Cyclist/Motorist Responsibility in a Greener World

The Times They Are A-Changin’

As a friend and I met to go to the Alt Car Expo in Santa Monica a few weeks ago he told me about an encounter he’d seen between a motorist and a kid on an electric skateboard. The skateboarder made an illegal and potentially fatal left turn in the path of an oncoming car.

That’s a pretty extreme example of the challenges posed by the interface between the old order and the greener world we see taking shape, albeit slowly, all around us.

On the one hand the kid was a being a lot greener than the motorist, but green does not excuse stupidity, and it would not have helped in a court case or the ER if it he’d been hit by the car. That story and the event we were attending got me thinking about the interface between the new and the old.

1988 Red Holland Lugged Steel Frame Bicycle

The Alt Car Expo in Santa Monica had Valet Bicycle Parking so I didn’t mind leaving my custom-frame Holland road bike where I couldn’t see it. These are the kinds of accommodations we’ll need to see more of as more people embrace alternatives to the automobile.

We may not see elevated climate controlled bikeways in Minneapolis any time soon, but Chevy Volts and Nissan Leafs (Leaves?) are in the hands of real drivers, and a lot of people are taking thought to the conseqences of driving everywhere. A few are making lifestyle changes that include walking or bicycling to perform simple errands.

As motorists and non-motorists increasingly share the roads, both motorists and users of alternative transportation will need to find ways to coexist without restricting the mobility of either.

Can’t we all just get along?

There’s been more attention paid to the bicycle-car issue here in the Los Angeles recently. A road rage incident grabbed front page headlines, and led to jail time for a motorist who deliberately jammed on his brakes in front of a group of bicyclists. Shortly thereafter, the Mayor of Los Angeles was hit by a motorist while bicycling. These and other incidents have led to a bicycling rights law getting passed in Los Angeles that prohibits harrassing bicyclists.

Motorists, of course, have their own beef with bicyclists who in their eyes seem to feel unbound by the rules of the road. Of course, in law they are not. The same traffic regulations that govern motorists are supposed to apply to bicyclists.

If the two could just talk to each other, maybe we could reach some kind of rational accommodation. Most bicyclists are also drivers, so they have to know their concerns are legitimate.

Ride a Mile on my Saddle

Being both a frequent pedestrian and avid motorist and bicyclist, I find it a problem of short-term memory blockage, and empathy. You see examples all the time on busy urban street corners. It’s frustrating enough waiting in the car to turn right while pedestrians amble into a crosswalk. What gets the blood boiling is when that pedestrian steps out when the sign says “Don’t Walk,” and the light turns red before I can make the turn.

The curious thing is, that person probably just parked his or her car, but has completely shed any awareness of the frustrations of navigating busy urban streets. A little empathy would go a long way in such a situation. That’s what’s missing in the cyclist/motorist dialogue.

The Roots of Resentment

I do feel a twinge of pique when I see bicyclists riding in a way that puts them at risk in traffic. For one thing it reflects badly on me as a cyclist, which could lead to someone transferring their opinion about that one onto me, with consequences I’d rather not contemplate. But really I think it’s that I share with other drivers the subconscious dread of actually hitting one.

Sure, the law is on my side, but who wants an incident like that seared into his or her memory? So when I am on my bike I at least try to keep out of the way of motorists, even if my observation of traffic laws is not absolute. Only the Sith deal in absolutes.

I have to admit though, that as a bicyclist, I have a little trouble dredging up sympathy for motorists who simply resent the very presence of bicycles on the road.

It’s the same disconnect I saw as a motorcyclist, when I was splitting lanes on slow-moving freeways (a practice that is legal in California). What would these people prefer – that I was in a single-occupancy SUV, adding to the congestion and blocking their view of the road ahead? The same goes for a bicyclist, as long as it’s someone on an errand that might otherwise add another carbon-spewing, space devouring, foreign-import-fossil-fuel-sucking vehicle to the urban crawl.

So when they are on a strictly recreational, fitness, or training ride, bicyclists serve their cause best when they keep within the rules of the road whenever practical. But there’s the rub. What’s practical?

Let’s be Real

Be honest. Do you always come to a complete dead stop every time you encounter a stop sign? The last time you drove a rural interstate highway, did you adhere strictly to the posted speed limit – all the time?

Understanding the Situation

When you stop your car, all you need to do is release the brake and your car will move at the slightest pressure on the accelerator. If your car has an automatic transmission and you’re on a level road, you don’t even have to touch the pedal. For a bicyclist it involves both the waste and expenditure of energy.

It’s a waste because the cyclist is giving up hard-earned momentum to stop. I shouldn’t have to explain that getting going again requires real personal effort the motorist is spared. No internal combustion companion or electrical assistant is doing it for him or her.

Then there’s the hassle. I am not a board track racer, so I never learned to do a track stand (stand still on my bicycle without putting a foot down). For most of us who ride road bicycles (“racing bikes” – the ones with the skinny tires) that means we have to release at least one foot from the step-in pedal, and put it down. Restarting involves pushing off, aligning the foot properly with the pedal, and feeling your way back into the attachment mechanism, while staying upright. Then of course they have to use muscle power to get back up to speed.

I know this is going to sound extreme, but if a motorist is going to insist that a bicyclist do that at every stop sign, fairness should require that the motorist come to a full stop, shift to park, set the parking brake, unfasten the seat belt, refasten it, release the brake, and shift back into gear.

I won’t be so flip as to suggest that real fairness would have the driver get out of the car and push it to get started. I’m sure you get the point anyway.

That is, the next time you see a cyclist breeze through a stop sign, cut him/her some slack, and give thanks that they aren’t driving a Minivan and turning into your lane ahead of you.

Coexistence: Planning Ahead

Optimizing the interface between cyclists and motorists requires that each group recognize the limitations of the other.

Empathy –  What a cyclist needs to remember

A bicyclist needs to keep in mind that a driver’s attention is focused almost exclusively on events farther down the road than a cyclist’s. The driver is moving faster, so conditions and events ahead are coming up more quickly. A longer view is necessary to plan lane changes, turns, and to be prepared to react to changing traffic conditions.

A motorist preparing for a right turn, for instance, may not anticipate that to go straight, a cyclist approaching a big intersection may need to cross the right turn lane to get into the though lane. It’s in a cyclist’s interest to signal that intention well in advance.

Also, the pavement defects, minor variations and surface debris that you need to veer to avoid might not be noticed by the driver of a car.

Automobile wheel has more tire protecting it.

There’s not much between a lightweight bicycle’s wheel rim and the road. Even at typical bicycling speeds, it wouldn’t take much of an impact to cause expensive damage.

Automobile wheel typically has more tire protecting it.

With more tire between the road and their wheel rims, motorists have little incentive to notice the hazards that cause bicyclists to swerve. 

As a cyclist, you also look ahead, but due to your slower speed (except in heavy traffic), the less forgiving nature of a bicycle’s suspension (such as it is) and the narrowness and vulnerability of its tires, there is necessarily more concern for what’s immediately in front of you.

That means that if you are a cyclist and there’s something in the road that indicates you need to change your line, the motorists around you probably don’t see the same thing you do. So look ahead yourself, and give a little advance warning of a deviation from the straight ahead. Hand signals are helpful.

Empathy –  What a motorist needs to remember

Road hazards

Construction job site debris and rocks on US1 near Big Sur cost me six low profile Michelins on my last car, but for most people flat tires are relatively rare these days. Bicyclists are not so immune.

My bicycle has 11 mm (a little less than an inch) of tire between the road surface and the rim of the wheel. Many have even less. Moreover, the tread and carcass of many a road bicycle’s tire is snakeskin-thin. It takes very little to puncture it, and a pavement heave, storm drain grille, drainage groove, pothole, railroad track or service access cover (We can’t call them “manhole covers” anymore.) can cause a pinched-tube flat, or wrench a wheel and cause a spill. The neglect of infrastructure is especially hard on bicycles, many of which are ill-equipped for badly broken pavement. That explains a lot of what a motorist might interpret as erratic behavior in a cyclist.

Glass In Road 2

Sometimes the warning signs predicting a sudden swerve by a bicyclist are subtle. No alert cyclist would deliberately ride through a patch of broken glass. If there are cyclists around, keep a sharp (pun intended) lookout for that telltale sparkle.

Bike Lane Blockage

That’s a bike lane along the shoulder, but neglected roadside maintenance has created a blockage which could cause a cyclist to enter the traffic lane.

Water Hazard

With the angle and the reflection, you can’t see what’s under that puddle. Neither can a cyclist, and a savvy one will not venture into water unless there’s no choice. If you’re driving nearby, make sure you leave one. 

Grating Hazard

 A few of these gratings with dividers running in the direction of traffic still remain to trap the narrow wheel of a bicycle. If there are cyclists around be prepared for them to swerve to avoid them.

Manhole Potholes 3 Insets

This is Jefferson Boulevard in Playa Vista, a main route for bicyclists riding to the Marvin Braude Bikeway through Dockweiler State Beach and the Marina. The shadows of the trees (on sunny days it’s even worse than this) make it hard for a motorist to see the horrendous potholes surrounding this GTE maintenance access cover. Traffic here often reaches speeds of 60 mph, leaving little time to react when the motorists finally notice the hazard. Cyclist’s lives are at stake if they try to ride over this minefield, but they are equally at risk from motorists if they try to avoid it.

So we come back to that issue of focus. If a you as a driver pay just a little attention to what’s on and in the road ahead, that can help you anticipate what that cyclist riding along the curb or line of parked cars may do. That in turn gives you a clue about what to look out for in adjacent lanes and oncoming traffic, and helps you anticipate any action you may need to take to prevent a tragedy.

Being a good bicycle rider or driver involves more than just the skills it takes to handle your machine, or knowledge of the traffic laws. It requires that you understand the constraints that each of you are working under, and making an effort so that you don’t make it harder – and less safe – for the other.


About carmacarcounselor

I'm one of those people that friends call "that car guy," except I've made it into a profession. Since 1988 when a friend found my help in choosing, finding, and negotiating for a new car was worth a fee, I've helped countless people, listening to their car questions and challenges, and helping with their car purchases, insulating them from the adversarial process that is the new car retail model today. Their word of mouth is my only publicity. My newsletter CARMA won the description "The clear crystal ring of truth" from award-winning automotive journalist Denise McCluggage. Now I'm going global!
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One Response to Cyclist/Motorist Responsibility in a Greener World

  1. Right on point Dick. You have covered a UNIQUE and important topic. All drivers and cyclists need to read this piece. Break it up a bit and send it to Huff Post etc.

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