Share the road: What bicyclists wished drivers knew & vice versa

June 28, 2018 • Transportation

By Anna Walters - Events & Communications Manager at Bikes Make Life Better

Okay, I’ll just go out and say it right now: There is an undeniable tension between cyclists and drivers. Cyclists constantly fear getting doored or right-hooked. Drivers are vexed by cyclists blowing through stop signs. Cyclists loathe cars that park in the bike lane. And drivers are startled when they suddenly come up on a bike without lights in the night.

For this blog post, let’s bury the hatchet and try to drive and ride a mile in one-another’s loafers and clip ins. Here are things bicyclists would like drivers to know and vice versa.

But wait, dear reader, I have one more admission: I am a daily cyclist. I bike all over the Bay Area. I don’t own a car. But I’m also a transportation wonk, have a driver’s license, and do drive on occasion. For this story, I talked to drivers and bicyclists, and will let their POVs—not my own—guide this narrative. Still, my apologies if you detect bias.

Life in the bike lane

One of the biggest take-aways from my discussions with cyclists was just how scary it is to be a small, unprotected, slow moving thing in a sea of huge, armored, speedy things. Isabella Chu, who works at Stanford and bikes to work, summed it up best: “Although bicycles are vehicles and most bicyclists are wearing a foam hat, bicyclists are more vulnerable since they have to share the road with vehicles that weigh 100 to 200 times more than they do.” A small mistake on the road usually doesn’t spell death for the driver of a car, whereas a minor miscalculation can mean serious injury or worse for a bicyclist.

Sometimes bicyclists use the sidewalk

Because of this fact, bicyclists will often do things that make them feel safe, even if contrary to vehicle code. For Chu, this means she sometimes rides on the sidewalk if the roadway seems dangerous or uses crosswalks to cross busy intersections. “I’ve been yelled at by motorists driving 5,000 pound cars for using a crosswalk (with my feet on the ground) to get across a busy street. I wish they knew how vulnerable cyclists are.”

Bicyclists can take the lane, but most want to leave room for drivers

Any roadway user knows it can be tough to negotiate space, especially when speeds vary from vehicle to vehicle. It’s extra tough for cyclists riding on a road without a bike lane, a narrow shoulder, or a row of parked cars (or a combination of all three). In these cases (and a few others), a cyclist will likely “take the lane,” a move they’re legally allowed to do. Otherwise, bicyclists must ride as close to the right side of the road as practicable. So drivers, please be kind if you find yourself temporarily stuck behind a cyclist—they will move to the right and let you pass as soon as it is safe.

Car doors can break collarbones

Ah, the door zone; it’s the cyclist version of the hot lava monster. The cyclists I talked to tried to balance avoiding the door zone (lest an unassuming motorist open their driver’s side) and leaving enough room for cars to pass safely. The League of American Cyclists (LAB) advises riding three feet to the left of parked cars in the right lane to avoid getting doored. The fear is very real. “Dooring collisions are likely one of the more common bicyclist-vehicle collision types, particularly in urban areas,” according to LAB. “Between 2010 and 2012, data from the City of Chicago showed dooring crashes making up between 7.3 and 19.7 percent of reported bicycle crashes.”

Bicyclists are also trying to avoid driveways and alleys where cars may be backing out suddenly and unable to see a cyclist crossing their path.

Fear of the dreaded “right hook”

“No one I know who has ridden many miles on a bike has not suffered the dreaded “right hook” at one time or another.” This is from Tricia Richter, a Project Manager in Administrative Systems at Stanford. Richter bikes in two to three days a week during the non-winter months, weather and schedule permitting.

What she’s talking about, “right hooks,” are when a car turns sharply across the bike lane to make a right turn or to access a right-turn-only lane. A quick explainer from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition: “A right-turning car is supposed to move into the bike lane before the intersection — anywhere from 200 to 50 feet before — first signaling the lane merge, then merging right to the curb lane, and finally making the actual turn once it’s deemed safe (CVC 21717)."

On her first bike commute of the year, Richter says got close to catastrophe when a car crossed abruptly into the bike lane to make a right turn. “Look, I’m a motorist as well as a cyclist; I understand, it’s exasperating having to wait for a cyclist to get out of the way when you want to make a right turn. But pulling the right hook is (a) illegal and (b) extremely risky! Is the chance to save ten seconds on your commute worth the risk of taking out a cyclist and dealing with the aftermath? Not to mention the damage to your quarter panel!”

Cyclists don’t like it when you park where they ride

I’ve seen a vigilante cyclist slap an “I park in bike lanes” bumper sticker on a Uber languishing in the green lane. While this tactic is far too adversarial to be effective, the point stands: Parking in the bike lane is waaaay inconsiderate.

Cars come too close for comfort

Another common concern cyclists shared was cars passing dangerously close. One cyclist thought that perhaps a good solution would be to have drivers ed students sit on stationary bikes while cars buzzed by them at high speeds (similar to this bus driver training video). This was probably a joke. Baring that, if motorists could keep a minimum of three feet (according to California law) between their vehicles and the bicyclists they’re passing, then bikers wouldn’t panic.

Life behind the wheel

Bikes actually are legally considered vehicles, but boy howdy, they sure don’t act like them sometimes. The most common concern shared by drivers I talked to was this: Bicyclists break traffic rules… a lot. My own mother even had this to say: “I almost I hit [a cyclist] once because they were doing something a car would never be allowed to do! And I pay very close attention to bikes these days. Man, there are some crazy cyclists out there.” Even those that bike themselves can’t help but feel like a few bad actors are ruining the collective reputation.

Maria Hamilton, who works at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati supports “bicyclists 100 percent,” but the small percentage of bicyclists exhibiting negative behaviors, “like riding outside or on the bike lane border and ignoring stop signs or stop lights is enough for others to be biased toward all bicyclists.” Hamilton rode her bike for transportation in elementary school and college, and will consider getting back in the saddle if Bay Area gridlock continues to worsen.

Red means stop

Okay cyclists, it’s time to own up: You’ve totally run a stop sign. I know you have. Heck, I have. Although blowing through a four-way may seem inconsequential, it can be scary and irritating for drivers who are trying to negotiate the intersection, same as you. Not stopping at signs and signals or not yielding to cars with the right of way was the number one issue motorists expressed. And given 41 percent of all bike and pedestrian crashes occur at roadway intersections, heeding signs and signals is a good way to prevent injury or worse.

Be predictable: Stay in the bike lane; ride with traffic; signal

Riding predictably is really the key to making drivers feel comfortable and safe sharing the road with cyclists: “I wish bicyclists would stay out of the driving lanes, and remain in their designated bike lanes,” says Krishna Santhanam who works at Ford. “As a driver, I am extremely nervous when I see this. I appreciate when bicyclists use their signals or hand gestures to indicate which way they are turning.” Cyclists, take heed; this is really good advice. James Tarver, a Development Architect at SAP who bikes from Fremont several days a week has tested this approach: "When I need to change lanes, I point to where I want to go and most drivers are happy to accommodate."

Drivers fear the oncoming. Head on crashes are usually devastating. That’s why highway medians exist. So when drivers encounter a cyclist riding the wrong way in the bike lane, it triggers panic. Plus it’s illegal; just don’t do it.

Distracted bikers are dangerous

Distracted biking is a huge problem for drivers and riders alike, but it’s an especially dangerous practice for cyclists, the more vulnerable of road users. Biking with headphones covering both ears (covering one ear is ok) is illegal, because not being able to hear traffic noises that signal danger can mean a crash. I shouldn’t even have to mention texting or talking while biking (sheesh!). Keep those hands on the bars unless signaling a turn.

There were more points raised by both riders and drivers that I didn’t have space to include, but if you’d like to keep the conversation going, feel free to email me at anna@bikesmakelifebetter.com.

So drivers, cyclists, whaddya say: Truce? Let’s share the road!

Leia Mehlman - Bike Commuter Profile

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