Bike commuting etiquette

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Penny-farthing showRiding back and forth to work daily for the past 15 years has exposed me to lots of different behaviour on the roads. It’s pretty clear that most people — motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians — behave politely and with courtesy. Those that don’t, the ones that irritate or even infuriate, those are the ones that you remember. Most of the problems come from people ignoring the law, the “rules of the road”. But some of the problems come from just interacting with other road users. So, in an effort to advance peace and harmony on the bike routes in Vancouver, here are a few thoughts on “bike commuting etiquette”.

1. It’s not a race.

No, really. It’s not a race. If you’ve been passed by a faster cyclist, it’s not a challenge. They’re not questioning your self-worth. They’re going faster than you and needed to get around you. Speeding up to pass them might sound fun, but guess what? You’re going to slow down, and … they’re still going faster than you. How do you know that? Well, if you’re caught by someone from behind, by definition they’re going faster than you. Unless you’re consciously dragging your butt, they’ll need to pass you again. After having to pass you for the second or third time, you’ve done nothing but irritate the other cyclist.

Related: you pass a faster cyclist by blowing through a stop sign that they’ve stopped at. They pass you before the next stop sign, but then you pass them again by blowing the next stop sign. And again. REALLY? Stop it. That’s the very definition of irritating and irresponsible riding.

2. First in, first out.

This applies to stoplights and stop signs. If you arrive at a stoplight or stop sign behind someone else who’s waiting there, give them the chance to go through first. This is easy if you queue up behind them instead of crowding beside them or blowing through without stopping. Look, it’s hard enough to navigate intersections around Vancouver, particularly if there are pedestrians and motorists that are trying to predict what’s going to happen, who’s going to go, and when. But if you come up beside someone (or blow past them) you’ve just confused everyone, and no one more than the waiting cyclist who didn’t see you until the last minute.

Related: motorists, it’s nice that sometimes you yield right-of-way to cyclists. Let’s face it, it’s probably safer given how many cyclists blow stop signs. But, you’re not helping. For one thing, you don’t often physically indicate you’re yielding. Instead you just wait. Sometimes you wave your hand. FYI: In the wintertime, it’s pretty unlikely that I can see your frantically waving hand. The best way to communicate with cyclists is by flashing your lights. We see those. But also, by yielding right-of-way (particularly stopping at intersections where you don’t have a stop sign but cyclists do) sure makes things confusing.

3. Cyclists need space too.

The key to safe riding around the streets of Vancouver (and, well, anywhere) is keeping space between you and things that are going to hurt. Safe cyclists instinctively keep a bubble of space around them. Try not to put yourself into someone else’s bubble. Sitting too close to another cyclist’s rear tire makes a lot of cyclists uncomfortable, and if you’re close enough you’re actually slowing them down. Passing too close (particularly without ringing your bell, announcing an “on your left”, etc) falls into this category too. Another problem on Vancouver’s bike routes, particularly during club rides or on Tuesday nights as riders head to the UBC criteriums, is cyclists riding beside each other. Two abreast? Violates the Motor Vehicle Act, but usually isn’t so bad. Riding three abreast? Seriously? Not so great for cyclists coming the other way.

4. Hands-free riding doesn’t make you cool.

If you want to ride hands free, do it on the seawall. People there will be suitably impressed. On the roads? Well, it’s a clear indication you’re going to be a problem. Why? Because you’re not going very fast. And you’re wandering all over the road. Everyone needs to take their hands of the bars every once and awhile, but not for the whole stretch of the Kits valley. Hands-free riding while talking on your cell phone? I don’t understand how you survive.

5. Fenders keep everyone happy.

If you’re commuting in the rain, get yourself some fenders. They’re pretty cheap and you’ll keep your back reasonably dirt, oil, and grime-free. More importantly, you’re not going to have a huge rooster tail behind you, spraying the same dirt, oil and grime all over the cyclists coming up behind you (or the one you just passed).

Do these etiquette “rules” ring true, or am I off the mark? What other cycling etiquette can you suggest?

Last modified: November 26, 2012

4 Responses to " Bike commuting etiquette "

  1. Stinky says:

    This is a pretty good summary, I think.

    What’s easy to miss but is worth celebrating is how motorist behaviour has improved over the years as more cyclists get out on the roads. But I agree with you- in fact, I would feature- the motorists that gratuitously try to give cyclists the right of way when they don’t legally have it. It adds uncertainty to the transaction, which actually increases risk. What works best is when everybody on the road adheres as rigidly to convention as is safe. That means you take the right of way when you’ve got it but travel cautiously enough to yield if the other guy makes a mistake. Not sure what the lesson is for bicyclists in this- is it better to graciously accept the offered right of way or stand on ceremony and irritate the motorist? Guidance?

    I wish more people understood the rules for traffic circles. I’ve had a number of abrupt braking experiences when users entering from the right don’t think they need to yield to me when I’m already in.

  2. Cycle-Girl says:

    As a cyclist, I find that Vancouver drivers are generally cautious and courteous, and I do notice that they will often cede the right of way. SADLY, as a motorist, I find that there are more than a few cyclists who worry me – why do people cycle down West Broadway or West Fourth when there are several parallel bike routes only one or two blocks away? I am not talking about the hard core commuters with helmets and appropriate lights, who (rightfully) take their place in the middle of the lane, keep up to traffic and wait their place among the other vehicles at the stop light. I am talking about the helmet-less ones who squeeze in past all the cars on the right at the stop light, go through the red light and then continue to meander,causing aggravation and endangering themselves. My favorite was the one who emerged with her bike from between two parked cars in the middle of the block, stopped traffic while she mounted her bike and then peddled down the street, oblivious.

  3. Phil says:

    Excellent summary Anthony.
    I too feel, at times, I’m more often irritated by the behavior of my fellow cyclists than drivers. There will always be adrenaline-inducing close-calls in the GO-STOP, intersection laden western cities – but I think Vancouver drivers are very much more aware compared to drivers I’ve encountered in other cities that I’ve lived (Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montreal).

    By the way, I find it so odd that I see some of the more visibly safety concerned cyclists in Vancouver (rain gear worn on a clear day, lights all over, neon vest, etc) enter traffic circles on the left – ?! I don’t care if all directions are clear, I think it’s always a bad idea. Our entire road system relies on rules to ensure predictability and safety for everyone.

    “Stinky” brings up a good point about drivers “granting” right-of-way in situations where the driver clearly has it. I’ve had countless experiences where I approach a 2-way stop on bike, where I have the stop sign, only to have an approaching vehicle with no stop slow down and wave me through. I accept, exchange a wave, to only have another vehicle coming from the opposite direction having to come to an abrupt halt, throwing up their hands in protest at another cyclist who just can’t obey the rules of the road.
    I’ve decided to stop accepting these “grants.” If I have a stop sign, and the driver does not, I stop. And I stay stopped until the driver understands I’m going to respect the rules whether they’d feel more comfortable with me going first or not. It’s not a line I expect a majority of cyclists to bother with, but I do think these “grants” can lead to unintended accidents.
    It’s akin to the empathic drivers who will brake mid-road to allow bewildered pedestrians to cross a busy street. Though it’s “kind”, I’ve always considered this to be a VERY BAD idea. It’s like temporarily treating a green light like a red light – problem is the driver in question creates a false sense of safety for the eager pedestrian, when there are always other drivers around who don’t know what you’re up to.

    In any case – cyclist who choose to ride on major arterials boggle my mind as well and reinforce the idea for me that, for some, the activity of cycling gives them a psychological payoff where they can place themselves in dangerous situations which give them the cathartic opportunity to rail at cars who come to close – when much safer routes exist a mere block away.
    I haven’t driven for years, but I empathize with drivers, I really do.

  4. Stinky says:

    With regard to cyclists on arterials such as W Broadway- that’s where the businesses and thus the majority of destinations are. If you know exactly where your destination is, you might bike the off-Broadway until you get less than a block away, but if you don’t you sort of have to ride W Broadway for a few blocks.

    Riders on W 12th are harder to explain.