After the road rage: Five rules for rural-road users to avoid bike-car conflicts

Last week, I penned a rant about being accosted by an angry dude in a pickup truck frothing at me for existing on this mortal coil while riding a bike on a rural road. Sure, I was still slightly pissed by the whole experience — being screamed at by a stranger tends to stick in your craw — but I was more baffled. I genuinely wanted to know why there’s such hostility to bikes on rural roads.

The reaction wasn’t exactly what I expected. Consider me enlightened.

Rather than the usual chorus of support from fellow cyclists, their reaction was rather muted, many saying they feel safer in rural areas than cities, despite a few bad apples. Even more interesting was the reaction from a few rural folks, who opened my eyes a bit.

What’s being rural car-bike conflicts? Something simpler than I originally thought. Photo by Tom Babin.

Two things came out of those conversations for me. One: There is some truly appalling behaviour by those on both sides of this issue. Tongue-lashing an innocent cyclist for the actions of others is one example. But if you’re the cyclist shitting in the bushes of a rural property owner, you need to stop right now. Seriously, that’s messed up.

But more importantly, it dawned on me that this conflict isn’t some deeply rooted culture war or evidence of some long-held moral differences between urban cyclists and rural property owners, as I originally mused. The conflict is rooted in something much simpler, the same source of motorist-cyclist conflicts in cities: insufficient infrastructure.

What I heard from most rural landowners is that they fear inadvertently striking a cyclist in their car, and on narrow rural road they feel there isn’t enough space for two passing vehicles and a bike. And this happens mostly on roads that lack a shoulder.

That’s it. Some roads are too narrow. Yes, it’s the law to share the highways, and cyclists have every legal right to be on these roads, and cyclists are often stuck in a conundrum because the roads with the least traffic are also those that lack shoulders. But, simply put, rural drivers worry that the presence of cyclists on a narrow road doesn’t leave enough space to pass when the opposite lane is occupied, and it can be difficult to slow sufficiently at highway speeds when approaching cyclists unexpectedly.

So with that in mind, I came up with a few commandments for both motorists and cyclists that may help reduce conflicts on our rural roads.

  1. Thou shalt show respect to all users of the road, and not unfairly malign an entire group of road users based on the actions of a few members of said group.
  2. Thou shalt not bandy about the word “entitled” in conversations about road use, acknowledging that all types users on occasion display an attitude of entitlement over public roads.
  3. Cyclists shall plan routes on rural roads that have wide shoulders wherever possible.
  4. Motorists vow to pass cyclists with sufficient space wherever possible.
  5. All road users agree that insufficient infrastructure and not human behaviour is the root of most conflicts between users, and focus their energies, not on each other, but on the forces that can build sufficient space on rural roads for all users to feel safe.

One last point, that is less a commandment than an observation: Maybe it’s time to recognize that road cycling isn’t going away, and rather than just tolerate it, it should be accommodated. Let’s identify safe routes and encourage cyclists to use them, as has already happened in many jurisdictions. Let’s see road cyclists as an opportunity and cater to them (a weekend food truck on a well-placed route, perhaps?). Look at how bicycle tourism has become a true industry in other jurisdictions. There is opportunity in those hordes of people in Lycra.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to respond to this issue. Let me know what you think about the commandments above.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 


Also published on Medium.

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3 Comments

  1. dragonfrog

    “Motorists vow to pass cyclists with sufficient space wherever possible.”

    That falls short, for me. Motorists should vow to ONLY EVER pass cyclists with sufficient space. Passing when it’s not safe is just unacceptable.

    We wait until it’s safe to pass other motorists, horse riders, people on foot. We wait until it’s safe, period.

  2. Yes, All those 5 rules are the really effective thing. I totally agree with “dragonfrog” what he finds out. Thanks for sharing this amusing article.

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