A few weeks ago I was riding my bike east on M Street NW on way to work, as I do nearly every morning. If you've never been on this road, it's important to establish that, in an attempt to move the maximum number of vehicles in and out of the city as quickly as possible, M Street becomes a six-lane roadway during the morning and evening rush, with traffic signals timed so that motorists can cruise through Georgetown making as few stops as possible.

On this particular morning, I pulled up to the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue NW just as the light was turning red. As I waited, the motorist behind me started honking obnoxiously at me. He wanted to turn right on red, but I was in the way, and he wasn't happy about it.

(from Irish Typepad on Flickr)

I've seen and heard enough anti-bike screeds to know that bicyclists who don't always follow traffic rules usually get placed in the center of the debate. The argument often follows that if bicyclists want to share they road, they need to behave like motorists. And yet, there I was, getting honked at because I wasn't illegally going through the red light on my bike. It was quite perplexing; but needless to say, I didn't budge until the light changed to green.

Back in April I rented a car for a weekend to drive to the Cleveland International Film Fest. It was the first time in a while that I've done a significant amount of driving in a short period of time, and it really reminded me just how stressful of an activity it is. As soon as I got on the road, I could feel myself getting tense and anxious. I felt a sort of anger that I could barely control, and couldn't easily explain either.

The motorist's real enemy isn't simply the bicyclist, it's anyone and anything that gets in the way. It's pedestrians, it's joggers, it's people out walking dogs. And don't forget about buses, taxis stopping to pick up passengers, and of course, other drivers. It's even the police, and it's one of the few contexts when a lot of otherwise law-abiding citizens resent the presence of law enforcement officers.

At the end of the day, bicyclists are easy targets, because a few of them behave badly, and their behavior is easily noticeable. But I do think the real frustration doesn't stem from that behavior itself, but because it's one of the many obstacles that makes driving an activity that isn't especially enjoyable. On the road, motorists probably hate each other more than anything else, but it's hard to articulate that, so someone else needs to be there to take the fall.


    On June 13, 2011 Anonymous said...

    I agree - I hate the other motorists around here more than anyone else. I find Maryland drivers the worst, then Virginians, then DCers. Oh well.


    Great post, memorable quote "It's even the police, and it's one of the few contexts when a lot of otherwise law-abiding citizens resent the presence of law enforcement officers."

    I'd also add that driving is one of the few contexts where society tolerates otherwise law abiding citizens acting like utter sociopaths and routinely endangering the lives of others.

    On June 14, 2011 Anonymous said...

    He wasn't honking at you to make you go through the red light. He wanted you to move over and wait in the "straight" lane (the center lane of the three lanes). East bound traffic at that light has a dedicated right turn green arrow signal. The right lane is dedicated to turning right onto southbound Wisconsin, and you were blocking it.

    I know. That's been my bike commuter route for 15 years.

    Other than that, your quote was good.


    That's interesting. I'll have to pay more attention the next time I'm in that lane. I have definitely seen people keep straight from the right lane, so if it's truly a "right turn only" situation, then I've witnessed a number of motorists who don't take that to heart.

    On June 14, 2011 Anonymous said...

    I've been bike commuting in DC for several years now. Even in lanes that continue straight, I try to move left within the lane (maybe use the crosswalk a little) to let cars turn right when I reasonably can. Then I move back after they've turned.

    Sure, it's not required by law, but it's just polite. Why not do it?