And motorists wonder why cyclists are so combative...

Published 2009-09-18

So this morning a guy yelled at me for signalling a legal lane change.

I made a (signalled, legal) lane change into the far right lane on a one-way street. Then I noticed that on the next block, this lane was closed for construction. So I immediately signalled a change back into the lane I had been in. I noticed the car that I had just changed in front of was immediately to my left (i.e. in my line of travel), so, while signalling my lane change I gave him a little wave-wave gesture meaning “you pull ahead so I can pull in behind you.”

At which point he rolled down the window and shouted at me: “You just changed out of this lane!” (For the record, he was driving an Acura, which I’m fast learning is the preferred car make of egotists with entitlement issues.)

I knew he couldn’t see the lane ahead like I could (cyclists have good visual command of the roadway, being up at SUV height and having no blind spots). So I said, as politely as I could while being yelled at, in traffic, with only one hand on my handlebars: “The lane ahead is closed, you fucking moron.” (OK, I left out the last part).

He dropped back (!) so I changed lanes in front of him. As we passed the obstruction I pointed at the lane closure and mimed “This is what I was talking about. You fucking moron.” I don’t know how well this translated, especially that last part.

But here’s what gets me: everything I did was completely, totally legal. Courteous, even. And we were all moving at the same (downtown rush hour) speed: about 13mph. There were a great many nonlegal, noncourteous things I could have done in this situation, including ride through the lane closure past the construction equipment, cut the guy off without signalling, or ride down the lane stripes. I didn’t, but got yelled at as if I had.

On my last few blocks into work, I tried to parse exactly what the Acura guy wanted me to do, and the best I can figure is “vanish from the face of the Earth.” Not just me, specifically, but all traffic between his present location and his intended destination. It’s just that I was on a bike and therefore a) unprotected and b) available for yelling at in a way I wouldn’t have been were I in a car. So he felt he could yell at me without fear of retribution.

So this reminds me of two stories.

Story the First

When I was in elementary school, all the teachers held the boys in my grade late one day. Someone, they said, had pooped in a urinal in the boys’ room, and we would all be punished until the culprit(s) stepped forward. No one stepped forward, so we were all punished. (I forget the punishment.) Indignant, all the fifth grade boys met at recess to find the bad guy, but again, no one stepped forward. While we were meeting, some of the popular girls came over and asked what we were doing, so we told them. They started laughing: because one of them had pooped in a urinal one day. (In thinking about it now, I wonder if she — one of the really pretty teacher pet types who teachers would never imagine doing such a thing, but who was one of the chief psychological tormentors on the playground — hadn’t done this particular deed to achieve just this effect: to get some boy(s) in trouble.)

A few days later, a couple of the more-troublesome boys pooped on the floor in the girls’ bathroom. The logic was flawless: if we’re going to be punished regardless of our behavior, we might as well do the things we’re being punished for. Of course, we were all punished again, but this time we knew who did it, and why, and we felt triumphant, not indignant.

So the next time you see a cyclist blow a red light, remember this story about fifth graders pooping, and my altercation with the Acura guy.

Story the Second

At some point in the 1980s, when systemic homelessness was a relatively new problem, I recall watching a talking head TV show about the subject. One of the panelists was a lady Reaganite, someone in the Phyllis Schafly mold. Hell, it might have been Phyllis Schafly. She offered no useful solutions to the problem of homelessness beyond, basically, “people shouldn’t allow themselves to be homeless.” When pressed about confounding factors like drug addiction or mental illness, she had no quick answer and kind of got flustered. She blurted out something like “if we quit feeding the homeless, pretty soon they’ll all go away.” The subtext was obvious: they would either clean up, or die. (This might actually be a workable solution, I dunno. This story isn’t really about homelessness, so lets don’t talk about that.)

Her “solution” to homelessness was exactly the same “solution” that many noisy anti-bicycle commentators (and I imagine Acura Guy) offer: ”couldn’t you all just vanish?” This is the de facto behavior of many drivers. They cut me off, hook me while turning, jump stop signs in front of me, refuse to yield right of way. They fail to see bicycles as legitimate traffic. They may (like Acura Guy) hold this view consciously, which is bad enough, but I have enough faith in humanity to assume most of the people who honk and yell at me won’t, when pressed, actually murder me.

But most drivers hold this view unconsciously, like the woman who damn near right-hooked me (i.e. turned right across my line of travel) this very morning at the Vermont/Capital Highway intersection. She wasn’t mad at me — she didn’t even recognize my humanity enough to hate me. I was not even worth looking for. These are the people that scare me, although they don’t make me nearly as mad. I have such encounters — which could quickly injure or kill me — probably two or three times a week. I’m still alive after commuting by bike in this city for nearly a decade, because I have to make the sad assumption that I actually am invisible, unless I’m directly in front of someone’s bumper, pissing them off. I’d rather have a motorist angrily acknowledge my existence than accidently kill me. Equal road access isn’t just an abstract principle; to someone on a bicycle it’s a matter of life and death.

In the “war” between cyclists and motorists (which I think is bogus, BTW, but let’s just play along for now), cyclists “win” if they continue to exist. Conversely, motorists will “win” when all the cyclists have either given up and quit riding, or died gruesome deaths in traffic collisions. These are not morally equivalent outcomes.

So the next time you hear a pro-cycling commentator bluster about equal access to the roads, remember this story about the lady Reaganite and homelessness, and my altercation with the Acura guy.