S Aufrecht

I was heading in to work on my usual route, southbound on 19th Street. South of Dupont Circle it’s a one-way street, and I was riding in the third lane of four, with parked cars filling the fourth lane. If there’s light traffic, and hence some empty lanes to my left, I tend to ride in the middle of the lane, well away from opening car doors and taxis and other cars darting into traffic. Today there was a car stopped in the middle of the road in the third lane; they might have been waiting to parallel park but cars simply stopped in the middle of the road are quite routine in DC. I veered left a few feet, and passed comfortable, still in my lane or possibly on the line. The light ahead was already red, so I was just gliding down the mild incline as I veered back to the middle of the lane and braked to a halt behind a parked car at the light. I tend to stop in the third lane at E Steet (westbound—E Street is broken into two one-way roads at this point, with a gap between them to guarantee that cross traffic has to stop at two lights in one block. You can’t even blame L’Enfant because this was riverfront in the original plan) because the fourth lane and little turnout fifth lane are usually filled with cars turning right.

As I'm stopping, I notice in my rear-view mirror that a car is stopping right on my butt, so abrubtly that it swerves a bit into the next lane. I turn and look. It's a taxi, and it pulls around in the lane to my right and the driver rolls down his window. (I typed down everything I could remember as soon as I got to my desk, but this is not wholly verbatim.)

Driver, smiling: "Why are you driving here? This is not a safe place for bicycles."

Me: "Well it would be safer if drivers would watch out for bicycles."

Driver, smiling: "But this road, here (gesturing), this is not for bicycles."

Me: "Excuse me? I can go on any of these roads, and be in any lane I need to be."

Driver, maybe not smiling: "Because you are American?" (The driver is Indian, or perhaps Pakistani)

Me: "Because it's the law."

Driver: something about how he's concerned for my safety and why would I act like this and ...

Me: "You almost hit me because you weren't watching."

Driver: why am I getting upset when he is just advising my how to be safe ...

I'm digging out my ID at this point for the garage in two blocks. The light turns and we proceed, still bickering back and forth. I point at the parked bus far ahead of him in his lane and shout, "look out, there's a parked car!" He sneers, I imagine, and falls back and then merges behind me. Half a block later I signal and turn in to the office parking garage and he drives past.

Moral? I dunno. I definitely need to remember to go directly for my camera first. Beyond that, I can't say. It was a very confounding conversation. I don't claim to be beyond reproach on the roads, and when another taxi driver called me out for an error I took the blame. I'll even concede that there are certain roads that cyclists, though entitled to ride on, should probably skip. But a road four lanes wide, full of low-speed traffic moving block to block, in the middle of the downtown core? I've seen up to six or seven bicycles stopped at lights on 19th. And while a few of those bicycles proceed to run the red lights at the first gap in traffic, I don't do that, and I don't think they should either. And at least in the abstract, when I have conversations like this my goal is to maybe connect human-to-human with the driver a little bit, not just to have a fight. But I find that very difficult, because usually when I have a conversation with a driver the circumstance is that they almost killed me out of ignorance and inattention, and typically they never even noticed.

When someone is angry at me for having put my life in jeopardy through their own mistake, I interpret "it's not safe for you to be here" as, "I'm upset that I screwed up and almost killed you, and rather than take responsibility I'd rather displace that strong emotion into anger at you." And I don't think much of that as a rational argument. So that's the conversation I thought I was having, cyclist to driver. But apparently he was having a very different conversation, one involving imperialist arrogance and perhaps white privilege.

For your reference:

Full lane use allowed when traveling at the normal speed of traffic, passing, preparing for a turn, avoiding hazards, traveling in a lane 11 feet wide or less, avoiding a mandatory turn lane and when necessary for the bicyclist's safety.—Selected Bicycle Guidelines for the Washington Area