Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A civil discussion

My commute home takes me down Cambridge street which is the main way to get from downtown to (surprise) Cambridge.  During rush hour, the traffic is bumper to bumper, and I am easily able to keep up when traffic does move (the fact that it's downhill helps)  and when rush hour has passed, since it's two lanes it's pretty easy for people to pass me safely.  It's lined with driveways and parking spots, and I pretty much take the right lane for most of the 1/2 mile or so from Government Center to the Longfellow bridge.

A couple of days ago I went home a bit earlier than usual, so traffic was still bad.   I had a bit of a start  at an intersection at the top of the hill While sitting waiting at a light,  another cyclist stopped a couple of feet behind me and to my right, a third guy"shoaled" me and pulled up in the 2'6"' space between me and the other cyclist waiting for the red.  He had to twist to avoid hitting both of us.  I had a WTF moment, and exclaimed "careful there"  when the light turned green and I immediately left him way behind.

Through the top of this stretch there's an intersection where the parking lane turns into a right turn lane for the last 30', followed immediately by a short block with a right turn only lane to the right of the two through lanes..  I stay in the right through lane, not in the right turn only lane, since I'm going straight.
Still a bit adrenelized by the guy trying to slip through the tiny space between me and the other person at the light,  I was going pretty fast- was also trying to "keep up"  as I try to do when I'm taking the lane.  I was doing pretty well,  staying about 20' behind the car in front of me through this stretch, when someone starts to honk at me.  As is my custom, I ignore it, and continue through the intersection, when a red Ford sedan passes within touching distance.    Out of startlement, I yell an obscenity.

100 yards later the Ford turns into the Whole Foods parking lot.   The driver yells out his window "want to talk about it?"  I hesitate for a second, and then stop, turn around and bike back up to the parking lot.  I catch him after he's entered the parking lot,   say "Yes Sir, I would like to talk"  and he's a more or less genial chap with a commonwealth accent (either americanized British or Australian).

I told him that I wanted to apologize for calling him an A**hole, but that he passed me really closely, and that's a scary thing.  I said,  in Massachusetts, legally, if the lane is narrow,  bikes are entitled to take up the whole lane because there's not space for door clearance and me and safe clearance AND his car.
He immediately said,  "but you weren't in the right lane".  I said, "that's a right turn only lane, and I was going straight."  At that point, I think he realized a) that I was a human being who he had scared and endangered, and b) that he'd probably done the wrong thing.

Amazingly he was honest enough to admit it.   He first said that he, and his son are both cyclists (?!?).  He apologized for scaring me, and said that he appreciated that I had the proper equipment and a knowledge of the law.  We had to pull out of the way to let another car through, and he parked.
After he emerged from his car, he said, something like  "Really, I have to apologize,  because I was driving out of downtown,  and I had a green light,  and two bikes cut in front of me, and called me an Ahole as they did it."  I think that what he meant, is that he was still  upset by those scofflaws, and was angry at bikes when he came up behind  another bike, even thought I was occupying the space in front of him in a rational way.   It was only when he was confronted by a middle aged woman in heels and a dress, and an outraged but articulate argument that he could realize that he'd transferred his anger at them to me in an unreasonable way.

What I took away from this interaction:
1)  I think that a good percentage of drivers are susceptible to rational arguments.
2) That a handful of "bad apples" can make conditions more dangerous for the rest of us by creating animosity between drivers and cyclists.
3) That we too infrequently have the change for rational discourse, human to human on the road.  Part of it is the brevity of our interactions, and part of it may be that the cyclist is so out of breath :).  I was definitely gasping for the first half of our conversation

Overall, it made me feel optimistic about the possibilities for bike- car relations,  but I realize that this was an unusual experince, and wonder how it could be replicated more often.


  1. That does sound like a reasonable encounter. I think the fact that drivers and cyclists *don't* usually talk to each other is what leads them to form polarised views of each other.

    I am surprised you choose this route for your return trip rather than Mass Ave; I wouldn't be able to handle that route (on the Boston side) every day.

  2. Perhaps I'm fortunate to cycle where there are few cyclists - motorists have fewer preconceptions about me.

  3. The outcome worked because you took the time to keep involved. Too many of us would have continued on our way and the animosity would have remained.

  4. (blogger really hates me, trying from win32)
    I've found, as a cyclist, that a bad interaction with a car (or a jaywalker, or another cyclist - I've had someone hit me with their handlebar when they squeezed past at a red light) will leave me rattled for a couple of blocks and I'm much more likely to fly off the handle if another situation endangers me before the adrenaline has worn off. It's really hard to "let go" instead of letting it all escalate sometimes. It's good to hear that calm disucssions can happen. :)

  5. Velouria,
    I work over near Fanieul Hall, and getting to Mass Ave is an adventure all its own. I do it every once in a while,mostly when I'm headed to Newbury street or Fenway, but there are a couple of choke points that are at least as bad as Charles Circle. I actually find riding Mass Ave worse than Cambridge street- the way the lights are timed I think cars go faster on Mass ave, and are less patient because of the double parking mess through Symphony. Also, the Cambridge side connections work better for me from the Longfellow than riding down mass ave through MIT and Central sq. I've been told that Craigie bridge is a good alternative from this area, but Leverett circle is scarier than Charles circle to me.

  6. Much more reasonable than most encounters I have had :/ Glad it ended well enough!

  7. I don't mind going by the Craigie bridge as a way of getting onto the Esplanade then continuing west (at least on days when I feel like the Esplanade won't be too congested). One winds up dodging most of the Leverett Circle when heading northbound, and really the main choke area on that route from where we leave work is Congress St. between Fanueil Hall and Haymarket.

    I am never particularly fond of Cambridge St., but like you, I find it the least of possible evils. Generally, I get by through an aggressive taking and holding of the lane throughout the entire downhill section of the street (basically from The Old West Church to Mass Eye and Ear), and lane splitting if need be. It's far too common to get left hooked at Whole Foods or at the approach to the hospital. But even with that, it pays to be alert.

  8. I have to object to your characterization of yourself as middle aged! are oh so in-the-prime-of-life-young!

  9. "he appreciated that I had the proper equipment..."

    I'm not sure what this means, a helmet? Or why does that matter.

  10. dj3 He was looking at my bike when he said that, and I think he meant lights and a good commuting setup vs a brakeless fixie ninja bike ;). I mainly think he liked my bike.

    Anon, It's not that I consider myself old, I just meant to suggest that I think his reaction would have been different if I was 21. It probably shouldn't be, but he "took me seriously" as a "grown up" as opposed to thinking of me as a reckless thrill seeking kid.

  11. Well done, you! It's good when you can actually TALK to someone and have them HEAR you, isn't it? Happens way too seldom.

  12. Wow. Fascinating and yes--cheering. Glad this ended so civilly.

  13. This strikes me as odd.

    I have been driving for...22 years now. I have NEVER had a cyclist call me a name. If one were to do so, I would probably be mortified (if I had done something to endanger them). I certainly wouldn't be angry, and I certainly wouldn't take it out by endangering a completely different cyclist.

    So I'm having a hard time understanding how somebody could be lunatic enough to intentionally assault a cyclist by passing too close (for whatever reason), and yet rational enough to talk about it the way this guy did.

  14. Joe,

    A couple of points- from his description, the first cyclists were young aggressive male urban cyclists -he actually described them as "yobbos", and I've had that kind of guy yell at me even when he was in the wrong (See the great post 'Dear Mr Bianchi" by Change your Life Ride a Bike for a funny example).
    I think that Nicole above has part of the answer- he was still rattled and annoyed at cyclists when he came up behind me. Instead of thinking about why I might not be in the right most lane (it was a right turn only) he got angry that I wasn't over on the right, and so instead of just waiting and passing safely, he pushed on through. I don't think he understood that I might think of it as "assault" or even realized what the consequences of his actions might be. I think that part of why we were able to have a rational conversation was that he had pulled out into a parking lot, and was at least partly out of "driving mode" and halfway to "pedestrian mode".