I’ve long had a habit, like many others, of giving a cheery wave to motorists who slow down to let me cross when I approach a zebra crossing on my bike. Even if sometimes it’s just a quick raise of the hand – sorry, I need that hand back on my handlebar, there’s a tight turn just on the other side of the crossing!*

A few months back, I saw a conversation on Twitter about this. I can’t find it now, and am loath to put words in people’s mouths in case I’ve remembered wrong, but the gist of it was this:

Why should people on bikes wave and smile at motorists, even if (or especially if) motorists are just doing the right thing (i.e. not running you over)? Isn’t that just perpetuating the stereotyped societal expectations – that the weak and vulnerable always have to be on their best behaviour to ‘deserve’ proper treatment, and that we’re obliged to be polite and thankful, just in case?

The tweeters drew comparisons to the way women have been expected to behave towards men (deferential, polite – smile!), and how the poor need to be grateful, meek and industrious to ‘deserve’ help and govt benefits, and so on.

The conversation definitely struck a chord with me, because the angry-about-cyclists crowd does sometimes use that same language of deserving vs. undeserving: you know, ‘If they only obeyed the law, they wouldn’t get hit‘, etc.

I recall one retailer in a stakeholder meeting for an Auckland cycleway project who pulled out the old chestnut about how ‘not a penny more should be spent on bikeways until every single rider obeys the road code.’ I may have blown my top – although thankfully without getting personal – by noting that hundreds of people are killed every year by motorists ignoring the road code. I don’t think I made a new convert for bikes that evening.

Essentially, the thinking seems to be that people on bikes should not only be on their best behaviour at all times, they should also be conspicuously, visibly, audibly grateful for all the bikeways being built at the moment. (Never mind the fact those bikeways are barely scratching the surface after decades of underinvestment… And that there are constant project delays…. And that Auckland is still barely spending 5% of the transport budget on bikes…)

At a crossing, presumably this would translate into something like: ”If I stop for one of you louts (and you know you are not supposed to ride across, but I have magnanimously stopped for you anyway!), then doffing your hat is the least you can do.”‘ And a person on a bike being super-polite and deferential about being allowed to cross the road might underscore assumptions that we’re still second-class citizens out there.

Still, even though I can see this argument, I still wave my thanks whenever someone in a car gives way to me on my bike.

Why?

I guess it’s for the same reason I try to smile at people I meet along the bikeway. Because it offers a moment of shared humanity on the road that’s pretty rare in a car-based lifestyle. A quick communication, with a positive touch. It’s common courtesy. Sure, the act of stopping a car to let people cross the street may be the absolute bare minimum you’d expect of a decent fellow human being…  but it’s still a nice thing to do. And it’s a lot nicer than some of the things that people in charge of cars do around us all the time.

Same goes for smiling at pedestrians I come across on the bikeway. I’m keen for pedestrians to associate people on bikes with positivity, because until New Zealand stops building shared paths, we do need to coexist peacefully out there. So I smile, both because I’m enjoying my ride, and because I’d love them to think ‘Hey, those people on bikes look like a happy, friendly lot. Maybe I could give it a go one day…’

Of course, you shouldn’t be expected to smile at every driver who gives way or each pedestrian you pass. And I’d never tell someone else they have to smile or wave. I’d just say, do it if you feel like it, because there’s no harm in it, and likely some good. Riding a bike is a joy – and why not share that?


*A legal sidebar on riding across crossings

One question that immediately comes up whenever we discuss this sort of thing is: ‘Am I breaking the law if I ride across a crossing rather than dismount?’ Turns out, that’s an interesting legal grey area.

There’s no explicit clause in the road rules prohibiting cyclists from riding over a pedestrian crossing. However, if there’s a ‘Cyclists Dismount’ sign, apparently I should get off and push my bike across (and yet, these signs are not explicitly mentioned in New Zealand’s road rules, so they occupy a grey area of their own).

If there’s no dismount sign, I can happily ride across the zebra, just as I can legally ride my bike – or indeed drive my car – across a street to access the other side, as long as my way is clear.

So yes: it ain’t illegal to ride across (contrary to the opinion of that one bloke a few years back, who stopped in the no stopping zone to lecture me about it…), unless it’s explicitly forbidden (and even then, the law is oddly mute).

But here’s the catch – there’s a peculiar gap in the law. If I dismount and walk my bike across, I become a pedestrian for legal purposes, which means drivers must of course give way to me.

But if I’m pedalling across the zebra in perfectly legal (or at least not illegal) fashion, the road code doesn’t explicitly require motorists to give way to me as a cyclist.

That’s right – nothing in the law says a motorist must give way to a person riding a bike across a zebra crossing – even a kid or a newspaper delivery person who can legally ride on the footpath – and even though of course they must give way to a pedestrian walking right next to me on the zebra crossing. Or a person in a wheelchair. Or someone riding a mobility scooter, or using a ‘wheeled recreational device‘, like for example a scooter or a skateboard, a powered one, even, or a child’s trike, or a bike with wheels smaller than 355mm, which incidentally includes Bromptons and many folding bikes…

…but not me, on my bike. At that moment, even surrounded by all those other categories of wheeled people on a zebra crossing, I’m invisible in the law. You see the conundrum!

We turned to Glen Koorey of CAN and Cycling in Christchurch to help shed some light on this, as he’s been involved in work to tidy up this whole area:

This conundrum is why you are starting to see some crossings that are hybrids to get around the current rules. The Road User Rule allows you to put a Give Way against a road so that a path has right of way. So that is being used to give precedence to cyclists crossing, while the existing zebra crossings rules already give pedestrians precedence. The new ‘TO CYCLISTS & PEDESTRIANS’ plate under the Give Way helps to clarify the situation for approaching drivers.

An example of a shared crossing in Christchurch (image: Glen Koorey)

Glen reports that possible solutions include extending the give way rules of pedestrian crossings to include cyclists, as well potentially a new ‘path crossing’ treatment that could be used for side-road crossings by paths using a couple of marked parallel lines. These suggestions are currently working their way through NZTA, along with a raft of different walk/cycle rule changes; some of which may see the light of day in a mass ‘omnibus’ Rule amendment later this year while others might happen in a special walk/cycle Rule amendment package later.

So, there’s hope for closing that loophole, along with others that leave vulnerable road users exposed.

Meanwhile, in news that won’t make you cross: you may have spotted  the new crossings in progress around the roundabout on Franklin Rd, which make explicit space for people on bikes.

And we’ve heard from AT that the upgrade of the Carrington Rd crossing, a busy spot along the NW cycleway (which lost its routinely disregarded ‘Cyclists Dismount’ signs some time ago), is finally on the way. Woohoo!

Header image and below: Carrington Rd crossing on a recent busy weekend

Carrington Rd crossing. In the absence of ‘Cyclists Dismount’ signs, these people can legally pedal across. But in the absence of ‘Give Way to Cyclists’ signs, the drivers may not be legally obliged to give way to them! The law certainly has some gaps in it… and in any case, isn’t it more efficient for everyone if people on bikes pedal on through?
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4 responses to “Common courtesy: why I wave at motorists who let me cross

  1. Since the tunnel opened traffic on Carrington road has decreased but I notice that it is now travelling faster so more reluctant to slow down and give way. I have noticed more cars forcing their way across instead of slowing to give way. I am greatly looking forward to the changes.

  2. Interesting point of discussion – I too always wave a quick thank you to drivers if they stop for me. Being a white, European male and therefore, according to the current thinking in some parts of society, blessed with all manner of privileges I simply do it because it is polite to do so; a common courtesy.

    As for the planned improvements to the Carrington Road crossing I have to agree with the observations from Wayne so they can’t come soon enough. One point on this though – and slightly off topic – but is there any view on when Sutherland Road will ever get relaid with a bike friendly road surface?

  3. Hopefully, cheerfully saying thanks or being thankful, isn’t consuming a set amount of thankfulness that needs to be carefully rationed or just handed out when a complex set of values align. I (occasionally) get angry with people when it may not be deserved and regret it afterwards. I don’t think I’ve ever regretted giving someone a cherry good morning or saying thanks and I don’t think it’s in anyway degrading. It seems it is the role of many people in cars to judge, people on bikes can enjoy the moment.

  4. This is great, and I do the same. A quick wave to thank drivers or peds for giving way or letting me through. Imagine a city where this was the norm!

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