Wednesday, January 13

Common Thread

Since New Year's, my commute has been uneventful. An uneventful, albeit long, commute gives me lots of time to think of different things to post about. Today, I pondered posting about how I fixed a wiggly Cateye headlight, or how it takes longer to get ready to ride on cold mornings, or posting about the motorist who last week passed very slowly, but otherwise safely (though illegally across a double yellow line), with his wife rolling down the window in freezing weather and pointing off to the right, saying something unintelligible; no doubt warning me against moving over too far towards the "Cyclist Pit of Doom" if I unaccountably abandoned the "line of sweetness." I also considered posting about some positive reinforcement I got this morning, or about how a comment by "cycler" almost tore my heart out. But it all came together in common threads.

First off, CommuteOrlando has an active discussion, here,  about "Roadway Terrorists." Next, I talked with a motorist who passed me this morning on the way to work. He joked about how I was hard to miss. I inquired if, seriously, there was something about my riding that made it difficult for him to decide how to proceed or if my riding made it harder for him to get where he was going. After consideration, he answered that, no, my intentions were crystal clear to him, he understood my signals, and knew exactly what I planned to do and how to drive to avoid any conflict or delay whatsoever. I quipped that if I understood him, the only way I was hard to miss, then, was if he was actually TRYING for an impact. He agreed that was the case. It was a morale boost that says I'm riding well when non cyclists don't have to ponder what I'm up to. Finally, came the item that made it all come together. In it, "cycler" commented:

"I got followed in a threatening way for about 6 blocks today by a dump truck pulling a trailer who was p-o'd that I was taking the lane because we were going down a smallish residential street with parking on both sides and an icy shoulder. He kept gunning his engine. I didn't have to look back- I could hear him, and it was very stressful for me. It didn't matter to him that I was going traffic speed- he wanted me out of his way, and as soon as I got into the bike lane further down the street, he passed me relatively closely and at a speed inappropriate to the size of the street.

"I basically agree with you I think about vehicular cycling being the best way, but I've gotta say it takes a lot of experience and a certain mental toughness to do it. I doubt we're ever going to get serious growth in bicycling if we can't provide some kind of infrastructure that doesn't require people to brave that kind of situation regularly, especially when they're getting started."

I first read the comment when I stopped at a store of "a major coffee chain based in Seattle" on the way home. It disturbed me, and I thought about it the rest of the way home. I considered that "cycler" did the right thing in not trying to move right - the trailer could have easily dragged her under its wheels, and the driver would not have appreciated the attempt at courtesy in any event. I also considered that the statement about experience is NOT correct - I made the final switch to riding vehicularly  in a single day. What it takes is an epiphany, which can occur with no experience or maybe never. Certainly experience can prepare one for vehicular cycling, but it does not lead to it. I know fairly new cyclists that ride vehicularly, and I know others that have ridden for a half century that do not. Those that have not experienced the epiphany are certain to be skeptical. I certainly was - until April 10, 2009.

Anyway, here's the common thread - jerks on the road get a lot of attention from cyclists, and, more seriously, psycho motorists are a weakness of vehicular cycling - being predictable is not a good thing when a motorist is determined to kill the cyclist - the predictable cyclist is easier to hit. BUT, the overwhelming majority of motorists are good people, that just want to go along, and get along, as is the case with cyclists. THAT is a common thread that unites road users of disparate types, and is a big factor in what some might consider "mental toughness" in me. If the crazies were anything more than a newsworthy but extremely rare fringe element, John Forester would not be alive today. This is really something to remember if an occasional jerk decides to try to push you around. If the jerk's a bully, he/she will back off if you avoid escalating the situation - which is something "cycler" avoided as much as she could - a "Keri Wave" might have helped or it might have made things worse. If the jerk's a serious criminal, the cyclist is in real trouble, since the jerk has abandoned all the rules of the road and of human decency. It might be small comfort, but a criminal might just as likely go after the cyclist on a sidewalk - or even out in an empty field.

Different people feel differently about various infrastructure for cyclists to use, and revised laws that may or may not help cyclists. It behooves us to remember that bad infrastructure and bad laws can always be removed later. What we all have in common is we want to get from point to point, and the public roads are what they are. Some motorists are ignorant, but almost all are well intentioned. As a cyclist, my suggestion is never to forget that your best defense when riding is to always ride the best you know how, wherever you happen to be riding. Make it easy for your motoring friends, and remember that the jerks are notable because they both rare and stressful. Thanks, "cycler."

BTW, your blog is pretty cool!


Keri said...

I think our brains are wired to give more emphasis to small-percentage threats than large percentage non-threats. I focus on civility culture change because the one problem a vehicular cyclist can't solve for herself is harassment. In my experience, harassment is less when I'm predictable. I think intimidation is easier to deal with from a prominent lane position
(I have certainly used that 5 or 6 feet to my right as an escape a buzz pass or two). But it's still there, it's still intimidating, it still discourages people from riding assertively... or riding at all.

And it's just unacceptable! A person should NOT have to have thick skin (or mental toughness, or whatever we want to call it) to ride like a self-respecting, first-class road user.

In mid December, I had a situation similar to Cycler's story in Key West. I was riding on a narrow alley with a doorzone bike lane. There was a huge truck behind me that could not share the available safe space. He did the same thing, gunned the engine all the way down the road. That kind of thing triggers every vestige of prey instinct the human brain. I've been an urban cyclist for over 2 decades. I hated that every bit as much as a newbie.

Special infrastructure is not going to solve this problem. This is a social problem... a software problem. When we get over trying to solve it with hardware, we might use our energy and resources to actually fix the dysfunctional culture.

Nothing feeds that territorial dysfunction like special infrastructure to remove bicycles from the way of motorists.

Keri said...

In the category of, careful what you ask for... here is a photo of the one-way paired alley in Key West with a similar-size vehicle (except there was no pull-out where I was)

Doohickie said...

Let the wookie win.

My new commute is 17 miles each way, and part of it is on 2-lane rural roads. During commute time, they are crowded with people that are probably going to the same building I am. ChipSeal has said that people who are stuck behind him when he's taking the lane on a 2-lane in a no-passing zone are delayed by maybe 20 or 30 seconds. Okay, the car gets delayed. No big deal, right?

On the 2-lanes I travel on, I've noticed there are several points where I can pull the the right (in driveways, etc.), pause maybe 5 seconds (no big deal, right?), let a car or two or three pass, and then there's a big gap. I let the wookie win, even though I was in the right and they had no right to get ahead of me. Yet, all involved with the situation are less stressed and we've all participated in a little give and take.

VC is all well and good, but sometimes I feel much, much better to let the wookie win.

Doohickie said...

Oh, and just because some people jump right in and embrace VC, doesn't mean it's right for everyone. Cycling infrastructure that encourages more people to get on their bikes is good. Even if it allows them to stay on the path instead of getting out in the traffic, at least they're riding. Who cares if they're not fulfilling a VC agenda?

Keri said...

"VC agenda"

You spend too much time on bikeforums.

Steve A said...

Doohickie, some say you wouldn't be holding all those cars up all the time if your bike had Presta valves!

Seriously, this gives me all kinds of ideas for posts to mull over on those long commutes. Courtesy and VC are two different things. Either can exist - or not - in the presence or absence of the other. What's more, lots of people ARE afraid of cars because they've been taught to BE afraid. How many people would swim if everyone was taught that demons in the water would swallow them up instead of just how to swim?

cycler said...

Hi Steve,
It's interesting to be subject of someone else's blog, even indirectly :).

I consider myself a pretty experienced urban cyclist- I've been riding seriously for at least 20 years, in environments from Houston Texas to Milan Italy. I think that has a lot to do with my comfort level bicycling vehicularly.
I ride sometimes with a co-worker who is relatively new to urban biking, although she was a pedicab operator in Key West for a while. She's a physically strong biker, but she just feels like bicycling vehicularly is too much conflict, and she instinctively shies away from being right in front of the big steel vehicles. She understands the arguments logically, but on an emotional and visceral level it's too hard for her to do. It only takes one bad experience to scare someone who's trying to make bicycling part of their life into retreating into their car- let a alone a rare- run in with a psycho.

I can do it, and I keep on doing it, maybe becuase it's just routine by now, but it's tough when it's cold (and dark) outside to feel assertive and deal with the occasional jerk, and the occasional stupid driver, and the occasional aggressive cab all the way to work. Maybe its SAD or the cold or something, but I'm itching for some dedicated infrastructure...

Steve A said...

Jerks are definitely worse when it is cold and dark. It is worst of all if it is also wet and you are behind schedule. On the other hand, I have encountered jerks on a path that were in golf carts, so it's partly just probabilities.

My own view on infrastructure (now SURE to be a future post) is that I'll use it or not based on my safety perception, what the infrastructure offers in pleasure, and the law. That will almost certainly differ from what many others choose. Those differences are mostly a good thing.

Keri said...

I can completely identify with the fatigue and longing for an escape from a hostile environment. But there's ultimately no escape. We have to face this culture down if we want full access.

When it comes to dedicated infrastructure, there are 2 basic concepts: trails on separate right-of-way that transport cyclists from point A to Point B; and parallel trails to separate bike and ped traffic from car traffic.

I like the former (when it is designed properly). I dislike the latter.

The former offers the peace and quiet of being away from auto traffic. It can be designed to connect low volume streets and allow permeability so cyclists don't have to ride on busy roads. It's an enhancement to the transportation grid for cyclists. An upgrade for a higher-quality experience. (When it's designed properly)

The latter is in the same noisy roadway environment and has only succeeded in exacerbating crossing and turning conflicts, along with territorialism. Creating the latter to escape bad driver attitudes is very much giving in to terrorism. And reinforcing it.

BTW, for some insight into Key West, check out Mighk's blog. If I had lived in Key West, I would have a visceral reaction to sharing the road with cars, too. The drivers there are more aggressive than anyplace I've cycled (and that's a lot of places). I had a half dozen drivers literally race up behind me, expecting me to scatter off to the curb. A cab driver took a swipe at Mighk while passing us because we wouldn't get out of her way on approach to a red light. It made me appreciate Orlando in the way Orlando makes me appreciate North Texas. (BTW, only one of the locals in the class was positive about it being a great place to ride... he runs a bike rental business... the others griped about the aggressive drivers and most of them believed assertive cycling was not possible there.)

rab said...

Doohickie raises some really good points. I think sometimes we get so hung up on our "rights" that we can forget about something like common courtesy. If 5 seconds of my time saves someone else 20-30, that seems like a pretty good trade off. It also can't help but earn respect (and maybe the return favor someday?) from the average driver who doesn't hate the cyclist, just wants to do their thing as easily and hassle free as possible.

As far as jerks...they will pull this on cyclists, motorists, aircraft...whatever happens to be in their way at the time and earn their ire. How many times have we had the person in our trunk on a highway because you are not going fast enough, even if there are 20 cars in front of you?

In my opinion, we have to use some discretion in picking our battles...especially as a minority group. cheers!

Keri said...


Should Cycler have moved over into the ice to let the driver pass?

Courtesy must never come at the cost of a cyclist's safety. I practice control and release on narrow 2-lane roads when it is safe to do so. I think most vehicular cyclists do.

Here are 2 examples of VC advocates who fight hard for our right to the road practicing courtesy.

Control & Release

Mandeville Canyon - Motorist/Cyclist Cooperation

I recently made a similar video but haven't posted it yet.

While I ride this way on 2-lane roads and will show others how it works, I do NOT criticize those who don't. The bottom line is every road user has the right of first come, first served and it is up to that individual to decide whether or not to yield part of his lane space to facilitate an overtaking driver.

Be careful with what you read on cycling forums. There is a lot of slander out there about vehicular cycling. Most of what I've seen are strawman arguments.

rab said...


in no way am I suggesting someone should put themselves at risk for the sake of courtesty, not sure where that was implied in my previous note. What I do suggest is that both motorists AND cyclists would be better off if each exercised a degree of courtesy towards one another. This is highly discretionary depending on the given set of circumstances, didn't say this should be automatic.

If I am on my bike and I can safely move over a little more to let a car pass, I will. This has worked well for me for years. It is a simple courtesy and in my best interest in multiple forms. I can't be sure the car behind me is being piloted by someone paying attention, so to allow myself as much room for error as possible is a good idea in my mind. I don't want to take up extra room if not needed and leave myself open to any additional risk. If all parties are aware, then a driver sees a cyclist making an effort to TRULY share the road, and will hopefully appreciate it.

Ultimately, right or wrong, we are the ones most susceptible to injury in car-bike confrontations. And I definitely don't want to be a hurt just because I am in the right.

Steve A said...

If anyone is in doubt about my view on courtesy, please go read the very first post ever made on this blog. Traffic is not a war, or violence. It's definitely not supposed to be a "might and speed" contest. It's an essentially cooperative effort by which we all get places.

cycler said...

RE: Courtesy:
In this particular case, there was no oncoming traffic in this area (it's a place where a two way street becomes one way, and there just aren't many cars coming the other way.. The main problem what that traffic was going 25 and I was going 20. It was a typical Cambridge densely residential area street with probably a 30mph speed limit and lights spaced for about a 20mph green wave- the kind of street where people pass me, and then I come right up behind them at the next light. I don't lane split, so I don't pass them while they're still, because I know that it's hard for them to pass me properly, and I think it's rude to pass them just to gain a few feet.

When I finally did "release" when we got to the one way road with the bike lane, and he blew past, I almost immediately came up behind him at a stop sign, and then again at a light. As I often do with big vehicles, I declined to pass him by squeezing though his blind spot in the bike lane, and feeling discretion was the better part of valor, I also didn't want to risk "provoking" him.

Steve A said...

Cycler, I don't know how to handle it any classier than you did. Courtesy is freely offered and not extracted by intimidation. If I get rattled, I count good-to-bad interactions with motorists and that ALWAYS reminds me that the nice ones are an overwhelming majority, but we remember the scary jerks.

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