To wave or not to wave: is it even a question?

January 22, 2014


Waving to other cyclicsts can create a sense of comraderie.

One fall morning last year, our president, Tim Blumenthal, arrived at the PeopleForBikes office with a new resolution. “I vow to say ‘hi’ to every other bike rider I pass on my way to work,” Tim declared. “Every bike ride should be a celebration. I’m happy when I’m riding my bike. At the very least, I should muster a smile for the fellow riders I encounter. There’s no room for being smug.”

This idea of Tim’s got the rest of us thinking. Why should we acknowledge other bicyclists, and how should we do it? And what would it look like if every rider did this?

It’s safe to say that greeting another bicyclist—whether it’s with a nod, a smile, a wave, a bell ding, or even a “hello”—can’t hurt, perhaps except in special situations. If you’re flying down a winding, technical descent, you might not want to remove your attention from the road right in front of you. But in most cases, a simple greeting will do no harm. Smiling at another rider will probably make both of you feel good. Research shows that your facial expressions can influence your mood.


Studies show that smiling can improve your mood, so show off those pearly whites!

If you’re an introvert (or perhaps tired from a long climb) and can only bring yourself to lift a few fingers, that’s still better than staring off into the horizon and pretending the human being next to you on the bike path doesn’t exist. The bike bell is the ultimate tool for those who have trouble mustering a greeting. And for those of you concerned with the extra weight of a bell, they do come in lightweight titanium versions.

As bicyclists, we are typically in the minority out on the roads. Greeting other riders enhances camaraderie and builds a feeling of community. If you get caught out on your bike in the pouring rain or a freak hailstorm, nothing beats seeing another bicyclist and sharing your collective experience with a single moment of eye contact and a grimacing smile.


Not into smiling at strangers? Ringing a bike bell can have the same effect.

But what happens when our numbers grow to the point where encounters with other riders happen every second, instead of every hour or even once in a blue moon? Well, it becomes much more difficult to follow Tim’s lead of greeting every passing bicyclist. Some members of the PFB staff were in Copenhagen, “City of Cyclists,” last year. In Copenhagen, where 37% of commuters ride bikes every day, bike riders don’t acknowledge each other. There are simply too many of them! 

To demonstrate this, our guide Mikael Colville-Andersen showed us a photo of a vacuum cleaner. (Yes, a vacuum cleaner.) For Copenhagen residents, he explained, a bicycle is like a vacuum cleaner. It’s a tool. We don’t wave to other vacuum cleaner users, Mikael explained, so why would we wave to other bicycle users.

The sheer prevalence of bicycling is why we didn’t see riders greeting each other in Copenhagen. We observed the same thing in the Netherlands, where bicycling is also extremely popular.

Until the day when bicycles outnumber cars on the streets of your city, take a lesson from Tim and try greeting the other bicyclists you see. Being cordial can’t hurt, and a simple smile can make you and others feel better. It might even encourage new riders. Why not spread the joy that a bicycle brings (which, incidentally, is way more than that of a vacuum cleaner)? We have the luxury of not being inside metal boxes, so go on and ding that bell!


Keep on smiling!

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