Of Car Doors and Bike Bells

When I get on my bike I become much more assertive than usual. I don’t worry about being too pushy because I’m confident in my skills and understand the danger of someone screwing up. At the same time, the super polite manner that my mom instilled in me is hard to kick. The result is me speaking up often, but in a feigned sweet tone. Two circumstances always make me speak up: when a driver opens a car door in my path and when a cyclist passes me in traffic without any warning. These things happen all the time riding in Chicago.

Bike Lane on Wells

Bike Lane on Wells

Yesterday was particularly bad for people opening car doors in my path. Five times I had to say, “Look first, please! Thanks!…(under my breath) moron.” One time a nasty woman crowed back, “I did look!” I wouldn’t brag about that, lady, since you decided to open the door anyway. Another time I did not have the patience to muster a polite correction and instead growled, “Watch. It.” while giving the evil eye to a guy who open his door right next to me. If I did not stay on the far side of the bike lane at all times, a door would hit me sooner rather than later.

Ring, ring - get a bell

Ring, ring - get a bell

On top of this, a few cyclists passed me in traffic without ringing a bell or giving any vocal acknowledgment. Combined with drivers opening car doors and massive potholes, that makes for a potentially dangerous situation. I stay aware of my surroundings with my rear view mirror, but some teamwork is required among cyclists on the road to keep everyone safe. I always say, “Ring, ring, get a bell,” or “Say something, please!” in a sweet voice. I’m sure this is annoying for them, but not as annoying as me accidentally knocking them into traffic.

Overall, I think my little comments help. People need reminders that they don’t live in plastic bubbles, population: 1.  Most drivers probably forget about how dangerous their doors are to cyclists and a polite reminder will help them remember in the future. And maybe some cyclists simply don’t think about how dangerous it is to pass another cyclist in the bike lane without a peep. At least, that’s my best case scenario hope – otherwise, I’m simply an annoying beeotch.

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42 thoughts on “Of Car Doors and Bike Bells

  1. Xtra says:

    Bike lanes in the strike zone stink.

  2. dukiebiddle says:

    There are a minority of bike lanes in my town that mark with odd sideways “T’s” on the right side of the bike lane next to the parked cars to remind cyclists that the marking means door zone. I love those. Otherwise, I just try to imagine that the 4 foot width of pavement to the left of parked cars is a piranha infested moat or paved with upturned razorblades. Within that area, my tires never pass… or when they do, I slow to 3 mph. So far, it’s worked, and haven’t had to say word to a door opener in ages… although I’ve gotten in a few epic screaming matches with drivers infuriated that I don’t hug the parked cars; but whatever, safer is safer, whatever ignorant drivers may think.

    I have to admit though, I’m bell-less and usually try to pull out and give other cyclists 6 feet of berth if I need to pass them over saying anything to them (if I NEEEED to pass closer, I’ll call out). I don’t know if that’s wrong, but the way some cyclists freak out when you say “to your left” I’m a little scared I’m going to cause an accident.

    • dottie says:

      The “T” on the bike lane in the door zone is an interesting idea. I’ve never seen that before.

      I think a lot of the passing call is in tone of voice. Certainly no one should wait until they’re right on me or use a sharp/mean/arrogant tone, but I’ve never been startled by a bell dinging or a friendly warning. Usually the same people who don’t say anything when they pass me are the same ones who pass within a foot.

  3. grambev says:

    Drivers ought to get in and out of their vehicles by moving into the passenger seat and getting in or out at the curb whenever that is possible. When they cannot they should at least take a really good look around to see if anything is coming their way.

  4. Sungsu says:

    I never go within the door zone unless I am going very slowly, or if I can clearly see that there is no one in the driver seat (not foolproof of course, but a lot less risky).

    IMHO, it’s okay to pass without warning if you’re at least a 3 feet away. When I get passed by a cyclist too closely without warning, I call “passing on the left/right” to the offender.

    • Trisha says:

      I do the same thing — check out the car to see if anyone’s inside. And familiarity with the route helps. I know at 7:30 the cars that are parked are there for the duration, but on my way home in the evening, people are often just getting parked and ready for happy hours, so I stay further away from the zone.

  5. Jessie says:

    Car doors in the bike lane will continue to be a danger as long as they keep designating that space for both. It’s very hard, I think, for people in cars to remember to look out for bikers before opening that door–not because they’re assholes, but simply because the car itself does foster that “plastic bubble” mentality. I’m a biker and a driver, and even I have trouble remembering to look before opening my car door.

    I’ve seen pictures of bike lanes, maybe in Denmark?, that are placed between the car and the sidewalk rather than between the road and the car. That seems like the best solution. In the meantime, I’ll stay as far away from the parked cars as possible.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      A few countries in Europe have those, I believe. Although I’ve read complaints from safety experts that those lanes cause a large number of Right Hooks, as drivers can’t see the cyclists on the other side of the parked cars.

    • Paris has those bike lanes in some areas. I didn’t like them a lot, as pedestrians frequently crossed them or walked in them. Essentially it’s like riding on the sidewalk.

      The better bike lanes there are actually shared bus/taxi lanes with a curb between the lane and the regular lanes of traffic. Nice and wide, very few buses, and the taxis are generally courteous if you keep an eye out and let them pass when appropriate.

  6. Mamavee says:

    that door issue freaks me out. mainly b/c I am so wide and slow I don’t feel like I can be too much in the lane. I’d take the lane everywhere… But I am going slowly and I am huge so I think ppl who look before opening will see me. I have passed a few ppl sitting waiting for me to pass.

    I know as a driver I’m almost always preoccupied by children that I can’t say I see well when I look. But I do always look mainly b/c I’m afraid of cars, not bikes. I like as much open space as possible since I get out and then stand at the passenger door getting my l.o. out…

    Doing the Tri got me all ready for “on your left!” passing. It doesn’t freak me out as it used to. I even had to call it although I would say ” On your left… slowly” b/c I was a slow passer.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      Heh. “…b/c I am so wide and slow…and I am huge ” I wish you had stated your bike was wide and slow and your bike is huge. Before I recognized your name and that you’re that lady with the Sorte, I felt both horrible for and proud of you for getting your wide, slow and huge butt out there on a bike. “You go, wide-load! You can do it! … oh, wait, she’s talking about her cargo bike.”

  7. Todd says:

    I have yet to get doored (knock wood). I have seen the result of getting doored and have had my fair share of close calls. Folks here in DenCo seem pretty aware of this kind of thing. As for passing another cyclist….I am guilty of not saying a thing to other cyclist when I pass them. Saying “On yer left” seems to get most novices to steer to their left going into me. Bells don’t seem to be loud enough, whistles tend to be a bit rude. So, I just rely on my own skill to get around other cyclist. I tend to TRY to avoid the bike paths during high traffic hours. Sorry Dottie, experience has taught me differently when it comes to passing other cyclist.

    • Pete says:

      Perhaps a louder bell or more ringing could be a way to alert. Not communicating your presence and intentions is dismissive of the novice riders. How else will they ride with your needs in mind?

  8. Pete says:

    Dottie, I love how you always fight for what is right. Sweet assertiveness against rude indifference , a drop of awareness into a sea of oblivion. What else can one do?
    Our culture so easily endorses individual entitlement that many people are alarmingly unskilled a sharing. “Share the Road” is not a commandment or an ideal. It is a reality; we all share the road. Lessons in courtesy (anachronistic yet essential) are somehow required.
    Thank you for adding drops into the ocean.

  9. Jessie says:

    P.S. Just to add–Dottie, I didn’t mean to imply that your comments to drivers aren’t useful. As Pete said, every little bit helps!

  10. dukiebiddle says:

    Unfortunately, the whole bell or no bell debate is all very inter bike tribe and collaboratively hostile. Those cyclists that are doing all the passing are on road bikes or fixed gear, and there is no way in heck they’re ever going to get a bell… unless they’re all retro Rivendell, which is just another bike tribe. Those cyclists who are prone to get a bell are usually riding heavier, slower and more upright machines, thereby never really needing a bell anyway, and are perceived by roadies as aggravating obstacles, much like how they seem to view pedestrians. My view of the whole thing is that no one in a bike lane should be going over 12 mph, no roadie should be going less than 12 mph, so roadies should stay in the car lanes. Unfortunately, most bicycle laws state that if there is a bike lane, you need to use it. Good thing that’s almost never is enforced.

    • Pete says:

      Tribes …… is this necessary? I know that we tend to find ourselves in tribes and assert from there, but really ….

      As we exist …. aren’t we all in it together?

      By which I mean aren’t those fixie/roadie fast passers interested in keeping biking safe and enjoyable for themselves? Doesn’t that rely on making their path clear of obstructions and dangers. Doesn’t it make life easier if they help the slower riders by sharing their intentions and needs?

      Get a bell, communicate effectively … what ever … it will not help to ignore others.

      Recognizing that others are using the path/road or what ever for their own purpose is IMPORTANT. Ignoring that leads to strife, discord and frustration. Embracing it leads to empowerment, understanding and community. Isn’t that the most power we can muster? Cars are scary and we are vulnerable, isn’t it clear that there is a strong reason for a united assertion?

      We have too many reasons to unite to be divided.

      • dukiebiddle says:

        Well, I’m certainly not condoning this mentality. I’m just recognizing that it exists. We can talk about unity until we’re blue in the face, it isn’t going to make us anymore unified.

  11. Martin says:

    I find the bell question vexing – when I ring the bell other riders and pedestrians often take fright, and if I don’t then they are surprised by my appearance in their peripheral vision. It seems to help some if I ring the bell well back.

    • Pete says:

      A-men to the well back ring, I find that a couple of quick rings sets people up for an easy expectation of where and how fast you are coming with-out being shocking.

    • Trisha says:

      Yeah, in Nashville the bell isn’t as useful as it is in Chicago because no one knows what it means! Few bikes have bells, and so pedestrians have no idea what they should do when they hear one. (Freezing in place seems to be the most common response, which is not exactly helpful.) At the moment other cyclists are so few that I just use a verbal warning on the rare occasion that I have to pass one. I do appreciate receiving warning when I’m being passed. When I get a new bell I might try the double ring or the ring from well back as Martin suggests.

  12. dottie says:

    I should note again that with passing cyclists, I’m talking about on the road with traffic, not on a bike path. There is no reason I can think of not to signal passing in traffic. It’s just too dangerous not to. If you have probs with bells or think people get confused when you say, “Left,” then try “coming up behind,” “good morning,” anything. Most cyclists mixing it up with traffic understand what’s going on or should soon learn.

  13. In Boston it seems to be the norm for cyclists to pass within inches of other cyclists in traffic without saying a word — not only on the left, but on the right, between me and the door zone/curb. On the trails, people do tend to use their bells and shout “on your left”, but not on the roads. Of the cyclists I encounter on my daily rides, over 50% are on fixed gear bicycles, and the rest is mostly split between roadies and seasoned commuters. Very few cyclists ride in a relaxed and courteous manner.

    I try my best to stay out of the door zone and occasionally pay for this by getting yelled at by drivers. Interestingly, these drivers are usually women, often with children in the car. I am seriously considering carrying copies of the Massachusetts bicycle law and handing them out to drivers who do this.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      “I am seriously considering carrying copies of the Massachusetts bicycle law and handing them out to drivers who do this.”

      Heh. After the 20 minute long screaming match I had with some jerk who took it upon himself to pull over and explain to me I had no right to be on a 30 mph city road this past Saturday morning (I had to have repeated “LEARN THE LAW!,” forty times), I swore I was going to do the same thing. I think I’ve been grumbling this in my dreams for the better part of a week now.

  14. Elaine says:

    I try to do my part by saying “Thank you” when someone rings their bell or says “On your left” before they pass. A pedestrian did that to me once a long time ago, and it made me feel good about giving that little warning. I figure I can pass along the good feeling to others, give some positive reinforcement!

  15. Scott says:

    I don’t mind when people pass me without saying anything. I do mind it when I am waiting at a red light and some jerkface blows past me, 2in away at top speed to blow the light. One day someone is going to hit me this way and I am going to punch him.

  16. Tom says:

    I just wish people would stop ringing their bells and yelling at me. I ride straight on the right. I don’t swerve and don’t turn unless there is a street to turn onto and I signal first. It is alright to pass me but don’t expect me to give you ave’s because you want to sweat on the way to work. I will notice you once you have safely passed me. If you want to pass in an unsafe manner, I will gladly take both of us down because my massive bike is probably heavier and more stable than your fixie.

    I may just be me but I find all the gratuitous bell ringing and shouting offensive and startling. So stop it. I don’t want to have an accident.

    • dottie says:

      I agree that some cyclists can be offensive and startling – like when they wait until they’re right on me or bellow, “ON YOUR LEFT” as if I am a noob and/or in their way. But we disagree about whether normal bell-ringing and calling out is gratuitous. To me it is a courtesy and a safety precaution. With 100 things going on at once on city streets, I simply want to know if a cyclist is next to me and I want to let others know that I will be next to them.

      For example, today in a traffic clusterf**k I wanted to pass a slower cyclist (I’m not so fast myself). I rang my bell, said on your left, and then when I passed looked over, smiled at him, and said “what an obstacle course.” I got a smile and laugh back. That’s not so bad.

  17. Todd says:

    I am a seasoned cyclist, an old soul rider. I am not saying that my riding tactics would work for anyone, It just works for me. I am relating my own experiences with calling out to other riders and the use of a bell. Getting all high and mighty, saying that I should change what works for me is in a sense arrogant, It is also dangerous, consider that riding in every city is different. I do not zip down trails on a fixie, because fixies belong in a velodrome, nor would I ride my road bike over 10-15 mph on a path, road bikes are for the road. Just as mountain bikes are meant for the off road dirt trail.

    What works in Chicago might not work in Boston. And what works in Denver might not work in Atlanta. Different riding tactics for different cities.

    I have had many more close calls with novices and pedestrians leaping in front of me when I have called out to them in all manners, ringing bells, shooting off warning flares, whatever, than with motorists being ignorant of my presence. I will say once again, I avoid bike paths as much as possible in the summer months because of this danger. I know it sounds nuts, I feel better on surface streets.

    If you are gonna get all worked up over something, then get worked up over a helmet. Wearing one is your best defense when all the kind manners and sweet sounding bells fail you. Having a good head on my shoulders, and wearing gloves and a helmet have saved me more than once.

    If I get a chance and get caught at a light or catch someone at a light, I’m nice and will chat you up. I am not rude when it comes to my fellow cyclist. I just know what works for me. Thanks.

  18. Jeff Schneider says:

    I have the same strategy whether I am biking, walking or driving. I try to be predictable (go in a straight line, signal, follow rules of the road); I try to leave everyone an ‘out’, i.e., I don’t box anybody in or force them to slow, stop or maneuver to avoid me; and I am not shy about being sure that drivers see me – I often yell, “Look up!” to be sure I’ve made eye contact with drivers entering the road from driveways, etc. I do use a bell or calmly state, “On your left” if I am passing close to another cyclist. But I try not to startle or be rude.

  19. Ellen says:

    I was wheeling past a cyclist yesterday on my way to an evening sailboat race [which we won!] on a somewhat narrow bike path and I called out “passing on your left” and as I overtook his lovely Brompton, he said “thanks for the heads up”.

  20. Dean Peddle says:

    Very interesting. I’ve been commuting for 15 years but never realized that passing other cyclist with no bell or verbal communication was an issue. I will keep this in mind from now on. But when I come up on a rider who is usually a hardcore roadie that doesn’t want to talk I do make a point of saying Hi to them just to piss them off when I come up beside them :) And I do this on my fixie…on the road instead of the velodrome so I’m really a bad boy :)

  21. Scott says:

    “If you are gonna get all worked up over something, then get worked up over a helmet. Wearing one is your best defense”

    This is wrong. Observing the rules of the road and riding with lights at night are both more important than a helmet.

  22. Traff says:

    I usually ride slow, so I expect to be passed. And if you can pass me safely, while maintaining what little peace and quiet is left on our city streets, then I would like you to do so. Obviously this applies mainly to buses and cars (who somehow think that scaring the willies out of a cyclist with an unexpected horn blast is a good way to ensure that the cyclist does nothing unexpected. Thanks Einstein.), but it also applies to cyclists. Just pass me as you would like to be passed, ie like you would like a car to pass you. And if, for some reason, you can’t give me three feet of space, slowly come up on my shoulder, wait until I see you, and then say “Excuse me. I’m awfully sorry for being a bother, but do you think it would be possible for me to pass you?”. Much better than “On yer left!!” :)

    And then when you pass me and I catch up to you at the next red light (you DO stop, don’t you???), we can have a nice chat about the weather. All very civilized.

    • dottie says:

      That method sounds perfectly fine. I wish there were more cyclists like you out there :) Unfortunately, many cyclists do not give me anywhere near three feet when passing. There’s so much traffic on the streets here that they usually whiz by in the narrow space between me and a car.

      Maybe that’s the best way to phrase my complaint: If you are on a bike and going to pass me closely in heavy traffic on Chicago streets, at least make a noise so I’m not startled when you’re suddenly next to my handlebars. I had no idea this was such a point of contention. It’s great to hear all these different points of view!

  23. Monkeyfist says:

    I do not yell, “On your left!” (don’t have a bell, my vocal chords work fine) unless I’m passing within about 3 feet of another cyclist. If a cyclist intends to alter their line, even within a bike lane and particularly if it’s going to be by 3 feet or more, they have a responsibility to look behind themselves first. It’s just like driving a car, you look over your shoulder and check your mirrors before altering your course.

    • Amy says:

      Agreed; bells and shouting startle as much as ‘communicate.’ I won’t tell you to quit ringing the bell, but I’m not about to announce myself every time I pass someone. I’ll just pass safely with plenty of room instead (like moving into the traffic lane). I use bike lanes to get somewhere quickly, not take a pleasure ride. It’s great if someone else is out for a loll but I prefer 18 mph. :)

      I have bigger issues with people riding the wrong way in the bike lane anyway!

      • dottie says:

        There have been a lot more people traveling the wrong way in the bike lane lately, and I’m the one who ends up pulling over so that one of us is not forced into traffic.

        I find it very surprising that people are startled by bells when they are rung before passing. Good to know! I have never once been startled by a bell, nor has it seemed to me that my little “ding” has ever startled a cyclist on the road, although obviously I’m not a mind reader and can’t be 100% sure. Anyway, my major issue is that so many people pass way too closely in traffic with no warning, which is dangerous. If they gave me three feet, I would not care.

        • Amy says:

          I think the type of cyclist who has a bell and rack and reads blogs about cycling is not likely to startle. But most people I encounter (the kinds that ride the wrong way in bike lanes or pedestrians in general) are very unpredictable when I make noise to tell them to be aware. Therefore, I prefer not to announce IF I can pass >3 ft away.

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