Friday, January 7, 2011

What is good bicycle etiquette in a sea of cars?

Lately, with things like the proposed bicycle lanes on Second Avenue, and the new bicycle law going through the state legislature, I've been following all the nasty little comments people leave on news sites. After sifting through the usual BS, you always end up seeing a few similar points people are complaining about:
  • Bicyclists don't follow the rules of the road
  • Bicycles don't belong on the road at all, mostly because they're too slow
  • (Contrarily) tax money shouldn't be wasted on bicycle facilities for use by "1%" of the population, especially when bicyclists "don't pay road taxes because they don't pay for a license, registration, or gasoline"
The most prevalent one of these points is how frustrated drivers are when bicyclists ride on the road but don't abide by its rules. Of course, a lot of riders follow the laws - or at least most of the the laws, but the most memorable will always be the few who are seriously disobeying them. You know, the people who ride in the lane on the wrong side of the road; the ones who weave in and out of the lane and the parking strip, or even the sidewalk, whenever they please; and the people you see blowing right through a red light without even stopping.

Every time I see someone riding like this, I cringe. I cringe for two reasons: it puts them at a much greater risk for being injured, and it further angers motorists and decreases their interest in sharing the road with bicycles.

Unfortunately, a lot of bicyclists probably don't realize that they might not be riding as well as they could. I know I sure didn't when I first started riding my bike around town more. I look back on all those times I would ride up beside a stopped car waiting to turn right and then start riding forward as soon as traffic was clear, preventing them from turning. I thought that's what I was supposed to do: stay on the right, always. Or those times when I would venture out to ride down an arterial street and tried my best to be polite and stay out of the cars' ways whenever possible. That meant riding as close to the curb as I could, and when I encountered a parked car, moving out into the lane only long enough to pass it and the moving back over. Oh yeah, and what about when you're stopped at a light and there are a bunch of cars behind you? Of course it surely was the courteous thing to move over into the crosswalk so the cars could get around, and then move back into the lane once I was across the street, right?

Not exactly. I had good intentions, but I didn't realize how important it is to be predictable. There are a number of other things I didn't realize either, like how frustrating it can be to a driver when they just passed you, only to have you squeeze alongside the right side of line of cars at the stoplight so you can pop out in front again once it's green, and they have to pass you all over again.

So now that I've read some comments on media websites, and ridden around town for a year, I'm such an expert that when I came across a post on Greater Greater Washington (DC) entitled What's our bicycle "social contract"?, I found myself shaking my head and wanting to voice my differing opinion with several of their points. There's so much conflicting information out there on how a bicyclist should ride in traffic, how can bicyclists ever figure out the best ways to be both safe and courteous on the roadway?

After much debating, a bit of reading, and a fair amount of riding, here are the "rules" I try to follow myself:
  1. Never, ever ride down the wrong side of the street.
    If I find myself faced with riding the wrong way or going way out of the way to go the right way, I ride slowly on the sidewalk. It's technically illegal to ride on the sidewalks downtown, but I will do it going up Washington, under the railroad tracks, before turning onto Pacific.

  2. Stop at red lights.
    I come to a complete stop, and put my foot on the ground. I can't track stand even if I wanted to, but this signals to cars that I've actually taken the time to stop just like they have to. If I'm going straight, I wait until the light changes. If I'm turning right, I look both ways for cars, check for pedestrians crossing the street, and then go.

  3. Stay in the position at a red light.
    When I come up behind cars at a red light, rather than passing all of them to the right and waiting at the intersection, I stop behind them. Passing the line of stopped cars ticks drivers off, sets me up for a potential right hook if some of those cars were planning to turn, and usually cuts off my space on the side of the road. As one commenter pointed out on one of those media sites, "If we're supposed to pass bikes with 3 feet of clearance, why aren't they also passing us with three feet?"
    I find that if I stop in line with the right wheels of the cars in front of me, I will not lose the space I need to ride in because cars can't pull around and stop on my left while the light is red.

  4. Slow way down at stop signs and look both ways before continuing.
    Cars can sneak up faster than I'm expecting. (I know, if bikes have to follow the rules, shouldn't the cars have to obey the speed limit?) Of course, there could also be pedestrians about to cross in front of me, and if I don't slow down, I won't have time to check for both. If there is a car or a pedestrian, I come to a complete stop and let them pass before continuing.
    I remind myself about the recent tragedy that occurred when a Spokane bicyclist ran through a stop sign at Scott and Second, and I always slow, way, way down.

  5. Use hand signals.
    This lets people know where I am headed, especially if I'm planing to move or turn to the left (potentially where a car might try to pass me). I often signal right turns by sticking my right arm out - it depends upon which hand I'm more comfortable with letting go with, as well as how well I think the cars behind me could see the signal. If I'm in the left lane, signaling to move over to the right lane, I always use my right hand to signal.

  6. Turn left from the appropriate lane.
    If I need to turn left, I signal and move to the leftmost lane or into the turn lane. Turning left from the right side of the lane is not only illegal, it is very dangerous!
    If I find I can't move to the left, I will signal right, cross in the crosswalk, and stop after I've crossed the street. If there are cars already waiting on that street, I will go to the sidewalk and dismount. From there, I will wait for a break in traffic (or the light to change) before I proceed through the intersection in the direction I had originally hoped to go when I missed the left turn.

  7. Be predictable.
    If I'm in the lane, I stay in the lane. I don't weave into the parking area only to move out again when there are cars in my way. I don't move over into the crosswalk when going through intersections. I don't change back and forth between riding in the street and riding on the sidewalk. If I see an obstacle ahead (perhaps a missing storm drain cover, broken glass, or even a snow berm), I do a headcheck and even signal with my arms in the direction I will be moving.

  8. Try to keep to the right, but stay outside of the door zone.
    If I can ride in a position on the right of the road that allows cars to pass me with 3 feet of space and keeps me out of the door zone, I do, and I stick to it. It really depends upon the road. If the lane is narrow and there are parked cars, I may ride further toward the center to prevent cars from trying to pass too closely. This works on the routes I take, because the roads with parking and narrow lanes have four or more lanes, so cars are able to change lanes to pass. Unless the lane is wide and there is no parking, I usually find myself riding in that magical right-wheel area of the lane.

  9. Be courteous to pedestrians.
    Pedestrians are the other group of overlooked road users, and even more vulnerable than bicyclists. I want cars to be courteous to me, so in addition to being courteous to the cars, I'm courteous to the pedestrians. Besides, chances are, especially downtown, that some of those pedestrians might pass you in their car later on!
    I always check for pedestrians when I'm crossing intersections, even ones where I have the right of way (jaywalking in Spokane is as common as clouds in the sky). If I'm on the sidewalk (which I try to avoid) or a multi-use path, I slow down and warn people I'm riding up behind, "excuse me, I'm coming up on your left, thanks," (and I have time to say it because I've slowed down even more before passing them).

  10. Use lights and make myself as visible as possible, especially at night.
    In the interest of my safety, I make myself as visible as possible to drivers. I have a yellow jacket, with reflective tape sewn into it. In the hot summertime, I wear my bright yellow vest (also with reflective piping). My bike is black, so I outfitted it with black reflective tape, which lights up nice and bright when passing through the headlights of a car. I also have a headlamp and blinky tail light. My headlamp is a German model, so the beam is cut off at the top to keep it from glaring in the eyes of passing cars and pedestrians.
    To go all out for being visible, as well as having something really fun on my bike, I picked up a Monkey Light. That sucker lights up in a rainbow of colors and makes fun patterns as my wheel spins. A woman once rolled down her window at an intersection and commented that she loved my light because it made me super visible!

  11. Avoid bad situations.
    Some conditions are just asking for trouble, if it's possible to pick a different route, I do it. For example, I won't ride in the lane on Division. Since I try to avoid riding on the sidewalks, I just try to avoid Division altogether. As another example, I will go out of my way to avoid crossing on Maple bridge. Sometimes I ride on the sidewalk, but that involves lugging my bike up and down stairs, so I usually just go over to Monroe or through Riverfront Park and then back to the west again.
  12. Smile and wave!
    There's nothing to increase tolerance like being friendly and polite. It's often in violation of traffic laws when cars stop and motion me to cross or enter the street in front of them, but they're trying to be courteous, so rather than try to argue with gestures and imply that I don't appreciate their intentions, I just smile, wave, and go (as long as it's safe, of course).

What kinds of things do you do to promote safety, courtesy, and tolerance on the roadway? Do you have some points to add to my list, or perhaps some you disagree with?


Unknown said...

i have to ride home after dark every day. i use bright lights and tons of reflectors. i make left turns from the left turn lane. personally, i dismount if i am on the sidewalk. beware the left cross in addition to the right hook.

John Speare said...

Great post Rachel. One thing I do when stopped at red lights with traffic behind me is move to the left wheel well so right-turners can go.

It's not "acting like a car," but it takes advantage of the fact that I'm on a bike and doesn't screw anything up.

Rachel said...

Wow, how did I forget lights, and never do more than briefly mention left turns in the signalling section?!
I think I will have to edit my post, those are some gaping holes!

Not said...

It always annoys me when drivers claim that bicyclists don't follow traffic laws. I frequently see Spokane drivers run stop signs and red lights, break the speed limit, and park in the bike lane.

What's the difference between a bike running a stop sign and a car running a stop sign? Cars take innocent lives.
- Ventura

Stine said...

I live by this list as well. I also try to do my best to present as much like an actual human (not an athlete) as possible. Sounds weird, but I've had a lot of people tell me that I look "like a normal person" because I'm not all spandexed out when I get to work. Balancing this with being HI-VIS requires a few extra lights...

Barb Chamberlain said...

AWESOME post, Rachel. Should be required reading for everyone on a bike.


Michael said...

Great post.

WA state law requires a headlight and a rear reflector for riding at night, I'd love to see the law changed to require a rear light, instead of a reflector.

Cyclists seem to follow the rules of the road about as much as drivers do.

Arroyoribera said...

Great post! Really important stuff! As a biker, I really appreciate this.

As a pedestrian on the Centennial Trail, I would like to share the following:

For riders who may have trouble with rules and etiquette on the Centennial Trail where the walker is as fearful of and in danger because of the biker as the biker is of the car on the road, here is the link to the rules and etiquette for the Centennial trail.

In particular, I would point you to the rules and etiquette that in my experience and that of my very fit 70 plus year old mother are of greatest importance given the regular mortal danger we find ourselves in on the Centennial Trail due to a majority of bikers who fail to announce themselves (etiquette #2), travel in excess of legal speed (rule #4), fail to ride single file (etiquette #7), and fail to yield to pedestrians (rule #5).

There is a very important discussion -- as important and life-saving as the extensive discussion about cars vs. bikes -- to be had about the world of bike-pedestrian interaction. Before a tragedy occurs, perhaps with me or my family members as victims, I hope that the 90% plus of riders who violate these rules on the stretch of the trail west of Barker Road will memorize these rules and etiquette, post them widely, engage their riding friends, and change their behavior as soon as possible.

To those who announce their presence, do not violate the speed limit, yield to pedestrians, and ride single file past pedestrians, thank you very much. To those who react like car drivers to the issue, please, put yourself in a pedestrian's place by walking the trail at peak usage. You will notice things such as the fact that when the river is running high as it was until recently it is as least as loud as the road and a pedestrian can not hear your sprocket clicking and that therefore announcing yourself is critical.

Thanks for hearing me out.