On Being a Bicycling Ambassador by Julie Soller

A classic! A bicyclist waits for the pedestrians to cross before riding onward. Photo by Sam Laser
Last week I was riding down Haight Street, which always seems clogged with cars. But that day it was more congested than usual. Up ahead I saw why - a Muni bus had stalled, straddling the double yellow line. The frustrated driver stood in the road, arms outstretched, trying to reattach the wires. A fellow cyclist raced ahead of me, and with a fine bit of acrobatics, sped between him and the bus, just a hair's breadth from the driver's nose! The driver was visibly startled by the fly-by. I made sure to pass him on the outside, calling: "Don't worry, I'll go around you!" He shouted in reply, "That would be good!" Will this Muni driver be less likely to cut off a cyclist because he has had a good or bad experience with one? We'll never know, but it gave me something to think about.

As bike advocates begin to make more comprehensive demands to ensure equal access to the roadways, public support from non-bikers becomes more important. As individual cyclists we may just be trying to get from place to place in one piece. But as individuals who support more bike lanes, traffic calming, equal rights and safer streets, we become bike advocates. It's a radical idea to think of yourself as more than just a person trying to get around but as a bike advocate and even a bike ambassador.

We all come across moments astride our bikes that are opportunities for grassroots alliance-building. With the pedestrian. With the commuters filling the sidewalks. With merchants. Yes, even with (gasp) the SUV-driving yuppie Mom dropping her kid off at school.

Bicyclists share the pedestrian/bike path in the Panhandle. Photo by Sam Laser
Riding like a bicycling ambassador does not mean adhering to a rigid set of "Miss Manners"-esque rules, but copping an ambassadorial attitude. There are as many ways to embody this attitude as there are styles of riding. It could be ringing your bell persistently to alert pedestrians to your presence. One cyclist I know has jingle bells attached to her bike; everyone hears her coming. It could be stopping as a distracted Financial District worker steps off the curb at Bush and Sansome (without looking both ways), rather than speeding up to pass in front of him, inches from his face. It could be a friendly "thank you" wave to a vehicle as you blow a stop sign. Or it could mean stopping for the stop sign.

Another fickle friend of cyclists is the merchant, some of whom fear adding bike lanes at the expense of parking or lanes of traffic will drive their customers away. Bike ambassadors can assuage their fears by shopping with helmets in hand, thanking them for bike racks near their shops, and mentioning that they stop in much more often because of the bike-friendly neighborhood.

Being a bicycling ambassador does not mean compromising your own safety. I'd rather be aggressive and visible, than polite and dead. I cringe when I see other cyclists riding too close to parked cars in the "door zone." Not only is it unsafe for them, it perpetuates the impression among motorists that cyclists should not be in their "way" at the expense of the cyclists' own safety.

Whether you consider yourself a bike advocate or a bike ambassador or not, keep in mind that we each have the option of taking a leadership role at key moments, every time we ride.