The (Five Golden) Rules of the Road

Jeff Alworth

I have been riding my bike in Portland (irregularly) for the past fifteen years or so, and have watched the city become truly multi-use.  It used to be that bike commuting was, for most bikers, a seasonal activity.  Now the number of bikers fluctuates only marginally with the weather, although sunny days do tend to produce greater concentrations that the dismal, soggy days of January.  For cyclists, this is great--it means we are enough of a presence that we are generally in the minds of drivers.  It has its downside though, as we saw last year with collisions and incidents of rage.

So on the occasion of this nice run of weather and its concomitant bicycle bloom, I thought it might be a good time to offer some rules of the road.  See what you think. 

1. That guy in the car/truck/SUV is not evil.
It is not unusual for even the most mellow cyclist to slide into a haughty pique when she sees a Nissan Armada cluelessly crowding her toward the parked Expedition.  When you're out there with only a pair of jeans and a cotton hoodie between you and the Armada (and its belching exhaust), you tend to feel a little self-righteous.  Maybe you feel that way even toward the odd Prius.  But except for the extremely rare resident of Buckman, we all drive or are driven part of the time, too.  That's the beauty of mixed-use; we can ride our bikes to work, and take the car to the grocery store.  We don't magically become evil just because we fire up the four-wheeler.  Thus we can cut the drivers a break.

2.  Cars and trucks are much larger than bikes, and will tend to win physical encounters.
No matter how chaotically you may feel a biker is riding, she does not deserve to be ground up on any of the hard surfaces around her.  Which is what will happen if you nudge her with your bumper.  It is sometimes easy to relate to a cyclist as an equal on the road, but they're not.  Car drivers need to drive with special caution, and bicycle riders need to recognize that drivers, aware of their vulnerability, are being deferential. 

3.  That guy on the bike isn't evil.
Bikes are apparently a hassle to some drivers--I've seen the looks some drivers have given me, and they certainly looked like they thought I was a hassle, anyway.  But while we may move more slowly than cars, we're not actually trying to get in anyone's way.  Bikers are good folk.  They're out in the fresh air doing their lungs and your lungs a favor.  Yes, some are uncool.  Find me any population where that's not true.

4.  Rage tends to worsen our lives, not improve them
.
I have been swerved at by cars, raged at by other bikers, been given the finger and the horn.  Over the course of time, I have found that life is uniformly better for me and the other person if I don't respond in kind.  I have come to believe that the guy screaming at me from his car was probably mad before I did whatever I did to make him scream.  In any case, my screaming back has yet to settle anyone down, including me.

5.  Do unto other drivers as you would have them do unto you
.
The inverse of rule four has also served me well--when I acknowledge and defer to other drivers, car or bicycle, things seem to go well.  So many of our encounters on the roads fall outside the norms of State law--it's just two people negotiating a situation.  It doesn't actually kill you to let a bicyclist have the right of way, particularly if it's pouring rain, and may even make her happy.  Sometimes you just don't see a bicyclist, and it's not neglect or malice that causes you to get too close to them.  If you're the bicyclist, and you see a driver give you the "sorry!" look, it doesn't hurt to smile back--no doubt you'll do it at some point to another cyclist.  And so on.

I don't imagine this list is exhaustive, but it's not a bad start.

Comments

  • Jeff (unverified)
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    I used to ride quite a bit, before I moved to Oregon and when I was a student at U of O, and agree wholeheartedly with all of your rules.

    I especially like rule 2, which I like to phrase as "The vehicle with the most lugnuts WINS." Drivers need to realize that, in an encounter with a bicycle or a motorcycle, their vehicle will always "win". And conversely, in an encounter with a truck or a train, their vehicle won't win.

    Corrolarry to rule 2: Lamp posts, parking meters, buildings, etc, should be viewed as having LOTS of lugnuts. :-)

  • (Show?)

    Thanks, Jeff. It always drives me crazy to see bicyclists blatantly disobeying the rules, as it makes all bicyclists look bad to some people. I feel the same about those in cars (don't even get me started about cars... I feel like I'm the only one who goes the speed limit anymore), but I don't see a movement by some to kick cars off roads-- but I do see that with bikes. I think people using their bikes to get around is a great thing, and I'd like to see us continue to spend money on things that make biking around town easier.

    One thing I'd like to remind those on bikes is to not ride to the right of a right-only lane or to the left of a left-only lane unless they plan to turn as well. Often times on one-way streets I get cut off by someone on a bike who comes flying up next to me just as I go to turn. I'm really afraid one of these days one is going to slam into the side of my car.

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    I'm in favor of bicycles getting the same full and complete rights to the road as cars. I love it when I see a bicycle square in the middle of the lane, sharing the road with the cars (lined up behind 'em.)

    But if bicyclists are going to get the same full and complete rights, then they have to behave that way. Don't run red lights. Don't ride on the sidewalk. Don't cut people off. Signal. Behave like a car. Own the road, but don't be stoopid.

    (And as for that sidewalk business, the only offenders I've seen in Portland - and I've seen 'em many times, and been run into twice as a pedestrian - are the "clean and safe" downtown guides on bikes. Hardly. Get off the damn sidewalk. And definitely don't zip around corners on sidewalks on a bike. Fer crissakes.)

  • (Show?)

    Kari--

    I agree with you there. My toddler and I have almost been run down by bicyclists a few times before. They seem to be really bad out here in Gresham.

    Often times they're so quiet you don't hear them until they're on top of you-- especially if there is vehicular traffic nearby. And it's not like I have a rearview mirror when I'm walking.

    I really appreciate those on bikes who are following all the rules of the road-- I wish more people (on bikes and in cars) were like them.

  • (Show?)

    A few more bullet points:

    1. A driver is not looking for a bicyclist to come flying off the sidewalk and into a crosswalk. The sidewalk and the crosswalk are for pedestrians at pedestrian speeds.

    2. The legislature recently passed a law allowing bicycles to pass on the right... one of the dumbest pieces of legislation that should be reversed ASAP. As accomodating as we try to be toward the bicyclist, the fact remains that the downtown driver, negotiating a right turn through traffic congestion and pedestrians, will probably NOT check his passenger mirror for that fast closing bicycle.

    Legality notwithstanding, that bike and a few limbs will end up rearranged. And that poor schmuck of a driver will still be looking for that bicycle long after his insurance premiums shot up.

  • Buckman Res (unverified)
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    Pedestrians walking across the Hawthorne Bridge, especially during the morning and evening commute, often face bicyclists speeding two abreast who present a genuine hazard for those walking the other direction.

    When the sidewalks were expanded they were designed for two pedestrians walking side-by-side and one cyclist. Decals painted on the bridge have helped inform cyclists that their space is nearest traffic and not down the center of the sidewalk or up against the railing.

    Unfortunately they often ignore this, choosing to weave around the sidewalk creating a dangerous situation for themselves and pedestrians.

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    I used to think that bikes should be considered car-equivalents like you suggest, Kari, but I think it's a bad call. Except downtown, bikes can't keep up with the flow of traffic most times. They're harder to see--particularly if you're merging--and as the comments here indicate, cars don't trust them.

    A better solution is the one Portland has adopted--bike lanes. It protects bikers and keeps the car lanes open. There are occasions where bikes need to get in lanes, and that's fine when necessessity demands it. But as public policy, giving peds, bikes, and cars separate thoroughfares is the best plan.

    As to the bridge situation, it works both ways. A sizeable number of peds--I won't say a majority, but a large minority--wander around, walk in packs, and are generally oblivious. Again, there is no way to legislate a solution--we share a city, we share bridges, and we should try to be safe and courteous.

  • Harry (unverified)
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    Kari writes: "I'm in favor of bicycles getting the same full and complete rights to the road as cars. I love it when I see a bicycle square in the middle of the lane, sharing the road with the cars (lined up behind 'em.)

    <h2>But if bicyclists are going to get the same full and complete rights, then they have to behave that way."</h2>

    The only problem is that they can't behave like motorized vehicles. Most bikers don't go at 25mph (constantly, up hills, etc) much less 35 or 40mph. Dumb idea, unless you goal is to just annoy the cars (ie your comment "lined up behind them").

  • no one in particular (unverified)
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    Harry: well, it depends... in traffic I can easily keep up (and usually pass) cars. Which leads to my golden rule that I wish car drivers would learn:

    • Yes, bikes CAN go faster than you. Even uphill. Just because you didn't pass a cyclist recently doesn't mean there isn't one coming up behind you, so check your mirror before making a turn through a bike lane!

    Yeah, it's one sided, but I gave up driving years ago after realizing, quite honestly, that I'm BAD AT IT (too spacy/ADD/unobservant). Which means I'm generally polite to drivers that fuck up because I can usually easily imagine myself doing the same thing... but still, I know there are other shitty drivers out there and I wish they would do themselves and the rest of us a favor and just quit.

  • (Show?)

    Decent list -- thanks, Jeff.

    And the new law allows passing on the right when it is safe to do so. Usually, we're just passing cars that are stopped, and we're smart enough to be watching for the right-turning car that never looks for bikes (whether there's a bike lane or not).

    Cars turning into cyclists is one of the leading causes of crashes, so I've learned to ride defensively.

    Let's stay safe and civil out there.

  • Harry (unverified)
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    noip writes: "- Yes, bikes CAN go faster than you. Even uphill. Just because you didn't pass a cyclist recently doesn't mean there isn't one coming up behind you, so check your mirror before making a turn through a bike lane!

    <hr/>

    I don't disagree with you, especially the part about the bike lane.

    I did disagree with Kari, who I quoted: "I love it when I see a bicycle square in the middle of the lane, sharing the road with the cars (lined up behind 'em.)" I say keep bikes in bike lanes whenever possible. Safer for both cars and bikes.

  • no one in particular (unverified)
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    Harry: agreed.

    Though, when a bike lane is missing and I'm on a relatively busy street (e.g. my ride often takes me up NW Glisan and I try to get off quickly after the bike lane ends, but I end up riding two blocks without one) I will take the whole lane. I if I try to squish next to the line of parked cars, inevitibly people whiz by me in the same lane, often mere inches away.

    So when I'm stuck on a busy street without a bike lane, I will absolutely take the full lane to discourage that behaviour. The same goes on designated bike routes without bike lanes (e.g. Ankeny... if you want to go fast, move over one block to Burnside... Ankeny belongs to the bikes)

  • Buckman Res (unverified)
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    The sign on the Hawthorne Bridge reads “bicycles yield to pedestrians”. That makes it pretty clear whose responsibility it is to watch out for who. So no, it does not work both ways regarding bicycles and pedestrians.

    I agree we should all be safe and courteous but a bicycle can do as much damage to a pedestrian as a car can to a bicycle. Cyclists crossing the bridge need to slow down, ride single file, and yield to pedestrians.

  • Baloo (unverified)
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    Remember, those stop signs on the greenway apply to bikes on the greenway, as well. They are Not Optional, even if the cross street at the intersection is another greenway. Case in point, in 2001, I was on the Greenway Park Greenway in Beaverton, doing just under the speed limit (20 MPH, I was going 18), towing about 200 pounds of groceries home in a bike trailer and on my rear luggage rack. A middle aged woman (fortunately for her, wearing a helmet) ran the stop sign about two blocks west of Hall Blvd (I didn't have a stop sign, and a hedgerow precluded me from being able to see her in advance at pretty much any speed). I hit the front fork of her bike, spun it around, I fell over across the oncoming lane and jackknifed the trailer around across the pavement, spilling about half my groceries in the process, I was roadrashed, double-nostril nosebleed and broke my helmet sunvisor on the pavement in a massive faceplant. The stop sign stabbed into her helmet, and she broke her arm on the signpost, but was otherwise uninjured. Fortunately, I had a witness who was riding behind me, and was more than happy to straighten things out for the police, who gladly cited her with a $175 ticket for failure to obey a traffic control device, then helped me pick up my groceries.

    Another thing: When you're on greenways or public streets, riding on the right even when there isn't a centerline isn't just a good idea, it's part of the traffic code. Nothing like riding down the Springwater Corridor with the wind behind you, go around a wide curve and get run off the road because some dipshit can't be bothered to teach their kids to ride legally...

  • (Show?)

    As a fairly new cyclist, I appreciate this primer, Jeff. I do notice, however, that I have some trouble in following rule #1, especially when it's one person driving a giant-sized Excursion. But I'll try to cut them a break and try not to slide into a "haughty pique," even when ride next to those giant-sized vehicles. At least I can be comfortable knowing that they are paying $3.15 a gallon these days...

  • Alice in Wonderland (unverified)
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    Yes Leslie, some people can afford to pay $3.15/gallon for gas without batting an eye: we much prefer driving our SUV to a bike or a Toyota Pious.

    We can't prevent you from riding the paint in bumper-to-bumper traffic or blowing through stop signs. Just as you can't prevent me from driving my SUV home from work, with a quick stop at the drycleaners, the grocery store, the daycare, and grandma's house (all in an hour and a half). Try that on your bike.

  • BOHICA (unverified)
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    There is only one rule: Never cause anyone to inadvertantly put on thier brakes for you.

  • engineer (unverified)
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    Good points, Jeff. As a rider in mostly rural SW Oregon, we dont face the magnitude of hazards you city folk do, and most drivers are courteous. There's always that 1% (OK-maybe more) of drivers who are idiots, and seem to take it personally if a bicyclist causes them any inconvenience. I wonder if those drivers feel the same way about slow-moving farm tractors or folks riding horses along the road shoulder? I suspect not; for some reasons bicyclists are viewed with disdain by some drivers who would likely give a pass to other slow moving modes of transport.

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    Buckman, you're really missing my point. I'm not advocating slavish observance of the letter of the law--rather that good commuting, but foot, pedal, or car, involves actively engaging the people around us. In a civil society it always works both ways.

    Engineer, I probably should have mentioned that my rules were mainly applicable to city riding--you're right that rural roads are a totally different ball of wax.

  • IHateMoronicBicyclists (unverified)
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    Driving my kids to school today:

    I'm in a left-hand turn lane waiting for the green arrow to allow me to turn left. Oncoming traffic has a green. The green arrow comes on and the oncoming traffic stops. All except for a spandex-clad bicyclist on a expensive road bike. He plows right through the intersection while I begin my left hand turn. Mind you, I am in one of those huge SUV's that you all smirk at, but hey, try putting 3 kids on a bike. So I brake and then this guy has the gall to give me a dirty look. Like because he rides a bike he is immune from traffic laws? Maybe next time he can have a disagreement with a speeding bus that can't stop so fast.

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    Two clarifications: Buckman wrote: a bicycle can do as much damage to a pedestrian as a car can to a bicycle. Cyclists crossing the bridge need to slow down, ride single file, and yield to pedestrians.

    As a matter of mere physics, you're off by a mile -- Force = Mass * acceleration (right?). Cars have roughly 20 times the mass of a bike, and are usually moving much faster.

    The conclusion, however, is correct -- cyclists should slow down and yield to pedestrians, riding single file when needed for safety.

    Baloo wrote: When you're on greenways or public streets, riding on the right even when there isn't a centerline isn't just a good idea, it's part of the traffic code.

    I just want everyone to be clear: when moving at the speed of traffic (many places and times), the law says cyclists can take the whole lane, not just stay to the right (or left, on a one-way street) of the lane. That's often the safest thing to do.

    A primer on the law.

  • Suzii (unverified)
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    Me, I'd like to see a row of those bowling-ball-size bumps demarcating the edge of a bike lane in the half-block or so before a busy intersection. I'm thinking about, for instance, 122nd NE, southbound before Halsey, where some of the cars (really, it's not just me, although sometimes it feels like it) obey the law and wait until the corner before turning right, and many of them move over, fill the bike lane and shoulder, and barrel up to the corner.

    Yesterday one of them nearly hit me broadside as I was turning from the legal vehicle lane -- and it wasn't the first time.

    Oh, and I'm sure it would improve safety for bikers, too...

  • (Show?)

    Aw hell, just for fun here're my rules for bicycles, scooters, and motorcycles:

    1) Every single driver on four wheels is trying to kill you.

    2) When riding a two wheeled vehicle you are invisible, as the subconscious of drivers is on the lookout for car or truck sized and shaped objects.

    3) Never make eye contact. Watch the vehicle. Drivers will appear to look directly at you, and will then change lanes or turn across your path anyway, regardless of right-of-way.

    4) Never stay in the blindspot of any vehicle. Ride through the blindspot as fast as you can, or brake prior to passing the rear bumper.

    5) Never display anger, no matter how clueless and dangerous the other driver seems to be, unless you have a clear escape path.

  • (Show?)

    I'm not advocating slavish observance of the letter of the law--rather that good commuting, by foot, pedal, or car, involves actively engaging the people around us. In a civil society it always works both ways.

    Thank you, Jeff.

    We probably all have our pet peeves but anyone who has spent any time at all on Portland streets and paid even the least little bit of attention knows that stupidity and bad attitudes can be found using every means of conveyance available.

    Which of us is going to feel perfectly fine about putting someone in the hospital (or the grave, for that matter) when we were capable of avoiding it--just because we were legally in the right? (I don't suppose it would bother Alice much but I doubt there are many others who could say the same.) The way many pedestrians behave in downtown I wouldn't be surprised to see a case someday where a jaywalker causes a car to swerve and hit someone else. Jeff nailed it perfectly, in a civil society it always goes both ways.

  • Crankers (unverified)
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    I agree with Alice, plenty of people can afford and don't mind subsidizing al-Qaeda (along with the Canadians and Venezuelans) with their SUV. Most people make the best short-term economic decision possible regardless of what the long-term side effects are. I'm sure her kids will thank her in 20 years for being so quick to daycare; damn the consequences.

  • Matt P. (unverified)
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    Suzii - the "bowling ball bumps" would actually be dangerous for cyclists. If there is a hazard in the bike lane that must be avoided, and the cyclist is forced to ride across them, they could cause the cyclist to lose control. Those bumps are typically high-impact plastic, so they get slippery when wet, making them more hazardous. Also, it's legal for vehicles to ride the bike lane for the last 20' or so until the intersection (ORS 811.400 - (2) A person may operate a motor vehicle upon a bicycle lane when:(a) Making a turn) I'm sure you're not referring to them, but to the people who cut into the bike lane at 30mph about 150' before the intersection and then whip around the corner.

    <hr/>

    Buckman Res said: "The sign on the Hawthorne Bridge reads “bicycles yield to pedestrians”. That makes it pretty clear whose responsibility it is to watch out for who. So no, it does not work both ways regarding bicycles and pedestrians."

    My response: Uh, yes, it DOES work both ways. The sign makes it clear who is at fault if there is an accident. It is always the responsibility of everyone who uses a sidewalk, path or street to watch out for all other users. As long as people fail to consider each other, we'll have these problems. Cyclists passing pedestrians within less than a foot while riding 20 mph are definitely a problem, especially when they don't give audible warning as required by law. Consider this, however - a cyclist can ride at a normal speed of 5-6 mph, in the bicycle portion of the bridge, and shout "on your left" while passing a pedestrian, and that pedestrian may be wearing headphones and wander out directly in front of the cyclist and be hit. Who was responsible for the accident? The pedestrian, who was wearing headphones and couldn't hear the warning, who didn't look before wandering into a clearly marked bicycle use area. Who is at fault? ("At fault" is a legal term with liability connotations) The cyclist, because he is legally required to yield. The cyclist is legally liable, but not the cause of the accident. We need to move away from "who's at fault?" and move towards everyone being good citizens on the road, even if the road is a multi-use path.

  • Suzii (unverified)
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    the people who cut into the bike lane at 30mph about 150' before the intersection and then whip around the corner.

    Yep, those are the ones I was grumbling about. Twenty feet -- a car lenght and a half -- that's no problem at all.

    Ok, I can see the problem with the bumps. Any ideas for a safe way to discourage this obnoxious use?

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