Friday, April 15, 2005

We were in Pennsylvania for a funeral. In order to decompress a bit, I went out for a long walk on Sunday. It was a gorgeous spring day there. The leaves aren’t out yet so I could see a long way through the woods. I spotted 8 deer and 4 turkeys. They all saw me first, of course, and by the time I realized they were there, they’d hit high gear and were accelerating.

But this is supposed to be bike-related, after all, so I have to include some other observations. I drove and walked along several highways. They’ve changed significantly since I lived there. For one thing, both the state and national highways had wide, paved shoulders. They’d definitely be suitable for bicycles except for one thing. They had eight inches of snow about 2 weeks ago and these wide shoulders were covered with cinders in places.

The same thing happens here in Oklahoma except that the road departments use sand. LOTS of sand! In fact, one of my commute routes looked like a beach most of last summer until the county decided they could sweep up all that sand and re-use it. None of the road departments around here engage in regular street sweeping, so whatever debris lands on the paved shoulder stays there until rain washes it away or a passing motorist bunts it off the road.

Still, that area of rural Pennsylvania is popular with cyclists because there’s a nearby state park with some paved trails and the roads have little traffic. Those wide shoulders are attractive, too if a cyclist rides primarily for recreation. There’s the rub. The majority of cyclists are indeed out for recreation, but not all.

Wide shoulders are defacto bike lanes. I don’t like bike lanes for several reasons. I’ve already touched on the debris problem, but there are two other substantial ones. First, bikelanes complicate intersections and intersections are where most crashes take place. There’s an especially bad design on the cover of a federal publication showing a through bike lane to the right of a right-turn only lane. Unfortunately, bad design is all too common. Also, bike lanes breed complacency for both motorists and cyclists. Motorists believe that cyclists will never move to the left of the paint stripe. Cyclists believe that motorists will never move to the right of it. Again, this complicates their maneuvers at an intersection.

Statistics say that less than 8% of bicycle/motor vehicle collisions result from a car hitting a cyclist from behind, yet about 60% involve failure to yield at an intersection (regardless of fault). Many cyclists fear getting hit from behind, a fear that while not entirely baseless, is exaggerated by some facilities advocates as a means of getting more bikelanes. But those lanes are a solution to an almost negligible problem. Is it good public policy to spend tax monies for such dubious reasons? I don’t think so.

Lots of people say they “feel safer” in a bicycle lane. While there are some pitfalls in reasoning by analogy, consider this – do beginning motorists “feel safer” in the slow lane of a high-speed highway? Of course not! New drivers almost universally attend a driver’s education course designed to give them basic knowledge of the rules of the road and motor vehicle operation. The courses include several hours of behind-the-wheel experience under the guidance of a qualified instructor. Yet for cyclists regardless of age or experience, too often the only instruction is something like “wear your helmet and stay away from the cars”.

A lot of supposedly experienced cyclists are scared silly about riding in traffic. They ride all sorts of convoluted routes to avoid an imaginary death trap. They simply don’t have the knowledge or experience necessary to believe that riding in traffic is possible. (Motorists seem to have even less knowledge about cyclists. As supporting evidence, I offer the guy who told me he was going to call the cops because I was riding on the street!)

But there is a solution. It’s bicycling education. The League of American Bicyclists (or the League of American Wheelmen, if you’re an old fart like me!) offers various levels of instruction intended for children, parents, raw newbies, experienced cyclists, commuters, and even motorists. The Texas Bicycle Coalition has the Super Cyclist program aimed at grade school children. There are others like the Boy Scouts cycling merit badge program and various bicycle rodeos.

I thought there was little I could learn about cycling, but I was wrong. The LAB Road1 course taught me precisely how to ride in traffic, making all my riding both more enjoyable and safer. Sometimes you really can teach an old dog new tricks! If Road1 is offered anywhere near you, please consider taking it. The cost is about the same as a good tire. It’s very possible you’ll come away with a few new tricks too.


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