Recently, my wife and I were heading east on Camino Carlos Rey, waiting at the stoplight at Cerrillos Road. When it turned green, we began to go, and as we began to go, a bicyclist who had been on the sidewalk and was in the process of running the light, slammed on his brakes and yelled at us. We heard his yell very clearly because we were on bicycles as well.
I have ridden a bicycle in Santa Fe since 1986. The infrastructure for bicyclists has improved tremendously, but even in those days, Santa Fe was a delight to bicycle in. When I speak to other bicyclists, I find I’m often in the minority on this observation, but I have had few negative interactions with motor vehicles. I’ve had far more near misses with bicyclists who were not following traffic laws, particularly with bicyclists going against the flow of traffic.
I respectfully disagree that we need more signs, but we do need more education and more law enforcement when it comes to both bicyclists and drivers. While I could write an entire book on bicycling etiquette and traffic reform, I’ll stick to my top three tips for both drivers and bicyclists, though there is so much more to say.
• Stop at red lights and stop signs. At the very least, make a show of slowing to a near stop. I do not — mea culpa — put my foot down when I arrive at a stop sign, but I do stop pedaling. I do apply the brakes. I do look both ways as I slow toward the stop sign. All too often I see bicyclists not even break their pedaling cadence. I know this stance may not be popular with my fellow bicyclists, and I know many are behind the “Idaho Stop” law that makes it legal to run stop signs, but I firmly believe that the common set of laws is what keeps us safe.
• Don’t go zipping down the right side of a line of cars, unless there is a bike lane or a really wide shoulder. If you are on a narrow road, and there are three cars at the stoplight, tuck in behind that third car and proceed as if you are a vehicle. If it’s rush hour, and there are 19 cars, tuck in behind that 19th car. No one is expecting a bicycle to go zipping past them on a narrow street. You have no idea who is planning to turn right unexpectedly or when an angry passenger is going to throw open the door and jump out of the car. Always ask yourself, would I do this if I were driving?
• This third tip is more a point of etiquette and may not be popular with my fellow bicyclists, but I’ll offer it here anyway. If you are in a group, ride in single file. It’s legal to ride two-up. You have every right to pedal lazily along Old Las Vegas Highway and have a conversation. It does, however, drive motorists nuts. It drives me nuts as well, particularly when I’m bicycling with someone who wants to pull up alongside me to chat. I’m busy trying to avoid broken glass and keep an eye out for prairie dogs.
• Bicyclists should be merging in and out of traffic depending on where they intend to go. Is there a bicyclist in the left turn lane? She is probably turning left and belongs there. Is there a bicycle in the middle of the road at a red light? He is probably going straight, knows where to park to trigger the light, and is waiting for the light to change. Expect bicycles to be in the correct lanes at intersections. It’s the law.
• Bicyclists may use the full lane and should be expected to on narrow roads, and that’s what those bicycle symbols in the middle of the road indicate. My route to work takes me on the stretch of Camino del Monte Sol between Old Santa Fe Trail and Camino Cruz Blanca. Many times I’ve had vehicles zoom around me in a fury, barely missing an oncoming car, only to have to stop immediately at the stop sign. It probably takes under a minute to cover that stretch of road on a bicycle. The bicyclist is not really holding you up in any significant way in that situation. The law in Santa Fe is that you must allow five feet of space between your vehicle and the bicycle to pass. What if there isn’t five feet? You have to continue following that slow vehicle. A conscientious bicyclist will know that it’s frustrating and won’t hold you up for more than five minutes or so.
• Most of you drivers are very polite and accommodating, but please just follow the law yourself. I’ve had drivers in the oncoming lane stop suddenly when I’m signaling a left turn, and they have almost been rear-ended by the vehicle behind them. Drivers like to stop on St. Michael’s to let bicyclists cross on the rail trail. There are three lanes of traffic there. Doing so just creates confusion. It’s not safe for me to cross three lanes of traffic just because you, no matter how kind you are, stopped to let me through. And if I arrive at a four-way stop after you, it’s still your turn to go, even if I am on a bicycle. If you have the right of way, go.
More signs won’t make much of a difference. Obeying the law, understanding that bicycles are vehicles and are expected to behave like them, will.
Paul Cooley has been bicycling in Santa Fe since 1986. He has been a League Cycling Instructor and served on the city’s Bicycling and Trails Advisory Committee. He and his wife lived eight years without a car, intentionally, and they continue to do most of their traveling in town on bicycles.