Ever held a door for someone who then waltzed through it, oblivious to your existence? I hate that. I don’t hold doors so I can be thanked, but when I do it, it’s a courtesy and I like that it gives me a chance to interact with someone unexpectedly.
Maybe it’s a sign of our insecurity as a society, that we can’t even smile at a stranger. To not have my kindness acknowledged, even with a nod or a smile, irks me somehow. I exist, and I just did you a favour. Society shouldn’t be lived in a vacuum.
When you’re on the street cycling, it’s important—required by law, even—to follow correct etiquette. You increase safety immediately by making others aware of your intent. I like knowing when the cyclist ahead of me is about to turn or stop, so I should offer that same courtesy to cyclists behind me. I should stop for open streetcar doors and red lights, because if I want to be treated well, I must act within the confines of the law. Besides, it only infuriates drivers that they have to wait but I didn’t.
When a car passes me and then positions itself directly in front of me, cutting me off, I’m annoyed. But if I pass a cyclist and then slow down, forcing them to pass me multiple times, how is that any better? And if I expect others to show me these courtesies, then I should lead by example.
And I should make every effort to remain positive and focussed. To do that, I try to cycle aware. For instance, shoulder checks are so important when you’re in traffic. Every time I enter an intersection, whenever I come off a light change, especially when there’s almost enough space for a car in the lane ahead (you know, the lane that shares the parked cars) I do a shoulder check to make sure a car isn’t about to overtake me too close. Knowing what’s behind me as well as what’s in front of me is key to my safety. With this knowledge, my frustration with others is diminished, making my responses more positive. In these situations, I usually yield to the car, because they’re big and just not alert to my danger. I work on the assumption that no one is intent on killing or maiming me. They’re more likely distracted (and the occasional person feels entitled). I need to remain positive in my outlook, which is obvious in my responses.
And besides, very cool things can happen, both when you demonstrate etiquette, and when you acknowledge such acts in return. First, you build a bond between two commuters, something not to be taken lightly. And second, you give cyclists a good name. There are way too many people out there who give us a bad name, so why add to that? I prefer to surprise drivers, pedestrians and other cyclists with a friendly moment, a correct response. With something fun.
Here are just a few moments I’ve noticed that can make all the difference in a commute.
When I’m changing lanes or entering a lane to avoid an obstruction, I put out my hand to signal that the driver has to give me space. Then, I wave my thanks to them for obliging me. Often, the driver will then pull up beside me and smile. I like that.
As I ride down Bloor – Danforth, there are lots of people standing beside their car or waiting inside their car, door ajar. If it’s clear that they’re waiting for me to pass, I thank them as I cycle by. Many people gasp and say, “You’re welcome!” as if they didn’t expect to be thanked. They deserve my thanks for not scaring the crap out of me. I’ve been scared by near doorings enough times that what I really want to do is hug those who give me space. (I’m sure they’d be grateful if they knew I was resisting this urge.)
If I’m turning left at a red light, I pull the bike in front of the line of cars and then make eye contact with the leading driver and communicate in hand gestures. Pointing at my chest, I then point to the left. “I’m turning,” I mouth at them, and smile. They always nod and smile back. This interchange prevents the inevitable frustration a driver might feel at my taking their lead position and inconveniencing them in the turn. They can see I’m an older woman, but a friendly one. The “friendly” part is key. As I cycle into the intersection at the green light, I move quickly and then wave my thanks again.
Sometimes a cyclist blows past me unexpectedly. Depending on how strong my startle response, this can be a dangerous proposition. So, when I come up on pedestrians and other cyclists, I prefer not to be equally guilty of this behaviour. I’ve seen three approaches to this: I can sound my bell, I can use a whistle, or I can call out.
Frankly, I think the bell is ineffective because it doesn’t clarify my intent enough. It just lets the person know something is about to happen. The whistle irritates me: I was a field lacross umpire, and whistles (in my opinion) mean you just broke a rule. I don’t want to insinuate deserved punishment as I ride behind you, I want to let you know I’m there. My approach is to call out, because it’s more personable, less mechanical.
“On Your Left!” I say. “Bike Back!” or “Heads Up!” are also effective.
And while we’re here, when you pass anyone—a cyclist, a pedestrian or a car, you should always do it on the left. Always. No one is expecting a right-hand pass, it impedes traffic, and it’s risky behaviour. Please, pass on the left. Do the expected, unexpectedly.
And finally, claim the lane if you need to. It clarifies intent and that you exist. Sometimes, drivers just don’t see the bike, so you have to be more obvious about it. No one has ever made me feel badly for claiming a lane, but maybe it’s because I make eye contact when I can and I always always wave to thank the driver behind me as I leave the lane.
Thank that driver, that pedestrian, that other cyclist, for being courteous to you. When you acknowledge their kindness, that you realize and appreciate their act, it brings us all together as a community of commuters. Today, I chose to ride a bike, but tomorrow I could be the pedestrian or even the driver, and I’ll hope the other commuters demonstrate good etiquette on my behalf. And after all, we’re each of us just doing the best we can to get from Point A to Point B, quickly and safely.