I talk with people about biking quite a bit, and a constant topic is dealing with the cars. I’ve seen every single point and argument made. “What we need are bike lanes because then we would have a protected area to ride in.” “If we have bike lanes on some streets, then cars will expect us to ride only on those streets.” “We should practice vehicular cycling – ‘claim the lane’ and make the cars go around us.” I even got in a discussion with someone who insisted on biking on the sidewalks – “I never see anyone walking on them.” Every point is made again and again on the bike blogs and whenever cyclists gather to kvetch. It’s like listening to an mp3 file that has an error that causes it to play the same short segment again and again. In my discussions with cyclists and non-cyclists I usually say something like, “Most of the time, cars give me plenty of room when they pass me – I’ve generally been pretty impressed with the drivers I have to deal with.” When people ask me if I’m afraid of being in an accident I say, “Well, I’ve been in a couple of minor accidents, but a few years ago I realized that I only got in those accidents when I was doing something stupid (i.e. wrong way down a one-way, biking on the sidewalk). Now I avoid doing stupid things and I don’t get in accidents.”* This is followed by furious wood-knocking.
Like I said, most of the time I’m impressed with RI drivers. Other times… not so much. My daily commute takes me down Canal Street, which is one-way, three lanes wide plus a “parking lane” on the right. I ride in the right-most lane, staying well out of the door zone of the parked cars. Canal Street is the only flat straightaway on my daily ride, so I like to pick up the pace and it’s always best to give parked cars plenty of clearance especially when traveling at speed. Basically I ride close to the middle of the right hand lane, about 5 mph below the speed limit. On a recent ride, someone behind me decided that I wasn’t going fast enough for him and started honking at me. Eventually he realized that he could use one of the other three lanes and he passed me, giving me the finger. His total delay in going around me may have been 20 seconds at most. Except he forgot that he would soon be stopped at the next light (the next two lights actually), thus eliminating any theoretical time advantage he would have gained if I had not been biking in front of him. Another thing about being stopped at the light is that it allowed me to catch up to him. When I did, I thought that it would be wise to point out to him that he was caught at a red light and unable to move. I used swear words. I’m not proud of this and I’m trying to expiate my guilt by writing about it.
This guy wasn’t driving egregiously bad (I’ve seen far worse), but I worked myself into a full screaming road rage because I felt the need to “prove a point.” While driving a car, I would never try to “prove a point” to a driver who cut me off (or tailgated, or whatever). But I felt the need for full vigilante justice in this case. Once I came down from the adrenaline high of my road-rage (and let’s face it, it is a high), I realized that I had violated my personal cycling prime directive: Don’t do anything stupid. Who knows what this guy would have done? He could have stormed out of his car with a tire iron, or a gun. In this case, he just stared into his rearview mirror, stewing. Maybe I misinterpreted his honking. I know that some motorists honk to “warn” cyclists that they are going to pass them (btw, don’t ever do that – it is never appreciated by a cyclist). Maybe he didn’t even give me the finger. All right, I’m 95% sure he honked at me in anger and gave me the finger. Still that doesn’t justify the height of my pure, righteous anger.
Now, I certainly don’t fly off the handle every time something like this happens. Once I sold my car, I became more stoic about this sort of thing and usually let it slide off of my back. A few times, I’ve caught up to a driver to politely tell them that they passed too close to me. This usually seems to get the point across – and I’ve even had people apologize to me. I once tried the Bike Snob’s technique which consists of catching up to the driver and saying, “Hi, I like to take pictures of the people who almost kill me – smile!” That didn’t work so well, because I had to wait for my iPhone to fire up the camera app – by that time the light had changed and the car sped away (with a middle finger hanging out the side).
Here’s the thing, I can remember every time that I allowed the road rage to take over. I relive those moments in my mind again and again, and my pulse starts to race like it’s racing right now. But those times where I let it slide off my back? I don’t even remember them. The incident is over and done right away. But when I feel the righteous anger come up – who do I think I am, Batman? All I’ve got is a bike and U-lock and that’s not going to go far against 2 tons of steel and glass.
Do I need to achieve the Buddha nature while biking? That’s probably not going to happen. I just need to find somewhere between Buddha, curmudgeon, and full on rage.
I don’t really have any pictures to go with the incidents in question, so I’ll leave you with a picture I recently took in Cambridge MA near a construction zone which temporarily blocked the bike lane.
* I know, it’s not just me doing stupid things that I have to worry about – It’s the cars doing something stupid that’s the danger. Yes, that’s true, I would amend my “no stupid biking” prime directive to say “and ride attentively – looking out for stupid drivers and drivers who don’t see you.”