Changing Car Culture, One Bike Ride at a Time
August 22, 2010
Total mileage: 2,187
It was a brilliant spring day on the Cottonwood 200, near the end of a great ride on the Flint Hills Scenic Byway. As I coasted down a long steep hill into the town of Council Grove, I noticed there were a couple of cars behind me. I decided not to move to the shoulder because I was riding at the speed limit–30 mph. At the bottom of the hill, the road widens to about a lane and a half. I would have moved to the right at that point, but on this particular road there are several dangerous bike-eating grates, so I stayed about 8 feet from the curb. The first car passed me uneventfully. The second car coasted up and idled on the left. That’s nearly always a bad sign. It typically means the driver is angry and he’s going to let you know about it. Sure enough, a surly male voice drifted up through the open sunroof: “You can share the road, too.” I pointed down at the next grate coming up on the road. His response? A middle finger.
I’ve thought about that incident frequently this summer while reading some nasty cycling news. Several communities are considering bicycle bans. The most notorious is Black Hawk, a once-historic mountain town west of Denver now filled with casinos and buses. Charles County, Missouri, is discussing rating roads by how, or even whether, they can be ridden by cyclists. The newspapers in both these communities are filled with vitriol whenever the subject comes up. The cycling blogs and websites are more restrained, but their tone often is sanctimonious and they presume drivers must be lying about cyclists’ behavior.
So what’s my point? It won’t make me popular with some cyclists, but I’m going to write it anyway. How can you expect drivers to be reasonable when your own conduct often is not? If we’re going to change America’s pervasive car culture, then we need to be on our best behavior. If the law calls for two abreast, then we need to ride no more than two abreast. Nearly every recreational ride I’ve been on, the organizers have been contacted by the local police about motorist complaints. And that is why last May, in Council Grove, I wasn’t upset for too long about the rudeness of that driver. There’s no doubt in my mind that he had encountered cyclists riding all over the road before he came upon me. I had a good reason for riding far out from the shoulder, but other cyclists did not. And I was the one who faced his wrath. “You can share the road, too.” Hard to argue with that.
Cyclists, if you want to change things in this country, you’re going to have to do it through exemplary behavior, one ride at a time. When you turn, you need to signal. Earlier this summer on Lizard Under the Skillet, I was passed by a pack of riders riding three and four abreast, even though Kansas law limits us to two. The cheeky monkeys turned right in front of a policeman and not one of them signaled. I wonder how many of those same people defend their actions on the blogs and newspaper sites by claiming drivers break the law all the time by not signaling, rolling through stop signs, etc. Now, how many times did your mother chide you, “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?” When you break the law, it encourages drivers to believe the worst of all of us–that we’re unpredictable, are contemptuous of the law, and have a sense of entitlement.
Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I believe we should behave kindly to everyone we encounter. I blew a kiss at that Council Grove driver, even though I wanted to fly the bird right back at him. And all this summer, I’ve been signaling to motorists when I’m heading straight at an intersection. That’s right, signaling straight. I simply pat my chest and then point ahead. Not only do they appreciate it, but they often wave at me. Imagine that, a grateful motorist who is happy about a cyclist’s behavior. Perhaps that same driver will be a little kinder to the next person he encounters on a bike.
We’re only human–motorists and cyclists alike. We make mistakes. We lose our tempers and even abuse each other. All I’m asking is that we cyclists try harder. We need to show the world that we can indeed share the road, too.