Taking the Lane: A Call To Recognize the Rights of A Cyclist

by: Mason Strand

On my ride home from work today, I had a brief encounter with a bus.  I was stopped at the light on Clark at Wellington when the vehicle in question pulled up next to me.  I glanced at the driver, and noticed he was looking intently at me.  This was a first – I often glance at bus drivers when I’m stopped to the left of their vehicle, but I can’t remember one ever looking back at me.  He proceeded to make the situation even more curious by speaking to me.  “You bikes act like you own the road, man.”  I was taken aback.

I couldn’t for the life of me think of anything I had done wrong.  In fact, I couldn’t remember interacting with the bus in traffic at all.  Perhaps there had at some point been some casual leap frog – that is, I pass him while he’s stopped at a bus stop, he passes me when he gets moving, and on and on.  This can get pretty aggressive, but since I hadn’t even noticed it was happening, that obviously wasn’t the case in this situation.  “Just… just taking my space,” I replied feebly.  He shook his head, and I felt like an idiot.

I thought about the exchange the whole way home.  What had he seen?  Why did I feel guilty when I had done nothing wrong?  I considered that he may have been commenting on the behavior of the biker that had been right in front of me: he had run the light a few seconds after it turned red, making a left turn in the process.  Of course, I can’t be held responsible for that biker’s decision.  It isn’t a choice that I would have made, and more to the point, I didn’t even know that guy.

That’s often how it works with bikers, however.  People act as if we’re all in on some secret plan, hell-bent on making their lives as difficult as possible.  Never mind that other cars get in drivers’ way far more than a bike ever would or could; we stand out, and so we are an easy target for frustration.  I mean, how absurd would it be if a car ran a stop sign, and I rode up next to the car behind them, who had come to a complete stop, and said, “Why do you all act like that?”  We don’t assume the behavior of one reckless driver reflects upon all other drivers, so the same credit should be given to bikers.  I am a courteous biker, and the only time you will see me getting aggressive is if you put me in a situation where I feel as if you are endangering me.

Relatedly, I considered another cause for his comment: it’s possible that I took the lane in front of him at some point for a block or so.*  I’ve always felt that taking the lane is a pretty bold move for a biker, and it’s a right I don’t often choose to exercise.  This is because at least 95% of drivers are absolutely convinced that bikers aren’t allowed to do this, and immediately become apoplectic at the fact that their commute is going to take 23 seconds longer than normal because I got in front of them for half a block.

I am allowed to take the lane, though.  In fact, it is actually an enormous courtesy on the part of bikers that we don’t take the lane more often.  The law states that cars have to give bikers at least 3 feet of space when passing them.  That basically never happens.  I feel grateful when I get a foot of space.  The proximity of traffic also often forces bikers into the most dangerous area of the road: the door zone.  This is the area into which parked cars open their doors.  More bikers are injured or killed in crashes with car doors than any other type of accident.

Bikers stay to the right of traffic because when we don’t, we run into situations like the one I found myself in last weekend.  I was biking south on Clark, approaching the Clark/Ashland split.  I signaled and moved into the center lane, which within about 300 feet would merge with the left lane, at which point I would be on the right side of the single traffic lane.  Apparently 300 feet was much too far for the car that pulled up behind me, who began honking at me.  Can you imagine if you were just driving down the street, doing nothing wrong, and the person behind you started honking?  Wouldn’t it make you angry?  It certainly didn’t make me feel too awesome, and I expressed my feelings with a not-particularly-polite hand gesture.  The driver immediately sped up and passed me, leaving about an inch of space between me and his vehicle.

People undergo some type of change when they’re in a vehicle, particularly in a city like Chicago where drivers tend to be unreasonably aggressive.  All logic and proportion for response go out the window.  I was riding a 17 lb piece of steel and rubber with nothing between my brain and the pavement but some plastic and foam.  He was driving a 2,000 lb vehicle, which he used to physically threaten me.  I doubt he intended to hit me, but he did purposely intimidate me with a deadly weapon.

If you think I’m exaggerating how utterly terrifying a situation like that can be, please go for a bike ride.  I guarantee you it won’t take more than an hour before a car gets too close for comfort.  I’ve heard more than one story of a driver intentionally running over a biker that made them angry, and dozens more of drivers simply not looking for bikers and hitting them unintentionally.  There is legal precedent now, thankfully, that states that purposely hitting a biker can be considered assault with a deadly weapon.  But it doesn’t make me any more eager to invite the wrath of commuters by getting into “their” space.

My coworker introduced me to a quote I think of often while biking: “Bikers, like pigeons, must be content to live in the margins.”  I’m not sure of its origins, but I think you could also just as easily replace the word “pigeons” with “queers.”  Bikers & queers are looked upon with suspicion or outright dislike, but we’re also survivors.  We keep going despite jeers and threats and sometimes even violence.  We choose to live our lives on our own terms, and not allow the norm to influence how we operate.  I also think that the more something is pushed into the margins, the more queer it becomes.  I’ve always found biker culture to be pretty queer.

Sure, there are plenty of douchey people on bikes – just ask Wicker Park.  But when you really find people who are committed to biking as a way of life, you’ll discover some of the most generous, thoughtful, and fierce individuals you could ever hope to meet.  In fact, I’ve found that the biker community and the queer community often overlap, and I find this to be no surprise.   Somehow, people who are pushed to the margins always seem to find each other.

I guess my point is, next time you are behind the wheel of a car, and you for some reason find yourself irritated at a biker, consider the struggle they go through every day just to exercise their lifestyle.  Think of how you live a similar struggle every day, and consider giving them a little extra space and patience.  They’ll appreciate the gesture more than you know.

Mason Strand is an aspiring film editor whose ultimate dream is to work on queer films with a group of awesome, progressive people.  Strand has a B.A. in film and an M.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies, both from DePaul University.  During his day job, he teaches school kids about walking and biking safety (which is a pretty damned good gig), and in his free time, he explores Chicago on his bike, seeks out queer dance parties and searches for his next seasonal beer obsession.  He identifies as ftm and queer.


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