My non-European Vacation

Initally, I didn't want to write this post. This internet is littered with stories of bicyclist-motorist confrontation (as well as pictures of kittens with funny captions) and adding one more hardly seems worth it. It's not cathartic and I don't think that writing it out will help me or you understand anything "big picture" about bikes and cars and people any better we you have previously. But, you take the good, you take the bad (and there you have...?) and sometimes bizarre confrontations happen and I feel obligated to share this one with you. I wax an awful lot on this blog about how great and wonderful bike commuting is and frankly it wouldn't be an accurate representation if I withheld the fact form you that sometimes you get confronted and it can make you feel like shit. For a little while at least. And then you get over it and you forget it and you move on with your life and get back on the bike and do it all again.
I was riding on Fairfax Drive between Washington and 10th, in front of the Catholic church and school and on a street that doubles as a parking lot. There is no bike lane, but it's a short street between two major streets with bike lanes. I was riding on the right-ish but I wasn't hugging the curb. There was a red light ahead and I wasn't go especially fast.
I was honked at and I moved over to the right. At the stop light (because red lights mean that there's nowhere to go), I looked over to the driver and he rolled down his window. I can't recall with any degree of accuracy, but here's a general sense of the conversation.
What I wanted/ hoped to convey:
  • Why are you honking?
  • There's a red light. We've both got nowhere to go. 
  • There's no bike lane here.
  • Even if you pass me, there's a red light there and you're going to stop anyway. 
  • Where were you going to go, even if I wasn't there?
What I think he conveyed:
  • You need to move as far over to the right as possible. 
  • You should ride in the bike lane or where there should be a bike lane, which is next to the curb. 
  • "This isn't Europe." (verbatim) 
What I didn't say:
  • The law says that I can take the lane. (If someone is a coot enough to honk at you, appeals to the law aren't going to make him go "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realize that your behavior is perfectly legal. Now that I know that, I recognize that my grievance is wrong and I wholeheartedly apologize for the misunderstanding.)
  • Any curse words and personal invective or insults. I also didn't raise my voice. (This is a big win for me and I'm kind of impressed with myself) 
Then he rolled up his window. And then we waited next to each other for another 30 seconds. Because we were stopped at a red light and there was nowhere to go. Have I mentioned that? I didn't pull my bike in front of his car. I didn't take a picture of him or his license plate. I didn't threaten to call the cops. I didn't actually call the cops. I didn't try to race him once the light turned green. I just kind of looked at him, trying to process the whole thing. When the light turned green, he drove away and that was that. 
I wasn't so much angry as I was extremely confused. I've done a lot of dickish things on a bike and my share of scofflawism and sketchy moves that have definitely inconvenienced drivers and I've done other things that can definitely be perceived as inconveniencing drivers, but never did I expect that dawdly rolling down the right-ish side of a relatively quiet street towards a red light would result in confrontation. I just don't get it and I still don't get it and I don't think I'm ever going to get it. I think that the core of this man's grievance was that I was riding my bicycle and that this, in its very nature, was the wrong thing to do. To my mind, this kind of grievance is dismissible on its face because it's ridiculous. 
So, that's my story about weird confrontation. It wasn't scary. I didn't feel threatened. Of all the miles I've ridden and all the commutes I've completed, I've been confronted by randos not even a handful of times, so I still think I'm coming out ahead. But these things happen and while they can be upsetting, I encourage you not to get angry. For Arlington-specific information for dealing with drivers far more hostile than this one, read here
There's a difference between an agressive driver and someone who just doesn't know how to get along with bicyclists. There's no sense in escalating a conflict with the latter. So, you yell and you scream and you "assert your rights" and then what? You leave angrier? You ruin your day thinking about what a jerk someone was? You blog about it like some passive-aggressive egomaniac? Sometimes people (drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians, beekeepers) are just jerks and I'm just happy that there aren't more of them. Unless they were soda jerks because that would make the world much more old-timey and fun. 


  1. I had a similar incident on my own residential street in DC. Luckily, he wasn't opposed to my existence on the road, just unaware of what counts as safe and courteous behavior.

    Someone honked as he came up behind me, then passed me, then we met at the light. I asked him to roll down his window and asked if everything was allright.

    He said he wanted me to know that he was passing me. I told him that I could hear his engine behind me just fine and that honking is not only unnecessary but startles cyclists.

    "Oh, okay," he said. We shook hands and went on. It was one of the more positive experiences I've had on a bike, but only because neither of us were opposed to the other's existence. I'm sorry you encountered someone who was.

  2. I've had similar encounters, both with drivers who honked to make sure I knew they were there (not out of malice or annoyance, but from genuine, but misguided, concern) and from drivers who have actually alerted me to an unhooked pannier or a dangling bungee. You're totally right that it's both satisfying and redeeming when you have an actual example of "they're not all out there trying to get me," which I feel is, unfortunately, far too common amongst the cycling set. People are just trying to get somewhere and most don't give a crap about bicyclists. It's just weird when someone does give a crap and it's over such an indecipherable, non-issue.