Nearly four years of bike commuting have had a strange effect on me: I’ve become one of Those Cyclists. I have a chip on my shoulder so big it could feed a family of four.
This is strangely out-of-character for me. I’m not typically, in my day-to-day life, an aggressive person. If anything I have a tendency to be too polite, too nice, too sensitive. I usually apologize when someone bumps into me at the grocery store, as if it was my fault for being in their way. I’ve always been, in other words, the quiet type.
Yet, these days I routinely yell at drivers from my bike. I occasionally even, though I am not proud of this, resort to what is colloquially known as “the finger”.
I’ve joked that it’s inevitable, if you commute by bike for any length of time, to develop a certain attitude. You come to hate and mistrust cars. You start to wistfully think about what the world would be like if we could eliminate the private automobile entirely. You find yourself totting up the pros and cons of, say, moving to Amsterdam.
Talking with Dan about this, he said that it’s cynicism. “Is it cynicism, or realism?” I countered. I don’t think I’m being overly-negative, just… well, practical.
The sad truth is that almost every time I leave my house, I am nearly hurt by someone else’s negligence or impatience. It’s routine, so routine I hardly notice it anymore. Like street harassment, it just fades into the background.
So far, I haven’t had my first accident. (Notice that, at least among the cyclists I know, we tend to talk about this as if it’s inevitable and normal and will happen to everyone who rides for long enough.)
I know I’ve been lucky, but I also attribute this to my defensive cycling habits.
I don’t know if this is still a thing, but when I learned to drive there was a big emphasis on “defensive driving”. It’s a mindset where you assume that other people aren’t paying attention, aren’t going to see you, are going to do something unsafe and unpredictable at any moment.
I’m in that constant state of vigilance when riding; I have to be. I only wish I could say as much for the motorists I share the roads with.
I’ve been almost hit by cars running stop signs (or stopping momentarily but then continuing on, out of turn). I’ve been almost hit by cars changing lanes without looking or turning without signaling. I’ve been almost doored (that’s the word for when a driver opens their car door into the bike lane without checking for cyclists, and due to the physics involved it’s one of the most common ways cyclists get seriously injured).
So far, I’ve avoided getting hurt in part because I assume the worst of drivers. I assume they don’t see me. I assume they won’t stop at the stop sign. I expect them to behave selfishly, blindly, idiotically. I presume each and every one of them is texting, or high (I do live in Berkeley, after all), or otherwise distracted.
The interesting thing about “defensive driving” is that we so often use the word “defensive” pejoratively. “Don’t get defensive.” “What are you getting so defensive about?” “Wow, that really put you on the defensive.”
To be on the defensive means to be closed-off, angry, not listening, not willing to understand other perspectives. It means you’ve put up barriers in order to protect yourself.
So, I admit it: I’m defensive. I’m mistrustful. I crack jokes about how everyone in the metal boxes is trying to kill me. I stereotype car owners, even though I’m aware that it’s a profoundly ableist thing to do. I do think most cyclists develop this cynicism sooner or later; it’s a protective shell, and the consequences of not having it are too severe.
One too many near-misses. One too many news stories about negligent drivers who walk away with a slap on the wrist after killing a cyclist. One too many “thinkpieces” about how motorists are perfectly entitled to harass cyclists because cyclists break the law, too. One too many friends who got banged up or hospitalized or even worse. The little things (and sometimes a big thing or two) add up until you start to feel like you’re at war.
Is it fair? No, but it keeps me alive. There are certainly plenty of patient, attentive, law-abiding drivers out there, and if I don’t tend to notice them, it’s because they’ve done me the courtesy of not giving me a reason to.
(And no, I’m not going to talk about reckless cyclists. While they do exist, there’s just no parallel between the harm possible with a car versus a bike. Even the worst cyclists are, statistically, mostly a danger to themselves.)
So what can I do? I get angry. I get loud.
I have a series of set phrases that I deploy so often that I barely have to think about them. “That was a STOP SIGN!”, “Turn signals PLEASE!”, “This is a bike lane, not a parking lane!”. And the catch-all: “What are you DOING?!?”, best accompanied with an incredulous tone and an exasperated shake of the head.
I don’t enjoy the yelling. In fact, I almost always feel bad about it after the fact. In most situations, I try to give the benefit of the doubt as much as possible. I’m well aware that everyone has their own struggles, and that I may have just ruined someone’s day.
And yet. Every time I have to maneuver around someone parked in the bike lane, they’re putting me in danger. Every time I have to slam on my brakes when someone carelessly moves into my lane, they’re putting me in danger. People in cars get so angry about having to slow down for thirty seconds, as if their avoidance of a momentary inconvenience is worth the risk of hospitalizing another human being.
One reason I yell is because I am giving drivers the benefit of the doubt. I want to think that maybe they just don’t realize that their few seconds of inattentiveness could kill me. Maybe they just don’t know how to share the road with bikes. Maybe they just never learned they have to watch for cyclists the same way they watch for cars.
But I realized something else, and it’s important: I would rather be angry than afraid.
A common response when I mention that my bike is my primary form of transportation is, “But isn’t it dangerous?” Many people tell me they feel that riding in traffic is too stressful, that they want to do it but don’t feel safe.
I get that, I really do. When I first started riding, I felt incredibly vulnerable sharing the street with cars. Even today, I am sometimes not confident enough to take the lane, even though I know I have the right to. I have learned that on busy streets, if I do that without being able to keep up with traffic, I will get abuse from drivers.
(Which, by the way, is why I sometimes take the sidewalk. I do so cautiously, being very aware and respectful of pedestrians, who sometimes yell at me anyway. It’s not legal, here in Berkeley, but I would rather risk a fine than an injury… and so, if my efforts to find a calmer street or one with a bike lane have failed, I am one of those “scofflaw” cyclists, too.)
I’ve never really stopped thinking of myself as vulnerable. You can’t bike without being aware that you’re on thirty pounds of aluminum trying to defend your space against people encased in several-ton shells of glass and metal (not to mention moving much faster than you), and you’re well aware who’ll walk away from an accident, if it comes to it.
You never really get over that feeling, you just get used to it. It’s almost scary how quickly it becomes normal, just part of the status quo.
I decided early on that I am not willing to give into that fear. Cycling has so many benefits overall (health, finances, independence) and for those, I will take the risk. I choose to ride. I have as much right to the roads as anyone, and I refuse to be terrorized into ceding that space. I won’t be bullied off the road.
So I get angry. I yell. I assume that everyone in cars is actively trying to kill me.
Is it right? I don’t know. Maybe it would be better for my karma to practice forgiveness and empathy, but how can you turn the other cheek when there’s so much at stake?
Cynically, I suspect it probably doesn’t matter. Most drivers don’t even hear me; they’ve got their windows rolled up and their radios on, and their minds are on autopilot. Those who do often meet my anger with anger, and we’ve all heard the horror stories about road rage altercations that led to cyclists getting attacked and seriously injured or even killed.
But maybe one of them will think about it, the next time they’re running late and want to double-park in the bike lane. Maybe one of them will give a cyclist a bit more space, next time. Maybe they’ll learn patience. Maybe they’ll pay more attention.
If that happens, and it makes even one other cyclist safer, then it’s worth it.
We’re all products of our culture; just as my anger is the result of those hundreds of near-misses, drivers’ entitlement is inevitable, in a way, within a transportation infrastructure that’s built to prioritize automobiles.
And maybe someday that culture, and that infrastructure, will change. Maybe someday I won’t have to yell to be seen, I won’t have to be constantly on the defensive. But until then, yeah, I’m that cyclist, and I’m not sorry.