Thursday, August 02, 2007

Tricks of the trade: Be an ambassador

After bike commuting for a while, you're bound to see some of the same people regularly. The chances are slim that you'll ever know them by name, but you'll recognize them and they'll recognize you. Don't make your first impression a bad one.

What do I mean "be an ambassador?" That's crazy talk. Simply put, an ambassador is one who represents their kind to others. With a little courtesy and a lot of respect, you just might change the way people look at bicyclists, or at least bike commuters.

Be an ambassador to automobile drivers.
Cyclists stick out like a sore thumb on public roadways. I don't mean that all cyclists are visible, but they're memorable. Most automobile operators look unfavorably on sharing the road with such a quaint contraption as a bicycle. Unless you live in a place where bicycling has become immensely popular, the average driver probably sees just as many classic hot rods as cyclists on the road. When you're seen, you're noticed. When you're noticed, you're remembered the next time you're seen. It's in your best interest to leave them with a favorable impression of bicyclists.

How do you become an ambassador to automotive traffic? It's quite easy. First, obey most of the traffic laws that apply to you. If you're used to treating red lights as stop signs and stop signs as yield signs, that's fine, but make sure you're giving law-abiding motorists the right-of-way that you'd give them if you were in a car. When someone gives you the right-of-way that's legally yours (for instance, not running a stop sign to get out right in front of you, or actually stopping at an MUP crossing to let you cross), wave and let them know that their effort is appreciated. Make eye contact. Smile. Don't yell "****ING CAGER!!!" when someone gets a little too close. It's not difficult to do.

Motorcycle riders are your friends!
It may sound counter-intuitive, but motorcycle riders are the most likely motor vehicle operators to sympathize with our plight. Bikers are often just as afraid of getting a door prize, right-hooked, or run over from behind as we are. There are also a lot more motorcycles on the road than bicycles. In addition to all of the above advice, you can build a little bit of camaraderie with them by performing the "biker wave" when approaching a biker going the other direction. Point to the center line of the road with your index and middle finger together and hold it for a while. Many bikers will reciprocate the gesture to a cyclist. Don't be afraid to talk to them at stop lights. We aren't that different from them. Talking to the bikers at work -- half of whom ride high-revving, medium-displacement crotch rockets -- they can appreciate what a cyclist goes through on the road. It never hurts to be on friendly terms with motorcycle riders.

Be an ambassador to pedestrians
No, I'm not kidding. Perhaps part of your commute, or maybe all of it, takes place on a multi-use path of some sort. I don't know if you've noticed, but the people on foot don't exactly look forward to seeing a cyclist on "their" turf. Likewise, we, as cyclists don't like to be slowed down by someone who is taking up the entire path with their 50-foot-long dog leash or their 3-baby stroller. This is the same mentality we're trying to get the car drivers to abandon, nimrod! Screaming at people, excessive use of the bike horn or bell, or just plain zipping around pedestrians is no less valiant than drivers that yell at us, honk at us, or pass too closely.

Via Bike Commuters, I saw a piece in the blogosphere by a journalist who was hating on bicyclists and specifically commuters from the sounds of it. The journalist obviously hasn't been passed by ME on a multi-use path. I usually approach at a leisurely pace, say 10-11 miles per hour, and in a clear voice, proclaim "on your left" from far enough behind to give them at least 5-10 seconds to react. I don't yell it as I zip by them like some people do. As I pass, I greet them with "good evening!" or any other ice breaker. This is a sign to pedestrians that you, like them, are enjoying the trail. You're not trying to be a racer. You're not trying to set a new land speed record for human-powered vehicles. You're just like them, but on wheels.

Most of us, at some point in our lives, remember when you could just ride around the block and find someone to be friends with. People used to talk to each other, wave at each other, and not be such a-holes about life. Some experts imply that bicycles are a litmus test of a friendly community. That might be true, but it's easier to believe when cyclists act more like people instead of stoic bad-asses on their way to the finish line (or the office)

Showing some respect and kindness to others who use the same corridors that you do is a great way to earn a little street cred for not only yourself, but other cyclists as well.


Bill said...

Noah, this is clearly an inspired message. Thank you.

I often am amused at how impersonal and isolated most of us have become because of our dependence on automobiles. As an example, I had an embarrassing self-inflicted face plant just a few days ago, in front of 3 lanes of traffic waiting at a red light as I hurried to cross the street before the light changed. I'm a middle-aged guy, so I'm not as bendable as I once was. Out of all those watching from behind their steering wheels, one fellow rolled his window down 3 inches, said "Are you ok?" and promptly raised his window as I checked for cuts and scrapes, picked up my pannier and glasses and dragged my bike to the median.

In cars, we become impatient spectators. But on foot or on bikes, we can and do re-learn the basic courtesies that civil societies enjoy.

Thank you for your excellent post!
Bill in Leawood

Noah said...

Bill, thanks for your comment.

I see so many cyclists that won't wave to me, much less wave to people walking along the sidewalk on Southwest Boulevard. I try to greet everyone who is not in a car. Sometimes it's a wave. Sometimes it's a greeting.

I don't know if the people I see walking are homeless or CEOs. I don't care. They're out and about. They can see all of me, and I can see all of them. Out here, we are no longer heads barely visible through tinted glass. Out here, we are brothers and sisters. We are real people.

So yes, I was kind of inspired. I wish more people would wave to me. I wish more people waved to each other. I wish more people sat on their front porches instead of cowering in their 60-degree meat-locker living rooms, or behind their 10-foot-tall privacy fences.

Sorry to hear about your tumble, Bill. I hope you're healing well.

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