Category Archives: Cycling and the law

SIDEWALK!

Some might say that this blog is only updated sporadically. Others might think that I’ve run out of things to say. I prefer to think of this blog as a “limited release” or “carefully curated.” No matter, dear reader(s) we have a good topic in front of us today.

“SIDEWALK!”

If you ride a bike for any length of time with any proximity to motor vehicles in any sort of climate where the drivers of said motor vehicles may have their windows down, you have no doubt been subjected to someone yelling this at you. If this type of motorist was capable of putting together a sentence, they would say, “You should be riding that bicycle on the sidewalk.” The subtext of this is, “I’m driving a car in the street, therefore I am more important than you who ride what is equivalent to a child’s toy and should therefore be riding it on the sidewalk. Get out of MY way.”

Spouse received the “SIDEWALK” yell from someone recently. Here’s how she relayed it in a tweet:

Me (on bike): Were you just honking at me? He: Yeah. Me: Any special reason? He: Sidewalk! [i.e. I should be on it] Me: Check the law [WTF]

I agree with Spouse’s sentiment, so I retweeted to my many followers, one of whom replied to Spouse with this gem:

talked about this w/bikers & drivers alike; they all agree the root of hostility is mostly when bikers DON’T obey traffic laws

Well that’s one way to respond, I guess. A law-abiding cyclist is verbally harassed by a motorist, and this particular tweeter’s response is to say that the source of such hostility is when cyclists break the law.

I disagree.

The source of the hostility is this motorist’s sense of privilege. He’s driving a vehicle that he paid a lot of money for. He has encountered a cyclist in “his” way. Because of this cyclist, he is going to have to 1) pay more attention to piloting his 3,000 pound vehicle. 2) Endure a slight delay in his travel on a 25 mph city street (I’d say as much as 15 seconds).  3) Turn his wheel slightly to the left in order to pass the cyclist. 4) Turn it back to the right to return to his lane. 5) Get really annoyed when he sees the cyclist in his rear view mirror because she caught up to him at the next light.

I know, I know. It’s a tough life driving a car with all of these cyclists around. But maybe this motorist is right, maybe we should be riding our bikes on the sidewalk. I certainly see lots of people doing it, what could be so bad about it? Maybe I’ve just been reading too much propaganda (and state laws) that say that cyclists are entitled to the rights and responsibilities of using the roads of our great little state (and every other state). Maybe I should give up on the streets and take to the sidewalks like so many motorists love to suggest.

So I did just that.

For my commute home last Monday, I resolved to ride only on sidewalks. I started out from Kennedy Plaza, riding on the sidewalk along the south side of Burnside park. It was a lovely day, so there were many people walking along, not really paying much attention. I had to keep it pretty slow. I made my way over to what I call the “RISD Riviera” – that part of the campus that is right next to the Providence River.  I made my way down to Water Street and crossed over to the wide walkway between the street and the water. Some maps designate this as a bike path, but I never ride on it – too many desultory pedestrians. On this afternoon, there was this:

This required me to slow down to about 3 MPH and weave between the barriers and the parking meter where there was just enough room for my shoulders. I headed up to Wickenden, passing many people out on the sidewalks who were just trying to get to a shop or restaurant. I turned up Brook St., a normal part of my commute (aka, the Providence Wiggle, aka the Pwiggle), but I had to make a detour. I just couldn’t allow myself to ride on the sidewalk as I passed my local bike shop – the shame! Instead, I encountered obstacles like these:

Recycling bins, and pedestrians! (I ducked into the street for a second to pass the pedestrians).

I’ll stop boring you with a turn-by-turn account of my commute, let’s just say that it sucked, it was slow, and it was more dangerous than if I had ridden on the street like I always do. How did it suck? While I hate the pothole-encrusted streets of Providence, the sidewalks make for a much rougher riding experience. Expansion joints out of whack, bumps, uneven pavement, and the lack of curb cuts made for a bumpy ride. Why was it slow? I couldn’t get much over 10 MPH with the rough pavement and pedestrians in my way. In fact, I was usually riding about 8 MPH.  How was it less safe? I was constantly crossing driveways where a car could pull into the sidewalk, and I was crossing streets at a place where drivers do not expect to see a cyclist. And oh yeah, it wasn’t particularly safe for the people who were using the  sidewalk to, you know, walk. In fact, I passed 40 pedestrians in my 2.6 mile commute home that day – all of whom I inconvenienced in some way or another.  5 of the pedestrians were children aged 6 or younger. A block away from my home, I saw a mother with two small children walking towards me on the sidewalk. I pulled into a driveway to let them pass and the mother apologized to me as she passed. There was no need for her to apologize – I was the one doing it wrong!

“Well sure,” you may be saying to yourself, “you inconvenienced a few pedestrians, but how many motorists do you slow down when you insist on riding in the street?” I’m glad you asked. I had never really counted before, so the next day, on my way home, I counted the number of cars who passed me. There were 17. However, 5 of them passed me on Waterman Ave where there are two lanes headed in the same direction – the drivers merely had to change lanes in order to pass me. Another 10 passed me on Water Street – also two lanes wide. Of those 10 that passed me on Water Street, 6 of them passed me while I was riding about 23-26 MPH in a 25 MPH zone. That is, they were exceeding the speed limit when they passed me. I caught up to 5 of those cars at the next light. That leaves 2 motorists who passed me on two way streets where there was only one lane in each direction. I delayed each driver by about 5 seconds.

There are some rare occasions where I might consider riding on the sidewalk. In fact, I used to do it on a regular basis (for a very short distance). There are some more suburban areas of the country where it might be occasionally appropriate to ride on the sidewalk. And I can understand how a timid cyclist may feel safer on the sidewalk – but most of the time, you are going to be safer in the street.

So, the next time a motorist tells you to get on the sidewalk, tell them to go drive on the interstate. Or just wave and smile – that might be more productive.

Pedantry

My cycling habits have changed over the years. I’m not sure if this change is due to: 1) biking more and more, 2) reading so much about transportation cycling, or 3) just getting older. Whatever the reason, I am a more careful and (dare I say) law-abiding cyclist than I used to be (broken collarbone notwithstanding).

To illustrate this point, I invite you to take a trip with me. A trip back in time to the year 2002. Or maybe it was 2003, I’m not really sure, it’s been a long time. This is also a trip in space – to the distant land of Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Massachusetts Avenue – the stretch between Porter Square and Cambridge Common. The stretch that always feels like an East-West road no matter how many times one sees it on a map and realizes that it actually goes almost due North-South. But I digress. Mass. Ave. – as the locals like to call it:

This stretch was a regular part of my commute when I lived in the Davis Square area and worked in the Cambridgeport area. One day, I was biking to work on my quasi-crappy mountain bike, as I often did on nice days. I stopped at a red light and waited until the cross traffic cleared, then I continued through the intersection. That’s right I ran the red light! Total scofflaw I was back in the day. At the next light, a middle-aged woman wearing a color-coordinated cycling kit and riding a road bike pulled up behind me. Again, I waited until the traffic cleared and ran that light too. The woman passed me before we reached the next light. We waited, when the traffic cleared, I executed a bit of a “shoal” maneuvre, passing her and continuing through the intersection. There are several annoying lights along Mass Ave here, so this happened a few times. As I pushed off through the last light before Cambridge Common, the woman said, “You give cyclists a bad name.” I rolled my eyes and muttered (under my breath) “oh, bite me,” and continued on my way because I had to get to work and didn’t have time to change into different clothes. At the time, I took the woman’s comments as just another form of Cantabridgian Pedantry. (“Cantabridgian” is Cambridge-snob for someone who lives in Cambridge.) This sort of thing seemed to happen fairly frequently in the city of Harvard & MIT. People always getting up in your business about doing something wrong. Growing up in Kansas, I got less judging from my conservative Lutheran church than I got from the bumperstickers on the back of an average Cantabridgian Volvo (Oh how I loved living there!)

Sure, I rolled my eyes at the time, but obviously the incident has stuck with me over the years. Residual shame? Deep down, did I know that she was right? Or maybe I pitied her for her stick-in-the-mudness. Every once in a while, I’m struck with the urge to reprimand a cyclist about some idiotic behavior, but it is only the memory of that pedantic Cantabridgian that keeps me in check.

I got really close to saying something the other day when I saw this:

He’s biking on the wrong side of a relatively major street (Hope Street, just north of Olney), in rush hour, while his dog trots along beside him. I’ll have to admit that I’ve done this in the past, but I was on the sidewalk AND I WAS TEN YEARS OLD! Seriously, could there be any excuse for this? Although it’s legal for adults to ride on the sidewalk in Providence, in most cases it’s less safe than riding in the street. But in this case? Dude, just ride on the sidewalk. I was very close to yelling at this guy. I’m usually a little shy about taking pictures of strangers, but in this case I just stood on the opposite sidewalk and kept shooting as he slowly pedaled up the hill, his dog nonchalantly trotting in front of him, motorists looking perplexed and swerving away from him at the last second. I believe I’ve seen this guy around town subsequently. He was riding a brown Surly Crosscheck frame with some handlebar configuration other than drops. I believe it was a singlespeed as well. If you know this guy, for me, please tell him that he gives cyclists a bad name. And he’s stupid. And a jerk. And an idiot. And that’s all my pedantry for today.

Special Request for the DJ: Heart Attack Man

The New York Times is somewhat infamous for its “bogus trend” stories. Jack Shafer at Slate.com loves to write about these sorts of stories. All you really need are three examples, and wha-lah! le trend. (next one: misspelling french). These stories really stick out on the Times’ website because they run next to and look just as legitimate as a story about the economic conditions in Greece. However, they are a little less egregious nestled into the Style section with coverage of some band that records an album in a Central Falls warehouse or whatever. Worse than the “bogus trend” story is the “I’m going to make up a medical condition based on one study that I kind of looked at, even though I’m a journalist and not a doctor.” I present to you, from Jenny Hope at the Daily Mail:

The article cites a study about the “final straw” risk factors in triggering a heart attack. Some of the worst of these include: commuting in traffic, breathing polluted air, and strenuously exercising. It’s the reporter who came up with the idea that bicycle commuting must be the most dangerous thing because it combines so many independent risk factors. Of course, there’s nothing about bicycle commuting in the study… I think the author mentioned bike commuting just to troll for comments on the article. And of course, it this trolling was successful. I only scanned the comments, because they seemed to quickly get into a bullshit back and forth about cyclists not having a right to the road because they don’t pay “road tax” (this is in the UK, BTW). If you don’t know why this argument is bullshit, please leave a comment below.

There was one particular comment that caught my eye:

So … the problem is that pollution in our cities is increasing the possibility of heart disease? And low levels of fitness are also increasing this? Hmmm if only there were some way of reducing the amount of pollution whilst improving peoples fitness levels. Any ideas, anyone?

This comment perfectly illustrates how bike commuting does not put cyclists at risk of a heart attack: our own smug sense of self-importance helps to create a protective layer of positive “vibes” encasing our heart, and ensuring its proper function. Plus, we’re like in hella good shape.
If Jenny Hope was just combining a few random “final straw” heart attack triggers, I think she really missed the obvious:
Other risk factors included negative emotions (3.9 per cent), anger (3.1 per cent), eating a heavy meal (2.7 per cent), positive emotions (2.4 per cent) … sexual activity (2.2 per cent)… cocaine use (0.9 per cent).
So the real risk factor for a heart attack is
being Charlie Sheen.

Safe passing in RI: Frank’s Law

I first heard about “Frank’s Law” on the Providence Bicycle Coalition website. It’s Rhode Island’s version of what is often referred to as a “safe passing” law. Oftentimes, these specify that a vehicle must give a cyclist at minimum 3 feet (or 4 feet, are there any state laws that require more?) when passing said cyclist. Rhode Island’s version is a little different in that it require motorists to pass cyclists on the left at “a distance that is sufficient to prevent contact with the person operating the bicycle if the person were to fall over into the driver’s lane of traffic.” In practice, that means more like 5 feet, and I’d say that it makes more sense as a general rule, it’s just kind of difficult to explain on a street sign. I can imagine a sign that says, “Drivers must pass cyclists by 3 feet or more” but I can’t imagine a sign that says, “Drivers must pass cyclists at a distance sufficient to prevent contact if the cyclist were to fall over.” It also gives a little bit of wiggle room for interpretation, which isn’t always good in an enforcement situation. The fine for breaking the law is $85.

The ProJo had an article last Monday about the law including a little background information [do yourself and your blood pressure a favor: don't bother reading the comments]. It’s named after Frank Cabral, a cyclist who was killed by a motorist in 2007. The motorist was fined $75 for some minor infractions. I’ll let you read the ProJo article to get all of the details of the accident and the AG’s lack of prosecuting the driver. With the new law, a driver would be set back another 10 bucks. Awesome!

As with most laws like this, it all comes down to education and enforcement. The state driver’s test needs to have some questions about what to do when encountering a cyclist on the road. Police need to enforce this law and cite drivers who break the law. Somehow, I doubt I’ll see either of those things happening. This is likely to only be used as enforcement after-the-fact. That is, someone hits a cyclist, then they are fined $85 for failing to pass by more than the distance sufficient to prevent contact [etc.]. Meanwhile, the cyclist is in the hospital or dead.

About the only thing this law is good for is official complaints regarding commercial vehicles, transit, or other vehicles that have an identifying number and an employer that can put some pressure on a driver to obey the law. Like my situation with RIPTA. There’s no law saying that a bus driver can’t yell at a cyclist (although I hope that RIPTA has some rules about this). But there is now a law that says a bus can’t pass me too close. And if one does (or a commercial vehicle, police cruiser, mayor’s Hybrid SUV, etc.), I know that I can call someone and there will be a reasonable grounds for a complaint. And if you’ve read this blog, you know that I love complaining!