View to Winter Park Farmers Market in a larger map
This is my route to the Winter Park Farmers Market. It’s almost entirely residential streets, connected by the Mead Garden Trail. It’s not a route on which I would expect to be aggressively intimidated.
It was a typical ride in which I exchanged friendly greetings with several people, both on foot and in cars. That’s why I like using residential streets — human connectedness makes for higher quality trips. I crossed paths with our buddy Stix on the Mead Garden Trail, and a few blocks later I saw my good friend Julie biking on Minnesota Ave. Julie decided to join me and go to the farmers market.
When we got to the intersection of New York and Fairbanks, the light was red. We were first at the light. I stopped in the right half of the lane, Julie stopped to my left. We chatted as we waited for the light to change. A car pulled up behind us as we waited.
When the light changed, Julie dropped behind me. On the other side of the intersection, the lane is narrow and next to on-street parking. It’s not wide enough to ride two abreast with one rider out of the door zone and still give drivers behind a good view of the oncoming lane (in case they want to pass).
We were not even to the other side of Fairbanks when I could hear the engine winding up in the car behind us. One oncoming car cleared the intersection, then the road ahead was empty for 2 blocks. Engine revving, the passing car was suddenly right next to me — 6 inches away. This driver had all the room in the world to move over and give us plenty of passing clearance, but instead he was deliberately coming as close as he could, while accelerating hard.
There is absolutely no advantage to passing bicyclists between Fairbanks and Lyman on Saturday morning. The farmers market creates congestion, with cars pulling in and out of the loading area and pedestrians crossing New York, coming to and from their cars. Even though he was accelerating like he was on a speedway, I knew I could catch him, so I took off after him, pulling my iPhone out of my (tragically uncool but very utilitarian) fannypack.
Indeed I did catch him at New England as he was caught in a queue at that stop sign, waiting for groups of pedestrians to cross. I had to pass one car that had pulled between us, but I got a close shot of his license plate.
Then I pulled in front of him and tried to get a photo of him through the windshield. Too much tint and glare, but I did managed to get a photo of his hand, which was close to the windshield, displaying his I.Q.
With a photo of his license plate in hand, I pulled over and called the Winter Park Police Department (non-emergency number). I asked for a police officer to come take a complaint from me.
Officer Jim Whitman pulled up a few minutes later. A cyclist himself, he understood the situation and shared my frustration. As I know, and have explained here before, there is nothing official a police officer can do unless the crime was witnessed by a sworn officer. He lamented this fact and I assured him I understood the limitations of the law. I asked if it would be possible for him to at least pay a visit to this driver and explain that what he did was illegal. Having an officer show up at his door at least sends the message that the City of Winter Park and the Winter Park Police Department are concerned about civility and the safety of all road users. He took the license plate number and told me that if the guy lived in his jurisdiction he would do that.
It turns out Mr. Maserati lives right on the edge of Winter Park, so Officer Whitman agreed to pay him a visit. Of course we both know that drivers will lie, or make up stories about what the cyclist did to deserve being mistreated. I have the advantage of my position in the community. As co-founder of a national traffic cycling program which teaches courtesy and law-abiding behavior, and as vice-chair of the Metroplan PBAC, it’s extremely unlikely that I would waste my time or his on a made-up story.
This is the first time I have ever asked for a police officer to come talk to me about an incident of hostility. It is pretty rare, but I have been aggressively buzzed before and I have gotten the license plate. Once I called in a plate to Winter Springs PD and was shrugged off. Another time I was on my way to a presentation, so I didn’t have time to deal with it. Once I called OPD after I got to my office, but I hadn’t remembered the plate correctly. In most cases, I’m not able to get the license plate.
Most utility cyclists do not have the luxury of time to call in a license plate and wait for police to respond so they can be told there’s nothing that can be done. As a result the vast majority of intimidation goes unreported and bicyclists who experience it frequently feel increasingly helpless against the bullies. Even though these people make up a fraction of a percent of drivers encountered, the encounters have a significant emotional impact. People who ride in places where they are exposed to hundreds of drivers a day (one 6-mile trip down University at rush hour exposes a rider to over 200 same-direction motorists) may also encounter these sociopaths frequently enough to color their experience with bicycling.
Party because I live in the urban core, I don’t find harassment to be a continuous problem. It’s actually quite rare. If it was common, I would have stuck to riding a motorcycle. I know other people experience it a lot more often that I do. I wish we had some kind of recourse — something with teeth.
I’ve written about this subject a few times over the last 4 years. I’m not in favor of laws that single out user types for protection. I’m also not a fan of new laws where existing ones simply need to be enforced. What that guy did today is illegal. But the problem we have with enforcing the laws he broke is not that police are refusing to enforce the them, it’s that they can’t enforce them if they don’t witness the infraction.
I don’t know what the answer is. I’m curious to know your thoughts. In particular, I would like U.S.-based solutions.
Food for Thought
The following is a list of articles I’ve written that are related to this subject:
Roads are for People (November 2008)
This post wasn’t really about harassment, it was about the culture shift needed for people to feel welcome on our roads… which is a requirement for a livable community.
Harassment, Polarization and Backlash (July 2009)
Explores the backlash against an anti-harassment law in Columbia, MO. In a the comments to a post written by Bill Carpenter in 2010, I posted a few follow-up thoughts after asking a local coordinator how it had worked out.
The Culture of Speed vs the Culture of Trust (August 2009)
Thoughts on civility and trust after riding through Amish country.
Fighting Back Against Roadway Terrorists (January 2010)
Explores how the hostile behavior of a few sociopaths hurts the community, and the possibility of gathering video evidence to show the problem to community leaders and law enforcement in hopes of finding a solution.
Bullying. How do we stop it? (August 2010)
This post was stimulated by an incident in which a truck driver attempted to intimidate me in my car. Intimidation affects all road users, though it feels so much more personal when we are exposed (without a steel cage). The current system leaves all road users helpless to do anything about hostility and intimidation. We need a better way.
Anti-harassment ordinance gives civil court advantage (February 2011)
Explores the city of Los Angeles ordinance that allows bicyclists to sue harassers in civil court, bypassing the burden of having the crime witnessed by a sworn officer.
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