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Ray Keener: Take the Lane? Share the Road?

Published March 26, 2014
A blog by Ray Keener

Editor's note: Ray Keener is a longtime friend of Bicycle Retailer and writes occasional columns, blogs and articles for the website and magazine. Ray's background includes stints as a bike retailer, executive director of the Bicycle Industry Organization, editor of a trade magazine, founder of Growth Cycle and now executive director of the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association.

Richard Fries recently wrote a thought-provoking piece on the People for Bikes blog. The premise: Unruly group road rides are setting us back.

The concept fits with my Bicycle Politics beliefs. So why was I surprised to read all the hysterical commentary, up to and including, "Is it true People for Bikes is actually an auto-industry funded organization?"

Richard covered group rides well. Seems to me there are basically two camps in the commuter cyclist realm: Car Appeasers, like myself. And Car Haters, like those bashing Richard's "ride thoughtfully and courteously" concept.

(I use the terms Appeasers and Haters knowing neither group may like that tag. So substitute whatever word you like, and please don't blast me just on this naming basis.)

Car Appeasers take the lane when they have to. Car Haters take it much more often, as a matter of principle. Because they can, not because they need to.

A prime example: When riding as a twosome, do you keep a watch behind for cars, and single-file it when being overtaken? Or do you stay side-by-side and keep chatting? That's perfectly legal behavior that shows that you're more concerned about your own convenience than that of the car drivers.

I hear all the time from Haters that it's actually safer to take up more space on the road and force car drivers to cross the centerline to go around you, rather than trying to squeeze in between.

Appeasers say that forcing cars out of their lane pisses them off, makes them more likely to act out toward other cyclists, and degrades our image and our cause.

Like many arguments with no evidence on either side, this one may rage on ad infinitum. And I hope the tide turns toward we Appeasers.

From what I can tell, People for Bikes is taking pretty much of a straight Appeaser stance. Although they have the good sense not to call it that.

When the current People for Bikes president, Tim Blumenthal, ran IMBA, he was criticized by the rabid fringe for not taking a more confrontational stance with the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service, and other bureaucracies.

Looks to me in hindsight like he was doing the right thing by recognizing the relatively powerless position that mountain bikers held in the "early days" and accordingly preaching patience and tolerance.

A toot of a car horn recently turned me from Appeaser to Hater, in a matter of seconds. I learned a lot from this inadvertent Role Reversal. I was headed south out of the parking lot of a hardware store in Boulder, Colo., where I live. I was headed across four-lane Arapahoe Road and into a Performance Bicycle parking lot on the other side.

I was the first one to the red light, so I centered myself in the straight/right-turn lane, stopped on the “trip the light” bike icon painted on the pavement. Which puts me “in the way” of cars wanting to turn right.

Ordinarily, I keep an eye out behind and move over to the curb if a car pulls up behind me with their right-turn signal on, so they can go rather than waiting for the light to change.

Last week, I reversed roles when a car pulled up and beeped at me before I had a chance to look back. My rather juvenile but totally human response: I stayed put in the middle of the lane, blocking the driver’s right turn.

Driver, out his window: “Hey, man, can you get out of the way so I can turn?”

Me: “What would you be doing if I were a car?”

Driver: “You’re not a car, you’re a bicycle!”

Me: Trying to remain calm and civil, I stood my ground and didn’t respond.

Driver: “Hey, it’s people like you who give cyclists a bad name. No wonder no one likes cyclists, you’re so inconsiderate.”

Hmmm … Role reversal. That’s something I might have thought, and have said in the past, when I see a fellow cyclist running a red light, riding the wrong way on a one-way, etc. etc.

Again, there are two ways to look at this. Is it inconsiderate for me to act like a vehicle and claim my place in the traffic flow? Does the driver have a point, or is he just one more Bike Hater? I believe, lacking any evidence, that he’s a fellow cyclist. He obviously had put some thought into what he was saying. Taking a stance on Bicycle Politics, the same stance I hold.

And my stance is based on a simple reality: We live in a car culture. However wonderful we know Bike Life to be, we’re the intruders. The in-the-way people. And what’s the best way to progress from this? I would say, to recognize and acknowledge our status. To try to change driver attitudes, one interaction at a time.

On my riding-around-Boulder commutes, I make it a point to say, “Thank you” to drivers, with a wave and a smile, at least three times on every ride. My ire at bad driver behavior (usually) stays unspoken. No shouting or waving digits. Just an understanding that most drivers misbehave out of ignorance, not ill intent. 

As much as cyclists are more of a force today than ever, partly due to our increasing numbers on the streets, and partly due to the efforts of People for Bikes: We’re still outspent, outweighed, and outnumbered by automobiles. Demanding your rights, confronting car drivers, even when we’re behaving legally, won’t turn America into Holland or Denmark.

On the contrary, I believe it holds up our progress. Gives talk radio guys an easy target. Reduces our chances of getting funding for protected bike lanes and other “grow the pie” necessities.

As much as we like to view this as a personal choice, nearly all of you represent the industry and the Bike Movement in some way. As retailers, suppliers, advocates, ride leaders, frequent commuters, whatever.

So make whatever choice feels right to you, but at the same time realize that your bike behavior has the potential to influence many others. I believe courtesy and tolerance should come first. But then, I’m an Appeaser. How about you? 

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