Aug 072012
Your “Right” to Speedy Travel Doesn’t Exist

Originally I planned to write this post as the second part of my response to Bike Shop Girl’s piece We Are the Problem. One of the underlying assumptions in her post that I take issue with is the idea that if it weren’t for bikes traffic would flow merrily along with no bumps or wrinkles.

Now I’m writing it because a friend posted on Facebook about why she occasionally feels the need to take the lane and in no time at all had over 25 comments. No, wait–make that 38–no, wait–44–I just looked again. Not that this topic engenders a lot of discussion or anything.

I could have predicted the “get out of my way” comments, and I’m here to suggest a different way of thinking about how street traffic really works.

My main point, in case you’d miss it if I buried it further down the post: There is no law guaranteeing any street user anything like “unimpeded speedy passage with no need to slow down, ever.” There just isn’t.

So in response to this:


Let me point out that typical street traffic includes all of the following, every single day (well, except maybe for item , which probably doesn’t happen every day):

  • Drivers who drive the actual speed limit rather than letting their speed creep up by 2-3 miles per hour. Or 4-5. Or….
  • Buses stopping to let riders get on/off
  • Drivers making left turns across oncoming traffic
  • Passing through a school or park zone
  • Big semis that have to swing wide to make a turn
  • Drivers who perhaps should consider giving up that license clutching the steering wheel and peering over it while they travel down the street at slightly under the speed limit
  • Pedestrians crossing at an intersection (which is a legal crossing even if there’s no painted crosswalk, unless signage forbids it)
  • Having to veer around some kind of hazard in the street: part of a blown-out tire, an item that fell off the back of an unsecured load, a pothole
  • Emergency vehicles for which everyone has to pull over
  • A driver hitting the brakes because someone’s pet–or child–darted unexpectedly into the street
  • People slowing to look for an address or read the sign name on a cross street
  • A train passing through and making everyone on both sides of the tracks wait
  • People causing collisions–everyone waits while the wreckage is cleared and the ambulance takes away the bodies

This is just a sampling and you probably have your own favorite story about something that hung you up when you were in a hurry. But how often does that story revolve around something to do with someone in another motorized vehicle rather than someone on a bike?

My main point again, then, is that traffic has many causes for slowing, stopping, and sometimes even choosing an alternate route. Someone riding a bike is only one of many such things you’ll encounter in your driving day. You never had any reason to expect that you could just barrel straight to work without anything slowing you down. If you drive that way it’s only a matter of time before you cause that last bullet item on the list.

And besides, realistically, for how many minutes or seconds does someone riding a bike legally hold a driver back for more time than it takes to traverse a city block?

I’m serious when I say “seconds;” as anyone watching a really bad commercial can tell you, seconds can drag on for what seem like hours.

Arterials have multiple lanes and residential streets have low traffic volume, so the true elapsed time you’re “stuck” just isn’t that long if you time it. I think the 3-5 seconds you’re behind the bike before you can safely pass feel far longer than they really are.

If you’re in incredibly heavy traffic and can’t change lanes, in an urban setting you’re not going fast anyway and the person on the bike is probably keeping up with traffic just fine. I know I do and I’m not any kind of athlete. Sure, I’m going slower heading up new-to-me Seattle hills than I do on the flat streets of downtown Spokane, but this is in heavy traffic and everyone stops at every traffic light.

If you’re going to complain about someone on a bike, what if you kept track of everything that creates a change of speed in your driving? You might be surprised.

Then when you get where you’re going and you can’t find a parking spot, imagine that a couple of the cars ahead of you weren’t there because those people chose to ride a bike instead. As a little reminder, take a look at the video in If Bikes Were Cars and Cyclists Were Drivers.

You might also get a very different sense of the passage of time if you rode a bike, but I already wrote that post.

Related Reading

Your Turn

  • Do you think drivers notice people on bikes more than other traffic elements because bikes are in the minority, because they themselves haven’t ridden and thus biking is an oddity, or for some other reason? (A Miss Bikey Manners request: Refrain from “all people who drive do X” or “all people who bike do Y” in your response. Let’s acknowledge the “jerk constant” that exists across all modes and move on.)
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Reader Comments

  1. You forgot my favorite: a car stopping to back up and parallel park. That stops traffic completely and yet drivers don’t try to ban it, they just consider it bad timing to get stuck behind one.

    The difference is that they can see themselves parallel parking whereas they can’t imagine ever riding a bike in traffic.

  2. Just the other day I had a discussion with someone who kept trying to ask the same question in different ways, presumably to elicit a different answer from me. The underlying question was, in essence, “You mean people on bikes really aren’t required by law to get out of my way if they’re slowing me down?”

  3. I’ve been surprised at how cautious many drivers are and don’t pass me as quickly as I think they could. Most of my commute is split between a bike lane and soft shoulder residential roads in the valley.

    I know when I’m driving, it sometimes feels like FOREVER when I’m waiting to pass a bicyclist, especially on congested residential streets (like browne’s addition). But really, it’s usually under 10 seconds.

  4. Invariably, when a car has to slow briefly before passing me, a few seconds later they are close up behind the next car that was ahead of both of us. While they have had to reduce their speed briefly, my impact on their position in overall traffic is ultimately zero.

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