— This essay was written by Julian Day-Cooney, PhD, a researcher at Oregon Health & Sciences University.
The most traumatic interaction I’ve ever had with a motorist happened to me last week while biking south on Vancouver Ave just south of Alberta St. I haven’t been able to shake my thoughts surrounding this encounter — what I could have done differently and what could have happened to me if I responded with any less grace toward this driver.
As the light turned green at the Alberta intersection, I was approaching stopped cyclists in the bike lane so I signaled to the drivers behind me that I was passing them by coming into the car lane. After passing them and going farther down Vancouver, a motorist in I believe to be a maroon SUV (it was hard to see in the dark) came up alongside me and rolled down his window and berated me. Whether I was in the wrong or not, I always ignore this behavior since it’s dangerous for everyone involved, and I did so here. He screamed and cussed and followed alongside me for over a block.
My disposition turned from annoyance to bone-chilling terror once I heard him say the word “gun.”
Then, “How would you like it if I shot you?”
I was extremely scared and frozen: looking forward, not making eye contact, pedaling quickly. He persisted. Following alongside me, window down, yelling out variations on how he was going to shoot me. How I deserved to be shot. There was a red light coming up, forcing me to choose my move.
I threw on my brakes and pulled off to the side between parked cars, hoping that he would move on and drive off. My heart stopped as he also threw on his breaks and came to a stop next to me. I could only think to be as deferential as possible: putting my hands in a non-threatening, defensive position and repeating, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, OK?” I said it maybe four times while he just stared at me and sped off.
I was incredibly shaken up by this encounter — quite literally shaking — and cried the remainder of my ride as I thought about this man and if he actually wanted to kill me. Regardless of the intention of the action, I knew it wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment feeling. Clearly, this hatred toward cyclists had been stewing in this man for a while before this direct outward aggression bubbled over.
Even though I’m a Portland transplant and generally having a positive view of how drivers treat cyclists here as compared to other cities, I know this isn’t an isolated incident. I’ve experienced this kind of rage before and I’ve spoken with drivers that confided in me how much they hate cyclists. I’m sure for many readers, this is a familiar type of demeanor as well. It was particularly surprising to me that it happened along Vancouver Ave, which is a single-car lane, wide-bike lane street that is a known bike highway.
At the same time, I also feel like this could be the source of rage for many of these drivers — they may feel that their car-centered infrastructure is being eroded by roads with more thought put toward other modes of transportation. A 2019 study found that aggressive attitudes towards cyclists was correlated with a driver’s perceived loss in what the authors called “automobility”, which is essentially their feeling of control over the spaces where they drive.
I will continue to bike everyday and be an advocate for biking, despite the dangers that come with it. However, as more bike infrastructure is built and more perceived automobility is taken away from drivers, I worry that more incidents like these could happen. This latent anti-cyclist rage in drivers needs to be addressed before more terrorizing of cyclists occurs and someone actually gets hurt*.
*Unfortunately, people have already been hurt.