Notes from an annoyed but intact cyclist.
This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.
Madison is a more bike-friendly town than most places in the U.S. Plenty of caveats are baked into that statement, but I won’t dispute its overall truth. My question is whether people in Madison are better at driving around bikes than they are anywhere else in this country.
I don’t know if there’s really a good way to quantify this. All I know is that I encounter a lot of people in their cars who clearly don’t know how to handle themselves when approaching or passing a cyclist. Maybe I should be grateful that I haven’t dealt with much in the way of full-on aggressive behavior from drivers while on a bike in Madison. I think most people here are at least trying to handle this safely, even. I’ve had a few near-misses and a lot of comparatively minor annoyances.
But poor infrastructure and bad driving habits cost lives. In October 2022, a driver hit and killed a cyclist named Thomas Heninger as he crossed John Nolen Drive. He was remembered as a beloved music teacher. His death prompted Madison Bikes board member Craig Weinhold to call for building a bike underpass as the City of Madison embarks on a major redesign of John Nolen and ambitious changes to the Lake Monona waterfront. That stretch of road is full of multicolored markings and signs meant to safeguard bikes and pedestrians, but it was never going to be enough to protect Heninger from a speeding car. And he wasn’t the only cyclist to die in a traffic accident in Madison last year.
Every spring and summer I’m reacquainted with the relative ease, convenience, and just plain fun of getting around Madison by bike. I also find that every year, some of my mostly deeply held biking pet peeves are born anew. When drivers aren’t reckless or oblivious around bikes, they’re too hesitant. I don’t know which is worse.
Bikes use the roads daily, with or without bike lanes, yet their presence genuinely seems to flummox people. (And yes, some are great about it and if you are one of those people I thank you for sharing the road as safely and courteously as possible.) While I’ve never been seriously injured, the small stuff always seems like it has the potential to become dangerous under the wrong circumstances.
A few specific things that routinely put me on edge:
One, coming up behind a bike, slowing down, and proceeding to cruise along slowly in the cyclist’s blind spot. I’m vaguely aware that you’re back there, but can’t really see you without turning around. Sometimes I can barely hear you. If it’s just a really narrow street, I get it.
Two, veering way off to the left to pass a bike, especially when the bike is in a clearly marked bike lane. Please don’t risk a head-on collision on my account.
Three, getting all pissy and vroomy when I wave you on to just go ahead and pass me in one of the previous two situations. I’m trying to be nice, I promise! Really I am! Cycling is one of the few situations in Madison where it’s acceptable, even preferred, to interact in a brisk and curt manner. This used to rub me the wrong way—the clipped calls of “on your left” on bike paths, the general tendency of people to look closed-off and hostile when they’re in the midst of any kind of strenuous physical activity. But I’ve grown to appreciate it. When things are moving fast and you’re short of breath, you can’t really do passive-aggressive Midwest dithering. Sometimes brief and blunt is the kindest way.
Four, just generally pushing it with yield and stop signs. Hi yes, the markings and signs and so forth on the road apply to you. They are not an opt-out deal. Even if it’s an intersection in your neighborhood that you drive through every day.
These routine experiences remind me that there’s a big asterisk next to the “bike-friendly city” descriptor, which is that cyclists are still encumbered by an overall car-dependent system. Unless you’re on one of our lovely dedicated bike paths, a careless or inept driver can ruin it for you in an instant.
People fudge this stuff not because they’re ignorant or bad, but because in this country we’re socialized to treat basic consideration and awareness of others as an imposition. Nothing reinforces that like car culture, not to mention the way all this is physically set up. The driver is on the left side of the car, the cyclist is on the right, and this can make the distance between the two hard for the driver to eyeball. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but the view from inside a car distorts things in a way that’s genuinely hard to overcome. It messes with people’s ability to understand their surroundings and share space with others. Plus, some people just don’t get a lot of practice with this when they’re learning to drive or getting tested for a license.
I also don’t think more driver education or police enforcement is going to improve this much in the long run. Just like the other traffic safety issues Madison contends with, this really calls for changes to infrastructure. Protected or raised bike lanes need to become the norm, as do other traffic-calming measures. Underpasses are a great idea too, despite some of the challenges Craig Weinhold breaks down in the blog post linked above. We’re better off when the sheer fact of the physical landscape doesn’t give drivers the option to speed or do other dangerous things, and doesn’t give cyclists the opportunity to make reckless choices either. Even the most conscientious, expert drivers among us will screw up from time to time. Even the most experienced bike riders will, too. Better, more clearly divided infrastructure also helps drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians alike get a fuller view of what everyone else is doing on the road.
More than that, all of this illustrates that a car-centric world is just not very workable in the long run. The answer is having way fewer cars on the road overall. This means we need a truly robust and reliable public transit system. It doesn’t seem like so much to ask for.
There are times when I’ve been on the other side of this stuff, as a driver. My first year in Madison, I came within a split-second of dooring someone with a moving truck. Whoever it was, they managed to deliver some very brief, very stern words as they deftly dodged by. This person did me a favor, really driving home to me that if you’re a driver sloughing off the burden of vigilance onto a cyclist, you’re falling short. Every Dutch Reach I perform is dedicated to that unknown person. I’m sure I’ve committed my share of blind-spot creeping too, provoking the same irritation I’m venting here.
At the end of the day, here’s what really angers me about all this: If you have a driver’s license, you are supposed to know how to handle yourself around other vehicles, and legally speaking a bike is another vehicle. If you’re enclosed in a two-ton chunk of steel, you should not be operating it with less vigilance and skill than a sweaty 200-pound doofus on a 30-pound bike.
I learned to drive in Florida, a notoriously dangerous place for cyclists and pedestrians, probably the road-rage capital of the world. (That combined with the state’s infamous “stand your ground” law is turning out exactly as you’d expect.) If I can figure it out, I think you can too. And you Wisconsin drivers are way better than Florida drivers, almost to a person. So that’s a head start. Until we get the infrastructure and well-rounded transportation options we deserve, just try to work with me on this. Please stay out of my blind spot, and I’ll stay out of yours.
Help us publish more weird, questing, brilliant, feisty, “only on Tone Madison” stories