Guidelines for a 'Cyclist Friendly Community'

by Fred Oswald, PE, LCI #947


This article describes practical measures for a real "bicycle friendly community" (that is, friendly to cyclists) and how to avoid the typical mistakes of a "bicycle unfriendly" city.  It covers appropriate facilities and includes effective "bike safety" information and principles of equitable bicycle traffic laws.

To be truly "cyclist friendly", your bicycle plan must fully integrate cyclists into the surface transportation system.  This means that cyclists must have direct, convenient and safe access to every destination served by public roads.  Cyclists must be "design users" of every roadway (except possibly freeways).  Bicycle drivers must have equal protection under the law and universal access to the roads.

The Ohio Bicycle Federation is now offering an award to Cyclist Friendly Communities in Ohio.  You can find a "Toolkit" of information to help your community at the link above.  The Toolkit is available to communities anywhere, courtesy of OBF.

Need for Education

The critical ingredient is knowledge.  Everyone involved in planning for bicycle transportation must understand how to operate a bicycle as the competent driver of a vehicle, following the standard rules of the road.

Every user of the roads must be taught that bicycles are vehicles that belong on the road and that should be driven according to the same traffic rules.  Universal cycling education must be the primary product of every bicycle plan.

Real knowledge of cycling is actually quite rare in our society.  Ironically, almost everyone thinks he or she knows it all.  As Will Rogers once remarked:  "It's not what he doesn't know that bothers me; it's what he knows for sure that just ain't so."

Ignorance about cycling is a product of our history.  Bicycles were popular among adults for a few years in the late 19th to early 20th century; but then, for over two generations, almost no American adults cycled. 

What little "Bike Safety" instruction children receive is given by authority figures with little experience or qualification, who give advice that "sounds good".  The result is that the misinformed teach the ignorant.

We must emulate the example of Red Cross children's swimming lessons taught by well-trained water safety instructors from a carefully designed syllabus.


Educating Community Officials

Everyone involved in roadway transportation planning, maintenance, lawmaking and law enforcement must understand that bicycles are vehicles that must be operated on the same roads and by the same rules as other vehicles.  Cyclists must be treated as equal users of the roads.

Too often planners of bicycle facilities are landscape architects lacking knowledge of bicycle driving.  They design beautiful but dangerous bike paths that twist and wind around and under trees, with sight lines obscured by foliage and other obstacles.  These are unsafe except at walking speed.  The code of ethics for an engineer requires that the engineer practice only where qualified or else employ qualified consultants.  This requirement is rarely followed for bicycle-related engineering.

Follow the physician's motto:  First, do no harm.  Be sure all involved know how to drive a bicycle as a vehicle to avoid the mistakes of the Bicycle Friendly Communities Program that encourages cities to "throw money" at the bicycle without understanding what cyclists really need.  This money is often wasted, and at times it encourages building dangerous facilities.
BikeEd Class

Appropriate training for planners and officials can take the form of workshops or classes taught by a local cycling instructor.  Police can receive similar training through the International Police Mountain Bike Association, an organization that trains bicycle patrol officers.

Useful training materials include the Effective Cycling video and the booklet Bicycling Street Smarts.  Some states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, incorporate Street Smarts in a "bicycle drivers' manual".

Before you prepare bicycle plans, please read Paul Schimek's article Dilemmas of Bicycle Planning."

Educating All Citizens

Dangerous sidewalk

Everyone must be taught that bicycles are vehicles to be operated on the same roads, by the same rules and with the same rights as other drivers.  In particular, everyone must understand that sidewalks are not suitable for bicycle use except at very low speed.  Just one of the hazards of sidewalk cycling is poor sight lines, as shown at right.  Currently, most motorists mistakenly believe cyclists should be on sidewalks.  This often leads to harassment.

Education must be conducted at many levels, from widely disseminated "nuggets" of information and formal Cycling Savvy classes.  Community-level awareness can be improved through short messages in community newsletters, newspaper articles etc. plus posters, handout flyers and cards.  Signs such as "May Use Full Lane" and "bicycles using roadway" may also help.

Bike rodeos are a popular way to "do something for bike safety".  Unfortunately, little can be taught in 45 minutes and the results depend heavily on the skill and knowledge of the teachers, which is often lacking.  One of the best uses of a rodeo is to reach the parents, who can then teach their own children.  See resources below.
Blind curve

Another idea is holding a "Ride the Right Way Day"; to call attention to the need for cyclists to follow the rules of the road, same as other divers.  The Lehigh Valley (Eastern Pennsylvania) Coalition for Appropriate Transportation sponsors this annual event in conjunction with 34 police departments and 30 bicycle retail outlets.

More thorough training comes from Cycling Savvy "bicycle driving" classes.  See resources below.  These classes need lots of promotion to tell people how they can benefit from a cycling class.  Ironically, those who need the training most are the least likely to accept it.

Equitable and Uniform Bicycle Traffic Laws

Motor vehicle traffic laws are generally uniform throughout the 50 states.  A driver traveling from state to state need not learn a new set of laws with each border crossing.  Likewise, within each state, local authorities have only limited powers to enact local ordinances.  The basic set of the rules of the road is consistent throughout the country.

Unfortunately, uniformity does not now exist for bicycle traffic laws.  One reason is the misguided attitude that bicycles are only toys for children, rather than vehicles used by adults.  Perhaps more important is that the people who make the rules are not cyclists; they do not know how to operate a bicycle properly.

Brook Park award

The safest way to operate a bicycle is as the lawful driver of a vehicle.  This means riding on the roadway and following the same traffic rules as other drivers.  Traffic laws make roadways an orderly and safe place to operate any vehicle.  Cyclists who operate as drivers have only one-fifth the accident rate of the average person who improvises a mixture of non-standard rules.

Governments at the state and local level sometimes treat cyclists as incompetent children or as third-class citizens.  Some forbid cycling on roadways, but instead direct cyclists to use more dangerous facilities such as sidewalks and pathways beside the road.  Other bicycle laws confine cyclists to the edge of the road, even though the edge is sometimes an unsafe place to ride.  Local ordinances form a crazy-quilt of conflicting rules that vary from community to community.  Improving these ordinances may protect communities from liability for accidents where their current laws mandate practices known to be dangerous.

Avoid the mistake of requiring "nuisance" safety equipment, such as a bell, front reflector and wheel reflectors.  Wheel reflectors, for example, look impressive when the bicycle is beside the road.  However, when the motorist must yield to the cyclist, they may be outside the area lit by headlights.  In other words, these reflectors "work" when they are not needed but often not when they are needed.  Only headlights provide adequate nighttime visibility to the front and sides.  For more information about night-time visibility, see Why reflectors sometimes don't work and Reflectors to avoid.

The author has been involved in several projects to reform bicycle traffic law.  These include developing a Model Laws version of the Uniform Vehicle Code, and promoting a Model Municipal Bicycle Code for Ohio communities.

Proper Enforcement

A well-informed police officer is the cyclist's friend.  Officers must be properly trained so they enforce laws properly and fairly.  Unfortunately, most police have not been trained in bicycle operation.  They instead rely on judgment, too-often based on misinformation.  This occasionally results in incidents where police harass law-abiding cyclists for being on the road while ignoring the illegal practices that cause accidents: wrong-way riding, failure to use lights in the dark, running red lights, etc.
Bike Police

Authorities must not tolerate "road rage" against cyclists.  Police should maintain a registry for reports of incidents, even those not witnessed by police.  A simple warning phone call to the perpetrator can be effective in deterring future assaults.  Bicycle police can also help by setting a good example themselves, by riding conspicuously with correct vehicular techniques.  Where needed, "undercover" police can observe motorist harassment, reporting the incident via radio.  Such "sting" operations must be publicized to have effect.

Encouraging "Bike to Work"

Bicycle commuting is good for the health of participants, good for the environment and a good way to use roadways efficiently.  Cyclists use only about 1/3 the space of single occupant motor vehicles.  Bicycle parking is also very space-efficient.  Bicycles do not burn imported oil.

City officials can help by first learning correct techniques and then riding to work themselves.  Publicity about such rides helps educate the community and provides a favorable image of the city and the officials.

Commuting can be promoted by giving favorable publicity and by encouraging employers to provide secure parking, showers and a "guaranteed ride home" in case of rain.  Most of all, bicycle commuting must be encouraged by protecting cyclists' right to the roads and by disseminating good information about how to ride properly in traffic.

Appropriate Facilities

In the field of bicycle advocacy, there are common and serious mistakes that are made over and over again.  The mistakes are related to bicycle use, education, advocacy, engineering, and traffic laws.  The blunders make cycling more difficult and dangerous and they jeopardize cyclists right to use the roads.  Read about these Bicycle Blunders and how to avoid them.

Conventional bicycle planning focuses almost exclusively on building facilities to separate bicycle and motor traffic.  Often these separate bike lanes and paths expose the very people they are intended to protect to new and unexpected hazards.  Separate bike lanes introduce hazards because they encourage motorists to stay to the left and cyclists to stay right, even where the rules of the road require otherwise.  Sometimes bike lanes are placed in particularly hazardous locations, such as in the "door zone" of parked cars.  Sidepaths, adjacent to roadways introduce conflicts at every intersection and every driveway.

Planners must recognize that cycling and walking are very different travel modes; thus cyclists and pedestrians have different needs.  Mixing pedestrians with cyclists is dangerous to both.  Bicycle drivers must be expected to use roadways while pedestrians use sidewalks.  Avoid confusing facilities that may be suitable for low-speed, casual recreational use from the need for (relatively) high speed cycling for bicycle transportation, especially commuting to work.

Where separate "bike lanes" are marked by stripes on the pavement, in addition to the hazards mentioned above, the community incurs the liability to keep them clean and in good condition.  This includes sweeping the lanes very frequently so they do not accumulate debris.  You must educate motorists and police that cyclists often have very good reasons to ride outside a striped bike lane.  For more information, see A Realistic Look at Bicycle Facilities, Laws and Programs

An alternative to a marked "bike lane" that avoids most of the problems is simply painting bike symbols at appropriate places on the roadway.  One such symbol is the 'Sharrow'  (Sharrow means shared use plus an arrow to discourage wrong-way riding).  Where traffic volume is heavy, increased road space (wide curb lanes) reduces tension between road users and improves safety.  The need for additional space depends on the speed and volume of motor traffic, among other factors.  Sometimes narrowing the inside lanes can provide space for wide outside lanes.

Nearly all roads that are well designed and adequate for motor traffic are also quite suitable for bicycle traffic, especially if cyclists are properly trained.  Every existing street must be regarded to already be a bicycle facility.  Improvements must be directed to making roads more pleasant, efficient, convenient, and safe for both motorists and cyclists sharing them.  The good news is that usually little extra work need be done since most roads are adequate as they are.  The main need is to check for and eliminate hazards and, most of all, to educate users.

 Every lane is a bike lane! 

Wide Curb Lane
Wheel-bender

One place where a multi-use path may be appropriate is to provide a "shortcut" where automobile use is not allowed.  For example, there are residential developments built on cul-de-sac roads that require a relatively long journey on high-traffic roads to reach destinations that are geographically close.  A series of connecting access paths may be very desirable in such locations.  However, these are special situations; the emphasis must be to integrate cyclists into the ordinary road system.

Provision for parking is another appropriate "facility" to aid cyclists.  The emphasis must be on properly-designed secure parking fixtures that do not damage bicycles and they must be located in visible and convenient spots.  The typical schoolyard bike rack can easily become a "wheel bender" and some designs (such as shown at right) are much worse.  This is why knowledgeable cyclists refuse to use such bike racks and often lock instead to nearby structures.  Best yet are bike lockers that protect cargo, tools and accessories, in addition to bicycles.

Parking for short-term use (like a convenience store) should be close to the entrance (within 50 feet, 30 feet is better).  Long-term parking (such as at a transit station) should be sheltered and provide protection for bike accessories and cargo.

Eliminating Road Hazards

As operators of balanced vehicles with narrow, high-pressure tires, cyclists are at special risk from road surface defects.  The infamous parallel bar drain grate is the best-known example.

Cracks, slots and edges nearly parallel to the direction of travel can cause a serious "diversion" fall.  A rough road or loose gravel can cause loss of control.  Deep holes or sunken sewer grates can cause an over-the-handlebars "header" crash.  Other hazards to beware include confusing signage or lane markings, rumble strips and "squeeze points" where the roadway narrows.

Consider a "hot line" or web page where citizens can report hazards.  Of course, you must fix reported hazards quickly.  Finally, work with police, local hospitals and cycling organizations to collect good accident data.  Then use these data to shape your priorities.

Traffic Light Hazards and Vehicle Detectors

There are two specific problems for cyclists at traffic signals.  First, in a wide intersection, a cyclist may not have time to clear the intersection if the "all red" time is insufficient.  This can lead to a collision with traffic starting from the cross direction on a new green signal.
Vehicle detector stencil
Vehicle detector

A more common problem involves "demand actuated" signals, controlled by vehicle detectors that may fail to detect bicycles.  Non-working detectors contribute to the attitude of many cyclists that they need not obey the law.  A "broken" detector could lead to liability, especially if the city should have known it failed to work. There are several technologies for vehicle detection but the most common uses a magnetic induction loop.  This generates tiny eddy currents in any conducting materials near the loop and then senses the resulting electrical disturbance.

Most loop detectors in the USA employ a rectangular loop of wire buried in the pavement.  A bicycle, with much less metal than a car, generates a small signal.  However, a properly-adjusted detector should work if the bicycle stops in the right place.  Any detector that fails to detect bicycles is defective and must be fixed. See the article Detecting Bicycles and Motor Vehicles by Robert Shanteau.

A contributing problem is few cyclists know where to stop to trigger a detector.  Simple "dipole" loop detectors have a very narrow "sweet spot" where a bicycle will be detected.  If the wire cuts are covered by pavement, they become invisible so that even a knowledgeable cyclist cannot make them work.  These loops must be tested and then marked with a stencil to show cyclists how to make them work.

The photo at right shows a marked detector at the exit of NASA Glenn Research Center. This encourages compliance with traffic laws.

No cyclist should be expected to push a pedestrian button to change a traffic signal -- EVER!


Cycling Education Resources & More Information

Various sources and materials, arranged from simple to comprehensive.  Also see links above.

Child/Parents' Materials & Bike Rodeo Info.

Ideas for Teaching Cycling to Children More ideas on teaching children (school, scouts, etc.) by Fred Oswald.
Bicycle Rodeos Great discussion by John Andersen -- how to get the most out of a rodeo, from the Bicycling Life web site
Guide to Bicycle Rodeos
Rodeo booklet for $5 + S/H from Adventure Cycling www.adv-cycling.org
Effective Cycling Training Describes a rigorous program to train cyclists from age 8 to adult.  From John Forester's Bicycle Transportation Institute.

Adult Cycling Education Materials

Cycling Savvy Empowerment for stress-free bicycle travel
Commute Orlando A highly-recommended blog with illustrations and videos packed with great ideas.
Tips for Bicycle Operation Illustrated flyer that gives basics of riding in traffic. Makes a good handout. (1/2 page, 2-sides pdf file, 500 Kb).
Where to Ride A great little adult flyer by Bob Bayn.  Covers the basics -- riding on right, staying off sidewalks, lane position, lights.  (pdf file, 1/2 page, 2-sides)
Ten Tips for Safe & Enjoyable Bicycle Commuting A short illustrated article by Fred Oswald
Bicycle Driving Seminar From a "bicycle driving seminar" by cycling instructor Fred Oswald (pdf file)
Cycling Savvy Courses Course descriptions & list of instructors. 
Effective Cycling by John Forester The reference for every serious cyclist.  Confrontational tone is difficult for beginners.  7th Edition, published by MIT Press, 2012.
Cyclecraft by John Franklin In some ways, this book is even better than Forester's. American & Canadian readers shouold get the N American edition.
Cycling Education Links for many more articles on education, including presentations, handouts, videos and a photo gallery.

Information for Officials, Engineers & Planners

Cyclist Friendly Communities Program A new program offering recognition for Ohio communities that treat cyclists well.  Includes extensive information "Toolkit."
Dilemmas of Bicycle Planning Article by Paul Schimek.  An excellent discussion of issues that should be understood by every bicycle facilities planner.
Bicycle Blunders Illustrated article by Fred Oswald about the typical mistakes in bicycle use, education, advocacy, engineering, and traffic laws and how to avoid these blunders
A Guide to Improving U.S. Traffic Laws Pertaining to Bicycling Article by Paul Schimek about current state bicycle traffic laws and changes needed.
Drivers' License Test Questions on Cycling. Proposed questions deliberately written to invoke common misunderstanding about cycling issues to inspire improvement in driver training.
Bicycle Transportation by John Forester Advanced reference book (with confrontational tone) for transportation engineers, planners, etc.  2nd Edition, published by MIT Press, 1994.

Did you know?

The crash rate for experienced cyclists is 75 to 80 percent lower than for the average untrained adult bicycle user?  You can lower the risk for yourself and those you love by learning the methods presented here.

© Copyright 2004-2017 Fred Oswald.
Material may be copied with attribution.
The author is a certified bicycling safety instructor and a professional engineer in Ohio.
For comments, questions, contact fredoswald_AT_yahoo.com.
Last Revised Apr 2017

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