Practical Advice for Transportation Cycling

Sometimes, all that matters is getting from Point A to Point B as cheaply, safely and efficiently as possible. You don't need a fast bike, you don't need a pretty bike, and most of all you don't need an expensive bike, you just need one that works.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Opinionated Blogger Friday: The Courteous Cyclist Movement

Design by Sarah Becan
For the last hundred years or so, throughout much of the world, cycling for transportation has been a pretty normal thing. You had somewhere to go, you didn't feel like walking, you either didn't own a car or didn't want to use it, so you rode a bike. No big deal.

However, in America and a lot of other industrialized nations, the automobile quickly took over as King of the Road, and it wasn't until the end of the 20th Century that bicycles started to recover a significant place in the transportation hierarchy. More people have started to commute by bike for economical, environmental or health reasons, or because they're finding it's actually quicker and involves less hassle than driving in many circumstances.

As a result though, the bikes have become more common and more noticeable, and cities and towns are adding bike-specific infrastructure such as bike lanes and bike corrals. Most people view these changes as either good news or not terribly interesting, but a small and vocal minority have a negative reaction. Some complain that encouraging more cyclists will make the streets more dangerous for pedestrians. They say they worry about cyclists running rampant and knocking down little old ladies. Drivers complain about being inconvenienced by scofflaw cyclists, and by having precious road space given over to bike lanes, and bike racks taking up potential parking space.

When faced with this animosity, many bike commuters will instinctively respond with "but that's not me!" and go out of their way to quickly identify themselves as one of "the nice ones." Transportation groups issue flyers and put up web sites making sure cyclists follow the rules of the road and be polite (such as NYC's "Don't Be a Jerk" campaign).

While being a courteous rider is a good thing (although I would argue being a predictable and visible rider is a lot more important), I'm starting to feel like this kind of thing is missing the point.

Let's look at New York City, as an example. Over the last decade, the number of cyclists has increased by something like 250%. Meanwhile, the number of pedestrians killed by cyclists over a five year period was...three. I believe more people die by tripping and falling because they're looking at their phone rather than where they're going. Meanwhile, in the same city in six months more than 7,000 pedestrians and cyclists were hit by cars, with 79 fatalities.

As for bike lanes, looking at NYC again (it's a good case study, because the city has been launching a lot of initiatives to make it more bike-friendly, so we can see the changes, plus, it's the only major city I regularly hang out in), the increased number bike lanes has resulted in fewer bike/car collisions, fewer bike/pedestrian collisions and even fewer car/car collisions (drivers instinctively slow down a bit on narrower streets, bike lanes take up room and make drivers more attentive, therefore, safer), meanwhile in areas where bicycle parking is abundant, local businesses do better. It seems like people who are driving by at 40 mph and who can't find a parking space tend to stop for coffee less than those who are cruising along at 12 mph and can lock up anywhere.

Other studies have shown that, while there are indeed city cyclists out there who flaunt traffic laws, MOST cyclists stop for red lights, ride with the flow of traffic, yield to pedestrians and keep off the sidewalks. It's just that, due to our natural cognitive biases, we only notice the ones who are being jerks, while tuning out all the normal, polite riders.

In short, while good manners are admirable both on and off the bike, and I certainly pride myself personally on being a civil and community-minded commuter, everything I've seen and read makes me think that it's not us pedal-powered road users who have the courtesy problem.

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