Share the road, please.
June 7, 2011 7:17 PM   Subscribe

I bike frequently in Cambridge and Boston and have been having problems with rude motorists (none, thankfully, involving injuries). On reflection, I think my actions in response to these incidents have been counterproductive. What should I be doing differently?

Cyclists are fairly common here and I have no problem with the vast majority of motorists. I’ve been averaging about one encounter with a rude motorist per year, but my luck seems to be getting worse as I’ve had two altercations in the last two weeks.

The first time I was making a left turn. As I was making the turn I heard a car honk behind me. I looked behind me and watched a car speed by, the driver yelling something out his window. When he was stopped at the next traffic light I took a picture of his car and license plate, which in retrospect was a bad idea. He got out of his car and stared at me, then got back in and took my picture with his phone (I let him do so and smiled and waved). I then tried to calmly talk to him when he was back in his car but he just screamed something to the effect that I should get out of the road.

The second time I was biking down a road with a parking lane that was completely empty except for one parked car about 200 feet ahead. I took the right edge of the travel lane so I wouldn’t have to swerve back in to avoid the parked car. A truck passed me with very little room on my left side, so I instinctively yelled, “Hey!” It wasn’t until after the truck passed that I noticed that it was a Cambridge police wagon. The officer stopped, rolled down his window, and yelled, “Get out of the middle of the road!” I didn’t want to argue so I apologized and said I wouldn’t do that. The officer drove off, but I was shaken by the incident.

I’m beginning to realize that it’s not a good idea to engage motorists like this. From reading these previous threads it seems like I need to ride more defensively and take the lane. Assuming I do this and follow traffic rules, what should I do the next time a vehicle passes me too close or is otherwise belligerent towards me?

In addition, after these incidents I tend to obsess over them and replay them in my head wondering what I could have done differently. What’s the best way to stop this and make myself realize that I should just let the issue go?
posted by komilnefopa to Travel & Transportation around Boston, MA (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You will never win a battle in road rage against a motor vehicle, and that's doubly true in Boston/Cambridge. We're notoriously rude drivers, and for some reason, many in this area (which has a lot of bicyclists) are horrible to people on bikes.

Try to adopt a "flag it and move on" attitude, only the flagging happens exclusively in your own head.
posted by xingcat at 7:21 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can you post links to these locations on Google Maps? It's a bit hard to visualize what was going on.

You can't control other people's behavior, only your own. When someone does something dangerous or rude, escalating is not a great idea.
posted by grouse at 7:24 PM on June 7, 2011

Response by poster: The left turn was from Albany St. onto Portland St. The incident with the police truck was nearby, heading south on Portland St. (These are both street view links.) Imagine a car parked in the distance before the intersection in that picture.
posted by komilnefopa at 7:32 PM on June 7, 2011

You've seen this, right?

Don't fuck with people in vehicles when you're on a bike. Do not screech at them, flip them the bird, or take their pictures. They're assholes and you will never win. You being in the right has nothing to do with the outcome.

And yes, learn to drive defensively and take your lane--if you have to go around something in the left lane do not give drivers the opportunity to share your new lane while you do it.
posted by dobbs at 7:41 PM on June 7, 2011

Best answer: The Art of Urban Cycling is a fascinating read for anyone who uses bicycles as a primary mode of transit. Along with presenting a practical riding strategy (which is not uncontroversial) it specifically addresses the mindset you need to adopt to engage traffic without it being an emotional event.

Mind you, I need to re-read it every few months or whenever I feel the rage ragin'.
posted by quarterframer at 7:48 PM on June 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

this recent bike thread had something that stood out to me: that cops don't always know the road rules as they apply to cyclists. Not sure how to solve that, but I suppose it's something to know.

The only time you should have to get out of the way of a cop car is if it's lights+sirens.
posted by titanium_geek at 7:52 PM on June 7, 2011

Damn, I really wish I could find the story in the Boston Globe (at least I'm pretty sure it was the globe...)

Anyway, a senior copywriter at the agency where I worked (Hill Holliday, if that matters) was a daily bike commuter and he was having all kinds of trouble just like what you've described. Using his writing superpowers he had a sign made up that he kind of wore over his reflective vest. Once he started wearing the sign he had a 180 degree turnaround in the attitude of the meatheads that were previously trying to run him off the road. The sign simply said:

"Ex wife got the car"

Of course, he was happily married and had his wife's permission to wear the thing as long as it got him home safe.
posted by ssmith at 7:57 PM on June 7, 2011 [16 favorites]

This is an unsatisfying answer, but the best response for you is no response.

As a motorist, I can tell you that motorists in this area are often assholes that will yell at everyone else on the road - driver, cyclist, or pedestrian - at any sign of inconvenience, regardless of actual fault.

I once was driving a car, waiting to make a right turn out of a gas station, and the guy behind me drove around me, honked and yelled at me, and a right turn from the left side of the gas station's drive, and basically cut off the oncoming traffic. I've seen many less dramatic but similar incidents over the last couple of years.

When the yelling happens at me (I drive and walk, rather than cycle), I do yell back if I can react quickly enough, but I know there's no point to it, and so I keep it casual and don't get worked up about it. Honk. "Yeah, fuck you, pooface." If I were on a bike, I would not risk angering one of these very special people while they were behind the wheel.

Taking a picture of a car's license plate would be worth the risk in an region in which the police cared about an incident like this, but here, they can barely make themselves pretend to care about things like verbal threats or bad driving. I suspect a call about a moving violation would make an officer's eyes roll like a basketball on a Harlem Globetrotter's fingertip.

So, while all of these people are human beings, and you could possibly make them see what they did wrong and why they should care about cyclists if you had some quality time with them, there is no action you can take in these incidents to connect with them.
posted by ignignokt at 8:08 PM on June 7, 2011

Here it is, ssmith.
posted by virago at 8:38 PM on June 7, 2011

Here is a great website that explains How to Not Be Hit By Cars
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:12 PM on June 7, 2011

Best answer: It sounds like you have good instincts. I would chalk the incidents up and move on. I cycle in the same area all the time at the moment, since I got rid of my last car, and have generally neutral to good experiences with drivers. It is even better in the suburbs, where drivers seem exceptionally careful and considerate.

Right now you might feel like there have been too many incidents. That said, I remember when I started driving a car in Boston. I got a ticket on the first day for what in my country is a completely unenforced parking violation (parking the car facing against the direction of traffic) and on the second or third day, I was screamed at, at some length and with some fairly hair-raising language, for taking apparently too long to enter a parking lot. I figured: this is what driving is going to be like over here! Fortunately, over time, it proved not to be so bad.

My philosophy as a cyclist is generally to be clear with signals, predictable with movement, and confident, but I don't take up the road when I don't need to in some principled defiance of the basic fact that cars can move much faster than me and their drivers are accustomed to being able to do so. I accept that if I were behind the wheel it would irritate me too to have cyclists asserting their nominal road equality in my face. So I try to ride my bike in acceptance of the differences of speed and scale. That said, I probably would have done exactly as you did in the situation you describe with the cop van and I would have been annoyed as well.

Also, I always stop at red lights on a matter of principle, as it shows respect for the laws that drivers have to, and do, follow. (Well, except when they run reds, but I mean that you very rarely see drivers just drive through a red because they've estimated that they can safely do so, whereas cyclists around here do it all the time.)

It's my statistically unsupported belief that drivers' contempt for urban cyclists comes in part from cyclists' malleable behaviour -- at one moment aggressively asserting their equality with cars on the road, and the next, scaring pedestrians on the footpaths and coasting through red lights if they feel like it. So I feel that behaving more like a car, especially at red lights, will little by little contribute to an improvement in drivers' attitudes to cyclists -- if they believe that cyclists are willing to put up with the same inconveniences they tolerate themselves -- and so I fantasise that somewhere, perhaps some cyclist didn't get wiped out by a driver, because that driver had learned to treat cyclists with a little more respect than they used to do.
posted by galaksit at 9:20 PM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the great answers so far! I hadn't heard of The Art of Urban Cycling, so I'll be sure to check that out.

As far as assertive cycling goes, I agree that it's good to avoid technically legal things that are excessively annoying to cars. I'm going to try to strike the right balance from now on.
posted by komilnefopa at 10:00 PM on June 7, 2011

This must not stand. Go armed. Shoot the bastards.

In your mind.
posted by flabdablet at 5:06 AM on June 8, 2011

I've found that drivers in Cambridge are less hostile and more oblivious, so I don't usually feel like people are deliberately trying to run me off the road. Since I think most of the incidents I've been in involve not being seen, I try to maintain visibility as much as possible.

I (with rare exceptions) always stop at red lights, but I'll scoot in front of the whole line of cars and park myself right in front of the first car waiting at the light. That way, if he's going to turn without signalling (the rule, not the exception, it seems), I'm out of the way. If I'm making a left turn, I will take the whole left-turn lane.

I saw a cyclist in front of me the other day do something that I thought was a great idea. A car was passing too close to the bike lane, so he stuck his hand out and dragged his fingertips across the car doors. Makes a little bit of noise inside the car (hopefully the driver will notice) and doesn't do any damage.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:09 AM on June 8, 2011

I've lived in this area all my life, and the drivers here are complete assholes, to cyclists, pedestrians and other drivers alike. I've had people honk at me while riding my bike. I've had people try to make a left turn BEHIND me while I was also making a left turn, because I wasn't going fast enough, apparently. I have had people honk at me the millisecond the light turns green because I didn't immediately floor it. I've had drivers get angry with me because I dared to be in the crosswalk, crossing the street.

I could go on, but the point is -- the drivers here suck, and it sucks, but it just means you have to be extra careful and not let it get you down. My husband is not from around here and is constantly annoyed at how awful people are in the car, but it doesn't even faze me anymore. Bike defensively, make sure you're always paying extra attention and just let the assholes continue to be assholes. They'll get what's coming to them someday.
posted by sutel at 5:49 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A car was passing too close to the bike lane, so he stuck his hand out and dragged his fingertips across the car doors. Makes a little bit of noise inside the car (hopefully the driver will notice) and doesn't do any damage.

Unless he decides to move laterally into you for the offense of touching his car, or you get bumped by a mirror, or if you misjudge and lose your balance, or if your sleeve gets caught on something on his car. If a car is so close to you that brushing it with your fingertips seems like an easy option, take evasive action or hold your line.

I'm a year-round bike commuter in Maine and the situation is similar - vast majority of drivers are pleasant (or at least not hostile) but as with any group, a certain small percentage are kind of jerks. Of this small percentage, a smaller percentage actually take action to put me in danger - swerve to intimidate, cut me off, etc.

I don't know the laws in Boston, but here in Maine, using the shoulder is optional so I am most often in the travel lane. Why? Not just because I can legally, but because it is safer. Shoulders here are often poorly maintained and/or filled with sand, ice, snow, gravel, branches, leaves, roadkill, sewer grates, etc. Plus, cars pulling out of side streets and driveways have more of a chance to see me if I am in the travel lane where they expect traffic. Drivers are not conditioned to expect things moving at 15mph+ in shoulders/on the sidewalk. So although it may seem counterintuitive it generally makes sense for me to take the lane, riding "as far to the right as practicable" as the law states.

Honking: it happens. The good news here is that honking means a driver is aware of you and they won't be hitting you. As you are coming to realize, the best thing to do is to ignore this, after you get over the initial startle. This is hard! It can get your adrenaline flowing. And since you don't get honked at too often, you don't get a chance to practice/build up resistance. First, you have to come to peace with it. It is nothing personal, and you shouldn't think "what did I do wrong to get honked at?" Some drivers are going to honk at bikes for the mere fact of being on the road no matter what. So first, don't let it rattle you (takes practice). Second, recognize the honking person is in the wrong (often legally, even just for honking!). Third - prepare to memorize license plate. This way if it does escalate, or if you have a repeat offender, you have something to give the police.

This has served me well. Once I memorized a license plate which came in handy when another biker reported the same driver bowing through a stop sign while going 50 in a 25 and nearly running her and a kid down. Recently, I got knocked down by a pickup truck and the first thing I did was get the plate. Good thing, because after they saw me start to stand up they took off. Another time, I got the plate of a rude passer, later passed them (legally) and when they came up on me again they swerved at me and almost caused an accident swerving back into their lane. I turned directly into a police station and reported them. The police won't do much, but they will usually run the plate and give the owner a call, which at least puts them on notice and if it is a kid driving a car registered to a parent who gets the call it can be effective.

If I were to have the interaction with the police that you did I would have afterwards called the station, reported the incident and asked them to review the law with the officer driving. The same with any city/state vehicles - remember as much info as you can - time, place, license or car number - write it down when you get where you are going then call or email it in. I have had good results with this method when dealing with some bus drivers here.

Unfortunately, most opportunities for discussion/education on the road can turn into shouting matches because emotion is running high. If I end up talking to someone at a light that thinks I should get off the road or be elsewhere in the road, I explain that I am following the law and best practices for being safe (making a left from the left turn lane, avoiding the door zone, etc.) Most of the time they don't care and I just end it with a shrug and say "check the law and get back to me". I have had a couple of conversations that turned out well, so it is not a lost cause.

It is good to review your actions afterwards, but remember that sometimes people will lash out even if you did nothing wrong. I've gotten honked and yelled at by a van going the opposite way on an empty four lane divided road. I can't imagine I was affecting his day too much.

TL; DR: Stay confident and calm, do not engage, memorize license plates just in case, report municipal vehicles/employees that hassle you or seem ignorant of the laws and watch this video from Commute Orlando.
posted by mikepop at 5:52 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Galaksit, here you go.

There's a woman who bikes on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge during rush hour. She's awesome. Follows all the auto rules, signals appropriately, busts her butt to keep up pace when things are blocked for her*, and gets off to walk her bike when that doesn't work out. There's been a few times when she's forced into the lane with us, and with her I just count her as a car. She demands respect basically. In all fairness she's also tattooed to high heaven, so that probably helps a bit with my impression of her. Mikepop's video seems like what she does though so maybe that's it.

Now, what's pathetic about that story? I see at least 20 bicycists a day, and she's the only one that stands out... because she's an equal. The others seem to have given up, just working on their own rules expecting all of automobile culture, DMV, the police, etc., to conform to them. All the motorists can do is try to be careful around them, and of course that's doesn't work 100% of the time. By my calcs (long story), at any time you can depend on about 16% of people to just be nuts for a variety of reasons (not all psychological). If you're the focus of their attention, you can also depend on 1 in 1000 actively trying to hurt you, so bicyclists have it hard.

I say all this as a motorist who was once on a bicycle sideswiped by a van doing 50mph. I flew 145 feet, was unconscious for about a minute, was covered in road rash, had to regrow a heal, and still get migraines from it, despite it being nearly 20 years ago. The road isn't either of ours, it's the city's. We both have to use it as they tell us to. If you're following the rules and someone screws with you, either brush it off (in Maine we called Mass. people Massholes for a reason) or, if it's really bad, call 'em in to the police. That's no different than what I do. That and study the incident relentlessly. Check out my profile. And if you aren't following the rules, see mikepop's video as you're already a charity case, and sad as it seems, that doesn't tend to go well with Massholes to begin with.

* Can anyone tell me why she's the only one that seems to know how to use gears? I see a lot of people peddling like mad only to go slow. Is it all because of Cambridge Bicycle's focus on fixed gear bikes, maybe with high gear ratios?
posted by jwells at 7:05 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I see a lot of people peddling like mad only to go slow

A cadence of around 90 rpm (which feels ridiculously quick to me) is widely held to be a Good Thing. I am personally much more comfortable and can go for much longer at 60, but most people are not that big and slow. Some riders have 3-cylinder legs compared to my V8.
posted by flabdablet at 2:37 AM on June 9, 2011

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