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Counterpoint to Hugo Rifkind's piece from New York
14.03.09 by Buffalo Bill

I blogged Hugo Rifkind’s pro-cycling polemic, which, although it wasn’t all that logical, was worth noting, because it appears in the Times, which, whatever you think about its current ownership, is still an ‘important’ newspaper. In the New York Times, we find a more thoughtful piece by a New York cyclist who has been riding in the city since the early 80s. Much of what he says reasonates with me, because I remember a time when I pretty much knew every cyclist in London by sight, and one could count the number of commuters who cycled right through winters on the fingers of two hands. It’s a witty piece, too:

Next comes another species of biker, which I call the Really Cool Biker, because they are really cool — usually younger than the Lance Armstrong types, wearing skinny jeans and a windbreaker imprinted with, say, the name of a bar or a bowling alley, and riding a sleek, fixed-gear frame bike that I myself am too uncool to even adequately describe.

But the broad thrust of his argument is contained in these 3 paragraphs:

Despite the presence of bike lanes, we see many bikes on the sidewalk, and the bikers riding the wrong way down streets, alarming cabdrivers at the light. For biking to make it to the next level, for bikes to be completely accepted as the viable form of city transportation that they are, bikers must switch sides. They must act like people and stop acting like cars.

This means doing things that we, the bikers of New York, would have laughed at just a few years ago. It means getting a little personal, though not that personal. Acting like people means that we have to do things that we frankly don’t want to do and things that we want cars to do, like slow down.

As far as bikers go, I’ve become a kind of laughingstock because I wait at traffic lights. Recently, as I waited in a bike lane at Atlantic Avenue for a light to change, a woman in her 70s, walking hunched with a cane, approached the crosswalk smiling — until she spotted me. Then she began shouting as I waited behind the crosswalk, “Well, are you going to stop?” I assured her I was waiting. She grimaced. “How do I know you’re not going to go?” she asked.

I think I have written elsewhere that it is never ok, whatever the circumstances, to ride in a way that puts other road-users’ (this includes pedestrians) safety at risk. I am not sure that I would go all the way and endorse Robert Sullivan’s Modest Proposal, because I don’t agree that cyclists could ever be more than a minor threat to other road users. But there is something to be said for showing respect on the roads.

Thanks to BL for the spot.

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  1. I’m glad to see that cycling is getting such positive press coverage in two major newspapers, now that is a good step in the right direction.

    Yant Martin-Keyte    14 March 2009, 12:26    #
  2. I agree with the idea of ‘acting like people not like cars’. This brings me to two attributes of effective city riding that might seem to be pulling against each other: improvisation and predictability.

    By IMPROVISATION I mean taking decisions that – as Rifkind argues – make you safe and swift, even if this might be against the general law of the highway. It also means what makes sense in one situation might not make sense in another. The context makes all the difference.

    An improvisational style of riding can sometimes come into conflict with the other aspect of riding style that I think makes me swift and safe on the roads: PREDICTABILITY.

    I try to make my riding as predictable to other people as possible. If others know where I’m going, we’re less likely to have a conflict. And this is much, much more than hand signals.

    Predictability is about taking efficient and graceful lines, about conveying control of the bicycle, about being in a visible position on the road, about not giving other people any surprises.

    I see many messengers riding this way and I think it could be the predictability of their riding style that explains why there are relatively few serious collisions involving messengers compared to other cyclists, mile for mile.

    Jack    14 March 2009, 18:08    #
  3. I do like bold and unequivocal hand signals though, if only to avoid hypocrisy (I think drivers who don’t indicate are inconsiderate and irresponsible).

    They complement an assertive style of riding, put other traffic (including peds) at ease – unless they’re the apoplectic type, in which case they’ll be angry whatever you do or don’t do – and help to create a wider radius of personal space when it matters.

    Maybe it’s taking roadie etiquette too far, but I even point out potholes and broken glass in town if I’m aware of bike commuters behind me, and I also do it when followed by motor vehicles (particularly large ones), in the hope that they’ll interpret the intuitive gesturing.

    — BringMeMyFix    14 March 2009, 21:18    #
  4. I am with BMMF, even to the point where I can remember signalling a left turn when I was on the front of the bunch at Eastway, coming down the hill towards Clary’s…

    — Bill    15 March 2009, 07:56    #
  5. To clarify, I meant a predictable riding style that is ‘in addition to’ clear hand signals, not a substitute for them.

    I see a lot of hand signals that are far too subtle to be of any use to anyone.

    But Bill, the image of you signaling a left in a race at Eastway is priceless. Chapeau, bon rouleur!

    Jack    15 March 2009, 10:46    #
  6. I agree with Jack on the riding style of cycle-couriers.i tend to make myself as visible as possible and i try to keep a line in traffic.as I ride I clock what’s way ahead of me and prepare for that.Think like a motorist and you can anticipate more which helps you to stay outta trouble.Oh trouble lord,trouble, oh my lordy…..

    — overdrive    15 March 2009, 12:18    #
  7. I used to ride zig zag to find all the trouble i could get my hands on. Fuck thinking like a motorist, you are on a bicycle which can go where ever you want it to. Overdrive you sold out.

    — Zack Speedfast    16 March 2009, 08:30    #
  8. Jack – I know you meant ‘in addition to’ rather ‘substitute for’.

    If this was a video forum, you’d have seen me giving the universally recognised hand signal for ‘I get what you’re saying, but I’m about to wank on about my immaculate gesticulations’.

    Using hand signals at Eastway is just another example of the blocking tactics used by Bill to stop people from half-wheeling him.

    — BringMeMyFix    16 March 2009, 23:34    #
  9. Best to just try and be as aware as possible. There’s a lot of zombies out there but it doesn’t mean we have to succumb. Good manners go a long way.

    — Diggler    17 March 2009, 00:44    #
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