Our “parkways” here in Suburbia are a lot like freeways, only with side streets and stop lights. Most have three lanes going in both directions with a substantial center median and generous, over-spec bike lanes. Speed limits on these mega avenues are typically 45 mph, but unless the authorities have recently set-up a speed trap to intimidate the locals, traffic usually flows closer to 55-60 mph. I appreciate the wider-than-required bike lanes on these surface street superhighways, but even still, it’s a bit unnerving to have an endless stream of cars flying by at 60 mph, 4-6 feet from your left ear.
If you’re only going straight or turning right (how often does that happen?), these roads aren’t really a problem, but they break down when you need to make a left turn in traffic. Imagine rush hour, with a long stream of cars flowing past at 55 mph, three lanes deep to your left, and you need to get over into the left turn lane. Vehicular cycling technique would have you take the first lane to your left, then the next, and so on, until you reach the left turn lane. I can guarantee that if you tried that during rush hour around here, the only place you’d be rushing to is the hospital or morgue.
An alternative that I often see practiced is what I like to call “pedestrian cycling”. Believe it or not, riding on sidewalks is legal within our city limits. I don’t advocate doing so for most cyclists, but for children and those that lack the confidence to brave the bike lanes, it’s arguably a viable option. Because car drivers don’t expect to see anything moving at vehicle speeds entering the roadway from a sidewalk, it’s critical that these pedestrian-cyclists stop at every cross street and either walk their bikes or slowly ride across within the crosswalk, behaving as pedestrians. This type of riding is frowned upon by some bicycle advocates because it (supposedly) reinforces the idea that bikes aren’t vehicles and should be relegated to the sidewalk. I don’t necessarily agree with this, and whatever makes people feel safer so they get out and ride their bikes is a plus in my mind.
To deal with our less-than-perfect, heavily-trafficked roadways, I often practice a hybrid combination of vehicular and pedestrian cycling. This pragmatic approach to city cycling is not beholden to any one school of thought, but is based on the reality of needing to safely get from one side of town to the other through a maze of dense and dangerous city traffic. It involves using vehicular cycling techniques whenever practical, but quickly switching to a pedestrian cycling mindset when road conditions become dangerous and the only alternative is to slow down — and even stop to use a crosswalk — to get through a bottle-neck such as the left turn scenario described above. When I’m riding through the city, I’m following the path of least resistance, the safest and smoothest way to get through a tough traffic area on bike and foot, while trying to avoid pushing the vehicular cycling envelope too far by blindly hoping a stampede of cars recognizes my right to the road.
Bikes for this type of hybrid walking-riding need to be easy to mount and dismount. They should facilitate a smooth transition from walking, to rolling along slowly, to accelerating through an intersection, to hopping off to hit a crosswalk trigger, etc. Probably the ultimate bike for this type of riding is a small folder or possibly a step-through city bike. Among recumbents, bikes with low bottom brackets and upright seating positions (for easy entry and exit) are best. Quick handling and minimal weight are also pluses.
I want to believe our roadway designers carefully consider bicycles in their plans, and I also want to believe automobile drivers have our best interests in mind while operating their vehicles, but unfortunately, my real-life experiences have taught me otherwise. So until our road conditions improve, I’ll ride like a vehicle when I can, but I’ll switch at a moment’s notice to whatever technique is necessary to arrive at my destination in one piece.