We Can Change Attitudes

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.

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.

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.

29 Responses to “We Can Change Attitudes”

  • Mr. CrankyPants says:

    “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’re going to get.”

    This is so very true. And it’s not just car vs bike that could benefit from a more diplomatic approach, but bike vs bike as well. One has only to look at the all the saber rattling and mudslinging over helmets, clothing styles, bike choices etc. to see that cyclists aren’t too good at treating each other all that well either. I so often feel that we’re truly our own worst enemy.

  • Thom says:

    I just got back from a grocery trip by bike and I bet I waved and smiled at a half-dozen different drivers, at least, who waited for me to pass an intersection, even though they could probably have pulled out in front of me. They were courteous, they waited, and I was courteous back. They nodded in response to my thanking them, and everyone went on their way. It was great. Other times, it’s like I’m riding an invisible bike and every driver I encounter is a real a-hole to me. I like to think, however, that every driver who sees me being friendly and courteous is not going to be one of those a-holes in the future.

  • Ken Pendergrass says:

    Related to your ideas in this post I’ve been noticing how most drivers are dealing with me in a respectful manner. Last week I had just one half hearted “get off the road”. Several weeks ago a young man leaned out a passenger window and delivered a very loud and rude “get of the %$%$#$% road”. The female driver leaned over and smacked the $#%$#$% $#%^ out of the passenger. This is down from an average high of twice per day. My point is that the more respect I get the more I give. Very recently I’ve noticed a personal interest in obeying traffic laws. In past years I would run stop lights , if I safely could, just to be out of the way when the light changed. As we get past the I exist therefore I ruin your whole day phase the more we can all get along. Also as I get stronger the momentum at all costs idea is further from my mind. I’m in the Ann Arbor MI area and your milage may vary.

  • Jeff says:

    Great post, Alan. I make a concerted effort to be courteous to drivers while cycling and I typically get the same behavior in return. Oddly enough, I find it works while driving too. Maybe we’re onto something here…

    – Jeff

  • doug says:

    I’m a big fan of the courtesy pull over. I’ve always felt weird about religious lane takers. Since they’re typically the most committed to always following the law as a way of gaining the “respect” of motorists, why are they also committed to blocking traffic so much? I feel like that annoys drivers ten times more than occasionally running a stop sign.

    Just today I pulled off a narrow street onto a sidewalk to allow a bus passage. Why not? I also enjoy scooting over to let drivers make a right turn. They love that.

    I feel that too often “vehicular cycling” is more about exerting power over others rather than earning their respect. Well, at least as far as egregious lane taking goes. Personally, I like to employ a pragmatic approach that often includes yielding for large lines of cars as well as other verboten moves like riding on sidewalks occaisonally and using (gasp) bike trails and bike lanes.

  • John Gear says:

    I’ve had a weird thing a couple times since I moved to a new bike route recently that requires me to make a left turn across oncoming traffic from an uncontrolled turn lane (there’s no stop or yield sign for them or me): Some of the drivers who see me approaching the spot where I would turn slow down and are clearly concerned that I will make the left in front of them, requiring them to crash stop to keep from hitting me.

    I would actually never do that, and would much prefer that they maintain their normal speed, so I could maintain my speed and complete my turn behind them.

    As it is, their slowing usually causes me to have to stop completely (because I won’t make a left in front of anyone who hasn’t given me a clear signal that I should — slowing indecisively isn’t enough).

    How do I signal “maintain speed please, I won’t be a jerk and cut you off, I’m happy to make my turn once you’ve passed” to oncoming drivers? I imagine arm gestures like “After you, Alphonse” but I’m not sure that’s one that many would get in an oncoming situation.

  • Dean says:

    Great post and spot on. When I take just a little extra time to be the friendly/generous rider I find I reach my destination in a far better mood too. It is the gift that keeps on giving.
    The 4 way stop thing can be quite funny at times. I have been waved through by motorists who clearly have the right of way, at times i will refuse and wave them through, most will go, some however do the “no I insist” wave, which if i return it can become quite funny. Mind you if it is winter I go, no 2nd invitation needed!


  • Paul says:

    Good post! I’m usually happy when on my bike and have the same response from drivers too. However, we have some roads with cars parked sporadically on the side of the road. When I weave in and out of them, I’m actually causing more problems because the drivers aren’t sure what I’m doing, where I’m going, or if I’m suddenly going to pop back out into traffic. What I will do is move slightly in if someone needs to pass. Actually, the best thing that I do is move off the higher traffic road and ride on another road if I had the option. Great post though, and it really does make a difference. I made eye contact with a smile the other day to a driver who was making a left turn when I waiting at a stop sign. The driver stopped, and waved me through even though he didn’t have the stop sign and the right of way. I don’t like doing this, but I had to go through because he was going to sit there until I went through.

  • HowardBollixter says:

    Good post. I tend to be on the grumpier end of the personality spectrum in general, but find that I’m friendliest on a bike and behave in much the way you describe, it works and I rarely see conflicts. Something about a bike, good mind-calming I guess. One thing that does bug me is being given undue courtesy by a car, I prefer that we all use the same rules, but I have learned to just go with the flow. Usually where this occurs is I’m at a stop sign and the cross-street doesn’t have one, but a driver will treat me like a pedestrian, stopping anyway and backing up traffic, something they’d never do for another car. Makes me feel guilty even though it isn’t my fault, but the quickest resolution to the delay is to just take the offered courtesy and scoot. With a wave and a nod of course.

  • Annika DeJaegher says:

    Great ideas were expressed in the article. I live in the Denver area, and up in Boulder, CO, there have been some heated arguments thathave made the newspapers and the evening television news. The cyclists there are soon going to do a “take over the road” ride through the middle of Boulder, and the motorists are actually planning a retaliatory measure by “breaking down” en masse, and/or having to “check problems with their tires/engines/whatever” to actually block the cyclists from completing their ride for the day. This is a horrible situation, one that I will NOT participate in, and I see no resolution in sight. I can only be the most polite cyclist that I can be which is not hard on a Greenspeed GT5 trike. The trike is people-friendly, and with two tall multi-colored flags, it’s an attention-getter in a good way. If more people were smiling and friendly, we’d all have safer rides. By the way, Colorado has passed a law that required motorists to give a three foot leeway to cyclists. Period.

  • Ted Hurlbut says:

    Thank you for your post. as a retail consultant who works quite a bit with specialty retailers, I truly appreciate what you wrote about your experiences in specialty retail. You described the dynamic between customer and salesperson as well as I’ve ever read or heard. Your focus on the interpersonal interaction is at the heart of what distinguishes specialty retail.

  • Nipper says:

    While I can broadly speaking agree with your, ‘you get what you give’ approach, I fear that it is a backward step for you to advocate cyclists act as second class road users. It is no wonder car drivers are pleased when you pull over to let them pass or wave them through junctions, you are acting as they want you too, giving deference to the almighty car. If the majority of cyclists behave in this way, car drivers will begin to call for laws demanding that all cyclists get out of their way; when the laws are passed the bicycle will become just a leisure toy and not a viable means of transport.

    By all means let’s increase eye contact, smile more and signal our intentions clearly, but when you use the word deference with respect to motor vehicles I think you are not acting in the best interest of the cyclist. I believe we must hold the line and ride safely and legally on the road as it is our right to do so. When, as you describe, cycle paths are used as car parks then we need to campaign for better paths, not dodge dangerously in and out of the parked cars.

    I really like this blog and love your taste in bikes (I ride a Pashley Roadster too) however I am worried about this post, as what you appear to be advocating is both dangerous and detrimental to the rights of cyclists. Is this really the best way to promote sustainable transport by bicycle?

    Incidentally I have been helping teach children aged 10 and 11 safe cycling as part of the ‘Bikeability’ scheme, run over here in the UK, and the instructor pointed out that it is very dangerous to dodge in and out of parked cars as you suggest in the article. You must remain visible to cars approaching you from behind and they should wait and only pass you when it is safe to do so. In reality many drivers act dangerously and try to squeeze past so it is best to ride a primary position and control the lane.


  • Alan says:

    Hi Nipper,

    The idea that acting courteously as opposed to confrontationally is somehow going to put us on a slippery slope leading to “laws demanding that all cyclists get out of their way” is a fallacy that has been used all too frequently to justify rude, aggressive riding tactics. What’s going to get us kicked off the roads is disregarding traffic laws, riding irresponsibly, and treating other road users as if we bicyclists operate under our own set of rules (see it too often). You are right, the car is “almighty”, but fighting its supremacy with a head-on frontal assault is not the answer in my opinion. I believe we need to build good will with the general public and politicians to gain the political capital necessary to instigate the infrastructure and policy changes that would make our roads (and trails) more attractive to new bicyclists, thus growing bicycling to the extent we’re all hoping for. In my opinion, the “us versus them” mentality is counterproductive to this goal and has gotten us nowhere in the U.S.

    On the parked car question, it appears you mis-read my original post. What I said was “..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.” This is far different than what you described as “dodge dangerously in and out of the parked cars”, something I would never advocate.


  • Molnar says:

    Alan, I’m shocked that someone of your obvious intelligence and experience only now discovered this. I just assumed that everyone knew, but not everyone acted on the knowledge. My faith in your omniscience is shaken.

    I can’t resist commenting on the other side of the coin. One of the things that angers me the most is motorists who apologize after running me off the road (or coming close). I can’t stay angry at someone who is sorry, and after an experience like that I really want to stay angry. How dare they apologize and deflate my anger! It makes me so angry.

  • Alan says:


    “My faith in your omniscience is shaken.”

    LOL. I’m so sorry; I didn’t intend to expose the little man behind the curtain… :-)

  • donald stewart says:

    great post! delighted to see so many agreeing… loved your response to Nipper… I think N really hasn’t quite got what we are talking about here … it is more like Noblesse Oblige than subservience and it truly does shift the relationship dynamic in a dramatic and positive way… and of course it doesn’t always work. Assholes exist its just that they are away rarer than generally assumed. Matching them shit for shit results in 2x as much excrement and even some of them respond positively if you catch them at the right moment and it can shift their angle on things.

  • Christina says:

    What an excellent post. Insightful and well-written, and it tackles a touchy subject without being preachy. Thanks. I hope I can apply it on all my rides!

  • Nipper says:

    Hi Alan, Thanks for a clear response… I agree with everything you say! I don’t think confrontation is the answer (this may be difficult the next time a car tries to kill me, but I will try and stay cool). I am not saying we must ride aggressively in a full frontal assault on the car but that we must ride as equal road users and not show them polite deference. I think we both agree it is the attitude of the motorist that must change, we just differer about how to bring about that change.

    Generally I am getting quite negative about the prospect of safe cycling culture becoming the norm in the UK. Ecovelo is a great read because you are very positive and the style of your blog makes cycling look ‘cool’. Where North America goes the UK follows, so if you can make the change perhaps it will happen here too. On the other hand I may just use my EU citizenship to move to Holland and be done with car culture altogether.


  • RocBike.com | The RocBike Review » On the benefits of being nice says:

    […] each other and to those with whom we share the transportation infrastructure? There’s a great post at EcoVelo to this […]

  • Thom says:

    @ Nipper–regarding your second comment above, I don’t believe “polite deference” is quite what Alan was suggesting, either. I am polite to anyone who yields to me, even if I rightfully have the right of way. It’s not that I’m being deferential, just friendly. Rather than ride along with a “damn straight, mother-f*ers!” attitude when someone in a car obeys the law, I like to acknowledge that we’re both civilized road-users and then we go on our respective ways. This *doesn’t* mean saying “thank you, sir, may I have another?” when some jackass cuts you off or nearly kills you, however.

  • John says:

    Hi this is great. It’s so true. I often see people riding on these 3 or 4 lane roads with 80 km/h speed limits we have here in outer eastern Melbourne, Australia. There is simply no room for a bike. To safely pass the traffic has to change lanes and it creates a huge bottleneck. Also, it’s incredibly dangerous because drivers are absolutely not looking for or expecting a bike. Where I encounter one of these roads I use the service road or find a way around. I know that comes across as agreeing with the argument that “bikes shouldn’t be on the road” but maybe there are roads where yes it’s legal but it’s not helpful or polite to piss people off just to assert your right to ride there. We as cyclists are the first to judge rude or aggressive drivers so the same rules should apply to us.

  • Moving Somerset Forward or Standing Still? « Bicycle and Ukulele says:

    […] a little bit of discussion (read the comments) about being positive with the nice chap over at Ecovelo, I should perhaps say […]

  • Nipper says:

    @Thom, You are right of course. I ride a little folding bike or my Pashley Roadster, I am not really a MF road warrior. On my commute to work I mostly ride on calm roads or cycle paths, there are just a few sections where I am spat out from the paths onto busy main roads, it is the nature of the cycle paths where I live. I find it difficult to cope with the dangerous behaviour of a small minority of car and lorry drivers, I just want a bit more cycle path or traffic calming so I can feel safe on the whole route. When I am on the busy roads I find there are some drivers who just don’t seem to notice I’m there.

    I am also a bit of a grumpy poster because I just gave up smoking! (9 days smoke free)

    @ John, what? A four lane road and not enough room for a cyclist! Having said that I would ride on a service road given the situation you describe… Oh no…. hang on… this is Australia we are talking about, where cyclists are victimised with a law which punishes careless cycling more harshly than careless driving. I imagine the law makers will soon be stopping you getting in the way of cars and keeping cyclists off the road altogether.


  • lyle says:

    Since becoming a bicycle only person, I too have mellowed out. I’m also getting older which helps considerably! Being a commuter as opposed to a weekend warrior, there’s simply a lot less aggression.

    Picking up on the subservience/courtesy discussion, there is a fine line there. Three years ago a nearby street was redone with three traffic circles and nice bike lanes in both directions. It’s about 3/4 of a mile long. However, as one nears the circles, the bike lanes disappear with no warning. You can either jump onto the sidewalk or take the lane. After months of not really knowing what to do, I decided that the safest thing for everyone involved is for me to ride down the center of the lane where there’s no bicycle lane. Since I’ve started doing this, I’ve never been squeezed, honked at or yelled at. Why, because it’s the common sense thing to do. There really aren’t any alternatives and the motorists realize this.

    I’m fortunate in that I live where there’s a wide assortment of cyclists. School kids, college kids, commuters, shoppers, parents pulling their kids in trailers, racers and plenty of over 60s on the roads 365 days a year.

    Common sense and a positive attitude do go a long way, however, in the end, it’s really all about a critical mass of cyclists.

  • Donald says:

    Great Post Alan,
    I have been experimenting with this for a while myself, both on the bike and in the car. In the car it became a game to see how many thank you waves I could get from other drivers. Leaving a gap to let them merge on the freeway was a big one. On the bike I used to be one of those angry riders that let everyone one know when they did me wrong. No more middle finger waves. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Wave thank you when ever possible. Always offer the right of way to a car when it is theirs and cautiously take it when it is offered back. The latest opportunity was when an older lady came to a four way stop just before me. I came to a complete stop and waved her on but she would not go. I then waved her through with a flourish and a bow and we both had a laugh as she proceeded to take her right of way. It is a game out there and we might as well have fun with it.
    Sacramento, CA

  • Alan says:

    Great approach Donald!

  • Chris says:

    I have a comment on the stop sign giving-of-the-right-of-way portion. The protocol is already established for what to do at a stop sign. If you get there first, you go first.
    If it looks like you and someone else got there at the same time, the person on the right gets to go first.

    I am annoyed when I stop my bike at the stop sign, click out of my pedals, put a foot down, and am waiting for the car driver on my right to go, and they start waving me through the intersection. I now feel rushed to clip back in, establish balance, and start riding through the intersection while they wait for me to do so. It would be so much easier if they just followed the established protocol and took the right of way which was theirs to begin with.

  • Simon N says:

    Good post Alan.

    I agree wholehearted on the get what you give thing, but not so much on the taking the lane thing – I don’t believe it falls under the category of antisocial behaviour when done in a sensible manner.

    If cars are parked in the shared ‘bike lane/parking area’ with enough regularity to make pulling weaving in and out excessively cumbersome or dangerous, then taking the lane is warranted with a few basic caveats’

    – don’t dawdle
    – get back in your lane when the opportunity presents itself
    – don’t roll in front of cars at red lights if you know they’re going to be stuck behind you when the lights go green (treat it like a queue)
    – keep out of the door zone but don’t head any further out into the lane – it makes the 3 foot rule harder for motorists if you’re WAY out there
    – indicate with your hands, use lights when it’s dark, make your intentions clear

    I find almost all motorists understand what is going on, and are very patient when it’s obvious that you are not holding them up just for the sake of it. It’s about predictability and visibility. I mean, there are many, many places on my commute where it is the cars that are the slow moving obstacle – but I have been conditioned to expect it, and I understand it, and as such there is no anger and no conflict. I don’t see anything inherently selfish in taking the lane where the alternative inconveniences me more than the motorist who has the torque available to get back up to speed much faster (assuming that we are both doing something of equal import – i.e. getting to work).

    All that said, I agree with the spirit of the article completely. I’m just respectfully disagreeing on some of the details. :)

  • WestfieldWanderer says:

    Maybe not “polite deference” but just plain “polite” when pulling over. Just like holding open a door for someone, or when a tractor pulls over to let the tailback by.

© 2011 EcoVelo™