Whoa… That was Close



If you’ve spent any significant time riding a bike around with cars, you’ve certainly encountered what I call a “Whoa… that was close” moment; the vehicle that sneaks up on you and passes you close enough to really catch your attention.   If I were to wager a guess, I’d say I experience this once every three months.

It so happens that I had one of these very experiences recently as I was riding across the Point Street bridge, heading towards Wickenden Street.  For those unfamiliar with the area, the bridge has two lanes in the direction I was traveling, with no usable shoulder.  I use a vehicular approach to biking in the city, which places me far enough out into the lane, that an automobile passing me would need to move over to the other lane to safely pass.  I was fully within my legal rights to be riding as described.  As I was crossing, a bright yellow truck with www.providencedowntown.com highlighted on the tailgate, passed me and someone yelled “get on the sidewalk”.  There was no contact and at no time did a feel this was an intentional act to scare me, but it certainly was one of those “whoa… that was close” moments.

Since it was one of these fairly rare interactions where I took particular note and the vehicle was so clearly marked, I decided to follow up with the organization, to let them know what I had encountered.  If I were in charge of a fleet of vehicles and something like this occurred, I’d want to know about it.  I hunted around for contact information associated with Downtown Providence, but all indications pointed to The Providence Foundation.  I sent a brief email to Daniel Baudouin, Executive Director of the Providence Foundation,  detailing my recollection of the encounter.  Within half an hour, I had received an email from Dan stating he would follow up with this.  It turns out this particular truck was being operated by Block by Block, under a contract with the Downtown Improvement District; which The Providence Foundation helped to create.  In less than two hours after my initial email, Dan had an answer for me and we had spoken on the phone.

There were some discrepancies between my account and the driver’s account of the event, but everyone agreed that there had been an encounter.  I believe the observed discrepancies, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say are right, are understandable.  The same encounter, as viewed from inside a metal cage and from the seat of a bicycle are very different.  It’s easy for motorists to forget just how vulnerable cyclists are and how a passing distance that feels plenty safe for a motorist may not seem so safe to a cyclists.

In the end, Dan assured me that the Providence Foundation would try harder with their driver training; reminding their drivers that they will be sharing the road with vulnerable users and specifically make note of bicycle rights to the road.  Kudos to Dan Baudouin and The Providence Foundation for taking this matter seriously.  Because of the speed an sincerity of the response, I truly believe they will honor their word and work with the drivers.

I think there are important lessons to be learned by this encounter:

  • It’s a reminder for cyclists to stay visible and ride predictably.  Had I not been doing either of these, the encounter could have been far worse.
  • This also serves as a reminder to stay calm.  The truck was stopped by the light at the end of the bridge.  Had I had a mind to, I could have ridden up to the drivers window, started pounding on it, and started a verbal confrontation.  This would have had little lasting affect, other than to aggravate a driver and potentially make them into another cyclist hating motorist.
  • If you can identify the owner or company associated with the vehicle, then follow up.  Do so in a dignified way, with the goal of discussing and understanding what took place and how to prevent a recurrence.  Notice how even a simple encounter like this involved three different corporate/non-profit entities.  How you approach such a conflict could leave a lasting impression much larger than you could ever imagine.

I truly believe one of the quickest ways to effectively sharing our limited roadways with motorists and cyclists,  is through direct and frank discussions.  Both sides need to reach out, explain, and understand the perspective of the other road users.


  • Matt
    Mar 19, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    How do you reconcile:

    'someone yelled “get on the sidewalk”. '


    "There was no contact and at no time did a feel this was an intentional act to scare me or “give me a lesson”,'?

    The two statements seem to contradict. Maybe this is one of the facts the other party disputed?

    For my own peace of mind, I purchased a helmet camera – the kind people use with extreme sports (note that riding our roadways qualifies as extreme). I've mounted it to my bike helmet, and thus will have a record of exactly what happened should such a close encounter happen to me. I suppose if I'm ever bullied by a car I'll have evidence to take to the police, perhaps even a clear video frame of the license plate.

  • Bruce Masterson
    Mar 19, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    The Prv. Foundation is partners, whatever that means anymore, with RIDOT.

    Let RIDOT know what their partners and contractors are up to.

    SO they hire a California company to pick up trash and clean up Providence under the auspices of Downtown Providence & Providence Foundations etc…

    Email the CEOs and COOs of all the parties.

    I think Bike to Work day could use some partnership from such socially and environmentally conscious suits.

  • Bruce Masterson
    Mar 19, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    My bad, Block by Block is a KY company.

  • Mar 19, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    The two statements seem to contradict. Maybe this is one of the facts the other party disputed?

    I guess it all comes down to perception. I don't think motorists yelling "get on the sidewalk" are actively trying to scare cyclists, rather they are naive about the laws and truly believe that cyclists.

  • Ted Lewandowski
    Mar 19, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    I don't think they are naive – they just think they have the God-given right to be the only road users.

    Most of these people fit into one simple category – uneducated laborers – who have a vain superiority since their vehicle is the biggest on the road so they can intimidate not only vehicle traffic but cyclists as well – who they deem have no rights whatsoever.

    Yelling "get on the sidewalk' means exactly that – there is no gray area – they want you off the road.

    I had drivers yell that to me as well – don't forgot you're up against morons that finished last (out of 50 states) in driver knowledge conducted by GMAC a few years ago. Until there is some sort of education program – perhaps a mandatory class when your license comes up for renewal – then these attitudes will fester.

  • Labann
    Mar 20, 2010 at 7:06 am

    Providunce: 1 in 6 Rhode Islanders can't read in any language. Doesn't stop them from getting drivers licenses. Driver education is the answer, but they are firing teachers, or haven't you heard? Civic duties is a junior high school topic, but attempts to tie grade point average with motor licenses have been struck down as unconstitutional. Blame automotive lobbyists, the same guys who got SUVs exempted from emissions and fuel use standards.

    False/true? Are bicyclists smarter than motorists? Bicyclists like to think so. But they don't need licenses and more pre capita are likely illiterate (inc. kids). ALL THE ONUS for road safety rests solely upon motorists. If they can't handle it, suspend and revoke. Motoring is privilege, not a right. It's easier to behave nicely isolated and seated in a labor saving machine than struggling on a bicycle.

    Mayoral candidate Constantino told me when we met recently, "I will order a clearinghouse of digital information on roadnet, where people can report potholes using cell phones, and DPW will immediately schedule repairs." Sounds good, but why not just ride around city on a grid and constantly fix? Can't trust city workers? Potholes repeat where underlying problems aren't addressed. I surveyed all the grates on the Providence Plan (456) in only 2 days by bike.

    Notice how Providence doles out pavement to cyclists. Allens Ave bike lanes are linearly cracked and never swept. Promenade lanes are riddled with grates and stripes are worn off. Except for a couple miles of Northwest Bike Trail and some signs, this concludes mayor's infrastructure offering. Why bother showing for Bike-to-Work Day to hear the same placating lies repeated for a decade? Anyone who believes that malarkey must be too stupid to use roadnet.

    My latest "whoa" was encountering a helmetless rider coming out of darkness of Eddy Street underpass on wrong side of the street, head-on. This meant swinging wide into the pothole strewn travel lane while dodging overtaking motorists. No, wait, last night a driver forced me off road into a parking lot, where I narrowly missed hitting one of those concrete parking stops that keep cars from parking on sidewalk. Living to tell about minor adventures = priceless.

  • barry
    Mar 20, 2010 at 7:34 am

    I think there is no one solution to this but Mark's excellent follow-up with the Prov Foundation and the comments about driver education are surely part of what needs to be done. More share-the-road signs of some type would also be helpful.

    One additional point is just anecdotal, but I wonder if others believe this: I find that motorists in the East Bay are more polite and respectful to bicyclists than in North Providence where I live where there are no bike paths. I think this may be that due to the East Bay path, it is far more likely that the East Bay motorist, or someone in their family, uses a bicycle. This is one reason I so strongly believe getting a larger, critical # of bicyclists to ride is so important in our area.

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  • Labann
    Mar 23, 2010 at 6:31 am

    I will answer you, Barry, if nobody else will.

    Apples and oranges. You can't compare congested, small North Providence with expansive, fairly quiet East Bay, which has 3 major highways, Rt 24, Metacom Ave, Wamponaug Trail, diverting high speed traffic from secondaries. For highways, NP only has Rt 146 and mostly unbikeable Mineral Spring.

    Seems going E-W is the challenge, although Smith Street works. Charles Street is very adequate as a N-S bike route. Lexington Ave to Angel Road is fine, too. Douglas has its tight spots, but is okay. You can easily use Fruit Hill, George Waterman Highway or Woonasquatucket Ave into Centerdale. I even routed a half century through there last year. NP is twice as bikeable as Providence, which must remain a primary focus.

    The percentage of motorists who are idiots and scofflaws doesn't vary much in Southern NE, although cars with MA plates (doesn't mean not RI drivers) do seem to be driven with a peculiar penchant for danger and rudeness. It's a proven fact that wherever cars are restricted, crime decreases. In Bogata, Penalosa eliminated parking on sidewalks/streets, improved pedestrian facilities, increased bus routes/stops, and reduced crime by 1,000%, documented. NYC is experiencing a decrease in crime since it improved bicycling infrastructure and lanes. Criminals need getaway cars.

    Dr. John Landis, U of PA, will talk on social justice and sustainable urban development at URI Feinstein Campus on April 20th, 7:00 PM. Contact Rosa Carmona-Barros at rbarros@uri.edu.

  • Mar 24, 2010 at 9:01 am

    Sorry to join the discussion so late. Following up with the company in the manner that Mark did is pretty commendable. I know when I have a close call like that (especially with a "get on the sidewalk" comment) I start seeing red and plotting some sort of revenge at the next light. I've come to realize that that is not effective so I just let it go. I've never had a close call with a commercial vehicle, luckily. I wish every close call I had _was_ with a commercial vehicle because it would be easier to do a follow-up like Mark did. Most of the cars and trucks out there are individually owned so we don't have the option of reporting them to anyone when they run us off the road. We only have the comfort of knowing that we live in a small state and we're likely to see that car again some day. And when we do, we should probably not want to seek revenge.

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  • Dennis
    Mar 31, 2010 at 8:24 am

    Yelling at a bicyclist might not be "assault", but dodging at them and trying to run them off the road is. Please take the time to report the assaults. The point is to document the incident so that it becomes part of the record. Who knows, you might even get the driver penalized.

  • Steve
    Apr 12, 2010 at 10:55 am

    Seems like every time I ride during "rush hour", I get yelled at by drivers. I'm not sure what about bicycle commuting seems to get these people so irritated.

    Close call – I actually just got hit on Blackstone Blvd last week by an older man who never saw me.