Wheel Talk: The Politics and Perils of Aggressive Passing

Wheel Talk for Wheel People is a monthly advice column written by program director Christopher White. Though bikes, biking, and getting around SF are our areas of expertise, feel free to ask anything! To submit your questions, please click here.

Wheel Talk, the other day I was riding home from work in a bike lane that runs next to parallel-parked cars. Not wanting to get doored, I was riding on the left side of the bike lane. I was riding my usual pace, which is not the fastest but not the slowest. Mid-block, I was startled by a male cyclist speeding past me, rather close, and shouting, “Slow bikes keep right!” (I’m a woman in my 40s.) Ever since then, I waver between mortified and furious. Was he justified, and I should be staying to the right? Or was he being a jerk? —Back and Forth

Dear Back and Forth: Your message brings up a lot of feelings for me, mostly in the arena of outrage. But before I get to those, let me be direct: You were in the right; this guy was both wrong and behaving terribly.

As you clearly are aware, many regular bike lanes run closely alongside parked cars, each of which could pose a sudden dooring hazard. All people on bikes should ride at least three feet away from parked cars, which usually means near the outside edge of these bike lanes. The  way to pass a slower bike that’s safest for all is to merge into the general traffic lane, checking first to make sure it is clear to do so and giving the slower rider a relatively wide berth. First priority for all of us on bikes must be keeping ourselves and those around us safe. Convenience — which was clearly this person’s primary concern — must be a far lower priority.

Now to the feelings. This man may have cut it close, but what really singles him out for jerk-dom was yelling. It’s frustrating to have to say this in 2019, but, men, don’t shout at women on the street! Unless your aim is to alert them to imminent harm, just don’t do it. Does it matter that what he yelled was wrong? It certainly makes the situation more galling, but no, it doesn’t really matter. Because the dynamic generated by a man yelling at a woman on the street is about power, and about aggressively asserting who this public space belongs to.

This unhealthy dynamic in our bike lanes is a huge problem. One of the clearest ways to improve safety for people who bike is getting more people biking. To get there, everyone must feel welcome in the bike lanes. But according to an important recent study in SF, only 29% of the people observed biking (admittedly at a single location during a limited time) were women. In the focus group conversations that were part of this study, women identified being made to feel uncomfortable by males on bikes as a major barrier to biking. (And there’s a lot more of interest in that study; go read it!)

If we want to achieve the bikey utopia that many envision for San Francisco, we must do better at making our bike lanes truly inclusive. And for that I’m largely looking at you, my fellow white cisgender men.

Wheel Talk, I ride the Wiggle nearly every day, usually on my e-assist family bike I use to bring the kids to school. More than once, I’ve been riding east on Oak with a strong head of steam, turning onto Scott, when some dude (so far it’s always been a dude) passes me on the turn, so close I could have reached out and touched him. I’m a pretty confident biker, so it didn’t faze me too much. But is this safe? —Lean In (to the Turn)

Dear Lean In: This question allows me a corollary to my response above. Dudes: enough with the aggressive riding! Again, speed, efficiency and convenience must, must be secondary to everyone’s safety. These men who pass you, Lean In, have no idea how strong a rider you are. A less experienced biker could be startled by this behavior, causing a swerve that could take out both riders.

Dear readers, when it comes to passing while riding your bike, only do it when it’s safe for you and the other rider, and do it on the left. Feel free to communicate that you are passing, either with a ding of your bell or a friendly “On your left!” Don’t do it aggressively. Don’t do it on a turn. Don’t do it with a taunt or stink-eye. Let’s build our numbers by making the bike lane a place where everyone wants to be.

A final note: please also be considerate of those who might want to pass by making it easier for them to follow these guidelines. This means keeping to the right in bike lanes without parked cars whenever you are not passing someone. This is particularly important in protected bike lanes, where it might be impossible to merge into a general traffic lane to pass on the left.

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