Ride Like a Mensch

Yesterday, I was riding along a local street, cruising a downhill section and approaching an intersection with all-way stop signs. Already at the intersection was a car stopped at the cross street. There seemed to be a family inside-two kids, mom and dad, with grandma in the back seat. Arriving at the intersection I came to a complete and legal stop, even putting my foot down to indicate that this family clearly had the right of way and could proceed, which is what the Dad, sitting in the driver’s seat, did. As they passed slowly through the intersection, the grandmother gave me a warm, beaming smile, full of appreciation. I swear, it looked like the woman was actually proud of me, and clearly very pleased, that I came to a complete stop. Her look was pure grandmother; you know, the way your grandmother looks at you after you’ve done something particularly clever, or behaved like a mensch (in Yiddish, a person who is good to other people, a nice person). From her and her family’s reactions it was obvious that nobody in the car expected me to stop.

Contrast that to a more typical scenario that is all too talked about and common. Perhaps this will sound familiar:

Cyclist approaching a 4-way stop where a motorist is also stopped. Cyclist completely blows stop sign, somewhat shocking and slightly angering motorist who was just about to pull into the intersection. In pique, motorist taps horn as if to say “What’s up with that!”, which is essentially the equivalent of a cyclist yelling “Yo!” when faced with similarly obtuse behavior by motorist. Cyclist turns and stereotypically responds in expected fashion, angering motorist more. And so it goes.

I’d like to suggest that we individual cyclists consider trying more to elicit the grandmotherly smiles than the reproachful honks. And I even have one suggestion about how to do that:

Ride with utmost courtesy at all times.

Here’s a few simple ways to do that:

  • always yield to pedestrians
  • come to a complete and legal stop at all stop signs whenever anybody else is at, or approaching the intersection.
  • Do not run red lights, ever.
  • Be pleasant at all times.

I challenge all who are reading this to ride for one day as above. It would helpful to be able to talk to Portland citizens without first addressing our reputation as law-breaking, righteous, anti-social, and scary. It’s time to turn the conversation to something else. What do you think? Can you do it? Just try it for a day and see how it feels.

8 responses to “Ride Like a Mensch”

  1. I ride like this most of the time. Occasionally I blow through a stop sign, but that’s because I wasn’t paying attention. (My fault, but not deliberate.) Sometimes I do stupid things like passing on the right, but that’s also from inattentiveness and it’s pretty rare. I usually hang back and make sure the driver can see me. If I ever run a red light, it’s because the road is empty (usually at night), and I’ve come to a complete stop, looked around, and verified that no cars are approaching the intersection from any direction.

    By and large, I’ve found the vast majority of motorists to be courteous. They stop, wave me through, sometimes even when they have right of way, and wave back when I yield to them an motion them to go ahead. I’ve encountered the occasional jerk behind a steering wheel, but that’s really pretty rare. When I get cussed out, it’s usually because I did something dumb because I wasn’t paying attention.

    So I agree. Ride with courtesy and obey the law. And pay attention — that’s something I need to work on, but things go well for me when I do.

  2. Roger –

    Let me first say I agree with how one ought to ride. But I think it is a mistake to think that the problems between motorists and bicyclists are going to be solved by our being more courteous any more than problems between motorists are solved by courtesy alone.

    “Contrast that to a more typical scenario that is all too talked about and common. Perhaps this will sound familiar:”

    I guess we are talking about television. That would explain the strange reaction by motorists to what is common and usual behavior. I rarely see the scenario you describe, just as I rarely see motorists just blow through stop signs, run red lights, speed down residential streets, weave in and out of traffic etc. Unsafe behavior is usually reserved for a small number of people. They do stand out, but telling other people to model correct behavior is unlikely to change that.

    I have said this before, I don’t think the rules of the road for bicyclists are clear to most folks. Passing on the right, right-of-way, riding on sidewalks … all of these are murky to many people. But the fundamental issue is that motorists have to share the road. That is not universally agreed on and it is resisted by the people who design roads. It is going to require a major reeducation program and is not going to happen without some angst.

    We will know we are there when the guy blowing through the stop sign is seen for what he is, just another discourteous jerk, rather than a representative of the bicycling community. I am not responsible for his bahavior because I also ride a bike any more than the guy in the auto at the stop sign is. Its time for use to respond to this stuff with a simple – yes there are jerks on bikes and jerks in cars and we all have to learn to live with them.

  3. This morning a driver nodded at me as I pulled up along side him at the base of the Hawthorne Bridge (at MLK). I smiled and nodded back. After a little while, he rolled down his window and asked me for directions. It was very nice, and made me wish for more situations where there’s a bike lane next to a driver’s window (i.e. bike lane between the forward and right-turning travel lanes).

    Courtesy is contagious, methinks.

  4. I agree, it won’t solve all the problems…but I also think it can’t hurt at all to make a point of being good citizens on our bikes. I always feel like I’ve done something tangible to improve driver-cyclist (and pedestrian-cyclist) relations when I come to a full stop, smile and acknowledge that someone has given me the right-of-way, stop for pedestrians crossing the street, and signal my turns. I have a suspicion that’s part of why I have very few truly nasty interactions with drivers.

  5. Last week, I rode up to a 4-way stop. A motorist was already stopped at the cross street. I stopped, foot down. The driver looked at me, but didn’t go. I waved him to go. He burst out laughing and said, “I usually run stop signs when I’m on my bike!”. I laughed.

    Nice to see a motorist who thinks like a bicyclist.

  6. Another thought about riding courteously (but confidently): I marvel at the many reports I hear from cyclists about all the close calls and ugly encounters they have with motorists. I ride around all the time, in all corners of the city. Rarely do I have a negative interactions with motorists. I can’t even remember the last time it happened. I ride on streets with bike lanes, I ride on quiet local streets, I ride on arterials without bike lanes.

    In conversations with other cyclists I know I rarely hear them report close calls, or of irate motorists directing venom at them. Of course, I know close calls occur that are beyond our control; however it seems that avoiding such incidents may rest largely with individual cyclists and their style of riding.

    What do you think? Is it an individual’s riding style that creates repeated close calls and negative encounters, or are some people just unlucky?

  7. I think some people are just lucky. I also think you hear about the close calls. I have no doubt that some people put themselves in situations that make it more likely to have close calls.

    Riding down Taylors Ferry Road for instance I had a truck honk at me and the passenger scream at me as it went by. I ended up stopped behind it at the bottom of the hill. If I had not taken the lane, if I had ridden on Taylors Ferry with no almost no shoulder I would not have been in the situation.

    Riding up to Washington Park I took the lane and was going slow and someone started honking at me. When I came to a stop sign I pulled over to the right to let traffic get around me. As I pulled out the car that had just honked at me took a right turn in front of me. If my hands hadn’t been on my brakes I would have hit him.

    So yes, style does effect how likely you are to have “incidents”. If you acknowledge that tons of metal always has the right of way and one is obligated not to inconvenience the person driving it, one is much safer. Of course it also means there are places you just can’t get to by bike.

  8. My negative experiences are few. The funniest one I can think of was on an early Saturday morning ride. I was headed north on Interstate, just past the Kenton MAX station, in a bike lane. Only one car on the road at the time, a rusted-out Taurus with Washington plates was headed south. The driver saw me, leaned on the horn and flipped me the bird. Why? Just because I existed, I guess. It was surreal. Obviously, he had had some prior negative experiences with cyclists.

    I’ve had lots of close calls where it was apparent that the driver just didn’t see me. Typically this happens on side streets on the Eastside, where drivers are just easing through stop signs. Usually, they get an “Ohmigod, I’m so sorry” look on their face, and wave an apology. I’ve found that if I can control my reaction and respond back in a more understanding manner, it goes a long way to defuse the situation. I yelled at a lady a couple of years ago in such a situation, after she had apologized, and I realize that even though she nearly clipped me, I was not reacting appropriately. Yes, my adrenalin was pumping, but I don’t think I made any friends for cyclists with my response.

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