Law Breaking Cyclists: The Answer

He raises his hand, politely at first. He’s impossible to ignore, the only person in the room of 50 small town residents and leaders wearing a cowboy hat, a tan Stetson.  Distinctive too is his bright yellow safety vest screaming from under his weather-beaten work jacket. Is he a cyclist, like everyone else in the room, present to discuss the development of neighborhood greenways, a.k.a., bike boulevards in Ithaca, NY? If not, why is he here? Has he figured out a way to wear a helmet and a cowboy hat simultaneously?

This is the fourth in a series of well-attended Joyride presentations at SUNY-ESF and Cornell University.  Thus far, we’ve been in a love zone, Portland State University Professor Jennifer Dill and I answering a range of technical, process, and policy questions posed by cheerful, inspired, and excited officials, students, and residents all wanting to improve livability in the region, including Ithaca, Albany, Syracuse, and other nearby towns.

Mr. Stetson raises his hand more urgently, demanding silently to be heard. Red warning bells stemming from experience wave in my head. “Hostile,” I think. Jennifer calls on him, and he stands, gaunt frame and lined face radiating anger.

He launches into a tirade, “You keep talking about adding all these bikeways and stuff, inconveniencing motorists, taking away parking, and you never talk about the Police, enforcement, and cyclists doing whatever the hell they want, all the time, disobeying the law, and the Police don’t do a damn thing about it. And they just go all over the place, running the lights and you can’t see them at night because they don’t have any lights and don’t care. Where is the enforcement, is what I want to know. When are the Police going to do something about it and you people want to make it worse…”

I see the event organizer out of the corner of my eye motioning to cut him off. The rest of the crowd shifts in their chairs, some annoyed, some uncomfortable, some amused.

Now I’ve been involved in something like a thousand public meetings and this question/lecture tends to be a staple. And I’ve learned a few things about how best to answer.

First: don’t bother trying to explain the laws of physics, meaning that on a bicycle, we use our body for propelling the vehicle and thus it is desirable, normal, and natural to want to keep moving. Yes, it’s true that driving is also about movement and momentum, but it’s the motor doing the work, not your legs and heart. Explain this to your protagonist only if you want to stoke the flames. Someone who doesn’t cycle regularly could care less. “The law is the law,” they’ll say. “With the rights to the roads come the responsibilities.”

Second: skip the lecture about how our traffic laws need to evolve in lockstep with the re-balancing and re-design of our transportation systems toward bicycling and walking. Traffic control devices like stop signs and signals were designed to assign priority and keep heavy vehicles from crashing into each other. For the most part, they do a pretty good job, especially when police officers do their part to enforce the laws. But one to two hundred pound riders-with-bicycles do not need to come to a complete stop to avoid serious injury. Here’s why: when you’re on a bike, you naturally use your senses much more acutely than when driving. It’s an enormous advantage. Not surrounded by 2000 pounds of steel, you can see all around you. You have no blind spots with which to contend. You can hear and are acutely aware of traffic. You can stop on a dime, and if you misjudge the situation or make a poor behavior choice, the damage is likely to be to you.

Stop signs may do a fine job governing right-of-way for motorists, but cyclists need a different system based on yield control as used in the bicycle-friendly cities of Europe. There, Police do not concern themselves with the perceived misdeeds of cyclists. One told me, “Cyclists, they are like water. They go wherever they want to. I’m not worried about it, I just want them to be comfortable and safe.” But until we change the law and treat stop signs as yield signs for cyclists (the only state that does this is Idaho), or redesign our cities with full and completely separated bikeways, signals, and traffic control, it’s best to slow when approaching a stop sign, expect to come to a complete stop, do stop if necessary, then proceed cautiously. Always thank any motorist who waves you through, and get into the habit of always waiting at red lights. The gain from running a red light is a few seconds; the damage to the collective credibility of cyclists significantly worse than the individual time gain.

Third: refrain from comparing cyclists and motorists’ relative level of misbehavior. “Hey,” you want to argue with a righteous tone, “Sure, we cyclists don’t come to a complete stop. Neither do most if not all you motorists, who at some point each and every day exceed the speed limit, run a red light, roll a stop sign, talk/text on your cell phone (do you not know how horribly dangerous that is?), fail to stop for a pedestrian, forget to use turn signals, change lanes abruptly, tailgate, or otherwise behave in a manner ranging from inattentive to aggressive. So what if cyclists roll through stop signs? We won’t hurt anyone; you will and do.” Yes, I know you want to say this. Don’t. It won’t get you anywhere.

So what do you say to a Stetson-wearing griper who has crashed the happy bike meeting? Or to the otherwise supportive but equally judgmental road user who sometimes drives, sometimes bikes? Try this:

“Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to pledge to behave better!  Tell me, who in this room drives sometimes? Great, most of you I see… perfect. Now keep your hands and up and repeat after me:

I am a driver. I will not tailgate. I will drive slowly on neighborhood streets. I will be courteous to bicyclists and scan for and stop for pedestrians, always. I will refrain from talking, dialing, texting, or otherwise messing with my cell phone, as well as anything else that takes my attention away from my responsibility to the road. I am pleased to see cyclists on the road, and I hope to get on my bike for my next trip.”

“Perfect. Now who in this room bicycles? Wow – almost everyone! Perfect. Ready?

I am a bicyclist. I will not blow traffic signals. I will look for and yield to pedestrians. I will stay in the bike lane (if there is one and it is safe to do so) or over to the right to the best of my ability. If you behave aggressively toward me, I will repeat to myself, “serenity now, serenity now,” rather than flipping you off or confronting you. I will smile and wave thanks whenever you offer me the slightest bit of courtesy, because I know it can only help to be gracious to you, whoever you are.

“Together, let’s say, ‘I solemnly pledge to behave as considerately as possible no matter how I get around.’”

Here’s a short version:

“I pledge to switch at least one driving trips per week to bicycling, walking, or transit.

When I bike, I will wait at red lights, yield to pedestrians, and wave and smile at any motorist who shows me the slightest bit of courtesy.

When I drive, I will slow down, hang-up, yield to cyclists and pedestrians, and chill out.”

At this point, Mr. Stetson stormed out of the room. [Update: he then hung around in the hall chatting for a while. Like many, he felt better once he got it off his chest.]. Everyone else applauded and cheerfully moved onto the task at hand: designing a system of neighborhood greenways, improving livability in yet another lovely and promising community.

Try this, and let me know how it goes… or what other techniques have worked for you in defusing motorist-cyclist behavior-related tension in public meetings?

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