A Primer On The Confused Thoughts and Practices of the Urban Cycling Community

Background Reading


I applaud the actions of Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd Ward. The other day she made mention of an alternative to raising taxes to meet a shortfall that is largely due to the desperate need for pension reform in our state. What she proposed was something that every automobile driver across the country recognizes as a regular and appropriate registration requirement along with training in what is usually referred to as the Rules of the Road. In fact in just about every high school both the desk training and the on-street portion of it is conducted in something called Driver Education. There has been a longstanding effort to get this sort of training into the lower grades on a similar basis to help educate our younger children as well. The impetus for this was originally an attempt to follow the example of the Dutch who provide education not only for young children in the use of bicycles to get to and from school.

I Vacuum Copenhagen

I Vacuum Copenhagen

The Dutch believe in training kids to become responsible cyclists because it aids not only in making them safer as adults but it also means that every driver understands the need to be extra careful around cyclists (who are consider more vulnerable users of the roadway). This is useful in making certain that adults who want to cycle (especially women) can do so with a relative sense of safety. In fact there are programs in Amsterdam that are targeted at immigrant women who having come from countries where early childhood bicycle training was not available can now learn what every native born Dutch person knows both how to ride a bike and how to do it safely.

To augment safety the Dutch have made it a priority to fund special infrastructure just for bicycles. They have a very high user rate for adults in their country and feel that it is easier to keep people safe if the bicycles and automobiles are kept apart as much as possible. Much of this stems from the realization that automobiles generally travel at speeds much greater than do bicycles. So keeping the slow moving bicycle traffic segregated onto what are essentially Protected Bike Lanes not unlike our own Chicago Lakefront Trail. This works well for the Dutch who would rather incur the expense of such infrastructure because it means that ordinary working men and women can ride their bikes in relative safety and comfort free from traffic snarls and collisions.

Pat Dowell knows firsthand what this sort of infrastructure looks like because along with others from a Chicago contingent she visited Europe to see how they do things there with the idea of bringing a fresh perspective to the ideas we hope to use to create our own bicycle infrastructure. Like many of us who regularly bicycle both in the City of Chicago and its suburbs we look forward to having ever greater numbers of bike lanes and trails made available for not only recreational but serious commuter use going forward.

Clearly what the Dutch and the Danes enjoy is not a widespread reality here in the United States. Not only do we lack the depth of infrastructure designed specifically for cycling but we also have a severe lack of training in simple things like how to use a bicycle. There are hundreds of thousands of adults in this country who have not used a bicycle since their youth. And they are certainly not aware of how to ride a bicycle in what can be a mix of Protected Bike Lanes in places where they exist to traffic lanes where they don’t.

What is troubling however is the distinct alienation that cyclists feel from the rest of society when in comes to road usage. Keep in mind that in Copenhagen folks are so used to traveling by bicycle that they take it for granted. In fact Mikael Colville-Andersen likes to drive home the fact that bicycling is not a sub-culture as it is here in the United States. It is as unremarkable to ride a bicycle as it is to use a vacuum to clean a rug. Bicycles are in essence yet another appliance!

What Is Bikeability?

Much of what we are attempting to do here is already being done in Europe. As I mentioned the Dutch train their children and adults in the fine art of bicycle riding at as early an age as possible. The Brits are now taking u the gauntlet and trying to do the same. In fact they have a term for such training, Bikeability. Bikeability is described thusly on their website:

What is Bikeability?

Bikeability is ‘cycling proficiency’ for the 21st century, designed to give the next generation the skills and confidence to ride their bikes on today’s roads.

There are three Bikeability levels, with each level designed to help improve their cycling skills, no matter what they know already. Levels 1, 2 and 3 take trainees on a journey from the basics of balance and control, all the way through to planning and making a journey by themselves on busier roads.

Children will typically start Bikeability lessons once they have learnt to ride a bike. Level 1 will help new riders to control their bike before they move on to developing on-road skills at Level 2. Level 2 is usually tackled by children in Years 5 or 6, before they leave primary school. Level 3 teaches trainees how to ride in different and more challenging traffic situations, and is usually completed by children of secondary school age.

Hundreds of thousands of young cyclists have already received Bikeability training and have been awarded coveted Bikeability badges and certificates. We want as many children as possible to have the opportunity to take part in Bikeability training, and it is estimated that more than 1.5 million will have been trained by March 2015.

This training program is either free or delivered at a minimal cost. What is much different there than here is that cyclists are involved in their communities and not sitting inside an online social media bubble where they fret that motorists are actually out to “get them”. The Europeans are actively pursuing training for themselves and their children because at the end of the day they will have trained tomorrows motorists on the need to coexist with cyclists.

Confused Notions of Cycling Responsibility

One the one hand you have this sort of response to the proposals to tax bicyclists and require training:

Reply by Anne Alt 1 hour ago
+2 When we have infrastructure and laws that make sense for transportation cycling, more cyclists will follow those laws. The Dearborn bike lane is a prime example – significant decrease in red light running and fewer conflicts between different types of road users. Of course, we still have those charming peds who insist on standing in the lane, although there are fewer people doing it as Dearborn has become better established.

With more crackdowns happening, Idaho stop is long overdue.

American cyclists have decided that before they can be expected “follow the rules of the road” they have to have infrastructure built to their specifications. The thinking is that with proper infrastructure they can then be expected to behave themselves and not disobey stop signs and run red lights. Notice that there is a tacit admission in this statement that the incidents of red light running have been reduced, not eliminated. The explanation for this is that pedestrians are at fault for not behaving well. This seems a bit of a confused notion of things. Everyone else needs to behave before we can.

Reply by Jeff Schneider 1 minute ago
Knowing the rules of the road is essential. Anyone driving or riding on the streets should understand right of way, signaling, etc. Since drivers interact with cyclists and pedestrians, they must understand the law as it applies to all road users.

Presumably, a person holding a driver’s license should already have been tested on this knowledge. That’s covers probably 95% of adult bicyclists already. A separate test for bicycling only would be redundant.

The problem is not that bicyclists don’t understand the law as it applies to them – the problem is that neither drivers nor bicyclists know the law. Let’s get everybody educated. The best way to do this is to include infos on the law related to cycling as part of the driver’s test.

A more thoughtful approach is demonstrated by this respondent to the discussion on what has become the Fox News Outlet for the Urban Cyclist. This is the incubator for some of the wildly confused thinking that surrounds the discussions inside the Urban Cycling Community.

Taking Their Cue From Europe

Europeans do not like our decisions to use the “traffic lanes“. They believe that helmets actually discourage bicycling. We Americans believe that riding with helmets is a prudent thing to do. And we do not argue that having to wear a helmet is indicative of our need to discourage cycling. On the contrary we believe that keeping you safer while riding has the opposite effect.

The Urban Cycling Community likes to argue that having to follow the rules of the road is something that will stifle their progress through traffic. In fact having crackdowns on scofflaws will discourage cycling. But one of their most cherished practices is the posting of “ghost bikes“. The spouse of a now deceased rider admitted that she was deterred from getting back on her bike because her husband’s ghost bike was a constant reminder of his death. I can understand this reaction and wonder why the practice is not considered a discouragement to those considering cycling but afraid to because of the ghost bikes?

We Need To Stop Making Excuses

Being a responsible member of society means having to register your vehicle and get certified on its operation. It is clearly not something that a civilized society does to discourage cycling but rather to promote safe operation of vehicles. This is something that we can do without having to pay a half million dollars a mile for bicycle specific stop lights and turn signals. Were we to wait for that sort of thing rural and less affluent areas might never have infrastructure deemed suitable for cycling.

But when we get that infrastructure then we had better obey the law and follow the rules, not just curtail unlawful activity for the sake of window dressing. Being safe out there is everyone’s business. And most of all we need our bicycle advocacy leaders to actually lead the way. That means in fact that we stop making excuses for this or that perceived sleight to cycling. Instead we should be the ones suggesting that we pay registration fees and get trained. We should be the ones who are leading the charge for public parking of bicycles that besides costing money is secure and safe. Right now the patchwork of websites being used to register stolen bikes and the piecemeal efforts to reclaim them are laughable. And cyclists are the first to admit this.

Registration could mean that we get a license plate or sticker than easily identifies our bikes and places us in a registry that makes quick and certain identification of bike ownership possible. Instead we are deliberately trying to avoid being identified because it means having to deal with red light cameras that could capture our scofflaw behavior and result in the same kinds of fines that motorists enjoy.

One of the more puzzling aspects of Urban Cycling us it’s insistence that while obeying traffic signals is optional even though it’s the law, riding against traffic isn’t because it is the law. Of course wrong way riding is more common among immigrants, so that perhaps explains this obvious hypocrisy. But then why practice it against drivers during a Critical Mass Ride?

I’m still waiting for a clear explanation of the need for that practice. We are in sore need of consistency in our reasoning.

As BikesForPeople Wrote We Are The Gorilla In The Room

Right now the world is watching as we twist and turn from one extreme to the other trying to avoid being responsible for our actions. They will duly note that despite getting expensive infrastructure built that our behavior has not changed appreciably. We are still ignoring traffic controls and constantly referring to Idaho Stop Law in an effort to deflect criticism. We need to find a more adult approach to deal with a problem of our own making.