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Cyclists: Let's Talk About Shoaling

Why you shouldn't let inexperienced cyclists get under your skin.

Image Paul Krueger/Flickr
Paul Krueger/Flickr

Are you familiar with shoaling? "Shoaling" is a term for when cyclists have it so good in a city that they turn on each other.

No, that's not really what it means. Shoaling is better known as a term of bike etiquette, one that describes a specific cycling behavior that's emerged with the proliferation of bikes and bike lanes in many U.S. metro areas. In its own way, shoaling is a sign that bike lanes, bikesharing, and other pro-cycling transit policies are working. Which is making some people mad. 

So, shoaling: You're stopped at a red light with a bunch of folks on bikes, when someone who's just arrived sails past everyone, right to the head of the class. It's a lot like seeing somebody in the Whole Foods express lane with too many things. In other words, it's the kind of behavior that triggers toothy-toddler rages in otherwise emotionally competent adults.

Just last month, the Washington City Paper's Gear Prudence columnist fielded a question about shoaling. 

Southbound on the 15th Street bike lane during the morning rush hour, there is usually a line of riders waiting at any given stoplight. And almost every day I see somebody who passes all of those who have stopped at the red light and cuts to the front of the line. I realize that this doesn’t slow me down at all, but doesn’t it seem rude, and give some weight to the stereotype that many bikers out there don’t really have a regard for the rules of the road? Is it crazy that this annoys me so much?

Columnist Brian McEntee sympathizes. "Nothing vexes bike commuters more than situations like this," he writes. "For once, you’ve actually stopped at a red light, and then someone pulls in front of you like you’re not even there."

Spot the problem here? There is an entire regular column devoted to cycling—and it's not full of high-fives about how easy D.C. has it. Biking is popular in the District. There are more than 2,500 bikes and 300 stations in the Capital Bikeshare transit system. The city is installing 14 miles of additional bike lanes this year alone. A Kickstarter campaign to develop Riide, a savvier electric bicycle, was launched in D.C. It raised $117,000.

A poll conducted by The Washington Post last year proves that the nation's capital is a bicycle town. 

Answers to the question: "Do you approve or disapprove of Washington D.C.'s effort to increase the number of bicycle lanes on major roads?" (The Washington Post)

And yet, commute by bike in the District and you'll see plenty of riders shaking their damned heads whenever someone commits the victimless crime of shoaling. You see it all the time on social media. I shudder to think of the disdain that District bike mechanics feel for shoalers.

Shoaling isn't exclusive to D.C., of course (that's just where I happen to live and ride). And in fact, the term may have originated in New York, specifically in this Bike Snob NYC entry from 2009. The blog's author, Eben Weiss, claimed the coinage as his own in a post this month. He's written frequently and artfully about shoaling, for example, in a series titled, "The Indignity of Commuting by Bicycle."

An illustration by Chris Koelle for Bike Snob, a book by Eben Weiss.

The indignity! And yet biking in New York has never been easier or safer. Citi Bike has its problems, but they're fixable—there's practically a science devoted to it. Citi Bike's 249 workers may even join the union that represents New York's subway and bus workers, an acknowledgment that bike-sharing is a form of transit. Pedestrian deaths fell by one-third in New York over the spring. The city dares to dream of a future when a New Yorker isn't killed by a vehicle every 2 hours—or ever. 

Facts and figures tend to fall away when you're on a bike. I get that. I'm taken with Weiss's vivid term: a shoal, as in a grouping of fish. But it's plain that he and many more would prefer that bikers moved like a school of fish, in perfect rhythm. Unfortunately, people are not fish. And when people get on bicycles, some of them ride like a fish out of water. 

In fact, it's that shoal of fish—those hapless bike-sharers, those clueless cruisers—who are helping to make streets from Seattle to Charlotte safe for bikers. Safety in numbers comes at the cost of the clumsiness of inexperienced riders, whose ranks are only growing. Bygone is the era of the edgy bike messenger, zipping through traffic in Lou Reed's New York. Dawned is the day of the doofus, the Citi Bike rider pedaling 0.37 miles per hour, probably toward a Shake Shack.

Shoaling is an exceedingly obvious thing that any rider would obviously do in traffic, and the cost to other riders is nil—because cyclists are not racing one another. While it's wonderful flying through traffic, narrowly avoiding getting doored—and sometimes, getting doored—actually, I'm not sure how that's preferable to taking a less frenetic bike lane.

That's not to excuse all biking behavior. Salmoning, another ichthyologism referring to frowned-upon bike behavior, is in fact dangerous: That's when a cyclist rides the wrong way on a street or bike lane, against the flow of traffic (upstream, if you will). Alec Baldwin lent his personal brand to the issue, raising awareness by getting arrested for salmoning back in May.

Convicted salmon Alec Baldwin. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Salmoning, fine. Salmoning we can do without. But shoaling? It's not even clear what harm would come to cycling traffic were shoaling the norm: Sometimes you'd be the shoaled, sometimes the shoaler, and either way you arrive at your destination and everything is chill.

It's not as though cycling is so safe and widely adopted that riders have no larger concerns than other bikers getting in front of you (and again, so what?). The Washington Post's Courtland Milloy would just as soon vehicularly assault cyclists as extend them any common courtesy, or so he (kind of) says. It was only a year ago that Wall Street Journal editorial-board member Dorothy Rabinowitz launched a wolf-faced crazy attack on Michael Bloomberg, Janette Sadik-Khan, bike-sharing, bikers, bikes, wheels—anyone and anything having something to do with Citi Bike. 

Perhaps we need another word for a bothersome class of biker. The racer who resents traffic, judges others for their inexperience, second-guesses the people who share the road with him, and maybe even takes it upon himself to chide other cyclists, perhaps sometimes in ways that are more offensive than shoaling or other mild behaviors. We could call such a person a pufferfish. Or, you know, a driver.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the author of Bike Snob NYC as Chris Koelle. The blogger is Eben Weiss.

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