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How we do biking wrong in the US

January 3, 2019

I replied to someone on Twitter with an offhand remark doubting the goodness of the bicycles-as-vehicles principle, I thought I should explain it, because it’s not really simple.

I think we make two principal mistakes, cycling-as-sport, and the emphasis on bicycles-are-vehicles in the context of “vehicular” rules that are actually more automobile-centric than general.

Cycling-as-sport results in impractical bicycles.  A practical bicycle looks much like an English 3-speed, or even more so; wide tires, upright posture, a relatively comfortable saddle, and some provision for carrying stuff.  Also, fenders to keep off the rain, a chain guard to keep your clothes clean, and perhaps a built-in light.  Modern materials make an even fatter tire possible and also make the lights more effective.

In contrast, cycling-as-sport leads to bicycles variously specialized for high speeds on tracks, high speeds in road races, good handling and traction on actual mountain sides, and sometimes, good skills for tricks and stunts.  None of these bikes will keep your clothes clean, none has a fender, and they tend to lack mounting points for racks.  Racing bikes tend to position the rider in a bent-over aerodynamic posture, which is good for speed, but less good for visibility, less good in crashes (head down and forward is not good).  Mountain bikes by default are equipped with knobby tires for traction in mud, which are merely noisy and draggy on paved roads, and with wide handlebars for improved steering leverage on rough downhill terrain, which in urban traffic are a hazard in narrow spaces.  The skinny tires on road and track bikes aren’t noisy and draggy, but they are easily caught in road imperfections, vulnerable to road imperfections, and prevent you from easily riding anywhere except on well-paved roads.  You’ll also have to reinflate those skinny tires much more often.

What this means is that if some well-meaning person hears that they should bike to work, they trot down to their bike shop, and are presented with a wall (or two) of mountain bikes and a wall (or two) of road bikes and triathlon bikes, and perhaps a few “ohyeahtheseareourcitybikes” bikes off to the side.  There’s a good chance they’ll be sold a bike that they’re not comfortable on, and that doesn’t enable them to carry the stuff that they need to carry.  

And likely they’ll see, wonder about, and perhaps be sold, some of the bicycle-specific gloves, and socks, and shoes, and pants, and jackets.  This is mostly a waste of money, and in daily use, more steps added to the bicycle ride that aren’t really necessary.  And in the end, for them, bicycle commuting turns out to be impractical, why did I take the advice of those Dirty F*cking Hippies on the internet?

The sort of bikes we ought to be selling are much more common in Northern Europe; I saw a lot of them in Sweden and Denmark.  The cargo bike that I ride is sort of an extreme version of such a bike; lots of ability to carry things, no expectation that I would carry things in a backpack (my back sometimes does not like backpacks), nice fat tires, fenders, built-in lights, and a chain guard.  Basically I just get on and go, and the bike carries my stuff, and I sit super upright and see everything around me.

The vehicular cycling mistake is harder to describe, because for now, given the roads that we’ve got, vehicular cycling is partly right; roads are public ways, bicycles are a legitimate means of travel, and anyone riding a bike has the right to use those roads.  Vehicular cycling is also right when it points out the need to think about what drivers might be expecting; if you come from an unexpected direction, don’t be too surprised if drivers aren’t looking for you.

But, unfortunately, it fails when its proponents mistake a method that works for some people (including me) for a method that works for everyone. If, for some reason, you don’t feel comfortable riding in traffic, it’s not that vehicular cycling has failed you, instead you have failed vehicular cycling.  Unsurprisingly, this did nothing for improving cycling’s ride share when vehicular cycling was the only game in town, and in practice, the safety that it actually delivered (if/when taught to, and usually rejected by, most actual cyclists on the road) was unimpressive compared to safety improvements in other countries.

Vehicular cycling is also mistaken because the existing vehicular laws were first designed for cars, which means that they’re not necessarily the best fit for bicycles, and the safety margins and safety rules in those laws are often overkill for bicycles.. The need to hammer home “bicycles are vehicles” means that these differences are ignored, because it might undercut the message.  Changes to the laws “for bicycles”, whether Idaho Stop, Copenhagen Left, or bicycles-only counterflow lanes on one-way streets encounter initial default skepticism because “wait, bicycles are vehicles, now you are making special rules?” — there is an assumption that we need the “simple” bicycles-are-vehicles treatment because exceptions are bad and confusing.  And also because bicycles-are-vehicles, rule-following by bicyclists is claimed to be of paramount importance because after all those rules are for safety, and we created those rules so vehicles (ahem, “cars”) would be safe and not run into things and each other.  This is a problem, because in fact, for others on the road if not for themselves, bicycles are far safer than cars, and cyclists can see and hear what’s around them far better than drivers can, and even when they do crash into people or property, do so with orders of magnitude less energy and destructiveness.  But because we’ve made the rules our focus, safety discussions often get derailed into arguments about who follows what rules, and lose track of silly things like how to minimize deaths and serious injuries.

Vehicular cycling also fails because the laws, designed for cars, are in some sense designed more as a framework for blame than as a safety maximizer.  In countries with lower pedestrian fatality rates, “jaywalking” is not a law.  We use that law in the US to provide an excuse for crashing into pedestrians with cars, if we really cared about safety, we would use different laws (because countries that do better use different laws, and we could just copy from them.  There’s no need for research or innovation).  When cyclists, thinking of themselves as vehicles, internalize these same laws, their tendency is to be rude to pedestrians even when there is no need whatsoever and there’s no actual safety issue. “Rude” can mean gratuitous bell-ringing, yelling, or close passes, and it’s completely unnecessary.  It takes only a little forethought to not run into a pedestrian; they are visible, slow moving, we can even communicate with them in real time if we need to coordinate our motions (I do this all the time, it’s easy).  If we accept that rule #1 is to not run into pedestrians, that changes how we bike, and we quit expecting that “jaywalking” pedestrians ought to get out of “our way” (which is a ridiculous concept for a bicycle, we’re stupidly maneuverable).

Furthermore, even if you dispute the extent that our laws are a blame-framework, they are designed around the abilities and limitations of automobiles; someone on a bicycle has several safety options that drivers do not, but these options go unmentioned in the laws because the laws were designed for cars.

It’s important to remember that we’re not infinitely capable, and we’re best at what we practice.  If our default reaction to someone breaking the rules is to follow the framework of vehicular laws, on a bicycle that means it’s not the safest reaction, and in the rare case that time is tight and the default reaction matters, we’ll do the wrong thing.  So instead of thinking about jaywalking, and how it is our job to shame the law-breaking pedestrian (or to shame the wrong-way skateboarder, etc, etc), we should think about what is safest, and what our safety practices should be, and always do those.  Usually, this is some combination of modifying our path so that it passes behind the pedestrian, and so that there is so much clearance that there’s no need to alert them.  It means, if there are several dogs or small children around, that we should slow down, because we cannot possibly keep track of three or more randomly moving objects, and it would be a disaster to hit a child.  It means, in practice, to never ride between a dog and its owner, because (1) it’s common for dogs to turn back towards their owner and (2) invisible leashes are a thing.  In all these cases we can invent rules that other people should be following, or we can directly act to reduce risk.  Vehicular cycling’s emphasis on car-oriented rules leads us towards blame first, risk-reduction second, and when it really matters, that means we don’t do the best possible job of risk reduction.

I could say more, but this is probably enough. There are issues with vehicular cycling’s lack of safety-in-numbers, and with their blind spots regarding speed, and really anything that isn’t “biking like a car”, but, later.

One Response to “How we do biking wrong in the US”

  1. Dr J Says:

    I definitely agree. I would say though that bicycles are certainly vehicles per definition as “things used for transporting people or goods on land”.
    They are just not cars, not like cars and require a different set of rules on roads.

    Like


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