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Bicycle Blunders and Smarter Solutions

by Fred Oswald, LCI #947

7.  Smarter Solutions -- Understanding the Real Issues

Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.
-- John Forester, author of Effective Cycling [1]

Cyclists should expect and demand safe accommodation on our public roads, just as does every other user.  Nothing more is expected. Nothing less is acceptable
-- Jack Taylor of Pro Bicycle.

All engineers, planners, public officials and advocates whose work affects cyclists simply must understand that bicycles are vehicles that should be operated on the same roads and by the same rules as other vehicles [1,2,3].  The training should include:

  1. Bicycle driving classes
  2. Experience of cycling in traffic, not just on quiet country roads
  3. Appropriate seminars, workshops, conferences, etc. taught by competent cyclists [4]
  4. Studying appropriate literature [1,2,3]

For generations, people in our society have been taught that riding in the roadway is dangerous because of traffic passing from behind.  There never has been any evidence for the truth of this teaching (see below).  But well-meaning authority figures accept it as a matter of faith and pass it along to the young.  This perpetuates a "cycle of misinformation".

Another factor that makes cyclists reluctant to use busy roads is the notion that they are inferior to road users who have motors.  We have been taught that our highest duty is to stay out of the way of cars.  People who try to stay out of the way often ride on sidewalks.  Then at intersections or driveway crossings, they appear "out of nowhere" and are hit.

It is often much safer to obviously be "in the way", by riding in the roadway and using the full lane where it is not safe to allow faster traffic to pass.  Move to the right to let traffic past only when passing is safe.  In the photo at right, the cyclist is deliberately deterring any unsafe attempt to pass at a blind curve.

Public officials must accept cyclists as legitimate road users entitled to whatever space they need for safety and reasonable convenience.  However, cyclists must be taught to be cooperative and considerate of other road users and they should learn to find ways to allow traffic to pass safely with no more delay than is reasonable and necessary.

The experienced cyclist in the photo at right is "asking permission" to get in someone's way briefly so he can merge to the left turn lane.  He waits until a driver slows to allow him to make his merge.  This is legal and quite safe so long as he does not try to force his way. "Negotiating" with traffic this way is an important skill taught in Effective Cycling and Smart Cycling.

Learning to cycle properly as the driver of a vehicle is not difficult except for "unlearning" the wrong information we have all picked up since childhood.  This wrong information causes mistakes that prevent discovering better methods.  It is much more efficient to learn through successful experience than failure.  Experts estimate that learning to ride effectively in traffic takes about:

Note that the experience required above involves cycling in traffic by someone willing to learn.  We know people who have ridden many tens of thousands of miles on low-traffic country roads without learning how to drive a bicycle.  We also know people who "know it all already" who are unwilling to learn.

Cycling Safety:  Perception vs. Reality

Bicycle crash studies, first performed in the 1970's and continuing to the present show that the "fear from the rear" is not justified by fact.  The chart at left below [6] shows that only one of six significant bicycle crashes involve cars.  Nearly half are "single vehicle" crashes (mostly falls).

The right chart [7] below puts the "fear from the rear" in its place.  Only about three percent of car-bike crashes are caused by an overtaking driver (the dark red slice) and 2/3 of those occur at night.  Nighttime crashes primarily involve either impaired drivers or cyclists that lack adequate safety equipment (lights and reflectors).  Under urban daylight conditions, overtaking collisions are extremely rare.  The real hazard involves crossing and turning traffic, primarily encountered at intersections.

Safety studies have also shown that bicycle commuters have a much lower crash rate than the average population.  This is despite the fact that they tend to ride on the busiest roads, in the heaviest traffic and sometimes after dark or in bad weather.  Experienced cyclists in difficult conditions are safer than inexperienced cyclists riding in easy conditions.

Delaying Traffic:  Perception vs. Reality

Many non-cyclists believe that bicycles on the road "get in the way" and delay "real traffic".  Much if this is due to the attitude that cyclists are just playing in the road and that they do not deserve to use roadway space.  There is also the attitude that motorists have a right to drive at the speed limit, if not faster.

The reality is that ALL vehicles delay traffic.  This is a consequence of the law of nature that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.  While bikes sometimes delay traffic, so do cars.  Think about this next time you are waiting for a car to make a left turn ahead of you.  If that were a bike, you would probably have room to be on your way.  Likewise, as shown at right, a courteous cyclist stopped at a traffic light will move up and to the left to allow following drivers to turn right on red -- if it is safe and legal.

The actual delay to traffic from a bicycle is almost always trivial.  Most traffic is able to pass with no impact other than slowing a bit and perhaps changing lanes.  Occasionally, a passing driver must wait a few seconds in order to fit a gap for safe passing.  Very rarely is the wait as much as 30 seconds.

Remember, the passing driver needs only to slow to the speed of the bicycle.  Typically, the bicycle is traveling at half the speed limit, thus the delay is half what it seems.  After passing, the motorist can go faster in the open space ahead of the bicycle.  Most soon catch up to their earlier place in the traffic queue.  This means the real delay is usually zero.  The presence of a bicycle simply redistributes the delays already present due to other traffic [8].


[1] All planners and designers of bicycle facilities must be familiar with the books of John Forester: Effective Cycling, MIT Press, 1993 and Bicycle Transportation, MIT Press, 1994.  It takes some effort to get past the confrontational attitude of the author, but once you do, you can learn from the master.

[2] A good concise source of cycling information is Bicycling Street Smarts.  This booklet is used as the bicycle driver manual in PA, OH, FL, AZ, ID.

[3] Perhaps the best bicycle driving manual is Cyclecraft by John Franklin of England.  American and Canadian readers should get the N. American edition.

[4] Competent cyclists referred to above are able to drive a bicycle as a vehicle in traffic, according to the methods described in refs. [1] and [2] above.  There is more to cycling than steering and balance.

[5] Photo shows Forester giving a Cycling Transportation Engineering seminar

[6] Data from Kaplan, "Characteristics of the Regular Adult Bicycle User"

[7] Data from Cross and Fischer, summarized in Forester, Effective Cycling

[8] For a through discussion of the delay issue, see chapter 8, "The Effect of Cyclists on Traffic" in the book Bicycle Transportation by John Forester, (Note [1] above.)

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© Copyright 2004-2011 Fred Oswald.  May be copied with attribution.
Some materials may have been reproduced under fair use guidelines or with permission of the original author.
The author is a Professional Engineer in Ohio and a certified bicycling safety instructor.
Last Revised 10/ 4/11