Gear Prudence: Something keeps happening to me when I’m riding my bike, and I don’t know why: Drivers keep asking me for directions! Why does this keep happening? I don’t get it, and, frankly, I don’t really like it that much. Can’t they just look it up on the maps on their phones instead of bothering me? —Mobile and Peeved
Dear MAP: You have accurately identified a common phenomenon, especially in the more touristy parts of town. You’ll be minding your own business, stopped a red light and engaged in deep thought (like “Ugh, red light”), when from a dark green minivan with Ohio plates and bumper stickers promising a cargo of middle school honor-roll students comes the shout, “Hey buddy, which way to the White House?” But rather than simply respond with a noncommittal “Um, that way,” you question the whole affair with a Kerriganian “Whyyyyyyy? Why me?” The “why” isn’t that complicated, and it’s certainly not because you stand in the way of the gold at Lillehammer—it’s because you’re there.
Even though satellites have assiduously mapped the world and smartphones will read out turn-by-turn directions, people still trust other people more than digital maps. And since you’re just standing there, unimpeded by your own window, a bicyclist is an obvious target. Moreover, bicyclists are assumed to be locals who might be able to provide exacting cartographic insight that Waze can’t. Maybe they ask because helmets have positive associations with firefighters, soldiers, and construction workers, who are societal paragons of certitude and helpfulness, or maybe it’s because the driver is taking very seriously the obligation to not use his phone while driving. Just kidding—it’s not that. Really, it’s mostly because you’re the closest person who might be able to help them, and they really need some help. Do the best you can, and if you don’t know the way, say “sorry” and wish them the best of luck.
There is, however, a problem with relying on bicyclists to provide directions (aside from the problem of unfriendly ones rolling their eyes at you). While it’s true that the average urban bicyclist will be well-acquainted with his or her route (and maybe even some adjacent territory), the navigation needs of a bicyclists and drivers are quite different. The mental map of a place conceived by someone getting around by bike can vary quite a lot from that of someone who goes mostly by car. You run the risk of being directed by a bicyclist not to the most expeditious car route but to the one that makes sense for bicycle travel. Don’t be too surprised if you end up on slow streets with bike lanes. —GP