Polite Bike Commuting

A totally real email from the inbox: 
Dear Sharrows,
I am a DC bike commuter and I feel a great kinship to other bike commuters. Certainly, they feel great solidarity with me because, after all, we're all on bikes and that must mean that we're all awesome people. Anyway, I'm writing to get some support in my firmly held belief that it is not important that I act in a polite manner when interacting with my fellow cyclists. It's weird because sometimes I do things like cut them off or pass on the right or pull in front of them at stop signs or pass too closely and they act all upset. What's their deal? We're all on bikes. Why can't they just be cool??? 
Hugs and kisses,
A totally real person
 I'd be lying if I told you that I didn't get totally real letters like this from totally real people all the time. That said, veracity aside, sometimes I get the impression from fellow cyclists that they care little about their comportment as it relates to everyone else on bikes. And I guess that's unsurprising because I don't think that drivers always care about obliging their fellow drivers and pedestrians aren't always looking for ways to best manage their interactions with other pedestrians, so why should people on bikes be any different when it comes to interacting with their fellow cyclists? After all, people are people no matter how they get around and some subset of those people are going to act in antisocial and impolite ways and I'd be deluding myself into thinking otherwise. But that also means that there's another group of people who, perhaps if they gave it a little thought, might want to act in a way that's cognizant of their fellows or at least in a way that might be perceived as such. So, assuming that those people are, in fact, out there and not chimerical fantasies of my own imagination, I offer some unsolicited advice on behaviors that other cyclists might find polite.

[Now, please do keep in mind that this is not a definitive list and also that the "comedy of manners" is popular genre for a reason- mores vary and misunderstandings happen. Even if you adopt all of these behaviors and even if you attempt to ride your bike as politely as possible, sometimes you will piss a fellow cyclist off for some reason. It just happens. This is the nature of human interaction. It's ok. It's nothing getting too worked up over, though it is frustrating when it occurs. "But I was trying to do a good thing! Why are you mad!?" is an exasperating phrase in an interior monologue, but you have to accept it as an aberration and just let it go. Unless it keeps happening. Then you should probably question my advice, your implementation of it, or both. Caveat emptor and all that.]

On Passing
Sometimes people are bikes want to travel at different speeds. Crazy, right? That means that one cyclist might want to pass a cyclist who to that point had been in front. A few things:

Call out your pass. you know, let that person know that you're going to pass them. Ring a bell, say something, I don't know- use your judgment. It's helpful. There are times that I won't call out a pass, but it's normally if I'm really going out of the way to give a lot of room or if I think that alerting the person to the pass will somehow complicate things. Generally though, just say or do something.

Pass on the left. For the love of Zeus, please only ever pass on the left (in America and other left-hand side type places. Do the opposite in opposite places). Our whole transportation system is sort of organized around the idea that faster things go on the left side. Left lane on the highway is the "fast lane." You walk on the left of the escalator, stand on the right. With most bike lanes, the travel lane is to the left and that's where the (maybe) faster cars are. I try not to indulge myself in to many "bad" behaviors, but if you try to pass me on the right, I will try to run you into the back of a parked car. I know it's wrong, but I feel quite strongly about this and I'm willing to risk ire to make my point. Not nice, I know. Just pass on the left, ok?

Pass with enough room. If drivers are expected to give three feet, you can too. A standard bike lane isn't wide enough to accommodate a pass, so if you insist on passing someone in the bike lane, get yourself out into the travel lane, pass them and get back in. It's pretty uncomfortable to be passed super-close by a bicyclist and while not as dangerous as being passed super-close by a driver, it's still not fun. The "passer" is the one doing the passing, so the passer has the obligation to abandon the bike lane to pass. If that prospective passer wants to stay in the bike lane (or can't get out because the travel lane is blocked by car taffic), then tough luck. The "passee" is under no obligation whatsoever to get out of the way. The "passer" needs to "get over it."

Pass only while moving. To shoal, such as it's come to be defined, is when someone pulls in front of a cyclist already present at a stop. It violates all principles of "first-come, first-serve" and all sorts of queue codes recognized the world over. You wouldn't step in front of someone at the coffee shop because you think they're going to order a fancy latte thing that's gonna take forever to make and you're just ordering a drip coffee. You wouldn't cut to the front of the bank line because you're just making a $20 withdrawal and the person in front of you is doing some complicated transaction with deposit slips and checking accounts and money orders. So, why, upon seeing a cyclist or a bunch of cyclists, would you think "lemme just get to the front of this line. I'm probably faster anyway." Two thoughts on that last bit:
1. There's a distinct possibility that you are not faster than the person you just pulled in front of. That person will become extraordinarily annoyed upon finding this out. That person will then probably pass you. And then, at the next light, when you do it again, that person might lose their shit.
2. If you're so convinced that you're faster, then it'll be no bother for you to prove that when everyone gets moving again. It won't be such a big deal to wait.
In general, the guiding principle at all stops should be to defer to the cyclist in front of you. It's not that hard.

On other things
Some other things to think about:

Yield. There are a lot of right-angle intersections on my commute where there are stop signs on one street, but not stop signs on the other street. I've noticed a lot of times lately that rather than deferring to the rider who's on the no stop sign street, a cyclist will just make the turn and cut off the person riding on the perpendicular street. That's not really cool. I don't care too much about your coming to a complete stop, but it's generally better to not cut people off by making a turn in front of them when you could slightly slow down, let them pass, and then turn after they pass. Likewise, if you've decided that you're going to roll through a stop sign or a red light, please don't make a cyclist coming through that intersection have to slow down or swerve to avoid you. If someone has to do that, then you shouldn't have rolled through the light. Poor judgment on your part.

Take turns. Take turns at four-way intersections. Crossing someone's path because you didn't feel like slowing down isn't a very nice thing to do. You wouldn't like it if it happened to you.

Give enough space. You should certainly pass with enough space, but you should also just generally give enough space to your fellow cyclists. You don't need to ride super-close behind them. When stopped, you don't really need to sidle alongside of them. You certainly don't need to blow on the back of their necks because that's hella creepy.

Don't judge. Oh, you don't like that someone isn't wearing a helmet? Ok. You're not crazy about the fact that someone flipped off a driver? Great. Think someone's bike isn't great for some reason or should or shouldn't have a component? Neat. It's fine that you have opinions. But please don't share them. Why would anyone care what some stranger has to say just because he also happens to be on a bike nearby? I certainly wouldn't. I think that conversation is fine and that some people are more ok with it than I am (I'm not a really chatty person), but you should probably try to catch the hint if someone doesn't want to talk with you.

Don't condescend. Somewhat related to judging, some things to never do include saying things like "good effort- this is tough one" to someone you don't know as you pass them climbing up a hill. If that person tells you to fuck off, you should count your blessings that they only did that. It's nice to say hello or nod. But there's a line past which you're no longer being nice and instead acting like a condescending ass. Looking over your shoulder to see how much distance you've just put between yourself and a fellow cyclist- why? Is it a race? "You're pretty fast for a ________" is a thing that you should only say if you're willing to risk getting the shit beaten out of you. I mean, really. Come on. Treating other cyclists, through word or unspoken actions, are if you are somehow superior to them is just a terrible idea. Disdain is unbecoming.

There you go. Some ideas about how to be polite to other cyclists. Obviously, you are also allowed to be polite to non-cyclists. In fact, I encourage it! Politesse is great. It's a good personal habit and it's an important civic virtue. Like anything else, you can't really control the actions of others. I mean, if you had magical powers or a mind-control machine, you could. You probably don't have those things. But you can control your own actions. Hopefully. In that spirit, I recommend trying to be nice to people are trying to think about empathy and maybe even trying to abide by some of the ideas above. Feel free to add some more ideas about etiquette in the comments.


  1. Re: Don't condescend. I tend not to get offended when a cyclist commiserates with me when we're both humping up the hill but WTF is with the car passengers giving me creepy thumbs-up and telling me I'm "looking good" and "yeah, you're getting it done"? Eww. No.

  2. Just because it's kind of related: This Sunday afternoon, I was biking across the Sousa Bridge, NW-bound, with my girlfriend and my roommate. About halfway across the bridge, we caught up to a bike train of two adults and four children less than 8 years old, in a single file, moving between 5 and 6 miles per hour. The sidewalk is pretty narrow and although we theoretically could have passed them, we decided not to and just trailed them across. Do you know what happened? Nothing! Nothing at all. We were in the sunshine for a couple of extra minutes.

    And then on the end of the bridge near Barney Circle, we encountered a gentleman who had decided to cross the bridge SE-bound on his dirtbike, on the narrow sidewalk. At least he had the "courtesy" to wait for the bike train to pass before he tore down the sidewalk behind us?

  3. Here's something I'd add. Assume the cyclist in front of you intends to obey the law and, for example, stop at a light or stop sign, even if there are no other cars at the intersection. If you're going to blow the light from behind, don't assume the cyclist in front of you has those same plans. Prepare to go around wide and, for the love of Zeus, don't rear-end or swerve evasively because their stop is unexpected. (Related: don't tailgate).

  4. Thank you, Andrea. I try to bite my tongue when I'm stopping at red lights, stop signs, etc. and other cyclists proceed through as if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were on their heels, but if you endanger me, all bets are off. I will chase you down and loudly question your parentage.

  5. I admit it, I'm the one losing my shit when you pass me when I'm stopped at a red light, and then I just have to pass your slow ass AGAIN!. But I just spent a week in Amsterdam watching people of all stripes not get worked up over anything. And I mean anything--no one follows the rules there. I promise to be more zen-like.

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  7. On condescending. I'm very sorry, but I choose to be an activist cyclist. When you exhibit bad cycling behavior (shoaling, running red lights, going helmetless, etc.) I know there's nothing I can do to stop your bad behavior. However, I will make some effort to let others around me know that other cyclists know you're doing the wrong thing.

    Shoalers get bad looks and maybe a quiet shake of my head.

    For red light runners (particularly when I've already stopped at the light), I've worked to soften my prior message of "don't run reds". I now say, "red lights apply to us, too" as they accellerate forward. The "us" part both softens and sharpens the criticism to let the perpetrator know that a person from within their group disdains their bad behavior.

    Helmet-less cyclists get my silent prayers that they will meet their destination without incident.