In a past life I was the manager of a specialty retail store. We were a small store that prided ourselves on having a high level of expertise among our staff and a policy of extreme customer service based upon the Nordstrom model. As would be expected for a small shop like ours, employees built close relationships with their clients and everyone had their own group of regulars.
Being a watcher of people, I found it fascinating to analyze why certain clients matched up with certain employees. Sometimes it was expertise in a particular specialty, other times it was age and maturity, but most often it was personality type. Typically, the friendliest employees attracted the friendliest clients, while the employees who were less-friendly ended up attracting the grumpy clients. My years working the counter at the shop taught me that our social interactions are feedback loops, and what we put out to the world comes back to us in spades.
This idea extends well beyond the confines of a retail establishment. If we travel through the world everyday with a scowl on our faces, behaving aggressively and expecting conflict, there’s a high probability that’s exactly what we’ll get. The ramifications of this are profound for bicyclists who share the road with motorists.
Riding aggressively, erratically, and without generosity is a sure way to increase the number of conflicts we have with motorists. It’s no different than driving a car. Rude and aggressive drivers make other drivers angry, which in turn creates more rude and aggressive drivers, and the cycle spirals downward. Rude and aggressive bicyclists also make drivers angry, which creates drivers who dislike and behave aggressively toward bicyclists, which creates more rude and aggressive bicyclists, and once again, the cycle spirals downward.
With this thought in mind, I recently set out to see if I could improve my commuting experience by changing my approach from being somewhat assertive and demanding of my rights as a road user, to displaying outward friendliness, politeness, and deference toward other road users. The goal was to actively engage and communicate with drivers by increasing eye contact, offering smiles, and making my intentions perfectly clear with hand gestures and body language, while maintaining a general attitude of generosity and patience.
My commute takes me through a number of 4-way stops, all of which provided a perfect laboratory to try out my new approach. My method was simple; anytime I came to a 4-way stop at the same time as a motorist, I would be sure to make clear eye contact, smile, and wave them through first. I was surprised and pleased to find that a large majority of the motorists insisted upon waving me through first, even after I’d handed them the right-of-way. It seems the same people that I was previously battling with became completely disarmed and willing to give up their right-of-way simply because I was willing to do the same.
After my success at the 4-way stops, I tried applying the approach at a number of other sticky spots on my route. One stretch of road on my commute has a “bike lane” that also serves as legal on-street parking for residents. This is a narrow road, with cars sporadically parked in about 50% of the bike lane. My old approach was to simply take the lane for the 8 blocks I was on the road and hold up traffic. This was probably legal, and would certainly be recommended by most vehicular cyclists, though it tended to anger motorists and I was often buzzed as they accelerated past me when I did this. The new approach was to pull over into the bike lane to let cars pass when there was room, then pull back out into the traffic lane after the cars passed. This required slowing, or even stopping, as the cars went by. When I did this, motorists gave me a much wider berth, they passed less aggressively, and many times they looked over and waved in appreciation for my consideration. In all, it probably added only a minute to my commute, but it made a difficult stretch of road more pleasant to traverse and it spread significant goodwill among my fellow road users.
Without going into all the other myriad ways this worked for me, I can safely say that taking a communicative and generous approach to sharing the road can significantly improve how other road users respond to us bicyclists, and in turn, can change our riding experiences for the better.