Driving gives only responsibilities
—no rights.

yellow curb

Victoria, B.C. is a lovely town to bike in; it is fairly flat, gets quite a bit less rain than nearby Vancouver, and is a fairly compact little city. You can access most services you need on most days, even if you are not an Olympic cyclist—no thanks to the City engineers or the automobile drivers.

The infrastructure is abysmal—what few bike lanes there are have a habit of just ending; ejecting you onto the busiest streets, or forcing you to cross lanes of cars that want to turn. And there are none of those little signal buttons placed within reach of cyclists, as Vancouver has done such a good job with.I have become surprisingly spoiled by the buttons

It is really the drivers, though, that make me yearn for Vancouver. Let me repeat that. Rush Rush Vancouver with its Busy Busy Traffic has a culture of drivers that feels safer for me as a cyclist.

Starting with the worst, today a ‘Stale, Pale, Male’An old, white guy. swore at me from the intersection and then again as he passed me. He was doing that thing of oozing through his stop sign in a way that makes me feel unsure if he has seen me, or if he is going to stop. Since he has 2000 pounds of steel, and I have 20, I feel quite outgunned in these situations.

So I held up my hand, and said in a loud, but moderate tone of voice, “Stop.” He started spewing curses and yelling he was just trying to see.Fair enough. Stop. Make eye contact. Wait for the cyclist to pass. Slowly roll forward. Do not ooze in a threatening manner. As he passed me, he rolled down his passenger windowWhat did he do before automatic windows? to favour me with more curses.

Now, since I was on a bike, and he was in a car, I was only ten seconds behind him at the next red light. So I pulled up beside him, waited through his bluster—part of which was “I am a cyclist too, so I know.” I responded that I was sure he could understand, then, that having a car rolling towards me is terrifying, which shut him up—and I beat him off the light.

A while later, riding on one of the major streets, two cars were parked in the bike lane while the drivers had a chat in the sunshine. I was forced out into high-speed traffic. Bike Lane. Bike. Lane. Bike Lane. I am trying to find a way of saying this that makes sense why cars are parked in it.

And then, I had what I call a smear—a very common maneuver in Victoria. They didn’t actually hit me—just passed me, then pulled in so close in front of me I practically had to bunny hop onto the sidewalk.This situation is greatly complicated by the fact I don’t know how to bunny hop. These smears are inevitably because they are trying to pass me in the half-block before the stop sign. You know what? We are both going to be there in ten seconds. Just show a little patience and grace and maybe I will get home to my family tonight. I can never figure out how, in sleepy little Victoria, the drivers can be in a bigger rush than in Vancouver.

So, I was fuming, and reflecting on the rights and responsibilities of drivers. Drivers can go sit in their own car in their own driveway to their heart’s content. But they have no rights on the road, only responsibilities. They must obey speed limits and parking regulations and stop signals. They have to stay between the lines and not talk on their mobile phone. There is a very confining set of regulations they must stay within, and that is because they are driving a crazy dangerous murder machine—the single most deadly device in North America.

Drivers, by virtue of piloting a great weight at high speed, have a duty of care for everyone else. You must take care of the health and well-being of every other person on the road, and especially the soft-shelled ones—the pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders and people in electric scooters. That is your responsibilty. That is the covenant of getting behind the wheel.

If you don’t like it, walk.




  1. I miss Victoria, but the drivers there were pretty bad. Now I live in Ottawa, where our main concern as pedestrians and cyclists is the number of drivers that run the RED lights.

  2. Victorian here. You’re exactly right on many accounts. The bike lanes here frequently arbitrarily start and stop, and in many cases are worse than useless. I know everyone likes to complain about the drivers in their city, but I’ve been to a few and the drivers here really are bad. I also get “smeared” frequently. Once I got into an argument with a woman for it after she felt the need to overtake me and cut me off less than ten friggin’ meters from the stop sign at the intersection on a narrow residential street.

    • It is kind of crazy-making, isn’t it? Victorians sort of pride themselves on having a laid-back island life – I don’t understand where the rush to the stop sign comes from.

  3. Call me radical, but I think anyone who applies for a driver’s license should have to log 1000km on a scooter first, before they’re allowed to drive a car. As Sylvia said, experiencing automobiles from ‘the other end’ would make people more respectful motorists. In my capacity as a cyclist, I have relatively few problems in traffic, which I mostly attribute to good communication. The hand signals are woefully insufficient, and largely misunderstood (it’s been a long time since car drivers had to stick their left hand out the window) so reading and projecting body language is key. Nothing says, “I’m going now” like standing on the pedals. And nothing says, “You go first” like taking your hands off the bars and folding your arms. A motorcycling instructor taught me that one.

    • Radical!

      I am so with you on the importance of walking in the shoes of the other person—plus getting regular refreshers.

      I like folding the arms…


  4. ps. facebook has a lot to answer for… i had to fight the urge to “like” various parts of your reply.

  5. The great thing about the roundabout is it demands you act like an adult. It demands more responsibility.

    So maybe saying drivers have no rights, only responsibility is wrong. They have no rights, only fealty. Responsibility is the level up.

    excellent, yes exactly. and it fits with your concept of compassionate systems, too 🙂

    side note about acting like an adult, which may have something to say about knowing the rules… i’ve been yelled at for treating what is apparently called a traffic calmer – a nicely planted, small round curbed structure smack in the middle of a 4-way intersection – like a roundabout. those small round things in the middle of intersections (such as you’d find in kitsilano) ARE NOT THE SAME AS ROUNDABOUTS – you must yield to your right. in roundabouts (a possibly larger round thing in the middle of an intersection), as any worldly, responsible adult knows, you yield first to whomever is already in the circle. anyway. i had been advancing on someone to my right, like you do, and incensed him no end, so i looked it up later. at traffic calmer circles in vancouver you yield to your right. at bona fide roundabouts (16th and wesbrook mall – although there are so many signs and lines it’s pretty hard to get it wrong) you yield to whomever is already in the circle – on your left. i had no idea that traffic calmer circles were different, possibly causing all sorts of havoc variously by bike, motorbike, and car, for years to that date. i blame australia for deceiving me into thinking that all round things in the middle of intersections are roundabouts (they use them very well down there).

    • Hm. I still don’t understand that, but it may explain why my friend hates the calmers—he says nobody knows how to use them. I always yield to whomever is barreling at me from my left, and if two of us arrive at the same time, the person to my right gets to go. I need to find a diagram.

  6. this reminds me of my experience riding my motorcycle (of yesteryear) for the first time – i was immediately struck by how the difference between driving a car and riding a motorcycle amounted to: “oh my god, i could kill someone!”, versus “oh my god, i could get killed!”. sounds totally obvious of course, but it only dawned on me in that visceral kind of way when i was in the more vulnerable position – ie, being pushed into oncoming traffic by a car moving into my lane. thank the lawd for quick reactions.

    which mades me think of something else. what would happen if drivers didn’t have so many “responsibilities”? would there be less “reactance”/ rebellion/ pushing the rules/ taking “rights” by “force” (or ooze)? i’m thinking of that town in a parallel universe that got rid of the stop signs and traffic signals and what hey! drivers slowed down! everybody lived! hmmm…

    • Here is the Town in a Parallel Universe—from Charles at the Strong Towns Blog.

      It is interesting to ask what if drivers had fewer “responsibilities”? (Quotation marks in full effect).

      I guess another way to look at it is we are infantalizing drivers. They don’t actually have that much responsibility now, because the system hates them (ahem. My post on Compassionate Systems). They don’t have the power to choose, to control their own lives, only to obey—or disobey and be punished.

      My father would say “People will rise to your expectations of them”; and we design cities for idiots and sociopaths. Wow. As I typed that I realized how horrifyingly true that is. I once had a well-meaning and seriously planet-loving bureaucrat tell me we couldn’t have recycling bins on the street because people will vandalize them.

      This reminds me of James Howard Kuntsler’s “Places not worth caring about.” In a crappy city, of course you will treat the city like crap. In an infantalizing system, of course you will act like a baby.

      The great thing about the roundabout is it demands you act like an adult. It demands more responsibility.

      So maybe saying drivers have no rights, only responsibility is wrong. They have no rights, only fealty. Responsibility is the level up.

      As far as the visceral knowing of vulnerability, I think everyone should have to wait tables for at least one week each year, and everyone should have to be a cyclist for at least one week each year.

      • I can see that public spaces have to be designed to accommodate the lowest common denominator. In the spirit of, “Let the smallest person reach, let the largest person fit” public spaces have to, “Let the stupidest person not ruin it for the rest of us.”
        But that doesn’t mean that designers can’t create spaces that smarter, more community-minded people can’t use creatively. In keeping with our example of cycling in traffic, there are the rules of the road, which are intended to maintain order, and then there are “the rules beyond the rules” — I don’t mean breaking the rules, but rather reaping the benefits of unintended corollaries of the rules. Riding my bicycle, I’ll sometimes occupy a lane to assert a safe space for myself, or hop off the bike and become a pedestrian to cross a road rather than make a cumbersome left turn. An experienced urban cyclist can use physics to his advantage; namely, bikes can out-accelerate cars over short distances, like the width of an intersection. I’ve used this one on occasion to escape the discomfort of making a left-hand turn at a busy intersection without a turning lane. If the light turns green and facing traffic isn’t as ready as I am, I’ll have made my left turn before anyone else starts to move. I can see a few people say, “Hey…” before they realize that the manoeuvre, while unusual, isn’t the slightest bit against the rules of the road. Mind you, a car running the yellow can completely ruin your day. But again, rules beyond the rules: if you’re wondering whether the car’s going to run the yellow, if the car in question is a red Porsche, there’s a 99.9% chance he will.
        So I see the rules of the road as a designed framework to hang all this other, more interesting stuff upon. As designers, we have to make sure that the frameworks we create for public use lend themselves to creative human interaction.
        One good example of bad design is the bus shelters in Vancouver. They’ve been designed with safety as a main concern, and so no one can be trapped, hidden, or sleeping comfortably inside them. But the cost is that these “shelters” let the rain in, the seats are soaked, there isn’t enough light to read a book (least of all a good book, since it’s going to get wet) and in many cases, you can’t see the bus coming and the bus driver can’t see you unless you step out of the shelter. Obviously, the shelter isn’t usable if it’s unsafe; but merely being safe doesn’t make it usable. The designers failed to find the optimum amongst the constraints.

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