Wasn’t yesterday nothing short of glorious for biking? And, funny you should mention it, so’s today! That’s my not-so-creative way of saying that we’ve officially hit bike season in Chicago’s much-delayed Springtime. Or, more accurately, we’ve officially hit the time of year when the all-weather commuters are no longer the only ones on the roads, and so it seems like as good a moment as any to have a little chat about city biking etiquette. I know—manners are a super sexy discussion topic. Well, in all sincerity, they are to me. What can I say? Will McAvoy and I: on a mission to civilize.
I love bikes. I love riding them, I love that other people love riding them and I want even more people to love riding them as their primary mode of transit. I love them in cold weather, rainy weather, hot weather, and windy weather. Even when my commute is miserable and I’m cursing my decision to forgo the CTA, I love bikes. No one is more surprised by that than I am. In just about every area, I’m committed to the world of creature comforts. I don’t camp, I lose my mind if the power goes out, and I avoid any grocery stores that carry fewer than 15 types of cheese. Choosing to go from place to place on a method of transportation that leaves one tired, sweaty, and covered in dirt seemed a laughable option to me. It’s funny the difference a couple of years makes. And while I still consider any place without a wi-fi signal to be wilderness, I can’t remember the last time I chose high heels over my green Schwinn. (Her name’s Dangerous Jade, for the record. Any of you fellow musical theatre geeks out there will find that terribly droll.)
But loving bikes doesn’t mean loving all other people who ride them. And, for the record, I don’t subscribe to the popular notion that everyone choosing to commute via bike is a self-important hipster with a general disdain for law and rules, and there are just as many dangerous drivers and obnoxious pedestrians out there. In fact, someone should write a list of do’s and don’t’s for them! But I am not that person and that’s not what I’m here to write today. So—let’s talk bikes and how not to be a shitty scumbag when riding one!
1. Wear a Helmet, Ya Asshole
Could ya just? As long as I live, I will never understand this. Never. I, like every other bratty child, hated wearing a helmet as a kid. I was already tall and awkward enough. I didn’t need to be adding to my absurdly gawky appearance by topping it all off with a hard plastic dome. Kids made fun of me, and it hurt. So, I stopped riding my bike—because I had great parents who weren’t letting me anywhere on two wheels without the requisite safety gear. I guess they wanted me to—golly, what’s the word?—live, or some such bunk. Total assholes, I know. And then I grew up and continued to want to live, I suppose. Guess the apple doesn’t far fall from that asshole-tree! This says less about how crappy it is to wear helmets, and much more about how crappy it is to be a kid. Kids are jerks. Adults are generally a lot more onboard with your decision to do things that keep you safe—no matter how silly you may still think they look.
So, seriously, members of the helmet-less moron population: what is your damage? There are plenty of dangerous things we all, or at least some of us, do every day. But we do them because, ostensibly, there’s some positive outcome to be had from doing them, thereby, making the risk worth it. People smoke because it satisfies a craving. It makes them feel good. We eat fatty foods because they taste good. Please, you legions of soon-to-be-brain-damaged lemmings, explain what feels so damn good about riding with your head unprotected that you’d risk serious injury or death for it? I’ll wait. I’m sure it’s a really, really, really, really, really good reason.
2. Rules of the Road Apply to You, Ya Asshole
I won’t lie and say that I stop at every single stop sign and wait behind every red light. I don’t. No cyclists do. Why? Because no one tickets us and our vehicles are shaped differently and function differently, and usually, it’s just cause we can—which is part of the fun, free feeling of biking that gets you hooked in the first place. But I’m a smart enough person to understand that I’m doing something illegal, not to mention, potentially unsafe. And here’s where we need to rely on everyone’s common sense. If I come to a completely deserted intersection and hit a red light, cards on the table, I’m looking both ways and continuing on. A four-way stop looms ahead? No one’s on the road? Yeah, I’m rollin’ through. This is the strange line that cyclists walk: we’re not pedestrians, but we’re not quite cars either. I don’t have the ability to stop on a dime and pick the same speed right back up, like you do in your car. My vehicle doesn’t work like that. So, yeah, I’m gonna bend some rules and do what is logical based on each individual moment of my commute. And until some body of law enforcement starts cracking down on this, it’s what makes the most sense.
You know what makes absolutely no bloody sense? Blowing through red lights and stop signs without bothering to even peek around the corner to see if anyone actually following the rules of the road might be coming ’round the bend to crash into you. I’m glad you possess some kind of Wolverine-esque healing power, but you’re an anomaly (if no one’s told you that before). Most people don’t want to get blown away by oncoming traffic, cause when this happens, physical harm comes to them.
Stop when there’s car traffic. Just do it. And don’t cut off car traffic around you just because you think you’re entitled to go faster. Just don’t. There are easier ways to die and they piss off those around you a lot less.
3. Use Hand Signals, Ya Asshole
You know how frustrating it is when a car changes lanes without a turn signal? Or how murderous with rage you feel when you’ve been sitting behind them for nearly a minute, only to discover they planned on turning right all along? It’s just as lame when you do it in front of me on your bike. And, once again, you’re putting your body in harm’s way. That lane of cars to the left had no idea you were planning on merging into them. How would they? Just toss up your damn arm for the briefest of moments, turn over your shoulder to make sure you’ve got room (just like you would in a car), and then go with god. All is right in the world. See how easy that was?
4. On Your Left, Ya Asshole
I know it feels dorky. I get it! But, like the helmet situation, get over it. I don’t want to get knocked off my bike. It hurts. It costs lots of money in doctor and dentist bills. It leaves ugly scars. Let’s all just avoid it, yeah? If you’ve decided to pass me on my left and are doing so by using the same lane of traffic that I am (generally, the bike lane), the chances of us colliding are pretty great. Why? Cause we’re sharing the same 3 feet of #$&*@ing space!! If I swerve to avoid a pothole, I crash into you. We fall, we hurt (please see the previous sentence describing medical expenses). How about we make a pact to not let this happen? And what’s the best way to ensure that it doesn’t? “ON YOUR LEFT!” I hear you, I stay where I am—or even move in to the right to give you more room!—we both get to our respective destinations no worse for the wear.
5. Never, EVER Pass Someone on the Right, Ya Asshole
Are you KIDDING me with this one? The first time it happened to me, I thought it was someone I knew being a punk and trying to scare me. It wasn’t. It was some dickwad who obviously had designs on murdering me by pushing me into traffic. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for thinking this is okay, smart, or not homicidal. You’re a sociopath. Stop wishing me dead.
6. Don’t Know What Shoaling Is? You’re Probably Doing It, Ya Asshole
Bike at whatever speed you want. Seriously. Some days I blow past everyone on the road, some days I like to enjoy the weather and take my time. But the speed you’re going is the speed you’re going. You aren’t going to magically zoom ahead of someone who’s been traveling faster than you for miles, simply because you shove your way in front of them while behind a red light at an intersection. You’re just going to force them to have to pass you again once the light turns, and you inevitably end up fumbling around trying to get your feet back on your pedals and return to your frustratingly slow pace that put you behind that other cyclist in the first place. This, my loves, is shoaling. And it has a domino effect. You shoal the person in front of you, the next cyclist does the same, and soon we have idiot cyclists 5 deep, ruining my commute. Don’t ruin my commute. I’m really a lovely person.
This moronic practice extends into something similar, usually involving six-corner intersections, though I’m not sure it has a name. At a dangerous intersection through which you don’t feel safe turning? Totally fair. My commute is mostly down Lincoln Avenue and there are tons of tricky six-corner stoplights—one of which involves me making a left turn. I get it. And if you need to use the crosswalks in lieu of making that scary turn, do it. You should do it. Be safe. But goddammit, stop using the crosswalks to pull ahead of me and avoid waiting at the &#*@-ing stoplight. You ain’t special. Wait with the rest of us, stop screwing with traffic (cause you better believe you’ve just forced a stream of cars with a green light to stop in order to let you do something that is essentially blowing a red), and remember that I’ve been traveling faster than you this WHOLE time. That’s why I got to the damn intersection before you in the first place. You’re like a shoaler on overdrive—an über-shoaler. Don’t be an über-shoaler.
7. Are You Seriously Wearing Headphones, Ya Asshole?
I have no words. Hope that song is as cool as being alive.
Honestly, the vast majority of my cycling kinfolk are legit. I wouldn’t continue to bike if I thought the roads were filled with nothing but lunatics. But, as I’ve explained, I like being alive. I assume you do, too! And as much as shitty cyclists annoy me, I also like that you’re alive. Or, at the very least, I don’t want to be the one responsible for you being…less than alive. I hope you want to extend me the same courtesy.
Bikes are fun. Bikes are the closest thing we have to feeling like you’re flying during your commute. Bikes make you feel like a kid again—but a kid who chooses her own bedtime and can drink. They’re pretty sweet. I only want the biking community to get bigger, stronger, and more powerful. But the more that the image of a law-breaking hipster who thumbs his nose at any action that might be considered “safe” is perpetuated, the less seriously we are taken. It’s the shitty cyclists of the world that lead people to wonder—more often than they don’t wonder—whether cyclists who are killed in traffic contributed to their own deaths. I want that to stop being an automatic assumption. Be better. Do everything you can to make sure that those with whom you share the road believe you’re in the same community as they are. Do everything you can to keep yourself and others from getting hurt. Bikes are fun. Let’s keep it that way.
Happy bike season, y’all!