Saturday, May 29, 2010

On the Virtues of Being a Predictable Traffic Unit

Moderately Unpredictable Traffic Unit

This is a slow light on a busy road, there's no doubt about it. Cars, bicycles, pedestrians, kids on scooters, yard guys with blowers on their backs, I've seen them all waiting and waiting at this light with growing impatience. As the temperature rises, so does the impatience, I think. Summer in Phoenix: the Season of Impatience. There's probably a linear relationship: i = kt. The detector loops on the west side of the intersection do detect bicycle wheels, but the one on the east doesn't seem to, so I usually end up pushing the crosswalk button on that side while waiting and waiting. So believe me, I can identify with the impatience.

Here's the scene I kept seeing this week while I was riding up to this intersection: five or six cars waiting and waiting at a red light, while some cyclists roll up. Either through familiarity with this particular intersection, or by inference from the number of cars waiting at the light, the cyclists determine that it will take too long to act as predictable traffic units and wait their turn in line, and so they filter through the waiting cars up to the front. Arriving at the front and finding the light still red, they check traffic and cross the intersection and turn left, in plain sight of the waiting cars, against the red.

I'm not a trained psychologist, lawyer, or a traffic expert, but I'm pretty sure about a few observations on this behavior: most of the time it will piss off the waiting drivers who are also subject to i = kt, it's illegal, and it's inherently unsafe for several reasons. I think all three observations are valid and relevant, but it's primarily the last one I am covering in this post: being predictable (or not).

The woman in the photo is a minor but instructive example of unpredictability in action. She probably bent a few laws to get into this position to wait for the light, each step of the way doing things that others could not anticipate. I've done the same things before myself: ride up the wrong side of the street, and/or ride on the sidewalk, and/or get to the light riding on the pavement, then insta-morph into a pedestrian at the light, cross in the crosswalk, wait on the left crosswalk to cross, apparently saving yourself from transiting the intersection as a vehicle in a busy traffic situation. And the whole time, the people actually waiting for the light have nothing else to do except watch you to see what you'll do next. They're bored, they're tense, they're impatient. You're a red light mini-docu-drama to them, and they're watching.

In this case, the light changed, she used the crosswalk to get across most of the street. As I was turning left (last in line) and yielding to her as she was in the half of the crosswalk in front of me, she surprised me (slightly, nothing really surprises me much anymore) and insta-morphed back into a vehicle, exiting the crosswalk and left hooking into the traffic lane. I just gave her plenty of room, stayed in the middle lane, and went on my way. Like I said, she wasn't committing egregious acts by any means, I am just using her actions as an example of unpredictability. Relatively speaking, she was markedly better than the cyclists who filtered forward and jumped the light. 

Here, I'll state it: the only time it's OK to do that at this light is when there's no one else around, you've waited and the light just won't change. In that situation alone, there's no psychological impact on others since no one is around. There's a plausible conversation if a law officer happens to observe your action (sir, I waited but the light didn't seem to be functioning or detecting my bicycle, so I proceeded when safe to do so, which is probably not a definitive legal point but at least is fairly reasonable). And so long as the assessment that no one else is around is actually true, probably a safe thing to do that is also not relevant to predictability since no one is around trying to anticipate your next step. And that's the only time. Any other time, you do it and you're pissing off other people, breaking the law, and being unpredictable.

Case by case, as another user of the road, I'm usually OK with that, as long as I am able to figure out what the heck you actually are doing before I hit you. Libertarian, live and let live, hey dude rock on with your bad self. Hopefully I see you. But as a matter of principle, as a cyclist sharing the road with other vehicles, I do have a problem with it: you're training drivers who don't have much exposure to bicycle riders in these parts to think of us in certain ways which tend to make in more dangerous for all of us out there. You're teaching them that bicyclists flaunt the law, that we are unpredictable, that we should be treated either specially or with contempt when encountered on the road.

If drivers believe they cannot anticipate the behavior of bicyclists in general, or, drivers cannot in fact anticipate the behavior of specific bicyclists because they do things like filter forward through traffic and jump red lights while cars wait, it's worse for all of us.

I do everything I can to try to get drivers to see me and treat me on my bicycle as a predictable traffic unit. Highly chaotic thrill-seekers and rule-breakers will not agree. They will always present challenges to safe users of the streets. I get that. This post is not directed at them. In the long run their legal and physical fate is sealed. They help keep the courts, emergency rooms and physical therapists in business. I can only hope they don't hurt too many bystanders along the way. No, this is directed at borderline or unconsciously unpredictable users of the streets who might be doing it accidentally, or without knowing any better.

So: I find that when I ride predictably, make myself visible and follow the traffic laws, Phoenix drivers are remarkably courteous and well-mannered toward cyclists. When I look and act like a predictable traffic unit, they generally treat me as a predictable traffic unit, and we share the community resource of our streets successfully. If you're not sure what that means, but would like to be able to continue to have access to this community asset without being discouraged by drivers who end up hating or ignoring cyclists due to the actions of a few scofflaws and ne'er-do-wells, or denied access due to new laws enacted in response to same, check out the bicycle-specific sections of your local traffic code (AZ here), and/or a book like Effective Cycling (thanks Steve A of DFW!). I don't want special treatment from automobile drivers; in fact just the opposite: I want to be treated like a cog in the traffic machine, just one more predictable traffic unit.

  Does Not Say: Except for Bicycles

When acting and being treated as just another predictable traffic unit, I particularly do not want special treatment at stop or yield situations. I've mentioned it before and I'll say it again here: please drivers do not stop in the middle of the traffic circle and wave me ahead. I appreciate kindness, courtesy, civility, and human connection in all its forms, I do, but waving me through a circle or intersection when it's not my turn is actually potentially risky: you and I may be in on the conspiracy of kindness, but other drivers around may have missed the communication. Or, I may have misinterpreted you swatting a fly as an invitation to cross the intersection out of turn, and BAMMO! So I'll just wave back but steadfastly refuse your kind invitation. That's not me being a dunderhead, that's me just wanting to be a predictable traffic unit sharing the road. Treating me as such would be the greatest possible courtesy. Get up. Go ride.


  1. Very well said. What's more, being a predictable traffic unit is usually a faster way to get places as well.

    IF you run across a light you can't trigger on your bike, CALL the traffic department and get a report on record. If you get pulled over, mentioning you have called the traffic department about the light might help with the cop. It also usually gets the light fixed.

  2. Thanks Steve, I'll give them a call.

  3. I'm with you 100% on predictability, JRA.

    In the busy afternoons, between 4 and 5 PM when I head home from work, I try to be a good traffic citizen. The only time I break from the rule of being a vehicle is when a white bike lane stripe ends and I'm competing with a motor vehicle for the right-hand lane as we approach an intersection. In those situations I take the very next driveway entrance and go up onto the sidewalk paralleling the lane. I then stay a Bike-Mounted-Pedestrian through the crosswalk if I'm going straight through the intersection; waiting for the light to turn green for me in BMP mode if it hasn't yet.

    Walk my bike across in the crosswalk? Heck no, precisely because cars turning right typically ARE driven by impatient drivers and crossing the road aboard my bike is MUCH faster than walking it across. Get me outta their way as FAST as possible!

  4. Thx limom!

    AZBC, I too elect BMP mode but struggle when I see pedestrians ahead--why oh why do the road gods dictate that bicycle high traffic choke points that induce BMP mode are also frequented by peds pushing spawn carriages? Because the road gods laugh as the toy with us and make sport, that's why. Or so it seems much of the time.

  5. I don't know why, but I keep coming back to look at the Moderately Unpredictable Traffic Unit(MUTU).
    I just noticed, you guys got traffic that goes around in circles? Where are they going?

  6. limom they go round and round and round in the circle game, of course.

    I think they are AZDOT's idea of traffic calming. But they don't calm me. In addition to teaching people not to stop in the middle, traffic circles make me flash back to Changchun, China, where a PSB guy ripped me off my bike and proceeded to threaten to throw me into a deep, dark hole for riding the wrong way around the circle in front of the main train station. You haven't really felt fear until you've smelled the liquor on the breath of a 公安局 guy screaming at you in Chinese with about 400 people watching.


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