Last week I attended a bike safety workshop at the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) headquarters downtown. I like attending these meetings because they’re always informative and I enjoy the fellowship of other bicyclists from different parts of the city. I also enjoy taking my bike on the Metro Gold Line and riding the buffered bike lanes downtown, especially the brightly painted green bike lane on Spring Street, which makes me feel super safe riding on a busy street. The transit and bike-friendly amenities remind me that it is possible to shift from a car-centered transportation system, even in the land of the automobile. Growing up in Southern California, if you wanted to go from Pasadena to Downtown L.A., you had to drive. Now you don’t. That’s a huge step forward.
This month’s LACBC workshop coincided with the unveiling of the organization’s “Bike Safe: California Rules of the Road” pocket guide, also available online. It was also a chance to ask questions about bike safety from a panel of five distinguished bike safety experts, including Sgt. Jon Aufdenberg, the LAPD’s bike liaison; Lt. Marjorie Jacobs of the LASD; Attorney James Pocrass; Ted Rogers, LACBC board member and author of the blog “BikinginLA;” and Cynthia Rose, co-founder of Santa Monica Spoke, and director of Santa Monica’s “safe routes to school” program. The panel was moderated by LACBC’s Colin Bogart.
One of the important issues raised during the panel discussion was that we should use the word “collision” to describe what we have hitherto called “accidents.” As Ted Rogers put it, “accident” implies that the incident could not have been prevented because no one was at fault. In the vast majority of cases, however, someone wasn’t following the rules of the road, causing the “collision” to occur. Understood this way, we all have within us the power, as motorists, bicyclists, and/or pedestrians, to follow the rules of the road and drastically cut down on collisions. Rogers also noted that following the guidelines on the LACBC “Bike Safe” list reduces your chance of being involved in a collision by 50 percent.
The pocket guide to bike safety is a handy reference that includes common sense suggestions such as wearing a helmet and riding a bike with brakes, as well as the legal rights and responsibilities of cyclists on the road. Each rule is written in easy to understand language and includes reference to the relevant section(s) of the California Vehicle Code. There are 20 rules included in the guide, and I won’t go through them all (you can do that yourself by downloading the reference here), but I wanted to highlight a few. For example, basics such as your legal right to ride on the street:
Ride on the Street You have the right to ride on the street. You are NOT required to ride on the sidewalk. CVC 21200 Exception: Freeways and some bridges may have signs posted forbidding bicyclists.
Or where to ride on the street when there’s no bike lane:
Ride to the Right, But Within Limits When riding slower than the normal speed of traffic, you are required to ride as far right as “practicable” (meaning safe). You are not required to ride as far right as possible, which may not be safe. You are allowed, but not required, to ride on the shoulder. CVC 21202, CVC 21650, CVC 21650.1
Or where to ride if there’s no room on the right side of the road (i.e., if the lane’s too narrow to share side-by-side with a car):
Take the Lane If a travel lane is to narrow to safely share side by side with a motor vehicle, you can prevent unsafe passing by riding near the center of the lane. On two lane roads where it’s illegal or unsafe to pass, you must turn off the roadway at a designated or safe location to allow a line of 5 or more vehicles behind you to pass. CVC 21202(a)(3), CVC 21656
The advice to “take the lane” is legal and safe (when motorists are driving safely), and most useful in this safe cycling guide. Where I live and ride, parked cars on some narrower streets are the main reason I am sometimes forced to take the lane. While it is statistically the safest thing to do, I will admit it can be stressful to have annoyed motorists backed up behind you.
If even I feel uncomfortable “taking the lane,” despite my years of experience, how are we to expect less aggressive riders to feel? What about children? Even I feel uneasy telling my children to get in the lane and pretend you’re a car. Mind you, I’m not criticizing the safety guidelines, but I feel compelled to point out what I see as a major limitation of the vehicular cycling philosophy. Rule of thumb: if an experienced cyclist like myself feels uncomfortable telling my teenage kids to do this on the way to school or the park, it’s probably not a sufficient strategy for getting the average American to use their bikes instead of their cars. While these rules make it safer to ride a bike, it’s important to remember that they won’t increase bicycle mode share.
One related area of discussion that the audience members asked the panelists about was riding on the sidewalk. As someone who has sometimes felt forced to retreat to the sidewalk on some streets, because of heavy traffic and a lack of safe space to ride, I am aware that there may be times when riding on the sidewalk is necessary. The LACBC pocket guide says of sidewalk riding:
Avoid Riding on the Sidewalks Each city in California has its own rules about riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. Some cities allow sidewalk riding, some don’t. Check with your city’s municipal code. CVC 21206
The LACBC’s Rogers noted that riding on the sidewalk can actually be more dangerous than riding in the street, since you are often placed in a potential danger zone with cars at driveways and intersections. Bicyclists going too fast on sidewalks can be a hazard to pedestrians, too. Sgt. Aufdenberg of the LAPD agreed that it was not safe, but added that sidewalk riding is presently legal in the city of LA, as long as the bicyclist exercises “due regard” for the safety of other sidewalk users. As with the rest of the guide, the LACBC’s advice on this issue is sound.
Regardless of how problematic sidewalk riding is, there is a larger issue that I want to address. While I understand that sidewalk riding irks many people, it reflects the fact that we currently have too little safe bicycling infrastructure on our roadways. Sidewalk riding is essentially the bicyclist’s vote of no confidence in the safety of the roadway. During the discussion, one audience member expressed vehement dislike for bicyclists who ride on the sidewalk, going so far as to say he wanted extra copies of the guide to “fling” at sidewalk-riding bicyclists. I bit my tongue at the time, not wanting to get into an argument about something not central to the presentation, but I feel compelled to respond here. We need to install more miles of protected, or buffered bike lanes on our roads where automobile speeds exceed 35 mph, like those painted on Spring Street in L.A. that make it safer for people to ride in the street. Until we do so, I would urge less finger-wagging by experienced cyclists at sidewalk riders (as long as it’s not harming anyone), and more attention to building the kind of bike infrastructure that will make sidewalk riding unnecessary. Let’s be more understanding, use common sense persuasion and not “fling” the guidelines at anybody, shall we?
In my view a larger problem is NIMBY opposition when cities try to reallocate road space to provide bike lanes. I believe bike lanes (especially those that are protected or buffered) are a vital precondition for a shift to sustainable multimodal transportation, and we are seeing more of them installed in cities across the country. We are in a transition period, and there’s going to be opposition from people who only understand the world from a perspective behind the windshield. Nevertheless, opposition from motorists must not deter us from pushing ahead with improvements in bike infrastructure. In the meantime, we’ve got to keep riding and the LACBC’s Rules of the Road guide is an indispensable resource for building confidence in one’s rights and responsibilities on the road.
The LACBC deserves a big pat on the back for putting together the panel discussion and pocket guide. Every cyclist (and motorist) should follow these rules, and by making them available in an easily digestible form, the LACBC has provided an important public service. Read them and “bike safe.”