It was a Friday night of a holiday weekend. I was on my way (by bike, of course!) from my suburban office into downtown Portland, Maine, to lead July’s First Friday Slow Ride. The sun was out, temperature perfect, and traffic not terribly congested. I was in a good mood.
The first half of this trip is on a four-lane arterial called Outer Congress Street. Because of narrow lanes and paved shoulders ranging from sketchy to none, I was riding in the middle of the rightmost travel lane to give myself space. This also helps motorists behind me know well in advance that a lane change will be required. Most motorists don’t even take their feet off the gas to change lanes to pass me.
I’ve written before about one section of this road. I sometimes get guff here from motorists because the paved shoulder is generally four to five feet wide and next to a curb. What they surely don’t see are the drain grates, or the trash on the shoulder. It must look to some drivers like a bike lane. It’s not. It’s too narrow, with no pavement markings or signage.
It was in this section that an older man driving a pickup truck in the lane next to me first slowed to my pace and then told me I needed to move over. I replied that I did not. We went back and forth a few times before he drove on. Shortly thereafter he moved into the right lane ahead of me and turned right.
No cussing, no honking, no close pass. It went well, as such encounters go.
The road he turned onto came back out to the main road another mile up. To my surprise, there he was again, waiting to turn right back onto the main road as I approached.
I was close enough that he waited for me to pass before turning. Thank you! But then he came up on my left again. Again he insisted that I needed to move over. This time he threatened to call the police.
“Go right ahead,” I responded. I was getting annoyed. “They’ll tell you I’m right.”
Another mile up the road I approached a red light and got in line in the through lane. Who did I notice on my left, in the left turn lane, but my friend the pickup truck driver. His passenger side window was down. I could clearly hear him on his phone, telling someone about this guy on a bike in the “middle of the road.” He just wanted them to know about it, “in case he gets hit.” Thanks. I think.
I didn’t say anything more. The light turned green, and we went our separate ways. Thankfully, no police car ever appeared. I turned off that road another two miles up, and that was the end of it.
When I described the experience on Facebook, people expressed interest in seeing the transcript of the presumed 911 call, so I called the police department to ask about it. Yes, the helpful city employee said, she was able to locate that call. A transcript would cost $50, but she could email me the summary for free, with the caller’s information redacted. Here it is:
First, a few minor corrections:
- As noted above, there was no bike lane. He just assumed it was a bike lane. (Because that’s where bikes are supposed to be, right?)
- To be precise, I was in the middle of the lane, not the middle of the road (the latter would be the centerline).
- I was not wearing a backpack, only using a pannier on a rear rack.
On a humorous note, do you see the Call Type? “PERSONS BOTHERING.” I don’t know which direction that’s supposed to imply, but it’s probably safe to say that it went both ways! My friend Alice Persons found it especially amusing.
Why Does It Happen?
I’m fascinated by the thinking of people on this topic. Why did that person–and sometimes it seems most of society–assume cyclists belong at the edge of the road? Why will strangers presume that it’s OK to get in your face and yell at you? While I’m not a sociologist, I have some theories:
Culture of Speed. Every car commercial romanticizes the ideal of driving fast on the open road, unimpeded by other traffic.
We live in a do-it-now world. We don’t like to be delayed. Cyclists are guilty of this, too, when they ride up on the right of a half-dozen cars waiting at a red light to get to the front.
Lack of understanding. Most motorists don’t bike in traffic. They don’t understand the consequences of riding on the edge: The close passing, insufficient buffer space, inconsistent available width, debris hazards, and lack of vantage around corners.
What most people do know is that there’s some law about bicycles needing to be “as far right as possible.” Actually, that’s NOT the law anywhere in America. But people confronting you on the road are not in the mood to quibble.
Unfortunately, not one person in 100 knows anything about the many exceptions such laws always have. No state’s traffic laws obligate you to endanger yourself for the convenience of another.
Purpose of roads. Most people believe “roads are for cars.” Most motorists remain oblivious to the fact that they are beneficiaries of both the Good Roads Movement and a concerted effort in the early 20th Century to redefine streets as places for cars rather than people. This effectively transferred the safety burden from drivers of fast, deadly vehicles onto people who were “foolish enough” to venture onto the street without the protection of a car.
It has become “common sense” that “bikes and cars don’t mix” and that roads are intended only for cars, and pedestrians and bicyclists just need to be careful and stay out of the way in order to be safe.
Purpose of bikes. When autos became ubiquitous in the 20th century, bikes were relegated to toy status. Still, adults continue to rediscover biking for fitness and recreation, and to a lesser extent for transportation. Unfortunately, our land use patterns and economy are still not well suited to bicycle transportation outside of urban centers. The bicycle is still largely seen by non-cyclists as recreation.
Bicycling for transportation is often seen as an undesirable last resort, unless you’re an enthusiast who does it by choice, in which case it’s still just a “hobby.” Not that that has any legal bearing on your right to use the road.
So with all that cultural conditioning, a motorist (who is “delayed” by a bicyclist in the middle of the travel lane when there’s a “perfectly good” three-foot paved shoulder) wonders why:
Why should I have to change lanes when they could just move over?
Don’t they have somewhere else to ride than on this dangerous road at rush hour?
Isn’t it illegal to hold up traffic like this?
They’re going to get hit!
And besides, how rude!
Keeping Your Cool
This can be hard at first. While the techniques we teach in CyclingSavvy work great for minimizing road conflict, there will always be motorists whose lack of understanding makes them want to “driversplain” to you that you’re doing it all wrong, or even what a terrible and selfish person you are.
Ever notice how dogs bark when you walk by their yards? “Stay out of my territory!” When motorists honk at you just because you’re on the road, it’s the same thing. CyclingSavvy co-founder Keri Caffrey coined the term “territorial honking” to describe motorists who want to Make Sure You Know Just How Unhappy They Are that you’re in “their” space. It can be frustrating, especially when you’re pretty sure you know more about bicycling in traffic than they do, especially after taking CyclingSavvy.
I’ve made good progress since I started biking to work 15 years ago. I manage to keep my cool most of the time, as long I’m not actually endangered by someone’s action, especially intentionally.
I can count the number of times I’ve given the one-finger salute in the last half dozen years on, well, one finger. But even that’s too much. The ideal response is not to respond, unless you’re asked an honest question.
As you may have noticed from my story, I’ve yet to achieve that blissful state of savvy nirvana. But I have managed to habituate myself to responding most of the time with a friendly “Hi!” and full hand wave, which maybe disarms them.
It can be tempting to think that you can educate them. Don’t bother. That’s not what they want. They’re mostly sounding off because they had to slow down. It’s not socially acceptable to honk at other motorists, even when one motorist has to slow down for normal actions of others, such as waiting to turn left. Those situations are considered normal, in a way that a bicycle in the road is not, for all the reasons I listed above. And to some people, not being normal is apparently the greatest offense of all.
Whatever you do, don’t escalate. This will not make it better, and could very well make it worse.
What if you are stopped by police? Pull over, and respectfully discuss the situation. Know the law and be able to talk briefly about it. You probably know a lot more than the cop about bicycling, but don’t lecture. As lawyers say, the side of the road is not the place to litigate your case.
Retired police officer Kirby Beck gives solid advice in this video. He describes how to report an incident–and you should, if you were endangered–and how to respond to an officer if you’re pulled over. Bike lawyer Bob Mionske offers cautionary advice in How to Handle a Traffic Ticket.
CyclingSavvy will make your cycling easier and less stressful. But unfortunately, you will occasionally encounter jerks, or at least misinformed individuals with strong opinions.
On the rare occasions someone is rude, I always remember how I typically have no problems at all on the road. I hope that’s true for you, too. Enjoy the ride!