Nothing ruins a bad relationship like a budding friendship. That’s just the point behind Greater Wellington Regional Council’s effort to bring bus drivers and bike riders together to share their experiences on the road through their Bus n’ Bike workshops. Inspired by the research and success of Being Cycle Aware programs run by Cycle Action Network, the GWRC has sponsored three workshops with Valley Flyer and Go Wellington drivers over the last year.
Yesterday, Friday the 13th, bike riders and Valley Flyer bus drivers gathered in Lower Hutt to try out each other’s rides (and possibly challenge the inauspicious date). Thirteen drivers met with 5 cyclists for a leisurely ride around Lower Hutt and then a heart-thumping test drive of a couple 12-ton behemoth buses. Okay, for the drivers, the leisure and heart-thumping may have been reversed, but for me, one of the lucky cyclists in attendance, those moments in the air-cushioned driver’s seat of a Valley Flyer ignited my nerves like… say… a close call with a passing bus?
For me, these were the best moments:
1. The revelations. Who doesn’t love to see learning in action? While riding into a right-hand turn lane with a driver, I could almost hear the mechanics of her mind at work when she suddenly understood the purpose of taking the entire lane. Our cycle guide, Simon from GWRC, had explained that it’s safer for visibility through the intersection but it was only at the moment when the driver had to navigate her bike across traffic with a few cars on her back that she felt the vulnerability of her spot on the road. “So that’s why they do that! Now it makes sense.”
2. The new riders. I’m excited to keep in touch with two drivers, Nina and Whiti, who have recently buddied up to ride bikes to work. Whiti started it. He wanted to get in shape so his bike-riding nephew got him a bike and accompanied him on his first few rides to work. Then, Nina wanted in, so Whiti promised to ride with her on their 20-minute commutes. More on them in another post.
3. The awareness. Call me a dreaming softie wedded to the fair ideals of hope (which, truth be told, would make me really happy), but I loved hearing the unsolicited confirmation from drivers that they’re aware of the position of riders around them and often anxious about riders’ proximity to the kerb on narrow roads. When a few drivers vented their frustration at falling behind schedule due to tailing a cyclist, I cheered, literally, to hear two members of bus company management remind them that safety is a priority over timetables.
4. The dead spot. I had my suspicions about bus blindspots but actually locating the gaping hole of doom on the left side of the bus from the driver’s seat provided best evidence. A few feet behind the bus’s front wheels, the world completely disappears from the system of mirrors used by the drivers. The drivers were well aware of the spot and commented extensively on the hunt they’ve all made to locate cyclists and pedestrians who go “missing” from their sight on that side of the bus. Most riders know they should never overtake a bus on the left side. But, if a cyclist finds himself in that danger zone, don’t linger. Either clear out to the footpath, let the bus pass or get well ahead of the front of the bus.
5. The unnecessary attacks by uninvolved grumpy people. During the ride, I got to share with the drivers the unnerving joy of a good, unprovoked verbal assault by a grumpy pedestrian who became suddenly irate with our group’s presence on the street. “Move to the side! Don’t hog the street!” Grumpy McGrumplestien screeched. To which, one of the drivers, a little wobbly on her bike, shouted back, “Wh-Why?” Lady Miss Grumpsalot had a few choice to share but we were on the move. Grumpypants O’Gooberpoop could stew in her own misery.
At the end of our Freaky Friday step-into-my-shoes fun-for-all, we reconvened to discuss any new revelations about sharing the road. Simon reviewed the cause of the 24 reported– the actual number is probably much higher– bus/bike collisions from 2005-2010. Although more than a few of the accidents were caused by cyclists– either inexperienced, or just plain stupid– a slight majority were determined by police to be the fault of the driver, including a couple intentional collisions resulting from bus intimidation.
Being well out-numbered, it was understandable that the cyclists among us would be treated to a number of horror stories that had tainted drivers’ opinion of us. Riders speeding out of side streets in front of buses is a scourge to them. They bristle at night-riders who camouflage themselves in the dark without lights. They don’t like riders who compete with them in bus only lanes. They’d appreciate it if group riders could form into a single file when traffic is slowing behind them. They want cyclists to make eye contact with them when possible, and they appreciate an honest smile and a wave (promising that they wouldn’t bite or flash a less than congenial gesture in response. Note: These were only 12 drivers; no promises elicited from the entire profession).
The riders communicated their respect for the complexity and understandable stress of the bus driver’s role. Not only are the drivers responsible for navigating their lumbering people-movers, but they also must interact with the people being moved. Distraction is an inherent issue in the job and the drivers all have to overcome passenger drama to retain their focus on the road– and vehicles– ahead. The riders also asked for understanding and respect. Bikes are vulnerable on the road. Our presence occasionally may annoy them, but we’re there, and we want our journeys to be safe. Appreciation for the drivers’ role in diminishing the number of cars on the road was also expressed.
Most encouraging was the common ground that everyone in the room– cyclists and drivers, alike– could agree on. There was no question as to the necessity of riders taking the lane when necessary on narrow roads, winding roads and at intersections. A couple drivers even acknowledged that they don’t feel any competition with riders on certain, winding roads– those of Eastbourne were noted– as it would be unsafe for the buses to go much faster than the bikes. (I foresee the comments to that one– go ahead, I know we’ve all be left in the wash on some dizzy turn or other in Wellington.) Everyone in the room also agreed that greater information sharing is necessary. For example, who among us knows which lanes in the CBD are bus-only, prohibiting all traffic except buses, and which are just plain old bus lanes, available for cycle and limited other traffic? Here’s a big hint: Manners, Willis, and Lambton Quay are all bus-only. I think that distinction was a new one for most of us in the room.
A clear sign of our blossoming… er… tolerance for each other, all the drivers agreed that cyclists are, just like they are, human. Cyclists are just as prone to mistake and bad judgment as the drivers are and just as worthy of respect and protection from harm. We’re all just trying to get from point A to point B, after all. We should share the road kindly so that pursuit is safe.
The Bus n’ Bike workshops will continue, with the bus company and GWRC considering a quarterly schedule. Stay tuned here for more information if you’d like to participate in the future. To date, two meetings have been held with the Valley Flyers drivers in Lower Hutt and one with the Go Wellington drivers in Evans Bay. I highly recommend the experience because making friends with bus drivers is a pretty brilliant way to make sure they don’t run you down.
Finally, an aside. Let me tell you, the more I learn about the work of the GWRC’s Walking and Cycling team, the more impressed I am by their inspired commitment to encouraging safe and sustainable transport. If there’s anything missing from their passionate plans, it may be the public’s knowledge of it. So, well, let me send a dual purpose shout out right here: keep up the good work!