Here's How Drivers Can Be Allies to Cyclists and Nonmotorized Traffic

Those of us who do drive can play an active and even aggressive role in making streets safer for those who do not.

Bicyclists on Park Avenue in New York City

Bo Zaunders / Getty Images

Generally speaking, when you see a cyclist tweeting about a car driver’s behavior, you know it will not end well. And yet I recently saw a thread on Twitter from bike advocate and data engineer Anna Bailliekova that stopped me in my tracks: 

I’ve always believed that the "us versus them" debate between drivers and cyclists is counterproductive, especially in a society where car dependence is pretty much baked in, and where dangerous roads discourage many of us from biking, walking, or rolling as much as we otherwise would. But Bailliekova’s story isn’t simply a reminder that not all drivers are bad. Rather, it spotlights that those of us who do drive can play an active and even aggressive role in making streets safer for those who do not. 

So, what does that look like? 

The first and most obvious place to start is to drive less, smaller, greener, and slower. That means using alternatives wherever possible. It means choosing a vehicle that is right-sized for our real-world needs. It means choosing electric—and preferably used—if possible. And it means sticking to and even going under the speed limit, both to limit our fuel consumption and to make roads safer for everybody. 

But as Baillekova’s tweet shows, we can also use our vehicles mindfully to protect vulnerable road users, and drive defensively—not just for ourselves, but the community around us too. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about since I read that original tweet.

Like many folks in the United States, I am a cyclist, a driver, and a pedestrian too. And while I get immensely angry at discourteous drivers when I happen to be on my e-bike, I would be lying if I claimed to have never gotten impatient and/or inattentive when navigating around a cyclist. 

So alongside slowing down and driving less frequently, I’ve been working to become more actively attentive to the traffic unrelated to cars that I now see on the road: 

  • If I’m passing a cyclist, do I have enough space not just to be safe, but to make sure they feel safe too? 
  • Is there less patient traffic behind me that could threaten a cyclist? And would waiting to pass help prevent that from happening? 
  • Am I communicating clearly with cyclists and pedestrians, so that they know that I see them and that I am looking out for their safety? 

These really should be entry-level considerations for anyone that’s allowed to drive a car. But in a society where those traveling without cars have been deprioritized, belittled, and even dehumanized, we all need to make an active effort to keep them at the front and center of our consciousness. 

As I was writing this piece, I came across another Twitter change that neatly and succinctly framed why, in reality, this is so difficult to actually do: 

Modern cars and trucks, by their very nature, separate us from other road users. They are designed to protect the occupant, but in doing so they often put those outside the vehicle at greater risk of injury. Yet as I learned on my recent vacation on a bougie, car-free island, the very nature of navigating traffic changes when those barriers between people are removed. 

So roll down your windows. Make eye contact often. Go slow. Be courteous. Protect those around you. (You can even start thinking about transitioning to a golf cart if you can!) We can’t all give up driving overnight. But we can start driving in a way that makes not driving easier for all of us.