Columnist Greg Kerstetter: A bicyclist reflects on breaking bad habits

  • Radisa Zivkovic/THINKSTOCK

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

I’m a bicycle rider who needs help with breaking bad habits.

And the kindnesses of thoughtful car and truck drivers do not help. They are too nice for my own good — and, ultimately, theirs.

I had all these thoughts about misplaced kindness, the difficulty of ridding myself of bad habits and the distrust that motorists have for bicyclists as I commuted to work on my Redline cyclocross bicycle. During the perfect months for riding to work, I was not alone on my 8 a.m. commute on what’s officially known as the Mass Central Rail Trail.

I got to see firsthand the confusion, anger, and distrust play out between bicyclists and motorists as I rode on the bike path on my way from near King Street to Florence, where I taught at the R.K. Finn Ryan Road School until my recent retirement. On my route, the bike path crosses six streets, so I played a central role in the confusion. Ever since I had a brief yelling match with an elderly gentleman on Hatfield Street, I wanted it to stop.

Here’s what led to my unseemly — though blessedly brief — conflict on Hatfield Street. I was riding, as some bicyclists will understand, with the goal of never putting my foot down between my start near the railroad tracks behind Walgreens and the Ryan Road School. That doesn’t mean I would not have stopped — but only if circumstances made me.

I came to where the bike path intersects Hatfield Street. There stands a stop sign for bicyclists, and I saw a small red truck approaching from my left. Judging that I couldn’t cross the street without getting hit, I braked to the slowest speed I could while still balancing with my feet on my pedals. You see this all the time, bicyclists teetering at stop signs. The gentleman in the red truck stopped too. Seeing no need for both of us to stop, I pedaled in front of him.

The elderly man rolled down his window and yelled, “You were supposed to stop. You had a stop sign.”

I looked back at the man in confusion. I yelled back, “I did stop. Didn’t you see?”

Then I rode on indignant at being yelled at for doing what I didn’t even want to do — stop.

Interaction did not fade

Like the constant ache in my left knee, that interaction did not fade. Each morning, I rode through that intersection and I thought of that man and the confusion I caused him.

So when I approached a cross street, I tried to think like the gentleman in the red truck. In this act of role play, I imagined myself 20 years older and never having had the joy of riding bikes. As the driver of the little red truck, I approach the crosswalk and see a middle-aged man balancing on his bike, mostly stopped but also looking a bit unstable. I am unsure of his intent, and I’m unsure he won’t tip over in front of my truck. I’ve got things to do and hitting him will make me late. So, I stop. And I’m angry that I have to.

This little mind trick helped. I no longer played my game of trying to get to school without once putting my foot down. When I came to Hatfield Street or Straw Avenue or Chestnut Street, and I saw an oncoming car, I stopped and put my foot down.

That’s where the problem with kindness started. Even though I was fully stopped, my foot down, clearly looking like a man trying to follow the rules, drivers stopped and waved me on. Allowing me to cross when it’s not my turn does not help me in my quest to shake my bad habits. Dear motorist, you’re handing me a delicious salty, oily potato chip when I’m on a strict kale diet.

I wonder about the motivation. If it’s kindness, please don’t be so nice — you’re killing my desire to change. I think of my little habit-changing exercise as might B.F. Skinner, the famous behaviorist. Consistent messages about certain behaviors will cause me to act in a certain way. If I stop at my own stop sign and motorists honor that, then I will more likely follow the rules. But if drivers stop for me, even though I’ve already put my foot on the pavement, then I might as well return to my balancing routine.

I can hear (because I’ve read their letters to the editor) the self-righteous carping of some drivers now: “He should have some self-discipline of his own. He doesn’t need us. He needs to follow the rules, plain and simple.”

All true. I’m weak. I have rolled through a stop sign on a bike because it’s easier than stopping, not to mention it’s so darned fun to keep moving. But I know I can improve if given the right messages.

It makes me think about a local football team’s coach who is always saying: “Do your job.” Stopping at intersections might be easier for all bicyclists if motorists do their jobs.

My friends and fellow bike commuters on the bike path made my new habit-forming process even more difficult. They thought I was out to kill kindness.

I asked a woman biking next to me if she liked it when the driver stopped for us on Prospect Avenue — even though we clearly had our feet on the pavement. She looked at me like I was a villain in need of hug therapy. She told me that she appreciated any kindness at all in a world where there is too little. I biked off a little grumpier than before.

I told this story to two friends while riding on Easthampton’s bike path, thinking they would see the football coach logic of everyone doing their jobs. Instead, they too thought my soul had a hole in it and that I was at war with kindness. I never imagined that changing my habits would put me on the wrong side of nice.

In the end, I understand that the stop dance that we do on the bike path is really about trust. Drivers don’t trust that we bikers intend to stop and they don’t want to hit us. In the aggregate, we’re a bunch of ne’er-do-wells looking to break the rules of the road any chance we get. OK, maybe I am the only ne’er-do-well.

The elderly man in the red truck was correct. He couldn’t trust me. But I’m out to earn his trust by stopping more.

For the rest of you kind folk out there, go ahead and keep being nice to bicyclists and letting them cross. Just know that one of them might frown at your kindness.

Greg Kerstetter, of Northampton, is a recently retired teacher.