), and I'm educated about what those rules are, yet I have made a conscious decision to ride with headphones in. If someone were to suggest that I take them out, it probably wouldn't make any difference except maybe to tick me off (depending upon their tone).

But people don't nit-pick like that; in fact, there's a sense of camaraderie every time I ride by another cyclist and we give each other a nod simply because we're both out there, on our bikes. That's what's really great about the bike scene in Spokane, and every time it happens, it completely makes up for the a-hole motorist who just told me to get up on the sidewalk.

amidnightrider said...

I don't ever say things about someones biking or driving for that matter. I learned that it does no good at all, but only gets both of our danders up.

I have been commuting for quite a few years with only a rear blinkie and no other "safety" equipment.

Friday leaving work I came across another biker and the thing that struck me was that she was wearing a helmet. It's so unusual around here that she really stood out. She was also in full kit so I figure she was training.

T.K. McGuinness said...

I disagree with annonymous who said that cars make up 99.9% of traffic. Bicycles make up MORE than .1% of all trips on the road. But I get your point. One more thing; The sign depicting a bicycle with the words "Share the Road" can send a message that we don't intend. I have always seen it as, "there are bikes on the road, cars, you need to share." But I have heard from drivers who see the bike as an indication who the words are directed to..."Bikes, there are cars on the road,you need to share."

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite "share the road" type warning signs is on Hwy 101 heading north on the Olympic peninsula, a popular bike touring route.

First there is a sign that says basically "bicyclists, read the next sign."

The next sign is off the roadway in a turnout, it can't be read from the road. The sign says, basically, "Bicyclists, this is a narrow road without good shoulders and lots of traffic."

No duh! Like the bicyclists haven't noticed!

I think the notion that bicyclists have to be warned that there are cars on the road or that conditions are not ideal is hilarious. It's similar to drivers who were taught to honk whenever they pass a cyclist--as if we couldn't hear them coming.

Bill Foss said...

Here's what I yell to cyclists the most, usually when I am walking:


Sometimes, I might throw a salty refrain in as a bonus.