commentary: a cyclist as victim and aggressor

photo: velojoy

I had two jarring experiences this week that reminded me of the complex calculus of sharing the road, and of the importance – for cyclists, pedestrians and motorists — of observing both the rules of the road and of common courtesy. In one circumstance, I was the victim. In another, I caused another person to feel like a victim.

The first instance was a run-in with what the bicycling community refers to in the most discrete terms as a “hater,” a man or woman who cannot abide cyclists, for whatever reasons. Here’s what happened: As a friend and I were on a weekend ride on a two-lane, shoulderless road on Long Island, in single file as required by local law, a man in an SUV paralleled us. As he leaned across the empty passenger seat, he swerved toward us and screamed out the open window: Get off the damn road! 

My friend and I steered into the grass, avoiding the potential for traffic violence. But we felt like victims none the less, because the motorist had denied us safe usage of a public thoroughfare to which we have a right equal to his own. And away he went; in the shaky aftermath, we didn’t have the presence of mind to register his tag number.

The second experience was with a pedestrian in Manhattan at an intersection in the 20s along the Second Avenue bike lane. She was a slight woman, slowly pushing a wheeled shopping basket in the crosswalk with the traffic signal in her favor. As I approached from the north, with every intention of stopping at the red light, the woman looked in my direction and promptly froze in the roadway. The fear in her eyes was searing.

A Poignant Encounter

In the case of the SUV driver, it’s hard to imagine that I’ll ever be able to change that guy’s mind. Something about cyclists or cycling – a personal experience, a particular mindset about the type of person who rides a bicycle, unrelated stress  – informed his reckless impulses and rude comment. Still, if continuing to “model” lawful behavior on the road might tamp down even one scintilla of the senseless rage that sometimes leads to accidents, then why wouldn’t I consider that worth the daily effort?

The encounter with the woman in the crosswalk was poignant. I felt instantly that I had posed a true threat to her. And yet, I understand that it wasn’t personal. Her fear is rooted in the idea that some cyclists don’t stop when the light is red and pedestrians are in the crosswalks. It’s amplified by reports on the news of elderly citizens being hit by cyclists riding the wrong way on one-way streets.

Statistics Don’t Matter in the Moment

In the moment when she became conscious of my approach, she wasn’t taking comfort in NYC Department of Transportation statistics showing that bicycle lanes like the one I was riding in have improved street safety for both pedestrians and cyclists. That woman should have confidence that an approaching cyclist will yield. It’s my responsibility to represent to her that cyclists respect her right to feel safe in the streets.

At the same time, I should feel assured that pedestrians won’t wander randomly into the bike lanes or jaywalk when the light is in my favor, and that motorists won’t yell wantonly at me or become distracted by texting while driving, as these are some of the choices that endanger my safety on a bicycle.

These two incidents were lose-lose propositions for everybody involved. Still, they inspire resolve to “bike polite”– to engage in courteous and lawful behavior by yielding to pedestrians, staying off sidewalks and riding in the direction of traffic — and to hope that this will encourage the same in others who share the road, regardless of what piece of pavement they rightfully occupy.

photo: velojoy

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  • I think you could change his mind but you might not admire the change either. People who act like this do so because they are societal lapdogs; barking at anyone that seems to threaten their limited domain. As soon as someone he knows tells him that his behaviour is rude, ignorant and illogical(you have a right to the road) he will stop acting this way. After all, he drives an SUV because he is following some sort of social cue that tells him it’s cool to do so. As soon as these social cues suggest that getting on a bike is cool, then he will go out buy the best bike he can start yelling at people in SUVs to give him space.

    • Steven, that’s an interesting perspective. Following that line of reasoning, I can only hope that the guy who almost ran us off the road will be introduced to some cycling “religion” by friends. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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