Biking Wisely, Assuming Nothing by Linda Atkins

"It rarely pays to blindly follow the cyclists ahead. He or she may be the most rational and prudent cyclist in town, or quite the reverse." Illustration by Keith Ferris.
"Assume nothing" keeps popping into my head as I ride through San Francisco. For instance, I was recently approaching a red light, traveling slowly between trucks stopped for the light and the right-hand curb. Because it did not seem safe to continue, I stopped and waited for the green light. Suddenly, the cyclist behind me said, "Don't stop!"

"You're on your own," I blurted out, which I immediately regretted, as I knew it probably sounded like, "Every woman for herself! If you get squished, too bad!"

What I actually meant was, "Please don't predicate your safety on my doing a certain thing, because I might not do it, and I don't want to see you hurt. Please cycle as if people are going to do the opposite of what you hope they'll do." In that case, she might have chosen not to get between the trucks and the curb if she could see there was something in front of her (me) that might become an impediment.

I have learned to assume nothing. If a street is one-way, I still look both ways before I turn into it. I don't assume a car traveling in one lane will stay in that lane. I definitely do not assume a car will stop for a red light. I don't assume the cyclist ahead of me is going to travel in a straight line or keep moving or do any particular thing at all.

I've also learned, after an experience or two of finding myself in an unsafe place, that it rarely pays to blindly follow the cyclist ahead of me. He or she may be the most rational and prudent cyclist in town, or quite the reverse.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a group of cyclists take to the transit-only lane and end up having to try to outrun a trolley; soon one of them was being picked out of the street by her friends, with a Muni bus stopped just feet behind her. I don't know what made the first cyclist take that route, but in any event, it wasn't that person who ended up lying in the street, but one of the ones behind, who probably thought, "Well, they're all doing it, so it must be safe." That may not necessarily be so.

It's wonderful to see so many more cyclists on the streets these days. To those who have recently started biking around town, it's great to have you with us enjoying the air and sights firsthand. Score points with your fellow cyclists by not passing them on the right, and by giving a word of warning before whizzing by even on the left ("On your left" works fine). Most experienced cyclists know to ride outside the car-door zone, which does leave an invitingly wide space between the cyclist and parked cars. Please do resist the temptation to ride your bike through that space; the cyclist in front of you probably doesn't expect you to be there, and it also places you squarely in the door zone.

Cycle safely and enjoy this great way of getting around San Francisco.