Jun 3, 2011

Car vs. bike

This all started with a link being sent out to the Mission Cycling list. If you bother to read the comments, which I wouldn’t advise unless you have nerves of steel like yours truly (in fact, as a general rule, I’d advise not reading any comments anywhere), you’ll find some of my responses to the ignorant masses that have posted there. But that got me thinking about the whole controversy and I figured I have so much to say about it that I may as well blog it. So here goes.

If you’ve been reading with any regularity, you know I come here from the Midwest, where my cycling hobby began. Riding in suburban Chicago, I’ve become quite well acquainted with honks, yells, barking dogs, things being thrown out of cars, cars getting in front of riders and slamming on their brakes, suburbs passing unconstitutional (I won’t get into why they were unconstitutional) “no biking on the road” laws and many more examples of such cycling ignorance.

Contrast the above with the Bay Area. There is a huge, wonderful cycling community and culture here that I just fell in love with the moment I moved here. There is better infrastructure for cycling, motorists seem to be more used to cyclists and I have not experience any over aggression on the road. It absolutely exists, as the article I linked to shows, but much less so and I personally haven’t encountered it. The worst things that happen to me are drivers who decide the need to floor the gas pedal as they pass me, probably to compensate for too much room in the cranium or boxer shorts, or both.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the aggression doesn’t exist. I think it is more subdued here, but also more widespread. Midwest has fewer bikers, and fewer angry folks who, because they are in a majority, feel they can be overtly aggressive. Bay Area has huge numbers of cyclists and even more pissed off motorists, who keep quiet because they aren’t quite sure if they are in the majority or not. At least that’s the way it seems. Below are some of my observations on our coexistence as a cyclist and as a motorists.

First: critical mass. This is a nuisance of the highest degree that doesn’t do anyone any service. In cities like Chicago, it might show people that there are a lot of bikers on the roads. What does it accomplish in San Francisco? People already know there are a ton of bikers. The fact that they decide that one Friday of the month is the day they can do whatever they want and ride in any manner they want is an absurdity. I’m all for organized riding, but the name itself implies there is nothing organized about it. Some would say that even without critical mass drivers would get pissed off. Maybe that’s the case, but from my personal observations, many on these critical mass rides actually enjoy pissing drivers off, and I don’t agree with that.

Second: notorious traffic violators. Have I run a red light? Yes. Have I run a stop sign? Yes. Do I run every red light and every stop sign? Absolutely not, I want to live. There are some traffic lights that simply won’t change until a car pulls up, so what are bikers supposed to do? And some T-stop stop signs are safe to roll, provided you slow down and look out for traffic – I always slow down and look for traffic and if I see someone coming, or a pedestrian walking, I’ll make sure to stop. There are those bikers, however, who notoriously run red lights, run stop signs and do things that are plain and simple dangerous. They make the drivers nervous and angry and give all cyclists a bad rep. One example I remember very well was when I was still in Chicago, driving on a very narrow part of Fullerton in Lincoln Park and I saw a rider coming up behind me. I made sure to be as much to the left as I could to give him as much room as possible to pass and be safe. And what did he do? He passed my car and proceeded to roll through a 6-way intersection on a red light. I thought to myself, “why did I even try, the guy will kill himself at some point anyway.” So don’t be that guy, it pisses cyclists like I off because then I have to explain to motorists that I’m not that big of an ass.

Third: bad drivers. I’ve driven in many, many places around this country and Bay Area drivers are horrible. Not in the sense of bad people, but in the sense that their driving skills are so far below average, I’m shocked more people don’t get killed in car accidents here. No one signals for anything. Everyone drives below the speed limit as if they are stoned, even on 280 sometimes and in the left lane. It takes forever to get anyone moving when a green light goes on. People are apparently oblivious to the fact that their car is better visible with the lights on when it’s raining out. And holy cow do people not know how to drive in the rain. I think that before drivers start obsessing about how much they are pissed off at bikers, they need to assess their own driving skills because when I’m behind the wheel of a car, it’s the other drivers that piss me off the most, never the bikers. And lastly on drivers, I bet less than 10 percent know that when they are passing a cyclist they must do so with at least three feet of clearance – that’s the law! they should know that the safest way to pass a cyclist is to give them some room. Many states have adopted the 3-feet law, but to my surprise (hence the strike through), California is not one of them. However, it has been proposed in February of this year, so it may still happen here, at some point.

I don’t really know what it will take to end the debate of who owns the road, but few facts are clear. The roads were paved because governments were lobbied by cycling groups in the late 19th century and the first traffic laws ever adopted (in Iowa I believe) were directed at cyclists. All of this was going one before the infamous Model T was ever in production. California laws, as in many other states, afford cyclists the same rights as drivers, but impart on us the same responsibilities. It may just be that once we as a cycling community become a bit more self-policing and start taking those responsibilities more seriously, we’ll stop looking like the ultimate violators to those behind the wheel. At the same time, drivers need to calm down and understand that at the end of the day, the more cyclists there are on the road, the better off they are: more parking spaces, less congestion, less pollution and shorter (if at all) lines at the pump. It’s kind of sad of how it works these days: when a driver hits a cyclist, THE driver is bad; when a cyclist violates some traffic rule, ALL cyclists are bad.

I guess of it all, it’s the ignorance of most motorists that bothers me the most, their eagerness to lump us all in one indiscriminate group of notoriously reckless human beings. I doubt many of them see us as athletes. Perhaps an outreach program educating non-cyclists about the biking culture could ease the tension and cure some of the ignorance.

The bike was here long before the automobile became widespread, and if modern innovation continues, it will be here long after the last vehicle has been junked. 


  1. You forgot about the part where cyclists get ticketed for rolling stop signs but cars get a free pass there :) I guess it is more effective to hand out several tickets at once to a group of cyclists from a revenue standpoint.