Saturday, November 12, 2016

I Am a Slow Moving Vehicle



I got chatting to a fellow the other day who commutes to work by bike. He has been cycling for a couple of years now, having bought a racing bike as part of the cycle to work scheme.

Eying up the bike I was on, he said, "Right enough, all that would be handy!" - gesturing sweepingly at the mudguards and racks and bags and upright handlebars.

"Why didn't you get one like it?" I ask.

"Ach, where I live it would be too slow. Drivers would go mad sitting behind me!"

I was taken aback by this explanation. Not because I've never heard it, but because I haven't heard it in quite a long time. In fact, the last time I heard it was in Boston, before transportation cycling had become popular there, and when the few cyclists who did take to the roads seemed sharply divided between those virulently opposed to drivers and those trying desperately to appease them. The idea that cyclists who go fast are less of a nuisance to motorised traffic belonged to the latter group. And I always thought that reasoning to be flawed. Not only from an "it's futile for minorities to try and appease the oppressor" standpoint, but also purely logically.

I mean, let's have a look at the actual speeds we're dealing with.

On a relatively heavy, upright utility bicycle, I typically average 12mph along the road into town. But instead of me, let's use an "even slower" cyclist as an example and for the sake of the argument say they are traveling at 10mph.

On a relatively light, racy roadbike, I typically average 17mph along the same road. But instead of me, let's use an "even faster" cyclist and for the sake of the argument say they are traveling at 20mph.

So, it is fair to say that a fast road cyclist can travel twice as fast as a slow utility cyclist, which on the face of it sounds like a huge difference.

But then I consider these speeds from a motorist's point of view. The posted speed limit on the road into town is 60mph. But let's say the motorist is me, and I am being conservative on this winding narrow road and traveling at 50mph. And as I travel at this speed, I see a cyclist up ahead. Am I going to sit behind the "fast" cyclist at 20mph, admiring their speed? No, I'm going to want to pass them, same as I would want to pass the cyclist going 10mph. Compared to me, they are both slow moving vehicles. Both will require slowing down and overtaking with care, probably switching to the opposite side of the road. And in that situation, if anything I actually find it easier and safer to overtake the slower cyclist. The closer an "obstacle" is to being stationary, the less risky and more predictable my overtaking maneuver can be. The more I think about it, the more I realise that as a motorist I am more anxious when passing faster cyclist than slower ones.

But it occurred to me that other drivers might see the matter differently. And so I did an informal survey of friends and family who are drivers. Interestingly, the replies were split fairly evenly: with some finding it easier to pass slow cyclists, others finding it easier to pass faster cyclists, and others still finding that it doesn't matter - a slow-moving vehicle is a slow-moving vehicle. And hey, it's easier than passing an enormous tractor anyway - at least your view of the road ahead isn't blocked.

There are exceptions to the bicycle's relative slowness. In congested areas or at peak commuting times, when cars are stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, cycling speed can be superior to motorist speed. But we are not talking about this kind of scenario.

Regardless of my choice of bicycle and of my pedaling prowess, I do not kid myself: On the open road I am a slow-moving vehicle. And does it matter how slow? I should certainly hope not.


36 comments:

  1. Interesting. i'm not really any faster on my light road bike than on my randonneuse or utility bike with their mudguards,lights, and wide tyres. i think the gent would be just fine and much happier (and dryer) in his commute with good mudguards, and needn't need to worry about his speed.

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  2. First of all, wow! Even on my best days I cannot get above 12 mph on my fifteen mile commute and that's using a road bike. I'll even pass riders who seem like they're standing still so I'm figuring they are going slightly faster than jogging pace. The fact that you average 17 may put you in the slow moving vehicle category but it puts you in the fast moving cyclist category! It's also humbling to think that even with you riding a heavy upright cycle I'd never keep up on a commute trip.

    Anyway, I decided on a road bike because I felt it was the fastest bike for me and I did not have the least bit of concern about what a driver may think. In fact I don't think I've ever heard that as a rational for choosing one kind of bike over another. Also, it's very windy here and the road bike offers the most efficient riding position for long stretches of road into the wind which was important with regard to my choice. There are times where I can only manage about 5 mph in a strong headwind.

    Mostly, let whomever choose whichever bike they prefer for whatever reasons and no need to worry about drivers, after all they're the least logical bunch of all ;) Kudos on your level of fitness and speed…Wow!

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    1. My speed has gone up considerably since moving to Ireland. Cyclists here are animals, so riding with locals it's kind of inevitable. When I'm out on my own and not in a hurry though, rolling average speed is sort of a moot point, as I constantly stop to take photos and smell flowers and pet animals. Ideally I like to allow an hour for my commute, even though I can do it in under 30 minutes if absolutely necessary.

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    2. If I understand you correctly speed is a moot point no matter what, or maybe I don't understand you and it matters a lot, especially when riding with animals. I stay away from the aggressive ones and prefer hanging out with tamer animals.

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    3. There are very few tamer ones.

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    4. When someone is an "animal" on the bike, it just means they are good on the bike. I don't think this is just a local expression, as I remember hearing it in the US as well. It certainly suggests nothing negative about the person's character.

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    5. Ah, around here if one is called an animal, in any sport or activity, it usually means they're aggressive and fearless not necessarily good, though.

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    6. I was rather confused by the description of cyclists as 'animals', it is certainly not an expression used here to denote a good cyclist and in fact, to call anyone an animal would be an insult. Interesting how words/expressions can carry such different intent.

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    7. I've certainly heard it in the US, typically admiring someone's strength/endurance (e.g. riding club rides on heavy commuter bicycles).

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  3. I had a similar conversation with someone a few weeks ago. They didn't want to ride on the road unless they could "match" the speed of traffic. Even on tame neighborhood roads posted at 25mph, cars typically speed at 35mph (such is life in the US). Does the car really care if I'm riding at 11mph or 18mph? No, I'm still "in the way."

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  4. If I went into a bike shop and asked for a bike for either commuting or transportation that'll least upset motorists I'm wondering what kind of odd looks I'd get. In fact I'm laughing just thinking about a few drivers I know whose level of impatience is so high I no longer will get in a car with them, no matter what. It's not about what works for motorist, it's about what works for cyclists.

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    1. "If I went into a bike shop and asked for a bike for either commuting or transportation that'll least upset motorists"

      I propose we all try this, in our own necks of the woods, and report back the response : )

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    2. This could be amusing as well as informative! I have in mind maybe 5 bike shops in a 10 mile radius...at least one of them used to advertise here.

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    3. Bicycle profiling.

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  5. 10mph, 20mph... what's the difference? When you're a hammer (car), everything looks like a nail.

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  6. As a lifelong urban cyclist there's seldom a question that I'll arrive at a destination quicker than a car. There are lots of other times a bike is quicker. On most descents bikes easily pass cars. Nevertheless motorists see cyclists as stationary objects. They pull back into their lane instantly after passing not because they want to scare the daylights out of you but because they assume you could not be doing 20mph. They right hook cyclists because once they pass you, you no longer exist in their universe. From the cyclist perspective motorists are slow-witted and dull, with impossibly long reaction time. Just the way it is. Allow for that when you ride and work around it instead of getting upset.

    The easy cyclist to pass is the one who rides in a straight line. Please try to do that. My state has a new law that requires passing vehicles to allow cyclists three feet of room. This can be nearly impossible when the cyclist ahead is constantly veering left and right. The same three foot rule applies to cyclists passing cyclists. And it is barely enough when riders won't ride straight. I have been hit hard from the side by a cyclist who was given three feet but lurched left suddenly in the moment of overtaking, hit hard enough to be thrown into the other lane facing oncoming traffic.

    The bike that's least upsetting to motorists? Two ways to do that. Ride so smooth and so predictably you are invisible. Or be totally visible. Look like no one else on the road. A DL-1 and full tweed regalia is good. Come up with something all your own and don't be boring. If you look like any other and every other fashionable young cyclist you are just background noise and a generic annoyance.

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  7. While trying to appease motorists is futile, and your observations on speed are spot on, I do find I get better behaviour from traffic around me if I can take off from intersections smoothly and consistently. Acceleration is a small factor there but I guess it's still mostly technique.

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  8. You have a habit of framing your posts with a beginning quote from an often vague acquaintance and then making a point which already seems to be generally accepted. It would have been nice to have been in on this conversation and learn more about his specifics and thought processes. It's usually more nuanced and personal than one may think at first glance. What makes sense for one makes little sense for another because of conditions. I could not figure out much of your logic early on in your bike riding emergence but for you is was what it was…it was your choice and preference. A snapshot does not reveal everything. For all I know, based on your above comment, all the locals are animals and if one does not keep the speed up one will be soon be extinct. Maybe his commute is short on roads which have no room for anything but a single vehicle at a time, I don't know…Maybe the local shop owners recommend racing bikes for commuting in order to not infuriate motorists….I don't know and it seems possible. Btw, is a racing bike the same as a road bike? I do know several who commute with all out light weight racing bikes and backpacks and their reasons are for speed. Maybe this guy was run over by fast moving cars before and that somehow informs his thinking….What else did he say??

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  9. Steve from WestchesterNovember 12, 2016 at 8:10 PM

    I think everything depends on the road you're on, not so much the speed you ride at. Around here, the roads fall into five categories.
    1) Highways with no shoulders - You have a 50/50 chance of dying each mile on a bicycle. Only mentally deranged people who believe their GPS is GOD will ride on these.
    2) Highways with shoulders - Probably only 1/10 chance of dying each mile, but do you really want to be that close to cars going 80mph? No one rides on these either.
    3) Two lane highways with shoulders - pretty safe as long as you stay well on the shoulder
    4) Busy Secondary Roads - Pretty deadly in our area - My own road is like this. 30mph speed limit and cars go 50mph, combined with no shoulders, blind curves and crests. Why I mostly put my bike in my car and go somewhere else to ride. Cyclists and joggers killed fairly often on these; there was a death only a few hundred yards from my door.
    5)Quiet secondary roads - pretty safe.

    It's pretty impossible to string together rides on only #3 & #5 roads to actually go anywhere useful, but at least we have great bile trails to ride on here.

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    1. Where I live I am very lucky to be able to ride mostly 5 & 3, which is why I love cycling here so much. What surprises me is how many roadcyclists here deliberately seek out the one road that is in the # 1 category. I am honestly not sure what the attraction is to riding on a dangerous highway-like road in an area teeming with safe back roads. I can only think it's the fact it is straight and makes it easier to build up speed. But still : (

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  10. I fall into yet another category of cyclist...25mph average (when moving) and if I commute up the road posted as 50mph in my local area I will usually only see a particular car once... As I'm passing it and leaving it stuck in gridlock ;)

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  11. On the open road, for sure this article is right.

    However, in city traffic I find I get less abuse the fitter and faster I am.

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  12. Like you I live in a rural area with some steep climbs. I am not the fastest cyclist I know. But depending on terrain I might find myself playing leap frog with farm vehicles, even slow cars. It's not only the city where a bicycle can be faster.

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    1. I've had that problem on narrow mountain roads, but only when there is some sort of congestion - like a bunch of cars leaving all at once after a wedding or a wake or a sports event. If that happens I'd rather just pull over and wait for them all to go by. It's not very often it happens after all. Otherwise, I have only had to pass a vehicle uphill once, and that was a monstrous tractor carrying logs. There was barely room on the road for the two of us, so it was an interesting experience. Luckily, I was able to stay ahead of him on the descent.

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    2. Having negotiated hilly twisty mountain roads shared with redwood-loaded logging trucks, staying ahead is key...Getting on the side of them is terrifying.

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  13. I am always amazed by the different feel the same speed gives on the bike and the car. On the bike I feel like I'm flying along after anything over 20. In the car 20 feels like I'm crawling along. I always try to remember that when I feel like I'm being pressurised by a car that has ended up behind me while I cycle.

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  14. That car driver is not too worried by potholes or drain covers. Gravel or broken glass will not affect him or her as much as it will the tyres on my bike. Painted road lines will not cause a car or SUV driver nearly as much harm as it will a cyclist. These are factors I try to remember when shearing the road with mechanically propelled vehicles. After all the last time I side swiped a tractor or a lorry on my bike, I still managed to come off much the worst for wear.

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  15. Worst thing is the flashing tail lights, that cyclists think will make them more visible.

    They are visible, but the intermittent flashing makes it impossible to judge distance. Riding in traffic with a flashing tail light is in my opinion at least as dangerous as riding without a tail light at all. The flashing tail lights ought to be outlawed.

    The flashing head lights are just silly.

    I only use a steady light at the front and a steady light at the rear.

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  16. I've been having similar thoughts recently on my own commute - along the lines of how unlikely it is that a driver would appreciate, or even notice, the speed difference between me going flat out or taking it fairly easy. My only hope is that they spot the effort I am making to go as quickly as I can and allow adequate time and space when they overtake, whatever my speed. This is almost certainly a vain hope.

    Regards

    Ijon

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  17. Begs the question, why aren't bike riders who venture out on the roads required to wear slow moving vehicle signs?

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  18. Clearly, even if you are going 25MPH on a bike you are going to be the slow moving traffic most of the time, in bumper to bumper traffic it's nice to be moving faster then everyone else, but hardly relevant.
    Where the difference is for me between 10mph & 20mph is closing speed! If you are riding in traffic that is moving say 35MPH. The cars behind you have far less time to react if you are going 10mph then if you are going 20mph. It may seem like a small difference, Fractions of a second, But that is really all it takes in an tense circumstance. On my Clementine around town I average approx. 11mp, On the Atlantis a good bit faster 12.5 or so, while that is a very small difference I definitely feel like far less of a obstacle and far safer @ 12.5 then 11!!
    By the same token when I am driving and I see one of my fellow cyclist plodding along sub 10mph on a street where that is particularly unsafe not only am I concerned for their safety, I am also thinking "why are they riding down this major street, with all this traffic going 40MPH+ & traffic lights when they can ride the next street South with no traffic and just a few stop signs???" If they were going 20mph I would still think that, but for some reason I would not think they've totally lost the plot either. - masmojo

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  19. Regarding your animal metaphor concerning the cyclists in your locality, I usually reverse the image to view all cars (not drivers) as animals only partially tamed by the 'rules of the road' or the 'highway code'. In my view they can become feral at a moment's notice and thus require constant vigilance on the part of the cycling human who must exist in the same environment. I find this point of view has helped me over the years to keep my temper and my wits about me. Regards, The Fossil

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  20. The cars don't like me any better when I'm kitted out and going fast. Some like me less. When I was at a stoplight back in town after a ride in the hills not long ago, a carload of young toughs pulled up just behind me. One opened a window and said, "Faggot-ass n***a wears tights and shit." Verbal emasculation and assertions of racial dominance being natural preludes to violence, I contemplated flight in some car-unfriendly direction. Then it was too late because the light changed, but all I got was a handful of fast-food wrappers in the shoulder. None of this would have happened had I been in regular clothes on an upright bike.

    Walter

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  21. I haven't heard the comment that fenders and racks slow the bicycle too much to ride with traffic, but in my experience (i) bicyclists really don't delay traffic here and (ii) any harassment is due more to the bicycle than to actual speed.

    In urban rush hours, traffic only goes 10 mph despite 25mph speed limits. Bicyclists can easily go 10 mph, although they are occasionally stopped by police and threatened with citations for impeding traffic (but not the cars blocking their way).

    In light suburban traffic, speed limits may be 40-50 mph, but there is ample room for passing. I want to bicycle at 15-25mph not to appease motorists, but to save travel time. We have some planners that don't bicycle trying to build facilities for “all levels” of bicyclists – children at 7-8 mph. I'm willing to add 10 min to a trip to go by bicycle, but not 40 min each way when motorists have 3 empty lanes to pass.

    The motorists that do complain seem to be objecting to the bicycle, not actual speed. There are some 25mph roads near hills in the area; I get far more motorists trying to pass and shouting when I exceed the speed limit on a bicycle than I do when driving slower (the speed limit) in a car.

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