road manners

I concluded my last post with a wish.  I thought that we should recognize the failure of legislators to balance the rights of citizens sharing public space, and we should treat each other better when conflicts arise as a result.  I was talking about car drivers and cyclists who compete for road space in Toronto, using an elastic analogy stretched to compare them with US gun enthusiasts and gun control advocates who compete for the right to safety in the public realm.

I’m not explaining the analogy very well, so go back and check it out if you object.  But, I can illustrate what I mean by generosity toward competing road users here in Toronto.  I witnessed or participated in two minor incidents over the past two weeks, showing the best and worst of behaviours.  I’ll try to make them funny, though either one could have ended in anger and violence, and had they happened in the US, gunplay might have ensued.

First the worst.  My girlfriend and I were riding down Sudbury Street to the intersection at King on a sunny, cheerful, Saturday morning.  Sudbury Street is paved with red, interlocking brick along that residential section where it turns sharply to the east.

She is a novice cyclist, and was puttering along about 20 meters behind me.  I heard a car overtaking us, then I heard it loudly down shift, honk a few times, before an angry male voice shouted, “Lady, you don’t own the road just because you’re on a bike!”.

I glanced back and saw my girlfriend being harangued by a bulky young man in a silver Porsche Boxter, who then went around her and accelerated away.  Without thinking too much, I then veered out to intercept him on my bike, asking him what was wrong.  He challenged me to pull over, so I followed his car over to the curb, stopped alongside his door, and leaned down to look in his window at him.

“Are you alright?” I asked, disingenuously.

“What’s your problem?” he demanded, looking forward rather than towards me.  There was a blond woman in the passenger seat, also staring straight ahead, clearly embarrassed.

“I have no problem,” I replied.  “It’s a beautiful day, and suddenly I heard you honking and shouting.”

“She doesn’t get to take the whole road.”

“But you’re alright, right?  You’re not injured?  There’s no damage?  Is your whole day ruined, or do you think you can still enjoy the rest of it?  I mean, after your trauma.”

I think he was trying to match my mild sarcasm, but only confused me when he said, “Why don’t YOU tell ME?”

Or, maybe he was trying to draw me into confrontation again, just to save face with his passenger.  By this point, he’d already been aggressive with a petite, nervous, female cyclist, whom he’d thought was alone, crowding her with his car, honking, and yelling.  Then he’d been faced down by another cyclist, and failed to demonstrate physical courage equal to his belligerence.  So, there was a lot of face to save.   I was determined not to precipitate violence, but to match his silliness.

“Tell you what,” I said, leaning in, “meet me back here at 4pm and tell me how your day went.  I’ll be right here waiting.  If things don’t improve after your brush with death back there, we can talk about it then.”

He was rigid with emotion and glistening with sweat.  His companion still hadn’t moved.

And that’s how I left him.  I signalled for my girlfriend, who was waiting a short way off, to go ahead, and I followed, leaving the Boxter at the curb.  Soon, I caught up and rode close behind her, expecting the driver to pull up parallel to us at the intersection.  With luck, I thought, we’d get stuck at the same red light, where I could stare him down and elicit more of his hollow aggression.

Instead, we heard his engine roar and his tires chirp as he pulled an abrupt U-turn, and drove back the way he’d come, north on Sudbury Street.  Perhaps he’d wanted to avoid meeting us again at the light, perhaps his companion had demanded he take her home, or perhaps he was in such high dudgeon, he didn’t trust himself not to run us over.

Whatever the case, that was the end of it.  A man had implicitly threatened a solitary woman on a bike because he felt she was too far out from the curb, and though there was nothing to prevent him going around, he's decided to make it a teachable moment, driving hard up to her, abruptly slowing, honking and yelling to intimidate her.  Unfortunately for him, she was not alone, and in the ensuing exchange, he’d been forced to admit that there was no cause for his rage.

So that’s the worst.  Here’s my experience of road users evincing the best of human nature, despite competing for time and space on crowded and sometimes confusing streets.

I was cycling west on Bloor during morning rush hour, out around Dufferin Street.  I was stopped at a red light that would soon turn green, and in the remaining seconds, a north bound tradesman’s van with the right of way, paused out of courtesy in the middle of the intersection, to allow a station wagon going south, to make a left turn in front of him.

The driver of the station wagon hesitated, not certain what the van’s driver had in mind, but after consuming the final seconds before the light changed, hurriedly made his turn and cleared the intersection.  This left the light turning red for the northbound van, which now found itself trapped in the way of eastbound traffic.

Meanwhile, the little pedestrian herds, waiting to cross on the north side of Bloor, were about to block his way the instant the signal changed.   But, having witnessed his kindness, all stopped to wave him through.  He beeped thanks, and carried on north, as if accustomed to such behavior.  Yet I heard a pedestrian beside me exclaim, “Wow, I never saw that before!”

His comment reminded me of those experiments where traffic signs and lights are removed from intersections.  The result is, unsurprisingly, that people work it out.

Which takes me back to my general conclusion that the rules of the road don’t work as written and create conflict and hazards they were meant to prevent.  Rather than sit on the sidelines and referee the competition for free and safe use of space, the legislatures, courts, and enforcement officers should dig down and fix the problem.

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