Indicator species follow-up thoughts

I appreciated each and every one of the thoughtful comments that I received on my “female cyclist’s manifesto” post.  I want to explore some of these views in a more organized manner than comment replies allow.

Like any cyclist, male or female, it takes time to become comfortable riding as regular traffic, but not that much time.  – Stacy

This one little sentence really got me thinking.  When we fail to view cyclists as drivers, as equal road users, we set ourselves up for trouble.  Imagine that you had never driven an automobile before, and someone hands you the keys and expects you to be able to operate that vehicle safely and competently on the streets.  Pretty overwhelming, huh?

In effect, that is how many people view bicycling in the U.S.  Most states have comprehensive, rigorous (and expensive) training programs for young [automobile] drivers.  Here is an example of the requirements in my home state (Iowa):

Typically, the course includes 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours of lab time. At least three of these “lab” hours must be behind the wheel of a car; the other three may be either behind the wheel or using a simulator.  According to Iowa law, driver education courses must be offered or made available by your local school district.

I (by which I mean my parents — thanks, Mom and Dad!) paid well over three hundred dollars to take that drivers’ ed class in high school, yet I balked (as many do) at paying just $75 for a comprehensive cycling course.  Definitely something wrong with that picture!

We have no comparable requirements for cycling education.  Instead, it is left to individual cyclists to seek out training, and many cycling education programs are not nearly comprehensive enough to prepare cyclists to feel truly comfortable on the roadways.

Imagine if all schools incorporated age-appropriate cycling education and skill training in their curriculum.  We would eventually have a population of road users (both motorists and cyclists) who knew how to safely and respectfully interact with one another on the road.

There is also the simple fact that, similar to learning how to drive a car, learning how to operate your bicycle as part of the traffic system takes time and practice, above and beyond what you learn in even the best class.

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I used to be very much a “take the lane” type of person, and I still am. I am an LCI and have taken similar classes to [CyclingSavvy]. I didn’t ever understand the “need” for cycle tracks or buffeted bike lanes UNTIL I took my 4-year-old on a ride that I do all the time and it terrified me. I realized that this is what it feels like for an inexperienced or less confident rider. There is no way that I would take my son on a road where we need to “take the lane.” We actually rode on the sidewalk for part of this little 3 mile stretch, a cardinal sin in my mind. I still ride with him on the street but we are limited in the areas we can go when he is on his own bike.  -Elle, Tiny Helmets Big Bikes

First, Elle’s adventures as a car-free, cycling mother of two little boys are a huge inspiration (and I am jealous of her cargo bike fleet!).  I’m happy she weighed in here, because, while Gabriel is still a few years away from cycling on his own bike with Matthew or I playing “wingman,” this is certainly something I’ve thought about.

At this point, I feel that there are certainly some (many?) roads where I would not feel comfortable with a preschooler or elementary-school-aged child riding his/her own bike, even with an accompanying parent, for many reasons.

First, while speed is NOT a requirement for using the roads, there are certainly places where maintaining some kind of reasonable minimum speed (say 8mph, excluding hills) can be useful.  Small children on small, gearless bikes may not be capable of this.

Speed aside, there is a lot of work we do while driving (whether a car or a bike), taking in visual cues both in front of us and in our peripheral vision, anticipating what other road users will do based on previous experience, responding to/avoiding hazards in the roadway, etc.  As adults, we do these things simultaneously and almost unthinkingly.  This level of processing and responding is beyond the capability of young children.

So, while it is imperative that we educate our children about cycling, and give them an opportunity to practice those skills, there is still an age-appropriate factor.  Though I’m not sure of an exact age, my plan is to let Gabriel ride his own bike on short trips and small streets, using a child seat on my bike (and eventually a trail-a-bike) for longer journeys and those that involve larger, higher-speed roads, gradually giving him both more freedom and more responsibility.

While I haven’t had the experience of cycling with my own child, I led a bike-to-school program for kids in sixth- through eighth-grades for two years.  We specifically targeted this age-group as having the developmental maturity to understand and follow the rules of the road and to ride our chosen routes with a relatively high (5:1) child to adult-leader ratio.  We also geared our education and training to give the students the skills they needed to ride these same routes on their own.

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I am fortunate to live in a city with a great greenway/bike path system, and I pretty much stick to that these days, and also just ride for exercise and fun so my destination doesn’t matter much. Many people are able to use that system for commuting – and it works well if downtown is your destination. But the problem is that there’s really only one north/south route along the Platte river, so you end up having to go 10-12 miles out of the way if you want to go north or south in my part of town . . .  –EcoCatLady

Greenways can be great, especially if they are installed in locations where conflict points (i.e., intersections and driveways) are eliminated.  Unfortunately, they often have the limitations EcoCatLady points out — useful for transportation if you live and work very near one, otherwise, not so much.

Also, even a [would-be] cyclist who lives relatively near a greenway will be unable to use the route for transportation if he/she is not able to navigate the roads to get to the greenway in the first place (read this cyclist’s inspiring story of learning to use large roads to connect to the trail system near his house).

Because of the relatively high cost (in both money and land) of installing such infrastructure (a cost which still pales in comparison to the cost of installing urban freeways), it is unlikely that greenways will ever be able to serve the needs of all cyclists, so being able to use the existing public ways that were built for people to use (i.e., all of our roads!) is important.

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I will agree that sharrows may be BS – the ones I saw in Baltimore ranged from the door zone to half way underneath parked cars.  -Angelo

Just like many things, sharrows can be done well or poorly.  In addition to the problem of poor placement, there is also the risk that road users will assume that cyclists can ONLY use lanes with sharrows, which are usually only found in the right-most lane, i.e., not where you would travel if preparing for a left turn.

Personally, I could take or leave them, but well-placed (i.e., in the center of the traffic lane/between the tire tracks and NOT in the door zone, parking lane, debris-filled edge of the road, etc.) sharrows can help cyclists, especially those new to the idea of lane control, feel more comfortable on the roads.  If it is a way to divert paint from dangerous-by-design bike lanes to something more safe and useful on our roadways, I’m okay with it.

While I have not addressed all of the comments in the original post, I will pause here for now.  Again, thanks to all who have read and commented (or just read and considered).  I’d love to keep this discussion going.

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