Pole position

A couple of weeks ago, while I was waiting in the bike lane at a red light in Williamsburg, a fellow cyclist passed me and ran through the light just as it turned green. The driver of an SUV, who had been waiting at the same light, edged up to me. “I saw what that guy did to you,” he said. “Do you want me to hit him?” He didn’t seem to be joking. Terrified, I assured him that I didn’t want revenge.

The SUV driver probably was joking, of course, and as is often the case, I was slow on the uptake. But I suspect that beneath his joke, the rage he felt on my behalf may have been in earnest, because I’ve sometimes felt a similar rage when I’ve been passed while driving. Which set me wondering: Why don’t I feel the same rage when I’m passed on a bike?

A moralist might answer that bicyclists, as people, are more humane and ethical than car drivers, but I don’t think that’s true. In general, bicycling may be more ethical than driving, because the carbon dioxide in car exhaust raises the world’s average temperature, but bicyclists aren’t more ethical than drivers, in their essences—or so I believe, mostly because I myself happen to switch between the two kinds of vehicles. The rage must have something to do with the nature of cars.

A more plausible answer is that cars are bulky. If you’re driving, and another car passes you, there may not be an opportunity to pass it in return, even if it slows down, for several blocks. In a narrow street, if a car in front of you suddenly decides to double-park—to pick up a passenger or make a delivery—you’re stuck behind it for the interval of the errand. To be passed by another car aggravates your chances of delay; something has in fact been taken from you. I understand that in bicycle races, bicycles can obstruct one another, but this almost never happens when cycling merely for transportation. If a fellow bicyclist passes you and then slows down or stops, you simply pass him again, no hard feelings. On a bicycle, passing doesn’t usually involve the possibility of blocking.

A somewhat subtler explanation, however, may lie in the different forces that power the two kinds of vehicle. If a fellow bicyclist passes me, he’s going faster than I am, either because he wants to or can. If he wants to go faster, then it’s probably because I don’t feel safe going as fast. Since speeding bicycles don’t kill nearly as many people as speeding cars do, I’m not likely to resent his speed. I just prefer a lower level of risk for myself. In such a case, the most hostile sentiment I could summon up would be something like, “Hope you don’t wipe out, guy.”

More likely, though, he’s going faster because he’s able to go faster. In other words, he passes me because he’s in better shape than I am, because he has more energy at the moment, or because his bike is more efficient. And these are factors that, even if I’m not happy to have to acknowledge them, I have to respect, because they’re more or less the same limits to motion that I, as a human animal, have had to be at peace with since around the time I learned how to walk. I can’t simply will my bicycle to go as fast as any bicycle that passes me. Or rather, I can will it to, but I then have to work to make it happen—work that I’ll feel in the ache of my muscles and the flow of my sweat. If that sounds a little sexy, that’s because it is: I’m not likely to rise to the challenge unless the exertion it will require strikes me as pleasant. If I don’t have the energy or the appetite for it, I won’t mind letting the challenge go, because I’ll understand myself to be reserving my energies and appetites for something else. It’s all about my pleasure.

The case is very different behind the wheel of a car. As a matter of physics, cars are fueled by the controlled explosion of hydrocarbons, but as a matter of psychology, they are fueled by mere will. To make a car go, you don’t have to work up a sweat, tire out your muscles, or burn off calories. On a racetrack, one driver passes another to show off the superiority of his car, but off the racetrack, most cars are capable of driving faster than the legal speed limit, and are therefore practically identical, give or take negligible differences in acceleration time. In daily life, therefore, the decisive force behind the passing of one car by another is mere cussedness. As is well known, the supply of cussedness, in general and in any single individual, is limitless. Compounding the problem, cussedness does not dispel itself, when exercised, in happy-making endorphins. It breeds more cussedness, in oneself and in the person it is directed against. The reason that it is so infuriating to be passed and cut off by a fellow driver is that nothing finite is at stake. The action of passing costs a driver no energy and proves nothing about his strength. It expresses no more than a wish to get in front of you; all he did was dip his right toe a little faster and a little harder than you. It isn’t easy for the cut-off driver to find within himself the greatness of spirit needed to say, “Yes, behold, you are a little more cussed than I.” For one thing, such a statement isn’t likely to be true. One is almost always as full of cussedness as the next guy. In such circumstances, fresh supplies of cussedness well up from deep within one, unbidden. Or rather, bidden—by the next guy’s cussedness.

The cycle of resentment doesn’t even occur to a cyclist, unless it spills out of one the automobiles on the road beside him. So I was startled by the SUV driver’s rage, and he was nonplussed to discover I didn’t think myself aggrieved. The difference is part of what makes cycling so lovely, though I wonder if it’s harder for cyclists and motorists to communicate with each other from such distinct states of mind.

8 thoughts on “Pole position”

  1. There's another explanation, from Tom Vanderbilt's book Traffic: Cyclists can use body language, speech, and eye contact to communicate with each other, so all the social restraints still operate, the ones that usually keep you calm in the company of others. Limited to turn signals, horn blasts, maybe a few hand signals, drivers can't express much at all, so it's a lot harder to treat drivers in cars as we do human beings we can actually see.

  2. I drive a 17 mile two lane to work every day of the week. It is absolutely NOT cussedness that fuels my passing. It is a dislike for not being able to drive at the speed I prefer (60mph) and/or a dislike for not being able to just set the cruise control because the driver in front of me slows down on hills or for phone calls or for coffee or makeup application or whatever. if someone is going faster than my preferred speed, there's no need to pass. If they're gong my preferred speed or very close to it and are capable of utilizing the cruise control on their vehicle properly than there's no need to pass. I prefer to not have my driving experience controlled by others and so pass for freedom.

  3. I work very hard at not taking anything that happens while driving personally. Sometimes this is difficult but I view frustration or anger at other drivers as a personal failure of self control.

    I have this attitude because I love my kids and my girlfriend and they often drive with me. Also, I love my life too much to want to lose it in a stupid car accident.

    I like your writing. I hope you can take driving a little less personally.

  4. Driving a car involves athletic skills: hand eye coordination, quick decision making and observance of rules, automatic reflexes, guesswork; but driving a car does not exercise the body. Biking, like walking, exercises the body, and those happy endorphins in your para. 7 get released, resulting in more balanced, less-radical reactions. Walking, in particular, puts one in a more contemplative state than driving. It’s possible driving cars has the potential to make us more negatively aggressive because we become athletically trapped: exercising the brain’s athletic prowess, we are nevertheless powerless to move; the hormones released by exercising athletic skills have nowhere to go, and are often released through rage. There are exceptions of course: car racing requires both mental and physical skills, like biking, while we often see examples of athletes on raging rampages. But I think it’s probably generally true that the difference in attitude between driving a car and riding a bike is that biking, like walking, results in a combination of contemplative and physical and mental athletic skills, causing the brain to release a proper mixture of hormones and endorphins – proper in that rage is not usually a very useful emotion. Another thought, if Google is making us stupid, think of what googling while driving must be doing to us!

  5. I never understood why so many people conflate being passed while driving, something that is a fairly commonplace and uneventful occurrence that shouldn't elicit any feelings of rage or annoyance, with being cut-off, a phrase that should be reserved for occasions when the other driver puts you in jeopardy by entering your lane with out enough speed or distance to avoid you taking evasive measures. What with this insane idea that no one should ever get ahead of you or else it's a direct challenge to your manhood?

  6. "And which driver is not tempted, merely by the power of his engine, to wipe out the vermin of the street, pedestrians, children and cyclists?"
    -Adorno, Minima Moralia, 19

  7. I have quite the opposite reaction. If I'm stopped at a red light–behind the crosswalk, as a responsible biker ought to do (encouraged by bike advocate organizations and the NYC traffic laws)–and I see some other biker waltz into the crosswalk, dodge pedestrians and oncoming traffic in both directions, and skitter their way through the intersection ahead of me, leaving angry drivers in their wake, I feel intense anger and jealousy (a) because now everyone is pissed at this selfish, generalized biker, and (b) because that's EXACTLY what I would want to do were I not trying to politely share the road.

    As more and more people commute on bike–a good thing that I support–I worry that there will be a period of bike-backlash (or "bikelash") in which people take the Adorno route and "wipe out the vermin" bikers who so crassly besmirch the good name of the biking community. Harrumph.

    (Of course, if someone passes you when you're huffing and puffing your way onto the bridge, well, that just means you're out of shape.)

  8. What's beautiful about cycling (or walking, or xc-skiing) as a commute method is that, by and large, you can go as fast as you wish. Of course you're limited by fitness, sweat-tolerance, and there are of course signals and signs to obey, for the most part, you're in total control of your speed. In a car, you are constantly having to ease off – whether to avoid getting a ticket, because of the person in front whom you cannot pass, etc… That's why cycling (or walking, or xc-skiing) are such low-stress ways of commuting. When I drive to work, I'm always having to 'hold back' for a variety of legal, safety, or obnoxious reasons, but when I ride/walk/ski to work, I'm in almost complete control of my pace, which is very nice.

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