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Essay: Road rage and the science of happiness

Posted by on July 14th, 2008 at 4:37 pm

Graphic that accompanied the essay
in Momentum Magazine.
(Illustration by Chris Bentzen)

The always interesting Momentum Magazine (based in Vancouver, BC) has published a timely essay in their July/August issue.

Bike Rage by Charles Montgomery is a provocative look into the psychological, cultural and infrastructural origins of road rage.

Montgomery bases his insights on the research of “road rage guru” Dr. Leon James. James literally wrote the book on the subject and he says that rage on the roads is “quite predictable” due to several factors.

Here’s a snip from Montgomery’s essay,

“…the driving experience primes car drivers for meltdowns.

They are conditioned by popular culture to see cars as symbols of freedom, yet city driving is a slow-motion trap that subjects drivers to constant restrictions on their movement. Drivers are thwarted from enjoying the promise of motion by traffic lights, by congestion – and yes, by cyclists – and they suffer the natural but impossible desire to escape and move forward…”

Montgomery also touches on something I’ve also been thinking about in various contexts — the idea that how we act on the roads (both with the potential for stress and traffic law compliance) is a direct result of how those roads are designed. He writes:

“…road rage is a symptom of the corrosive effect that modern commuting has on urban culture. Aggressive streets are not just dangerous, they change the way we feel and the way we treat each other, even when we’re not commuting.

… the problem is that city planners have mixed bikes and cars together in ways that offer little certainty about how each should operate, and lots of chances for conflict. Cyclists feel threatened in traffic, just like drivers. Many of us feel hard done by and under attack. I sure do. The average arterial road is an engine of conflict.

Montgomery also touches on the success of Bogota, Colombia. As we learned at the recent Carfree Conference, Bogota has seen a precipitous drop in reported crimes (and many more happy people) since transforming their city with more public space and miles of physically separated bikeways.

So what’s the solution to calming tempers on the road?

Montgomery writes that he plans to, “ease up on the outrage and channel my frustration into urban design activism.”

“Call the city’s traffic department, paint a bike lane, write a letter, vote, keep riding, breathe, feel the sheer joy of movement in every commute. And let that joy flow out through an open smile.”

Read the full article here.

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  • Klixi July 14, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    Exactly! A smile, a nod, a wave. I used to be a negative person until I realized I was causing the negativity. You\’d be floored what a smile a nod or a wave will do to the recipient, and how they\’ll likely return it – and you\’ll both leave in a better mood. :D

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  • djasonpenney July 14, 2008 at 5:45 pm

    I find some of Montgomery\’s thesis interesting, but I don\’t entirely agree. Since I went car-light in November, I\’d estimate the number of hours I spend driving has dropped probably 85%. I still drive, but only under very special circumstances, like when our entire family travels together to a common destination.

    In my case, at least, I have found that since I spend so much less time driving, I really don\’t hate it as much. Consequently, I\’m bound to be more patient. I don\’t race up to lights. I\’m less likely to speed. I\’m less likely to be frustrated by long delays and congestion.

    I\’m convinced that I harbor a full-blown resentment against the amount of time I wasted sitting in a car. It doesn\’t matter if it\’s a sports car with air conditioning, five-point Infinity stereo speakers, and my favor iPod tracks; it\’s still time wasted. Now that it\’s not sucking so much of my day (and my dollars), I\’m definitely a nicer, calmer, and safer driver.

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  • Mark Allyn July 14, 2008 at 8:19 pm

    We pay big $$$$$ for our cars, especially the SUV\’s. . . .

    Then why oh why are we so impatient to get out of those vehicles to which we owe our paychecks to?

    I only paid $700.00 for my bicycle. Why am I not impatient to get off of it?

    The things that I pay big bucks for (sewing machine, welding equipment, lights, LED\’s, etc are definately things that I am NOT impatient to get off or or away from?

    Interesting . . .



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  • PoPo July 14, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    Very cool. Here\’s to letting the joy flow.

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  • Klixi July 14, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    Great points. Yet another reason I went to Dutch bicycles. Why is everyone always hunched over and racing to where they are going? I love my time on my bike… you better believe I\’m going to ride as slow and long as possible to take it all in. I purposely slow down when I notice a stale green light just so I can get stopped and take pause to enjoy the city (I do most my riding in downtown).

    I still think America suffers from \”fast=cool\” syndrome. Just like the nerds in the souped up cars racing in the streets, cyclists think the faster they go, the more cool/pro they appear. I laugh inside. ;)

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  • phycholist July 14, 2008 at 10:42 pm

    Klixi-I agree that those of us who are hunched over and in a \”hurry\” might be fast=cool, but I will take a bunch of people racing around on bikes as opposed to cars any day. Any fat idiot can push a pedal down burn some gas and go fast, but to make a bike go fast takes a whole lot more dedication. Oh & you \”taking it all in\” people need to stop weaving and your eyes on the road. If you want to stop and smell the roses pull over.;)

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  • SkidMark July 14, 2008 at 11:35 pm

    I find that triangulating my weight between my arms and my butt to be more comfortable than an upright riding position. I also like to go fast on bikes with ape-hangers…

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  • BURR July 14, 2008 at 11:46 pm

    erratic riding and weaving forces other cyclists and motorists to slow down, and I think that\’s a good thing.

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  • Donald July 15, 2008 at 12:06 am

    I got this cool MRI film showing this awesome disc protrusion in my back that pushes against this nerve bundle somewhere about…here.

    Anyway, I can\’t stand long enough to complete a shave.

    And sleeping (or trying to) sucks.

    The only place I\’m comfortable? On my decades old brooks atop my decades old English steel frame and bent over my drops. 10 miles each way every day and it\’s the only pain free time I get.

    So maybe hunched over ain\’t your thang. Tis mine. At least until that neurosurgeon appointment next month.

    (Oh, but my favorite thing to say to jill and johnny speedster in the morning is \”I\’m just not in that much hurry to get to work. See if you catch me coming back.\”)

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  • Klixi July 15, 2008 at 12:15 am

    psycholist #6 said: \”Oh & you \”taking it all in\” people need to stop weaving and your eyes on the road. If you want to stop and smell the roses pull over.;)\”

    From what I\’ve seen, the slower people DO stay in line. It\’s the fast folks weaving in and out of traffic and behaving erratically that seem to cause the most problems. If us slow, leisurely and careful people are such a hazard, how come we seem to be the ones who are most unlikely to be involved in any accident or confrontation?

    Just sayin\’ ;)

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  • Duncan July 15, 2008 at 3:02 am

    I liked the article- I saw some of my own past interactions with cars in there…. when I got clipped last winter I said some very unkind things to the driver of the car that hit me… I resolved this by getting an airhorn. I figured a honk was better than a curse.

    The comments on this thread have been less interesting- the typical road bike vs dutch bike vs. whatever… Frankly I do not see the point. I have seen someone on each of these types of rides do something patently stupid in my time in Portland. The primary tool for safe operation of a bike sits between the ears- and no I do not mean a helmet.

    And as to the poster about bent over vs. sitting up, faster vs slower; I find that a road bike positioning is far more comfortable and allows me to use the right muscles for long the kind of long bike rides I favor. I like it so much i sold my last flat-bar bike to by a cycle-cross bike. And I bike fast not to look cool or \”pro\” (How many pros use flats and wear tevas and carhartts?) but because that is how I like to bike, and so long as I am not endangering anyone (by running lights or speeding ferinstance) what business is it of yours how fast I bike? slower traffic stays right, I pass and you can push your 80lbs of finely-crafted steel to your hearts content (and when I am biking with my dog, I will stay right for you- fair enough?).

    And Burr- being predictable means being safe. When people know your intentions they can avoid you- don\’t go wandering all over the road and then expect sympathy when someone traveling the speed limit clips you when you dodge our across a couple lanes of traffic without signaling).

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  • isamu July 15, 2008 at 4:13 am

    Why is everyone always hunched over and racing to where they are going?

    The mantra of the slow and weak.

    yours in Christ,

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  • rixtir July 15, 2008 at 6:27 am

    Why, then, do the \”fast and strong\” cyclists complain about drivers who are racing to where they are going?


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  • Brad July 15, 2008 at 8:34 am

    Are \”fast and strong\” riders doing the complaining? It seems to me that most of the complaining here is urban commuters, comfort bike devotees, and the world famous \”interested but concerned\” crowd.

    When I go on Saturday morning club rides there are barely any stories about bad motorists and close calls. My hunch is that \”fast and strong\” also equates to \”skilled and confident\”. It may also mean \”accepting reasonable risks and anticipating the unexpected\”.

    Riding a bike is just like driving a car. Good riders and drivers know their abilities, are aware of the conditions, and think three moves ahead. Bad riders / drivers overestimate their skills, allow their minds to wander, and do not approach their craft proactively.

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  • rixtir July 15, 2008 at 8:37 am

    I hear complaints about speeding drivers who buzz too close from \”fast and strong\” club riders all the time.

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  • beth h July 15, 2008 at 8:53 am

    Here\’s a complaint from a slower bicycle rider about the \”fast-twitch\” cycling set, who sometimes buzz ME when we\’re in the same bike lane. Occasionally they also yell at me that I\’m too slow to be on the road. These are other bicycle riders! Rage doesn\’t only affect drivers.

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  • rixtir July 15, 2008 at 9:07 am

    So-called \”cyclists\” yelling at cyclists to get off the road. Nice. They\’re probably in a hurry to get back to the Hummer and load the bike up so they can get back to the office.

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  • Brad July 15, 2008 at 9:10 am

    If the fast rider screams at you for being too slow, then he\’s a selfish jerk. If he is forced to overtake you (especially on a descent) and must stay in the bike lane due to auto traffic, that\’s fair game. I am sorry that some of my spandexed bretheren have frightened you but it isn\’t always a matter of malice.

    I never advocate agressive riding around newbies, slower riders, and peds. Hence, why I avoid the Esplanade and Springwater because it isn\’t designed for my type of riding. That said, ALL users need to be more aware of non-car traffic and create space for others.

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  • jeff July 15, 2008 at 9:16 am

    oh rixtir, you are so ripe with your stereotypes, you add nothing. nothing.

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  • rixtir July 15, 2008 at 9:18 am

    Thanks for adding something there.

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  • Lazlo July 15, 2008 at 9:27 am

    A little love, people. I ride fast when I can, slow when I must. I pass when it\’s sage, wait when it\’s not. If you\’re in my way, that\’s my problem. There\’s room for all of us if we\’ll just be patient and respectful. If you\’re passing someone, whether another bike or a pedestrian on a mup, please let them know with an on the left or a bell. Peace.

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  • Lazlo July 15, 2008 at 9:27 am

    A little love, people. I ride fast when I can, slow when I must. I pass when it\’s safe, wait when it\’s not. If you\’re in my way, that\’s my problem. There\’s room for all of us if we\’ll just be patient and respectful. If you\’re passing someone, whether another bike or a pedestrian on a mup, please let them know with an on the left or a bell. Peace.

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  • Dag July 15, 2008 at 10:05 am

    Word, Lazlo.

    I find it\’s much easier to control my temper on my bike. When I used to car commute the tiniest things would piss me off, and I was generally pissed off most of my commute. Now I only get angry if someone endangers me, and even then I return to calm within a minute or two.

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  • Klixi July 15, 2008 at 10:18 am

    Duncan #11 said\” \”so long as I am not endangering anyone (by running lights or speeding ferinstance) what business is it of yours how fast I bike?\”

    I hear drivers say the same thing. \”I can ride fast because I\’m super pro and I\’ll never endanger anyone.\” Knock on wood.

    If you like to ride fast that\’s totally fine. I\’m not saying you can\’t, but what I am saying is that it should be done in sensible areas (the longer stretches in SE, the Springwater Corridor, etc). I live in the Pearl district and see SO many dorked out lycra freaks runnins stop signs and reds from NW 23rd to SW 1st and Madison because they\’re too busy pretending they\’re in a Lucas Brunelle video.

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  • jeff July 15, 2008 at 11:33 am

    \”dorked out lycra freaks\”

    Jesus, STFU. The stereotypes don\’t accomplish a damn thing. Realize there are a**holes of all types. Should I cull a few from my ride in? Cars, fixies, yellowjackets, peds, busses – stupidity everywhere. What does this namecalling accomplish? Nothing. And Rixtir, calling you on your bullsh*t does add something, but only in the context of your \’nothing\’ posts.

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  • SkidMark July 15, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    \”Dorked out lycra freaks\” aren\’t watching Lucas Brunelle videos, messengers and fake-engers are. Some of them have lycra shorts under their Carharts, though.

    As far as road rage goes for cyclists, it is the fact that when a car driver makes a moving violation or isn\’t paying attention, they can kill me. To them minor infractions are not life-threatening. For car drivers it is the fact that is often appears as if we are getting away with something, or we are doing something they can\’t do, like going up to the stoplight instead of waiting behind a line of cars while the light changes red before you get to the intersection.

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  • David Feldman July 15, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    When I drive, I\’m still the same anti-motorist bigot that I am when cycling.
    That means I assume that while burning oil I have a morally lesser (?) right to use the road than someone travelling under their own power, and treat them accordingly.

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  • phycholist July 15, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    I would rather ride with my head down, focused and on my shoulders than up and off dreaming in the clouds. Being on a bike is a wonderful sense of freedom, but it comes with responsibility.

    Remember kids, alcohol and riding do not mix. Alcohol and fighting do.

    I would say \”on your left\” to some of you, but when I do you look left and lean left turning your ride right in front of me.


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  • Dave July 17, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    Is it possible that the (in some circles) fashionable mindset of \”sit up straight, don\’t wear any funny bike clothes, ride slow\” results in inattentive cycling. I, for one, believe that it does. There\’s an enormous middle ground between race geeks and the slower-is-better types. Many of us live in a part of that middle ground believing that some amount of speed is an attribute for US urban riding. I KNOW that I don\’t live in Amsterdam and don\’t pretend otherwise.

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  • kg July 19, 2008 at 7:10 am

    I just want to thank everyone for riding a bike. As long as you ride safely and obey the rules ride whatever and however suites you best and makes you happy. Smiling at people and saying hello even when they may be doing something you don\’t like will make you and them have a better day.

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