Alphonse, Gaston, and the Flashing Yellow Lights.

Alphonse and Gaston

Alphonse and Gaston

(AL-fons uhn GAS-tuhn)
noun: Two people who treat each other with excessive deference, often to their detriment.

“… their “After you, Alphonse”, “You first, my dear Gaston!” routine often gets them into trouble, such as when they can’t evade a trolley which mows them down while each insists on letting the other go first.”

A recent, occasionally heated exchange (sorry about that) on the subject of riding vs dismounting in crosswalks took a sudden turn for the better, yielding this tiny nugget of advice from the goldmine of yours truly, the gift that keeps on giving, Captain Obvious: Don’t ride out in front of crossing (moving) traffic.

It’s not a question of rules, rights, signs, or lights. As basic as “don’t step in front of a speeding train or you’ll be killed”. That simple. Darwin aside, everyone over a certain age can do that math. It’s instinctual. Shouldn’t need to be said. Anyone who doesn’t understand needs to stop reading now and go over it until they do.

Even smart people do dumb things, sometimes. Especially when distracted. Or impaired.

Flashing yellow lights don’t afford cyclists the same legal or actual protection as they do pedestrians. (One advantage to cycling is being able to easily get off the bike and become a pedestrian. The woman or man stuck in traffic can’t do that).

At a flashing yellow crosswalk, pedestrians, including you if you get off the bike, have right of way over everyone else. Drivers and mounted cyclists should expect to grant it. Drivers have right of way over crossing cyclists who stay on their bikes. Cyclists should expect to cede it. Too many don’t. Point taken.

Cyclists move a lot quicker than pedestrians, may be harder to spot (“she came out of nowhere”), can’t stop or “jump out of the way” as easily as pedestrians, and drivers just may, correctly, take the right of way. As they should.

It all works so much better when we all follow the rules all of the time. It really does. But we don’t. None of us do, all of the time. I don’t.

The commenter on the aforementioned crosswalk discussion makes an excellent point regarding flashing yellow lights. The flashing yellow lights are for pedestrians. They don’t afford cyclists the same protection, for some solid reasons.

So …

I’m commuting on the bike path. Maybe it’s dark.

I come up to a semi controlled crossing with yellow lights (say crossing 111 ave around 120 st). I slow to a crawl, or stop completely, depending on conditions). I check for traffic. If there’s no closing traffic either way, I ride across. If there’s lots of regular traffic, say during rush hour, I may dismount, push the button, wait for traffic to stop and walk my bike across. It’s quicker, but can feel like forever. Y’know?

I try to keep getting on and off to a minimum. If I can easily reach the button I’ll stay mounted, press for the flashing yellow, and wait for a break in traffic. It’s safer for me, notwithstanding the lights don’t legally apply to me as a cyclist. Invariably, traffic soon stops to let me cross.

Not only at flashing yellow lights, or in crosswalks, do drivers stop. It happens a lot, even on the road. I’m stopped waiting for traffic to pass, and traffic stops to let me cross. I like to think the drivers are being nice. I appreciate it. I catch their eye, wave, and say thanks/thumbs up. Drivers in Edmonton are, for the most part, considerate and kind. Sometimes even polite. I try to be polite back. Lots of drivers ride too, and most cyclists drive.

Alphonse and Gaston

Which brings me to Alphonse and Gaston, an old cartoon regarding a situation that comes up often for cyclists. In a nutshell, Alphonse and Gaston were two gentlemen so polite they could’t manage simple things like walking through a doorway, or pouring the wine, each insisting the other go first. They’re being so polite to each other they get nowhere.

On the bike, as an easy example, sometimes there’s a break in traffic right behind the driver. It’s the only car around, but they slow and stop to let me cross. I’ve tried waiving them through. It just creates more confusion. The last thing I want (I wave them through, they shake their head and wave me through, I start to go, we both lurch forward, then stop. More waving, gesturing, and eye rolling ensue …).

“After you, dear Alphonse.”

“No, after you, my dear Gaston. I insist.”

“No it is I who insist dear Alphonse, you simply must go first.”


It’s silly, a waste of time, and potentially dangerous. We’re all in a hurry to get home. If we’re all on the same page, we will, quickly, and safely.

When “Alphonse and Gaston” comes up and I can see all traffic has stopped for me – I cross. The drivers have all explicitly ceeded right of way to me. I look them each in the eyes. It’s clearly what everyone is expecting me to do, and hoping I’ll do – ride my bike across. Unlike dismounting, it just takes a second or two. The drivers who really are in a hurry (aren’t we all) want me to ride across, as quickly as reasonable, because it’s much quicker for us all.

Commuting by bike involves a mostly visual conversation with other moving vehicles, so that we all expect the same thing. Be seen, and make your intentions as clear and obvious as possible. Only if traffic clearly cedes you the right of way take it, with extra care and attention if it contravenes the traffic act.

2 Responses

  1. I must admit that I am often annoyed when drivers cede the right of way to me. Even so, I also give them a polite thank you wave so as to encourage cordial cyclist/motorist relations. For me the worst is when a driver tries to wave me through when there is more than one lane of traffic and seems annoyed that I refuse to go. A variant of this scenario is the 4-way stop when a driver tries to wave you through. It just confuses everyone else at the intersection.

  2. Yes, those confusing circumstances come up. I used to cross 116 st going west at 103 ave. There is a flashing yellow, but the button is up on the sidewalk (if it’s really busy, I will get off my bike).

    There’s only three lanes, but it can get kind of confusing. You have to be extra careful if crossing on your bike when a car stops for you.

    I really exaggerate my body signals – if I’m looking at cars still approaching the intersection, I’m almost comically obvious. Then there’s the “shrug of resignation”, meant to communicate “Oh well, I can’t go, thanks anyway, …”.

    Just as for changing lanes across a road like Gateway Blvd, I look for each lane when crossing on my bike (or on foot, for that matter). Each lane is it’s own separate crossing in effect.

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