When I first heard someone yelling “On your left!” behind me on the Hudson River bike path, I admit it startled me. I thought, “Uh, oh—what’s on my left? A falling branch? A rampaging Canadian Goose?”
Now, years later, I know without thinking to immediately veer to the right (if I am not already all the way over, in which case I just maintain my line) upon hearing this familiar warning call, in order to let the passing bike go by. Some cyclists prefer “coming up on your left” or “passing on your left,” as there is the occasional person who will get confused and move left, into the path of the approaching cyclist, upon hearing “on the left.” Many bikes are equipped with warning bells, but especially in places like New York (where there are shared or crowded bike paths), “On your left” has become a useful and universally recognized part of cycle-to-cycle communication. While this warning is not always necessary (often there is plenty of room to pass the cyclist in front of you), “On your left” is a common-sense self-regulatory practice that helps keep people safe.
It’s not a perfect system. Plenty of people still ride too fast, pass recklessly or wait until they are one foot from the head of the person in front of them and yell the warning too loudly. Sometimes unaware pedestrians (walking three abreast) will look at the “On your left”-ing cyclist as if he were crazy, as if they have no understanding what he could possibly be about. Whenever I use the “On your left” alert, I like to say “thank you” as I pass (unless the biker or pedestrian I’m passing is doing something incredibly stupid, in which case I may forgo the thank you).
The other day while riding, I suddenly thought to myself, “This ‘on your left’ business is really pretty darned efficient. What if this particular piece of bike path etiquette could be used in other areas of urban life?” For instance, on the city sidewalks at rush hour. Just imagine: You are in Times Square, behind hordes of rubber-necking tourists, trying to get through. (“On your left!”) Or on the subway, when no one will get out of the way of the doors. (“On your left!”) On the bus, when folks won’t move back—even though there is plenty of room in the rear of the bus. (“On your left!”) What about in the grocery store, when the aisle is blocked with a diagonally-parked cart? (“On your left!”) It might come in very handy in the aisles of the theater at intermission, when you have only 15 minutes and you know the ladies room will be packed. (“On your left!”) Trouble getting a turn at the crowded ladies room hand dryers? (“On your left!”) And how about at a cocktail party, when that annoying glut of people is standing there chatting, blocking access to the food, and you are dying for a cheese and cracker? (“On your left! Thank you!”)
After all, “On your left” is nicer—not to mention more specific—than “MOVE!” and yet so much more forceful than “excuse me?” (Half the time when you say “Excuse me” you may as well be a mourning dove cooing in the background, for all the good it does.) “On your left” indicates an inevitability about your coming through. It’s confident, powerful. And you are not just asking someone to get out of your way but offering direction about which way they need to move.
In actuality of course, this would be the end of civilized behavior. “On your left” is palatable on the bike path because it is a mid-game warning, like calling “fore” when golfing. What is acceptable at bike speed is not acceptable on foot. Obviously if we stopped asking each other permission and merely jumped ahead of others when we felt like it, we would slide quickly into social anarchy. Soon it would be “Coming through!” and “Out of my way, bozo!”
Still, it is tempting. The next time I am sitting in a cab, stuck in traffic, I might just have to try leaning out of the window and yelling “On your left!” to see what happens.
*Originally published in the West Side Spirit, July 14, 2011