Capitol Hill Community Post | David Schomer’s Urban Cycling

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From David Schomer, Espresso Vivace

Nothing beats a bicycle for urban transportation.  A bike is fast and small, never boxed in, and you park it right in front of wherever it is you were going.  You smell the air and feel the weather, lungs and legs pumping. It is blissfully quiet and ultra-cheap to own and operate. But mixed in with trucks, buses and angry car-commuters it can be dangerous.

Since my discharge from the Air Force in 1978 I have ridden about 100 miles per week in and around Seattle.  This experience includes 30 years of commuting from Fremont to Capitol Hill. Add it up…that’s over 200,000 miles, so I would like to share some of my experience with you and hopefully make you a safer rider.

Ride your bike with courteous authority.  Perhaps no activity demonstrates the benefits of empathy and kindness towards each other (the components of courtesy) than the sharing of urban roads to move around.  And a lack of courtesy, or simple mistake, can lead to a situation where a driver is deliberately threatening your life. We are generally a passive, polite bunch in Seattle, but on the road acts of rudeness can carry a potentially lethal response from another person.  The reckless disregard for life shown by frustrated drivers is beyond belief sometimes…

Why is that?  What can cause normally sane people to leap out of their cars brandishing guns, or ride up some other drivers bumper endangering them both,  over territorial aggressions, real or imagined? Lets take a quick look at the genesis of road rage.

Some people, especially “type A” personalities, can experience a hormonal rage when they are blocked from getting where they are going.  It’s an ancient visceral system, the reptilian brain stem, that dumps a load of fight or flight juice, (largely adrenaline) into their system.   This is a very powerful stimulus; in pre-historic times preparing the organism for a life and death struggle. Of course, drivers override it. Day in and day out the chatter brain clamps down on the hormonal urge to smash something.  This “Id” is a relatively recent development of the human mind. Your identity, who you think you, are and who you would like to be, resides here. The message comes from the seat of morality and conscience in the brain, a recent development called the frontal lobe, (probably only about 50,000 years old).    And this modern mind is not nearly as powerful as your reptilian knob. So a trapped driver, especially a commuter, suppresses the rage they feel over and over again…(I can almost feel sorry for them if they are not rushing up on me, horn blaring, when I’m walking or riding. Almost… )

Until one day, maybe, the juice wins.  Maybe they just lose it and zoom around your bike with about 12” clearance, horn blazing, and roar up to the next red light or jam. Or blast through the sidewalk where a mother is wheeling her stroller.  The constant frustration causes a normally sane individual to have a brief psychotic break and intimidate innocent people with life threatening force, for the crime of existing where the fucking car wants to go.

(Car commuters destroy our city, and turn Seattle into a hostile, dangerous place.  As a person who walks to work, and cycles, I see so much of the rage in these drivers.  For a healthy city nothing is more urgent than offering people alternatives to the car…).

Vehicles, bikes, and people moving around together in a city with limited pavement are actually engaged in a cooperative dance with lethal consequences for mistakes.  It’s the ultimate theatre of human interaction and it’s all around us all the time. So, courtesy must rule the roads…. (An example is your bike sitting in the right hand lane at a long red light, which is also the right turn only lane.  The poor donkey in the car behind you is seething because there is No Reason for you to be sitting there. Have some sympathy and get the hell out of the way. Move your bike into the center lane so drivers can make a free right. Don’t move to the right, up against the curb or you will be trapped there.  (Once in S. Lake Union a van actually pushed me up on the sidewalk because they cut the corner on a right turn from Thomas onto Fairview sharply).

So I never block a car without a good reason.  The car donkeys are always blocked and frustrated, and they hold 3000-pound hammers.  If I cannot achieve at least 70% of the posted speed limit and safely occupy the lane, I choose another route.  You have every reason not to antagonize them with poor bike placement.

But if you need to take the lane, do so with firm authority.

One reason I love cycling so much is to cut an elegant, beautiful line with my bike.  A rider, perfectly balanced, is a beautiful thing moving through the world.

A balanced, straight rider can also absorb a nasty pothole and stay up, and she is more easily predictable by the drivers around her.  Authoritative line, coupled with courtesy, assists the drivers to regard your bike with respect. Respect is the coin of the realm on the roads, give it and earn it.

Mechanical Integrity

The only two times I have gotten hurt on a bike were the result of mechanical failure.  Once my front wheel pretzeled on me and I looked like I had gone through a cheese grater, but no broken bones. Another time my rear wheel came off in a sprint and I broke my collarbone down an 15th Ave W. (A road I would never, ever ride on with my current level of experience).

So, if you pick up a Lime rental check the wheel fasteners, tire pressure, and lift each end of the bike and spin the wheel. Does it wobble?  If so, check for loose or broken spokes. To quickly check spokes just rest a pen or your comb on the spokes on the spinning wheel. The loose spoke is easy to hear.

Low tire pressures can lead the wheel to collapse if you hit a severe pothole.  And of course verify the integrity of the brakes, good pads, well adjusted, and firmly attached to the bike. (And for wet weather, disc brakes are vastly superior).

Mechanical integrity includes your helmet.  Never ride without one that fits you well and has a tight chinstrap. (Years ago we lost our beloved Brian because he rode right off short stairwell in the trail down by Lake Union.  His helmet slipped up during the fall because his chinstrap was loose. He hit on his forehead and never regained consciousness).

Quad Aces- the formula

Awareness-always ride with 360 degrees of awareness of your surroundings.  Your hearing is very important so never wear headphones.  Use a small mirror to see behind you.  (In Tucson, I was riding home from the Precision Equipment lab on Davis- Monthan Air Force, base about 12:30 pm.  The road was dark and empty. A car did not sound right coming up behind me….too crunchy. With no time to look, I ditched the bike and the driver blasted through on the shoulder right where my bike was two seconds ago. Maybe a drunk or a sociopath, I’ll never know, but I certainly saved my life by hearing him or her).

Analyze- What is each vehicle doing?  Get in their head and figure out what they are trying to do at the moment. Are they on-tilt?  Do they see you or are they distracted? You have to be able to sense this very quickly.

Anticipate- Try to intuit their intentions with the clues you have.  If you accurately anticipate their path, and intentions, you can figure out where you need to place your bike to be safer.

Avoid- Move the bike where it needs to be, fast.

Tricks and Traps

Hole in the Wall: If a line of cars is stacked up not moving some Good Samaritan will stop short of a cross street in order to allow a left turner, coming the other way, access to the intersection.  The left turner will not think about a speeding bike riding next to the cars. And, you can’t see them coming until its too late. It’s a nearly perfect bike trap. And, it happens all the time descending Pike and Pine. Go very slowly around the donkeys if they are stacked up.

Hook Shot: This seems unlikely but has happened to me several times over the years.  You’re on a wide street with shoulders, and a car is inexplicably driving slowly and then begins to drift to the right shoulder as you come up behind them.  They are getting ready to execute a quick U-turn. Plan on it and avoid the hook shot.

Four Way: It is extremely common for a driver to look left, look right, and drive straight into you if you’re in the intersection right in front of them.  Always go for eye contact before proceeding through a four way stop.

Shared Path-pedestrians: I use extreme caution passing people walking on a shared bike path, like the Burke Gilman Trail.  They are absolutely unpredictable so ding that bell. They are capable of anything at any time. It is so common for them to suddenly turn and walk without any discernable reason or warning, right into your bike that I call it “Did I leave the oven on?” (And I kind of think it should be a walking path.  A place where you may have a relaxing stroll without being hyper-aware of speeding vehicles, like you do all the time walking near the roads).

Rain Riding: The main differences are your traction, and the ability of drivers to see your bike.  Especially fresh rain, when roads have been dry for a while, creates a very slippery road.  Allow longer braking distances by riding more slowly. You can assume, in the rain, that drivers cannot see you in their mirrors.  I’m especially careful passing parked cars for this reason. I look for the cars front wheels to be turned towards the road and if I see that I check for a driver in the vehicle.  Loaded gun with wheels turned means I’m already anticipating them to pull out suddenly.

Train Tracks: Treat all steel, tracks or manhole plates, like ice in the rain.  On streetcar tracks try to cross the front wheel at a 45 degree angle or greater.  Riding around these is quite technical and requires your full focus. My new riding buddy, David, an expert cyclist, had a bad fall on the tracks recently.  It was because a car was merging into his lane without seeing him and he was distracted. His wheel dropped in and he went down hard. If it’s a streetcar route, choose another road.

Safety gear: Always be highly visible, with neon clothing and bright flashing lights. Run the lights even on sunny days.  (Mike McGinn I am talking to you). Use cycling gloves with padded leather palms. The pad protects the nerves in the hand from slow compression damage and the leather will keep you from shredding your skin on the concrete.

I ride with a nice little bell, made by Krane, and featuring a truly beautiful sound with a 20 second decay.

Disc brakes are a must in Seattle.

And the king of safety gear, a good helmet that fits and is well adjusted. Safety glasses or shades are required and you should add a visor to keep sun and rain out of your eyes.

And for confrontations I always carry pepper-spray, easily accessible.

Sharing the road-bike placement: I like roads with dedicated bike lanes.  Dexter got a lot better when they added that lane years ago.  The city wanted to place parked cars between the bikes and the traffic but that creates more problems.  The new lane on 2nd Ave downtown is designed that way.  People get out of their cars and step right into the bike lane, anticipate it, avoid it…

I rarely ride sidewalks, pedestrians are absolutely unpredictable and I think that should be their area.

Go to the front if donkeys are stacked at a light. They have comfort and safety by being in the box, but you have freedom and mobility-use it. (Of course you are courteous with your advantage, do not go to the front and then block everyone).

Approaching any intersection the first place to detect motion is the wheel of the car.  If it moves, I’m anticipating they are coming out.

Stay out of the door zone, they will absolutely open a door without looking and that is a nasty event.

Sociopaths: When some ass almost hits my bike I chase them down.  If they just did not see me and they apologize, no problem.  But over the years I have had many encounters with people that think I should not be on the road and express their opinion by endangering my life.  I classify them as sociopaths, someone willing to put you in a wheel chair because you have delayed them a few seconds in their mad rush to the next light.

Now, I’m an embarrassing hothead in these situations and that is not effective, and perhaps dangerous as well.  (See above, hormonal rage). Here’s what works- get out you phone document the conversation on a video. (And if they threaten you with violence on the video, police will help you right away.  It’s called harassment and punishable with jail time).

The video accomplishes many things at once.  First it will calm you down. The act of activating the phone and selecting video engages your rational mind.  And it should have a sobering effect on the driver as well. (If this tactic actually escalates the situation you should quickly and smoothly blast them with your always-handy pepper-spray, and get away fast).  The police can do nothing if they do not witness vehicular intimidation. Don’t waste your time calling the cops, instead say “Really, you’re going to commit reckless endangerment while you have an ID tag on your car? You’re not anonymous out here.” Once you have the video, and license plate, you own them.  If they have any shred of rationality going this will finish the encounter.

And it must be said that compared to 30 years ago drivers are a lot more respectful of my bike than they used to be. Of course this is negated by cell phone distraction but it’s worth saying.

I can honestly say that I feel safe on my bike in Seattle.

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25 thoughts on “Capitol Hill Community Post | David Schomer’s Urban Cycling

  1. So, this article advocates jumping off the bike, enraged, and confronting someone, then shoving a video engaged cellphone in their face if the don’t immediately apologize. Must be my primitive self activating, but I kind of want to smack the author in the face right now.

  2. Thanks. These are useful tips for riding in car traffic, and a case study in why so few people do so with any regularity. I have the good fortune to live on a part of the hill where I can ride mostly on the sidewalk (always yielding to pedestrians by slowing or walking the bike). And when I lived briefly in Helsinki, which is covered in a vast web of dedicated bike roads, I was happy to ride my bike everywhere. But I don’t fancy needing a neon vest and the reflexes of a guerrilla fighter to get to the grocery.

  3. This is good! I’d honestly like to see something similar for drivers wanting to be good neighbors on the road – things to look for, weird strategies that bikers do that they may not be expecting, etc. A big challenge as a driver is that the huge amounts of transplants coming here are very likely coming from somewhere worse for bikes, and are not used to having to look for them. I’m lucky in that I moved here at the tail end of the Critical Mass days and worked with a lot of biking punk kids, so I know what to look for – but to this day its not a reflex to check before opening the door and I’m just now reflexively looking for bikes before right hand turns. Not every driver even knows that getting door-ed is even a thing!

    I agree that the following them and confronting them thing sounds uh, dumb and reptilian – and if I didnt see you and THEN you show up pissed at my door with a camera, as a woman that’s fucking horrifying; were I a POC i’d be scared AND livid (let’s be honest, the vast majority of commute bikers in Seattle are white dudes – and certainly only a white dude could do that with any sense of safety). In general it’s a really irresponsible idea to advocate starting a confrontation with someone with the assumption they are shitheads who tried to kill you on purpose, but with zero actual information on intentions. Esp after an intro that decried road rage and endless donkey references.

  4. As a person who frequently commutes by bike, I certainly appreciate some of the tips provided here. But a lot of your credibility gets lost in your approach to cycling and how you have written this article.

    In the beginning you talked about how riding and sharing the road requires empathy, yet you refer to drivers, your fellow neighbors and resident of Seattle as donkeys. Referring to drivers as “donkeys” perpetuates the idea that many cyclists who commute are militant assholes who detest cars. When in reality most people who cycle are car owners.

    Also the way you write about riding a bicycle makes it feel like the most unapproachable mode of transportation available. Get the neon vests out, the mace, you have to have a bike with disc brakes, wear leather gloves, wear strobes and have them on all of the time. If your target audience is people want to give bicycle commuting a try you have certainly scared them off. The reality is, you really don’t need any of those. If you have a bike in good working condition (disc brakes or not) get on your bike in your regular clothes and enjoy beauty that is riding a bike in Seattle.

    You really make it seem like riding in Seattle is a war zone. Encouraging people to be prepared for confrontation, film drivers if necessary and then you “own them.” I really don’t know if you even believe your very last sentence and I can’t even figure out if your being ironic or not.

    The one thing that gets extremely tiring about the cycling community here is that there’s a niche group of riders who look down on so many different groups of people and who do nothing to make cycling feel approachable. Please stop creating an antagonistic relationship between drivers and cyclists. We are not two different groups. Most people who own bicycles also own cars.

    • If anything, the article is a fascinating case study in the extreme measures necessary for someone to feel safe bicycling in second-tier cycling city like Seattle, which lacks a modern network of connected, safe infrastructure, and intrinsically puts cyclists in conflict with drivers (by design).

      • It reminds me of the extreme measures that the Magnolia folks feel like they need to take in order to feel “safe” in their neighborhood…

    • I agree wholeheartedly, John. This is a well worded and accurate review of the article. I’m a new cyclist – I just logged my 100th mile and am working up to full time bike commuting – and am grateful that I didn’t read this before deciding to commit to riding.
      Between the name calling, aggression, and fear inspiring language, it’s hard to focus on any useful riding information that’s offered.

  5. So bicyclists should tamp down their own reptile brains and just deal with drivers who refuse to exercise decency while propelling tons of metal on city streets they “share” with people (walking and) biking? Forgive me if I fail to see how that does anything but preserve a shitty status quo in which the most vulnerable users of public streets are expected to scurry and kowtow to the most powerful users.

      • That would be you that is trolling, seeing how you’re adding absolutely nothing to these comments. Go home little tiny d.. I’m just reminding folks that indeed a street is first and foremost for cars. Just as a side walk is first and foremost for pedestrians. Bikes – you got to find your way in the midst of this, yes, but there are plenty of bike lanes.

      • Turns out, roads are for vehicles, of which cars are just one of many types!

        RCW 46.61.755:
        “Traffic laws apply to persons riding bicycles.
        (1) Every person riding a bicycle upon a roadway shall be granted all of the rights and shall be subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this chapter, except as to special regulations in RCW 46.61.750 through 46.61.780 and except as to those provisions of this chapter which by their nature can have no application.
        (2) Every person riding a bicycle upon a sidewalk or crosswalk must be granted all of the rights and is subject to all of the duties applicable to a pedestrian by this chapter.”

    • WRONG – roadways are first and foremost for *vehicles* and a bicycle is, by Washington state law, a vehicle.

      RCW 46.04.670
      “Vehicle” includes every device capable of being moved upon a public highway and in, upon, or by which any persons or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a public highway, including bicycles. “Vehicle” does not include power wheelchairs or devices other than bicycles moved by human or animal power or used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks. Mopeds are not considered vehicles or motor vehicles for the purposes of chapter 46.70 RCW. Bicycles are not considered vehicles for the purposes of chapter 46.12, 46.16A, or 46.70 RCW or RCW 82.12.045. Electric personal assistive mobility devices are not considered vehicles or motor vehicles for the purposes of chapter 46.12, 46.16A, 46.29, 46.37, or 46.70 RCW. A golf cart is not considered a vehicle, except for the purposes of chapter 46.61 RCW.

      If you are wondering the exclusions are tax, title, licensing and sales regulations.

      RCW 46.04.500
      “Roadway” means that portion of a highway improved, designed, or ordinarily used for vehicular travel, exclusive of the sidewalk or shoulder even though such sidewalk or shoulder is used by persons riding bicycles. In the event a highway includes two or more separated roadways, the term “roadway” shall refer to any such roadway separately but shall not refer to all such roadways collectively.

      Stop spreading the idea that roads are for *motor* vehicles only – it is FALSE and creates the indignation, entitlement and sense of justification to threaten other road users in drivers that causes them to act like the person above has written about….

      • Thank you CD, I love how you always have time to look up WA state law. I suppose I should have been more clear, ride your bike in the street if you choose, just don’t expect that there won’t be any cars on said road because like it or not people drive cars. (And I don’t suspect that’ll change in any decade soon). I get along just fine with people riding their bikes in the street (I’m one of them) I just don’t understand why there has to be so much angst about making streets “ours or their’s.” Share the road, sure, but really bikers are out of their minds if they think that they are anywhere near capable of actually competing with cars on the road, its not a battle worth fighting. The original poster was speaking towards how the most vulnerable folk’s on the road are the ones that are expected to “scurry and kowtow to the most powerful users” and my response to that is – yes, they are cars and it is a street after all.

      • We shall then disagree – because I think it is the absolute responsibility of the persons who have the more powerful and dangerous vehicles to take the utmost care and caution to not harm the more vulnerable people – those being cyclists and pedestrians.

        Don’t get me wrong I *never expect* good behavior – because of a minority, I am forced to view every driver like they could be a brainless and mostly blind sociopath who’s been having a particularly bad day, but that doesn’t mean that anyone should *ever* have to declare that kind of behavior as normal and acceptable… You are arguing that the littlest kids simply need to get over it, that the playground bully is bigger and must either hand over their lunch money willingly or hide behind the teacher all recess… Sorry – I, like the OP, refuse to scurry and kowtow…

  6. Thank you for this article — it convinced me, once and for all, never to ride a bike on a street shared with cars. Since the advent of bike-sharing services I’ve often thought I should give it a try, but it’s clearly not for anyone disinclined to treat a trip to the corner grocery like the rough equivalent of a combat mission. (And yes, use your lights 24 hours a day, rain or shine. That goes for drivers as well. Being seen even a half-second sooner may save your life, and over years of driving it adds up to a tremendous margin of safety. Cars by law should be designed so that the headlights come on automatically when the engine ignites.)

    • I never ride in car traffic, either. But depending on where you live that doesn’t have to stop you from getting around your own neighborhood by bike. With a little experience, I’ve learned where and when the sidewalks are mostly free of pedestrians and can enjoy biking without fearing for my life. I have to slow or stop for pedestrians now and then, but losing a couple of minutes on the way to the grocery is well worth the pleasure of riding in safety.

      • Riding on the sidewalk may make you feel better, but it is, in actuality, significantly more dangerous than riding on the road…

        (In 1992, Alan Wachtel and Diana Lewiston authored a report, Risk Factors for BicycleMotor
        Vehicle Collisions at Intersections2 that studied bicycle-motor vehicle collisions.
        As a result, they generated a list of risk factors that are correlated with increased risk of bicycle-motor vehicle collisions and suggested engineering practices that would reduce this risk. One of their conclusions states:
        Bicyclists on a sidewalk or bicycle path incur greater risk than those on the roadway (on average 1.8 times as great), most likely because of blind conflicts at intersections. Wrong way
        sidewalk bicyclists are at even greater risk, and sidewalk bicycling appears to increase the incidence of wrong-way travel.)

        As dire as the above article sounds, riding a bike isn’t actually any different than driving a car as far as the caution one needs to take and the vigilance one needs to maintain to operate safely… The only difference is a lapse in a motor vehicle tends to damage the vehicle, while a lapse on bicycle can damage your body… The solution is to not lapse.. yeah, it makes you a bit paranoid and gives you an internal dialogue like the above, but you’ll be safer all around – cycling and driving..

      • Thanks for the interesting info, CD cyclist. I have to say, though, that I ride much too slowly to ride safely in traffic. I’m quite confident that my riding style–going 10 to 15 mph, walking the bike at busy intersections, slowing for alleys and driveways, stopping for pedestrians or slowing to walking speed to pass if there’s room–makes riding on the sidewalk much safer for me than riding in car traffic.

  7. You have provided many useful tips and cautions here. But I predict that they will fall on deaf ears for many cyclists. And by calling motorists the derogatory “donkey,” you are contributing to the car-cyclist wars.

  8. I’ve been an on again off again bike commuter in Seattle for over 20 years. I mostly enjoyed the article as it does offer a bunch of really helpful tips. But as another commenter mentioned, the calling drivers “Donkey” is really not helping. It simply reinforces the Us vs Them mentality. Classic kind of nicknaming that a certain politician uses. Not helpful. When I ride, I do everything I can to be safe. Protective clothing and proper lighting. Make eye contact, all of those things. But I also do all I can to avoid confrontation. Pick the right route. Just assume that the person in 3,000 lb. car hasn’t seen you. Arrogance is a death sentence. Don’t give them an excuse to be pissed off at cyclists. And don’t assume all drivers are jerks. Have a good ride.

  9. As someone who regularly crosses 10th in North Capitol Hill on foot, the one guarantee I have when navigating traffic is that people on bikes will not stop or slow down for anyone or anything. They regularly run the red lights at Boston and Miller, and will ride into ongoing traffic lanes in order to avoid slowing down.

    And this is on the downward slope; I get not wanting to break the tiny bit of forward motion you have going up hill, but down?

  10. I won’t comment on the author’s use of derogatory names, nor his need to confront drivers, because it was well handled by others.

    But I would like to point out that he says he feels safe on his bike taking those precautions, and I think that is a great takeaway from this article. When I started bike commuting about five years ago I was astounded at how accommodating I found most drivers to be. And for all drivers, including the very few who aren’t accommodating, I have found if I am as accommodating to them as I possibly can be and get out of their way as much as I can, then I stay safe. Don’t make it a battle. That, to me, is key to riding in the street.

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