Bicyclists and Respect

For many years, as I commuted from my home in a Boston suburb to Harvard University, I frequently vowed that when I retired I would write a “Letter to the Editor” expressing my frustration with the bicyclists I encountered daily on my route through Cambridge.  Their apparently superior attitude and their disrespectful actions annoyed me intensely. I did not write the letter, but as I now reflect on respect I believe this blog would be an appropriate place to voice my pet peeves.

I know several people who bike to work who are extremely cautious about safety – they wear helmets, use reflective gear, and obey all the rules of the road.  When I complain to them about disrespectful bicyclists, they agree completely. I don’t know the cyclists personally who cause my frustration, but from observing their actions I imagine their attitude to be: “I’m better than you are.  I’m getting daily exercise while you sit immobile in a gas guzzling car, your emissions damaging the atmosphere (causing climate change).  The rules of the road don’t apply to me. Safety is your responsibility.  I have no responsibility to anyone for my biking behavior.”

Sound a bit presumptuous and judgmental?  Well, here’s what has led me to these assumptions.

I’m driving along Mass Ave in Cambridge in morning traffic.  I pull up to a stop light, noticing in my right rear-view mirror that a bicyclist is approaching me from behind.  I have my right turn signal on, but I am still nervous that the cyclist will shoot out into the intersection when the light turns green and I begin to turn.   However, instead, the cyclist whizzes by on my right, nearly scraping my car, and speeds through the intersection paying no attention whatsoever to the red light.  I fume!

Or, I’m driving down Sherman street at 6 p.m. The cyclist in front of me is not wearing a helmet.  Sherman Street is very narrow, so when she wants to jump the line of traffic she swerves onto the side walk.  Drivers, including me, are very careful to stay at a safe distance behind her.  I worry about her erratic behavior. Suddenly, as we approach the stoplight at the bottom of the street, she shoots out to the left of the line of cars, passes them all, glides through the stoplight and weaves into a street on her right.  I think, “She’s an accident just waiting to happen; one that could possibly ruin her life and that of the driver who hits her unintentionally.”

Boston instituted the “Hubway” bike share program about 10 years before I retired.  1,600 bikes are available at 180 stations across Boston, Brookline, Cambridge and Somerville. The program promotes attractive motives for using its bicycles to get around town: “Save time; save money; have fun; get exercise and go green.”  Several pricing options make it convenient to use the bikes:  $8 a day; $20 a month; $99 annually. One joins, gets a ride code or key and selects a bike at any nearby station.  Sounds like a great idea, right?

I cringed when I first heard about the program and when the distinctive Hubway bikes started appearing in traffic.  For the most part Hubway riders do not wear helmets (though I have heard that some stations do make them available.) Many are inexperienced – tourists in town looking for an “up close and personal” tour of the city; professionals seeking a quick way to get across town for a meeting; someone running an errand on his lunch break.  Were they more experienced riders, they would probably have their own bicycles and helmets.  I applaud Hubway for its environmental and exercise mission, but I believe if we are going to encourage more people to bike and therefore fewer people to drive, we need to ensure that the riders are well trained in the biking rules-of-the-road and in safety precautions.  Why, for instance, is study, practice, testing and licensing required for motorists and motorcyclists, but not for bicyclists?

By the way, I should mention that I would have loved to bike to work at Harvard, but for the last 15 years I lived 20 miles away.  Commuter rail was not an option because of parking and work schedule issues.  When I lived in a nearer suburb of Boston, I took the commuter rail daily, and on weekends, rode my bike, of course, while wearing a helmet.  Once when I was on a bike trip from Cambridge to Newton, a parked driver opened her car door in front of me and I slammed into it, falling to the pavement, hitting my head, and scrapping my hands and knee.  Thank goodness for the helmet!

If a cyclist is injured or killed by a car, regardless of who is at fault, the motorist will most likely be viewed as the aggressor (even in her own eyes), since she is considered in a position of power and is therefore more responsible for her actions. The bicyclist is more physically vulnerable, surrounded only by air, while the motorist has the protection of heavy plastic or steel, glass and airbags. But motorists are vulnerable too. I recently read a New Yorker article describing how a driver’s life can be irreversibly damaged by unintentionally causing another’s injury or death.

Safety for drivers and bikers alike is ultimately about respect – respect for the law, respect for safety precautions, and respect for those who are travelling differently from you to the important places and events in their lives.  I’ve seen many “Share the Road” signs in Massachusetts.  Now that I am living in Maine, I frequently see “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” or “3-Feet to Pass” signs.  The following blog article provides an excellent summary of ways cyclists and drivers can share the road safely:

As I close this post, I recall the many avid but careful and law-abiding cyclists I have known:  a man who cycles to work daily even in the winter, using the appropriate safety gear and bicycle; riders who wait patiently behind cars in traffic until lights change; those who signal correctly when making turns; those with excellent lighting on their bikes and their persons; the mother who bikes to school each day with her children, teaching them safety and respect along the way.  I also recall the cautious drivers who wait for cyclists to pass on their right before making turns; those parked motorists who look behind before opening their doors; those who follow at a safe distance when a cyclist is using the full lane; and those who yield to oncoming traffic, slowly and carefully passing bicyclists.  Thank you all for fostering respect on the roads!

8 thoughts on “Bicyclists and Respect

  1. A thought provoking post, for sure, Moriah. Thank you. I have to admit to experiencing both sides of this coin. As a bike commuter from Somerville to Beacon Hill every day for four years, it *was* easy–though not right–to be a bit smug about one’s mode of transportation (especially when I was making better time than my fellow commuters in their sedans! But compassion is an upcoming post…). While I was a safe commuter, I rode behind many who were not–darting between lanes and causing harried drivers to slam on their brakes. I saw every scenario you described.

    Fast forward 10 years, a move to Colorado. When I was 8 months pregnant with our son, my husband was T-boned while bike commuting in a designated bicycle lane by a driver who, according to eye witnesses, appeared to make a ‘last minute decision’ to turn right onto a side street instead of continuing straight. He flew 15′ in the air, across the street, over an oncoming car and landed on his back. His (shattered) helmet and (shredded) backpack, holding two days of work clothes, protected him from what would have otherwise been likely partial paralysis. This driver didn’t seem too concerned about the ramifications of her poor judgement. In fact, she tried suing him for denting her car. (Unsuccessful.)

    I’ve been thinking a lot about your insight, and what I feel left with–no matter which side of the coin I study–is that we have become a culture of self-centrism. (Case in point: We now live in a world where many who visit the Eiffel Tower take a selfie such that you see 90% face and just a smidgen of artistically wrought steel.) So whether it’s a driver or a cyclist, a customer or caregiver, a server or superior, the challenge seems to lie in acknowledging other people–their presence, their story, and their worth that is no more and no less than our own.



  2. Yes – I so totally agree with your comments. As I sometimes remark to David when I see a vulnerable looking cyclist, “It puts years on me Dave, worrying about their safety and trying to look out for them.”


  3. Moriah,
    I am so happy to see that you are active with your blog again.
    The subject of bicycling is particularly interesting to me as a cyclist and as a motorist. I’m delighted with the new lighting systems some of the cyclists are using now. Their increased visibility benefits everybody.


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