An open letter from a cyclist to 99% of drivers

The news always seems to be carrying some story about a cyclist and a driver getting into a fight or of a cyclist being struck by a car while they are riding. When these stories are discussed in the comments section of a news site tempers flare and heated arguments about sharing the road break out. The pattern is so consistent that you can predict it pretty accurately:
  • Cyclists hate drivers that don't give them enough room on the road
  • Drivers hate cyclists that use roads they didn't pay for
  • Cyclists hate drivers that don't pay attention
  • Drivers hate cyclists that see stop signs and traffic lights as optional
  • Cyclists hate drivers that think bikes can't be lawfully ridden on the road
  • Drivers hate cyclists that slow traffic
The number of arguments leveled at one another is the ultimate fodder for Interweb trolls but the consistent pattern I see is the hatred part. As a vehicle driver and dedicated cyclist I'd like to take a slightly different approach to this:

Dear 99% of Drivers:

In the last year I've put close to four thousand miles on my various bikes, a large number of them on public roads in several states. While I have encountered my share of drivers that either don't see me or don't want me on the road, you were not one of them.

You pulled your vehicle as far over as you safely could to give me the room I need for both of us to share the road together.

You waited an extra 5 seconds to let me pass before making that right turn that would have cut me off.

On that narrow country road you stayed behind me when we approached that blind curve or hill until I could see ahead to tell you the road was clear and that you could pass me safely.

You weren't composing a text message on your cell phone at the same moment you began to pass me on the road. Or ever while you were driving for that matter.

You saw me trying to cross a busy road and safely slowed down, flashing your lights to let me cross without disrupting the flow of traffic or making the people behind you slam on their brakes.

When you pulled up to an intersection to make a right turn you didn't automatically push the nose of your car out into the area my bike was riding in.

These are just a few of the things you did to help us both safely share the road. I don't know if you could tell by seeing me on my bike but I'm a father, a husband, a neighbor, a son, a brother and a friend. I do know that you saw me as a person, not as an obstacle that needed to be overcome. Your awareness of your surroundings wasn't limited to the interior of your car.

In return I promise to do my part. I'll continue to keep as far right as I safely can. Sometimes I have to swing out a little further into the road than I like because I've had people open their car doors into me. I may hold you up on narrow roads but I want you to safely pass me as soon as possible; as soon as I see that you can pass I'll wave you forward and if I can pull it off safely I'll wave to you or give you a thumbs up. I know you're just following the law but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate it.

Sure, there are still lots of drivers out there that don't understand how fragile a person on a bike is and there are lots of cyclists that disregard common courtesy and the rules of the road as well. The reality is they are a minority, and hopefully a shrinking one.

This letter isn't directed at them though. It's directed at you. Thanks for sharing the road with me.


For the last several years my blog has focused on switching from Windows to Mac and the occasional posts on starting a new business. These are both topics I intend to continue with, I just want to mix in my passion for cycling and exercise as well. I'm always looking at technology that I can use with my Macs, iPhone or iPad to make my cycling and exercise experiences better and hope to write about that as well.


jbeardsley said...

Having biked for many a mile (more than a few with David), I can say I've never had a bad experience on the road. Now I do tend to bike lightly traveled, back-country roads mostly, so maybe I'm just lucky. Or maybe 99% of the drivers out there "get it". Either way, thanks from me too to those of you that do.

Keleko said...

I tweeted this link to you, but it might be useful for other cyclists to see, too.

David Alison said...

@Keleko: There are lots of things that can happen when you ride a bike. I've seen the outrage and felt the anger when people brush too close to you with their car. It actually happened on a ride I took today! The reason for my post is that for every driver that drives poorly and puts me at risk, there are 99 others that drive the way 100% should. I want to take a slightly different angle on this and focus on the people that are doing it right.

@JBeardsley: Missed having you in the area for these rides.

Christopher Robin said...

It's funny how our attention gets focused on the few individuals who do things improperly (I even do this when reflecting on the quality of my students). I'm a cyclist as well and I've had all the same encounters you've had; sadly, the most memorable ones are with the jerks. It's nice to see a reminder that most of the drivers out there are doing things properly.

Incidentally, if you are looking for an iPhone app for cycling I just started to use Cyclemeter and I'm rather impressed with it. Though I have only used it on two commuting rides, nothing longer than a half hour yet.

David Alison said...

@Christopher Robin: I've been using Cyclemeter on my iPhone for a while now, though not regularly. I'll likely be doing a blog post on it soon. Love that it maps my rides and doesn't completely kill the battery.

Korey Jerome said...

I was prepared to be irritated with your post today based on my experience with bicycle protests in Portland Critical mass where they feel it's appropriate to block traffic and cause inflamed tempers. Thank you for making an elegant point and I agree with you. I ride all over with my kids through neighborhoods and also appreciate the room and extra caution by cars.

I am bummed that you don't talk about macs much and your current passion is bicycling. I'll still follow waiting for the occasional mac entry.

David Alison said...

@Korey Jerome: The reason I haven't been writing about Macs much lately is because they all have just been working great. A lot of my blogging was about finding the right apps for different things and to a large degree I've become very comfortable with how my Macs work now. What I don't want to do is force Mac articles on this blog "just because". I think the best blogs are about topics a person is passionate about; while I am still very passionate about using my Macs I don't want to blather on and say the same things over and over.

That said, we have some Mac related issues coming up: my son is heading off to college this Fall and I need to find the right Mac Book to replace his Mac Mini, which I want to turn into a media device! Lots of stuff to explore there!

Anonymous said...

"For the last several years my blog has focused on switching from Macs to Windows..."

Got that backwards, I believe.

thommango said...

Hi David,

I started reading your blog at about the same time that I began keeping a blog about switching to mac. I'm also a cyclist and, quite recently, becoming engaged in cycling issues here in Toronto. So I was a bit disoriented when I read through my inbox of mostly cycling-related emails and discovered a cycling entry from you. Love your letter, and I just can't believe how timely it seems with what's been going on in this part of the world. Last week, three cyclists were killed and three more injured in Quebec.

This week, a politician who ended up killing a rather vengeful and probably unstable cyclist had all charges against him dropped. These two events have brought out all the crazies on both sides of the needlessly polarized car vs bike issue. So, your article was very timely. Cheers.

David Alison said...

@Anon: Doh! Nice catch, thanks. Fixed.

@Thommango: Thanks for the kind words. I just don't see how ratcheting up the vitriol is going to help anyone understand and accept that we all need to work together to share the road.

Anonymous said...

From: Marnie
Nice post, David. My husband is an avid cyclist and I ride recreationally. But here's my pet peeve -- cyclists that don't use excellent bike paths that are right next to the road. Over the past two days I have passed two different cyclists on narrow roads that were not using the well-maintained, very obvious paths (literally NEXT) to the road. I feel like this unnecessarily puts them and everyone else in danger. What do you think?

Trisha said...

Wow! I have been reading your blog almost since you started it as I am an avid Mac user and programmer so many of your topics were very interesting to me. I also enjoyed your occasional references to NoVa as I live in Manassas. And then, today, I take a look and you're talking about cycling! Could your blog get any better??

I am actually a relatively new cyclist (or maybe returning as an adult might be more accurate) and a Reston Bike Club board member. As I steadily accumulate more miles on the bike I see many of those incidents that get tempers going, and have been part of many discussions with the other board members on how we can help to alleviate some of these issues by making both sides more aware.

You are absolutely correct that 99% of drivers follow the law and are courteous and respectful of cyclists. The flip side is that 99% of cyclists are courteous and respectful of drivers and the law of the roads. Unfortunately, it's always that 1% that foul it up for everyone else. Wouldn't it be great if 100% on both side played nicely?

Thanks for the excellent blog and I hope to see you on the road someday!

Oh, and I'll watching for your review of Cyclemeter. Looks interesting. :-)

David Alison said...

@Marnie: If it's a clear and dedicated bike path that is next to a road I'll take that nearly every time. In the community I live in we have blacktopped "paths" that are very well maintained but they are actually our sidewalks too. Though I would never be cited for riding on them they are usually occupied by pedestrians that don't want me riding up to them on my bike; though people do use it that way someone has to jump off that path and into the woods or grass to get around people going the other way. Have you ever ridden that bike path? It may be that cyclists aren't using it because it's really not a bike path but effectively a sidewalk.

@Trisha: Small world. I'm a member of the RBC and generally join them on the Saturday morning rides. The weeknight rides are difficult for me to make it to. Hopefully we'll meet up in person at one of the RBC events. Happy cycling!

Trisha said...

I might see you on a Saturday ride at some point. As of now, I don't think I quite have my speed up to that level, but I'm working on it.

Michael said...

@Marnie, I hope my response won't turn this into the flame war that it has avoided becoming thus far, but ...

In my experience (as a bicycle and car user in Melbourne, Australia) many car drivers (most of whom aren't also bicycle users) tend not to appreciate that many bicycle paths are only suitable for very slow riding.

Obviously I don't know the particular paths which you refer to, but I've read dozens of comments from Melburnians bemoaning riders who don't use the existing bike path alongside a particular road which is very popular for cycling. Any cyclist will attest, however, that the path is manifestly unsuitable for travelling at anything more than pedestrian speeds.

It's refreshing to read the sentiment that David has expressed in this letter - it's perhaps too easy to adopt the us-against-them mindset. But there's no escaping that the 99% of drivers who do the right thing will be the last thing on the mind of a rider that has just been hit by one of the 1% of drivers that don't.

In my reckoning there are two salient points in this general debate. The first is that the worst of the drivers not only almost certainly never ride, but likely don't have friends that ride either, so there is very little empathy or recognition of the very real risks of riding a bike. By contrast most riders are likely also car drivers (who've been inconvenienced by a slow rider at times like everybody else). And if they're not they'll certainly be friends with people who are.

And secondly the likelihood and extent of risk of harm to others of unsafe automobile driving is orders of magnitude greater than the risks of unsafe bicycle riding.

Everyone - Ride and drive safely!