Etiquette, schmetiquette!

Why bring the best movie of all time into this?!

They’re some of the rudest people I’ve ever encountered. I hate to say it, but I’m just going to be bold—they’re some of the most self-centered people navigating on highways, or on county roads I’ve ever seen. They won’t move over. You can honk at them; they think they own the highway.

— President of the Montana Senate Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, opposing a proposed safe passing bill for the state

"Not wrong, just an a**hole"

I was reading the comment section on a bicycle-related newspaper article one day (I know, I know…) and noticed an interesting pivot in one of the comments. Someone had defended a cyclist’s right to be on the road—yay!—but then, channeling The Dude from The Big Lebowski (please do watch the clip above), went on to say that while cyclists “aren’t wrong” to be on the road, “they’re just a**holes” for riding there. Well now. That took a turn, didn’t it. 

It does seem to me there’s been a shift in the discourse lately, with more people understanding that cyclists have a legal right to be on the road. But the cultural attitude about that remains entrenched—it’s damn rude to do it. And so people who ride are faced with a choice. Do we physically remove ourselves from the flow of traffic when our presence slows motor vehicles, currying favor with drivers and maintaining our status as decent, etiquette-respecting human beings? Or do we stay safe? 

Yes, the choice between “rude” and safe is that stark. Safety for cyclists is largely a function of how visible we are to people driving cars, and the best way to be visible is to position ourselves within a driver’s line of sight (keeping in mind that they can’t see as well, or process information as quickly, from within their speeding box). Nevertheless, we are subjected to a near-constant chorus—of frustrated motorists but also fellow cyclists who think giving up space on the road will gain us acceptance and respect—that slowing the speed of car travel is deviant. Here’s what I say to that: 

Our roads ain’t no place for etiquette. Particularly the bicycle kind.

etiquette (noun) : the customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group.

Etiquette is the proverbial grease to society’s chain; it’s the spoken and unspoken rules about how we should behave in a given context to get along with others. Knowing a group’s rules and acting accordingly is essential for anyone who wants to fit in and thrive. So, as people who ride, “bicycle etiquette” should be a useful concept, leading us toward a common understanding of how we should conduct ourselves, yeah? Well sure, in the context of trail and group riding, where clear codes of conduct are important for not just politeness but also safety, etiquette is essential—for example, everyone should understand how to pass others without frightening or injuring them. 

Where the notion of bicycle etiquette becomes trickier is in its application to people riding roads. A quick Google suggests the phrase is a mash-up referring to many different things: riding tips ("No shoaling!"), safety advice ("Wear a helmet at all times"), admonishments to follow the law ("Don't ride against traffic"), truly random stuff ("How to poop on a ride") and calls to get out of the way of other vehicles ("Two abreast? Surely you jest.”). Clearly, there is no clear consensus about what it means. And I’d argue that’s because etiquette in the context of road riding is nonsensical. The group into which people riding roads are attempting to “fit in” is not fellow cyclists but fellow travelers (aka “traffic”)—and all travelers are governed by traffic law, not the laws of polite society. 

Sharing isn’t caring

Keeping peace on the streets is often regarded as a function of all users extending kindness towards one another, or "sharing the road”. This is problematic for many reasons, not least that our understanding of how to behave in traffic breaks down even when people are trying to be kind (I see you there, 'Unnecessary Samaritans', braking for me as I wait to cross the street, forcing an awkward “Are they really stopping for me? Oh, OK, looks like it, guess I’ll have to perform a little shuffle-jog to demonstrate I don’t take their kindness for granted” situation). More troublingly, when we view traffic from the perspective of "polite" or "rude", as opposed to "legal" and "illegal", we set expectations for the behavior of people who ride bicycles that run counter to their interests and safety.

Transportation engineering in the United States has historically prioritized speed and efficiency, and all of us have, to some extent, internalized this ethos. The consensus in American society is now that it is “rude" to slow traffic, meaning that even perfectly legal behavior on the part of a cyclist (riding in the middle of a lane of traffic with cars queued behind) becomes cast as deviance. The “polite” thing to do is move to the right, sharing or forfeiting the lane, at the expense of our own bodies and well being. 

The following analogy may be crude, but it can help us understand how inappropriate it is to think of a bicyclist’s right to travel in terms of etiquette:

People born in the United States have been granted the right to "pursue life" (thanks, Forefathers!). But at times this right may prove inconvenient to others. Say you've spent the past several years caring for an ailing parent. You love them and you're as sympathetic as you can be, but… this is taking so much longer than expected! It’s kind of jamming you up a bit! HOWEVER. Is it “rude” for them to keep living? Of course not! They are exercising their fundamental right to life, not breaching a social contract. Their need for extra care to sustain life does not constitute a claim to "more rights” to life than anyone else. They’re just living as best they can, for as long as possible, regardless your feelings about it.  

Likewise, Americans have a fundamental right to travel (to be distinguished from a right to travel as speedily as we may desire). And at times, depending on the vehicle we’ve chosen, our exercise of this right to travel can be inconvenient for others. It can take more time for them to get to where they’re going when our vehicle is slower than theirs. They may have strong feelings about this. But each individual in our society gets to choose their vehicle from among any of the road-legal vehicles in our state traffic codes, and one type of vehicle has no more or less right to the road than any other. Public roadways are first-come, first-served, period. Taking more time to travel them does not equate to taking “more rights” to the road. We’re all just trying to make it safely to our destinations, as best we can.

The fact is that Ohioans have the right to ride a bicycle literally anywhere on the road, going any speed, regardless of traffic conditions. We cannot “impede traffic”. We need not ride “as far right as possible”. We do not have to “share”. And we are not “being rude” when we take the time and space we feel we need to be safe. Period. 

Cars queueing behind cyclists, alllll good.

Cars queueing behind cyclists, alllll good.

Meanwhile, back in the real world

OK sure, but one might argue that, back here in the real world, law and etiquette coexist, and the legality of an action does not preclude people from evaluating it in light of cultural expectations. Plenty of legal behaviors are considered rude, after all (e.g., speeding up to prevent someone from entering the flow of traffic), just as plenty of drivers employ niceties not proscribed by law (e.g., braking to allow someone to enter the flow of traffic). So assuming it’s safe to do so, people who ride roads should be willing to move aside from time to time to let traffic pass—a simple, no-skin-off-my-back way to generate good will from motorists. Doesn’t have to be a big deal, doesn’t have to mean anything, just a simple act of kindness extended to a stranger to keep things copacetic. Right?! Well…no. 

It is not OK for acceptance into the “legitimate road users club” to hinge on someone physically removing themselves from traffic to suit someone faster than them. We can acknowledge our current reality—that we face a cultural norm around speed on our roads, and flouting that norm can upset people—and also refuse to grant it the power to dictate where we ride on the road. It may not feel fair that we, as the more vulnerable road users, have to take this on, but fortunately we do have the power to help change our society’s norms. When we refuse to move aside for faster traffic, we begin to normalize our presence and slowly, over time, we become normal. And then more people join us on the roads, and bicycling becomes safer and everyone wins—even motorists

Embracing “rude”

To be clear, I think we should all approach traffic with a spirit of generosity—even, yes, kindness—towards our fellow travelers, particularly those more vulnerable than us. Again, the problem with enacting that spirit is that it can undermine the very predictability on which traffic safety for all users depends. Laws are designed to pick up the slack in spaces where human goodness cannot go far enough, where there will be mass confusion and likely injury if circumstances go awry. Adhering to the letter of the law helps keep everyone safe on the road (yes, cyclists should do so as well, but that's a topic for another day). 

I should also say that someone who rides roads need not maintain their position in traffic at all times to make a point. It is fine to feel stressed or threatened by traffic, physically exhausted or whatever, and it might make sense to just pull over for a bit. There are no "hardcore points" one can accumulate by being a never-conceding, most-challenging-route-possible-choosing cyclist. But, to be clear—if someone moves aside while cycling to let cars pass, that is a choice they are making to forfeit their right to the road. It is not "etiquette”. The distinction matters! People want to be nice, they want to follow the rules, they want to fit in, they want not to be a burden on others. They want all that so much they are willing to risk their lives to allow space for massive speeding vehicles, by riding so far to the right they become invisible. 

So polite society be damned, I say. 

It is time for cyclists to embrace “rude” and confidently take their rightful place on the road. It is time that we stop giving our fellow road riders a hard time for being in the street, slowing cars. Because we’re not doing ourselves any favors by being nice. In fact, it just might get us killed.