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Bike here, not there: How to be an assertive cyclist

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“Look at what happens to you on a bicycle. You pedal. You make decisions. You experience the tang of the air and the surge of power as you bite into the road. You’re alive!”
—The late Richard Ballantine, from New York, founder of the assertive cycling movement

Cycling is quick, cheap, environmentally blameless, and great for the legs and heart. Local and state governments are encouraging us to ride our bikes to school or work. As this timeless student activity re-emerges in the modern world, the key is not aerodynamic bikes and snazzy gear, but the skills to safely navigate campus and public roads.

That’s a daunting prospect in our car-centric cities. Typically, cyclists are expected to hug the gutter, and cycling accidents are cited as evidence that cars and bikes cannot co-exist. Increasingly, though, cyclists are re-occupying the roads.

How? By claiming our space in the lanes and following traffic rules just as we would when driving cars. This is the central principle of assertive cycling, also known as effective or mindful cycling. And it turns out the middle of the lane is the most visible—and the safest—place for cyclists to be.

This approach is key to biking in traffic, experts say. “I loved cycling, but about eight years ago I was finding road traffic so miserable I was thinking of giving it up,” says Keri Caffrey, who has since co-founded CyclingSavvy, a cyclist training program based in Orlando, Florida.

Then she discovered assertive cycling. “One day I moved out into the lane and it felt really weird.  It took about a month for anyone to honk at me, but only a week for me to say I would never again ride in the gutter. If you love riding a bike, this is life changing. All your problems go away.” Her CyclingSavvy training program is now available in 17 states.

Students and bikes: Who’s riding and why?

The number of people biking (and walking) their commutes is rising slowly and steadily, according to a 2013 report by the Alliance for Biking and Walking, a nationwide advocacy network based in Washington DC.

Of 1,135 students who responded to a recent Student Health 101 survey, 25 percent ride their bikes on campus, or plan to. Their top reason (of five choices) was convenience, followed by the physical fitness benefits, low transport costs, access to fresh air, and enjoyment. Many students also cited environmental considerations.

“It’s the most convenient way to get around, it’s faster, and I enjoy biking,” says Lindsay H., a senior at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.

“Biking is fun, great exercise, shortens my commute time, and is easy to park on campus,” says Maryalice W., a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

“Riding a bike at night feels much safer than walking,” says Pekka G., a graduate student at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Cyclists are legal drivers in every state, points out Kirby Beck, a bike safety expert and former police officer, who trains cyclists in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “But ‘Stay off the road, it’s too dangerous’ is the mindset a lot of people have gotten into, even though the first road users were cyclists and they’ve never lost that right,” he says.

Assertive cycling: what it isn’t

Ignoring road rules
Many American cyclists don’t  respect the rules of the road. “Police officers don’t hold cyclists accountable,” says Kirby Beck. Dashing across red lights might seem an exciting route to the lecture hall, but it’s also a route to the emergency room.

Cycling in gutters and on sidewalks
“The worst possible place a bike can operate is on the edge of the traffic system, because it makes them invisible and irrelevant,” says Keri Caffrey. “The four leading crash types account for probably 95 percent of all bike crashes. All four are exacerbated or caused by riding on the edge of the road.” On sidewalks, pedestrians move unpredictably, and cyclists are unsafe at driveways and intersections.

Leading crash types involving cyclists

Right hooks
The motorist passes the bike then turns right across the cyclist’s path.
Cyclist crash: Right hooks

Left cross
The motorist turns left across the path of the oncoming cyclist.
Cyclist crash: Left Cross

Drive out
The motorist pulls out of a driveway and into the path of the cyclist, who is likely screened by trees and other obstacles.
Cyclist crash: Drive Out

The motorist tries to pass without giving the bike enough space.
Cyclist crash: Sideswipe

Cyclists’ risk of having an accident declines as they gain experience. The risk to cyclists also declines as more people take to their bikes and drivers become better at sharing the road.

Use caution when cycling in bike lanes
Bike lanes make us feel safer, but their effectiveness is controversial. “Don’t trust your safety to paint—there’s no guarantee that the planner or engineer had any clue what he was doing,” says Kirby Beck. Typically, bike lanes are too narrow to allow vehicles (especially buses and large trucks) to pass safely. Bike lanes are associated with accidents at intersections, because cyclists are awkwardly positioned and difficult to spot. Stay vigilant.

Assertive cycling: what it is

Biking safely and confidently involves a skill set that enables you to position yourself in ways that motorists expect and respect, while keeping your distance from their mistakes. In addition, it gives you the confidence to overcome drivers’ occasional disapproval.

Follow the rules of the road
“The best way to be traffic-safe on a bike is to obey the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles,” says John Forester, a cycling transportation engineer in Lemon Grove, California, who pioneered this approach. “In-traffic skills are easily learned. The difficulty is the psychological strain of escaping from society’s taboo against cycling in traffic.”

Basic rules of the road

  • Never ride your bike on the wrong side of a street, including riding the wrong way on a one-way street.
  • Always obey red lights and other traffic signals. At stop signs, always yield to approaching traffic.
  • Long before reaching an intersection, check the traffic, signal, and move laterally to the correct position. Yield to traffic as you do so.
  • Claim your space in the road. Position your bike in the lane just as you’d position your car.
  • Never ride in the parked cars’ open-door zone.
  • Use your knowledge of how traffic operates to be alert to drivers making mistakes.
Black, gray, and pastel clothes blend into the background and shadows. Wear reflective clothing or bright colors to stand out in traffic.

Flashing strobes might help in daytime. At night, add solid lights for your own consistent vision.

Overcome your fear of the road
We’re scared of getting into the lane because bikes in traffic are exposed and slow, says Keri Caffrey: “But when you take away all the crashes caused by being invisible and irrelevant, there are tremendous advantages to being exposed and slow.” Road cyclists are visible. Drivers see them ahead and change lanes, avoiding the dilemma about whether there’s room to pass. Road cyclists have no blind spots. And at their slower speeds, cyclists can process more information than drivers can, allowing for greater control of their environment.

Bike here not there

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