That moment when you are riding your bike down the street, on a designated and signed “bike route” no less, and you transition from the street to a completely car-free pathway that parallels the road. And you hear some shouting. Then you realize that it is directed at you.

Picture the same scenario except this time you are riding down the street on a two-wheeled bakfiets with your two young girls in the front box, taking them home from some back-to-school shopping.

The yelling is across three lanes of traffic. From a lady driving a pickup truck. The anger is formidable and targeted, “I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU ARE DOING THAT WITH YOUR KID!!!” Seconds before she had been more-or-less following you (and your two young children — one somewhat obscured, lying contently in the bottom of the box).

On a designated and signed bike route, no less.

This happened to me.

 

What exactly happened

Being on the pathway when the shouting commenced, I felt supremely fortunate that I was on infrastructure that kept me separated from this rage. I felt worried for other road users around her as she stared at me and shouted, very distracted due to her emotions but also because her window was rolled down and her head was blatantly directed perpendicular to the road, at me. She should have had her eyes on the road and the upcoming crosswalk while driving a 2 649 kg (5 840 lb) Chevy Avalanche.

This is where this incident happened:

On the very left along the fence you can see a paved pathway (there is also a walker/runner) — this is where I was riding at this point. The person driving the truck had this more-or-less exact vantage point while shouting at me. There is a three way intersection and a crosswalk within less than 100 m. The speed limit is 40 kph which means that if she had hit a pedestrian at said crosswalk due to her distracted driving, the probability of fatal injury would have been almost 40%. A playground zone starts shortly so hopefully she would have seen the sign and reduced her speed to 30 kph (thereby reducing the chance of fatality to about 10%). Image courtesy of GoogleMaps.ca.

So much anger as a result of me doing something that I was legally entitled to do within the public realm.

 

What gives?

What is this compulsion for people to yell at others in public? Even when they are doing nothing wrong nor causing harm to others? In fact, in this specific instance, one could argue that they are doing what is best for everyone, for the environment, for the economy, for themselves, for their children, and for their city.

Fine, mental health can play a role in this. But that is about the only excusable reason that I can think of.

‘Human nature’? ‘Human habit’? This dire need to express one’s own view on life even if it contradicts the law of the land.

Whatever happened to ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’? Why do some cities have this culture and others don’t?

Is it that we are compelled to make others feel inferior when we are jealous of their happiness?

Or are we just an angry and unhappy species? “I feel great about myself, I’m totally not a loser! I think I’ll go put someone down,” said No One ever, as one friend phrased it when we were exchanging ideas on my experience.

Is it our entitlement? Overall in North America, drivers are prioritized by transportation engineering and infrastructure planning culture. In Calgary, we have defied this stereotype in places but not on the whole.

 

Driver prioritized infrastructure, an example:

Consider this 50 kph on street bike route that I was travelling on prior to being harassed:

This is a designated on-street bike route (in Calgary it is referred to as a “blue sign route” as it has posted bike routing signs along the way for wayfinding for people riding bikes and to create awareness for people driving cars. The speed limit is not posted so the default is 50 kph (so the probability of fatality if a car hits a vulnerable road user is over 80%, yet the City is telling vulnerable road users to specifically use this route). At this point in my journey I transition into the left lane that is starting in this screenshot; this action requires significant assertion. Image courtesy of GoogleMaps.ca.

 

And have a look at this intersection where I am supposed to transition safely from on-street to off-street:

I am where the red car is and I need to turn left, then immediately right on to the curb cut that is located precisely in front of the bus in this screenshot (where you see the orange hand at the crosswalk). The driver of the Chevy Avalanche referred to above is in the lane where the yellow taxi minivan is. Image courtesy of GoogleMaps.ca.

 

While the off-street infrastructure is fabulous, everything about my trip prior to getting here is not.

But I am doing exactly what my city is telling me to do, in fact exactly what they have specifically designed for me as a cyclist on a designated bike route. I also have a driver’s license and know the rules of the road from multiple perspectives (as someone who drives, cycles, and walks). I am using correct arm signals. I have lights on my bike, front and back, that run all the time. I am dressed in bright colours. My children are wearing helmets (the law); I am even choosing to wear a helmet (by choice). Yet, I am fair game to be harassed, apparently, in spite of appeasing the majority of complaints launched against people who choose to cycle.

 

Personal affront

The thing about this specific incidence that really struck a chord with me was the fact that it was the first time that I have been harassed by a woman. I have previously been harassed by several men, often on this very street, and the incidences are usually of a sexual nature (cat-calling, whistling, derogatory slurs reserved only for women, etc.) but this was the first time I had been yelled at by a woman. And, she attacked my motherhood. So much for “it takes a village”. The hypocrisy is astounding. Now it is my turn to judge: Assuming this particular lady had children of her own, how could she do that with them? How could she yell at me in front of her children (if they were in the crew cab) or how dare she yell at me in front of my own children? Where have manners gone?

Belittling others in the public realm just to satisfy yourself is bullying. This driver, like all drivers with respect to vulnerable road users (i.e. pedestrians and cyclists) was in a position of power and was demonstrating how easy it is to abuse that position.

Yet, I am forced to share the road with drivers like this.

 

Hopes for the future

My favourite trip down this particular street was when I had a fire truck escort all the way from the pathway while we rode on the street until we reached the protected cycle track that commences nine blocks north. The firemen were gracious, giving me lots of space, and kind to me and my children when we parted ways. I could live with more of that, more minding your own business if I’m not hurting anyone, and more proper infrastructure so that I don’t have to feel the threat of self-righteous indignation.

What about you? What’s your city like for active transportation? Would you (or do you) bike to school with your kids? Do back-to-school shopping, supporting downtown businesses? How do you feel if you do, safe?

Here are some ideas for helping to effect change for the better with respect to the safety of vulnerable road users in your community.