The right of way

Roads, sidewalks, bike paths. Most of us, at one point or another, have gotten caught up in how each is ‘supposed to be’ used. Drivers love to complain about other drivers, and about how ignorant cyclists are. Pedestrians like to yell at bikes AND cars. Cyclists like to yell at pedestrians to get off the bike paths, and so on. No matter what our mode of transportation, we love to tell others what is ‘right,’ and assume that others are wrong. When we are dealing with situations where our lives are at stake, it’s only natural to be confused and frustrated.

But I’ve noticed that many drivers will judge cyclists as a group: they will complain that cyclists don’t follow the rules, or that they don’t see the cars on the road. Meanwhile, drivers complain that our tax dollars are spent on bike lanes that are ‘barely used’. While pedestrians have the short end of the stick in some senses, they still get the sidewalks to themselves, where bicycles aren’t welcome either.

One weekend, while cycling, I almost collided with another cyclist. He popped over a hill and was going quite fast; I was turning left the wrong way around a roundabout. Was I in the wrong? Yes, I was, and I learned my lesson (but then, come on, doesn’t everyone bend the rules around roundabouts, at least on occasion?). He clipped my back wheel, I apologized to him. As him and his friend rode off, his friend asked him if HE was OK, with no concern at all for me.

One recent weekend, I heard a man verbally abuse a woman for riding her bike on the sidewalk. Is this illegal? Yes. Obnoxious? For sure on a crowded sidewalk, arguably on an empty sidewalk. Does that give him the right to yell at her and call her a ****? No. She was not actually hurting anyone at the time.

While cycling with a group this weekend, some pedestrians yelled at us for turning right without stopping ‘for’ them first. I suppose that was wrong, and I also suppose I was just blindly following the pack, which I maybe should not have been doing.

I believe that part of the reason incidences like this keep happening is because, in many areas, cyclists don’t have a space that is theirs (and as a result, everyone’s confusion is often expressed as anger). So, cyclists take political stands (a la Critical Mass), to raise awareness that we need to be accommodated better in urban environments. But when Critical Mass shuts down streets, it only makes drivers hate cyclists more. It makes cyclists – as a group – look like jerks.

The truth is that we are all (drivers, pedestrians, cyclists) in each others faces, so concerned with our own agenda, our own safety, that we don’t really have patience for each other, no matter what the context. This plus not really knowing what the rules are – or not having the right rules in place in the first place – is just a bad combination.

This well-watched Youtube video examines one fellows’ experiences of feeling displaced on the road AND the sidewalk (worth a watch).

The main problem is that cities were built for roads and cars. There is no getting around it (or often, them), and so, by default, cars have the power and the right of way.  As Dr. Suzuki implies here, car culture is so deeply ingrained in us that we don’t even recognize or appreciate the huge responsibility that comes with it’s privileges. Many people (believe that they) don’t have a choice in having a car, ergo it is just (an expensive) part of your regular life, something that is fun to bitch about, really. Drivers complain daily about other drivers regularly: in many offices, discussing the fact that you got cut off during morning rush hour is water-cooler conversation. Cars – and their drivers – generally have the most power and agency, because roads WERE made for them. Many drivers resist sharing the road with each other, let alone with two-wheeled, people-powered vehicles.

Despite the reasons and reactions behind it, most of us are ware how car-dependent our society is. But what we don’t realize is that many people while IN their cars ARE the ones in power as they are driving, and when the other vehicle is smaller, and physically less powerful, perhaps the road rage seems more…legitimate.   But all of us are guilty of road rage to some extent: we are all often so narrowly focussed on getting somewhere as fast as possible, we don’t stop to address situations as they are. We like to judge and blame others for getting in the way of our oh-so-important quest, or for possibly jeapordizing our oh-so-important safety because it’s more important than the other persons.

I urge cyclists in particular to be patient, because as our group grows we are still figuring out how to stay safe on the road in relation to cars, pedestrians and each other. In order for us to flourish and find our space, we need to practice MORE patience, to NOT be reactive, and to represent ourselves in the best light possible. We also need to look out for each other, despite making some mistakes. We all make mistakes in order to learn, and if we take it slow and remain cautious, these mistakes shouldn’t harm anyone.