Angela and I are both mathematicians. Inevitably, when either of us mentions math, either that we do math, teach math, or studied math, the response we get more often than not is “Oh, I hate math.” You get used to it after a while, and we can usually find ways to move conversation back out of that deep dark pit, but it happens often enough that we both get kind of excited when we run into someone who says something like “Oh, I just loved calculus. I really miss it, and wish I could get back into it.” (It does happen! Hi Violet from the Fresh Pond Toddler Nature Walk!)
I’ve noticed a similar black hole when biking comes up. The response often goes something like this: “Oh, you bike? Bikers are so unpredictable.”
In city riding like we do in Boston and Cambridge, where bikes are mixed right in with the cars in confusing, cramped and often poorly marked city streets, I do understand that we make drivers nervous. But I’ve been noticing lately that cars can also be extremely unpredictable, in ways that make navigating our streets as a biker more dangerous and more difficult. I’m not talking big asshole moves, like whisking around a biker to cut them off sharply on a right turn, or blazing past with barely any clearance. Polite drivers know not to do that, and most drivers are polite. I’m thinking about more subtle things that a perfectly skilled driver might never know put bikers on the defensive, and sometimes prompt us to do things that might seem unpredictable and frustrating. I’ve identified three that give me pause when I’m riding in traffic, and I offer them here, along with a few suggestions to make your driving (and parking) friendlier to bikers. These thoughts are offered with the understanding that most everyone is doing their best to navigate safely, in a traffic infrastructure that doesn’t always help us to share the road.
1) Nudging aggressively out into the intersection when making a left. This is something of a necessary evil in Boston traffic, but if I’m coming through an intersection straight on a green light on my bike, and you are in a car waiting to make a left, I need to know that you see me, that you aren’t going to whip into your left hand turn just as I enter the intersection. If you are aggressively nosing out into traffic, I can’t know that, and have to assume you don’t see me. As a result, I slow way down to watch what you do, holding up traffic and making you wait longer for your turn. If you see a biker approaching, even if your gap is coming up soon, please back off just a bit, and maybe even give us a wave.
2) Pulling over with the engine running and with no signal indicating your intentions. I get it. You need to pull over to pick someone up, let someone out or check your directions. But when I see a car pulled over to the right in the parking lane with the engine on, I have to assume you could pull out at anytime and probably don’t see me. That means I have to pull out and take a full lane to pass you (something that drivers complain is an “unpredictable move,” in fact, the one really bad driver interaction I’ve had in the last year was getting screamed at and aggressively cut off for doing exactly this). This is even more true if you have given absolutely no indication of your intent. Putting on blinkers while you are pulled over, and then putting on a turn signal when you wish to pull out, can do a lot for bikers trying to navigate safely. And please, always check for bikes before you pull back into traffic.
3) Parking with wheels turned to the left. Why in the world would you ever know that the position of your wheels is important to bikers? Well, probably, you wouldn’t. Like I said, I’m not talking asshole moves here. But when I’m riding on a street with a parking lane, even if I’m riding out of the “door zone,” I am watching cars on the side of the road for any sign of life. Yes, that fast moving traffic to my left is important, but I know those drivers probably see me. People pulling out of their parking spot, or waiting for a break in traffic to open their door, are much less likely to see me. I watch for faces or flashes in rear view mirrors (which can show that a door is about to open), and I also look at tires. Before a driver pulls out, they are going to need to turn their tires sharply to the left, and that can be a clue to me that a car might be ready to spring to life. Thus, it’s really nice when drivers either turn their wheels straight or to the right when they parallel park. It’s one way that I can know your car is less likely to pull out in front of me.
Our audience contains a lot of bikers, and I would love to to hear suggestions from our readers for simple changes drivers can make to be more predictable, but I do ask that any comments not devolve into driver bashing. I really do believe that, by and large, we’re all doing the best we can out there, and most of us who bike, also spend a fair amount of time behind the wheel (even us, a couple times a year anyway).