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This isn’t to deny the noble war being fought against the scourge of car culture. I count myself as a soldier in that war. But among soldiers fighting a war, there are codes of honor. As I see it, the same idea applies to the battlefield of our city streets.
Not everyone plays clean in this war. I get it. A lot of operators of cars, trucks and motorcycles are horrible, literally putting people’s lives in danger or even ending them. It’s a dirty battle, sometimes stained in blood. But I never presumed that this harsh reality buys me a license to carry on with a reckless ‘fuck-you’ flair when I’m on my bike.
Against this backdrop and the decades of experience I have riding a bicycle in the city, I’ve learned to maneuver around the metropolis on my two wheels with a simple code: Ride like a gentleman.
For me, riding like a gentleman means slowing it down and chilling out. The hefty Citi Bikes in New York max at around 15 mph or so. When I’m pedaling a busy street or bike lane, I doubt I ever hit that on my own considerably breezier ride. I’m not on an open road. I’m in a city, where I’m sharing very limited space with pedestrians, children, dogs, handicapped people, cars and, of course, others riding bicycles. There is a lot going on, suggesting that I need to ride with consideration, awareness and courtesy.
I always grant pedestrians the right of way and plenty of space, giving them no cause to fear me as I ride by – or at least a pleasant surprise if they expected to fear me. On a crowded street or lane, I dial it way down and take it very easy.
As for awareness, it’s also worth noting I never listen to headphones when I ride. No music, no podcasts, no nothin’. Years ago, I used to ride with headphones on all the time. In retrospect, I don’t know what I was thinking. But I also used to think I was invincible, which might’ve had something to do with it. These days, I need full eyesight and hearing on board when I’m riding my bike. And beyond the safety aspect, riding without any hearing impediments offers me the unique, cacaphonous and glorious symphony that is the sound of the city – and the opportunity to hear my name when a friend spots me and shouts ‘Hello’ from across the street.
In general, riding on sidewalks is a no-no. In New York City, it’s a legal no-no. Even in cities where it isn’t technically illegal, it just feels rude to me, especially if there are pedestrians. In Cleveland, where I currently live and where sidewalk cycling doesn’t seem to warrant a ticket, taking to the sidewalk is often necessary if I want to stay alive because there is really no safe cycling infrastructure anywhere on the city’s streets. But when it’s an open street with no threatening car traffic, enabling me to bike safely, I’ll hit the road.
As far as traffic lights are concerned, I obey the laws… sort of. Our traffic laws, lights and signs as we know them were essentially designed for cars, which weigh 3 to 4 tons and move at high speeds. I’m on a 30 pound bicycle, which makes the combined weight of me and my bike about 180 pounds, seldom moving faster than 10 or 12 mph. The rules that apply to cars need not be as rigidly applied to bicycles, in my opinion. For example, I’m a fan and practitioner of the “Idaho Stop,” which suggests I treat red lights like stop signs (stop, then proceed if safe) and stop signs like yield signs (slow to a crawl, then proceed if safe). Unfortunately, I got busted for this once going down 9th Avenue in Manhattan. A cop stopped me for proceeding through a red light (after I’d made a complete and gentlemanly stop), and handed me a citation. Two weeks later, a judge sentenced me to a day of community service, which meant spending an entire morning dragging a giant trash can around Times Square, sweeping up trash and cigarette butts in a blue jumpsuit, full-on Boy George style. But I still practice the Idaho Stop.
As city bicyclists wage the war on cars, it doesn’t pay to be a dick. It’s bad PR. Instead, I opt to ride like a gentleman, with residual hopes to inspire others to look at how I ride and think, “Wow. That looks nice. I want to try that.” That’s how it happened for me, when I observed a guy many years ago happily and casually riding his handsome vintage Raleigh on the Upper West Side with courtesy. Because of his example (and the example of unwitting others, of course), that’s how I roll today.
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “gentleman” as “a chivalrous, courteous, or honorable man.” Applying such simple standards to riding a bicycle is better for everyone concerned.