I did not own a car for the three years that I lived in Seattle, WA. It is not to say that I never drove: I had a motorcycle and memberships in Zipcar and Car2Go. Heck, my husband drove me to the hospital in a Car2Go when I was in labor. The combination of the relative expensiveness of these services, having a bus pass, living in a mild climate which makes bicycling year-round desirable, and residing in delightfully walkable neighborhoods ensured that I drove very infrequently. Generally speaking, if I was on the street, I was walking or biking.
In Seattle, the greatest obstacle to bicycling is the terrain. It is hilly. Those hills are STEEP. It makes for places with stunning views of the surrounding lakes and mountains, presuming you are not too exhausted to enjoy it. The greatest obstacle is not the cars.
Drivers in Seattle are a courteous breed. If you get to a four way stop, it is not uncommon for everyone to signal to everyone else to go first… and no one moves. This Pemco car insurance commercial, below, was popular for a reason.
Cars slow down and signal to pedestrians that they will not hit them in crosswalks. Speed limits are followed. Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians respect red lights. Pedestrians don’t jaywalk, which is one part the result of ticketing, and another part the result that you do not have to jaywalk to ensure that you will ever cross the street. You will have an opportunity. Cars will wait for you to clear the intersection before driving through. Overall, drivers in Seattle are polite and respectful. There are tensions between cyclists and drivers, but it was my overwhelming experience that drivers and bus operators paid attention, paid space, and communicated with cyclists and each other.
This does not describe the driving culture of Buffalo.
The speed limit on the New York State Thurway is 65 miles per hour. The modal speed of drivers is about 73 miles per hour, I’d say, judging by the rates of which I am passed and the speeds I need to take to pass others. It is taken for granted that people do not follow the speed limits on Buffalo’s roads and highways.
Buffalo has a lovely parkway system, rife with stop signs. For every driver I’ve seen make an honest-to-goodness stop, there is another who employs the “rolling” variety, treating stop signs like yield signs. When I go to cross the street, I am often waiting awhile for the traffic to clear, because I cannot guarantee that, despite having the “walk” sign on the crosswalk, drivers will defer to me as is their legal obligation. At Elmwood Avenue and Chatham Avenue, for instance, there are almost always a car driving through the intersection when the walk sign turns on – a driver who blew a red light. Buffalo drivers hit the gas when they see a yellow light. Seattle drivers slowed down. I have a child with me most of the time, so I am not willing to be too assertive when crossing the road, but I have to be. Merging on the 190 generally requires driving up to the bumper of the car ahead of you in the leftward land and just moving over, because no one lets you in with enough distance to be safe. They’d rather you go behind them. Some folks just turn without bothering to communicate this plan to you with a turn signal.
Buffalo drivers are, in the aggregate, discourteous and aggressive.
Why are we surprised that many of the cyclists are too?
First, many cyclists have cars. There is not a distinct bicycling culture separate from a driver culture. Those who bike to work tend to be either the least or most educated in society, and that second group most certainly have access to a vehicle. Second, you see the same sorts of behavior of drivers among bicyclists. Bicyclists treat stop signs like yield signs and blow through red lights when the traffic is clear. They do not signal to other cyclists, or pedestrians, that they are about to pass them, which you are supposed to do with either a bell or saying “on the left.” Cyclists irregularly signal their turns. At Delaware Park and on bike paths, they regularly go entirely too fast, making being on these paths an anxious experience for those walking with small children.
The differences in cycling culture was first apparent to me in the positioning. In Seattle, there is a particular position that some cyclists take at red lights that I’ve never seen done in Buffalo:
If you are in the habit of stopping in traffic and sharing the road, this is the most efficient position to start moving again. Why is this not true in Buffalo? Perhaps Buffalonians don’t keep their brakes in as good repair as Seattleites do: the hills demand efficient brakes. So does this position. I suspect the other reason lies in the relative frequencies of actual stops at intersection.
I still follow the Seattle norms when I use my bicycle to get to work or run errands. I stop at the stop signs, I signal my turns (though I am not confident that Buffalo drivers understand what the arm signals mean, in particular the right turn), point straight if I am going that way, make eye contact, wave an acknowledgement if I am let in, and so forth. I would characterize my experiences on the roads of Buffalo as largely positive as a result. I notice that my behavior is not the norm, though I wish it were. Perhaps it is a function of fatigue: stopping a lot requires more strength than continuing to go. I suspect it is another facet of a discourteous driving culture. People say they are afraid to use a bicycle as a form of transportation for fear of cars. I have found that the experience is far less scary when one’s behavior is predictable to everyone.
If Buffalo wants her roads to be safe for everyone on them: cars, bicycles, and pedestrians, we need to change our road culture to a version that is far more considerate and patient. Laying the blame for unsafe roads exclusively on the behavior of cyclists or drivers is misplaced. Buffalo has a road culture problem, and it is time that we owned it.