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A Rule-Followers Manifesto

January 5, 2011

When my in-laws were visiting a few weeks ago, my father-in-law laughed at me as I waited for the “Walk” signal before crossing the street. Even though he’s an inveterate rule-follower, this wasn’t surprising. He’s originally from New York City, where “waiting” often consists of barely slowing so as not to trample the elderly lady in front of you. Although I started to explain my position, I soon found myself talking to the air as I hustled to catch up. However, his gentle mocking did inspire a bit of thought. In general, I follow the “rules of the road” – whether legal or common courtesy – because it makes the world a better place.

First, it makes my interactions with people in other forms of transportation friendlier and safer. When I wait for the signal, it means that a bicyclist or driver should not have to slam on his brakes to avoid me. If I wait for the light to change when cycling, vehicles should have plenty of time to acknowledge my presence. Unfortunately, these scenarios don’t always happen. However, by walking or cycling “defensively,” I’m at least giving myself the best chance possible to be safe.

Secondly, it shows people using other forms of transportation that I am serious about rules and expect them to be as well. If I cross only at crosswalks, then they are obliged to give me the right of way when I’m standing at one. When I assert my right to take the lane when bicycling instead of illegally using the sidewalk, cars need to give me that space instead of cutting me off. Again, this may not always happen, but asking others to obey the rules when I do not would be hypocritical.

Thirdly, it shows that walking and biking should be given more respect and appropriate resources as transportation choices. Sadly, driving continues to be a default for both personal and policy decisions. But treating people with common courtesy while you are cycling can help change that perspective. Because people vividly remember negative experiences, we can only overwhelm the few interactions with jerks with a surplus of constructive ones. Even when the rules aren’t fair, breaking them indiscriminately isn’t going to lead to change. Instead, it just feeds the fire of people who like to talk about the “war on cars” and how much cyclists hate them. (Note – I’m not talking about organized events like Critical Mass. Those have a specific message.) Following the laws that currently exist can actually lead to more support for better laws.

Lastly, it sets a good example for other bicyclists and pedestrians. I am an advocate for walking and cycling, and want more people to do so. If I am breaking the law or not using common sense, what kind of example am I setting for children or beginning adult bicyclists?

Obviously, I’m not the only one to think about these issues; the Washington Area Bicycle Association recently released a Resolution to Ride Responsibly. They stated that they want to make 2011 “The Year of the Bicycle,” but that to do so, everyone must uphold a commitment to bettering the community. Although some people have criticized the Resolution for its tone, I believe it’s important to have people reflect on their own behavior. In fact, I encourage anyone who enjoys bicycling and believes in it to sign the resolution.

If we truly want our cities and towns to be bicycle-friendly, we have to obey the law and treat others the way we wish to be treated. We may not always be on the receiving end of the Golden Rule, but if we’re serious about transportation sustainability, we have a responsibility to carry it out ourselves.

After-post (post-post?) note: Grist’s bicycle blogger has a very thoughtful post in response to “what does it mean to ride a bicycle responsibly?” conversation over at Greater Greater Washington. In contrast, the Bike Snob has a very funny post about what you deserve when you’re just being an asshole about the rules.

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