A lane is roughly 8 feet wide, a car is four to five feet wide, why the hostility leaving 3 feet for a bike?
I’ve been commenting on twitter this past week, weighing in on the controversy created by the new province of Ontario law calling for automobile drivers to leave 1 meter (3 feet) between themselves and any bicycle that they pass.
Awareness of this new law has spawned hostility on both sides.
Cyclists demanding rights, and automobile drivers feeling that something has been taken from them. At its extremes, some cyclists believe that they have a right to travel wherever they want at whatever pace they chose, unimpeded, while car drivers demand that bikes be removed from the roadways altogether since they do not pay a gas tax that funds road repairs.
Caught in the middle are the average citizens who simply want the freedom to choose whichever mode of transportation meets their needs on a given day, and if they cycle, only want to arrive home again in one piece.
In my case, I have cars and bikes and spent many years travelling on motorcycles. Just as in my consulting work helping organizations with identifying and implanting improvements, I see each side’s issues and know that change does not always come easily.
Here are a few of my observations relating to these versus cars issue:
1) The language used to communicate the law appears flawed. As a result some car drivers feel disadvantaged as if something was taken from them. Language informs behaviour, and the intent of the laws is to encourage good and sensible behaviour. Here are some language examples in my own words
Paraphrasing the current law, If you break the law and do not leave a cyclist one meter of space as you are passing, you will be fined $180.00 and two demerit points.
(Penalties are unfair say car drivers, but to my mind the reality of taking an unnecessary risk of passing too closely could end badly for both parties. The cyclist would be dead and the car driver could be put in jail for manslaughter. The fine really should really be for endangerment).
Alternative for awareness campaigns, how about: Please pass cyclists at a safe distance.
Apparently some people aren't able to judge, or willing to think about what a safe distance might be, so the Ontario government has essentially said:
We recommend 1 meter particularly if you are passing at speed (as compared to sitting beside each other at an intersection awaiting a green light). In fact, since many motorists have demonstrated that the do not know how to judge what is a safe distance, we have implemented a new law insisting on 1 meter minimum, which in many cases still allows the car to pass safely while remaining in their own lane. In situations where road conditions do not allow the car to stay in its own lane while passing a cyclist, it is acceptable to move across the centre line when the driver deems it safe to do so. If it is not safe, please wait a moment for the opportunity to pass safely
Those are my words not theirs, but I believe that it is a good interpretation. As always I am open to feedback on this and all of my blog posts though. I'm sure there could be some refinement if you or I thought about it more.
2) While I am at the language issue, why not also tackle the language used to describe other driving situations such as the use of the left hand lane on a four-lane highway.
Currently signs typically indicate that slow cars should travel in the right lane, and the left lane is for faster cars. Since nobody wants to think of themselves as slow drivers, or admitting that they may own a slow car, everyone travels in the left lane, clogging it up and impeding traffic, particularly if the car to the left is travelling beside the car in the right lane at exactly the same speed. Conversly, a slow driver will stay in the right lane close to a cyclist when they could have swung wide into the next lane when it is safe to do so.
As a car driver, lane hogs drive me nuts. As a cyclist I wonder why when the left lane is empty, a car would pass my bicycle in the right with only inches to spare ?
This one is more easily solved.
Revised language: Please keep right except to pass. (Then move left to pass at a safe distance).
3) Cyclists are not immune from flawed thinking.
For example, my wife and I were cycling along a busy downtown road in a dedicated cycling lane, and following another rider. As we got to the street that we wanted to turn right on, the cyclist in front of us chose to turn right in unison with the car that was driving just ahead of but now beside him and also turning right. A right hand turn such as this one with a curb is known as a pinch-point since the cyclist could get pinched between the car and the curb. As we pulled up at the next stoplight, the unknown cyclists commented to us that the car driver was stupid. I asked if the cyclist was aware that the car was turning, and if so why he didn't just drop back for a moment until the car cleared the corner, to which he replied “ yes, but I have a right to the road. He has to give me room. “
I can tell you that in my 30 years of also riding motorcycles, commuting, touring cross country, and in fact also racing competitively on closed circuits, common wisdom among motorcyclists is that you have the right, but you’ll be dead-right. Why not ride defensively? To my mind the same thinking applies to bicycles as well as any other mode of transportation. If you could avoid a potentially bad situation why not?
(BTW since cyclists reading this are bound to point out that sometimes cars accelerate passed a bike and then immediately turn across their bow, rather than slowing and following he bike to the intersection. My advice about defensive and courteous driving applies to everyone sharing the road.)
4) Another example of flawed thinking I believe is that a cyclist should be able to maintain their own pace as they cycle through the downtown core.
The result of this belief is that many cyclists put themselves in similarly precarious situations and then complain about other traffic. For example, if a car is parked illegally on the hand side of a one way street, and a bus travelling on the right has to enter the bicycle lane to get around the car, is this not just good etiquette for the cyclist to be patient and slow down when approaching the bus up ahead, rather than screaming madly about this injustice inflicted upon them? To be clear I am not talking about a situation where the cyclist has already arrived on the scene and is put in danger. I am referring to a situation where the bus is up ahead and the cyclist catches up after the bus has slowed and enters the lane to manoeuvre around the obstacle.
One more example while I am at it: We have a dedicated bike lane with barriers, allowing cyclists to travel safely to the right of traffic. Cars at intersections have signs instructing them that when turning right, watch for passing cyclists on the right, and yield the right of way to them. The problem is that now many fast cyclists feel they have the god given right to the intersection and I have seen many almost (or actually) run themselves into the side of a right turning car. To my mind, if the car is quite a few lengths up ahead of the cyclist, and has their right hand turn signal flashing, with the car obviously positioned to make a right hand turn, why would a cyclist continue at 40km/hr rather than just time it and back off the cycling pace just a bit allowing the car to clear the intersection before they arrive? To my mind, both the car lane and the cycle lane should have a yield sign, a caution sign or a let the vehicle ahead precede sign of some sort.
I have many more thoughts on this but my final thought for today is that some people seem to lack the ability to see the bigger picture and therefore constantly feel that people are doing things to them.
This often results in a passive aggressive stance such as car drivers trying to “dust a cyclist off the road” by passing them uncomfortably close to make a point, or a cyclist intentionally putting themselves in harms way for the same reason.
The reality though is that other than the most damaged people in society, most just want to go about their business without drama, and arrive home in one piece rather than being sent on a trip to jail or the cemetery.
Many cyclist enjoy driving and riding and just want to be safe in either situation with a little buffer in between.
What about cycling on sidewalks away from cars?
First of all in many cities and towns that is illegal. A road bike can travel between 25 and 40km/hr on a flat section of road. Pedestrian walkways are not the best place to put a fast moving vehicle relative to pedestrians.
In addition, as pedestrian I often have difficulty navigating a sidewalk as groups of people walk towards me four abreast, not wanting to miss out on the conversation or moving over.
The bottom line I believe is that these issues are about considerate people versus those who are not, regardless of transportation mode.