Make way for the king. The automobile rules the road and getting in their way is comparable to heresy. Or, at least, that’s where the American road system has lead our beliefs.
Street designers are always looking for ways to clear the way for a steady flow of auto traffic. This is particularly obvious at busy highway on–ramps and interchanges; the more steady the flow of traffic, the less likely a traffic jam will occur. Unfortunately this has tricked people into thinking that there is a social right to flow. In other words, if you cause a person to hit their brakes, you’re in the wrong, no matter what. The next time you hit a deer on the highway, ask it if it believes in the right to flow.
Automobile flow does make sense when dealing solely with automobiles. Cars are big and fast and wasteful. But city streets are filled with all kinds of non–automobiles: pedestrians, cyclists, dog–walkers, children, the elderly, skateboarders, the differently–abled, construction workers, ipods, and cell phones. The streets are also filled with specialty vehicles that don’t always move in a straight line: emergency response vehicles, garbage trucks, semi trucks with trailers, construction vehicles, taxis, parallel parkers, school buses, delivery trucks, and more.
Despite the incredibly common appearance of any number of these non–commuters and non–automobiles, drivers continue to drive beyond the speed limit and blindly struggle to keep pace in an effort avoid hitting the brakes as often as possible swerving impatiently around a cyclist to race to the next red light. To a driver it makes perfect sense to respect the laws of the uncaring light, which is hanging safely above the dangers of auto traffic. A driver will stop unquestioningly and waiting semi–patiently for the light to turn green. That respect drops dramatically, though, when it comes to merely slowing down and move cautiously around living, breathing human beings. Cyclists are “unpredictable” and that’s aggravating.
When motorists encounter the more vulnerable non–automobiles, their default thought is to view the encounter as a threat, even one as innocuous as a person crossing in the middle of a block. This person, they think, who is in my way is challenging my kingdom. 9News out of Colorado ran a report about threats being made against a local bike race. Trooper David Hall reassured that caution would be taken, but didn’t seem to foresee a real problem. That is very much appreciated, but my problem was in a closing statement made by Hall:
This is not a new issue. I understand the frustration that motorists feel sometimes when they encounter bicycles on the road and I also understand the frustration that bicyclists feel when a motorist is belligerent to someone on a bicycle. This issue is a two way street.
A two way street, perhaps, but a lopsided one. The problem is that Hall is comparing a motorist “encountering” a cyclist to a cyclist being threatened by a motorist. Hall is essentially saying the two are the same and that bikes on the road are, by default, an assault on a motorist.
Really those cyclists are an assault on the myth of flow. Cyclists aren’t out to piss off motorists. They’re out to ride their bikes.
I encountered a belligerent driver on my way back to work a few weeks ago. Traffic was traveling at a very moderate pace due to the signals which were programmed to shuffle cars through a pedestrian heavy area at a safe speed. As I attempted to merge from the bike lane a man in a suburban didn’t appreciate my butting in and accelerated, knocking me off my bike, in a threatening (thankfully), not injuring manor.
His anger was particularly unjustified as he had nowhere else to go, but in the 10 feet between him and the next car that I was presently trying to occupy. When I was on my feet I immediately called the police. They reviewed both sides of our story (My claim was that he hit me, his claim was that I was interrupting traffic) and they reviewed the stories of two witnesses (One saw me swearing at the guy to stop hitting me, one saw him actually hit me). Their ultimate decision was that it was a “misunderstanding.” They didn’t write warnings (they apparently don’t do this in Milwaukee) and they didn’t file a report, so it essentially it was like it never happened. I talked to Attorney Daniel E. Goldberg about what I could do, but since there was no report, my bike wasn’t damaged and I wasn’t damaged, there wasn’t much I could do.
Then not even a week later, two Milwaukee police officers were hit on their bikes in two separate incidents. I wondered towards the Milwaukee Police, if those incidents were considered “misunderstandings” as well.
If you’re ever in a car to bike accident:
- Do not overreact. Do not yell at the person. Do not assault their vehicle. The law will treat you as if you are a car, not a cyclist and not a pedestrian.
- Get the license plate number.
- Get the names and numbers of all witnesses immediately. Witnesses tend to leave the area when they’re needed most: when the police arrive.
- Get the name of the officer.
- Demand that they file a report.
But this city is slowly livening up to the idea that there are more people on the road than just themselves. This weekend my neighborhood is running a 24 hour bike race calledThe Riverwest 24. In only its second year it has managed to attract over 350 registered riders, with the expectation that it will continue to rise, well into the hours before the race begins.
If you want to see what it looks like when a cities residents, both motorized and pedal powered, start to cooperate come out and cheer on the races.
[EDIT: This blog is dedicated to Terry Smith of Waukesha and the people who agree.]