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Hiles, Jeffrey A. Listening to Bike Lanes. September 1996.

Chapter 4
Bicyclist Behavior 1
The Ideal: Vehicular Cycling

For the most part, motor traffic flows like a well-choreographed dance. Stop lights set a kind of rhythm. Each driver knows the steps and when to take them. Add bicyclists to the mix and some join the dance, flow with the motor traffic; others dart about like mice on a dance floor. This chapter and the next will explore different riding styles, with the aim of helping to explain why different bicyclists have such different feelings toward bicycle facilities.

Three things keep motorists in a reasonably orderly flow. First, each driver knows the dance and is compelled to stick to it or risk losing driving privileges. Second, there are lots of visual cues (signs, signals, and pavement markings) to help motorists along. And third, it is physically impossible for motorists to flout the rules of the road very much without crashing. So motorists know it’s in their own best interest to follow the rules, at least generally.

For bicyclists, though, things aren’t so clear. Unlike motorists, few cyclists have taken a drivers’ training course designed specifically to help them use their vehicle. Since bicyclists are not required to pass tests before climbing onto their saddles, and since law officers in most U.S. cities pay little attention to bicyclist behavior, cyclists have less compulsion to follow formal rules of the road and obey the signs, signals, and pavement markings. Even if a cyclist does make an effort to comply with those visible cues, it is not so clear what they mean for bicyclists. A cyclist in a given traffic lane, for example, may have more options than a motorist. The car driver is either in the lane or not: the bicyclist takes up much less of the width of the road and may choose to ride on the right side, in the center, on the left side of the lane, or even down the wrong side of the road.

Generally, cyclists can squeeze through places where automobiles would never fit. So a cyclist has the choice—it’s an unwise choice, an illegal choice, but a choice nevertheless—of riding on the wrong side of the street, for example, an act that would very soon bring a motorist to a halt. Add the task of making these choices to the difficulties of maneuvering through traffic that moves faster than you, throw in the physical demands of moving under your own power and keeping the bicycle balanced—bicycling in traffic can be more demanding than driving a car.

Drivers’ training for cyclists

To help its members deal with the demands of the road, and to raise the status and safety of bicycling in general, the League of American Bicyclists has established an Effective Cycling certification program, sort of a bicyclists’ equivalent of getting a driver’s license. The program’s text began 20 years ago when John Forester, a British-born industrial engineer living in California, copied notes for his adult cycling classes on a mimeograph machine he had used for cycling newsletters. The book Effective Cycling, which Forester has polished and updated over the years, is now in its sixth edition and is published by the MIT Press. The Effective Cycling program is taught by certified instructors across the country.

The Effective Cycling credo is that “cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles” (Forester, 1994, p.1). This guiding idea, which Forester calls the “vehicular-cycling principle,” means that bicyclists should follow the five “basic principles of traffic cycling” outlined below.

Forester’s “basic principles of traffic cycling”

As you can see, these are not just principles for cyclists, they are the basis for the rules of the road that apply to all vehicles. This does not mean, though, that bicyclists should drive exactly like motorists. Both cars and bikes are subclasses of the broader category “vehicle” and, because they are different in speed and width, cars and bikes often use different parts of the roadway. In doing so, both modes are still adhering to the basic traffic principles. Vehicular cycling, then, is mostly a matter of joining the dance:

There is much more to the vehicular-cycling principle than only obeying the traffic laws for drivers. The vehicular-style cyclist not only acts outwardly like a driver, he knows inwardly that he is one. Instead of feeling like a trespasser on roads owned by cars he feels like just another driver with a slightly different vehicle, one who is participating and cooperation in the organized mutual effort to get to desired destinations with the least trouble (Forester, 1994, p. 3).

With the aim of reaching that level of comfort, Effective Cycling students learn about accident statistics, so they have an accurate mental picture of traffic threats. Also, they’re given detailed instruction in how and where to ride on the road, and they go through on-road training that gradually works up to more difficult riding conditions.

Figure 3 shows some basic steps to the vehicular cycling dance. (The illustration is not part of the official Effective Cycling literature, however.) This riding style emphasizes good communication between bicyclists and motorists. As an Effective Cyclist, you minimize conflicts by using signals, body language and road position—and, of course, by following standard rules of the road. You make sure other road users know where you are and where you are going.

Figure 3
A vehicular cycling sampler
Ride a straight course. Ride a straight course.
Don’t swerve between parked cars or you'll disappear behind a car, then surprise a motorist when you pop out into traffic again.
Look behind you. Look behind you.
Learn to quickly scan the traffic behind you without swerving.
Practice in an empty parking lot until it’s easy.
Signal and look behind you. “Vehicular” left turn.
Signal and look behind you. When there’s an opening, merge left and turn from near the center line. Important: Start moving over early, don’t dart left at the last moment.
Right-turn-only lanes. Right-turn-only lanes.
Use right-turn-only lanes only when you want to turn right. Cross an intersection from the through lane, not from a right-turn-only lane.
Left-turn-only lanes. Left-turn-only lanes.
Turn left from the right side of a left-turn-only lane, if you have one. Or use the middle of the lane if it's narrow.
Multiple lanes. Multiple lanes.
Choose the right-most lane that will get you to your destination. If you’re turning left, and the right-most left-turn lane is also a through lane, turn from the left side of that lane.

 

Although vehicular cycling is fairly simple in principle, it can get confusing and frightening for novices faced with complicated intersections or with having to make left turns in heavy traffic. It would be a bit much to expect a beginning cyclist to just read the traffic cycling principles then go out and apply them on the spot at a busy intersection. So Forester designed an eleven-week program that includes two hours each week of riding. Effective Cycling students put their new knowledge into practice first on easy, low-traffic roads, then in progressively more difficult places. By the sixth or seventh week, according to Forester (1993), students are competent and confident enough to ride in heavy city traffic (p. 584). (Note: the League recently shortened the program.)

Road position: how cyclists “talk” to motorists

This chapter is not meant to be a complete course in Effective Cycling. However, some aspects of the program warrant more in-depth explanation because they are key to understanding the Effective Cycling viewpoint on bicycle facilities. As the “traffic cycling principles” suggest, vehicular cyclists choose a road position according to the circumstances. Their choices serve several purposes: to make themselves more likely to be seen by motorists, to let motorists know where the cyclists are about to go, and to put themselves where their movements will not conflict with motorists’.

For example, suppose you’re riding on a two-lane road (one lane each direction) and want to turn left at the next intersection. If you are a certified Effective Cyclist, you will probably move away from the right side of the road and approach the intersection riding near the center line. This way, you cross the traffic from behind you first, then you only have to pay attention to the oncoming traffic when you get to the intersection. You don’t have to deal with traffic both in front of you and behind you at the same time. This maneuver reduces your chances of turning left in front of an overtaking car. This road position also makes it clear to motorists from all directions that you intend to turn left. As an extra benefit, through traffic in your lane can pass you on your right as you wait for a gap in the oncoming flow. So you actually delay the traffic behind you less than would a left-turning car, unless the road is wide, in which case the motorist would also stay left while others passed on the right. Again, the vehicular cycling philosophy emphasizes following established traffic patterns.

Life can get more complicated, though, for cyclists faced with right-turn-only lanes, left-turn-only lanes and mixtures of through-only lanes and lanes that serve both through and turning traffic. Forester (1993) offers these “cyclist’s turning-lane rules” to help cyclists choose a path through an intersection on a multi-lane road:

Negotiating with traffic

Choosing the best road position takes more than a little know-how at some intersections. It takes practice to be able to choose quickly on the fly. Choosing is the easy part, though. Getting yourself there in heavy traffic, moving away from the side of the road and across the lane(s), takes skill and courage. First, without swerving, you have to turn your head and look behind you. This not only allows you to look for an opportunity to move over, it communicates to motorists—it gets the point across more effectively than a hand signal, Forester says—that you want to move over. When a motorist slows to let you in, then you have successfully “negotiated” a lane change:

As a competent cyclist, you persuade motorists by negotiation; you ask, and you watch for the answer, be it yes or no. Generally it is yes, because motorists often find themselves in exactly your position, wanting to change lanes through crowded traffic. they agree because they know that if nobody allowed anyone else to change lanes, traffic would stop and nobody would get home (Forester, 1993, p. 309).

In heavy traffic, you must negotiate repeatedly as you work your way across the lanes.
My condensed and incomplete description of Effective Cycling technique is, again, not meant to teach anyone how to ride. It is only here to give the reader a sense of how Effective Cyclists, and many other experienced riders, move through the streets.

The importance of downplaying the overtaking threat

Effective Cyclists do not hug the curb, for another example. They ride a few feet to the right of the motor vehicle track. On a wide boulevard, this may put the cyclist well away from the edge of the road. This road position puts the rider closer to where motorists entering from side streets are looking for traffic, which makes the cyclist more visible. It also lessens the danger that a motorist will creep out from the curb into the cyclist’s path. Where lane width is tight, Effective Cyclists assertively “take the lane”:

…cyclists must think for and control the overtaking driver to some extent, even though this is not in the rules of the road. Motorists overtaking cyclists on narrow roads too often assume that there is sufficient width for overtaking, even though there is opposing traffic or a curve around which it might come. Or else they assume that the cyclist is traveling more slowly than his actual speed, slowly enough to stay clear when they move right again to avoid the oncoming traffic. The cyclist will be riding beside a motorist who dodges right to avoid oncoming cars. The answer is to stay enough out in the roadway to inform the following driver that the left lane must be used for passing. That motorist will then be cautious enough to do it properly, because of the fear of approaching cars (Forester, 1993, p. 253).

To ride in this style, a cyclist must have faith that overtaking motorists are not a major threat. John Forester is the Arthur Murray of cycling technique. Just as dance lessons can help you cut a rug with freedom, confidence, grace, and a minimum of stepped-on toes, Forester’s teachings help cyclists learn to get around more confidently and competently:

Most people start by believing that cycling in traffic is dangerous and threatening and that they don’t belong there. Heavy traffic is not one of the joys of life, but once you learn how to ride in traffic you will realize that you are a partner in a well-ordered dance, with drivers doing their part to achieve a safe trip home. Then traffic ceases to be a mysterious threat and becomes instead just one of the conditions you can handle with reasonable safety (Forester, 1993, p. xxiii).

Some misconceptions

The 85-page section of Effective Cycling that describes riding technique is arguably one of the most lucid and thorough guides to cycling in traffic in print. However, Forester’s obsessive opposition to bicycle facilities and his cantankerous criticisms of those with whom he has differences have alienated many bicyclists that would otherwise be his allies.

For example, in a publication written by Bicycle Federation of America staff for the Federal Highway Administration, Clarke and Tracy (1995) describe Effective Cycling as a book which “holds that bicyclists fare best when they behave like motor vehicles and that bicyclists should not venture onto the roads until they can ride this way” (p. 67). This twist on Forester’s words does his work a disservice.

First of all, the Forester philosophy says that “cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.” It does not say “like motor vehicles.” If cyclists could behave like motor vehicles, then there would be no need for the Effective Cycling program; what works in a high school drivers’ education class would work for bicyclists, too. The cycling techniques described above, though, clearly contain concerns and actions foreign to motoring. The meaning of the phrase that was misquoted is not that bicyclists should literally drive just like motorists. That would be impossible because of the speed difference. Effective Cycling seeks to create harmony between cyclists and motorists by teaching cyclists to understand traffic patterns and to move with the patterns, not against them. It is like teaching a canoeist to read the river and work with the current, rather than against it. The theory is that when cyclists try to circumvent the flow of traffic they are most likely to put themselves at odds with it. And it’s a theory that’s supported by the patterns of car-bike crash statistics.

Forester invites charges of elitism, though, when he writes that “the choice is between effective cycling and none at all; the cyclist must either ride properly or shouldn’t ride at all…” (1993, p. 510). I do not wish to defend arrogance, but his statement does make more sense when put into context. At the core of his argument he is responding to those who claim that cycling on many streets is not safe for beginning riders and that we therefore need networks of bike paths or bike lanes. Forester believes that paths and lanes do not make cycling safer, but have the opposite effect. From that premise Forester argues that if there are cyclists who shouldn’t ride on streets because the streets are “unsafe,” then they shouldn’t ride at all because paths and lanes wouldn’t make their rides safer. (This is my interpretation of the point Forester tried to make.)

We will return to the bikeway safety question in a later chapter. For now, the point is that Effective Cycling enthusiasts sometimes appear arrogant and intolerant of other cyclists’ riding styles. (Well, sometimes they are; Forester’s glorification of vehicular cyclists and denigration of nearly everyone else is bound to breed some haughtiness among his admirers.) Often, though, “hubris” would be a more appropriate word for it, as those who discover vehicular cycling sincerely want other bicyclists to enjoy the sense of safety and freedom of movement that comes from knowing how to ride skillfully and confidently in traffic.

Effective limits to Effective Cycling

Some people have “two left feet” on the dance floor while others glide gracefully through complex steps almost by instinct. With all the similarities between Effective Cycling and dance, it seems likely that some cyclists would have an easier time than others executing the techniques. As Forester insists that the single best way to improve cyclists’ safety is to teach them to “ride properly,” detractors complain that Effective Cycling is only for strong, swift riders on expensive bikes:

Forester’s system relied upon a high level of skill and (especially) strength. So much so, in fact, that he used average sustainable speed as the indicator of a cyclist’s skill level. In Forester’s judgment, a competent cyclist was one able to maintain a speed of 18 mph for a lengthy period of time, despite the fact that only two to three percent of the population can sustain the requisite 120 watts of energy output for more than a few moments (Epperson, 1994, P. 6).

Epperson goes on to say that, while in the general population women have a lower bike accident rate than men, in a study of cyclists who belonged to the League of American Wheelmen—they would presumably adhere to vehicular cycling principles more closely than the general population—men had the lower rate. Epperson offers this as evidence that “women have a lower ability to generate the high level of strength needed to translate the Effective Cycling program from theory to safe application” (p. 6). His comment, of course, is not meant to be sexist. It is offered in support of his claim that the slower the rider, the less useful the vehicular-cycling dance.

Forester’s own cycling instructions would seem to confirm that notion, at least for some of the techniques, most notably the lane changing described above. Yet he seems to see skill and attitude as the only relevant factors. “Changing lanes,” Forester says, “really shows up the difference in morale and technique between expert cyclists and those who feel inferior to cars…” (1993, p. 307).

The basic premise of the cyclist inferiority complex is the motoring viewpoint: according to which the cyclist survives and is allowed to use the road only through the generosity of the motorists. This frightened philosophy turns the cyclist who must change lanes in traffic into a road sneak, pretending he or she isn’t there while dodging through whatever gaps exist between cars.

The vehicle code’s philosophy is exactly the reverse: The cyclist rides as one among equals, able to persuade other drivers to leave room to change lanes safely (1993, pp. 308-309).

That ability to “persuade other drivers,” however, clearly depends on the cyclist’s speed. The less difference there is between the speeds of the cyclist and a car, the more time there is for the motorist to recognize and respond to the cyclist’s nonverbal request. “When the traffic is moving more than 15 mph faster than you,” Forester writes, “negotiation is impossible…. You have to play the road sneak and move left only if there is a gap in traffic long enough that you won’t affect any vehicles” (1993, p. 311). If that is true, then for a cyclist riding less than 10 mph on a street with a 25 mph speed limit, negotiation would not be an option. Where motorists tend to travel slightly faster than the limit, a cyclist may have to ride as fast as 15 mph or else “play the road sneak.” That’s a respectable cruising speed for a seasoned touring enthusiast. Children, the elderly, people who ride heavy old one-speed bikes because they can’t afford a car, and many others may ride at speeds closer to eight mph.

That faster cyclists have an easier time negotiating with traffic is no big revelation. It is the speed difference between bicycles and cars that makes cycling in traffic a challenge to begin with; the bigger the difference the more the challenge. All that this really means is that negotiation works best for faster cyclists on slower roads, and that slower cyclists on slower roads face the same challenge and must use the same techniques as faster cyclists on faster roads. This hardly negates the entire Effective Cycling program. It’s an unfortunate insult to slower riders, though, that Forester would deem a speed-dependent technique the measure of “expert cyclists.” It’s especially unfortunate if slower riders, or those who claim to be advocates for slower riders, discount vehicular cycling because of faster riders’ arrogance.

Do Effective Cyclists ride more safely?

Although some Effective Cycling techniques may be subject to various interpretations, the program for the most part teaches straight-forward techniques that avid cyclists have tried and found true through many years and miles of experience. By “true” I mean they help cyclists get to their destinations quickly and efficiently while at the same time minimizing conflicts with motor traffic. There are plenty of stories told in cycling circles of cyclists who become more confident and comfortable in traffic, who ride more often to places they would not have dared go before, and who have fewer conflicts with motorists—all because they learned vehicular cycling techniques. There is no hard data, however, directly linking Effective Cycling instruction with reduced accident rates.

Forester (1994) addresses the issue tangentially. In short, his arguments for the benefits of Effective Cycling instruction start with evidence that accident rates are lowest for bicyclists who ride more miles per year and for bicyclists who belong to bicycling clubs. So, he concludes, bicyclists can reduce their accident rates by learning from experience and from other bicyclists. Effective Cycling is designed to quickly teach bicyclists what they would learn through experience and from other bicyclists. Therefore, Forester argues, bicyclists who take an Effective Cycling course will reduce their accident rates in a relatively short time (pp. 41-44). Table 6 shows an example of the supporting numbers that Forester constructed from data from four unrelated surveys.

Table 6
Forester’s General Accident Rates
Type of cyclist Miles per
year
Accidents per
million miles
Elementary school 580 720
College-associated adult 600 500
League of American Wheelmen 2,400 113
Cyclists’ Touring Club 2,000 66

Source: Forester, 1994, p. 41.

 

These numbers, Forester contends, not only demonstrate the need for cycling instruction, but support the value of the kind of bold riding style Effective Cycling teaches:

…cyclists who habitually rode in mountains, rain, and darkness averaged a lower accident rate than those who rode on the flat in fair weather only.

These surveys disprove the notion that for cyclists in general deliberate risk-taking is a significant cause of accidents. Of the students over age 16, those most likely to take deliberate risks had the lowest accident rates, while those least likely to take deliberate risks had the highest accident rates.

These data confirm my earlier hypothesis that most cyclists are too cautious to be safe on the road. Being cautious of the dangers that are least likely to produce an accident causes the cyclist to expose himself to the dangers that are most likely to produce one. These data also confirm my other hypothesis that cyclist training is the means of accelerating the experience effect. One learns almost any skill much more quickly when taught than by trial and error, and in the case of cycling an error may cut one’s cycling career short (pp. 41-42).

Forester even provides a chart to show how much more quickly cyclists learn through Effective Cycling courses:

Table 7
Forester’s estimate of “distance and time required to learn traffic-safe cycling.”
Type of
learning
Miles Years
Self-teaching 50,000 10-20
Club cycling 5,000 2
Learning from books 2,500 1
Effective Cycling instruction 800 one fourth

Source: Forester, 1993, p. 271.

 

Unfortunately, Forester’s books do not explain how he arrives at figures such as the ones above. He tends to reinterpret data from other people’s surveys and to combine data from unrelated surveys, often without providing even good citations, let alone his calculations. Not that it matters, though. However impeccable his calculations may be, his view of human nature is suspect because it’s so mechanistic.

It does seem reasonable that club cyclists, such as members of the League of American Bicyclists (formerly the League of American Wheelmen) and the British Cyclists’ Touring Club, do ride more skillfully and therefore have fewer accidents per mile than the general population. But will what works for LAB members work for the rest of the cycling population? A person who joins a cycling club, and especially someone who springs for the dues of a national cycling organization, has a higher interest in and enthusiasm for bicycling than the average Joe. Would the non-club cyclist have as much motivation to learn the finer points of vehicular cycling? Looking at it from another angle, would someone who does not have a natural alacrity for cycling enjoy the sport enough to join a club, even though bicycling may serve him well for everyday transportation? Conversely, perhaps the average club cyclist has an above-average natural aptitude for handling a bike and judging and tolerating traffic.

As if all bicyclists rolled off the same assembly line, industrial engineer Forester stretches his statistics even farther to estimate that Effective Cycling training has the potential to save 500 lives and prevent 100,000 injuries annually. To get some sense of what an enormous claim this is, note that in 1993 bicyclists suffered 824 fatal and 65,000 reported non-fatal car-bike collisions (National Traffic Safety Administration, 1994, p. 129).

In another of his undocumented tables, Forester compares the “annual casualty reduction” of eight “bicycle-safety programs.” Not surprisingly, Effective Cycling training leads the pack by a healthy margin, followed by helmet wearing, intersection improvements, headlamps and rear reflectors, roadway widening, dog leash laws and bicycle mechanical repair. In last place, of course, is “bikeways.” He does not say if he means bike paths, bike lanes, bike boulevards, or what. But in his estimation the “improbable favorable results” of a bikeways program are eclipsed by the “probable unfavorable results” of “hundreds more deaths” and “ten thousands more injuries” (1994, p. 69).

Forester says nothing about how many bicyclists would, in reality, be interested in going through 11 weeks of Effective Cycling training and nothing about what percentage of those cyclists would practice the techniques faithfully and well. His “casualty reduction” estimates appear to be based on a dream world in which everyone who rides a bike practices vehicular cycling with skill and zeal. As we will see in the next chapter, that dream ignores the very heart and soul of bicycling.

North Carolina study: A direct approach

Stutts and Hunter (1990) took a more direct approach to the bicycle-safety-instruction question when they evaluated “The Basics of Bicycling,” a safety education curriculum for elementary school-age children. Developed by the North Carolina Department of Transportation Bicycle Program and the Bicycle Federation of America, the curriculum consisted of two classroom lessons and five on-bike sessions. As part of the evaluation, the researchers compared the summer 1990 crash record of 300 Mebane, North Carolina, children who had taken the lessons with the crash record of a control group from the similar city of Graham, North Carolina.

They found that the children who had taken the lessons rode more often and appear to have had fewer falls and injuries than the control group. However, the follow-up survey had only 195 respondents from the experimental schools and just 117 from the comparison schools, too few to draw definite conclusions. The report’s authors explain the difficulty of trying to pin down the difference education makes: “One recent estimate cited in an unpublished National Institute of Child Health and Human Development document was that 12,000 children would need to be followed for a period of five years to collect prospective information on 100 children with injuries severe enough to result in hospitalization” (p. 43).

Table 8
Bike injuries among North Carolina school children: Students who took “The Basics of Bicycling” compared with control group.
Frequency of riding
Survey Questions Experimental
Schools
(Mebane)
Comparison
Schools
(Graham)
Total
Every day or almost 57.4% 38.5% 50.3%
3 or 4 times/week 11.8 12.0 11.9
1 or 2 times/week 11.3 7.7 9.9
Several times/month 6.7 11.1 8.3
Never, or hardly ever 12.8 30.8 19.6
Falls or injuries over summer
Survey Questions Experimental
Schools
(Mebane)
Comparison
Schools
(Graham)
Total
No falls or injuries 71.7 60.3 67.4
One or more falls, no injuries 14.1 25.0 18.2
Injuries treatable at home 12.6 11.2 12.1
Injuries requiring a doctor 1.6 1.7 1.6
Injuries with hospital stay 0.0 1.7 0.7

Source: Stutts & Hunter, 1990, p. 34.

 

Evaluating the effectiveness of bicyclist education is even more difficult with adult students than with children. A school program like the one in the North Carolina study provides a diverse population. Adult cyclists who complete Effective Cycling training are mostly bike club members and others with a stronger than average desire to learn a prescribed riding style. They can’t be considered a representative sample of cyclists. Studies of motorcyclists have found that although training programs appeared to reduce accidents and injuries, when researchers controlled for confounding factors, such as participant self-selection, the programs’ benefits disappeared (Cooper & Rothe, 1988, p. 78). In a study of nighttime bike light use, Ronkin (1995) found that bicyclists who used lights at night correlated with those who wore helmets and rode responsibly. Of course, those without lights were more likely to be bare-headed and to ride against traffic or on the sidewalk (p. 7). It seems likely that bicyclists who signed up for Effective Cycling classes would fall in the “responsible” cyclist category at the outset. Likewise, those cyclists most likely to ride recklessly would be least inclined to take bicycling courses. So by simply comparing the crash statistics of Effective Cycling graduates (or those of club cyclists) with those of the general population of cyclists, we cannot predict how much crash reduction we could achieve if we could somehow implement cyclist training on a mass scale. It’s impossible to tell how much of whatever difference we would find could be attributed to the training and how much would reflect differences in bicyclists’ temperaments and interests.

The only sure way to find out if vehicular cycling is significantly safer than other riding styles would be to give diaries to a very large population of cyclists and have them log their miles and crashes over the course of several years. We would also need a test to distinguish vehicular cyclists from others, a distinction that is not so clear cut, as we will see in the next chapter. Of course, another way to get at the question is after the fact. That is, we could ask cyclists how many miles they rode and how many crashes they had during a certain period of time in the past. This might yield accurate data from those club cyclist who meticulously keep track of their miles with bike computers. For most cyclists, though, all you would get would be wild guesses. It’s hard to say whether any one group of cyclists’ guesses would be more wild than another’s or whether all the individuals’ errors would even out in the end and provide an accurate basis for comparison.

In a study for the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Rogers (1994) attempted a bicyclist risk assessment based on surveys. If the information gathered was accurate, we would have to conclude that bicyclists travel at an average speed of two mph. Both the data and the conclusions the report draws from the data have been dissected, ridiculed, and dismissed by the bicycling community (Allen, J., 1995; Forester, J., 1994, pp. 325-332; & Jones, S., 1994).

Forester (1994) also draws on after-the-fact surveys to try to show that bicyclists’ riding styles make significant differences in their accident rates. For example, he presents a table showing that “college cyclists” had a car-bike accident rate of 80 per million bike miles ridden while “adult club cyclists” had a rate of only 20 (p. 44). Forester’s argument seems to be that because of their many miles of cycling experience, and because of what they learn from each other, club cyclists are much more likely to practice vehicular cycling techniques than other cyclists and that it is this riding style that accounts for the club cyclists’ lower accident rates:

These techniques, identified and described in my book Effective Cycling and taught through the League of American Wheelmen Effective Cycling Program from the Effective Cycling Instructors Manual, produce a measurable change in the behavior of the participants equivalent to many years of cycling experience. This strongly suggests that the…accident rates…will be reduced significantly as this technique spreads (Forester, 1994, p. 44).

Forester compares club cyclists with college cyclists, he says, to show that the reason experienced cyclists show a lower accident rate in his charts is “not due to simply the development of sufficient maturity to drive a car, nor to motor-vehicle training” (p. 44). That’s fine, but in motor vehicle crashes of all types, not just those involving bikes, college-age drivers, especially males, have accident rates that soar above other age groups (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1994, p. 89). This cannot be blamed on a lack of training, a shortage of role models, or ignorance of vehicular driving techniques. So even if we assume that club cyclists’ crash records are indeed significantly better than college cyclists’, we cannot tell how much of that difference is due to club cyclists’ wisdom and how much to college cyclists’ wild oats.

There is another important difference between these two groups of cyclists. College cyclists ride for transportation; many don’t have cars. They bike to class, they bike to the post office, they bike for pizza. It’s urban cycling with frequent intersections. Forester says that club cyclists “tend to cycle in heavier motor traffic than college students.” Although Forester offers no support for that statement, we will grant that club cyclists may be more bold. But in my experience with club cyclists, many of them also put in a great many of their miles on club rides. That often means driving to meeting places on the edge or outside of town and riding around in circles on routes with light traffic and few intersections. Comparing college students’ miles with club cyclists’ miles may be like comparing city driving with highway driving.

What’s more the two groups probably differ in how accurately they provide data. To determine crash rates, we need an account of both crashes and number of miles ridden. Crashes are unpleasant and unusual events that we would expect to be just as easily remembered by either group. Mileage is another story. Club cyclists take pride in how far they ride and are notorious mile counters. College students’ trips, though, are more likely to be short, informal, unmeasured, unrecorded, and easily-forgotten jaunts. So the college crowd may be more prone to underestimate its miles. If so, accurate crash counts combined with underreported mileage would exaggerate the collegian crash rate. If Forester’s (1993) claim that “American college-associated adult cyclists fall off their bicycles about once every 100 miles” (p. 261) is correct, you’ve got to wonder why these poor souls don’t give it up. His statistics, by the way, predate the mountain bike craze, so they don’t include that kind of risky off-road hot dogging.

When comparing avid cyclists with other groups of cyclists, we must recognize that there are many differences that can muck up our efforts to assess one particular rider attribute, such as accident rate. These differences include why people ride, where they ride, ability to accurately recall the number of miles they have ridden, and attitudes toward safety in general, to name a few. This is not to say that club cyclists do not ride more safely than most bicyclists. We would expect ski club members to be more knowledgeable and skillful on the slopes than skiers who just spend half a day at a resort once every few years. We would expect yacht club members to be safer sailors than those who rent a little boat for an afternoon. And we have every reason to expect enthusiastic club cyclists to be more knowledgeable and more skillful and, yes, safer riders than the average bloke. But just how much safer is hard to say. More importantly, to estimate the “potential” of bicycle education by envisioning a world in which all bicyclists ride like club cyclists is as useless as hoping for all skiers to one day be ski club members, or counting on everyone who sails a boat to be as knowledgeable and dedicated to the sport as a yacht club member. Such utopian visions have little practical relationship to reality.

This is not to say that vehicular cycling education in general, or Effective Cycling in particular have no value. On the contrary, by all indications these seem to represent good ways for cyclists to deal with traffic most of the time. As we will see, though, not even experienced cyclists agree on just what constitutes proper vehicular cycling technique, once you get beyond obvious things like riding on the right side of the road and using lights at night.

Until someone has the motivation and massive resources to track a large number of cyclists over a long period of time, we will not have anything like a clear idea of how significantly an education program or a “spreading” of knowledge could reduce bicyclists’ accident rates.

Beyond crashes: A sense of competence

My description of Effective Cycling would be neither complete nor accurate if I left the impression that crash reduction was its sole benefit. In fact, traffic cycling techniques make up a small part of the text, which covers bicycle selection and fitting, maintenance and repair, nutrition and physiology, night riding , riding in the rain, cold weather riding, commuting, touring, racing, mountain riding, teaching children to ride, and more. It even includes mate-finding tips for the single cyclist. When he signed my copy of Effective Cycling, John Forester wrote, “Effective Cycling is better, faster, and more fun!”

The Effective Cycling program was designed to empower students, to give them the knowledge and skill to cope with any situation that might come up. “Once you can ride comfortably and efficiently, without worrying about traffic, on a machine that you trust, you are ready to experience the full joys of cycling” (Forester, 1993, p. xxiii). Because it works, vehicular cycling is becoming more wide spread. Check the older books on bicycling in any public library and you’re likely to find that their advice on traffic cycling is quite bad, if it exists at all. Most recently-written books address the issue more intelligently. There is a classic mountaineering text called Freedom of the Hills. Effective Cycling might as well have been named Freedom of the Roads. For those who take courses, learn from club members, study books, and read magazine articles to bolster their cycling competence, there is freedom that comes with that sense of competence. It is freedom from fear and freedom to go wherever they want to go by bicycle.


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