Move Along: Upending the social order on our roads

Jonathan Krall

By Jonathan Krall
(File Photo) 

While not intentional, biking and walking upset the transit social order. According to conventional thinking, roads are for cars, slow drivers are “bad drivers,” and cyclists and pedestrians should stay out of the way.

The idea that roads should be safe and effective for all users — the concept known as complete streets — aims to upend this social order, moving cars from first to last.

The longstanding order of the road is governed not by laws, but by socially enforced rules. For example, one might voluntarily drive below the speed limit on the Beltway.

That would be perfectly legal but likely would garner honks, flashing headlights and rude gestures. As everyone knows, appropriate driving speeds begin at the speed limit and extend upward, not downward. The power of these rules is such that police rarely issue a ticket, photographic or otherwise, for driving up to 10 mph above the speed limit.

All this came to mind the other day, when I was bicycling in violation of the social order. I was riding in the center of a narrow lane when a driver started honking at me. Shortly thereafter, he pulled alongside me and helpfully explained that cyclists are not allowed in the street unless they can ride at the speed limit.

This struck me as quite the head-scratcher. After all, isn’t the speed limit an upper limit? Those of us with Internet access have certainly read that cyclists should not be allowed on the road unless they “obey the law.” Riding at a typical bicycle speed surely complies with the law. Nevertheless, I’ve been told — even by friends — that cyclists must ride at the speed limit.

As it turns out, the speed limit is the single point of intersection between socially acceptable driving speeds and socially acceptable bicycling speeds. Cyclists who do not ride this tightrope — and that would be all of them — are in violation of at least one of these social conventions.

Despite endless discussions about safety and the law, increasingly it is clear to me that many people get upset by social rather than legal violations of the rules. While the majority of drivers remain polite, a vocal minority is extremely attached to the status quo.

As old gives way to new, outdated ideas fall by the wayside. One of these is that automobile traffic is an unstoppable force. As a pedestrian, it is up to me to get out of the way or suffer the consequences. As a cyclist, there is no point in asking for bike lanes because they would simply put me in harm’s way.

The complete-streets concept recognizes that individual drivers, cyclists and pedestrians rule traffic. Each is able to slow down and even stop to avoid a crash. Complete streets are updated streets, often with narrower traffic lanes that have been demonstrated to slow motorized traffic. With complete streets, pedestrians come first, followed by transit, cyclists and cars.

According to Barbara McCann, author of “Completing Our Streets,” this concept is supported by “a broad coalition of bicycle riders, transportation practitioners, public health leaders, older Americans, smart-growth advocates [and] real estate agents” who “came together to insist that we begin to build streets that are safe for everyone.”

Responding to the failure of the automobile to deliver promises of speed and freedom to 100 percent of the population, people take up walking and bicycling, often in the direction of the nearest Metro station. When these nondrivers get in the way of cars — and they do so often in urban Alexandria — they upset the social order.

Transit planners participate in these changes as well by calling for dedicated bus lanes and new buses that give their drivers the power to change traffic signals. I joined AARP specifically because it’s a champion of complete-streets efforts.

A 2012 nationwide poll, reported by McCann, showed that “63 percent of Americans would like to address traffic congestion by improving public transportation and designing communities for easier walking and bicycling.” While frustrating for some, these changes are supported by a majority of residents. The new social order, it seems, is here to stay.


– The writer is a member of the Alexandria 
Bicycle and Pedestrian 
Advisory Committee.



  1. Other examples of the rule of the social code, not the legal one: Drivers who text while driving. (20-30%?) Drivers who speed up to beat yellow lights, many of whom end up running the red light. (10-30%) Drivers who blow through red lights. (Not as common, but I see it happen frequently.) High-speed right turns on red? That too. Then there’s speeding, and not just 5 mph above the limit. (70%? 80%?)

    The bottom line is that many drivers get frustrated or outraged by cyclists who supposedly “don’t follow the rules of the road,” but most drivers do not follow the rules themselves. And many people get injured or killed as a result of those infractions.

  2. Indeed, there is a new social order, and at the very top of the heap are arrogant and sanctimonious bicyclists. I appreciate the honesty of the author when he admits riding in the center of a lane, thereby frustrating a driver behind him. I’ve witnessed this many times around this region – bikers deliberately and unnecessarily slowing traffic, as if to make a statement to drivers: “I am biker, hear me roar.” Apparently, the norm of “slower traffic keep right” didn’t make the cut in the new social order.

    Regarding the author’s view that pedestrians are now at the top of the social order, he really needs to spend some time walking on any of the local trails. Cyclists routinely harass walkers who have the gall to leisurely stroll along, slowing the progress of bike traffic. Bikers on the Mt. Vernon trail, for example, travel at reckless speeds, passing dangerously close to walkers, and very often making the same types of rude comments to walkers that the author received when he was biking in the center of the lane. The “complete streets” movement apparently needs to include pedestrian lanes within bike lanes.

    And speaking of complete streets, I have no doubt that there is currently public support for them. But, like all such transportation fads – traffic calming, 4-way stop signs, parking restrictions, speed bumps, etc. – popularity fades as people start to see the sacrifices the concept requires, and the illusory nature of the supposed benefits.

    • “at the very top of the heap are arrogant and sanctimonious bicyclists. I appreciate the honesty of the author when he admits riding in the center of a lane, thereby frustrating a driver behind him.”

      Thanks you for your amusing satirical comment that illustrates the old social order, in which drivers arrogantly demand that anyone not in a motor vehicle move aside. Well done. Of course we both know that the only way to safely ride a bicycle in a narrow lane is to ride in the center of the lane, which causes stress when impatient drivers are on the road. In cases where bike lanes are added, Complete Streets allows room for cyclists and drivers to pass each other safely, reducing these conflicts.

      As for the idea that better sidewalks, safer intersections and bike lanes are passing fads, it is worth noting that these all support transit and transit is the only viable way to add transportation capacity to cities. Cities that have tried to solve congestion by piling on highways and parking lots have instead created blight.

      Related to this, I was taken to task by a colleague for not pointing our that a major social shift happened on our roads beginning about 100 years ago, when roads were slowly given over to cars. Until that time it was perfectly acceptable for pedestrians to walk anywhere on the roads at any speed. In that sense the new order is a move back towards a much older social order. Discussion can be read here where a version of this column was cross-posted (with permission of the Alexandria Times).

      • Says Jonathan: “Of course we both know that the only way to safely ride a bicycle in a narrow lane is to ride in the center of the lane, which causes stress when impatient drivers are on the road.”

        One, how about pulling to the right, just as you expect pedestrians to do when they’re walking on trails and sidewalks; two, you haven’t seen “impatient” until you’ve seen bikers racing the trails in and around pedestrians; and three, if the “only way to safely ride a bicycle in a narrow lane is to ride in the center,” it’s funny you NEVER see that in the part of King Street we’ve been bickering about the last six months.

    • To respond to the complaint that a bicyclist would riding in the middle of a lane; I hope that the complainers would become more knowledgeable of the laws in their area regarding lawful roadway positioning for people using bicycles. I believe, “it depends” would come to mind.
      It is a fact that people are allowed to use bicycles in most of the United States with the same rights and responsibilities for behavior as drivers of vehicles. With the same right to travel on public roads, a person bicycling must, to avoid crashes and to achieve the intended destination in a reasonable amount of time, use best and lawful practices. One lawful and best practice for a bicyclist is to establish their right of way in that portion of a traffic lane that best provides for their safety to continue that trip. There are many roadway traffic situations that allow and call for a bicyclist to travel in various portions of a travel lane; including in in the middle, left or right section of a lane – in the way.
      “Share the Road” does not only mean for bicyclists to stay out of the way; more like taking turns with use of the Commons. Get over it.

      • Knowing that you’re not a hypocrite, you would agree that Share the Road also does not mean that pedestrians must stay out of the way of bikes. Unfortunately, that word has not made it to the biking community on the trails and some sidewalks.

        • Well, you’re really not supposed to ride a bike on the sidewalk in the first place (although I see that you’ve advocated for that before). Beyond the obvious safety issues (conflicts with turning cars at intersections, from a point of significantly reduced visabilitiy), it is not fair to pedestrians, for whom the sidewalk is the only option. That is Reason #1 that the anti-bike lane crowd’s cries of “just use the sidewalk!” is so frustrating. No! That is an absloutely terrible option for everyone except for the dozen or so homeowners who don’t want to give up their occasional free parking to create a bike lane.

          Think about it–bike lanes keep bikes out of the flow of car traffic and thus don’t slow car traffic behind them down to 12-15mph. They keep bikes off sidewalks and away from pedestrians. And on top of it provide a different feel to a street that gives visual and context clues to drivers that this is a “quiet residential street” and they need to slow down (see: Commonwealth Ave). And this lane will be not at the expense of the general travel lane–but at a “parking lane” that serves a dozen houses a handful of times per year. What is the issue, outside of blind, reactionary dislike for bikes and all they “stand for”?

          Trails are 50/50. I find that the regular users (the ones obviously commuting) are usually pretty respectful of the rules (a couple serious jerks aside, but you get those jerks on the Beltway and on the Metro and heck even in office elevators. They could all be the same people for all we know). The weekend warriors…..much less so. I truly don’t think they know the rules of the trail. And note: it IS the rule and it IS polite, and safe to give audible warning when passing. That is where the bells and “passing left” come from. They are not honks, or mandates to get out of the way. They are legal requirements.

          • You avoided a response to my suggestion that you WALK your bike on the sidewalk. I did not suggest that you ride your bike upon it.

    • To think that a cyclist in the center of the lane is being an arrogant road hog, when in fact he may be riding there because THAT’S SAFER THAN BEING FAR RIGHT, is just as arrogant as you think the cyclist himself is. A speed limit is a LIMIT, a MAXIMUM, not a minimum as so many people seem to think. And before you mention minimum speed laws, that typically only applied to limited-access highways, which are usually off-limits to bicycles anyway.

      I usually ride near the center of the lane because that’s the safest place for me to be. Either get your butt over in the next lane and pass safely, or wait until it’s safe to do so. Just like you do with any other slow moving vehicle like a tractor or other farm equipment, garbage truck, mail vehicle, etc. It’s NOT THAT HARD.

  3. Bicyclists bellyaching about legal to ride below speed limit as if most obey stop signs. A street’s speed limit = its design use. Lower speed vehicles impede traffic. Modern streets are intended primarily for cars. A “complete street” is incomplete without parking for cars for folks with street addresses there. A car can’t be folded up into suitcase size once a driver gets home. We’re a ways from self-driving cars parking themselves blocks away ‘til their owners summon them.

    • “A “complete street” is incomplete without parking for cars for folks with street addresses there.”

      And yet, mysteriously, cities are full of streets with off-street instead of on-street parking or streets with on-street parking that is metered in such a way that the residents cannot leave their cars in a single spot for days on end like they can in the suburbs. People who buy houses on streets like this must like them, or they would not have moved there.

      As for “bellyaching about legal to ride below speed limit”… We must all come to terms with the fact that requiring cyclists to ride at the speed limit is the same as forbidding cyclists form riding on the roads. The world is changing, for the better, and this is no longer a socially-acceptable idea.

    • On street vehicle parking, it seems to me, is using public travel space for the temporary (we hope) storage of private property. To have available vehicle parking for standard vehicular uses requires there to be two to three or more spaces available for each vehicle in use; one for the site of storage/origin, and one for each planned destination. A significant amount of public space is dedicated to providing parking of private vehicles. Public assets under invested and public space unavailable for wider sidewalks, transit/bus lanes, and, of course, for bicycling.

    • “Lower speed vehicles impede traffic. Modern streets are intended primarily for cars.”

      Assuming that you’re right (which, you know…a massive assumption)…wouldn’t then providing a lane seperate from the general travel lane make sense? So the bikes aren’t impeding traffic? Or do you want to ban cycling? You realize if you do that, you’ll be introducing that many more cars in front of you. Which are much bigger. And don’t move all that fast in the bumper-to-bumper traffic they create.

  4. Sorry, bike lanes create conflicts at intersections resulting in right hooks. Only completely equal status in every lane is safe for cyclists. Complete Streets is a great idea, unfortunately, it’s been taken over by people who think the answer to everything is bike lanes.