Saturday, February 13, 2016

Getting a little of my own back

Bank Street in Old Ottawa South is four lanes wide: two lanes of traffic, two of parked cars. If you're on a bike, you stay on high alert, watching for opening doors, watching laneways and driveways for people turning in and out, and having cars skim by you in the traffic lane, pinching you between them and the parked cars.

So I was doing that yesterday, biking along in the door zone in the northbound lane, when I heard a guy in a crappy blue Civic coming up behind me. There was no one in the oncoming lane. This guy, however, was not about to move out of his lane for anything, and he zoomed past me about a foot and a half off my left shoulder, aggressively close. And honked at me as he did, just a little tap, but combined with the way he was driving, I took the honk to mean, "get the hell out of the road."

As I followed him up the street I saw him duck and weave through traffic, just like you might expect. I grumbled to myself that I wasn't running my camera, and that he'd just wrecked my mood - on Winter Bike to Work Day no less. 

Feeling grumpy, I cranked up the hill. But then I realized, at Sunnyside, that I was catching up to him at the red light. There's something satisfying about that: all that dodging and weaving in and out, and the woman on the bike passes you. I filtered up past the line of cars at the light, looked in the window at him, muttered, "What good did all that do you anyway?" and then the light was green. 

Ahead, I had to take the inside lane because of a line of parked cars at the curb. Fortuitously, I was right in front of Aggro Civic. So I signalled, moved left, and took the lane for about a block, right smack in front of him. 

And oh, the revving of engines and the squealing of tires when I finally moved over (in front of the library) and let him pass. Twenty or thirty whole seconds had passed while he was stuck -  oh God oh God - behind a bike.

The thing is, I knew he was an aggressive driver; I was actually doing the safest thing by moving over and taking the lane, but I was very aware that there was a pushy guy at the wheel right behind me who had already honked at me for existing. Pissing that kind of driver off is always risky. You're likely to make them more dangerous. And being even a little confrontational, when the power difference is so huge, takes some guts: car-on-bike road rage is a scary prospect.

But it was also - maybe because it took some courage to do - darn satisfying. 


Then, when I mentioned the incident on Twitter, someone accused me of being "petty." "Not a great way to get people on your side," he said.
But every day, I get a half dozen of these microaggressions, from careless, ignorant, or actually hostile drivers. Several times a day, my safety is actively threatened by drivers, just while I'm getting from one place to another. I yell, I honk my horn, I flip them off, the driver continues on their way oblivious or - worse - smirking: "Heh, did you see her jump? Har har." There's very little you can do: you can't catch up to them, and if you provoke a confrontation, well, they're in control of a deadly weapon and you're not. Sue me if, this time, I was a little proud of myself for claiming a bit of my own back. 

To paraphrase Atwood - "drivers are afraid cyclists will inconvenience them; cyclists are afraid drivers will kill them." The longer that goes on, the less interested I am in being nice about my place in the road. It is not fair that my safety should be threatened on an ongoing basis just for moving around in the world. 

I'm also not interested in getting anyone - especially Aggro Civic - "on my side." There's no "side" to be on, there are the rules of the road: which I was obeying. And this guy isn't going to be suddenly convinced that bikes have a right to the road by my cowering out of his way. No one will be convinced that cyclists have a right to the road if all we do is jump out of the way, endangering ourselves in the process of trying, very hard, not to ever ever be in the way of a driver. 

Saying I should have backed down from taking the lane out of some kind of interest in "furthering the cycling cause" is like saying to the suffragettes, "No one likes a shrill woman, can't you be nicer about wanting to vote?"

If cyclists don't get in drivers' way, they're invisible. The assumption that, regardless of the situation, the best thing a cyclist can do to keep the peace is stay out of the way - that assumption is actually dangerous. It puts the cyclist off at the side of the road where she can be ignored by the drivers, it makes cyclist's behaviour less predictable, and it trains the drivers to think whatever happens to a cyclist is her own fault. It also lets drivers continue to forget we exist.

No, that guy didn't learn a lesson. He didn't decide that cyclists are human beings with rights to the road. He was probably confirmed in his opinion that cyclists are stupid, reckless, self-righteous, annoying, deserve to be run over. I don't actually care. He didn't gun it dangerously past me in a narrow lane again, and his own impatience got him all upset and angry. My work here is done.


  1. Good for you. I try to (outwardly) completely ignore this kind of temper-tantrum, too, and never cave in to it. I figure a person only has so much energy to waste yelling at clouds, so if they want to try to take it out on me, great. I hope they feel completely ineffective. I even kind of like it, because it means they aren't bullying someone else.

  2. Yesterday on my 25 mile ride in central Florida, I was on a two-lane road without a shoulder for about 10 miles in the middle of the ride. I had to ride steadily on top of a 3-inch white line painted on the edge of the asphalt to mark where the edge of the road ends. Most of drivers that passed me moved left to create a few additional feet of room between me and their vehicles. However, I had one minivan driver honk at me and shake his head while he hit the gas as he passed me without moving left to share the road.. Seems like every ride I take there is at least one driver that has road rage against cyclists. I choose to share the road with cars and accept the risks that go with it. But, I'm still offended when an a-hole behind the wheel of a car, van or truck chooses to act carelessly like this guy yesterday or the driver you encountered on your ride.

  3. What to do? Stand in front of the car driver at the red light, pull out my cell 'phone and call the police. This isn't 20-30 seconds, but at least 20-30 minutes with the police and half a day or more in court if the car driver decides to fight the charges.

    Now that's satisfaction.