Sarah Goodyear asks a good question: “What is it about bicycles that drives some motorists so crazy?” Her answer is that while yes, bikes do sometimes slow down cars, she “sometimes think[s] that drivers hate on bicyclists so much because, consciously or subconsciously, they envy the freedom that being a bicyclist represents.”
I’m fairly self-conscious about my reaction to bikers; I strongly believe that we need to get more people from cars to bikes but I also can get so mad at bikers while driving. In those moments of self-reflection after getting mad at a biker (and we’re not talking yelling out the window, just feelings of frustration), here are my thoughts.
It’s definitely not speed. There are times where you have to drive slower for a block or so, but never slower to the extent that you can’t make it up on the next block.
It’s also not some primal battle for control over the streets. There are definitely crazies out there, but a really staggering proportion of drivers get frustrated with bikers. Most of them are reasonable people who have no problem with the idea of bikers and who actually want to figure out how to solve the problem. You probably can’t win over those who want people to stop biking. The important question is figuring out why the majority of drivers get mad at bikers.
Rather, I see two reasons the average driver gets mad at bikers. The first is a sense that bikers don’t have to follow the rules that drivers do. One of the two times I can remember being really steamed at a biker was when I saw one pair of bikers run four consecutive red lights. Not yellow, not just turned red, not right on red, just sort of blasting through an intersection. They were mostly being safe—they just went through when there was a break in the traffic—but flagrantly breaking a law that does and should apply to bikes exactly as much as it does to cars. And running reds is not uncommon, in my experience.
The other major reason is safety. Absolutely no driver wants to hit a biker. Crashes are indeed underreported and underprosecuted, but people really don’t want to hit a biker. And too often, it feels easy. The other time I was really mad at bikers was when a bike changed lanes, cutting right in front of me, and slamming on the brakes came very close to not being enough. In my conversations, this is universal. It’s not so much that it’s frustrating to drive near bikes, it’s that it’s scary. When a close call heightens the tenor of that fear, it can turn into anger as a way of lashing out.
What’s important about assigning these as the two primary reasons that drivers get mad at bikers is that it assumes the best of drivers. It approaches them in good faith. Then, and only then, can drivers become allies, rather than opponents.
For example, right now, drivers are taught only that bikes must follow the rules of the road. I think that a clarification of when biking should and should not differ legally from driving a motorized vehicle would be welcomed by most drivers. They’d be happy to allow safe rolling stops at stop signs if that were part of a clarification that bikers must bike with traffic, or can’t run reds, or whatever the comprehensive rules came out to.
Similarly, framing a desire for bike lanes not as reclaiming space from cars but as allowing both cars and bikes to ride safely and appropriately is something that would split what is often a very united front on the part of drivers.
There are a lot of terrible people driving cars who get mad at bikers for all sorts of awful reasons. There are also some biking advocates who have decided that the best strategy for winning much-needed improvements in our biking infrastructure is battle rather than compromise. This has created a discourse, however, entirely of conflict. I think that if you look at why drivers do get mad at bikers and compare it to what bikers want, there’s room for a new discourse of collaboration. That’s how we’re going to get the changes we need to get people out of their cars.