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Training Wheels and Bike Lanes

By Fred Oswald, Bicycling Safety Instructor


Some "bicycle advocates" claim that bike lanes act as "training wheels," helping beginners learn to ride.  This comparison may be more appropriate than they realize.  Let's examine it further.

Both training wheels and bike lanes encourage novices to ride bikes without learning proper methods -- in one case, without learning balance; in the other, without learning how to interact with motor traffic.  Both training wheels and bike lanes introduce hazards to their users and both discourage learning of better methods.

Hazards

Training wheels allow children to transition from the tricycle too early, possibly before they are ready to use the brakes.  This is particularly dangerous because a bicycle allows greater speed (especially downhill) than the small wheels and fixed cranks of a tricycle.  In addition, making a turn on training wheels, except at very low speed, creates the risk of a "high side" crash.

Bike lanes also encourage novices to get in "over their heads".  It is better to learn on quiet streets than depend on paint on the road.

Bike lanes add both explicit and implicit hazards.  Explicit hazards include door zone bike lanes, bike lanes that direct cyclists to the wrong side of turning traffic and bike lanes confining cyclists to a narrow slot on downhill grades.

Implicit hazards include encouraging faster cyclists to pass slow traffic on the right and encouraging riding in the gutter rather than a more conspicuous position near the middle of the traffic lane.

But there is one big difference between training wheels and bike lanes:  Everyone knows training wheels are a temporary crutch that will soon be abandoned.  Not so the paint on the street type, which often permanently prevents learning of better methods.

Our society does a very poor job teaching cycling.  That's why few people operate bicycles properly and why it is so important that we start teaching.  Fig. 1 shows kids making typical mistakes, including riding double and riding on a sidewalk.

Better alternatives for new cyclists

Here's a better way to teach a youngster to ride a two wheel bike.  First, don't start too early.  Wait until the child is really ready.  The appropriate age depends on the child's development.

Start with a small bike.  (Avoid the temptation to get one to "grow into.")  Put the seat all the way down so the child can sit with both feet flat on the ground.  Take off the pedals so the child can glide with feet down like a sit-down scooter.  (Note: the left pedal has a left-hand thread.)

Consider starting on a gentle grassy hill.  The grass provides a soft landing in case of a fall.  The hill lets the child coast down at moderate speed.  When the child is ready, move to a driveway or playground.  Beware a driveway that slopes into the street.

When your young rider has learned to steer and balance, put the pedals back.  As basic handling skills are mastered gradually raise the seat.  Eventually, the seat should be adjusted so the knee is almost fully straightened at the bottom of the pedal stroke.

Once the child has learned to ride, you've only begun teaching cycling.  The more important part is counterintuitive: interaction with traffic.  Rather than avoiding it, you should seek out easy traffic such as on a residential street (after basic handling is mastered).

"Shepherd" your child by riding behind and slightly to the left.  This way you will shield the youngster from traffic in case there's a wobble.  By being behind, you can talk to the young rider, thus giving instruction.

Teach riding in a straight line near the right -- but not too close to the edge.  It is often safer to ride near the middle of the traffic lane where motorists are looking for traffic than slinking along in the gutter.  This assertive lane position is a very important but counterintuitive and thus little-known cycling skill.

Teach how to look behind and signal (Fig. 2) before moving laterally (such as to pass parked cars, to avoid road defects or to prepare for a left turn).  Teach children to ride safely well outside the door zone of parked cars; not to weave in and out between them.

As the child develops perception and judgment, gradually move to slightly more difficult streets (Fig. 3).  Neighborhood grid streets allow a novice cyclist to get around without dealing with difficult traffic, except that crossing main roads ("arterials") from minor streets may be harder.

Wait until the child is really ready before trying left turns in busy traffic.  Use pedestrian methods for turns until the young rider is ready to merge to the center of the road.  This means (s)he needs to be able to reliably judge distances and closing speeds.

Take the bicycle seriously and teach the child that cycling is an adult activity that (s)he is allowed to do.  Teach your child to "Drive your bike!"

Better alternatives for encouraging cycling

The main motivation for bicycle advocates pushing for bike lanes and other segregated facilities is that they believe it encourages non-cyclists to take up cycling rather than driving cars.  In other words, bicycle advocacy is often anti-car, not pro-cycling.

The best form of cycling advocacy is education.  A knowledgeable cyclist will ride more effectively, with greater safety and will enjoy cycling more.  Someone who really likes to cycle will do it often.  Education must be persistent, wide ranging and take many forms.  What we must teach is counterintuitive and contrary to traditional "bike safety" misinformation, which is usually based on fear.

Rather than trying to show people where to ride by putting paint on the road it is better to teach cyclists how to follow the rules of the road -- the same rules that other drivers follow.  Indeed, painted bike lanes are often in exactly the wrong place, such as the door zone of parked cars, or on the wrong side of turning traffic at intersections.  In addition, the segregated space is usually quite narrow.

A safer type of painted road marking for bicycles is the "shared lane" marking.  These should not be intended to show people "where to ride"; however, they may be interpreted that way, thus they should be placed with care, away from hazardous places, such as the door zone of parked cars or too close to the edge of the road.

A good spot for shared lane markings is usually right in the middle of the lane, between the tire tracks as in Fig. 4.  Unfortunately, the cyclist shown here is too close to the edge of road as she approaches an intersection.

Using signs or markings on the roadway to encourage cycling or to produce certain behavior very often leads to less-safe behavior.  We really need to teach cyclists to cycle lawfully according to the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles.  Even optimally placed paint does not replace instruction.

There is one completely beneficial type of roadway markings to welcome cyclists -- bike symbols that mark the "sweet spot" of vehicle detectors (Fig. 5).  These are specified in Section 9C.05 of the Manual on Uniform Vehicle Control Devices.  Marking vehicle detectors is not only a visual signal that avoids safety problems; it enhances safety by encouraging compliance with traffic law.

Better alternatives for training cyclists

Most people in our society do not know how to operate a bicycle in traffic, although they think they know.  Indeed most people believe the Three Great Fallacies of bicycle operation:

  1. There is great danger in riding on the road because of traffic passing from behind (the "fear from the rear").
  2. Cyclists' greatest duty is staying out of the way. / They do not really belong on the road / Roads are for cars. (Three versions of the same problem.)
  3. The normal rules of the road do not apply. Cyclists do not need to (or cannot learn) follow the rules of the road while cycling.
If we are to get more people to use bicycles for transportation, we must overcome these fallacies.  Bike lanes and other segregated facilities reinforce them.  We need a persistent and multidimensional cycling education program that reaches everyone from young children, to active bicycle users and even "Joe Six-pack Motorist."  The message must directly challenge each of the fallacies.


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© Copyright 2009-2017 Fred Oswald and LAB Reform.  Material may be copied with attribution.
Minor update Apr. 2017