The Bike Commuter Code

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Having commuted in Washington, D.C., for several years, I’ve noticed that many of us operate under an unwritten set of rules that I’ve been calling the “bike commuter code.” I don’t know where this code originated or if it’s just the way cyclists silently agreed to operate in the city.

Distinct to the rules of the road and how we move among cars and pedestrians, the bike commuter code addresses how cyclists interact with each other as they cross paths en route to their various destinations.

Here are some of the rules I’ve observed that constitute the bike commuter code. I could be misguided on some of these and incomplete or remiss on others, though, so please help me fill in the gaps.

1. Everyone who bike commutes is special and righteous, no matter whether they ride 10 miles or 2 miles, or whether they’ve commuted for 15 years or seven months.

2. All commute cyclists have one common goal: to get where they’re going without incident.

3. You can wear whatever clothing you want to bike commute.

4. You can ride whatever bike you like to bike commute.

5. You can carry your crap however you prefer when you bike commute. Panniers. Backpack. Messenger bag. Milk crate. Carradice. Whatever works.

6. Eye contact with other cyclists is rare, even at long stoplights. The dynamics are similar to being in an elevator with other people.

7. Verbal greetings are also uncommon, as are conversations with other cyclists. (That’s what Friday Coffee Club is for!)

8. If you say hello or attempt to converse with a fellow commuter, do not be surprised if they do not immediately respond. If anything will start a conversation with another cyclist, it’s saying “nice bike.”

9. Shoaling, i.e., budging in front of someone at a light instead of waiting behind them, is a no-no.

10. Audible indicators for passing, either with a bell or saying “on your left” are not mandatory, but they are nice gestures and help with predictability.

11. Passing another cyclist on the right is not cool, no matter where it happens. Even in the bike lanes!

12. Commute racing is undignified, yet fairly common. You never know when it will happen, only that it will. (Well, sometimes you can guess, as certain stretches of road set up well for commute racing. Not that I would know.) The finish line is arbitrary and almost always unknown to the parties involved. If you unwittingly find yourself in the middle of a commute race, you have a choice: do nothing (oddly, sometimes hard to do) or race back (always silly).

13. A slew of new riders join the commute every spring and fall, and year-round commuters should prepare themselves accordingly for these times of year. These newbies do not know yet know the bike commuter code.

14. Special rule for those areas with Bikeshare programs! Empathy and patience must also be exhibited when encountering the big red CaBi bikes. You should also slow down for good measure. Anything could happen. The person riding it might be an experienced cyclist or commuter, but they could also be a tourist unfamiliar with the city or an inexperienced rider new to urban cycling.

15. A little tolerance goes a long way. Like it or not, we’re all in this together.

That’s the bike commuter code in a nutshell. What do you think? What did I miss?

60 thoughts on “The Bike Commuter Code”

  1. I like it…and I’m having to exercise #15 quite a lot these days, largely because of #12 and #13 (which always seem to go together). The Cat 6 racers are out in force, now that it’s warming up, along with everyone else.

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  2. #6 and #7 do not seem to apply in Washington County, Oregon, between Beaverton and Hillsboro. I often chat with other riders. It may be different in Portland proper.

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  3. Bike commuters have regulars. These are people usually on foot or bike that we see every day. Regulars communicate with us via waves, grunts or averted eyes. There is no offense taken. We haven’t had our coffee yet either.

    Bike commuters who use trails are wary of Crazy Ivans (runners who execute a button hook maneuver into your line of travel) and other unpredictable trail users. These people are actually placed on the trails by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and the American Dental Association.

    Once you get wet, you’re wet. Rain is not a big deal.You can, however, make it sound like one as soon as you get to your destination.

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    1. Might be a DC thing. When I used to live in the DC area and commute via metro, I noticed that train commuters in DC rarely acknowledged each other.

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  4. In the DC suburbs, talking at stoplights is common. Seeing other cyclists to talk to at stoplights, however, is not common, which is probably why we do talk to each other those few times a year when we have a chance. There’s even this one guy who commutes from Ft. Belvoir to Tyson’s who is crazy fast (from my perspective, as a plodder) and he will slow down to greet me and even have a brief conversation as he passes me.

    Also, the nod or wave of greeting is very common in the ‘burbs, whether or not you know/recognize your fellow commuter across those four lanes of traffic. Again, probably because there just aren’t very many of us!

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      1. “Nice bike” is a good conversation starter, but yesterday morning, I had the chance to use “nice Sharrows button,” and I was not about to pass that up.
        Our conversation was brief, and McEntee-centric!

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    1. Shoaling is when a cyclist budges in front of another cyclist at a stoplight instead of just waiting behind them. I added it into the post, too.

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  5. I have to admit that I don’t really find that 6 and 7 apply to me either, but it may just be that I talk to people and they are all wishing that I would shut up.

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    1. I’m with you, Joe. I talk to people at stop lights all the time. Though the only light that I end up at with other cyclists is Lee and Lynn, so maybe the fear of death makes people more social.

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  6. MG, good stuff! In my commute I have to ride through Newark Nj and to be honest I hardly see another cyclist on the road. When I do see a cyclist, I do wave to them. So any Cat 6 racing or shoaling is something that I don’t get a chance to see. It would be nice to see more on the road but I guess this area for commuting is not too bike friendly! Too bad, yesterday was a great day for riding.

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  7. Haha – I always assumed that not being talked to was because the Lycra dudes look down on me because I wear street clothes and bike more slowly (and stop for red lights). Nice to know it’s just everyone’s lack of morning caffeine, Rootchopper!

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  8. Thou Shalt Not Flip Off Rude Drivers, even when they blare their horns at you. I admit I have been guilty of this infraction on a few occasions. But, hey, I’m trying.

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  9. Strangely, there seems to be no code when it comes to obeying traffic rules. Some stop for red, some slow and go, some right turn & make U-ie. And while commuters all have common goal of getting to where they’re going, bike commuters have secondary goals of enjoying the commute (fresh air, sights and sounds, a mindful state of mind that keeps stress at bay, etc…), exercise, and minimizing damage to the environment. For some it is also part of the code to warn other cyclists, when rhey’re right behind, of road obstacles such as holes. cars pulling out, and car doors opening.

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  10. I love that where I live bike commuters generally say ‘hello’, nod or wave to each other. But then apparently the NW of England is famed for its friendliness on the streets.

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  11. No communication? That’s sad. i always say “hi” even when others don’t. If I have a flat or a mechanical,I want to be the one that cyclists stop and help.

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  12. Re 7 & 8, As a commuter in small town Iowa, greeting a fellow commuter involves a stop, a chat, inquiry about each other’s family, discussion of your children’s college plans and maybe even an invitation to “stop by the house.” Greeting my dental hygienist while passing each other involved a 5 minute stop.

    Cheers!

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  13. I’ve been noticing a lot of poorly executed track stands (on road bikes) lately – and I’m thinking that must play some some sort of role Commuter hierarchy. No matter how far you roll into crossing traffic, and no matter how much you jerk back and forth trying to maintain balance – your superiority is directly related to the amount of time until you have to put your foot down. If it comes down to dropping a foot because you lost balance, or dangerously sprinting across three lanes of traffic – GO GO GO (lest you are relegated to lowly footer status).

    That would make the rest of the hierarchy as:

    One footers – ok, you’ve been doing this for a while – I see your crankarm is rotated for optimal shove with one foot, crank with the other – that’ll launch you just below the track standers in the pecking order.

    Two feet down at a light – gasp – go to the back of the line.

    No feet down but holding onto a sign post – you get to go ahead of the other foot-downers.

    One foot down but on a curb… ahh you are a tricky one – but sorry, you fall somewhere between the one footers and the two footers.

    DOUBLE TRACKSTANDERS! Holy cow – folks be prepared for a Cat 6 death race as soon as the light hits green (or one person starts to drop a foot and must sprint off to maintain status).

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    1. ….sometimes I get bored when I’m stopped and practice track stands. It’s usually pretty unsuccessful. Actually, I don’t think it’s ever been a success. Also, I see people doing exactly what I do and think, “Sheesh, just put your foot down….” …so…yeah.

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  14. 9: I’d prefer someone come alongside at a light, rather than lurk silently behind me. It feels safer to have multiple bikes clearly visible at the crosswalk. And, even though single file is the four-wheel standard, it seems rude on a bike.

    Being a hyper-competitive jerk is never ok whether at a light or elsewhere. But, if you racers want to zip by me, please wear spandex, so I can enjoy the view as you pass.

    6, 7, 8: I speak to other cyclists, pedestrians, even sometimes drivers w their windows down. We’re all part of a community, and I believe that knowing each other leads to looking out for each other. Maybe a little?

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  15. I think DC folks could be a little nicer in acknowledging each other, and that’s related to #9, where some people can’t be bothered to slow down or stop.
    I want to add another rule: no ninja bikers! Nothing scares me more than bikers riding in the dark without lights or something reflective.

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  16. Additions

    Ride like you are invisible; dress like a Christmas tree. Make yourself visible, but no matter how visible you make yourself, they wont see you. And beware of Ninja’s on the trail, those cleverly cloaked joggers devoid of reflectors, bright clothes, or lights whose stealthy movement is undetectable until you are right on top of them.

    And

    There is no such thing as bad weather; only bad clothing

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  17. Great post. I would just add something about offering help to other cyclists. When you see a cyclist on the side of the road/trail and you might be able to help (e.g. have spare tube and air), it seems customary to ask whether the commrade needs anything.

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  18. Im with both Rootchopper and Dasgeh as far as their additions go. Great start to what could become the commuters version of “the rules”.
    On a side note, I’ll admit to being one of the less than responsive riders. I do give the wave/head nod/”hey” to my regulars tho, which includes my favorite, a little old Chinese guy that is out walking on the local trail, who waves at *everyone* who passes him.

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  19. Unless we’ve met, I’m all about 6 and 7. I just don’t lke talking to people and try not to unless I’ve got a need…

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  20. Great post; thanks! My new commute has about 50x as many bike commuters as my old commute, and I’ve had to practice LOTS of patience…

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  21. Don’t lock your bike on the rack horizontally. Place your bike perpendicular to the rack so other commuters can use it as well.

    Don’t be obnoxious out there. Have patience and enjoy the ride (you could be stuck in a car in traffic, or worse crammed into the Metro).

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  22. Agree with rcannon about adding “safely” to #2.

    Propose one more that reads “Because we are all in a special community, if you have the time and supplies, helping other riders in need is the right thing to do.

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  23. Here in DC, we are challenged by all the new bike commuters that come out on their Capitol Bikeshare bikes every Spring who aren’t familiar with the protocol. On my daily trips on E. Capitol St., I find that shoaling and running red lights to be the most egregious infractions of the norms, but I also see plenty of people riding with earbuds and/or without helmets.

    The biggest problems with shoaling and running red lights is that it increases traffic risk for everyone and is not limited to just the traffic scofflaws. As a long-time year-round bike commuter, I tend to ride faster than other people (not a Cat 6 guy, but just like to be speedy). I also try to follow the traffic laws and wait at every red light. When other riders shoal me or run the lights, I’m forced to pass them over and over again putting me in more danger.

    When you’ve passed the same guy three times over a five block stretch because he can’t be bothered with the rules, it gets pretty annoying.

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    1. Annoying is the right word for it. Called one guy out on it today after 3 people passed me while I was waiting at a red light and then I passed all 3 again. (It was the third time for him). I realize now that it might have been more helpful to just be friendly, say hello, and set a good example.

      I’ve been commuting to work almost everyday for the last year and have the lights timed pretty well. Need to remember that others don’t. I definitely think DC could use some more friendliness and will try to be part of that.

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    2. That is a good point and something I encounter that yo-yo’ing with those who get ahead by running lights as well. It’s actually rather maddening, and I’m not exactly sure how to deal with it, except keep riding my ride and try to ignore it.

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  24. Wait, who said no flicking off rude drivers–that’s like the opposite of my rule. I’m always flicking off the ahole drivers and making sure to thank the nice ones.

    As for running red lights, I see all levels of commuters and cyclists do it. Some of it I think isn’t such a big deal (those who know the other direction has an arrow and there is no one there), but other times I see people pulling kamakazi stunts that seem more appropriate in some kind of circus show.

    I love the Cat 6 racers. The best part is everyone seems to assume everyone else is at the same point in their commuter. Sometimes the slow folks are 15 or 20 miles into their commute.

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  25. #15 reminds me of Tarik Saleh Bike club rules: 1. ride a bike, 2. try not to be an ass. I’m a member (I have a pin on my Carradice)! Love your new header pic.

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    1. Okay, though I will probably say “without incident.” Someone else mentioned this as well. I don’t mean to sound judgey (I don’t know why I am using this word lately, as it is not a word), but the way I’ve seen some people ride does not make it seem like they are trying to get there safely.

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  26. I think that your belief in rule 1 is the cause of much of the negative energy from the non-biking community. I’d say bike commuters are the same as every other commuter out there on any given morning. One choice to ride one’s bike confers no special status on one.

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    1. That point is worth exploring. In the context of this post, Rule 1 is meant to say that one’s choice to ride one’s bike makes them no more special than anyone else who chooses to ride his or her bike.

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  27. I disagree with #10. An audible warning should be required before passing. I am moderately annoyed by people who sneak up behind me and pass without warning. I am even more annoyed by the people who quickly say, “on your left” as they pass because these verbal calls are useless. They are barely audible and they always give a verbal call right as they are passing, but if they give a verbal call well in advance than you can’t here them. What kind of warning is it if you get the warning while the thing you’re being warned of is already happening? I often can be heard telling people to. “Get a bell, nobody can hear you.”

    I have a colleague who also bike commutes and he claims that cyclists should check over their shoulders to make sure someone is not about to pass them before moving left to pass others. This guy rides an e-bike so he passes people easily and, secondly, he doesn’t always give a warning when he passes (he passes me sometimes and I have never gotten a warning from him even though he claims he always gives a warning.) So, I’d add another rule: If you don’t give a warning when passing than don’t complain when others don’t check over their shoulders for passing cyclists.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I also primarily use a bell, for the reasons you mention. When I originally wrote this, some of it was about “what is” vs. any kind of etiquette or proper method.

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