Bikes Are Road Vehicles, Too

CC BY 2.0. Yukiko Matsuoka

You might think drivers in rural towns would be friendlier toward cyclists, but, believe me, they're not.

Three times a week, I hop on my bike and ride to the gym. It’s a two-mile ride each way, short and quick, but the route involves traveling on a four-lane stretch of highway that runs through the center of my small, rural town. There is always a lot of traffic in the late afternoons, moving at speeds of 30 to 40 miles per hour, and no bike lanes. Sidewalks are often occupied and very bumpy.

I used to stay on the right hand side of the furthest right lane, sometimes dipping into the concrete culvert at the edge of the asphalt or knocking up against the curb in my efforts to move away from cars. But then drivers assumed it was safe to pass. They’d squeeze by, barely slowing down, and scare me half to death. Since then, I’ve started riding more aggressively, occupying the center/right-of-center section of the lane in order to force drivers to change lanes to get around me. This makes the drivers mad, I can tell, but it feels safer than being squished on the edge of the road.

The question of why drivers act like this has bewildered me for a long time, but then I read Lloyd’s fascinating post on driver psychology toward cyclists. I shared it on Facebook and soon encountered a shocking amount of hostility toward cyclists that I hadn’t realized exists – even among my own friends. Sadly, now my scary rides make more sense.

Some said they “hated” cyclists and that me being in the middle was illegal (never mind the cars passing too closely). Another asked, “Shouldn't the slower moving (and more susceptible to being crushed) bicycles yield to a larger vehicle?” The majority expressed concern: “This is flat-out dangerous. You are going far slower than the speed limit; you're silent, and pretty much invisible to cars. You should really consider changing your route.”

My experiences, and these comments, have made me realize a few things.

Many drivers do not even know the rules of the road or understand that cyclists have just as much a right to road space as they do. They see cyclists as temporary invaders, something that disrupts the flow of their drive. Worst of all, they resent having to slow down and complain about having to brake for cyclists, despite the fact that the limit is a maximum. As a commenter wrote several years ago on another rural cycling post I wrote:

“Motorists need to get used to the idea of sharing the road. And yes, this means that from time to time they will be traveling at a speed less than the posted limit (instead of the 10 mph over the limit that they are accustomed to). Fact is, the real delay that they suffer is generally just a few minutes at worst, and often amounts to tens of seconds, or (as is so often the case in an urban setting where the cyclist simply catches up with passing traffic at the next light) exactly zero delay at all.”

Second, few drivers know how awful the pavement conditions can be. In my town there are huge cracks, potholes, and drains on the right side of the road – things you’d never see from a car. As a cyclist, riding fast on a straight flat highway, it could be suicide to hit one of these holes at the wrong angle. Until the roads department makes asphalt safer for cyclists, no one should have an issue with cyclists riding in the center of the lane to avoid getting caught and falling over.

What does it actually mean to be "bike-friendly"?

This is a label I’ve heard used to describe my town, which I find amusing. To me, there are a few different version of bike-friendly. One is for "fun" riding only – trails for toodling around while on vacation or enjoying a lazy Sunday. If you want to watch a sunset or look at birds or go on a family picnic, then my town has several nice options.

But a truly bike-friendly town also prioritizes and supports the use of bicycles for regular transportation and daily commuting. My town has none of this. As soon as you’re a non-tourist wanting to pick up groceries, grab a coffee, or go to the gym, you’re thrown to the wolves, for all they care. Not only is the infrastructure non-existent, but there are no efforts to educate or encourage drivers to welcome cyclists.

Sure, it recently installed some weird circular bike locking posts downtown, but there are countless stores without places to lock up (like the liquor store – so annoying). The stoplights don’t recognize the presence of bikes, unless you pull up on the sidewalk and hit the pedestrian button. There are no shoulders or bike lanes on the main street or any residential streets, not even to connect the aforementioned recreational trails.

It’s pathetic that people like myself feel as though we are punished for wanting to choose a greener mode of transportation and for being physically active in the process. And yet this is just another example of what Lloyd writes about all the time – the supremacy of cars in our culture and the social domination they exert over the rest of us, because they can. Nevertheless, I will persist.