The Online Voice of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington

Thursday, August 18, 2011

What's a cyclist to do?

Help me out, fellow cyclist.  I'm feeling like an unloved step-child these days.  In a span of about ten days, an angry motorist hurled obscenities at me and told me to get off the street (a familiar but by no means an everyday occurrence), a motorcyclist reacted in similar fashion (a first) and a belligerent pedestrian demanded that I remove myself from a trail (another first).

I am not a rude, scofflaw bicyclist.  I stop at red lights and stop signs.  I do something many motorists fail to do--I signal my intention to turn and change lanes.  I take the lane when I need to and, when appropriate, I move to the right so as not to impede other traffic. 

In spite of my reasonable behavior, I occasionally get yelled at by a motorist.  So I wasn't  too phased last week when an oncoming motorist rolled down his window and yelled,  "F#$%!@ cyclist!  Get off the street!"  I gave him my usual response.  I smiled and waved.  

I repeated this reaction a few days later when a motorcyclist yelled at me as he buzzed by.  I have never had an encounter like this with a motorcyclist and was puzzled by his behavior.  In fact, I usually feel a kinship with motorcyclists on the road.  We can wave as we pass and converse at traffic lights.

I also consider myself to be a courteous trail user.  I don't buzz by other trail users at breakneck speed. I either ring my bell or call out to warn others of my approach.  And, if a trail is overcrowded with people on foot, I move to the road or dismount and join them as a pedestrian.

But I was totally taken aback a couple of evenings ago when an oncoming pedestrian deliberately stepped into my path and told me to get off the trail.  I stopped within inches of him, stared back in silence and didn't move.  "Bikes belong in the street," he growled at me before moving on.  Oh yeah, I thought to myself.  Tell that to an impatient motorist.

Am I paranoid or is there an increase in hostility toward bicyclists?  There's always going to be an angry motorist.  I'm more troubled by this recent show of anger from other road users.  Maybe the motorcyclist was having a bad hair day (do they get helmet hair too?).  Maybe the pedestrian had just experienced a close call with another cyclist.  Maybe the planets are out of alignment.

I'm not accustomed to getting berated for riding my bike by so many in a short period of time when I'm not doing anything wrong.  I don't like to respond to anger with more anger.

So what is a cyclist to do?


  1. I've noticed a real uptick in anti-cyclist behavior too. Drivers are passing closer and more impatiently and I've even endured an anti McGinn rant from one driver while riding up Mercer (west side two way section) who referred to "Mayor McSchwinn" so I guess he reads Joni Balter.

    I would hazard a guess that each of the yellers you encountered are middle aged white males? That certainly happened to me and also happened while riding with my kids through the Leschi tunnel with 1000 pedestrians after the Blue Angels. There were a number of cyclists yelling at the pedestrians to get out of the way or yelling "on your left" a completely useless signal when dealing with pedestrians and especially kids.

    No doubt the guy who challenged you on the path was tired of hearing the constant barrage from cyclists as they pass and feeling victimized because of his new-found vulnerability. He suddenly saw a woman and decided he could assert himself.

    Anyway, what I noticed was that each of the yelling, fast cyclists were middle aged white males. With perhaps one exception, all of the hecklers I've encountered have also been middle aged white males.

    How do we show these people that they are not under threat from cyclists and certainly not from pedestrians?

  2. I think that this pattern is fundamentally connected to the underlying frustration of a society which is moving away from any notion of a common good towards a more visceral cutthroat environment which is entirely consistent with the wealth distribution of a third world country. The right wing radicals are getting way too much attention and traction in the political and economic world, with many ripple effects, such as the behaviors depicted above.

  3. I feel your pain. But I came to the realization Wednesday morning, when a truck angrily waved me past him (he apparently thought my hesitation to make sure he saw me, was impeding on his morning schedule), that it's okay if they're mad and yelling at me because at least they SEE ME. Of course this doesn't excuse their behavior and I'm not sure why there is such a hatred for us.

    I've always ridden cautiously and like you, follow the traffic laws. But I used to ride a bit cocky too--assuming everyone saw me in my screaming yellow jacket and flashing lights, assuming everyone KNEW I had the same rights as a motorized vehicle. That was, at least, until someone failed to yield to me in an intersection and hit me. Since then I ride with no grand illusions that people can see me--despite all the gear to make myself visible. I wait...I linger...and if I invoke a few f-bombs or angering waves I'm okay with that because at least they're paying enough attention to their surroundings to see me.

    I'm not sure how we reduce the threat they seem to feel. Perhaps it's education campaigning? Perhaps their anger is born from a lack of understanding about where we as cyclists fit in. While waiting for the light to turn green at an intersection, so I could go straight thru, a car approached from the opposite direction and was turning left. The light turned green, I hesitated, he waited, and I went thru. As I passed him, he said in a tone that conveyed he had just done me a favor, "I had the right-a-way, you know." What?!? There is no scenario ever that he would have had the right-a-way. How does he not understand that? Would he have done me that 'favor' if I was in a car? Or how about if I were a pedestrian? No-I would like to think that given those options, he'd know that by law, he was to yield. So why is a bike different? I think it's an educational gap. An unfortunate education gap that we as cyclists get to absorb. At least for now.

  4. No, you're not imagining it, Louise. I don't know what we're supposed to do about this uptick in anti-cyclist behavior; maybe some sort of campaign to humanize us? I wonder sometimes if we lose our humanity to others when we put on our helmets and it becomes harder to see our faces. It doesn't help that we're often perceived as being sanctimonious, either, whether or not we actually are.

    I moved from Seattle to Spokane four years ago and noticed that drivers out here are way, way more courteous than drivers in Seattle. Part of that is probably due to Spokane being less densely populated, but I honestly think another part of it might be that there has been fewer cycling awareness campaigns out here. I have found myself wondering if those campaigns backfired and polarized road users.

    So I've been thinking that maybe we need to put up billboards with pictures of people who have either died or been injured in bike/car collisions, along with their names and the people they left behind. With permission, of course, from their families. Maybe if motorists started seeing us as people again they might back off. I don't think "We are traffic" got the message across.

  5. Typically my hecklers have been young and middle aged white males. I think in general there is less civility and folks are more inclined to exhibit this behavior when they are encased in their vehicles. Cyclists become an easy target for frustrated and angry drivers.

  6. I just had an interesting interaction with a motorist. He asked me why I was in the middle of the street at an intersection (meaning I was not in the right-turning lane). As I explained that we can act as vehicles, he warned me that I was going to get run over by stupid drivers. That's when I was at least able to get a smile out of him, making him realize he'd just called himself stupid.

    So his anger and warning was probably attached to a fear that he himself would accidentally (or not) run me over. Other drivers may be fearing that their road is being taken away from them and handed to cyclists.

    Unfortunately, now I am the one who is fearful, as the more I expose myself to drivers like him, the greater risk I take.

  7. I attribute the uptick in incivility toward cyclists to: 1. General rising stress level in society (unemployment, lack of health care, overpopulation, lying sacks of feces politicians, or you fill in the blank ____________). 2. Cyclists are seen as weak, vulnerable, and we can hear them shouting (other motorists can not). 3. Increasing numbers of inexperienced or thoughtless cyclists who misbehave while on their bikes (somehow representing all cyclists).

    What can we do? Get more butts on bikes so that every family has a cyclist they can relate to. That will bring out more inexperienced cyclists but then we can educate them once we have converted them.

  8. There are insane people everywhere. You just got lucky and ran into two within a short time period. Oh well.

  9. If you haven't read it, get a copy of "Effective Cycling" and read the chapters on Urban riding. It will help you ride in the city and in traffic.

  10. I just had a really similar experience. And in the past I have been confronted by a large male jogger stepping in front of me on the trail and yelling at me, he scared me! I thought he was going to beat me up. I am a not large female and it felt awful. But today this is what happened:

    I was riding SLOWLY on the sidewalk on 34th, near Stone Way. I came upon 2 pedestrians. I rang my bell and said "Passing on your left" twice. They did not move. So I stayed behind them until it was safe to pass in an open area on the right, but went slowly and rang the bell again. The woman said something rude about how I should not be riding on the sidewalk. I stopped my bike to inform her that actually it is the law in Seattle that bikers can ride on the sidewalk as long as the are slow and use a bell or voice to pass. She told me she was a lawyer and did not think that was correct, I informed her that indeed it was and started to ride away. The she started yelling at me and called me a "FATTY"! Which I am not. Not skinny, but I have a normal BMI. Anyway, I was so surprised that I stopped again and started tell her (angrily) at this point that she had no right to talk to people that way. She said a whole lot of nasty things after that, I wasn't listening at that point. I have never been spoken to so rudely by anyone, much less a stranger.

    So if you know this woman, she looked in her 50s, with a sour face and a bad disposition that talks about this incident, please refer her to:

    Section 11.44.120 RIDING ON A SIDEWALK OR PUBLIC PATH. Every person operating a bicycle upon any sidewalk or public path shall operate the same in a careful and prudent manner and a rate of speed no greater than is reasonable and proper under the conditions existing at the point of operation, taking into account the amount and character of pedestrian traffic, grade and width of sidewalk or public path, and condition of surface, and shall obey all traffic control devices. Every person operating a bicycle upon a sidewalk or public path shall yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian thereon, and shall give an audible signal before overtaking and passing any pedestrian.

  11. In retrospect, I wish I had not stopped to talk to her at all. Or, if I had stopped, after she insulted me I wish I had the presence of mind to take her picture and say "See you on the internet". Would that make someone think twice before being rude to strangers?