Monday, September 25, 2006

Things a non-cyclist might not understand

Part I: An open letter to motorists who dislike cyclists.

I ride my bike year-round as my main means of transportation. My bike is not a toy. I don't aspire to be Lance Armstrong. I'm not too poor to afford a car. I choose a bicycle because its healthier for me, and healthier for the city I live in. I'm not riding in the middle of the lane to slow you down or thwart you. I'm just trying to do the same thing as you - get from point A to point B safely.

I ride in the middle of the lane if the lane is too narrow to share safely. This is actually a courtesy to you, because you don't have to guess how wide your vehicle is versus how much space is available, and decide if you have to change lanes or not. If the lane next to you is wide open, it really isn't necessary to blast your horn or yell things out your window. Maybe you think there's room for me to be riding in the gutter, but I really have a better view of the pavement there than you do. There's debris there that will flatten my tires, and potholes that can break my bones. If I need to swerve to avoid some garbage someone threw out their car window, I need room to maneouver. Its not going to make either of our days if we collide.

While we are on the subject of yelling things out the window, your vehicle is loud. Unless we are both stopped at a traffic light, it is unlikely I can make out the words you are saying. Maybe its better to focus your attention on not hitting things that are front of you rather than letting me know "(mumble mumble)'ll get hit". I also know where the bike paths are, I have a map. But where I'm going is not on the path. Thank you though to the driver that stopped to let me know my headlight made a big difference. It was nice to know it was appreciated.

I put on lights at night so you can see me. I ride in a predictable line so I don't surprise you by my presence. I don't weave between parked cars so I don't startle you when I emerge from behind one. I'm sorry I didn't move over so you could use the three car-length gap between parked cars as your personal passing lane. In an ideal world I would ride far enough away from your car door that it wouldn't matter if you flung it open when I least expected it. But the downtown streets are very congested and there's not a lot of space available. So please look before you open your door. I try to make it easier for you by ringing my bell if I see you parking so you know I'm there. In limited space world, cyclists are often using the rest of a parking lane. Please try to park as close to the curb as you can.

You may think riding a bicycle in a downpour or a snowstorm is crazy. Its actually quite pleasant if you're dressed for it. But I don't expect you to "get it". I only expect you to remember that there's still a human being riding a bicycle out there. Flooring it through puddles to make the biggest splash possible is not funny. Passing too close is never a good idea, but in a snowstorm when the roads are slippery, please leave as much space as you can.

While I may appear to be a very competent cyclist, and you may fancy yourself a very competent driver, its still a good idea to leave at least 3 feet when passing me. While you may not actually brush me when you pass too close, it is still frightening to have 2000 pounds of steel a few inches from your shoulder.

Some roads have bicycle lanes painted on them. In an ideal world cyclists and motorists should be able to share the roadway without special lines. But after being honked at one too many times for taking a narrow lane, or buzzed too close by attempting to share one, bike lanes become a place of refuge. Please try to have some respect for this refuge by finding a different spot to park your car when you want to run into Starbucks, and definitely do not think of this space as the way to get around a left-turning vehicle.

Remember that the bike lane is there when you want to turn right, and that there might be a cyclist in it. The lanes are dotted near intersections for a reason, you should merge into this lane when you want to turn right. Note that merge does not mean cut off. You aren't doing me a favour by waiting to turn right while leaving the bike lane open. I will never pass you on the right when you are signalling right, as I have no idea if you see me or not. If you merge, I have room to pass you on the left in your lane of traffic to go straight while you wait for pedestrians crossing etc. If you don't merge, there's no room for me to go around easily.

Remember those hand turn signals from the drivers education handbook? I try to use them as much as possible to let you know what I'm going to do. While it might seem redundant to signal a stop when approaching a four-way stop, I know that not all people on bicycles stop. The signal is a courtesy to you, so you know that you can proceed because I will stop. Sometimes I need my hands on my bike but you should be able to infer from my lane position what I am going to do. If I am in the left lane of the road it means I am going to turn left. I'm not there to enjoy the scenery. If you want to turn left as well, this means you should wait behind me. Trying to turn left from the right side of the roadway is only going to put us both in conflict.

I try to make my best guesses what you might do next from your lane position. You can help take out the guesswork. While it may seem that the turn signal has gone out of fashion, I really do appreciate when you use it in advance. This lets me move as best as possible so we don't have any conflict.

The world will not end if you cannot make a right turn on a red light. If there was a car in front of you, would you honk because you wanted to make a right turn? Because I am small enough to move over to let you do so does not always mean it is safe to do so. If it is safe, and I see you signalling right in my rearview mirror, I will move over and let you go by. Please do not try to squeeze between me in the middle of the lane and the car in the next lane when there clearly is not enough space. Repeatedly leaning on the horn will only get on both of our nerves.

I can move faster than you think. While you may think a bicycle is too slow to be practical for transportation - in downtown Toronto most of the time, including the time spent to park, I will beat you to your destination. While you were so anxious to pass me, perhaps you didn't notice that I have caught up with you again at the next red light. It isn't a race from red light to red light, so if you need to slow down for a few seconds it isn't the end of the world. Think how much more I would slow you down if I was a full-width car trying to make a left turn onto a side street in busy traffic. If you cannot judge how fast I am moving please err on the side of caution when turning left in front of me, or pulling out of your parking spot. But if in your rearview mirror, you see me waving in the direction you want to move it means I see you and you have time to go.

I appreciate your kind attempts to let me have the right-of-way when it is not mine. Being on a bicycle its hard losing your momentum again and again at every stop sign. But most of the time its easier if you just go. If you stop to let me cross mid block the car behind you might get surprised and rear-end you.

I'm sorry if I break the occasional traffic law, which were designed with the dangers inherent in the automobile in mind. I may slow down and scan the intersection rather than come to a complete stop at a four-way stop, because its really hard on me to constantly lose my momentum. I know this is not legal, but its quite safe at bicycle speed. Just as its not legal for you to be going over the speed limit but I doubt you always are obeying it. Please try not to get angry at me about this when I not disrespecting anyone else's right-of-way at the same time. If you are at the cross street, I will stop. Recognize though that I am human and make mistakes. I may have missed the sign that says "caution northbound traffic does not stop" when proceeding at what I thought was a stop sign for both of us. If we both try to be aware of what each other is doing and compensate for it, then mistakes on either of our part do not have to become crashes. Its much more likely I made a mistake if you see me doing something "dangerous" as opposed to having a death wish.

If you haven't noticed already, there are a whole lot of people riding their bicycles around downtown Toronto. All kinds of people find the bicycle useful. Just as there are drivers deficient in common sense, there are people riding bikes without common sense as well. I don't happen to know the Joe schmoe who you saw riding a bike down the center of a busy one-way arterial in the wrong direction snarling traffic. Please do not assume I'm going to behave like Joe schmoe. Or take your anger at Joe out on me by honking or yelling at me from the other side of the road, where I cannot possibly be in your way. Also be glad Joe was not driving a car where he would be a real danger to everyone.

I am very aware of my surroundings when I am on a bicycle. I can hear when you are behind me by the sound of your engine. You don't need to toot to let me know you are there. I'm never sure whether you are trying to let me know you are there, trying to say hello to me, wanting me to move, or whether you are just angry.

I was going to say that in conclusion all I really want is for you to treat me with the same respect you would treat any other road user. But after noticing the frequency with which motorists hit each other, I would add an extra caveat. Please recognize that cyclists are more vulnerable road users. Before you wish them off the road, remember they are helping to ease traffic congestion. When in doubt as to who should go next, let the more vulnerable road user proceed. And keep in mind that leaving space always helps road safety, whether its an extra foot when passing a cyclist, or an extra few feet stopping behind the car in front of you. When we work cooperatively on the roads rather than a mad competition, we can all get where we are going just a little less stressfully.

Thanks. And thank you to the motorists that already get it. Thank you for waiting before opening your door. Thank you for leaving a safe amount of space when passing. Thank you for waiting patiently behind when it was not safe to pass. Thank you for signalling. Thank you for respecting the speed limit which makes the roads just a little bit saner to be travelling on. Thank you for noticing when I made a mistake and avoiding a collision. Thank you for slowing to let me in when I stuck out my arm because I wanted to move into the left turn lane. Thank you for not using your horn when it was not necessary. Thank you for all the little ways that you cooperate.
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