I think a lot about rules. I’m not a rigid stickler for rules. I believe a lot in taking rules in context. There are times rules matter, and times they really don’t. But I do think it’s important to understand the rules. There are two things to understand about rules: 1) that they exist to keep things running smoothly, and 2) that there is (or at least should be) a reason behind any good rule. Rules that have no clear, broadly agreeable purpose or that are difficult to follow should be reconsidered.
But a lot of rules are pretty simple. Like the rules of the road. And I think a lot about rules of the road, because I’m on the road a lot, in various ways — in a car, on a bike, or on foot.
The rules of the road are simple, but they don’t seem quite as simple to me living in Minneapolis in the 2010s as they did when I was a kid growing up in a small town in the 1980s. Back then, roads were for cars. The only people who biked were kids and adults who had lost their licenses for DUI. And you biked on the sidewalk.
People only walked with their dogs, and generally only in a 2-block radius of their house, the lone exception being the one Vietnam vet with untreated PTSD who refused to wear shoes or use the sidewalk. He could always be seen around town with his dreadlocks, blanket and bare feet, shuffling along in the boulevard grass. I hope things got better for him.
But I digress. That was the 1980s. In contemporary Minneapolis, everyone uses the roads for just about everything. And sometimes it gets messy. There are many places in the park areas of the city where there are three parallel strips of asphalt: a pedestrian path, a bike path, and the road. All clearly marked for their intended purpose. In most of these places, the road is very narrow — two lanes with no shoulder or parking lanes. But you get pedestrians on the bike path (why? who the hell knows?) and bikes on the road (why? to get away from the dumbass pedestrians! or because they think they’re in the Tour de France!) and things get tangled up.
Even when you’re on regular city streets, biking can be a hazardous endeavor. The rule (whether it’s codified as a city ordinance or just a gentle encouragement on road signs) is “SHARE THE ROAD”. But there are cars that nearly run bikers onto the curb, just as there are bikers who ride side-by-side at such a leisurely speed that I wonder how they keep their balance, backing up car traffic for blocks. SHARE THE ROAD goes both ways.
Me? I’m too scared as a biker to ride on major thoroughfares if I can possibly avoid it. I usually stick to those dedicated bike paths when I can. Otherwise, I try to ride on low-traffic residential streets, generally a block or two over from the major thoroughfare. It just seems much, much safer.
But you do encounter clueless drivers. Drivers who will stop for you at an intersection when they don’t have a stop sign and you (the biker) do, and are clearly coming to a stop. Or, drivers who will breeze right through their own stop signs even when you (the biker) have the right-of-way, either because they didn’t see you or because they live a block away and always breeze through that stop sign.
Yes… you may have guessed that I am not just speaking hypothetically here. Both of those situations in the previous paragraph have happened to me. In fact, they happened on the same street, one block apart. Obviously the latter situation (which happened last year) is far more dangerous, and it led to me braking so abruptly I nearly flipped my bike, followed by a loud string of profanity hurled in the semi-apologetic driver’s direction.
The former situation happened to me just this morning, and prompted today’s rant. I was approaching a stop sign, and slowing to a stop. To my left, a white SUV also came to a stop, even though they didn’t have a stop sign. Presumably they didn’t trust that I was going to stop, even though I was vigorously waving them on with my left arm as I braked with my right. Even though I came to a complete stop, got off my bike, and even more vigorously waved them on. Finally they did go and I got the satisfaction of having successfully enforced the rules. (Sort of. I mean, I didn’t actually give the universal “stop” hand signal. Yes, I broke a rule. But I figured my vigorous waving-on covered it.)
But that got me thinking about the rules themselves. You have the official rules of the road, which tell you that you stop at a stop sign and don’t stop when you don’t have one. Bikes are supposed to follow the same road rules as cars, with (as I recently learned) a few exceptions designed to facilitate faster movement, most notable being that it’s OK for a biker to run a red light, if they have first come to a complete stop and verified that there is no other traffic (cross traffic or oncoming left turns, for example). But I doubt a lot of drivers know this rule, and when they see bikers doing it, probably assume (like I would have before) that it’s one more biker breaking the rules.
Which gets me to the second kind of rules — the unwritten, unspoken rules that grow naturally from collective experience. There are so many bikers who completely ignore all of the rules of the road that many drivers either a) assume the worst out of any biker they encounter and exert excessive caution or b) hit the bikers. (Or, as happened last year, they lose their fucking minds and drive around hurling cinder blocks out their car windows.)
I feel like the situation I ran into today was due to the second type of rule. The driver of the white SUV has encountered enough unpredictable bikers — who are best known for their peculiarly selective blindness to red octagons — that they weren’t going to take any chances with me. So the fact that I did follow the rules and stop for a stop sign actually caused a problem. A minor problem, to be sure, but still enough that it lingered with me all morning. (I wonder what that driver is thinking about right now. Almost certainly not me. This is my affliction.)
So, we are living in a society where we have two types of rules: the official rules, and the unspoken ones. Often in direct conflict. Which rules take precedence? Sadly, as much as I want to live in a world where the official rules are logical, reasonable, fair to all, and easy to follow, I fear that we really live in a world where the official rules are so often inconsistent, incomprehensible, unjust or just simply a burden — not to mention out of touch with the realities of human behavior — that the unspoken rules become the ones that people actually follow.
So then what? Should I just give up on the official rules? Should I breeze through stop signs on my bike because “everyone else is doing it”? Should I stubbornly adhere to my way of doing things and get my dander up every time I have to frantically gesture at someone else to get them to accept their own right-of-way?
Or, should I just lighten the hell up?
In that spirit, I come to the third type of rules. The Rules.
The Rules is a tongue-in-cheek book of… rules… written by a former coworker and bandmate who is obsessed with cycling to a level I will never be. I ride a secondhand bike to get around town. I have become quite a fan of watching the Tour de France every July, in part just because there’s an app for it that I feel really does 21st century sportscasting right and I wish every sport were covered this way. But mostly because I enjoy seeing the French countryside, admiring the intensity and endurance of the riders, and, occasionally, moments like riders punching morons on the sidelines.
Anyway… forget about city ordinances or social norms. The real rules of cycling are another matter entirely. And far more entertaining than my rants will ever be.