Monday, April 12, 2010

Bike Commuting Tip#1: "Right of way" vs. "Stay out of the way!"

I am both a motorist and a bicyclist. I've lived in one or another of this city's boroughs all my life. I learned to drive here and I think that makes all the difference. Daddy taught me, and he was livery driver! I already appreciate and understand the rules in the seemingly confused and chaotic mess that is NYC traffic. One of the problems, I feel, is that many urban bikers aren't urban motorists, which contributes to safety concerns and friction between the two groups. In fact, there is an antipathy between these two groups that is regrettable and serves no purpose that I can see--neither is going away! Now you don't have to learn to drive in this city to commute on a bicycle, but if you're biking on NYC streets, then you kind of already are driving in this city. See what I mean? What's my point? In the short term, understanding a motorist's point of view is useful to a bike commuter, and in the long term, better relations between cyclists and motorists reduces the list of needless enemies bikers must face on the road to change, which saves time, energy and treasure.

My first piece of commuter cycling advice is to discard notions of entitlement to the right of way. This attitude is usually accompanied by the tendency to overuse said right of way, or any other privilege one perceives one has. First of all, right of way is granted to cyclists because they are the weaker vessel. They are human powered, relatively slow-moving vehicles. Right of way is not granted because we are special. Personally, I don't care to be granted something as a charity and overusing a charity does not endear the recipient to anyone. Second, right of way isn't much consolation after an accident. I hate to put it this way, but a driver's license and keys to a working automobile practically constitute a license to kill. Unless it can be shown that a law was broken or that the driver was impaired, it's "just an accident." Now if this is true, why is it allowed? The system works for a number of reasons.

A. People are usually disinclined to kill and often yield even when they have the right of way, just to avoid an accident.

B. Even if folks were not disinclined to kill, they may fear the consequences from a collision, which may result in damage to their own vehicle or person.

C. Even if only passingly concerned about the above, they may fear legal or financial consequences.

A bicyclist can only rely on the drivers in category "A" because the other motivations are weaker. The folks in category "B" aren't concerned at all. The folks in category "C" are wondering if they can get away with it. Of course that concern arises after the fact and I wouldn't claim these folks are out to kill, or that anyone is, but all these factors arise after the fact.

Like it or not, we cyclists are in the motorist's house. Furthermore, since we are obliged to rely on a motorist's goodwill for our safety, it is wise to curry favor. Now I can sense the rage of some bikers who feel they are being green and are superior, but outside your "Ivory Tower" it doesn't mean much. This doesn't mean you are completely wrong, just that the world hasn't caught up yet, and that is not an unusual condition. It's called the "human condition" and we're all part of it.

So in practical terms what does it mean? Time waits for no one and in NYC that is especially true--double that for "rush hour." A bike commuter is after all biking during rush hour. Thus, my advice is to stay out of the way! Stay to the right and out of traffic, unless your path is blocked (This is when you use "right of way.") or your destination is to the left (This is the most problematic street bicycling matter and will be addressed next.). Do not impede traffic! You do so at your own risk. The desperation spawned by our economy is such that the motorist that hits you may actually not see you.


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