If you ride near pedestrians, you may be doing the rest of us a disservice.
By Bob Mionske
I was returning from a ride, but one of my main routes home was closed for bridge repairs, so I had to use another bridge to cross the river (with eleven bridges connecting the city across the Willamette River, there’s a good reason Portland is nicknamed “Bridgetown”). The alternate route I chose was a bridge with a multi-use path that is wide enough for about three or four pedestrians standing side by side. It was noon, and there were people walking, jogging, and pushing strollers. And of course, cyclists were present.
I was passed by a cyclist, and fell in behind him. As we approached someone walking in the same direction in which we were traveling, I slowed to pass, but the cyclist in front of me just kept his speed. When he was about 10 feet behind the pedestrian, he moved over to the left just enough to avoid hitting the pedestrian from behind. Then he careened back to the right just in time to avoid riding head-on into a jogger. I waited until it was safe to pass, and then proceeded with caution past the pedestrian at about 8 mph. Coming from the opposite direction, I saw another biker doing better than 15 mph. He overtook a pedestrian by swerving over into our half of the walkway, causing me to brake hard to avoid a collision. This behavior was repeated by other cyclists for the duration of my ride across the bridge, and it got me thinking about how we cyclists treat other traffic.
When we’re on the road, we are the underdogs, and I applaud cyclists who stand up for themselves when their rights are being violated. But if some of us are standing up for our rights while simultaneously violating the rights of others around us, that’s hypocritical, and makes for terrible public relations with the majority of the public that doesn’t ride. Further, demanding courtesy and respect from a non-cycling public while not respecting those people will only make it that much harder for us to achieve gains for cyclists.
Beyond this pragmatic perspective—that bad PR is bad for cycling, this isn’t just about PR. At it’s core, this is about common courtesy and respect for the rights of other people.
Ironically, I think that some of the behavior we are seeing is generated by “sunshine cyclists.” These are the people who only ride in the fair weather of the summer months; most of the year, they are in their cars. Now, I think it’s great that people are riding, even if it’s only for a few months out of the year, and even if it’s only because everybody else is doing it. And I think there may be a lot of different reasons why some cyclists seem to ride so discourteously. Some may just be utterly clueless about riding, beyond the basics of keeping the bike upright; some may believe the hype that that’s how cyclists ride; and some may just be self-centered people who ride the same way they drive—with utter disregard for anybody but themselves.
Regardless of which type of cyclist the fair-weather rider is, they are all less invested in relationships between cyclists and others, and therefore, in the affects of their behavior. Fair-weather riders especially seem to have no regard for pedestrians or motorists as they blithely weave around motorists, pedestrians, and other cyclists—and the brunt of any ill-will created by these riders will be borne by year-round cyclists. A pedestrian on a multi-use path doesn’t see somebody who just got on a bike for the first time in 10 years, and is just plain clueless about how to ride around others; all the pedestrian sees is a “cyclist.” And the same thing is true of the “cyclist” who drives most of the year, and thinks that riding without regard for the rules or for common courtesy is part of “the freedom” of being a cyclist. And what about the bully who pushes people around regardless of whether he’s driving or riding? All the pedestrian sees is a “cyclist.”
Of course, not every discourteous cyclist is a fair-weather cyclist. Some year-round cyclists really do believe that their “freedom” means they have rights without corresponding responsibilities to others. And some percentage of people are just inconsiderate, regardless of their chosen mode of getting around; you’ll find them driving, you’ll find them walking, and yes, you’ll find them riding a bike. In my experience, there are fairly few cyclists who are this callous, but again, the impression they create about “all cyclists” is lasting. And of course, because they don’t care about anybody but themselves, they also don’t care that they are creating lasting negative impressions that affect the rest of us.
This means that it’s up to the rest of us—the vast majority of cyclists—to set a better example. One place to begin is on the multi-use path. For cyclists who are used to riding on the road in traffic, the multi-use path can perhaps present a difficult mental transition. On the road, we are at the bottom of the “food chain.” However, once we are on a multi-use path (or “MUP”), we are suddenly the “top predator.”
And even though time spent on the MUP may only represent a brief portion of our ride, the impression about cyclists we are leaving is much greater, relative to our time spent on the MUP, because we interact so closely with pedestrians when we are on the MUP. And of course, these pedestrians are also in all likelihood motorists (and probably voters, too), which means that impressions we create on the MUP will continue to reverberate long after we’ve left the MUP.
It makes sense then, for us to make an effort to create a better environment for everyone (and in the process, improve our P.R.). We can do simple things, like taking care not to frighten or endanger pedestrians when we’re passing them. Besides not creating a lasting bad impression, riding courteously around pedestrians will mean that we are lessening the risk of collisions. And it also means that we are exercising the due care that the law requires of us. It’s a win-win, and it doesn’t cost us a thing.
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(Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J.D.)
This article, The Messages We Send, was originally published on Bicycling on August 18, 2010.