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Hiles, Jeffrey A. Listening to Bike Lanes. September 1996.
Effective Cycling program graduates are rare, even among serious cyclists. Less than 3,000 bicyclists have passed the Effective Cycling course (Clarke & Tracy, 1995, p. 67). Jerry Hopfengardner, chairman of the League of American Bicyclists Education Committee estimates that only three thousandths of one percent of the cyclists in this country have received the training that the Effective Cycling program provides for safe and efficient bicycling (McClun, 1995). But certified Effective Cyclists are not the only riders who are aware of, or who seriously adhere to, vehicular cycling principles. Repeatedly in his writings, Forester emphasizes that expert cyclists throughout the world have practiced the techniques he espouses since long before he put them in print. Cyclists have numerous sources of information on riding techniques besides Forester and the League of American Bicyclists. Its hard to tell how widely vehicular style cycling is practiced, or how closely those who do practice it adhere to the official Effective Cycling methods.
Peter Lagerwey, bicycle coordinator for Seattle, Washington, estimates that 80 percent of the bicycle miles traveled in the U.S. are covered by a hard core of experienced and frequent cyclists. The remaining 20 percent, he says, are ridden by the 80 percent of cyclists who consider themselves infrequent or less confident riders. Seattle has a larger than average adult bicyclist population, so Lagerweys estimate of experienced cyclists portion of mile traveled may run high. The 1990 Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey found that the average bicycle trip length was 1.99 miles, and more than half the trips were social and recreational (Federal Highway Administration, 1994, sec. 3, pp. 17 & 21). Given that experienced cyclists frequently travel 15 to well over 100 miles on recreational trips, it seems that the bicycle miles are overwhelmingly made up of shorter trips more characteristic of less hard-core riders.
This chapter will leave behind the sophisticatedsome would say esotericrealm of Effective Cycling and examine how ordinary people behave when they travel by bicycle. Most studies of bicyclist behavior start with some criteria for proper behavior and count the number of cyclists who either conform with or deviate from the criteria. For this section, though, I ask the reader to, at least temporarily, suspend the temptation to view certain cycling behaviors as deviant or problem behaviors. I ask the reader to assume that cyclists have rational reasons for what they do. The task here is to explore and learn from the day-to-day habits of common bicyclists.
Studies of bicyclists behavior point to one overriding rule: The more
options cyclists have, the more options they take. This is true whether or not
those options are officially sanctioned.
The side of the street on which bicyclists ride, for example, is influenced by the kind of space they have in which to ride. Thom and Clayton (1992a) observed bicyclists riding at mostly busy intersections with standard 12-foot lanes and speed limits mostly either 50 or 60 kph (31 or 37 mph). A full 97.6 percent of the cyclists rode on the side of the street with the flow of traffic (p. 97). On most of the streets at the seven intersections studied, bicyclists would have had to ride close to on-coming traffic if they had chosen the other side of the street.
The picture changes where bicyclists have more room. A study of bicyclists on nine streets with striped bike lanes (Cycecki, Perry, & Frangos, 1993) found that 22 percent of the cyclists who rode on the streets chose to ride facing the motor traffic on their side of the street. On one street the bike lane was marked with four arrows per mile to show clearly that bicyclists must ride with traffic. Apparently the arrows did not deter wrong-way riding as much as the extra space encouraged it; 23 percent still rode facing traffic. On another bike-laned street, 39 percent cycled against the flow (pp. 29, 31).
Cyclists also choose sides more freely on sidewalks. In a comparison of sidewalk riding with street riding, Wachtel and Lewiston (1994) found that of the cyclists riding on the road at the studied intersections, 95 percent were riding with traffic. Among cyclists riding on sidewalks along the same roads, though, 32 percent faced the traffic on their side (p. 33). Thom and Clayton (1992a) found a half-and-half split between sidewalk cyclists riding with traffic and those facing it (p. 93). In fact, of all wrong-way bicyclists they observed, 70 percent were riding on sidewalks (p. 98).
Bicyclist behavior varies somewhat from place to place, though. Its influenced by factors beyond roadway design, such as local bicyclist education and public relations programs, having large numbers of experienced adult cyclists to set examples, the degree to which police enforce bicycle laws, and local motorists attitudes toward and treatment of bicyclists on the road. So, statistics such as those in the last two paragraphs illustrate a general principle, that cyclists take advantage of the available options, but the numbers are site specific. They do not reflect how cyclists behave on all bike lanes, for example. In fact, a recent bicyclist behavior analysis in Oregon (Moule & Ronkin, 1996) found less wrong-way riding on streets with bike lanes than on those without, and the lanes seemed to lure cyclists off the sidewalk (see Table 9).
So, the space in which cyclists ride influences the freedom with which they choose a side of the street on which to ride. Likewise, the amount of traffic at intersections influences how bicyclists respond to stop lights and stop signs. Most of the bicyclists in the Thom and Clayton study had little choice when they were required to stop. At the observation sites, the authors say, most cyclists were forced to comply with stop signs and red lights because of high traffic volumes. As a result, 97 percent stopped (p. 97). Cyclists were, however, more likely to disobey red lights and stop signs when traffic was light (p. 93).
Cynecki, Perry, and Frangos found that although 80 percent of their subjects stopped for red lights, only 17 percent stopped for stop signs, even though the observer was instructed to give the bicyclists the benefit of the doubt when they came to a near stop (p. 31). In addition to conveying a stronger message than stop signs, red lights are most likely to be installed at intersections with heavy traffic which, again, forces bicyclists to stop.
|Bicyclists riding against traffic|
|Riders on street (at sites w/ sidewalks)||4%|
|Riders on sidewalks||42%|
|Sites with bike lanes||16%|
|Sites without bike lanes||28%|
|Sites with bike lanes and sidewalks||14%|
|Sites without bike lanes or sidewalks||33%|
|Sites with 2 or 3 lanes||9%|
|Sites with 4, 5, or 6 lanes||24%|
|Bicyclists on sidewalks|
|Sites with bike lanes||24%|
|Sites without bike lanes||65%|
|Sites with 2 or 3 lanes||21%|
|Sites with 4, 5, or 6 lanes||48%|
Source: Moule & Ronkin, 1996.
Members of the New York City advocacy group Transportation Alternatives defend running red lights. It is a way, according to Herman (1993), for bicyclists to get ahead of the platoon of motor vehicles and away from the exhaust and the pressure from impatient drivers (pp. 26-27). (For the record, I am not trying to advocate, condone or defend the practice of running red lights. Im just trying to describe how normal, rational people behave on bicycles, and why.)
Non-cyclists and expert cyclists often view bicyclists who ride against traffic and who run stop signs and red lights as reckless scofflaws or, at best, sorely misguided. Yet, the statistics above demonstrate that these behaviors are not totally arbitrary, that cyclists use some discretion when choosing where to ride or whether to stop at a stop sign. No doubt there are reckless and misguided cyclists on the streets, but there are also plenty of rational reasons for cyclists to choose non-vehicular-style actions.
A bicyclist whose destination is the wrong way up a one-way street, for example, might choose to ride against traffic if the alternative is a considerably longer route. A cyclist turning left on a busy street with four lanes may decide that it makes sense to ride the left bike lane to a destination half a block up the road on the left; otherwise, the cyclist would have to cross four lanes, ride a short distance, then cross back again, exposing himself to greater risk.
Even John by-the-rules-of-the-road Forester advocates that bicyclists treat stop signs as if they were yield signs:
You dont have to stop to yield, and you are best able to get moving again if you are still riding, with your feet on the pedals. Therefore, it is to your advantage to keep going, riding as slowly as you can between the visibility point and the edge of the actual traffic line, because that gives you the maximum time to see and choose a gap in traffic that is long enough for you to cross the intersection. If you get close to the actual traffic line and no gap comes along, you must stop to wait (1993, p. 314).
Where traffic is light and its easy to see down the road, bicyclists may appear to ignore stop signs entirely while, in fact, they may be entering intersections with as much care as those who stop. On a bicycle, the energy to get up to speed after a stop comes out of the riders endurance, not a gas tank, so there is a strong, practical incentive to keep rolling. As one very experienced bicyclist put it, its not human to stop at every stop sign.
Bicyclists are not the only practitioners of this sort of situational decision making. For example, motorists may flout speed limits where a road seems to be able to handle faster traffic. One study found that drivers paid little attention to posted speed limits and chose a speed that they considered appropriate for the prevailing conditions (Garber & Gadiraju, 1989, p. 65). Some scofflaw behavior is just what a particular combination of environmental cues seems to ask of a cyclistits just human.
To most people who bicycle for transportation, cycling is an informal activity. Its common, ordinary, everyday. It could be argued that motorists manage to adhere to well-defined behavior patterns a lot better than bicyclists, even though driving a car is also an everyday activity. There are some important differences between motor vehicles and bicycles, however, that account for bicyclists less structured behavior. I have touched on these differences before, but they take on new meaning in this context.
First, bicycles are narrow. On the whole, this is a great asset. It allows bicyclists to share lanes with faster-moving traffic. Being narrow makes it possible for the bicycle to be a slow-moving vehicle that can move about city streets and rarely hold up traffic. This sets the bicycle apart from most other slow-moving vehicles, too. If one fourth of a citys workers biked to work, that would be just fine. If, instead, they drove tractors, harvesters, and threshing machines, you would see major tie ups. However, this narrowness also affords other behaviors that would be difficult or impossible with wider vehicles. Along with the ability to share a lane comes the ability to ride on the wrong side of the road without colliding with on-coming traffic. A bicyclist can ride in the space between lines of cars and the curb. A bicycle fits on a sidewalk and through other narrow spaces where motorists in cars wouldnt normally think of going. Being narrow also makes it possible for a bicyclist who wants to turn left to wait on the right side of the road for traffic from behind to pass, a commonly-used technique, even though it is frowned upon by vehicular cycling advocates.
In addition to being narrower, bicycles generally move more slowly than cars, of course. This creates some opportunities and precludes others. For example, while approaching a stop sign, a bicyclist may have plenty of time and a clear view by which to judge whether it is safe to cross the intersection. So bicyclists can often blow stop signs safely, even if illegally, where motorists would have to stop to assess the situation. The speed difference also makes it impossible, though, for a bicyclist to take a place in the traffic flow in the same way that a motorist would. That constraint forces bicyclists to create alternatives, for better or worse.
Finally, bicyclists pose much less of a threat to other road users than do car drivers. The dangers inherent in the speed, size, and weight of a car demand a high level of care and responsibility from drivers. Consequently, there are severe legal incentives for motorists to follow prescribed rules of the road. In most cities bicyclists are not held to the same standards because they are not seen as such threats.
In short, compared with motorists, bicyclists have a different set of constraints and, more importantly, affordances. Norman (1988) defines affordances as the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used (p. 9). Bicyclists have more diverse physical and social/legal affordances than motorists, so bicyclists exhibit a more diverse range of behaviors than motorists. If we label one style of riding vehicular cycling, we can dub the broader range of cyclists behavior as affordance cycling, meaning that the bicyclists actions are governed less by preplanned and analyzed patterns and more by what seems to make sense from among all the possible actions the bicyclist perceives in the moment. The affordance cycling concept may become more meaningful once we begin to explore how bike lanes influence bicyclists perceptions. For now, the point is that bicyclists have such varied behavior because they have so many options.
Cyclists who understand the rules of the road well know when those rules can be safely and usefully broken. Roadside researchers who make ledgers of vehicular-style behaviors versus non-vehicular-style behaviors give us data that is interesting, but that does not tell us the extent to which the supposed transgressions pose real dangers.
While Effective Cycling is presumably guided by extensive planning and analysis, bicycling in general is much more free form, which should not be confused with chaotic, even though it may sometimes look that way. Part of the appeal of bicycling for some people is that it offers the freedom to go places and do things that a car driver couldnt without being a threat to health and property. Bicyclists enjoy more spontaneity than motorists.
Cincinnati traffic engineer Jim Coppock, who is also a folk musician, folk dancer, avid bicyclist, and bicycle advocate, describes bicycling as folk transportation, an apt description of this informal method of moving about. One of bicyclings greatest assets, arguably its single most socially significant attribute, is the mobility it offers people from a wide range of ages, abilities, and economic means. There is no test to pass or drivers license fee to pay. Expert cyclists may sigh and shake their heads as they watch other bicyclists improvise their way through traffic, but the behavior they are seeing goes hand in hand with a vehicle thats as available to five your olds and people with Downs syndrome as it is to three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond.
As a group, bicyclists behave in richly diverse ways. Individually, though, bicyclists often harbor strong feelings about whats true and proper cycling technique. Those of us who invest a lot of time in studying bicycle issues and practicing advanced cycling techniques run the risk of developing what C. M. Deasy (1974), writing about problems in environmental design, calls naive realism. Its a sort of professional tunnel vision:
the action schemes in the designers mind are very special ones; they are formed by training and by the values of his professional group and thus may need to be accommodated to the viewpoint of the rest of the world . The alternative possibility, that human nature will adapt itself to the designers values, is so utterly unrealistic as to be absurd, yet it is a concept that is implicit in much of the literature of architecture and planning (p. 39).
Two Canadians provide a good example of naive realism at work. Robert Thom is a research engineer with the University of Manitoba Road Safety Research Unit. He has reportedly carried out extensive research in the area of cycling safety. He is also an avid cyclist who rides through all four seasons and averages 16,00 kilometers (9,900 miles) per year. Alan Clayton is an engineering professor at the University of Manitoba. (Thom and Clayton, 1992b, p. 378 .)
Based on observations of 900 cyclists in the Canadian cities of Winnipeg and Vancouver, Thom and Clayton (1992a) concluded that it is apparent that many cyclists do not ride according to the established rules and principles of traffic flow: only half of the cyclists were observed to be riding correctly (p. 93). As we will see, this statement is based on an unrealistically rigid definition of what riding correctly means.
In addition to wrong way riding and disobeying stop signs and red lights, the criteria the researchers used to judge correct riding style included the following:
The researchers do not say whether sidewalk riding was illegal in the study cities. In some cities it is, in others its not. As recently as 1994, three cities in the Dayton, Ohio, area had laws that required bicyclists to ride on sidewalks. Clearly, experience has shown that sidewalks can be dangerous places to ride (Williams & McLaughlin, 1992; Wachtel & Lewiston, 1994). From an affordance cycling perspective, though, we would have to know where the rider was going, the alternative ways of getting there, the conditions of the various routes, the cyclists speed, the care the cyclist took in crossing intersections. Without knowing such circumstances, we cannot carte-blanche condemn sidewalk riding.
I have seen an expert cyclisthe was a certified Effective Cycling Instructor and president of a bike club with more than 1,000 memberslead a group of cyclists comprised of the board of directors of that club down city sidewalks for two blocks to access a bike path. Considering the surrounding streets and traffic patterns, no one could argue that it would have been safer or wiser to use the road. In some cases, the choice between riding the road or the sidewalk is more a matter of style than substance.
As described in the last chapter, vehicular cycling has definite, sometimes complex, rules about choosing a lane position. Many cyclists put in the majority of their miles where the traffic is light enough that left-turn technique is not a major concern. The researchers stacked the deck, though. All but one of the seven study sites were on streets with four or more lanes. Three of the sites were extremely complex intersections with pork chop islands and center dividers. These sites are good examples of places where, as Forester (1993) put it, being a good cyclist requires more skill and forethought than driving a car (p. 296). Undeniably, vehicular cycling techniques enable a bicyclist to glide through such intersections with the greatest ease and least risk of conflict with traffic. But to expect the average cyclist to be more skillful and more thoughtful than the average motorist flies in the face of bicyclings nature as folk transportation. Finally, a turn from the wrong position poses no hazard at all if done at the right time, when theres no possibility of conflict with traffic. Faced with the complexity of choosing a proper position and the difficulty of changing lanes to reach that position, many bicyclists, especially slower ones, may find a way to muddle through thats not technically correct, but that works well enough for them.
This is another maneuver that even Forester does not universally condemn. The danger is that a motorist will turn right and slam the bicyclist riding in the motorists blind spot. The official Effective Cycling text says its all right to pass on the right when motorists are stopped, or are barely moving with no place to turn into (p. 313). In a vehicular cycling manual distributed by Bicycling magazine, Allen (1988) gives several paragraphs of instructions for riding through stopped motor traffic, then advises cyclists to wait behind the first car at the traffic light.
In the end, it is hard to pin down one proper way of cycling. There is not even a clear consensus about what should properly be called vehicular cycling. Not even the carefully thought-out Effective Cycling program provides a cut-and-dried standard. I have known Effective Cycling graduates who either did not fully understand, were unable to carry out, or had forgotten, Foresters detailed instructions. I have known certified Effective Cycling Instructors who outright disagreed with some of the Effective Cycling lessons. Even if you follow Forester to the hilt, affordances sometimes offer several choices: at stop signs and when passing on the right, for example. Thom and Clayton chose to chronicle actions that they believed were improper, implying that these actions would put bicyclists at risk. What we have seen is that in specific instances these actions may be harmless, or even safer than the supposedly proper actions. Those of us who are involved with bicycle advocacy and planning face one very real risk if we cling too tenaciously to our vehicular cycling principles: We risk denying ourselves the ability to fully understand the depth and breadth of bicycling as it is practiced on the streets of our cities every day.
Theres a man, about 45, who rides the sidewalk down Main Street in my home townagainst the flow of traffic on his side of the street, by the way. Joe is large, though not tall. The low seat on his old ten speed makes his knees stick out as he pedals. He does not push himself breathless, but rolls slowly, draws a hit off his cigarette, and sends smoke swirling beneath the brim of his cowboy hat. When he reaches Central Avenue in the middle of town, he stops and waits for the pedestrian signal, then slowly rides the crosswalk to the other side. At the video store, he pries down his kickstand with his stable stomper, finishes his smoke, and leaves his unlocked bike by the door as he saunters inside.
Is Joe a problem bicyclist? Should we put a helmet on him, boot him off the sidewalk, put him on the right side of the street, and teach him to ride properly? Id wager hes as much of an expert at pedestrian cycling as many club cyclists are at vehicular cycling. He has figured out how to get where he wants to go, and he gets there in a way thats comfortable for him. At the speed he rides and with the care he takes, Joe may be no more at risk than a vehicular cyclist. If we judge his behavior by vehicular cycling principles, his actions are quite improper. But its hard to argue that Joe is a hazard to himself or anyone else on the sparsely-peopled sidewalks of downtown Fairborn, Ohio. The beauty of the bicycle is that it can accommodate both a Joe and a John Forester. And it would be just as absurd to try to make Joe into John as to try to get Forester on the sidewalk. This is not to say that Joe couldnt practice vehicular cycling if he wanted. But what would make him want that?
The curseor the challengeof bicycle planning is that John and Joe experience bicycling so differently. For Joe, motor traffic goes by him. Period. He moves around its periphery and through its gaps. John, on the other hand, is part of the traffic. He rides in its midst and participates in its flow. What makes bicycling even more complicatedor interestingis that there is no pure John experience or pure Joe experience. As long as traffic moves faster than a cyclist, that cyclist cannot be 100 percent in the flow. And as long as there are streets without sidewalks you cant ride 100 percent on the periphery. Even where there are sidewalks, for most bicyclists it would take great constraint to poke along for any distance with the amount of caution it would take to cross every driveway and intersection safely. Sidewalks do not isolate bicyclists from traffic.
How realistic is it to hope that Americans will some day embrace vehicular cycling on a large scale? Its hard to say. Culture has a lot to do with it, I suspect, since cultural attitudes will determine how motorists and bicyclists act toward and respond to each other. For example, Drake (1996) describes how he watched as a nun in full habit rode her three-speed sedately into the midst of a busy French roundabout:
Immediately, she was afforded what I could only assume was the leeway exclusively reserved for people of the cloth. Then I tried it myself, and discovered her secret had nothing to with social strata, but with assertiveness. Easy.
Drakes allows that not all European motorists are so courteous: Cycling in Milan, for instance, calls for a downhillers body armor. Ditto for Barcelona. I would no sooner ride in these cities than I would go jogging in Sarajevo.
A common way in which bicycle safety pundits link behavior with consequences is to compare the share of car-bike crashes caused by bicyclists with the share caused by motorists. If there is a 50/50 split, then we assume, for what its worth, that bicyclists arent doing any worse than motorists. That is, if bicyclists contribution to car-bike crashes is equal to motorists, then bicyclists arent any worse drivers than motorists. This may be a crude measure of bicyclists skill, but many people take this kind of comparison seriously, often using it to put cyclists in a bad light. So it is worth examining.
Thom and Clayton estimated that cyclists were at fault in 65 percent of reported crashes they analyzed from Winnipeg, Canada, and cyclists were partly at fault in 5 percent more (p. 96). Other studies have credited cyclists errors with causing from 21 percent to 65 percent of car-bike crashes ( Clarke & Tracy, 1995, p. 31). A. F. Williams came up with a nearly identical range overall, and found that cyclists aged 25 and older weighed in at just 35 percent (Drury, 1978, p. ).The Cross-Fisher study revealed a similar tendency for child cyclists to be at fault, and adult cyclists not to be (Table 10). It appears as if adult cycling habits are not so hazardous; motorists are more often to blame. In general, children do not pilot their bikes as safely. Celestine Trainor of the Human Factors division of the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission attributes this to childrens limited cognitive abilities, self absorption, and fondness for testing their skills (Rogers, G., et al., 1994, pp. 87-88).
There is cause to be cautious about interpreting this information, though. That motorists appear to be more often at fault in crashes with adult cyclists may reflect factors other than just the adult riders street smarts. If adult cyclists tend to ride faster than children, motorists may have less time to detect and react to the presence of an adult cyclist on the road. Also, motorists might drive more cautiously around children. In any case, many crashes that are technically caused by motorists errors could be avoided by skilled cyclists; bicyclists who practice vehicular cycling have techniques that not only minimize cyclist errors, they reduce the likelihood of crashes caused by motorists errors as well. Finally, the top rural adult crash type appears to be carelessly caused by overtaking motorists, but is often the result of bicyclists riding at night without the gear to make themselves visible.
Vehicular cycling principles guide the actions of an experienced, well-informed, hard core of cyclists. The reason they choose this riding style is simple: the principles help bicyclists get where they want to go most safely and efficiently. There is room for fudging, true, but even there a bicyclist who understands traffic and how to avoid crashes can more clearly see her options and more wisely choose among her affordances. Those of us who enjoy the benefits of a vehicular riding style naturally wish the same freedom and sense of safety for other bicyclists.
But bicycling is not by nature so tidy, and shouldnt be. There are many who sing, but few expert singers. There are many who dance, but few expert dancers. There are many who bicycle, but as along as bicycling remains folk transportation, as long as bicyclists dont need a skills-based license to mount up, as long as bicycling serves the young, the poor, and the mentally handicapped, expert cycling is likely to remain the realm of the hard-core few.
Source: Forester, 1993, p. 269.
If bicycling is a dance, no one should have to be an Arthur Murray graduate to jump in. At the same time, we dont want people bumping into the furniture and we dont want to make it hard for accomplished dancers to cut a mean rug. If we must build a dance floorsome kind of bicycle facility, that iswe must take care of two things. First, we must try to find a design that neither encourages unsafe behavior nor perpetuates inaccurate ideas about car-bike interactions; misinformed bicyclists cannot accurately predict the consequences of their improvisations. Second, the design must not prevent, inhibit, or contradict vehicular cycling: to do so is to squelch the safest and most efficient form of bicycling transportation.
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