As a cyclist in Philadelphia, I spend a lot of time pondering the state of cyclist-motorist relations in this city. I have reached two conclusions. One: people like to talk about how bad it is. Two: in my personal experience, it is not nearly as bad as it is made out to be.
There is a dominant narrative out there about the hostility that supposedly characterizes Philadelphia’s cyclist-motorist relations. Philadelphia Weekly’s recent cover story about biking begins with the assertion that road users are “more likely to see one another as obstacles than neighbors.” Within the bicycling community, close calls become badges of honor, we swap horror stories of crazy drivers, and we are expected to dish back the negativity we are sometimes faced with.
The only problem? This is not really how I personally experience Philadelphia’s streets on daily basis. On a bicycle, I have many more positive interactions with motorists than negative ones. In the past few weeks alone, a taxi driver has seen me coming and paused to wave me around a troublesome pocket of traffic on Locust Street. I’ve had a woman in an SUV insist on ceding the right of way to me at a South Philly intersection when I thought it was clearly hers to take. I have followed drivers that meticulously (gloriously!) used their turn signals for every lane change, sparing me any confusion about their intended movements. Yesterday, I even managed to communicate effectively with the sky-high driver of a trash truck in Center City -- the bike lane was blocked, and he saw my wave and paused to let me scoot around.
And these are just the memorably good moments. For the most part, the 17 blocks I traverse twice each day on my morning and evening commute are full of neutral, not hostile, interactions with drivers. On a "bad" day, I have a negative experience with a motorist once along the way. That leaves 16 blocks full of respectful drivers who may or may not have been overjoyed to share the road with me, but share the road they did.
The instinct to focus on the scary situations psychologically makes sense. Those close calls and their associated adrenaline rushes are certainly more memorable than the moments of common courtesy, or even explicit kindness that far outnumber them. Based on my experience, road rage isn’t the rule. It’s the exception.
Full disclosure: My perception of the streets as a bicyclist is partially based on the fact that I bike respectfully. I stop at red lights, signal my turns, and wear flashing lights at night. I am sure the drivers around me have an easier time being nice to me because I am nice to them first. It’s not foolproof. I still get yelled at sometimes, even when I follow all the rules, but it’s a good start.
I am not trying to invalidate the very real horror stories bicyclists (including myself!) have endured while biking in the city. A crash can be life-or-death (usually for the bicyclist), and we have a great responsibility to figure out how to share our streets more effectively. This is one reason why I work at the Bicycle Coalition. I just think it’s worth remembering, acknowledging, and holding up those moments where we do manage to treat each other as neighbors rather than obstacles. Why? Because folks considering biking need to realize it’s not as terrifying as it can sometimes sound. We need to point out examples of good behavior if we want to foster more of it. And because it feels a lot better to yell “thank you” than “f*** you.”