Be careful, that cyclist you just disrespected may turn out to be a real person

Inside your car is still in the real world

The car breeds a culture of anonymity; users are physically separated, usually cannot see each and there are very few opportunities to make eye contact between drivers. You cannot hear one another and often the actions of the vehicle itself are the closest you can get to evaluating another driver’s body language.

Think about it. The guy that cuts you off at the merge, the fast right-passer, the one that jumps the stop sign out of turn, the one that dashes the yellow or double parks in the right of way. As a driver, you have those encounters and they are done, you may remember the make or model, what the driver looked like and maybe even some of the license plate, and you say you will file it away. But quickly the details leave your mind.

This is a fundamental attribute of car culture: I am anonymous and no matter the transgression, you shall never know me. As far as discussion and confrontation go, US society is so confrontation-averse that we are not even socially allowed to call out close friends and family on bad behavior, much less strangers. While strolling on foot to the post office to drop a letter, most people will not blurt out to the random stranger, “Hey asshole, it says ‘No Parking.’

So yeah, these two facets of society, assumed anonymity of the driver and cultural aversion to confrontation came together somewhat amusingly for me today.

The scenario: Riding my bike to work, alongside a mate, with whom I connect a couple times a week, we come from different areas but are on the same schedule and merge together often between National Airport and Washington, DC. This morning, we come together near the Washington Monument, then will ride together down the National Mall, where we part ways after two miles at the foot of the US Capitol building.

The scene: We are riding together along Jefferson Drive, SW. This is one of the ‘inner routes’ down the National Mall. The encounter in question happened here:

Note from the map, Jefferson is one-way westbound (from the Washington Monument to the US Capitol) and its counterpart on the opposite side of the Mall, Madison Drive, NW, is one-way eastbound. Both are ‘local’ routes for access to parallel parking spots around the Mall and the Smithsonian Museums. They are not really through-routes, Independence Avenue to the south, and Constitution Avenue to the north serve that purpose; wider, faster, home to large volumes of rush-hour traffic.

Jefferson and Madison are ideal for bike commuters. The speed limit is 15 mph / 24 kmh and there is only one lane of travel each. Haulers that are in a hurry to get from point A to point B generally know to use Independence and Constitution.

In the afternoons particularly, I relish the witnessing of drivers trying to game the system by taking one-lane Madison eastbound to get to the bridge out of DC; tourists getting into and out of parallel spots, pedi-cabs, bike commuters, bikeshare users and tour buses dropping midwestern kids on field trips at the museums all conspire to slow drivers.

This morning, my commuter mate and I were moving along Jefferson westbound, at the mark on the map a lady in a large Mercedes SUV came up very fast, slowed short, then passed us closely on the left. As she passed, she gave the universal sign for WHY ARE YOU IN MY WAY, right palm open, held above head with a terse shake of the head. As I always do when passed on these streets, I looked down at my computer, it said we were doing 16mph, we were actually speeding. I raised my left hand and yelled, “COME ON!” as I often do in these situations.

We caught the driver at the next light (of course, because 200 meters ago I was in her way to get to this red) and I gave her a look, she pretended to be buried in her phone (experience tells us when a driver, who in the culture of anonymity thinks she will never see us again gets stuck at the next light is being a cell phony). At green we all went, my mate and I parted ways and I rode to my office, another mile from the initial encounter.

The payoff: As I was fumbling for my building badge at the garage entrance GUESS WHO PULLED IN BEHIND ME?

She avoided my gaze, pulling into the garage and went way to the back row, where she could take another set of stairs out of the garage to her office.

I don’t know what she was doing on the local route, I am not judging that. She may have been coming cross-town and that was a logical route, she may have dropped someone else off on the way, she may like the scenic route, or she may have been trying to game the system for a faster drive and was frustrated by the two cyclists traveling at the speed limit.

I don’t know if she always parks in the back of the garage, well away from the bike racks, I am not judging that either. Maybe that is her norm, maybe she realized the rider she brushed past five minutes earlier may want a word if he got the chance, now that he knows they are co-workers and all, and so got away from him.

Either way, I did not seek her out, her shame and discomfort were plain, and if I see her in the hall, I will smile and say hi. I have nothing to be ashamed of, because although I made a non-rude physical gesture and uttered a non-profane exclamation, I did not escalate the encounter by banging on her window, spitting on her car, etc. I am comfortable.

I am endlessly amused by drivers that feel largely empowered to impose their will on cyclists and other more vulnerable road users when cultural expectations dictate anonymity and rule of the strongest, but then become mysteriously silent and vanishing when forced to consider that same cyclist or vulnerable road user as a real person.

About Ben Folsom

Ben Folsom is a founding member of the Bike Commuter Cabal, a worldwide group of transport cyclists dedicated to protecting the rights of all road users and to encouraging people everywhere to ride more. Ben and his bikes live with his family in Alexandria, Virginia.