Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Traffic Safety 101

LCI Dorothy Wong prepares class for obstacle course.

LCI Dorothy Wong prepares class for obstacle course.

Last weekend I attended an 8-hour bike safety class in Pasadena sponsored by the LA County Bicycle Coalition (funded by a grant from Metro).   The safety class, taught by three LCIs, provided an overview of the basics of proper bike fit, maintenance, and especially how to ride safely on the road.

The course leans heavily on the vehicular cycling philosophy that:

Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles. 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a certain amount of ambivalence toward the VC philosophy.  The VC creed assumes people on bikes “fare best” as vehicles in the absence of separated bike infrastructure.  I would argue that people on bikes fare best when they ride predictably according to the rules of the road, but only up to a point.  On the one hand, bicycles are not cars and never will be.  When automobile traffic reaches a certain level of speed, I think cyclists fare best when they are provided with separated bike infrastructure.  Riding a bicycle in automobile traffic scares most normal people, and limits the number of people willing to ride bikes for transportation.  The low mode share of bikes in our transportation system will not change appreciably until we build a network of good, separated bike infrastructure on busier streets (also connected to a transit network).  One can argue about the form the infrastructure should take (bike lanes, buffered bike lanes, physically separated cycle tracks or bike paths), but the reallocation of street space away from cars is one of the big challenges of our time, in my opinion, and a philosophy that relies solely on education of bicyclists (however necessary that may be) remains only part of the larger task of redesigning our transportation system.

That said, I do appreciate the principles of vehicular cycling for streets on which there is no bike infrastructure (and that is the current state of most of our streets in the US, unfortunately), and the skills taught in this course could benefit anyone who wants to ride a bike on any street, from residential street to multi-lane road.  It not only taught me new skills, it reinforced those things I’ve already been doing right.   It was also great to meet other cyclists who commute by bike, some of whom go totally car-free.  Such interactions with fellow bike commuters remind me that I’m not as alone as I sometimes feel on my nightly commute in a sea of steel boxes.

The classroom portion of our course emphasized the safest and legal positioning of bicyclists on the road when there are no bike lanes (ride as far to the right as practicable but take the lane if it is too narrow for a car to pass you safely), the proper way to change lanes, make left turns, and signal your intentions to drivers.     Instructors drilled into our heads the importance of obeying all applicable traffic laws for our own safety.

The second half of the course was devoted to an obstacle course practice in road hazard avoidance (i.e., how to brake suddenly or dodge a hazard immediately in front of you) and culminated in a ride in traffic on the streets of Pasadena.  It was this last portion that was the most useful, enabling us to put the principles of vehicular cycling into practice.

For me, the hardest part of cycling is the sometimes nerve-wracking process of riding in a busy traffic lane when there’s no bike lane for protection.  I’m not a particularly fast rider (and never will be one, due to my old knees), and I don’t like the feeling of cars creeping up behind me or zooming past me too close for comfort.  I shared this with the instructors, all experienced riders, and they sympathized, but said that I should remember that I have a legal right to ride on the road in the lane, and that drivers would respect my assertiveness.  Moreover, I’d be safer if I held the lane in situations where it would be dangerous for cars to pass me and I shouldn’t compromise my safety for a drivers’ convenience (or my own, for that matter).  The key was to use hand signals and eye contact to communicate my intentions with drivers (and to read their intentions), and to confidently assert my right to position myself in the lane when necessary to prevent unsafe passing.

After the ride I felt a sense of accomplishment in taking a step toward being a bit more assertive on the road.  Since taking the class, I have noticed that I feel a little more confident on the road.  I know that I can assert my right to the lane when my safety requires it.

Everyone can derive benefit from these classes, and I’m sure that I’m a better, safer cyclist because of it.  I hope LACBC and other organizations continue to offer these classes, for the skills learned in these classes will make you a better rider, even if you only ride on bike lanes.  So, the bottom line is, these vehicular cycling skills work in situations where you must ride in the vehicle lane, and they are essential for everyone to learn.  But I still think we need better and more bike infrastructure and I still feel safer when there are bike lanes on the street–especially busy streets.  The thing is, as valuable as these skills are, you shouldn’t have to go into full road warrior mode to ride your bike in America.

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7 thoughts on “Traffic Safety 101

  1. Well said – I agree with your points. We need more bike specific infrastructure. I live in the burbs east of San Francisco. My bike commute on city roads is fairly tame, but a better seperation between us and them (bikes and cars) would help. I recently had to drive through San Francisco and it is amazing how they have converted space on streets where you never thought they can develop bike only lanes. It can be done.

    Keep riding and writing.

    Thanks – Michael

  2. Cynthia C. on said:

    Well said! After taking this class, I felt more assertive. I even learned a new trick to put a light on my side. It really helped to prevent cars from buzzing by! Glad to meet you.

  3. Geoff Herrig on said:

    John, what are your thoughts on cyclists moving up to the front of a line of cars that are stopped for a red light? Was that addressed? I prefer to keep my place in line – it seems more respectful – but experienced cyclists I ride with often ride up to the right of the cars to the front. I believe Bike Snob NYC calls this practice “salmoning” in reference to fish wiggling to get ahead of one another. Best, gh

    • Geoff, the issue came up during the class and it was strongly suggested that cyclists wait in line under most circumstances. It’s not illegal to move to the front of the line (in fact, some cities have installed so-called “bike boxes” at the front of intersections for bikes, on the theory that bikes are more visible when they’re at the front of an intersection), but the cyclist may run the risk of being hit by a car that suddenly decides to turn right as the cyclist rides to the right of the cars. The risk associated with this may be somewhat less when riding in groups. However, according to my Bike Snob NYC glossary, “salmoning” refers to a bicyclist who rides against the flow of traffic, either in the bike lane or any other traffic lane. This is an unsafe practice, due to the fact that other road users are not looking for someone coming from the opposite direction (an issue also covered in the safety course). BSNYC refers to the practice of arriving at an intersection late and slipping past everyone to the front of the intersection as “shoaling.” The Snob sees “shoaling” as bad manners, like cutting in front of someone at the ATM, rather than dangerous. Best, J.

  4. Reblogged this on bykly and commented:
    Great read about The Vehicular Cycling philosophy.

  5. Philip Lohman on said:

    One way I’ve overcome nervousness over the years (I’m 71) is by using a helmet mirror. It lets you see what’s behind you without turning your head. With a little practice, your brain will integrate the straight-ahead view with the mirror view and give you a 360 degree mental picture of the road. It’s absolutely invaluable.

    • Agreed, Philip! I use mine always, and I’m far less nervous than I used to be. But it’s still not completely comfortable for many people to take the lane when you’ve got all that steel and horsepower bearing down upon you. That’s why I’m a supporter of better bike infrastructure.

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