Looming Issues In The Age of Eurocentric-Thinking In Cycling America

Background Reading


Stephen Weigand -  A cyclist waits at the intersection of 15th Street NW and Massachusetts Avenue NW.

Stephen Weigand – A cyclist waits at the intersection of 15th Street NW and Massachusetts Avenue NW.

When groups like Active Transportation Alliance have spent far too much time inhaling the exhaust fumes of the European counterparts you get some really strange assertions (what I call “lies”). Much of this is due to simple ignorance on the part of American cycling advocates who are part of the new wave of folks who have assumed directorships but have no real tradition in cycling going back some 30 years or more. The remainder of it is caused by some wrongheaded assertions by hucksters from Europe who are more than willing to sell us all the snake oil we can handle so long as they get to blather on about how wonderful their cycling quality of life is.

Some of the “Big Lies” that have made their way across the Pond are:

  • Cycling is safe. Helmets are merely baubles being sold to the innocents of America that have no demonstrable safety value and in fact cause more harm than good.
  • Vehicular Cycling is a Cult Practice. John Forester according to the wise guys overseas is a huckster who has duped Americans into believing that they can coexist on streets alongside automobiles. Ideas like “Taking The Lane” should be banned a harmful and books like Effective Cycling should be relegated to the backwaters of history. The New Wave of pretty green bike lanes is going to heal our cycling wounds.
  • Protected Bike Lanes are capable of bringing safety not only to cyclists but pedestrians and motorists as well. The fact that this has not proven true in New York this past year is embarrassing but can be explained away by distracted driver issues that have not been adequately dealt with.
  • Bicyclists using PBLs will operate in a safe manner and by default obey all traffic controls. Ron Burke of Active Transportation Alliance likes to trot out this chestnut whenever he is refuting articles by journalists in the city who decry scofflaw cyclists.

Dealing With The European Lies

Cycling is only as safe as your best practices and those of your fellow road users. Beyond that a fair amount of luck is involved in avoiding serious injury on any given day. The most recent indication that cycling can be dangerous is when SCOTUS Justice Stephen Breyer manages to fall off his bicycle and crush his shoulder:

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer broke his right shoulder Saturday in a fall from his bicycle in downtown Washington, the court said.

Breyer, 74, was taken to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital by ambulance and underwent reverse shoulder replacement surgery — similar to standard replacement surgery — court spokeswoman Kathleen Arberg said in a statement.

Breyer was bicycling near the Korean War Veterans Memorial along the Mall when the accident occurred, the statement said. No further details were provided.

So let’s cut the crap about how safe cycling is and how nobody needs a helmet. The Justice could perhaps have benefited from a recumbent trike. I am certain that a goodly number of my fellow cyclists have noticed a lapse in their inner ear balance over time. And for that reason alone the sales of recumbent trikes have skyrocketed. Recumbent riders acknowledge their real reasons for riding these bikes alongside the fact that they are fun.

As cycling hopefully takes on greater popularity we will no doubt be seeing a rise in three rider demographics:

  • Children under the ages of 16 years will hopefully be riding to and from school along Safe Bike Routes. They will need helmets that fit them well and perhaps additional safety equipment to ensure that they can make the journey safely. Even our best PBLs are not as segregated from traffic as the lanes in European cities. So children still have the need for safety measures that Dutch kids might not require.
  • Seniors who are having balance and vision issues. This is definitely the group for whom trikes are a welcomed option. And like young children they need as much protection from street debris and imperfections as possible. Potholes to a vision poor senior citizen can create life-altering injuries.
  • Middle-Aged Newbies returning to cycling after 20 years. These folks like young children are most in need of training. In fact the biggest problem with the current love affair with pretty green bike lanes is that unless they are correctly implemented cyclists with limited experience are thrust into situations that only Vehicular Cycling training can address.

If we allow groups like the Active Transportation Alliance to lull us into a false reliance on PBLs (i.e. pretty green bike lanes) we have only ourselves to blame. What is passing here in America as European-style bicycle infrastructure is a bastardization of their protocols. In fact much of what we are doing has been roundly set aside over there because it was realized that it did not work well. Yet we are bound and determined to set up bi-directional PBLs which along with being expensive (because the require special traffic signals just for bikes) are being implemented without the elimination of the dreaded “Door Zone” interactions these lanes were designed to eliminate in the first instance.

Dearborn Street’s PBL is a prime example of “showcase” bike lane that requires motorists to walk in the northbound bike lane to reach their automobiles. And once at their vehicle opening the door means that a “Door Zone” collision is possible. The situation is worse because if two or more drivers are entering their vehicles they have to walk around one another (in the bike lane) which means that northbound riders are suddenly swerving into the southbound riders lane to avoid collision. All of this activity will get more frenetic with increase ridership.

On streets like one-way eastbound Jackson Street where the bike lane lies on the north side of the street, southbound turns are problematic unless riders know to exit the bike lane and move over to the righthand lane to make the turn. And one thing being done at the intersection of Jackson and Morgan is merging the bike and automobile lanes to allow cars to move to the curb to make northbound left turns. European designs like those in Amsterdam refrain from requiring this obviously troublesome protocol.

From my own observations it would seem that the presence of bike lanes does NOT prohibit or even discourage cyclists from disregarding traffic controls. In fact the use of “Bike Boxes” in PBLs creates a delay for cyclists used to making lefthand turns alongside automobiles. Using these “boxes” is a crutch for untrained cyclists who do not know Vehicular Cycling strategies and are therefore taught to rely on them.

The three articles above contain some interesting details about the continued scofflaw behavior of cyclists despite the presence of lanes designed to encourage “safe cycling practices“. Take for instance this segment:

When they were kids, they could only watch as their friends pedaled off. In college, they saw other students go ten-speeding around campus. As grown-up Washingtonians, increasingly surrounded by bike lanes, bike commuters and bike-share stations, they have stood aside as a city zips by on two wheels.

And so, a few decades later than most, 13 adults gathered last week in Alexandria to take care of some unfinished childhood business: learning to ride a bicycle.

D.C. has become such a bike town; it’s everywhere,” said Chris, a 29-year-old staffer at a child advocacy group in the District. He stills bears the scars of his disastrous first attempt to learn at age 7: a small one on his ankle and an enduring one on his self-esteem.

“I got my foot caught somehow and went down,” said Chris, who asked not to be identified by his last name because he doesn’t want to be known as one of the few adults who never navigated such a basic rite of passage. “Everyone knows how to ride a bike. It’s embarrassing.”

Embarrassing seems to have become unbearable for many of the area’s non-biking adults; thousands of them are fueling a boom in adult learn-to-ride classes. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association is holding 14 adult-only classes this spring and summer, including some courses that cost as little as $1o in the District, Alexandria and Arlington. The association may add more adult classes to meet the soaring demand, and other groups offer similar classes.

“As soon as we add a class, it fills up,” said Matt Liddle, who runs the outdoors education program for mid-Atlantic REI stores, where a four-hour session costs $85.

The interest has been particularly acute in Washington, where even Supreme Court justices are tooling around on bikes — and sometimes toppling off them.

On Saturday, 74-year-old Justice Stephen Breyer had shoulder replacement surgery at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital after fracturing his shoulder in a bike tumble on the Mall. It was the third time that Breyer, who is expected to make a full recovery, has been injured riding a bike.

Despite those kind of mishaps, the region’s bicycle renaissance has nudged non-riders to seek a way — ideally a low-profile way — to catch up.

“Not knowing how to ride a bike as an adult is not something you admit at a cocktail party,” Liddle said. “You don’t want to ask a friend, ‘Hey will you teach me?’ ”

High profile injuries like that of SCOTUS Justice Breyer’s situation is instructive. This was his THIRD time falling and being injured on a bicycle. The article goes on to say:

Now my biggest thing is just fear of falling,” said Chris, the 29-year-old nonprofit staffer. “I’m older and bigger; if I fall I’ll break something.

But learning to ride has actually gotten easier since he took his tumble. There will be no training wheels on these full-sized Treks, no instructors running beside, steadying their seats and shouting breathless encouragements before shoving them to their fates.

Instead, the instructors just remove the pedals.

“Okay folks, you’ve probably noticed something missing on your bicycles,” instructor Dan Hoagland said to the waiting riders.

The modern method emphasizes balance before all. Pedaling, gear-shifting and other higher-order skills can wait. With the pedals temporarily removed, students mounted up and push-glided across the playground using only their feet. With looks of fierce concentration, they kept their feet off the ground for longer and longer intervals, seeking that ineffable point of balance that allows a grown human to balance above two skinny wheels.

It was as easy as falling off a bike. Which is what Mary Jones promptly did.

“Oh oh oh oh,” said Jones, a civil servant from Alexandria nearing retirement age, as she executed a slow-motion tumble across her suddenly horizontal ride. She stood up laughing, with three instructors already at her side.

But, unlike the time four of her brothers tried to teach her on the family’s one bicycle back in the 1960s, this time Jones got right back on. She wants to learn to ride as a surprise gift to her “special friend,” a gentleman about to retire from his own government job.

“I want us to go bicycling on all these beautiful trails around here,” said Jones, pushing bravely off for another wobbly glide across the pavement.

Slowly, their tracks became straighter, their bodies more centered, their speeds something more languid than lurching. With each pass, they loosened their death grip on the handlebars and let their weight do the steering.

Student by student, instructors reattached the Shimano pedals. First just one, so the riders could get a feel for the “power stroke.” And then both, allowing astonished grown-ups to ride properly, if shakily, round and round the playground.

“It feel like a childhood dream come true,” exalted Krantz, one of the first to graduate to two pedals.

Krantz, a federal worker in Alexandria, came to a stop, planted his feet and recalled all the times in life he couldn’t do this, like the time he had to take a van back to the hotel by himself while his college buddies went for a ride in Costa Rica.

“I’ve already texted everybody, my mom, my dad, my wife,” Krantz said. “My sister told me not to text and ride.”

Fortunately many riders can eventually learn to balance themselves:

“I’ve really envied people who could just jump on a bicycle and go,” said Kamara, the accountant, who was now doing just that.

When it was Chris’s turn to take off with both pedals, he took a deep breath, said “Let’s do this,” and pushed off.

And away he went, riding a bike, just like everybody else.

Some of these riders will however eventually have the same kinds of issues that Justice Breyer has encountered. They too will have repeated falls. But what is important is that we have options for these riders (e.g. recumbent trikes) that can safely extend their riding lives by years.

As with the issue of helmets it is not that helmets are a waste of time, but rather that we rethink their design to encompass protection against brain injuries like concussion.

Some of our American Europhiles have become ardent helmet haters. But like the gang of cycling advocates that rely far too heavily on pretty green bike lanes and forget to begin with the basics that we all learned in Vehicular Cycling classes over the years, we need to set aside (at least for the moment) our glee over having more infrastructure and focus on individuals, not masses of riders. We need to tell people that yes cycling can be dangerous, but here is how you cope with it given your special circumstances. That coping mechanism might include a recumbent trike. It might just be an issue of learning to balance after so many years away from the activity.

I have written many times that African-American women on the South Side of Chicago have been the ones who have the greatest positive reactions to the long wheelbase recumbents (Easy Racers Tour Easy’s) my wife Connie and I ride.

I now think that what they see in them is the safety factor followed by comfort.

Upright bikes are fine for many riders. For older riders not so much. Sitting lower to the ground and being comfortable for very long periods in the saddle are a blessing for those who have long been out of the mix where cycling is concerned.

Being comfortable means that you are then free to concentrate on the balance issue without having endure pain.

Again if we stop attempting to blow smoke up the skirts of the general public and be honest with them we will get further along in terms of bicycle acceptance then merely trying to “lie” about how safe cycling is when writing for magazines and such but then being brutally honest with fellow cyclists about the fear and loathing encountered in our daily commutes.

Not All Troubled Riders Are Older

In the third article above we encounter some interesting anecdotes:

Faced with a frustrating Metro ride or the cost of a taxi during a late-afternoon rush hour, Cameron Tabucchi instead opted for a two-wheeled commute across town.

The 27-year-old pulled a bright red bike from the rack at Park Road and Holmead Place NW on her way to Adams Morgan. Tabucchi said she feels safe using Capital Bikeshare for her usual trek to yoga class — most of the time. The native Californian has been “doored” — struck by an opening car door while bicycling — twice since moving to Petworth just over a year ago.

Drivers aren’t as conscious here as they are in other cities,” she said before pedaling away.

Among my many pet peeves is the notion that drivers are the ones who cause “Door Zonecollisions. To take that approach you have to believe that only promiscuous teenage girls are responsible for unwed pregnancies. Clearly it takes two to make a baby. You stay out of situations where intimacy before marriage is occurring and you can make it through to young adulthood and marriage without having to leave school to have a child.

Now colliding with doors on stopped automobiles is essentially the same problem. Vehicular Cycling has long been teaching about the “Door Zone“. It is that three-foot space between you and the cars to your right when the bike lane is adjacent to the parking lane. In fact the three foot passing rule that has become state law in many places is one that cuts both ways. If cyclists stay at least three feet to the left of parked autos and are vigilant about scanning for children and drivers exiting their vehicles any and all “Door Zone” collisions can be avoided.

The 27-year old in the account above has not been properly instructed on this particular Vehicular Cycling strategy. Here again is evidence that pretty green bike lanes are by themselves not nearly enough to equip riders to deal with the exigencies of their daily commutes.

We Need League Certified Instructors Now, More Than Ever Before

Take for instance this additional information on pressing needs in D.C.:

By some indicators, it has never been a better time to travel by bike. Gas prices are soaring, spring has arrived, and the District is already one of the most active cities in the country, second in biking and walking only to Boston, according to the Alliance for Biking and Walking. But there’s a downside to the region’s cycling growth: Authorities and advocates are struggling to keep up with a crowd of riders whose skills range from expert to novice in an already congested city.

According to rush-hour counts at 20 intersections throughout the city each year by the District Department of Transportation, bike traffic during peak times surged an average of 20.7 percent from 2010 to 2011, with a total of 7,113 bikes moving through those intersections. Nearly 25 percent of those riders weren’t wearing helmets, according to the data.

A chunk of the District’s growing user group comes from Capital Bikeshare, a regional rental system started by the District and Arlington County in September 2010. By this past January, it had mushroomed into a 1,200-bike, 140-station system. Compared with overall ridership, the number of reported collisions is low, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the problem is much bigger. Police have logged 829 bicycle collisions in the District in that time frame.

Since Bikeshare’s inception, 20 collisions have been reported by people using the system, a small number when one considers that 93,082 Bikeshare trips were taken in the District in January. But when crashes happen, injury rates are high — two-thirds of bike accidents injured one or more people involved, according to police data.

Data collected by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association indicate that some crashes go unreported to authorities: A form the association distributed to cyclists pointed to at least 80 incidents over the past year, according to bike ambassador coordinator Daniel Hoagland. The group is also collecting data on cases of intimidation and harassment from motorists and encouraging cyclists to serve as better accident witnesses.

It’s very hard for someone who has been in a crash to resist the urge to leave,” Hoagland said. “If you get doored and can walk away, there’s no way anyone’s going to report that. It’s just really important to take the time to do it right.

Miscommunication and human error can result in serious accidents and fuel tension between motorists and bicyclists. When a cyclist riding a Bikeshare bike Feb. 28 was struck by a tractor-trailer during morning rush hour, he was issued three citations. But one of the alleged violations — biking without a helmet — is not a law on the D.C. books for people older than 16. The ticket was issued in error and withdrawn, according to police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump.

“For the police department the relatively quick expansion of bicycling in the city has led to a need for better training in the bicycle regulations,” Crump said in an e-mail. Crump said officers are able to refer to bike association material as the department plans expands training.

The most important thing we can do is to educate both the motoring public and the biking community about the laws,” Crump said.

Vehicular Cycling classes taught by competent LCIs is one of the best ways to disseminate good sound cycling information as well as the truth about local cycling laws.

Riding abreast, a citation-worthy act for cyclists riding in groups of two or more and impeding traffic flow, is frequently issued to single cyclists who ride alongside or weave between cars. Police are “looking at the charge of ‘riding abreast’ and its application in a couple of bicycle-involved accidents,” Crump said.

Hoagland acknowledges that a significant challenge of bike advocacy is trying to encourage all cyclists to familiarize themselves with a common set of rules. The association’s 61 volunteer bike ambassadors are approaching their “busy season,” Hoagland said, and are hoping to hold enough classes to draw 15,000 people for the group’s “Bike to Work Day” in May.

To help make sure riders of all wheel counts are on the same page, local police will begin a spring Street Smart campaign this week across the region. The program is geared toward enforcing safe bicycling and safe driving.

But advocates say that even more can be done to make biking a safer mode of travel; in short, they want more funding for bike paths, lanes, walkways and pedestrian bridges in cities across the country. Bicyclists attending the National Bike Summit in the District this week will lobby for what they see as a lack of funding.

“Our goal is equity across modes of transportation,” Hoagland said. “Equal share of the roadway for every type of user.”

I hope that where infrastructure is concerned it is clearly understood that just have more of the same kinds of lanes and street designs we are getting is not the answer. We need more segregated bicycle trails. If you want to keep cyclists safe you need to isolate their activities from those of the faster moving and more massive road users that surround them. For the bulk of the pleasure riding of bicycles we need more off-street options than anything else.

Some Sample LCI Instruction

Avoidance Weave

One of the joys I experience as an LCI (League Cycling Instructor) is teaching kids about bike safety.

Here’s a short video of one of the drills from today’s session with Cub Scouts in Park Ridge. I asked the parents to get involved too. The kids were thrilled when they got to weave around their parents!

No parents were harmed in the filming of this drill 🙂 — with David Simmons at Park Ridge, IL.