“Bicycle, right! Bicycle, right!”
“I’m on a bike!”
“You gonna turn, you gotta tell me!”
“Ugh. Cars, man. Whyyyyyy!!”
“I don’t have a driver’s license. I don’t need it!”
“I get this whole lane! Ten-feet rule! Oregon state law – 10 feet.”
“Pull your mirrors in!”
That’s Fred Armisen’s character on the sketch show “Portlandia,” an overbearing bike commuter riding around Portland with a whistle in his mouth to signal his moves. But most of the time, he’s yelling at motorists about their disregard of traffic laws as they concern bikes.
As right as Armisen’s overbearing, overzealous character may be about road rules, it is he who comes off as the nuisance, not the motorists. His arrogant, aggressive smugness makes him a caricature, and thus, the butt of the joke.
And as much as I laugh at this sketch, I am that guy – sometimes at least. As a bike commuter, at least once a day I find myself muttering, gesturing, and sometimes shouting at the actions of motorists. They’ll pass me in the bike lane too close. They’ll block my path looking to turn onto a main road. Their tailpipe will spew a more-than-average amount of exhaust. I’ll bristle. Maybe shake my head. Perhaps give a thumbs-down. “Thanks for turning me into ‘Portlandia’ guy,” I say to myself.
I do understand his rationale: He’s taken the inferiority of his vehicle – bike vs. car – and turned it into a bloated superiority of competency. Drivers think they own the roads, that it is the cyclists who have impeded on their territory. Our bike commutes are time to get some exercise, to breathe some fresh air, to clear our heads on the way to work – but mainly they’re a time to claim our right to be here and educate drivers in the process.
“Watch out! Bike-bike-bike-bike-bike.”
It does feel a bit sanctimonious for me to attempt to educate drivers. Half the time, I’m a driver, too, and I find myself yelling at cyclists to get out of my way. Sure, there are always going to be aggressive drivers who endanger the lives of those around them, whether the endangered are in cars or on bikes. Most drivers in my experience are wonderfully respectful and accommodating of cyclists. But even good drivers lapse. And sometimes, drivers are so accommodating that they put cyclists in danger. After commuting on a bike for three years in Durango, here are the most common safety issues I face:
Treat us like cars. Bikes are (generally) supposed to follow the rules of the road just as a car would (I know we don’t always). When I come to a stop sign or stoplight, I am going to stop just as I would if I were in a car. A problem I encounter almost daily is when I come to a two-way stop sign ready to make a left. The cars on the road I am turning on to do not have a stop sign. And yet, cars will stop in the middle of the road, halting traffic, to allow me to turn. I appreciate the gesture, but it’s still not safe for me to turn. While you may be kindly stopped, I can’t be sure all the other cars (a) see me or (b) will stop as well. In the meantime, as I stand there, I have to wave you on like an ingrate.
Three feet.The Colorado rule is to give cyclists 3 feet of space when passing, regardless if there’s a bike lane or not. And trust me: Three feet is not a lot of space. I’ve been buzzed by drivers, mostly unintentionally. So whatever you can safely give beyond 3 feet is appreciated. If you do have to make a close pass, at least slow down. If it’s not safe to pass, don’t pass. Giving up 10 seconds or 30 seconds or a minute so you don’t endanger someone’s life is, I think, worth it.
Be predictable. Nearly every time I felt endangered riding my bike has been because of impatience or unpredictability on the part of a driver. You might feel safe and in control making that crazy illegal turn, or drag-racing off the line after a red light, or speeding up to beat the yellow light. But what you’ve failed to consider is what happens one and two steps ahead – the reactions of other motorists because of your unpredictable behavior.
Be aware. Cars will inch out looking to turn onto a main road and block the bike lane or path. Cars will turn out in front of me, forcing me to brake unexpectedly. Cars will pass me then immediately make a right turn, forcing me to brake unexpectedly.
Cyclists aren’t perfect, I realize – we break just as many rules as motorists. But you know what? A car is never going to lose in a battle with a bike. We’ve handed you a lot of responsibility.