We often hear that cyclists should follow the rules of the road, just like motor vehicles. Since recently obtaining a practical city bike I have been using it as my primary means of transportation — and have mostly been following those rules. But as helpful as the techniques of vehicular cycling are, it has become quite clear to me that this model of bicycles sharing space with cars is generally inadequate as a model to encourage regular use by regular people on bikes.
Those rules of the road in North America were explicitly designed to facilitate automobile travel. But bicycles — and particularly city bicycles — are not cars, and they generally cannot travel on the same road as fast-moving cars and trucks in a way that is convenient and subjectively safe.
Bicycles are slower, much smaller, quieter, and generally less visible than are cars. They pose virtually no hazard to the occupants of a motor vehicle, and little hazard to the vehicle itself. In North America, they are also unlikely to pose any financial or legal hazard, as unintentionally hitting a cyclist does not usually result in any consequences. (Amazingly, you can even intentionally hit cyclists with no jail time.)
I believe that a number of routine car interactions are dependent on the threat posed by other vehicles on the road — gut feelings being the real driver, as in so many other situations. Naturally a motorist does not feel threatened by a bicycle on the road as he does by another vehicle, and thus a cyclist has difficulty navigating road situations which implicitly rely on that threat.
Here are a few specific reasons why and situations in which vehicular cycling poses problems, due to visibility, speed, and that lack of threat. (Left and right are in the context of right-hand traffic.)
1. Left turns at intersections without signals or left turn lanes. If there’s any traffic travelling in the same direction, you’ve got problems. How do you make it across fast-moving lanes of traffic to get to the left-most lane to make the turn? How do you know that cars coming up from behind will see you when you’re standing there waiting to make the turn? Do you have enough time to make it across during gaps in traffic? Are motorists behind you getting pissed off and starting to pose a hazard?
2. Left turns at conventional signaled intersections. Here there may well be a left turn lane, but again, how do you get to it across multiple lanes of traffic? If you have to yield to opposing traffic, can you find a gap in traffic? If you go when the light turns red to avoid getting stuck (as motorists will do), do you have enough time to cross — and are motorists who just got green on the intersecting road going to be angry at your low speed?
3. Roads with blind curves. Cars travelling at speed around curves pose a serious danger to slow-moving, small (and thus poorly visible) bicycles. Unlike faster-moving vehicles, bicycles are more likely not to have been seen prior to the curve.
4. Obstacles in the right-most lane or bike lane, including gutters, debris, and parked vehicles. Traffic in the next lane over is likely moving much faster. How do you get into that lane?
5. Merges into a lane with high speeds or heavy traffic. Here a car can accelerate to speed and/or force its way in. The speed and threat imbalance make either a difficult proposition for a cyclist.
6. Trucks and buses. Drivers of large vehicles have poorer visibility of the area around the vehicle, and so are particularly likely not to notice a bicycle. They are also less able to judge how close the bicycle is.
7. The encouragement to ride faster and to accelerate faster. Car speeds set a norm for the speed of road travel, and the slower you ride, the more impatient drivers will be with you. On the other hand, the faster you go, the fewer times you will be passed by cars (often too closely for comfort). Going fast and accelerating quickly are counter to the normal inclination when riding a city bike for utility without cycling clothes or needing a shower at the end of your ride.
8. Riding side-by-side. This natural and pleasant way for two people to ride somewhere together is incompatible in philosophy and practice with vehicular cycling.
9. Stop signs. Setting aside the fact that motorists themselves often don’t come to a complete stop, there is no good reason for cyclists to come to a full stop at a stop-controlled intersection. On a bike one can get very good sight-lines by slowing down at an intersection, but without losing all momentum. (This is known as an Idaho stop.)
10. Tight left turns from an intersecting street. We all love to cut corners, and motorists are no exception. When turning left, they often cut into the cross-street’s left-turn lane if they don’t see any cars there. A bike in that lane is less visible and less expected, and thus in danger.
11. Cars merging from the left on a road without bike lanes. If a car travelling closely behind another car in the left lane decides to merge right, slow-moving and small vehicles (e.g. bicycles) can be obscured by the car in front.
12. Multi-lane roundabouts. If you’re staying on the roundabout past a two-lane turn, you’re either in the right lane and liable to get hit by a car turning from the left lane or you’re in the left lane and liable to get hit by a fast-moving car.
If you’re fast enough, sufficiently trained, and aggressive enough, you can probably navigate the above scenarios on the busiest of suburban arterials. But most people want neither to be particularly fast nor aggressive, nor to undertake difficult training in traffic. They want to travel safely and comfortably, with their stuff, and without breaking a sweat.
Vehicular cycling is a marginal activity, barely visible and taking place on small pieces of car-dominated roads. It is a coping mechanism for cycling-inadequate road infrastructure designed for cars. Its techniques are useful for making do with what we have, but it is useless as a model for promoting cycling as an everyday mode of city transportation for regular people. If we want people to cycle in large enough numbers to make a difference in our cities, we have to acknowledge the serious differences between bicycles and cars — and for that matter, between bicycles and pedestrians — and implement segregated cycling infrastructure. Especially on roads with high speeds or many large vehicles, and at intersections.
In an earlier post I suggested the utility bicycle shop as a sound business idea and a good way of lowering the barriers to cycling as transportation. As I’ve found out more about utility bike availability in North America, it struck me that most such shops had only recently opened. To see whether this was true, I searched out every North American bicycle store I could find that has a strong current focus on utility bicycles and bikes as transportation. The answer turns out to be a resounding yes. Below are the shops ordered by founding year.
Human Powered Machines* – Eugene, OR
Hudson Urban Bicycles – New York City, NY
Urbane Cyclist* – Toronto, ON
North Park Bicycle Shop – Victoria, BC
Jorg & Olif* – Vancouver, BC (they have since moved to the UK)
Bowery Lane Bicycles* – New York City, NY
Flying Pigeon LA – Los Angeles, CA
Renaissance Bicycles – online
Madsen Cycles* – online
Downtown Bike Hounds – Hamilton, ON
Metrofiets* – Portland, OR
Dutch Bike Co. – Chicago, IL
Joe Bike* – Portland, OR
Commuter Bike Store – online (the year is my guess)
Violet Crown Cycles* – Austin, TX
My Dutch Bike – San Francisco, CA
Wheel House Bikes – Santa Barbara, CA
Copenhagen Cyclery – Chicago, IL
J.C. Lind Bike Co. – Chicago, IL (formerly De Fietsfabriek USA)
Arriving by Bike – Eugene, OR
Beater Bikes* – Toronto, ON
2010 (up to May / the date of this post):
Republic Bike/Urban Outfitters* – online (founded in 2009, Dutch-style bikes added in 2010)
Bike Bike – Calgary, AB
Portland Velocipede – Portland, ME
Fort Langley Cyclery – Fort Langley, BC
Adeline Adeline – New York City, NY
Cycle Butik – Toronto, ON
Public Bikes* – San Francisco, CA
Shops marked with a * build, design, or special-order their bikes. (Curbside gets a star for starting a major distribution company and helping design the Batavus Fryslan and Breukelen.) I think the number of shops doing their own thing is partially a consequence of major North American bike companies long ago abandoning utility bicycles. That said, in addition to the growing number of imported brands, some smaller North American bike companies do now focus on city bikes and utility: Electra (founded in 1993), Xtracycle (1998), Breezer (2002), Yuba (2006), Civia (2007), Madsen (2008), and Linus (2009). For that matter, new European manufacturers of city bikes have also been setting up shop, including Azor (1998), Retrovelo (2003), WorkCycles (2003), De Fietsfabriek (2003), and Velorbis (2005). Interestingly, both WorkCycles and De Fietsfabriek were started in Amsterdam by Americans.
Utility bicycles really are exploding in popularity, despite (or maybe thanks to) the recession. And it’s not just the bikes, but also the inviting “slow bicycling” that goes along with them, the ever-more-frequent calls for dedicated cycling infrastructure and buffered bike paths, and the rapid spread of bike-sharing schemes (which of course use utility bicycles). So expect to see more city bikes coming to your town. And if you want to see them sooner, now’s the time to open up a bike shop and get more regular people riding (and demanding cycling infrastructure).
As if it wasn’t enough that we scare people away from cycling with our exclusively car-oriented infrastructure and even a socially constructed fear of cycling, we also do it by marginalizing cycling as something done only by the kind of people who cycle. Make a mental count of how often you’ve seen news reports or commentary refer to “avid cyclists”, and the number of times you might have used this term yourself.
Banish “avid cyclist” from your vocabulary. Self-marginalizing language like this is why we can’t have nice infrastructure.
By using and condoning the use of this term, we help reinforce our tendency to neglect the impact of the situation and over-attribute behavior to characteristics of the person. In other words, labelling those who willingly cycle as “avid cyclists” is a way of setting aside the difficult and interesting problem of how to make our cities conducive to cycling — in favor of the easy story of cycling as something “other”, as something done by people who aren’t normal. Why bother making the city a better place to cycle if the only people who will do it are the ones who are already cyclists? Why waste city money on them?
Note the division into us (normal people) and them (avid cyclists). Never the twain shall meet. Is that true? No it is not.
I claim that in most North American cities, while you will find many people riding a bicycle for utility/transportation, most people who cycle are hardly avid. Do they cycle in the dark? Do they always cycle on the road? Do they cycle in any part of the city? At any time of year? The answers are an emphatic no. And the reason is that the majority are cycling when the situation makes it easy and attractive for the person who considers the possibility. Avid cyclists should be resilient cyclists, but actual North American cyclists are fickle. With their recreational bikes and the poor infrastructure they have access to, they are fair-weather, back-roads cyclists.
Some places seem so far into the motor kingdom that cycling as transportation appears patently absurd to many. Thus, to brave the unfriendly conditions, cyclists must be avid — doing it as a sport, as exercise, to prove a point. Yet this describes fewer places than you think. I know it absolutely doesn’t describe Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, however “avid cyclist” still seems to be the mindset here.
There is a poignant irony in the number of obituaries a search for “avid cyclist” turns up. If instead of marginalizing cycling, we facilitate it through infrastructure and encourage regular people to ride, fewer people will die on the roads and those who cycle will be healthier for doing so. We need to free cycling from the shackles of recreation. We need to get utility bicycles into our bike stores. And instead of the conversation being about cyclists, we need to make it about regular people taking advantage of the two-wheel mobility available to them — because it is effective and enjoyable.
This post is cross-posted to the TriTAG blog. Go there to leave any comments.
It can be insightful to take another perspective on something we’re used to. Yesterday I walked the length of Kitchener-Waterloo’s Iron Horse Trail and photographed it from its most common vantage points — the roads crossing it. There is little immediately evident in these photos, but I will explain below. Read More…
There’s many bicycle shops around here, with at least four on King Street in Kitchener-Waterloo. Each one is filled primarily with bicycles that are designed for recreation, and that incidentally can also be used for getting around town. If you watch what people actually use to cycle for transportation here, it’s those kinds of bikes, and not ones which are well-prepared for the task. As the owner of such a bike, I end up being a fair-weather daytime non-winter cyclist, and I leave the bike at home when I fear the situation may become unfavourable. My bicycle does not prepare me for such mundane things as: rain, snow, road salt, night, luggage, or comfort for that matter.
With the lack of availability of European utility bicycles and current bicycle shops’ interest in maintaining a focus on recreation instead of utility — in Kitchener-Waterloo and in most other North American areas — a utility bicycle shop has the potential to do quite well. I envision a place where you know you will be able to go in and have your pick of many different bicycles that are outfitted for utility: fenders, lights, chain guards, skirt guard / coat protector, a rear rack, an upright seating position, step-through frames, baskets, and internal hub gearing and brakes. Such a shop would sell and maintain quality bikes that are designed for many years of frequent use in all weather. The picture at the top of the post is of a Dutch-style omafiets (grandma bike), which is the epitome of this kind of bicycle. Beyond the regular utility bikes there should be all manner of cargo and family bikes, work bikes, folding bikes, and a wide array of baskets and panniers.
In addition to serving an unfilled niche, such a store would encourage cycling as transportation by making it easier to do. One wouldn’t have to figure out how to haphazardly add all of the aforementioned useful components to a bike, or to worry about whether their externally-geared bicycle will survive the winter. A store with a utility cycling focus would make it easy to buy a bike actually suited to its intended use. It would generally be more expensive (think $700-1000 and up), but still nowhere near what cars cost. Many people would be quite willing to pay for the quality and convenience of a solid European bike that can be used to ride to work or to the store in style and comfort. Particularly when they start seeing others on such bikes. And as cycling conditions continue to improve, so will sales.
To be sure, there are such stores in North America: Curbside Cycle in Toronto; Downtown Bike Hounds in Hamilton; Flying Pigeon LA; Dutch Bicycle Co. in Somerville, MA; Dutch Bike Co. in Seattle and Chicago; My Dutch Bike in San Francisco; Clever Cycles in Portland; and Rain City Bikes in Vancouver. But there should be many, many more. Their absence isn’t the only barrier to cycling, but it is one, and I suspect that in urban areas ripe for cycling (e.g. Waterloo Region), removing that barrier could be good business.
Addendum 2: In a later post I have a reasonably comprehensive list of North American utility bicycle shops.