Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

Neil Davis: On your bike, you’re not a pedestrian.

In Guest Posts on September 16, 2010 at 10:38 pm

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Can’t we all just get along? Well sure, in theory…. it just hasn’t happened yet. Put two people in a shared space, and you’re likely to see some level of conflict. Add more people, divide into unequal subgroups, add a dash of power differential, and bingo – you have cars bikes and pedestrians driving one another crazy.

Felix Salmon recently wrote an interesting piece entitled “A unified theory of New York Biking” in which he describes his frustration with bicyclists’ not following the rules of the road (he is, by the way, a cyclist). Here is a summation of his perspective that he calls a “bicycle manifesto”:

“Bikes can and should behave much more like cars than pedestrians. They should ride on the road, not the sidewalk. They should stop at lights, and pedestrians should be able to trust them to do so. They should use lights at night. And — of course, duh — they should ride in the right direction on one-way streets. None of this is a question of being polite; it’s the law. But in stark contrast to motorists, nearly all of whom follow nearly all the rules, most cyclists seem to treat the rules of the road as strictly optional. They’re still in the human-powered mindset of pedestrians, who feel pretty much completely unconstrained by rules.”

“The result is decidedly suboptimal for all concerned, but mostly for the bicyclists themselves. New York needs to make a collective quantum leap, from treating bicyclists like pedestrians to treating bicyclists like motorists. And unless and until it does, bike relations will continue to be marked by hostility and mistrust.”

Well, I agree with that. But as you might suspect with someone egotistical enough to have a blog, I have a comment or two. As he says, bikes “should behave much more like cars than pedestrians”. True, true. But bicyclists will never succeed in being cars, and our rules of the road are designed for cars, not bikes. This works most, but not all of the time.

So we have three broad reasons why a bicyclist may at times not follow the rules; 1) they don’t know any better, 2) they enjoy flaunting the law ( watch a bike messenger) and 3) either the rules don’t make sense or inadequate infrastructure “made ‘em do it”.

Here in Mendocino, I don’t think we have to much in your face, “stop me if you can” bike nuttiness. Your perspective may differ.

Many more of our problems with traffic law breaking cyclists is a simple matter of education. When bicyclists ride on the sidewalk and/or the wrong side of the street, it is usually that they don’t know better. They’re doing what in their experience feels safest and most logical. If we had a “Mendocino Office of Bicycles” we’d have a mechanism to battle this with education.

Perhaps the more damaging problem, in terms of drivers being angered by cyclists behavior, is related to infrastructure and inappropriate traffic laws. One simple example, that I think most will understand, is the traffic light that doesn’t turn green for a bicyclist. As a bicyclist, you stop at the red light and wait your turn. And your turn doesn’t come because the weight sensor hasn’t been adjusted to “notice” you. So now you have a decision to make. Do you wait for a car to arrive and save you, shoot through the intersection as soon as there’s an opening, or awkwardly negotiate your way to the sidewalk ( where it’s illegal for you to ride) and press the pedestrian button. Now add that the law is ambiguous as to whether you can or cannot ride in a crosswalk – bicyclists have been ticketed, but apparently, cycling in a crosswalk is not addressed in the vehicle code. What’s a poor, health conscious, planet earth loving, economically practical, law abiding bicyclist to do? Sigh.

But really, the big thorn in the lion’s paw is this. I run stop signs every day! And I have no intention of stopping not stopping! So there. I said it.

Now understand, I don’t run all stop signs, just the ones where it is a waste of my time and energy to stop, while providing neither me nor my fellow road users with any safety or “flow of traffic” advantage. And in residential areas that’s a lot of our stop signs. The justification of this comment probably will require a post all of it’s own, so at this point, take it or leave it. We need to allow bicyclists to treat many of our residential “Stop” sings as “Yield” signs. Until we do that, bikers will be law breakers.

If we grant bicyclists this dispensation, then drivers will know what to expect from us, and inexperienced bicyclists won’t be lulled into a false sense of security ( as often does happen) and runs stop signs indiscriminately.

So with those few small exceptions and comments, I do support the bicyclists manifesto. We are traffic.
See also

  1. In support of your ideas and information: I was a bicyclist (no car) in Sacramento for fifteen years and in Berkeley/Oakland for eleven years before moving to Mendocino five years ago. Riding on the sidewalk is essential to staying alive in many parts of Sacramento and Berkeley and Oakland and has nothing to do with not knowing better. To bicycle in the street on many routes in most cities, no matter which side you ride on, is to invite injury or death. Making most of the corner curbs handicapped accessible has been a great boon to bicyclists and skateboarders. Interestingly, as bicycle infrastructure (bike lanes on main thoroughfares) catches up to demand in Berkeley, turning off of these bike-friendly main routes onto a smaller residential street where there is essentially only one lane between the lines of parked cars is now more treacherous than ever; and once again sidewalks are the only sane (for me) recourse. Just as you currently don’t stop at stop signs when you feel it is unnecessary to stop, so do many bicyclists use sidewalks when they know it would be crazy to do otherwise.

  2. The vehichle code specifically states that bicycles must follow the rules of the road. One notable exception is that where a lane (e.g., on a bridge) is too narrow for a motorized vehicle and a bicycle to be in the lane simultaneously, the bicycle may “take the land,” meaning that the bicyclist may ride in the middle of the lane to protect against being squeezed. As soon as there is a place to turn out the bicyclist must yield to the car.

  3. I can think of many narrow lanes on which had I, the bicyclist, followed the law and “taken the land” I would have been roadkill. That is to say, laws work if people know the laws, respect them, and obey them. Having used a bicycle as my primary means of transportation for forty years, I can assure you that most motorists don’t know the laws pertaining to bicycles in the traffic mix. Furthermore, a large percentage of car drivers are frequently unaware of the presence of bicyclists and will hit them whether they, the bicyclists, are obeying the laws or not. Thus it behooves bicyclists to always ride hyper-defensively, obey the laws when they can without risking their lives, and to ignore the laws when it is necessary to do so to live for another day.

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