Most of you will understand this immediately, but it honestly took me years to figure it out. Riding my bike home from work one afternoon some years back, I slowed approaching a downtown stoplight, and seeing no cross traffic, carried on through the intersection. When traffic caught back up to me, I was taken completely off guard by the earful I got from a driver in the adjacent lane.
It didn't make any sense! I hadn't cut her off or given her a dirty look. I wasn't wearing a shirt with a self-righteous message. It seemed pretty clear that I hadn't inconvenienced her in any way—so why the abuse? I needed several years and a few thousand trips by foot, bike, and car to make sense of that incident. There I was, asserting my bicycle's status as a vehicle by riding on the road. I was relying on the operators of other vehicles to respect my rights on the road, but I was unwilling to be inconvenienced when it was my turn to yield. It wasn't any inconvenience that driver was objecting to, it was my hypocrisy.
Here's a fact: cyclists feel good about our choice to ride for transportation. We have a tendency to devour any study or article affirming cycling as healthy, brave, and important. We can quote you statistics about foreign oil and air pollution and life expectancy. All of which is entirely reasonable, but a danger arises when we conclude that our reduced impact on pollution and congestion, and the minimal threat we pose to others, somehow means our only responsibility in riding is to protect ourselves. It's as if we relish imagining ourselves the dogs trotting among the hooves of the warhorses. That's not only unambitious, it's inaccurate. The fact is that cyclists have an outsized impact on the drivers around us. We won't improve bicycle safety or relations between cyclists and drivers without acknowledging that impact.
You might expect cyclists, often enough marginalized on the roadways, to treat pedestrians with the utmost of deference—the way we wish drivers would treat us. But to hear some pedestrians tell it, our track record perpetuating the cycle of disrespect is dismal. Cars, at least, don't chase them onto the sidewalks and greenways. Cars, at least, don't sneak up behind them. Cyclists have been slow to embrace pedestrian rights as first among transportation rights; that is a major failing.
It gets messy sometimes, when we start thinking in groups and resenting the others. One way of counteracting that tendency is mixing up the way we get around. It's hard to delay a line of cars while biking, knowing that this weekend I'll be one of those delayed drivers. I'm less likely to step off the curb mid-block in front of a cyclist knowing firsthand how frustrating it is when a pedestrian disregards me like that. And my tendency to mindlessly blow past a pedestrian at a crosswalk has dropped off considerably since I've started walking to the grocery store a couple times a week.
I recall another interaction I had with a driver, and this one completes the lesson of the story I opened with. I understood its significance immediately. I was picking up a few things at the grocery once when a man stopped me. "Was that you out there on the bike?" I told him yep, that was me. "I can't believe you used hand signals! That was so great! Man, I wish all bikers would do that." I'm convinced that interaction, like the one after I ran the red light, had little to do with any inconvenience or service given to the driver. In both cases, what made an impact was the root attitude I was revealing.
If we are serious about extracting ourselves from this slough of auto dependence, we'll need more than technology and planning and infrastructure. Every one of us who sets foot out our front door will need to be aware that our travel impacts other people. And for that awareness to mean anything to us, we'll need something more basic still: we'll need respect.