As someone who rides a bike pretty much everywhere I go in the city, I get to witness all the ways that the people who use our streets communicate with each other. Getting from A to B on New York’s busy thoroughfares is sort of like a square dance in which you’re constantly moving from one partner to another; a successful performance requires that you not only execute the choreography with each partner precisely and synchronously, but that you also contribute to the group’s pattern of movement around the dance floor by flowing easily from one position to the next. And as with a square dance, navigating the streets safely on foot, by bike, in an automobile, or on any of the other crazy things that one sees on the roads today requires constant visual and aural communication between all participants. Pending the findings from a scientific study on how communication between cyclists and motor vehicle drivers works, allow me to unscientifically highlight three of the communicative modes that dominate NYC’s traffic tango:
- The Middle Finger
Ok, so I’m most familiar with this gesture when it emanates from my own hand (and often that of other cyclists), usually directed at a car driver who I feel has pulled a jerk move. Flipping the bird is a form of visual communication, and its counterpart in the pedestrian world is the WTF look, a contorted face accompanied by shoulders and hands raised with palms open in disbelief at the jerk move the driver or cyclist who violated their right of way just pulled. I’ve seen motorists give the one finger salute or pump a fist, but it’s generally harder to communicate visually with them. In fact, even though the main rationale provided for laws prohibiting substantial window tinting in New York seems to be safety for cops,I think tinted windows are a huge hazard primarily because they inhibit that most basic form of visual communication—eye contact—between drivers and all the other road users whose safety depends on it.
- The Honk
Last year, the NYC Transportation Department took down all of the “Don’t Honk” signs in the city. The removal of the signage, which also advertised the fine for unnecessary honking ($350), was NOT prompted by a change in law, but rather by “an effort to declutter the streets of often ignored signs.” Like others, I was saddened to know that we’ve resigned ourselves to accept this form of aural communication as a regular part of our streetscape. The way I see it, honking in any scenario besides a potentially dangerous situation is a violent act. When directed at cyclists and pedestrians, it is an aggressive statement of a driver’s greater power to which those non-motorized travelers have little possibility of responding in kind. Of course, cyclists and pedestrians often do respond and engage in plenty of aural communication of their own on the streets. Here we enter the more specific realm of verbal communication, which consists largely of venomous insults about other people’s inability to follow the utopian etiquette for street use that each of us has devised in our heads. What is it about being on the streets that makes us so nasty to each other?
- The Wave
Another mode of visual communication, this one comes in many varieties. There’s the one where a driver oh so graciously gives a pedestrian at a crosswalk a hurried wave motioning for them to cross, even when they already have the right of way, though in rare instances it is altruistic. And then there’s the wave of “thanks.” This gesture expresses gratitude to other folks for yielding to them, whether or not traffic norms dictated he or she do so. I am consciously trying to foster this approach more often, hoping that positive reinforcement for good driving behavior will help change habits. During a road trip across the country years ago, a friend clued me in to a similar visual cue in the trucking world: At night, when one big rig is passing another, the driver being overtaken will flash their high beams when it is safe for the passing vehicle to pull back in to the right lane. The trucker who has just passed will then tap the brake lights twice (or briefly turn on the hazard lights) to say “thanks.” I got to engage with this lingo a few times and it felt good to be friendly on the roads! Let’s hope that the path to “ending traffic deaths and injuries on our streets,” the goal of NYC’s new Vision Zero plan, makes us all more civil communicators.