You’re trying to get somewhere quickly. You’re running late for the third time in a row, or you really can’t be late for this particular thing, so you’re speeding a little. You’re racing down the outside lane, trying to quickly overtake the irritatingly slow car on the inside lane. The last thing you want is to have to slow down suddenly so that you don’t take out that cyclist you didn’t see a second ago (did they just pop up out of nowhere?!). Yes, it’s frustrating that bikes go more slowly than cars; that they seem so small yet have the ability to take up an entire lane.
I’ve been that person. I’ll admit it: I’ve beeped aggressively and tailgated cyclists for no reason other than they’re a lot slower than my car. I’ve sworn, both loudly and under my breath at cyclists for inconveniencing me on my drive. For making me wait. Roads are for cars, right?
I grew up in the southeastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. Out there, kids saved up for their first car so that the minute they turned eighteen (legal driving age in Australia), they had complete freedom. The kids with better-off parents often had cars bought for them, some with personalized number plates—usually their nickname.
Cycling just wasn’t really a thing once you got your licence. Out there, everything is spread out, parking is aplenty, and many households have several cars; two parked on the driveway, one on the front lawn, and sometimes even one or two more on the street. My parents had two cars and I had my own. When I moved out of home with my first boyfriend, we each had a car. Eventually, we moved closer to the city, so parking became frustrating. I rarely used my car because I worked nearby, but he needed to drive to and from work and university. But it had never occurred to either of us to sell one and share the other. We just assumed it was logical for everyone to own their own vehicle, even when they lived in the same household and the second car remained idle 95% of the time.
A couple of years (and a breakup) later, I found myself still living close to the city and barely using my car, but wanting to find an alternative way to get to and from work. So I went to the nearest bike shop, pointed at the biggest, most obnoxious, brand new matte black cruiser, and handed over $750. The thing was huge—way too big for me—and unbelievably heavy. It really wasn’t appropriate for a 5’2” lady with close to zero upper body strength, but I persisted and started cycling to and from work.
A 30 minute public transport trip (or 45 minute walk) was suddenly reduced to a nice, easy 20 minute cycle door to door—even less if I put some effort in. I often found myself grinning, happy, rolling along the Yarra River bike trail. I barely had to ride on any roads, something which I was afraid to do (probably because of my existing attitude towards cyclists). My commute became the best part of my day. I lost weight. I stopped paying for public transport. Eventually, I did what I never thought I’d do: I sold my car.
After another year or so of intermittent bike use, I moved further away from the city to a leafy suburb of Melbourne called Camberwell. Because the house I lived in was quite a distance from the nearest train station, my commute went up to an hour in each direction, and it was expensive. I had a terrible habit of living paycheck to paycheck, so I sometimes travelled without a valid ticket. I can’t remember what it was that made me think of it, but I suddenly realized that cycling might be a better option for getting to and from the train station. The cruiser would have to go, though. It just wasn’t practical. I found a local bike shop, rode the cruiser in, and rode out on an old, filthy Apollo Vitesse road bike. Compared to the cruiser, the road bike was as light as a feather and incredibly pleasurable to ride. (She now lives with my parents.)
The ride to and from the nearest train station got boring and turned into riding to and from a station slightly further away. Then, after being on a packed train one evening with my bike and feeling hateful stares boring into me from all directions, I started Googling bike routes from my home address—this time, all the way to work. For someone as unfit as me, this was a 45-55 minute ride each way, but I became ambitious. With the help of Google, I figured out where all the off-road bike paths were, and I settled on a route that allowed me to only share the road with cars for about 10 minutes.
The first ride was hell. Other cyclists were aggressive, overtaking me closely, ringing their bells, and riding really fucking fast. I got lost a couple of times. I felt unfit and slow and useless, but I got to work, had a shower in the building’s bathroom, and by the time I’d gotten ready and sat down at my desk, I realized I’d just done a 45 minute workout while traveling to work. Who cared how slow I was? Getting to work was now my exercise. I didn’t have to schedule it in anymore, and it got me to work for free and faster than getting public transport. I cancelled my gym membership and lost weight faster than I had in years. I was a convert. I had more money, more energy, and was sleeping better than I ever had in my adult life. I started getting more confident with being on the road and around cars, but still felt threatened every single time I had to ride on the road with motorists.
How the tables had turned! Now I was the helpless, frustrating cyclist. Now they were honking at me, giving me dirty looks, and getting close to me just to freak me out.
Cycling had changed my life. It started changing the way I dressed (will these shoes be comfortable to cycle in? Will the crotch of these jeans hold up to riding? I can’t cycle in that skirt!), it allowed me to eat just about whatever I wanted, and I was just happier. I realized that there were so many bigger-picture benefits to this. It made me healthier, so I was less of a burden on the medical system. I was one less car on the road, and one more seat available on packed public transport. I was doing a good thing, and it was improving my life at the same time. (I should have figured this all out earlier, but I was a dumb 20-something-year-old, and had to live it to understand it.)
Consequently, whenever I thought about my former feelings towards cyclists, I was ashamed. I just didn’t know then what I knew now, and I felt silly. Perhaps the threat of being hit by a car and the terror I sometimes felt on the road was just my bad karma coming back to get me. Maybe I deserved it, in some strange way.
I’m a lot more confident on the road now. In San Francisco, cycling is a big part of the city’s culture. There’s still a lot of room for improvement, but generally, motorists here treat you well. When I first arrived and saw the way cars made room for (and shared the roads with) cyclists, I was very pleasantly surprised. It seemed to be a fairly natural and cooperative relationship—at least, in comparison to Melbourne. Now cycling is my main form of transport, exercise, and—with increasing frequency—leisure.
In our early days in San Francisco, I asked a taxi driver who’d slowed down to let a cyclist pass why he thought motorists were so much more polite here than they are in other places. He looked at me as if I was asking the world’s dumbest, most obvious question, before shrugging and saying, “No-one wants to kill anyone else. They’re people too.” I was happily shocked. Every cyclist is someone’s son, daughter, wife, husband, friend. There’s a person on that bike, just like there’s a person driving that car.
He went on to tell us that cyclists in San Francisco are aggressive and will shout and whack your car with their hand if you drive dangerously, and that he’d even seen a cyclist spit at a motorist’s car for turning into the bike lane without looking. While I certainly haven’t spat on anyone (or their car for that matter), I’ve had to do my fair share of shouting at motorists for doing the wrong thing and putting me in immediate, life-threatening danger. But, in San Francisco, most drivers are apologetic and usually try to do the right thing, even when it inconveniences them. Maybe it’s the laws here, or the long ingrained bike culture of the city, or maybe it really is because everyone actually gives a shit about coexisting and doesn’t want to kill, injure, or frighten anyone. I like to be romantic and assume it’s the latter.
Due to several near misses and witnessing a cyclist get hit pretty badly by a car, I now see every single motor vehicle around me as something to fear. Every car is seconds away from knocking me off my bike and injuring or killing me, and that isn’t just when they’re moving. If you’ve ever ridden a bike in a densely populated area, you’ll know what it’s like when someone opens their door without checking for cyclists first. If you’re riding at a good pace and a car door swings open and you don’t have enough time to react, you’re screwed. I’ve never been doored (touch wood) but I’ve met people who have, and it often ends with a couple of broken bones.
So: next time you’re driving and you need to work around a cyclist, remember how they see you. You’re something to fear. You’re the one with the power. You can kill us in a split second. We can’t see who’s in the car and we don’t know how you feel about us, so we often assume the worst. Punishing us by being aggressive on the road doesn’t help anyone.
Imagine your partner, sibling, parent, or child is the one on the bike, and think about how you’d like them to feel on the road. Be nice. We’re trying to do the right thing—for ourselves, the environment, and society. We’re trying to get through our day so that we can go home to our loved ones, just like you are.
Please don’t kill us.