is a professor of sociology at
Bryn Mawr College
By law and in practice, drivers and bike riders are ostensibly committed to sharing the road as fellow vehicles. My recent experience suggests that we must abandon this strategy: Drivers need to treat bicyclists like they treat pedestrians.
Having cut my driving teeth on getting into the Midtown Tunnel in New York City at rush hour, I have grown up to be a very aware - some might say aggressive, but let's agree on very engaged - driver for the last 45 years.
I have a very strong sense of right and wrong on the road: My wife calls me "the traffic czar." Had I been so empowered, many, many drivers would have had their licenses suspended (or revoked) even for minor transgressions. My attitude (and practice) toward bicycle riders, to the extent that I thought about them at all, was to get past them as quickly as possible.
But then I became one. All of a sudden, I actually thought about cyclists. I had major new insights into how car drivers should accommodate cyclists, especially when I saw and experienced how drivers dealt with me, the cyclist.
As a cyclist, I immediately became enamored of "Share the Road" signs. I began to commute with some frequency from home to work through the western Philadelphia suburbs (a six-mile journey, undertaken only outside of rush hour). At the beginning, I saw my bicycle-riding self as a vehicle and expected to be accommodated as such. After all, that's the law. I began to "act" like a vehicle, obeying road signs and traffic lights.
When I was back in my car, outfitted with my new double consciousness as both a driver and a cyclist, I followed the Golden Rule and treated the bike riders as "fellow vehicles." They had just as much right to the road as I did. I gave them a wide berth as I passed them and I stayed a few car lengths behind them if traffic was such that I couldn't pass them.
I did research about laws related to bicycle riders. It turns out that approximately half the states have "safe passing" laws that require drivers to cede at least three feet as they pass cyclists. In Pennsylvania, the law dictates four feet. These laws allow drivers to cross a double yellow line in order to give enough passing space to bicycle riders.
As I adapted to my new identity as a part-time cyclist, however, I was amazed (having completely forgotten my pre-cycling attitude) at how many fellow drivers treated cyclists as simply nuisances on the road. Based on their driving, it appeared that they regarded cyclists as slow, annoying, unpredictable, and, occasionally, willfully obstructionist hindrances to be overcome.
There were countless times I would be passed by a car with a right-side mirror coming within inches of my handlebars. After muttering to myself "Really???!!!! You #$%^%$!," I continued to pedal away, hoping that the next car might provide me a wider berth.
Then last month, rotator-cuff surgery put a temporary end to my career as a cyclist, it being difficult to ride a bike with only one arm. Casting about for an alternative exercise, I decided that walking would be a suitable replacement. Though there were no sidewalks on my regular bike route, I nevertheless decided to "commute" by walking.
To my utter amazement, drivers seemed incredibly sensitive and courteous to my pedestrian self. I was so shocked that I had to try this two-hour walk twice (this experience was confirmed on other routes around my neighborhood). Drivers not only moved across the double yellow line to provide me a comfortable margin of safety but two cars virtually stopped to let cars pass in the other lane so that they could give me a wider berth, even while I was clearly on the shoulder. This seemingly reflexive courtesy was in evidence whether I walked with or against traffic.
So, why is it that the drivers on the same roads at the same times of day reacted so differently to cyclists and pedestrians? The simple answer is that all drivers have been pedestrians and very few have been cyclists.
Instinctively, drivers, even aggressive ones, define this odd species called cyclists as fellow vehicles, something always in the way, way too slow, and unnecessarily unpredictable. They unconsciously define the very familiar pedestrians as unprotected, vulnerable, and, ultimately, as having the right of way.
So, maybe we have to stop thinking of bike riders as vehicles. We know how some drivers treat fellow drivers; and they seem to treat cyclists as badly. So, never mind. Let's share the road with those non-vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists alike.