Why car drivers and cyclists are in confrontation with each other?

I polished this article all the summer, but now I can’t wait anymore. It should be published. Last week’s tragic events (I’ll mention them later in the text) made me want not just to speak, but to shout. I want people to understand that cyclists are human beings, not obstacles on the road.

A work colleague of mine asked once why there is so much tension between people who are cycling and people who are driving in Helsinki. From his point of view, the tension between these two groups is much bigger than in many other cities. He assured that in another places where he used to live, in Munich, Chicago and Berlin, people in traffic were more friendly to each other.

The question of confrontation is in the air anyway, so I decided to answer in a blog post, sharing my thoughts not only with one person, but with everyone concerned. Even if I speak about Helsinki, you’ll find something about your own city as well, no matter where you live. The article is long, but well worth reading if you are at least sometimes using something else than bus or train for getting around.

First of all, what is confrontation about? My colleague believes that people who cycle in Helsinki are aggressive with each other and are strongly against cars. For example, he is frustrated with cyclists who shout “kids out of of bicycle roads!” when he rides together with his little daughter. He is no less frustrated with cyclists who believe that someone can intentionally be in traffic to harm someone else. And he doesn’t understand cyclists who strike the car when its driver makes a mistake.

For me the confrontation is different. It’s when every news story involving cycling has tons of shit in comments. It’s when somebody depreciatingly calls you “active cyclist”, “green freak”, “trikoopelle” (jersey clown) and so on when you just cycle every day to work and other places. Confrontation is when people says that € 5 mln is too much for a good bicycle lane, but € 150 mln is ok for the road expansion. And of course it’s when I hear honks, experience dangerous overtakings and all other type of rudeness on the road.

Is it really that bad in Helsinki and better in the places mentioned above? Hard to say. I didn’t notice any special atmosphere of friendliness on the roads in Munich and I haven’t been in Berlin and Chicago yet. Berlin has higher cycling rates than Helsinki and I believe that this can be the key to friendliness (which means that there are so many cyclists that drivers have no other choice than to pay some attention). In Chicago, with its low cycling rates, the “friendliness” might come from the fact that cyclists have no other choice than to accept that cars dominate roads for now.

Cycling becomes more and more popular in Helsinki with every year and this is the moment, when the tension perhaps is at its highest level. There is nothing good in mutual aggression, of course. But I wouldn’t regard any city where some tension exists as inferior to others. Every city has already experienced or will experience some type of “cars vs bikes” confrontation in the future. Critical mass movement originates from San Francisco, but now this city is said to be bike-friendly, at least by North American standards. Now it’s time for other cities for their critical mass.

I don’t support any aggression towards individual persons, no matters are they cycling or driving. But I’d like to show that city dwellers (all of them, not only cycling ones) have very good grounds to dislike car traffic in general. Instead of fighting with the existence of the confrontation itself, it’s wiser to find what causes it and to leave no grounds for aggression. The confrontation should lead to improved traffic laws, better road design etc., not to injured cyclists or burned cars. A lot of job is to be done for everyone involved: car drivers, cyclists, city planners, police, court, media. Let’s go deeper into details.

The eternal fight between new and old

Helsinki is a visionary city. It’s 10-20 years ahead of many other Finnish places, especially smaller ones, regarding traffic planning, using city space, enforcing environment-friendly policies etc. The city has good public transportation system, some tightly built areas, traffic type and speed restrictions (bus-only lanes, bridges and tunnels, 30 km/h zones, roads with no pass-through traffic allowed). More of this coming – a tram-only bridge, a light rail line, some high-rises near major railway hub. And Helsinki is the first city in Finland, planning to convert highways (within city borders) to boulevards.

What then, you may ask. Many other cities are visionary nowadays, especially in Europe. The thing is that they are rarely alone. Helsinki is. It’s the only real city in the country. Adjacent cities and towns still live in 20th century, relying mostly on private cars. This wouldn’t be so huge problem however, if people wouldn’t fail to understand one thing: when they are coming to Helsinki, something that is just a road to work to them is a living room for thousands of other people.

It’s easy to understand citizens in a district, where 1/2 or 2/3 of population uses something else than car for transportation, that they don’t want to see their streets being full of parked and moving cars. I believe that there’ll be less tension between car drivers and others where the formers will accept the character of the city where they are coming to. Cars are tolerable unless their importance is not exaggerated and their usage doesn’t become excessive.

The misconception of smooth traffic flow

Many Finns believe that traffic flow should be smooth. There is an idiom for it in Finnish language: sujuva liikenne. At the same time everybody fails to notice that there are many other transportation options than “default” one. People think that cycling is not feasible due to weather (despite the fact that 600 km north of Helsinki is located one of the world’s best cities in terms of winter cycling – Oulu). People disregard public transport and walking as well.

And then comes this silly habit of parents in Greater Helsinki area to drive their kids to sport and leisure facilities. How often I hear this sigh and “mun pitää viedä lapset harrastuksiin” (“I need to drive my kids to their activities”). This not only greatly reduces children’s sense of independence, but also excessive car driving is stressful and time-consuming. I know people who spend up to 4 hours a day driving to work, to the meetings, back from work, with kids, to the shop and so on. No wonder that they are angry all the time at everyone and everything – other drivers, police, red lights, pedestrians and of course at those stupid cyclists.

Ok, there are places in the country where cars are unavoidable for now. But people are just blind when Helsinki clearly states that it prioritizes walking and cycling over everything else (because they require the cheapest infrastructure and provide health benefits). And Helsinki prioritizes public transportation over private cars, which is also quite understandable.

Why then people assume that their car commute should be smooth? If they would bother to think a little bit more, they’ll quickly come to the conclusion that smooth ride for someone means obstacles for someone else. It’s no wonder that in the city with good public transportation and infrastructure for walking and cycling, people opt for removing obstacles, generated by the smooth car flow.

One thing it’s also important here. Some car drivers have a fear that increased amount of cycling will make their life terrible. This is absolutely groundless, because even in the most cycling city in the world (Groningen, Netherlands) car driving is quite possible and practiced by everyone who for some reason needs it. There are some minor restrictions of course, but the whole city enforces them, not the cyclist riding on the same road with you, therefore there is no need to be angry at him.

Who owns the road?

The perception that a cyclist shoudn’t be on the road has its own roots in every country. In UK, for instance, drivers shout that “you don’t pay road tax” (even if it was abolished 75 years ago). In Finland people believe that roads are only for the “real traffic” (which is very well expressed by using word “autotie” (“road for cars”) in sense of “ajorata” (“traffic lane”)). This belief is fueled by the fact that there are many kilometers of bicycle roads in Finland, which are segregated from motor traffic (but not from pedestrians).

Bicycle road is usually a good and welcomed thing, but its quality and safety can differ dramatically. No wonder that more experienced cyclists choose the road in some places. This is perfectly allowed by the law, which says that a bicycle road must be used, but only when it’s on your side of the road, when it’s in satisfactory condition and has no obstacles on it. Unfortunately many car drivers remember only the beginning that “a bicycle road must be used”. There are also numerous other situations when it feels like cyclist acts “wrong”, but in reality he is quite logical. The best option is to act calmly when you don’t understand someone’s behaviour, not to “teach” on the road.

One extra reason why cyclists tend to use the road instead of bicycle way, is specific to Helsinki much more than to other cities. This reason is winter maintenance. Old-fashioned politicians with the consent of general public decided that cleaning snow from bicycle roads has a low priority. Everyone who cycles in Helsinki during winter knows these days when the roads are clean before 7 AM, but bicycle ways are mess even at 10 AM. And even after the snowplough’s visit, the level of convenience differs dramatically. Bicycle ways are bumpy and icy, while many roads are flat and have asphalt visible. No wonder that people choose to ride on the road instead.

People who drive think that they pay so much taxes, so they own the road and don’t have to share it with anyone else. Yes, there are relatively big taxes on buying car and on fuel in Finland. But motorists tend to forget some important things: only major roads are built by state, all others are built by cities and rural communities. Everybody pays for these roads, even seniors who can’t walk father than their yard anymore. Let’s add here “free” car parking, paid by every citizen. And immense tax deductions for long car commutes plus kilometer allowances when using the car for work-related purposes. Now it doesn’t feel anymore like drivers pay more that others, right? Think about it next time when you’ll be angry at somebody cycling on “your” road.

The right to make mistakes

One of the most often used accusations against people who are cycling is that “they don’t follow the rules”. It’s quite understandable, because traffic rules serve car drivers and only them, that’s why they like rules so much. Thinking people shouldn’t fall therefore in sympathy for drivers when they say that their life is hard because somebody else is not following rules. When a cyclist runs on red, this is arguable deed, but it’s important to remember that he doesn’t pose any danger to others or only the minor one.

Constant accusations from drivers about people disregarding rules tell only one thing – these drivers fail to follow the ever changing situation around. They like roads with no limitations and no obstacles, because there they are free from paying attention to the road. But this kind of environment is against of the very nature of the city! If the city is well-planned, there will always be people around. The driver who complains about cyclists “jumping out of nowhere” is not able to react swiftly to any other sudden event: a cyclist falling on the slippery tram tracks, a pedestrian falling from the icy and narrow sidewalk to the road, a kid jumping in front of the car just because he is too small to realize how dangerous is it.

Even if someone cycles fully according to the traffic rules, there will be somebody else who doesn’t know the rules himself, but has a strong prejudice about cyclists. Instead to stay silent, he will blame you that you ride on pedestrian crossing (which is allowed if there is a bicycle road at least on one side), that you don’t use hand gestures (because you have no obligation to do so and because hand gestures might be misleading on some intersections). Somebody will always tell you that you are not using helmet (which is not obligatory in Finland), that you ride in a bus lane (which is the right place to cycle), you ride two abreast (not forbidden by any law) or that you aren’t following the sign “diversion due to road works” (it’s recommendation, not the order).

A lot of aggression coming from drivers is based on wrong assumptions. No one is able to say for sure, looking from the car’s window, what thing on the road or bicycle path led to the certain cyclist’s decision. Instead of blaming others, drivers should agree that their own mistakes have much harder consequences. I am tired, for instance, of the lame excuses that some cars have reduced visibility through windows and mirrors. Or that some intersections are built so that it’s hard to notice approaching cyclists. I know. When I first time rented a van for moving, I was surprised how little you see around (I was driving only passenger cars before that). The solution was simple an working – drive slower and twice more carefully. This works brilliantly in any other case when you feel that you can’t really cope with driving in certain circumstances.

The solution, provided above, works well also for cycling. It’s pity to slow up in every unclear situation, but this had saved lots of lives so far. One thing is important to mention here however. Drivers blame cyclists too much about not adjusting their speed to conditions, ignoring completely that this doesn’t apply to the situation when everything is clear – e.g. a car is moving from the side road, having a stop sign. Quite often car driver ignores the sign, poses a danger to cyclist and then blames that he was riding too fast for driver to notice.

Unfortunately, motor traffic made so deep roots in our society in 20th century that everything related with it is regarded as normal. When something goes wrong, driving a car is a perfect excuse because you were doing something “important” and “unavoidable”. A lot of discontent towards car drivers comes from the fact that crimes committed with car are regarded as lighter than others having the same consequences. Police usually doesn’t even want to investigate cases of cutting. If some case is accepted and makes its way to the court, it’s most often regarded as traffic endangering, which is quite tiny offense. The situation with unlawful actions, causing harder consequences, is even worse. Some of the cases when cyclist was killed are left without charges and others are regarded as manslaughter instead of murder.

Second-class citizens

One of the things, which makes conflicts between car drivers and cyclists more frequent than it would be possible otherwise, is the poor bicycle infrastructure in some places. I wouldn’t like to cover all types of dangerous intersections and uncomfortable bike roads in this blog post. I’d like to mention instead that poor design is mostly related to the fact that cycling is regarded as inferior to the “real” road traffic. There is no wonder that cyclists hate everyone who supports stupid road and intersections designs (e.g. when you have to press the button to cross the street) and hate no less everyone who supports old-school politicians, adopting their car-centric projects. Of course no one should blame a random car driver for the deeds of other drivers. But quite often he speaks himself with a loud and assured voice that “cyclists out of the city center!”, “there are too many pedestrian crossings”, “we don’t need bicycle lanes on that street because we’ll lose 10 parking places”.

What to do, if you don’t want to be the object of this fair disapproval? Don’t vote populists. Traffic problems can’t be solved by adding lanes and two-level intersections. The more people are cycling, walking or using public transport, the more space you’ll have on the road. And when you are in your office’s kitchen, taking part in hundredth traffic-related discussion, try this time to listen your opponent until the end of his speech.

Another thing, which is the source of the bad attitude towards car drivers, is caused fully by themselves and distinguishes Finland from other West-European countries. This thing is parking on pavements, on bicycle roads, on lawn etc. Unlawful parking can be found in any country, of course. But in Finland and especially in Helsinki it’s so huge phenomenon that you’ll encounter cars on the bicycle road every day and even on a short trip. Taking in consideration that bicycle roads are mostly narrow here and have plenty of blind sports, no one wants to encounter additional obstacles.

One of the most popular excuses for illegal parking is that “I don’t want to disturb the traffic”. Which means the “proper” traffic, who cares about some cyclists and pedestrians? It’s quite natural therefore that continuous inconvenience turns public against car drivers. The best way to avoid this is of course to stay off the areas not designated for parking.

A few words about road rage

The conflict is however deeper than it looks like. It’s not only about bikes vs cars, it’s about new city and old city, between agile people and conservatives. Cyclists suffer more just because they are more visible than someone who votes the Green Party and asks city council to install speed bumps on the dangerous road. It’s easy to honk, to shout, to drive carelessly, to injure and even to kill cyclists. Is it a miracle then that cyclists are angry at someone who constantly terrorizes them, most often for no reason?

Most drivers are in rage when somebody writes in Internet “those fucking motorists”. But even more rude statements are coming from the other side. Both kind of writings are too emotional, but nobody should feel obliged to take the responsibility for the whole group. Neither should you. Think instead how you lately caused such feelings in someone else and how to avoid it next time. Even drivers, who are mostly following the rules, might park in the bicycle lane, for example.

For cyclists my advice would be to use the bike with as many gears as possible, to choose the right bike frame size, to adjust saddle and to train balancing. This greatly reduces the feeling that you need to run on red or don’t let pedestrians to go first. The improvement happens because it becomes easy to stop and to start again. And it reduces the need to step on the ground while moving too slowly.

Sometimes interaction between people in the traffic fails so deeply that a cyclist shows the middle finger. Looks rude, but I think that drivers wouldn’t act so violently in turn if they would understand how it feels when a car overpasses you very close, when drivers fail to make the way for cyclist when they are obliged to and so on. When someone was just scared to death by your mistake or negligence, is the middle finger or a slap on the car something abnormal? I don’t think so. And it’s not that cyclists are rude and aggressive, like poor and oppressed drivers prefer to state. It’s just a shock and a little bit of self-defence. There is no other way how a cyclist can reach you. And in most situations the whole thing was caused solely by your behaviour.

I think that the cure for the road rage is to agree with the fact that cities are changing and times are changing. Some changes you’ll like, other not, but it’s a false relief to harass someone who is easy to reach. It’s crucial to stop regarding cyclist in front of you as an obstacle. The speed limit on the road is the upper limit, not the lower one. And it’s time to understand that even if you don’t know why a cyclist is doing certain things (e.g. riding in the middle of the road) or you don’t agree with them, this shouldn’t be an excuse for dangerous manoeuvres. Quite often a cyclist rides in the middle of the road with only one simple intention – to stay safe. But at the same time he is saving you from jail, impeding your intention to overtake too close.

* * *

If it still feels that I didn’t expand the topic enough, there there will be a movie called Bikes vs Cars during Espoo Ciné festival. Welcome!

P.S. While I was writing this article, a cyclist died in Helsinki in the following circumstances:

A car driver cut the cyclist so badly that the latter managed to avoid the collision only by emergency braking. The cyclist showed the middle finger, but the driver chose to injure the unprotected road user instead of thinking what was wrong in his manoeuvre. He didn’t start moving from the next traffic lights when they turned green to block the cyclist’s way. When cyclist overtook the car from the right side (which is allowed by the law), the car driver sped up and cut the cyclist so that they collide. The man on bicycle fell to asphalt and was left there laying in the blood, while the offender moved away with noticeable speed.

850 persons (including myself) took part today in the march in memory of the deceased cyclist. The event’s name was “Against road rage”, but it happened again. A bus driver tried to squeeze into the lane where hundreds of cyclists (including children) were riding in silence. When some brave men stopped him, the bus driver came out, started to shout and threw one bicycle under another bus. The most absurd part here is that the bus driver, fighting for the smooth traffic flow, blocked more traffic than cyclists – around 20 buses and 4 trams stuck while police was investigating the situation.

I hope that everyone who takes the car’s keys in hand will realize that he is going to use a powerful machine, which requires much attention and it’s not suitable for stressed and angry people. If you feel like traffic is too much stress for you, take a tram, ride a bike, just walk. The city is yours. Welcome!

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