Cyclistically Speaking

I haven’t been blogging as much because I’ve been super busy at work, and — this may be shocking, so sit down — after day in front of a computer screen writing I don’t feel much like spending the evening in front of a computer screen writing. But I’m going to break that today, because the Seattle Times published an article that infuriated me so deeply, on so many levels, I have to address it.

The article: “Spokane woman is standing up to cyclist who yelled ‘Hot pizza!’ and then smashed into her on trail

OK, let’s set aside for the moment the fact that The Times used some pretty emotionally charged language in the headline — “smashed” and “standing up to” both carry some notable emotional connotations — and let’s take a look at the article.

It describes this scenario:

A lady and her friend were walking side-by-side down a shared-use path where other people were also out walking, including some moms with strollers and people with dogs. As the lady walked along, a guy riding his bike approached from behind and yelled, “Hot pizza!” Then the cyclist hit the lady, who had kept walking along the same way she’d been going. The cyclist started cursing the lady for not getting out of his way, although there was plenty of room to her left to pass around her. The lady suffered a fractured elbow, and the cyclist re-broke a recently healed broken wrist and broke his nose.

The cyclist apparently yells “Hot pizza!” because people misinterpret “On your left,” the traditional salutation of cyclists passing slower trail users. The cyclist seemed to expect the walking lady to interpret “Hot pizza!” as a request to move out of his way, and he kept riding as if she was already out of the way… and then got angry at her for not moving. Other witnesses affirmed that there was plenty of room on the trail to go around.

The cyclist said he didn’t slow down because he doesn’t like to slow down.

Let’s break this down from a cyclist’s perspective.

First, I wasn’t there, but based on what I read, the cyclist was unequivocally in the wrong. When riding on a trail, cyclists have responsibilities:

  1. Be predictable.
  2. Ride at speeds appropriate for the conditions. If there are lots of other trail users, slow down.
  3. Be prepared to stop at any time.
  4. Yield to ALL other trail users. As the fastest-moving vehicles on the path, we have the greatest responsibility for all users’ common safety.
  5. Pass other trail users with at least a couple feet between. If you’re passing people walking or riding two abreast, wait until the trail is completely clear and then go around after clearly communicating with the other trail users.
  6. Ride single-file. (I appreciate when slower trail users, who hear me call out, move from two abreast to single file, but it’s not necessary.)
  7. Use some kind of auditory signal well in advance of passing slower trail users. Call out with plenty of time for the person you’re passing to figure out what’s going on and respond. If “on your left” doesn’t get a response, try “coming up behind you” or, better yet, ring a bell — you don’t even have to speak English to recognize that sound! It’s the cyclist’s job to communicate clearly, and calling out “Hot pizza” definitely doesn’t communicate clearly.
    NOTE: “On your left” does not mean “Move out of my way,” or “I have the right of way.” It’s a polite notification that you’re going by and a request that the other trail user doesn’t move into the space you’re about to occupy as you pass them. It’s 100% appropriate for slower trail users to just keep going on in a straight line having heard you; it’s extra-courteous if they choose to move right a bit. The only thing they shouldn’t do is dodge to the left unexpectedly.

Second: I know it sounds totally egregious for the cyclist to say “I don’t like slowing down.” Of course, you should slow down to avoid a collision. Keep control of your bike and don’t hit people — seems elementary, but some things need stating explicitly. But honestly, I know that feeling. Momentum is a terrible thing to waste, as they say; when I’ve finally gotten some speed up, I certainly don’t appreciate having to brake for some unpredictable pedestrian or their stupid little rat-dog on an extending leash and then use a bunch of energy to get speeded back up all over again. I much prefer rolling smoothly along with fewer stops. But that’s not how riding on shared-use trails works most of the time.

When I commute on the Burke-Gilman, I ride from Fremont all the way to Bothell, something like 15 miles on the trail, including going right through the heart of the University of Washington and along some very pedestrian-heavy sections near parks. I see everything on the trail — people walking, jogging, strolling, walking their dogs, walking their children in strollers, walking their dogs in strollers, walking their birds, pushing BBQs, you name it; and, more and more, I see lots of people wobbling along on the super-cheap bikeshare bikes (fodder for another post), weaving all over and stopping and dodging unpredictably. Through it all, I remain prepared to slow, stop, or swerve; I ride defensively, predicting collisions and actively avoiding them; and I call out or use my bell continually.

Do I want to slow down for all these people? No. I want to get home. I have 21.4 miles to cover, and I already know it’s going to take at least 75 minutes, possibly more. I want to get rolling and not stop until I get home. Yes, sometimes I get grouchy and don’t want to slow down, because this is the 492nd person who has stepped into my path; but that’s why I have a bell. I ding-ding the heck out of that thing, and everyone knows what I mean and I don’t even sound as grouchy as I actually am. And I slow down, because ultimately I’m responsible for the well-being of everyone slower than me on that path when I’m going by them.

Third: The cyclist in that story said he had something like 25 broken bones from riding. He expected to break bones and get injured while riding. This, more than anything, speaks volumes about his entitled and inappropriate attitude. I’ve ridden 75,850 miles since July, 2008 and in that time, I’ve had two significant crashes, one resulting in a minor concussion, neither resulting in broken bones. One time, I was hit by a car (story here and here); the other my front fork failed as I braked. The latter could, conceivably, have been my fault, for following too close to an unfamiliar cyclist, although the fork shouldn’t have failed like that, either. That was in 2010. I haven’t had a crash of any sort since then — riding in groups and riding alone; riding fast and riding slow; riding pregnant; commuting in the city and in the suburbs and on trails. All without mishap.

In any case, I think it’s a tribute to the efficacy of courteous, defensive riding that in all those miles, I’ve never hit any little old ladies or broken any bones — mine or other people’s. This is what we should expect from all cyclists, and it’s not a hard thing to achieve. But it requires actual teaching of bicycle skills, the same as you learn how to drive a car. Parents teach their kids to pedal and balance bikes, but they don’t teach rules of the road or rights and responsibilities of cyclists.

This is one of the things I really believed in with the Bicycle Alliance of Washington (now Washington Bikes, although apparently pretty much consumed by the vast amoeba that is the Cascade Bicycle Club) and with the League of American Bicyclists, for whom I taught many Bike Ed classes back in the day. I sincerely believe that better education for cyclists — maybe even mandatory education — is crucial to ongoing successful relationships with all the users of our infrastructure.

Okay, it’s implausible to imagine most people getting real, honest-to-goodness bike education. But most cyclists tootle along perfectly safely and courteously, getting from Point A to Point B (or, if it’s a recreational ride, maybe just back to Point A) without hurting anyone.

That’s why I’m irate at this story (not the Seattle Times, just the actual events). That bicyclist is a fluke, the equivalent of the driver with sleep apnea who, several times, killed passers-by while having fallen asleep behind the wheel. Does this mean most drivers are deadly? Or even most drivers with sleep apnea? No; it shows that one guy had colossally bad judgment.

In the same way, this one cyclist doesn’t represent us. He’s a clearly selfish, thoughtless, unskilled rider who’s willing to put himself and others at risk for minimal gain. The way the article is written, though, it almost sounds like he’s speaking on behalf of cyclists. I kept waiting for them to get to a quote from Cascade or some bicycle authority disavowing this behavior, but never found such a thing.

Certainly this will give non-cyclists more fodder for howling about those darn irresponsible dangerous cyclists injuring innocent people. While that’s certainly not behavior to tolerate, the fact is that such collisions comprise such a minute, infinitesimal, microscopic — is there any other way to say “tiny”? — proportion of all bike crashes that any response is going to be way out of proportion with the risk.

So, yes, I’m pissed off. I’m pissed off that an irresponsible jerk has gone and made all of us look bad, and now we’re all going to have to suffer as a result.

Meanwhile, I’m going to keep on riding defensively, courteously, and legally. My goal, since I became a bike instructor, has remained the same: Avoid collisions, and if I can’t avoid a collision, make darned sure it’s not my fault.