Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The World of Vehicular Cycling

I have been feeling pretty comfortable cycling with traffic. The Pashley Princess is so sturdy and reliable, that I feel more like a small car than a bicycle, which gives me the confidence to behave like a motorist. I have always been a nervous driver, but interestingly, I have not had the same anxiety while cycling.

As I began to cycle in the city, I quickly realised that many ideas about cycling I'd held since childhood were counterproductive. Reading up on the topic, including the iconic Effective Cycling by John Forester, has confirmed this. The biggest example, is the false belief that riding on the sidewalk and on the opposite side of the road (in order to "see the oncoming cars") are safe alternatives for beginners who do not feel brave enough to cycle with traffic. I wish there was a way to communicate to the public what an extremely bad idea it is to do these things. The sense of safety they give the beginner is a dangerous illusion, since there are far more opportunities to get hit by a car this way than by cycling with traffic and obeying motorist rules. If you are new to cycling, please have a look at this website for a to-the-point analysis of the kind of behaviour that leads to accidents.

Given the option of using perfectly designed segregated cycling facilities, I would gladly do so. But the reality in North America today, is that vehicular cycling is a de facto necessity, since no proper cycling infrastructure exists. For that reason, I think it is crucial for cyclists to learn the rules and do it properly. A pretty skirt, high heels and a basket will not save you from the dangerous situations that misinformation and lack of skill can create.

17 comments:

  1. I am glad that you are adjusting to riding with traffic. I am still a big chicken about that. I am planning on taking a class that is offered here in LA about that subject. There is a group here called C.I.C.L.E that offers all kinds of info and classes on safety and such.

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  2. I suspect that in LA I may not have been so relaxed about it -- I hear that's one of the scariest places to commute in the US. Enjoy the class and I look forward to reading abut it!

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  3. I used to commute in L.A. No problem.

    Funny.... I just did a VC post on my blog too!

    A great place to begin to understand vehicular cycling is Keri's post called Smart Moves: You Lead the Dance on CommuteOrlando Blog. It has links to several other posts that have videos demonstrating various maneuvers. Excellent stuff.

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  4. Yeah, there are many things to learn and I completely agree on that riding on sidewalks and such is neither good nor safe. Well, for me the most important thing is the shoulder check. That is simply because bicycles have no mirrors, I use it all kinds of situations. It also helped me a lot that I learned how to ride motorbikes cause it taught me a lot about vehicular driving and safety of two-wheelers in general as nobody really bothered to teach me how to ride a bicycle in traffic safely (although that certainly isn't less dangerous). Learning by doing is very important, I'd say.

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  5. Great post. I work for our local P.D. and I've handled several reports of bicycle vs. car accidents in which the cyclists was on the sidewalk and riding the wrong way. Cars pulling out from parking lots and intersections aren't looking for a bike to be coming from that direction. It scares me every time I see someone doing it.

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  6. Thanks for the link to the Smart Moves post; I have not been to that blog before.

    I agree that the shoulder-check is the crucial part. An upright bicycle like the Pashley Princess makes this really easy to do, and that is probably why I feel so comfortable on it. On my mixte with drop-bars, it is not so easy at all, and I am not nearly as confident riding it in traffic. There is also the issue of being able to effortlessly take a hand off the handlebars in order to signal -- no problem on the Pashley, but difficult on the mixte.

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  7. I really enjoy your blog!

    One truck that helped me with head-checks on a "roadster" style bike is to tuck your chin into your shoulder.

    I am wondering though, how is a segregated cycling facility any different than riding on a sidewalk when they come to a cross-road of driveway junction?

    Tailwinds!

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  8. ChipSeal -- Thanks for your comments! There is a way to design segregated cycling paths where the crossings and junctions are safeguarded from motor traffic. This is done effectively in the Netherlands, and in a few other areas in Northern Europe. Needless to say, the American cycle path system is not designed in this manner, and to revamp it would be extremely costly. This is why I am careful to say that I am a proponent of perfectly designed segregated cycling facilities, rather than the currently available cycle paths.

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  9. I was recently cycling in Shenyang in China and it is way better than Seoul for designated though not segregated areas for cyclists to cross major junctions. As always though the over the shoulder check is crucial.

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  10. I feel more sturdy on my upright city bike, too. Watching people ride on the sidewalks makes me nervous. Definitely in Chicago it's so much safer (and legal if you're over 12) to ride on the street.

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  11. Nice blog. Love the roadsters!

    Civilized cycling, what a refreshing treat!

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  12. Hi Filigree... about those "perfect" Northern European facilities - many of them are appropriate only for relatively short and slow travel, mostly for trips under 5km, no?

    In any case, we have endless miles of facilities existing today in the U.S. that are so over-engineered for bicycling that they're perfect for bicycling. They're called roads!

    Follow the rules and pay attention for those who don't...

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  13. > those "perfect" Northern European facilities
    > - many of them are appropriate only for
    > relatively short and slow travel, mostly for
    > trips under 5km, no?

    On average, yes. But in some places -- most notably in the NL -- they now have long-distance networks of these sort of bicycle highways that connect one town to another. I do not know whether it is (or will ever be) possible to create such a system in North America, due to factors too numerous to list here.

    My personal view, is that regardless of whether segregated facilities exist, vehicular cycling must remain legally permissible, and must be stressed as a necessary skill for all cyclists to acquire. If I am offered segregated cycling facilities in exchange for my right to cycle on the roads, I will decline. If I am offered segregated cycling facilities in addition to being able to cycle on the roads, I will happily accept and will probably use them often.

    I think my position on this is well-informed and reasonable, and that is as far as I want to be drawn into a debate here on the vehicular cycling vs segregated facilities issue : )

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  14. My six-year-old sons ride on the sidewalk. I never do. It's actually illegal in New Haven but the majority of folks don't seem to know this. Whenever I get annoyed drivers' comments while riding, there always seem to include some sort of "Get on the sidewalk!" sentiment.

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  15. Filigree's last comment pretty much sums it up. Sara ought to keep it in mind when some dweeb does the "get on the sidewalk" thing. Y'all want to get from point "A" to point "B," the roads are a part of that.

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  16. I would totally ride on the roads, but I live in a part of the US where people just don't drive properly or safely. Drivers often stop right over the pedestrian crosswalk, treat the speed limit as a minimum speed, make left turns while the light is red and some pedestrian is walking.

    Yes, bikes are supposed to be on the roads, but if I ride on the roads, I would literally fear for my life.

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  17. I wonder if Anonymous lives in St. Louis, Missouri? I just purchased my first upright bike which I'd love to use on my 6.5mi commute to work (13mi r/t), and I can cross a couple of the big roads with no shoulders and drivers going at least 40mph, but at some point I have to pick one (nicer for cycling but requires left turn onto one of the bad roads) or the other (scary for cycling but dumps you with an easy right turn into the central business district where I work) in order to get to the office. I am building up comfort and confidence (I hope to do a safety course next weekend if my schedule permits), but a huge part of the hold-up is trying to plan that last several blocks of the route.

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