How common is courtesy?

This past weekend, my family took a walk to see the red-tailed hawks nesting in our neighborhood. On the way home, Nathan was yelled at by a fast-moving biker for stopping to say hello to someone. At the time we were on a sidewalk which is also used as a bike path, but contains primarily pedestrians. This started a conversation about sharing space, and my mother, who is deaf in one ear noted that this happens to her with some frequency — bikers may shout “on your left” but that doesn’t mean that she hears them and they bike past in a huff. This conversation really started my brain churning about the large number of discourteous things that drivers, bikers, and walkers do to each other:

Drivers:

  • Fail to stop for pedestrians in cross walks.
  • Fail to notice cyclists.
  • Stop in crosswalks.
  • Get angry at cyclists for taking up any roadway at all and seem to want us all to ride in door zones and on dangerous shoulders.
  • Honk for almost any reason. Honking startles pedestrians and cyclists, which can lead to erratic behavior.
  • Drive too fast down wet residential streets in the rain, splashing any poor pedestrian or cyclist just trying to get home where it’s dry.
  • Fail to use turn signals.
  • Cut off cyclists with sudden right turns.

Cyclists:

  • Fail to stop for pedestrians in cross walks.
  • Stop in crosswalks.
  • Ride on sidewalks, even in areas where there are lots of pedestrians.
  • Pass other cyclists on the right forcing slower riders into car traffic.
  • Ride erratically and unpredictably on streets, which makes drivers anxious.
  • Fail to obey traffic laws while claiming to want to share the road, which angers drivers.
  • Ride aggressively on paths shared with pedestrians. Pedestrians are startled by fast-moving cyclists, and calling out “on the left” is not a substitute for slowing down (note that drivers do the same thing to cyclists with they honk at us as a way of saying they’re about to pass). Some pedestrians will be unable to hear a bell or shout and others will be unable to quickly change their path.

Pedestrians

  • Let dogs walk off leash in crowded areas, which violates law in some areas, scares kids (and some adults), and causes bikers to make sudden stops.
  • Walk in groups in a manner that takes up an entire sidewalk.
  • Step between cars and into bike lanes to wait to cross a street. When you are between cars you are not very visible to anyone, including bikers.
  • Jaywalk.
  • Walk/jog on paths shared with cyclists in erratic ways that make passing difficult. When possible, it’s useful to walk and run on the right.
  • Allow toddlers to walk on bike paths without very close supervision which causes bikers either to make sudden stops or to slow to a crawl for fear of hitting an unpredictable child.

Now I’ve pissed off just about everyone reading this, but please keep in mind that I’ve done a large number of things on all three of these lists. I’ve done a smaller number of things on the list for pedestrians and cyclists just this week. In fact, on a trip to explore some new biking routes just today I did several of these things either because I was uncertain of where I was going or I was anxious about safety. When we share transportation routes with other types of users, conflicts will always occur and hard-and-fast rules don’t always keep us safe. We all sometimes allow our own sense of urgency and importance to outrank our desire to play nice with others. But I also have lots of pleasant and courteous interactions with cars, bikes, and pedestrians every day, and I know that most of us want to be thoughtful of others, but we also want to be sure that our own rights to shared space are respected.

After thinking about all of the ways we drive each other crazy, I spent a little time thinking about my personal rules of courtesy. Here they are:

  1. When you encounter someone moving slower that you, it is always your responsibility to keep the interaction safe and courteous. That means that you watch carefully for slow-moving traffic, slow down when approaching, be as clear (and as lawful) as you can what you are doing or are about to do, and keep in mind that slower traffic may be unable to get out of your way.
  2. When you encounter someone moving faster than you, you should strive to act as safely and predictably as possible so that the faster traffic can pass.
  3. Keep in mind that some of our spaces are not shared. Drivers have a right to expect that pedestrians will stay out of the roadway unless they are in crosswalks. Cyclists have a right to expect bike lanes free of stopped cars. Pedestrians have a right to expect sidewalks free of cyclists. If you are invading a non-shared space, do so with extreme caution and at least try to feel a little guilty about it.

About Angela

Angela is an associate professor of mathematics and enjoys writing, reading, and talking to people about her bike. She's the proud mother of two cute kids, H and R.
This entry was posted in Best of, Biking, Walking and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to How common is courtesy?

  1. N says:

    Didn't piss me off. ;-)

    I've done several of these on all three lists, but I strive not to. (I admit, as a driving commuter, the stopping in crosswalks is the hardest. In the city with the 2nd worst traffic in the country, it will often appear as though you'll be crossing to the next street block, only to not be able to, and then be stuck out in traffic, or in the crosswalk, because there are too many people behind you to back up. They started a "don't block the box" campaign, but it's an utter failure.)

    This actually prompted me to re-check local bike laws, and I'm glad I did, as many things have changed since the last time I did (er, 12 years ago? yikes), most specifically laws about riding on the sidewalks. They used to encourage it here (because of the traffic, I think), but now it's prohibited downtown.

  2. dr2chase says:

    I have a hard time calling it all just courtesy. If I blast down the MM trail without giving loads of room to toddlers, that's not rude, that's reckless, because I could seriously hurt someone. If I hassle people about not responding to "on your left" (I was unaware that they were supposed to — I thought it was a courtesy to let people know that moving to the left would be bad, and don't be surprised), that's just rude — nobody is going to the hospital.

    I tend to put the cars into a completely separate category, because they are so large, and capable of accidentally causing so much harm. They should be careful of everyone, everywhere, always (and that's how I try to drive).

    By-the-way, hawk photos:

    http://dr2chase.wordpress.com/2010/05/31/fly-baby-hawk-fly/

    (I was at the back of the crowd, near the street, standing on my Big Dummy. People were getting entirely too wound up about "should do something", I was happy to see him fly off that car.)

  3. Velouria says:

    I like the way you are looking at this and completely agree that all 3 categories of "traffic" can make mistakes or behave discourteously in a way that can cause accidents.

    On my way from Somerville through Cambridge to Boston and back today, I…

    - was passed on the right by a cyclist while in a bike lane (I was cyclin in the left part of the bike lane so as to be out of the doorzone)

    - had a pedestrian run across the street right in front of me from between 2 parked cars,

    - was cut off by a taxi cab making a left turn while cycling in the new bike lane on Commonwealth Ave

    Each of these actions could have had serious consequences; it's not just about cars vs not cars.

  4. 2whls3spds says:

    I honestly believe as a society we have become rude and self centered, it is all about me and my space the rest of the world can go take a flying leap.

    That being said, there are courteous people out there and can be found everywhere, just like the obnoxious ones.

    I think a huge part of the problem is the lack of proper design of infrastructure for the various groups involved, as well as people not using them in the matter in which it was intended.

    Kindergartners could teach some adults a thing or two about sharing!

    Aaron

  5. dr2chase says:

    @2whls3spds – I think it's about the same as it ever was, overall, but fewer jerks are driving (or at least, expressing themselves in jerky ways). But distracted and/or clueless, all the time.

    I still think that cars are in a different category because of their size and danger to others. For peds and bikes, being the subject of rudeness is often a matter of being delayed, but also a matter of being thoughtlessly exposed to serious harm. For cars, being the subject of rudeness is most often a matter of being thoughtlessly delayed. (In both cases, note that the rude person is often unaware of it — so is this really rude? But if the outcome involves my trip to the hospital, I care more about outcomes than intents.)

    And cars are also in a different category, because the result of "car courtesy" is increased speed, which is an increased danger to everyone else. Consider, for example, a 4 lane road, 2 parallel lanes each direction, and a parking lot, and an SUV in the nearest lane that wants to turn (right) in, and a smaller car that wants to pull (left) out, and obstructs the SUV, but cannot see around the SUV. To be courteous and speed things along, the SUV driver glances in his rear view mirror, sees nobody, and waves the little car out. The driver of the little car, to be courteous, does not pull out partway, and then slowly advance into the space where he cannot really see, but instead (so as to speed things along, and be polite to the nice person who waved him on), just zooms into the space he cannot see. Everyone's very polite, right? It would be very bad if my cousin was on a motorcycle passing the SUV, wouldn't it?

    So for me, car courtesy doesn't really work, if everyone can be polite, and someone can end up dead. And yes, my cousin could have been more careful passing that SUV, but driving like that is perceived as "impolite" by those behind you (oddly enough, that's how I drive now, which is how I know that other drivers often take offense).

    This is not a one-off, either; more than once, I have had a car pass me, then stop before an intersection, and wave someone on, into my path. Either they're psychopaths, or else they're just not thinking. I tend to think they're just distracted, but given the possible bad outcome for me, I'm going to have to take it personally, and see it as "rude".

    So I really do think that cars are in a different category.

  6. Kevin Love says:

    Many of the items for cars are not "discourtesy," but serious crimes of violence.

    Being a violent and dangerous criminal is far, far beyond being impolite.

  7. LisaNewton says:

    As a walker, biker, and driver, I'm guilty of many of these infractions, depending on my mode of transportation at the time, although I strive not to.

    These lists are just amazing, and thank you for pointing them out.

    From this moment on, I'm going to make a truly concerted effort to improve all areas of my transportation habits.

  8. I am very much in agreement with your statement that faster cyclists coming up behind slower traffic, either peds or other cyclists, are responsible for making the interaction safe. 100% true. That includes slower traffic that is deaf in one ear, or totally deaf due to wearing earbuds with heavy metal music blasting in them. What I have a difficult time achieving is not startling them, no matter how slow I go, because they seem oblivious. And if I go slow enough to not startle, and it's a woman jogging alone, well, she might get a different idea about why I am going so slow. I'm honestly not sure what to do in those situations to prevent a startle response. I want to leave happy impressions in my wake! :)

  9. Jay says:

    Hey John, would you like to cite the law or principle by where pedestrians deserve to be run over, simply by enjoying personal music players on their (our) public spaces?

    Are iPods illegal?

    I wasn't aware of that.

    Every step I take on our sidewalks, should I rip one eyeball out and stick it in the back of my head to watch out for speeding cyclists (along our public spaces, let's not forget that when you ride on sidewalks YOU are the speeding arrogant SUVs to pedestrians) who don't quite seem to realize that all of us aren't blessed with crystal-clear hearing?

    If women joggers are scared of you, that's not my problem. Or anyone else's.

    Find a new straw(wo)man.

  10. jenn p. says:

    hi there, i just came over from bionic mama. i love this post! i live in chicago and rode my bike for the majority of my transportation for the last 4 years (i'm currently off due to a wrist injury). i like how you broke it down and really thought through the ways in which commuting people can harm and hinder each other.

    in chicago there is no helmet law but only children 12 and under can use the sidewalks for biking, though i sometimes see adults doing it. there are a few bike paths that are shared by bikes, pedestrians, skateboarders and roller bladers. there are bike lanes, but not everywhere. i have been doored twice, both in bike lanes, once lead to hospital visits, xrays, mri, cast… i hit a pedestrian in a cross walk once. she waved me on and then stepped out in front of me, i felt horrible. it is illegal here to use a cell phone while driving without a hands free device. roughly 80% of the drivers that had close calls with me were talking on their phones. my biggest beef is bus drivers. they have flattened me between them and a curb and some of them like to honk as if we can't hear and feel them coming! i also dislike bikers who give bikers a bad name: erratic riding, not following the traffic laws, not wearing a helmet, wearing an ipod, and causing general anger and disturbance on the road. sigh… i miss riding.

  11. Michael says:

    I had a really odd experience with some uncommon courtesy: I ran into the side a minivan that was pulling out of a driveway. Since there was a brick wall along the section of the sidewalk, I could not see them coming. I was riding slowly on the sidewalk with my daughter in our Gazelle Cabby. I put a pretty noticable dent in their door.

    The woman who I hit and her daughter (who looked to be about 18) got out of the car, and we politely argued about who was at fault. Finally the woman said “well thank God your daughter is OK.” I said, “me too.” Then her daughter said, “I think we should pray about this.”

    I do not attend church at all but I was feeling grateful that everyone was unharmed so I joined hands with them while the woman said a little prayer. I asked them about the dented door, she said don’t worry about it and have a good day.

    @Jay: I am sorry to hear that you have had problems with cyclist riding too fast on sidewalks. I agree that it is a problem. On the rare streets where I ride on the sidewalk (like along South Huntington or on the Riverway where riding in the street, especially with a kid on the bike is too dangerous) I always go slow and call out to people walking ahead. The problem with the Minute Man trail is that multi-use paths just don’t work. There needs to be bike ONLY paths that are separate. That way pedestrians, joggers, those with strollers, dogs, etc don’t need to worry about cyclists.

  12. Mark Chase says:

    Hi Angela,

    I love your post, and it’s very much along the lines of a website/ campaign I’m starting to increase road courtesy: civilstreets.org

    I’d love to re-post excerpts of this post on my blog. Let me know if you mind.

    Keep up the great posts!

  13. Mark says:

    I’ve done a fair number of things on this list, but surprisingly, drivers have been pretty courteous so far while I’m biking through traffic.

    Congrats on living carfree with kids. I’m on my 3rd week, and it’s a challenge at times – even as someone without kids. Boston does have much better public transit than Baltimore, though.

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