Being Respectful As Uninvited Guests

Thanks to Jacqui Sakowski for this guest post as a friendly reminder to be respectful of the rural communities in which we ride. I added the title above (Jacqui’s title is below) because as a person who his ridden his bike though small towns across the United States and abroad, I think we often are uninvited guests. Most times I am welcomed as a guest, but it helps to remember that despite tourism campaigns and our national freedom of travel, nobody asked us to visit. Jacqui lives on a farm in rural Iowa County, and although not a cyclist herself, she has been fortunate to travel all over Europe to attend the Tour de France and many of the world’s most other prestigious cycling events. There are a number of perspectives on this issue, and as usual, we welcome a productive dialogue in the comment section below. 

Photo by Jeffrey Phelps

Welcome to our Rural Neighborhood

As Snowdrops, Daffodils and Day Lilies signal spring, new life returns to Wisconsin’s rural communities. It is evidenced by shrinking snow mounds and increasingly frequent splashes of brightly colored spandex whipping along country lanes. It is evidenced by the ancient sounds of Cranes flying over rural landscapes in search of nest sites, and by the sounds of cyclists in fellowship with their peers. And it is evidenced by the increasing frustration of rural dwellers whose lives are affected by cyclists who do not realize the impact of their rides on the lives of those who live and work alongside Wisconsin’s country roads.

My family has lived in rural WI for almost seventy years and on our current property for almost forty, and we have witnessed the explosion of cycling in our state and our neighborhood over recent decades. The valley in South Central WI in which we live is now so popular among cyclists that when we tell cyclists in Greater Madison where we live they have usually heard of the road, even if they have not ridden it. Walking on our road at the peak of the cycling season, particularly at the weekends, has become dangerous and we have even been subjected to verbal abuse from cyclists and event organizers who appear not to realize that people live in the countryside, and that the roads are not exclusively for their use.

Photo by Jeffrey Phelps

I wrote this in hope that we can develop a code of conduct to encourage behaviors that will improve the relationship between cyclists and rural communities, and allow us to pursue our overlapping interests harmoniously. Below is my list of four behaviors that would have enormous impact.

  • Talk less, and quietly: The open nature of rural landscapes and lack of buildings means sound travels further and appears louder than it does in urban communities. Your conversations sound like yelling to people working in yards and gardens along the road. You may not see us, but we hear your conversations in detail! And PLEASE cut out the profanity!
  • Move to the side quickly when you see or hear traffic: Being safe and welcome is more important than being right. Farming is a seven days a week business and farm implements cannot necessarily stop or maneuver quickly. Trucks are wide, heavy, and dangerous.
  • The law says, “Always ride on the right, in the same direction as other traffic. [346.80(2)(a)] and “Ride as far to the right as is practicable (not as far right as possible)”. It also says, “Riding 2 abreast is permitted on any street as long as other traffic is not impeded. When riding 2 abreast on a 2 or more lane roadway, you both have to ride within a single lane. [346.80(3)(a)]
  • Stop signs apply to you too: As do all traffic signs unless the road has been closed for an event. I know stopping costs you momentum and energy but it keeps you safe. Whoever may be at fault you’re the one that gets hurt: play it safe and play again!
  • Take your trash home: We regularly clean up garbage left in our hedgerows, and hanging on our trees (yes, that really happens!!) by strangers who visit our community. Please be considerate.

Choosing the peace and pace of the countryside over urban life was a conscious decision for most rural families: we give up many facilities and conveniences in exchange for significant reductions in people, dirt, light and noise pollution. Our days start early, as do our nights. We work with our neighbors and municipalities to protect land, vegetation and wildlife, and to manage human impact on the natural world: in fact to create the very environment, that draws so many cyclists to our neighborhoods. It is our hope that by reaching out to you, that you will learn to appreciate that our rural roads are neighborhoods just as your suburban and urban streets are neighborhoods. When strangers choose to play in others’ neighborhoods, they need to do so respectfully and in consideration for the needs of those who occupy those neighborhoods.

There is much to enjoy cycling Wisconsin’s roads. Stay safe, make yourself welcome wherever you cycle, and have a great summer. Thank you for your consideration.

Photo by Jeffrey Phelps

16 thoughts on “Being Respectful As Uninvited Guests

  1. Jacqui — Thanks for the respectful and civil tone. That is much appreciated in these days of political and social incivility. A few comments to add to the discussion:

    Before some other lawyer brings it up, your quotes — if intended to be quotes of the statutes themselves, rather than something else — are not quite accurate. Wis. Stat. sec. 346.80(2)(a) actually provides, in its entirety: “(a) Any person operating a bicycle or electric personal assistive mobility device upon a roadway at less than the normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand edge or curb of the unobstructed traveled roadway, including operators who are riding 2 or more abreast where permitted under sub. (3), except:

    1. When overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction.

    2. When preparing for a left turn or U-turn at an intersection or a left turn into a private road or driveway.

    3. When reasonably necessary to avoid unsafe conditions, including fixed or moving objects, parked or moving vehicles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards or substandard width lanes that make it unsafe to ride along the right-hand edge or curb.”

    And Wis. Stat. sec. 346.80(3)(a) actually states: “Persons riding bicycles or electric personal assistive mobility devices upon a roadway may ride 2 abreast if such operation does not impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic. Bicycle or electric personal assistive mobility device operators riding 2 abreast on a 2-lane or more roadway shall ride within a single lane.” Because so many drivers are unaware that cyclists have the right to ride 2 abreast under the above sections, it is important that when we talk about the right, we state the right accurately.

    Of course (as others have indicated before) the words “if such operation does not impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic,” are not the clearest most unambiguous words in the statute books. And there are no reported court decisions on that statutory section that help in resolving that ambiguity. Perhaps someday the Bike Fed can convince our legislators to clarify the language, so cyclists and drivers have a clear understanding of their obligations and rights.

    I completely agree with you that cyclists contributing to trash along the roadside is completely unacceptable, and something cyclists should not hesitate to call out their fellow riders on, whenever they see it.

    I share your distaste for profane language by cyclists whenever in earshot of rural residents; if I had a magic wand I would fix that for you. But those of us who remember when profanity was much less common in the public sphere, are dwindling, and are swimming against a cultural tide. The 12-year old neighborhood kids who play basketball in my alley and football in my street after school unfortunately swear like sailors. Your reminder however to cyclists to show consideration in regards to language, hopefully may be heard by cyclists who never gave a thought to the issue.

    Thanks again for your comments and suggestions, and best to you and your family for a good summer. Alexander “Sandie” Pendleton

    • Thanks for your feedback Sandie, and especially for receiving my comments in the spirit they were intended.

      I was in two minds about quoting the full statutes or simply clipping parts as “gentle reminders” that the rights are conditional not absolute, for the sake of brevity. I was also trying hard not to sound like an angry “not in my backyard finger pointer!” I appreciate you expanding that piece.

  2. Jacqui, thank you for this helpful perspective! I hope it prompts more considerate and respectful behavior from people riding bikes.

  3. Dear Jacqui,

    Thanks for the great article about spring farmroads and bicycling in Wisconsin.

    In September, I participated in an organized Bike the Barns Ride with my father and daughter. We rode our bicycles around southern Dane County and toured farms. It was nice to meet some of the farmers and see what they do for a living. They sure work hard! We helped raise over $40,000 for partner shares, a program that provides assistance to limited income households for purchasing CSA vegetable shares. Maybe your farm participated or could participate next year.

    I like the tone of your blog post because it seems to seek a common ground. As humans, we all have much more in common than our differences, but we sometimes have to work together to get along.

    I can relate to your description of people who ride bicycles as “uninvited guests” and you describe the road the people ride bicycles on as “our road,”/ your road. You also state that “When strangers choose to play in others’ neighborhoods, they need to do so respectfully and in consideration for the needs of those who occupy those neighborhoods.”

    In the neighborhood I live in with my family, there are no sidewalks (probably like yours). Because of this, my wife and I walk our daughter in a stroller in the road. There is a person who drives a large raised type white pick up truck that often guns his engine, speeds, and drives in a reckless manner. Sometimes I feel like finding him and telling him he is not invited to drive his big loud truck in “my” neighborhood.

    I imagine if you had the option, you would choose to not have any people riding bicycles in your neighborhood, just as if I had the option, I would love it if motor vehicles were banned from my neighborhood. But, as you know, Wisconsinites are free to travel anywhere at any time. Just as the big white truck driver is not really an uninvited guest when he happens to drive near me, I am not really an uninvited guest when I choose to ride my bicycle on roads that may be near your farm.

    I like your point that no matter who is at fault for a crash between a person riding a bicycle and a person driving a motor vehicle, it is the person riding the bicycle who gets hurt (or killed). While this is common sense, and I would expect a classroom full of kindergarteners to all get this one correct on a test, it is a great reminder for people choosing to drive motor vehicles.

    Every time a person gets behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, they should remind themselves, if this motor vehicle that I am controlling comes into contact with a person riding a bicycle or a person walking, I will injure or kill that person. In a perfect world, the person driving the motor vehicle notices a person bicycling or person walking, recites the statement above, and slows their vehicle to 5-10 mph before safely passing the vulnerable road user, or until the vulnerable road user turns onto a different roadway. This guarantees no one gets hurt or killed. In that same perfect world, every person riding a bicycle talks quietly, does not swear, and does not litter.

    The next time I am riding a bicycle near farms in WI I will think of you and do everything I can to keep the neighborhood quiet and clean. I hope if you get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle (including wide, heavy and dangerous trucks), you think of me and my loving family, and if you come up behind me on a road, that you slow to 5 to10 mph before passing and give a friendly smile and wave.

    Fare thee well.

    Clayton Griessmeyer

    • Clayton, I have no desire for cyclists to stop cycling along my road. If that were my desire I would be advocating for that in other forums. I don’t cycle: I walk, and I experience the same poor behavior from some motorists that you describe your family experiencing. I report it to authorities.

      It is idealistic to expect every person to always respect every other person’s needs constantly no matter the circumstances, but I earnestly believe that most of the cyclists have no idea how intrusive they are, hence this post. When I talk about these issues with friends who bike and with event organizers they almost always tell me that they and their friends are very discreet and their event participants are not guilty at all of noise, abuse or inconsideration.

      According to an item on the evening news recently, about 6 percent of the population cycles in Madison, many of them commuting. The traffic is not expected to slow to 5-10 miles per hour to accommodate them, and yet you suggest that rural motorists should do so. We agree that safety is paramount: circumstances, speed limits and statutes dictate how motorists, pedestrians and cyclists accommodate each other. We all simply need to recognize our own roles in ensuring everyone’s safety.

      One of the major differences between city life and rural life is that cities are designed for large numbers of vehicles and people, with accommodations for events. City dwellers expect to deal with traffic and people, rural dwellers not so much. I suspect that if city neighborhoods had groups of noisy, strangers playing in their streets for 8-12 hours a day almost every pleasant evening and weekend from March to November, residents would soon air their frustrations.

      With racing cyclists in my own family, and being part of a large community of professional and amateur racers for much off my life, I am personally extremely courteous to cyclists. I simply ask for the same consideration in return.

      I didn’t participate in Bike the Barns: I live in Iowa County.

      Thanks for the constructive dialog.

      • Dear Jacqui,

        I think we agree on most things. I hope you consider slowing to 5-10 mph even if the maximum speed allowed by the government under ideal conditions may make you think you can or should go faster. Like you said in your original post, “Being safe and welcome is more important than being right.”

        My hope is that people consider the preciousness of human life, rather than the maximum speed the government allows them to travel before potentially receiving a monetary fine.

        When I drive by a park with kids playing soccer near the roadway, I slow down considerably. When I see a basketball roll into the roadway, I stop. When I am hunting and I see movement, I wait until I am certain what I see before pulling the trigger. I take these precautions because I want to minimize my risk of hurting or killing a fellow human being, not because the government tells me I should or should not do something.

        Just as you request people riding in your neighborhood refrain from swearing out of courtesy (not because it is against the law), I make a request that people who hold the lives of others in their hands consider what an awesome responsibility it is to share the road with people on bicycles and people who walk.

        Bicyclists don’t take their lives into their own hands, they put them into yours. I promise to still think of you and ride in a quiet and clean manner the next time I am in farm country.

        Take Care,

        Clay

  4. I recall a landowner’s sign east of Cottage Grove that read “This is God’s country. Please don’t drive through it like hell.” When it comes to safety, noise, and littering, bicyclists can’t hold a candle to joyriding cars, motorcycles, snowmobiles and ATV’s. That doesn’t excuse or justify bad bicyclist behavior of course, but do keep it in perspective.

    Neighborliness and respectfulness works both ways. Landowners: please train your dogs or keep them tied up. Please respect “class B” weight limits, especially in Spring. Please don’t spin driveway gravel onto the road, don’t drive on the shoulder around curves, and mind the debris and spillage that falls from your trailers and implements.

  5. Helpful post and helpful comments that let you consider things rationally.

    Thanks for the timely reminder.

  6. I like to think I am a decent countryside rider, and I imagine most cyclists are. Even with the inevitable noise, I imagine most motorists are decent as well. But who is creating the more acceptable problems? Who creates the “unacceptable” problems?

    Interesting that as I walked my dog this morning, I stepped on a twig, She perked up, and gave us a moment to goof and play. What was that?! Then a nearby traffic light changed, and the still of the morning drowned amidst the roar of the monster trucks and SUVs. The noise that most people desire drowned out the sounds most people don’t care to hear. Six in the morning, and all you hear is traffic. City life is not so loud otherwise.

    I reflected upon the fact that a snapping twig was a sound we were once able to hear. Now the noise of cars and traffic has created such a din that the snap of a twig no longer exists. It has become indiscernible. We have welcomed the noise of cars. It is something we feel helpless to change. Why comment on something as mighty as a car? Let’s find an easy target.

    It’s an acquired taste, perhaps. Maybe it is mindlessness. But we consider car noises and machine noises OK, even in the country. Like we “have to” make all that noise. Since my car is loud, loud cars are OK. If I talk quietly, loud conversation is bad.

    This very blog has stated that the level of adherence to the law is roughly the same amongst drivers and cyclists. Yet, cyclists get the rap for being scofflaws and awful people. My interpretation of this is that because cyclists are the minority, they are the “other” everyone, even fellow cyclists, seeks to blame. While obviously the Clif Bar wrapper in your tree came from a cyclist, what about the vodka bottle in the ditch or the hoodie in the brambles? Do cyclists litter more? Is that the problem? Then say so. Obviously cyclists take up road space and go slowly, but do cyclists create more traffic hassles than cars? Do they kill more people, cause more crashes, and create more delays?

    I ride in the country and regularly see deep, dark skid marks weaving all across the road. Gee, I wonder where that 12-pack of Miller Lite came from? Some passing peloton? There is shattered glass scattered under the mailbox. I see scuffs in pavement where a car landed after an airborne ride over the rise in the railroad tracks. Could someone point me to the blog post where the locals vent statewide about this mayhem? Of course not. Crickets. Drivers will be drivers.

    Cyclists are an easy target, because you can see them – the human being reducing your quality of life. The Bike Fed will publish this post, since they are concerned about quality of life issues. If you were to complain about motorist behavior, the American Automobile Association or the Wisconsin Roadbuilders would not give you the time of day. Motorists are not expected to be nice, so we don’t ask for courtesy or kindness from them. Cyclists become prejudiced against cyclists, just as motorists are prejudiced against cyclists.Tell those people working on quality of life that they have to do better. We punch the target we can hit.

    I will ride nicely in your neighborhood, yet will be more baffled than ever as to why I am seen and treated as a less desireable guest than the cars.

  7. This post reminded me of this true story:
    I was once talking to a teenager who said, “Oh God! Don’t tell my mom you ride a bike! She hates bikers!” When I asked why, she said her mom had to wait, “like ten minutes” to get out of her driveway because cyclists were in the way. Undeterred, I later asked the mother about this. She did agree that she did not like cyclists, and that the delay drove her nuts. Further inquiry revealed that once a year, the Miller Lite Ride for the Arts passed her North Shore neighborhood, and thus made it hard to get out of the driveway that morning. It is so easy to hate cyclists.

    When I encounter cyclists behaving badly, and I occasionally do, I will continue to confront them as individuals and point out the disservice they do to fellow cyclists. I will temper this with the knowledge that I am dealing with someone who, in our society, is treated like little more than a hunted animal,and is courageous for being on two wheels in the first place. However…. I will not lump cyclists into a stereotypical group and bash them with tired cliches. There is too much of that counter-productivity already. I have read this blog post, worded differently, so many times in the past that I have lost count. While some never tire of bashing cyclists, I am tired of being bashed. You could say, “It doesn’t apply to you.” Well, it doesn’t apply to most of us. No thanks to the “reminder.” I am sick of being reminded. Do you really think the jerks are reading the BikeFed blog? There are only so many times one wants to hear that cyclists suck. How about a little shout-out to the cyclists instead? Hooray for us!

    • @Lance, both Polish Dave’s at the Bike Fed thought there was value in running this politely written post. I agree with you and Clay on pretty much every point of rebuttal, and we will continue to write blogs and magazine stories making all those same points. I have personally done traffic studies and speed studies that showed people on bikes are less likely to break the law than people driving motor vehicles. I am the passenger who asks his friends not to drive over the speed limit and tells them they should have stopped let a cross the street. I see a lot more cigarette packs, McDonalds bags and beer cans on in the ditch than I do energy bar wrappers or empty Gu packs. I have even considered a Bike Fed membership marketing campaign the shows people wearing a super hero cape by their bikes, to make the point about all the benefits society gets when a kid rides his bike to school, someone rides to work or a group of friends go for a recreational ride. From reduced healthcare costs for everyone, to cleaner air, less congestion, decreased dependence on fossil fuels, more disposable income to spend on local goods and even reduced crime, riding a bike is a simple solution to so many complicated problems, not to mention the $2 billion economic impact it has in our state.

      That said, I also see great value in both reminding our Bike Fed members that when we travel through other communities, we essentially are uninvited guests (I came up with that by the way, not Jacqui) and good manners go a long way. I can’t tell you how many times I have been embarrassed on group rides by people riding three up, two up in the motor vehicle travel lane when there is a 4 or 5 ft paved shoulder, or running red lights when there were cars queued up waiting. I’ve been told I’m no fun to ride with for trying to politely ask others in the group to tighten, move right and wait for the light to change.

      I grew up living in urban Milwaukee, playing baseball and other games on my street as a kid and people driving had to slow or wait for us to move when they drove through. Then I moved to what was at the time, a very rural area of Muskego. My nearest friend was a 15 minute bike ride from my house, which was surrounded by farmland. I enjoyed hunting out my back yard, raising chickens next to a huge garden and making our own ice rink. Now I live in urban Milwaukee again and I love the sound of the neighbor kids outside playing games and riding their bikes until dark.

      I do get waived at riding my bike in the country, and have positive exchanges if I stop and talk to a farmer, someone hunting or even to ask for water from a hose. I even have one farmer I know with a bar in the barn where I can stop for a beer when I pass.

      So while I am proud to advocate for cycling, I also feel like we should continue to remind our fellow riders that some of us can do better.

  8. I am sorry that my comments here have offended some of you. I can assume that more people are offended than those who chose to comment. If anything in my remarks lead readers to believe that I deplore the behaviors of inconsiderate cyclists more than I deplore those of inconsiderate motorists, or others in our society, you were mislead. What I hoped was that my comments may help cyclists better appreciate that while suburban and urban communities are specifically designed to accommodate the needs of people, rural communities are not.

    I do not despise cyclists or wish they would not ride in rural areas. In fact, in my community I am often the most vocal advocate of striving for reasonable accommodations that allow us all to get along. My working title for this blog was “Welcome to our Rural Neighborhood,” because my goal was to develop a dialog with serious cyclists that would improve an often fraught relationship. The published title was not of my design, and I do think it implies a less welcoming tone than I hoped to deliver.

    • Jacqui — Thanks (to you and Dave) for the clarification regarding the title. I think your title Jacqui better captures what you were trying to convey, as a friend, to the cycling community. The term “Dutch Uncle” comes to my mind (a person given firm and often un-welcomed advice, out of motivations that are benevolent and well-intentioned). Thanks. — Alexander “Sandie” Pendleton

    • @Jacqui, as I mentioned in my reply to Lance above, I added the uninvited guests title because that really is what we are. To me it doesn’t have a negative connotation, since all travelers and tourists are essentially uninvited guests. Since it does seem to have a negative tone to some readers, I added a note in my introduction that I wrote that title and you wrote Welcome to Our Rural Neighborhood. I also thought your post reads polite and respectful, but there are quite a few people who are sick of being honked at, flipped off, having beer cans tossed at them, coal rolled, intentionally run off the road into the ditch or been hit because the person behind the wheel was inattentive (all have happened to me). So it is not surprising to me that you got some pushback, despite your non-confrontational tone in the post. I do think you were successful in starting a dialogue. Not everyone is going to agree with you, and the conversation is not always going to be easy, but I appreciate hearing from you and your neighbors.

      • A comment from Jacqui helps me understand, and may help her understand, how an urban/suburban cyclist like me can be so prickly.
        She mentions that cities, unlike rural areas, are designed to meet the needs of people. I have no idea how this applies to rural areas, but I have done enough reading and thinking to understand that cities and suburbs are designed to meet the needs of cars, not people. While I do drive a fair amount, I at least identify more and make more trips as a cyclist, and often feel unwelcome in the mechanized hell of the modern city – my home.
        Like other cyclists, I flee to rural areas. The open spaces and relative lack of cars provide relief. Negativity, while rare, usually comes from a motorist inexplicably enraged in the midst of peace. It is unfortunately true that a fraction of us as cyclists get overexuberant during our escape and play the fool. We would be better to be no more noisy than the cows and leave the place as we found it.

        (As a side note, I think cyclists sometimes talk loudly because their motion constantly creates wind in their ears. This, combined with atmospheric wind, carries their voices. To someone standing in a field or sitting on a porch, this might sound unnecessarily loud. Yet the cyclists can barely hear each other. I talk louder on a bicycle than almost anywhere else. Yet people are always saying “WHAT?”. This is why we cock our heads to try to hear each other).

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