On Friday, as I was riding home through somewhat chaotic, peak hour traffic, I contemplated the gulf of understanding that separates most cyclists from most motorists. We all have those reflexive habits of thought: “Bloody cyclists, think the rules don’t apply to them,” and “Bloody motorists, think they own the roads.”
We can easily get into a war: “Cyclists don’t belong on the roads, they don’t pay registration. I pay for the roads, I shouldn’t be held up by snails on wheels.” “Cars spew out toxic fumes and contribute to global warming – and they kill people. Everyone should be forced to ride or use public transport.”
The truth is that cars are a fact of life, and so are bikes. But we don’t have to hate each other. It all comes back to a way of thinking I am trying to teach my 7 year old: “Try to assume I’m not actually out to get you. Then see if you can work out why I did what I did.”
Here’s the thing – when I’m out on my bike, I just want to get where I’m going quickly and safely, preferably while enjoying the ride. Much the same thing most people want when they are driving somewhere.
Truly, a little understanding goes a long way. If you can get your nose out of its snit long enough to see things from another’s perspective, life is often far less stressful. In that spirit, I offer these tips from the point of view of a well-intentioned and well-mannered cyclist. Try to put yourself in my bike seat for a moment or two, before you assume I am a fiend from hell determined to break all the rules. And in return, I will try not to go postal on your duco next time you pass me too close.
1. Sometimes I ride on the footpath. Yes, I do know that this is illegal, and I don’t like doing it. But before you get all self-righteous about me breaking the law, there are two things you need to know. First of all, I only ever ride on the footpath in order to avoid a particularly dangerous piece of road. I am choosing to protect myself. Where the choice is to ride on the footpath, not ride at all, or ride on a very dangerous patch of road, I will choose the footpath every time. You could consider it a bonus – usually I do this at a bottleneck, and it gets me out of your way. On the footpath I also ride slowly and always give pedestrians right of way. I am not harming anyone by doing this.
Second, I can pretty much guarantee that you break many different road rules every time you drive. Do you always come to a full stop at a stop sign? Do you indicate for at least 5 seconds before you move off from the kerb? Do you ever speed up before you pass the higher speed limit sign, or cross a level crossing before the bells and lights have ceased? Check out what your house is made of before you start throwing those stones.
2. Sometimes I swing a little wide from the kerb. The thing to remember here is that you can’t see what’s on the road in front of me. There are often small things – like patches of broken glass, or holes in the road – that I need to avoid for safety reasons. You won’t be able to see these, so you need to make sure you give me room to move in an emergency. The recommended clearance a motorist should give a bike is 1 metre, and the faster you are going, the more clearance you should give. When you are going fast, the wind you cause can buffet a cyclist powerfully. Especially if your vehicle is large.
3. One metre is also the recommended distance that cyclists should ride out from the kerb. This is to avoid cars trying to squeeze past where they don’t fit, and also to give the bike somewhere to go in an emergency. If something goes wrong, I need enough room to correct it. Space! I need space!
4. Bicycles are allowed to do hook turns at any intersection. Hook turns are those strange, peculiarly Melbournian tricks where you turn right from the left of an intersection. They involve moving through the intersection on left hand side, turning to face the right, and waiting until the lights are green the other way if there are traffic lights, or the traffic is clear where there are no lights, before you cross. The reason hook turns are legal for bikes is pretty clear – picture yourself on a relatively slow moving bike, trying to get across 3 lanes of fast moving traffic in order to get into the right turn lane. Sometimes it just can’t be done safely, hence the hook turn. It’s legal, it’s safe, it’s sensible.
5. If we are approaching a red light, I will almost always move to the front of the queue. This is not a calculated attempt to drive you insane. Research has shown that the front of the queue is the safest place for a bike to be. Right out in front, nice and visible, no surprise to anyone. Newer bike lanes reflect this by having bike boxes – explicit stopping places for bikes right up at the front of the traffic lights. So don’t try to rush past me to get to the red light first. I will only pass you again. Wait until the lights are green, pass peacefully through the intersection, and then overtake me in the next lane.
6. A bicycle is a vehicle like any other. When I am on my bike I am bound by the same road rules (with the exception of occasional special cases like the hook turn rule), and have the same rights and the same responsibilities as any motorist.
Yes, sometimes riders break the law, and it’s frustrating – especially when they do dumb things like ride through red lights. But we all know that drivers do dumb things too. Cyclists are just people. But until I ride through a red light or swerve wildly into traffic in front of you, try to assume that I am a nice, polite person trying to do the right thing. And I’ll try to assume the same about you. Our similarities are far greater than our differences. If we focus on that, maybe we can avoid turning nasty.
(Note that the road rules described here are Australian)