Monday, May 13, 2013

An inconvenient truth about cycling by the rules

Battling cyclist entitlement

The Atlantic Cities has posted an excellent opinion article called "Cyclists aren't 'special' and shouldn't play by their own rules". The author, Sarah Goodyear, points to Chicago enacting higher fines for dangerous motorist actions, but also for cyclist rule-breaking. Praising its even-handedness, she states the following:

I am truly sick, at this late date, of people wanting to have it both ways: calling for protected bike lanes and a bike share system, demanding that cops step up enforcement when it comes to cars, and then blithely salmoning up a major thoroughfare and expecting everyone look the other way.

If cycling will truly become mainstream, the author emphasizes, it must shed its renegade/outsider trappings and become a team player in our urban environment. As a cyclist, she sees it as a very personal decision:

I am trying to see myself as an ambassador for bicycling and to break the bad habits I formed over years of biking on streets designed solely for cars. If I am going to fight back against the forces that want to intimidate and marginalize me when I am on my bike, I think that riding as squeaky clean as possible is my best strategy these days. The balance has shifted, and with the advent of bike share, modeling good behavior is going to be more vital than ever. Not just to prove the naysayers wrong, but also to be truly safer riders.

And I agree. I try very hard to bike legally and cleanly in a civil and accommodating manner. I too have bad habits formed over the years of biking in an environment designed for automobiles that I suppress. I sometimes see that desire to have our cake and eat it too amongst other cycling advocates and I try to avoid it myself. And yet...

And yet...

Surviving in a hostile environment

There is a problem that despite years of gradual cycling infrastructure improvements, here in Waterloo Region we are still in an environment primarily designed around the auto. Not only the physical environment, but also the rules and conventions, are still biased towards a monomodal world of motorized travel. It's still often impossible to get where you need to go both legally and safely by bike, let alone comfortably. For those who don't get turned off cycling completely, rules usually get sacrificed in the name of necessity, and sometimes convenience. 

As a cyclist, it is very hard to buy in to a social (and legal) contract when it feels like we never had a seat at the table. Is that a selfish attitude? Perhaps. It's also quite natural. And, sadly, justifiable. Allow me to demonstrate by example:

Herbert & John, near Uptown Waterloo

Welcome to Waterloo's most car-centric intersection: Herbert and John. No mammoth arterial intersection here, just a very quiet neighbourhood junction. I propose that this location demonstrates an "autos uber alles" mentality better than virtually any point in town.

  • Herbert is one way to the left. The street is too narrow for 2-way vehicle traffic.
  • Herbert is one way to the right. The street is too narrow... yeah.
  • Herbert is not a through route, even one way. The one-way signs point in opposite directions.
  • Despite the impossibility of traffic from Herbert, there is still a stop sign on John.

This intersection shows how hard the city of Waterloo has worked to discourage traffic from moving through this quiet, stately neighbourhood. The stop sign here is the worst kind of "traffic calming" sign, a traffic demand management "worst practice" that inhibits cycling and diminishes the respect that stop signs get in general. Herbert even has a barrier to all traffic two blocks to the right.

And it's all being done because of the problems that automobile traffic bring: safety issues, noise, congestion. Allowing people to travel through here on bicycle won't cause any of these problems, but the rules don't consider that.

Herbert (and Willow) in this neighbourhood are a wonderful refuge that could help cycling in town, but not if you plan to cycle legally. It's as hostile to bike traffic as it is to car traffic, without justification.

This scenario repeats itself over and over throughout Waterloo region. In ways large and small, cyclists looking for quiet, safe biking conditions end up running afoul of rules put in place for cars and because of cars. Time and again, we must make the best of places designed without us in mind.

Is it any wonder cyclists learn to bend the rules?

No excuse, only explanation

As cyclists, we need to be better. Unfortunately, people remember "those scofflaw cyclists" and they will lump into that group the otherwise law-abiding cyclists who run a stop sign here or there (auto-self-justification: it's legal in Idaho!), or ride the wrong way on a tiny street like Herbert. Ms. Goodyear takes a hard line on this matter, holding herself and others to a very high standard of rule adherence.

But because of the conditions we cycle in (even in this enlightened new age), it may be an impossible standard. I have a hard time passing judgement on someone who takes a bike to an empty sidewalk next to a windswept, high speed arterial road. Or criticizing a harmless jaunt upstream on a tiny back neighbourhood one-way. The alternative, for them, could be just leaving the bike to gather dust and taking the car instead.

Rules can place us in intolerable or ambiguous situations where an outsider can easily take a literal, hard-line position on because they don't have to live with it. But when faced with them ourselves, we'll bend, shave, spindle, and outright break a rule to make the situation work... usually with some care and judgement. That's human nature.

It doesn't matter if we're on bike, in a car, or on foot. The difference with bikes is that our road rules balance the needs of pedestrians and motorists (for better or for worse) but have not quite embraced cyclists yet. Those on bikes are often asked to live with the disadvantages of both foot and motor traffic, and are denied the advantages of either.

When that changes, so too will the rule-breaking culture of those renegade/outlaw cyclists. Until then, hold yourself to a high standard... and don't hold others to an impossible one.

What's your take on this issue? Do you agree or disagree? Leave a comment!


  1. I don't believe in following traffic rules just to follow traffic rules; it should be about possible harms caused by actions. It is possible to cause injury on a bike, but it's much easier in a car, so enforcement should be stricter for cars. I have trouble finding harm from running a red light after checking that there are no oncoming cars, for instance; or as in your example, a stop when there can be no possible oncoming traffic.

    Rules-people also, I'm sure, often drive over the speed limit on the highway. I see running a stop sign on a bike to be much more analogous to driving at 110 km/h on the 401 than to driving the wrong way down a one-way street.

  2. I'm a cyclist with multiple personality disorder. When there are drivers in cars around, I feel I need to obey the rules (even the silly ones) and represent that cyclists deserve a seat at the grown-up table.

    And when there aren't drivers around, which is almost every day on my commute from midtown Kitchener to uptown Waterloo, I run this exact stop sign. Because, what the hell? It is a pointless, pointless stop sign.

    That said, I do think there's an element of common sense. Salmoning on an empty residential street: OK. Salmoning on a busy street: not OK. Some cities recognize this, e.g. Vancouver, which clearly marks many one-way streets as two-way bicycle paths.

  3. I agree with most if not all of what has been said already, and was thinking about this very point while riding along King street yesterday.

    They've just put in sharrows to encourage cyclists to take the lane, which I was doing and keeping up just fine with traffic. But then I came to an intersection in which a car up ahead was trying to turn left, and had to wait for oncoming traffic. This was causing a traffic jam, since cars could not pass... but I could quite easily, and did, on the right. I'm not sure about the legality of my move, but I'm pretty sure it's technically against the law. Was it hypocritical of me to do so, or was I moving safely through traffic without slowing anyone else down, or both?

    1. Man, that's a tough one JC. I don't know the right answer. I could see an easy justification, though: where there's room, vehicle traffic does just what you mention. Think Margaret southbound at Erb... happens here all the time:

      That doesn't necessarily make it right. But, I doubt any drivers (myself included) would give any thought to a large vehicle behind them not having the room to follow their maneuvre during the decision making process.

      The principle I like to follow is, don't make a vehicle have to pass me twice. That means I'll usually seek to hang back even if I could squeeze up on the right. But if I'm immediately behind a left-turner, I'd probably do it: the vehicle I'm passing won't have to pass me again.

      But if I'm behind more than one vehicle waiting, I wouldn't try to filter up the right. Especially in this scenario, if the blockage clears, I could have a real challenge regaining my lane in accelerating traffic and now I'm the one who has created the problem. Not good.

    2. Last paragraph: Make that "behind one or more vehicles waiting behind the turning car", for clarification.

    3. Thanks for your thoughts, Chris. That's generally how I try to do things as well, unless it's a really wide lane so that I'm no obstacle. But with daytime traffic on King Street moving at about the same pace as I cycle, no one had to pass me twice... at least not until we were out of downtown and on the hill up towards Central Fresh. I dunno... hopefully I didn't piss anyone off.

  4. Rather a strange feeling to read this: I grew up on George St.....this would be back in 1970's.

    Here is a slice how I remembered the area:

    Someone has to work closely with the city's engineering dept. Engineers are not trained on human behaviour...I know I have several family members who are engineers. I also worked in the engineering sector for over 14 yrs. in information services.

    Yes, it takes a looong time.