The last couple of days has presented, repeatedly, a situation that acted as a bit of a mirror for my own expectations of others, revealing my inability to be consistent.
It’s a typical situation. One that everyone has come across regularly. It’s a two-way residential street, with cars parked sporadically on either side creating pinch-points where there is only room for one car. Someone has to wait.
Let’s switch tacks here for a bit. How much space do you want from cars when they pass you on the bike? More than an arm’s length, right? Probably a minimum of three feet, but ideally about five or more? We, as cyclists, expect that.
We expect people to give us space, but what that requires is more than mere physical calculations. It also requires patience (because it often requires slowing down), consideration (the thought process that recognizes that the cyclists needs the space), respect (understanding that the cyclist has both legal and human rights), empathy (understanding that the cyclist is another person, with needs and desires of their own and people who care about and may be dependent on them, just like you), sacrifice (you might be missing a gap in the traffic, catching a red light, being late for an appointment, or even giving up your physical momentum), respect (that they have a right to the road), generosity (giving you more room than they think you need, slowing down or waiting longer to make sure that you have the space you need).
I know this might seem completely blown out of proportion to some of you. Really this is just being a decent human being, that this is giving far too much credit to the person given the responsibility of doing the passing. I’m not saying that these things are present in any great or meaningful quantity while passing another road user, but I am simply highlighting that, essentially, these are the things that you are expecting of those around you.
So now we’re back on the bike. We are coming up to a pinch point with an oncoming car approaching at the same distance as you, or perhaps closer, meaning that you could, and possibly should give way and let them through.
But you don’t. You think, “because I’m just a bike, I can squeeze through that gap. There is enough room for the car to go through and for me to go through.”
Last week I did this. I was coming home from a pretty solid ride, through some back-streets close to home, and even though I really did think I would get to the slow-point first, I sped up, indicating that perhaps it was closer than I wanted to admit. The driver slowed down, rolled down his window and said something like, “I’ll just wait then, shall I?”.
That drove the point home.
We expect cars to give us the kind of space that we are comfortable with, yet often enough, we don’t expect the same of ourselves. This is the most common situation that I can think of, and although it is reasonably low risk, it more than likely puts the driver in an uncomfortable position. Never mind the slightly more dangerous decision to tuck yourself directly behind a moving vehicle, picking up the draft at high speeds or simply being impatient. Or even passing other cyclists or pedestrians at close range, or sitting on someone’s wheel uninvited.
We are overcome with righteous fury when motorists pass us at close range or push ahead simply because they are bigger. The danger is one-sided when we go on the aggressive and do the same on the bike. We are only really putting ourselves at risk, but believe that we are comfortable with the odds.
Sure, there is some justification as to why we believe it is OK to squeeze ourselves into small gaps as opposed to being squeezed into small gaps by larger vehicles, but what I’m getting at is that this attitude is exactly the same as motorists, only we use different tactics. Motorists use their physical superiority to their advantage, but cyclists can actually use their vulnerability. Most people don’t want to knock another person to the ground with their vehicles, and so if a cyclist pulls out, they will instinctively try to avoid hitting them. Most people will slow down and give way in these situations (slow-points). Cyclists are increasingly on the offensive, perhaps buoyed by the momentum cycling is experiencing on a social and political level. I think some motorists feel frustrated, as if cyclists are taking the piss, flaunting their right to be on the road and taking advantage of it. That might be why some of them come to the irrational and, quite simply, stupid idea that we need to be registered and tagged, actually.
Sometimes that is the case, and that’s where empathy comes in. I can understand that motorists might feel that way, because whether you are behind the wheel or the handlebars, people are people. Sometimes they’ll use whatever power they think they have to advance their own causes over someone else’s.
You know, because we’re all selfish dickheads.
I know this, because even yesterday morning I choose to maintain my momentum rather than touching the brakes (“I’m on a bike, I deserve to keep all of my momentum”), going through a gap that I was comfortable with, but that the driver of the car probably wasn’t, and that, ironically, I was squeezing to the kerb.
Of course, as I said earlier, the danger is largely one-sided and not in my favour, but the motivation is the same.
All I’m saying is this: be consistent. Be at least as considerate as you expect others to be of you. Don’t throw your weight around, meager though it might be, and expect others to lay prostrate before you. All of those qualities listed above that are, consciously or not, wrapped up in the simple act of passing someone slower than you with due care and consideration, or waiting your turn at a slow-point, are qualities that we, as cyclists, don’t tend to consider as much as we should for motorists, and should also consider in regards to ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong – motorists should pass cyclists with due care even if they don’t want to and would rather see us dead than have equal rights to the road, but I think it is important nonetheless to consider what the act involves, even involuntarily, so we can be a part of the humanizing process of the tense relationship between road users.
It’s easy. It’s simply the Golden Rule, and it’s the ones who are the victims most often that should have the best understanding of its value. Unfortunately, too often it is those same people who feel that they have the right to their turn on top, their turn to be the boss, their turn to take advantage.
If you have ever felt uncomfortable with the way other road users treat you, remember this when it comes time to treat others. This week, for me, it has been slow-points, and this morning I finally had enough self-awareness to give way to an oncoming car that had right-of-way, even though I could have technically fit in the gap, because why should I make him or her feel needlessly uncomfortable for my own inconsequential gain? I’ll probably go back and regress to the same selfish behaviour tomorrow, because I’ll probably be late, or tired, or cold, or something else that will tip the scales of behaviour in my favour, but it’s baby steps. One day at a time.
Be consistent. Be a better cyclist. Be a better road-user. Be a better person.
Header image: source