A Little Less Dogma

When I was riding predominately for sport and fitness, I had the freedom to choose when and where to ride. Consequently, I mostly rode during off-peak times on relatively low travelled roads or bike paths, avoiding those areas I knew to be congested and dangerous.

Now that nearly all of my riding is for transportation, I don’t always have the option to pick and choose my routes, and I often find myself riding during peak hours. This new exposure to intense, and sometimes dangerous traffic has forced a rethinking of my approach to urban/suburban cycling.

For the longest time I was an advocate of John Forester’s “vehicular cycling” principles. Vehicular cycling is described as “the practice of driving bicycles on roads in a manner that is visible, predictable, and in accordance with the principles for driving a vehicle in traffic.” That sounds good and reasonable, and in some situations I still use a vehicular approach. But there are times, while encountering difficult and complex traffic situations, that adherence to strict vehicular cycling techniques no longer works for me.

For example, on some of our 6-lane suburban “parkways”, it is nearly impossible to ride a bicycle in a manner that is “in accordance with the principles for driving a vehicle in traffic.” Cars on these roads travel 3 abreast at 50-60mph; because the speed differential between cars and bicycles is so great, and the distance from the right shoulder to the left turn lane is so far, it’s not realistic to “drive” a bicycle on these roads as a part of the normal flow of traffic.

One alternative in these dangerous conditions is to ride on the sidewalk and behave as a pedestrian at intersections, using crosswalks and pedestrian traffic signals to navigate. A majority of the sidewalks on the major parkways in our area are completely under-used by pedestrians, and are separated from the road by a grass median (see main photo at top). In every way, they closely resemble what other cities might label “separated bikeways”. For the longest time, due to the stigma associated with riding on sidewalks, I avoided these pseudo bikeways, choosing instead to ride out in the traffic lane at all costs. But over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that given the option of a 40mph speed differential with cars, or a 10mph speed differential with pedestrians, the sidewalk option can be a wise choice if the conditions warrant it. (Of course, in a dense urban environment, where sidewalks are full of pedestrians, and business store fronts face the sidewalk, cycling on sidewalks is ill-advised.) This is an example of a change in tactics I should have made sooner, but didn’t, due to my overly strict adherence to a particular school of thought.

As my cycling habits have evolved, so has my overall approach to cycling tactics. Now, whatever the difficult traffic situation, whether it be a 6-lane parkway, a narrow shoulder, a vanishing bike lane, or something else, I try to use a little more pragmatism and little less dogma. This more flexible approach has made my cycling experience safer and more enjoyable.

22 Responses to “A Little Less Dogma”

  • Nate says:

    Alan,

    I love your new Blog. My cycling life has also evolved over the past two decades and I frequently have found myself questioning strict adherence to one type of bicycle, or set cycling rules. From the perspective of living in NJ and close to Philadelphia, PA. your points are right on the mark! Thanks for your hard work and giving cyclist a place to get and share information. I belive that your work is part of a sea of positive change, for cycling.

    Best regards

  • Ian says:

    Alan,
    I am 73 years old, have used a bicycle for many years as recreation and short trips to shop and library etc. I live in an urban community with its typical 4 lane expressways cutting through residential ‘burbs”. I used to diligently follow the voice inside me which dictated, “Never ride a bicycle on a sidewalk…….it is for pedestrians only.” As time passed enlightened urban planners created bikepaths, most of which became populated with pedestrians and pedestrians walking their pooches. So, as I rode as close as practicable to the right hand curb using the bicycle is a vehicle approach, I kept seeing the 99% empty sidewalks, well separated from the raging stream of pollution belching suvs and cars. Finally, at least in my head, I struck a deal with the local constabulary,….”If you ever get a complaint from a pedestrian that I either frightened them, injured them or traumatized them in any way, I expect I will be incarcerated over night, my bike impounded. I tell people that the cop’s response was always, Okay, we’d rather deal with a live scoundrel than have to scrape you off the pavement as the latest road-kill. So for the last few years, I have begun to enjoy my urban cycling again, dekeing through residential areas as much as I can, and becoming a pedestrian pushing a bike at busy intersections and along storefronts in the busy core areas. I am fortunate that since retirement I can pick my travel times and routes knowing that with cell phone and a credit card I can go just about anywhere and still be in touch and gas for the journey is as close as the nearest subway shop. Of course, the winter when it comes back brings its own set of challenges, but as I carry rain, and snow gear with me all the time anyway, the addition of studded tires should permit me to carry on most of the time. I am really enjoying your new blog. Very fascinated with the folding bike concept since I all ways carry a supply of senior citizen’s bus tickets in my wallet. That plus a folding bike would be a great asset. Would you consider doing a report on a Wal-Mart’folding bike? They have one here in Canada for $159.99 comlpete with 6 derailleur speeds, a bell, and a rear pannier rack. The only problem is they don’t really have a method of letting the customer try one out. My daughter has a method she says I ought to use..’Just buy it, if you don’t like it take it back for a refund.” Like your blog very much.

  • Alan says:

    @Nate

    Nate,

    Thanks for the kind words and encouragement. I feel like I’m finally starting to settle into a groove after a couple of weeks of frantic posting, blogroll tweaking, and plugin troubleshooting. Hopefully it will just get better as we go forward.

    Best regards,
    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Ian

    Ian,

    You’re an inspiration; I hope I’m still riding on a regular basis at 73.

    I was surprised when I found out, but it’s actually legal to ride bicycles on sidewalks within our city limits. Like I mentioned in my post, so few people walk around here, we pretty much have the sidewalks and bike paths to ourselves anyway.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about the folding bike at Wal-Mart – the only model I see available here is an electric-assist model that runs around $600. Maybe you could go in and ask them to fold it for you. You’ll want to make sure it folds to a compact package that is under the max carry-on dimension for your bus system. And, of course, it needs to be light enough that you can easily carry it. The better folders usually weigh under 25 lbs. The smallest folders compact down to around 24″x24″x12″; I’ve found that to be a good size that will be accepted almost anywhere. To reach such a compact folded size, you’re pretty much limited to bikes with 16″ (349mm) wheels. If the Wal-Mart bike doesn’t meet your criteria, you might look at the Dahon Curve D3 – they’re very nice and I’ve seen them used down under $350.

    Best regards,
    Alan

  • Brian says:

    Alan,
    Thanks for the “less dogma” concept.
    I am 49 and a life long biker – not a fanatical sportsman or dedicated commuter, just regularly on a bike for fun and transportation.
    I long ago arrived at the conclusion that a bike can not be just “traffic”, so have made it my goal to minimize time I spend in potential conflict situations with carelessly piloted multi-ton devices.
    That means crossing boulevards mid-block, crossing on red lights, or using pedestrian facilities, as is safe and appropriate.
    I will receive scorn and anger from drivers regardless, but it would be nice if the “bikes must follow traffic laws” bunch could be a bit more practical.

  • andy parmentier says:

    i felt like rosa parks, a little civil disobedience of walking down the middle of east washington ave. one of the busiest of all madison, wi streets. i was playing chicken, bullfighting. i was stirring the iron in my blood. yes, walking TOWARDS traffic, right down the middle. was i trying to get my body rearranged? but it was psychologically liberating. now, i walk in the middle of the night, on quiet back neighborhood streets. like “pickup” baseball, football games among neighborhood kids in the waning dusk hours. reclaiming streets for awhile.
    charles dickens needed to walk to do his writing. he walked on city streets at night, a fertile ground for his imagination.
    i’ve talked about hiking appalachian trail with friends. one objected, “i’ve heard there’s criminals on the AT”. i had seen a film called “shakespeare in prison” about prisoners putting on
    shakespearean productions from within a medium or maximum security prison. back in shakespeare’s day, actors were considered criminals. so..shakespeare was like a shepherd to criminals, just like appalachian trail. australia was a penal colony back in old times. alaska is probably a shepherd (the land itself) to folks who can’t or won’t get work anyplace else. australia and alaska are “bush” country. i’ve definetely been shepherded by wild places and trails, as opposed to four walls.
    tangentially squared,
    andy

  • Ken says:

    Alan,

    I just started reading your blog and like what I see.

    I am 63 and have serious back issues and recent major lung surgery, so have taken a hiatus from 20 years of riding. But, with my wife’s and physical therapist’s blessing, I bought a recumbent and have started learning to ride a bike all over again.

    In the process, I have made an interesting discovery. Mount Vernon, WA, our medium sized town with 29,000 and growing, has several “multi-use” trails that are neither marked nor mentioned in local bike maps and literature. Some are obviously built by the city and developers and some are “natural”. I have begun to take a little extra time to check out cul-de-sacs, dead ends, parks, and the edges of shopping centers while riding. I have found a couple of new ways to avoid the death traps around here that they call major thoroughfares and have also discovered some interesting parts of our town. I bet that Mount Vernon is not unique in this and would recommend to others that they dedicate some riding time to exploration.

    I can be on country roads in less than 10 minutes of leaving home so have plenty of recreational and fitness riding available. But, I have avoided “destination” riding and these “sneak routes” have proven very useful. I noticed some folks walking onto one the other day and plan to check it out as soon as it stops raining since it is not paved. Around here that could be a few months.

  • Robb says:

    Alan,

    Thank you for your beautiful, thought provoking blog. I stumbled across your old recumbent diggs while doing some research into more ergonomic riding positions … just before you decided to take the new direction. What a wonderful way to go! I think this is the right time for more pragmatic look at fitting biking into our daily lives and visit your site quite regularly.

  • Tom Adams says:

    Try and get a hold of a copy of “The Art of Urban Cycling” by Robert Hurst.
    http://www.powells.com/biblio?PID=7169&cgi=product&isbn=0762727837
    It is the practical answer to Forester’s dogmatic insistance on vehicular cycling. As you’ve discovered, exposing yourself to tons of flying metal should be minimized.

    tla

  • jofegaber says:

    Hi Alan.

    Utilizar el sentido comun suele ser el metodo mas eficaz, tanto en EEUU como en Europa.

    Gracias por tu trabajo y al entusiasmo que despliegan tus conciudadanos. Animo, tenemos mucho que hacer.

    Hi Alan.

    Using common sense is usually the most effective method, both in the U.S. and in Europe.

    Thank you for your work and enthusiasm they display your fellow citizens. We have a lot to do.

  • Vanessa says:

    thanks for this. I’m totally a newbie and am trying to bike the kids to school in a trailer and would like to use an xtracycle. but I will Not play chicken with my kids. so onto the sidealk I go. sometimes I walk. I feel badly doing this, but I have to feel comfortable.

  • Alan says:

    Vanessa,

    There’s no reason to feel bad about riding on the sidewalk. Until we have a cycling infrastructure similar to what they have in the best European cycling cities, we’ll have to do whatever it takes to stay safe.

    Regards,
    Alan

  • Croupier says:

    Is riding a bike on a sidewalk a ticket-able offense in every state? Does anyone know what the fines are, typically? I have hit a pedestrian on sidewalk on my bicycle bicycle and it was sort of a bloody mess. Not really my fault, but… what ensured was pretty violent. Sidewalks in my area are NARROW and NOTHING like what you picture in this post. LOTS of blind corners.

  • Alan says:

    @Croupier

    In California it varies from city to city. In the suburb where I live, it’s legal, period. In Sacramento, it’s legal, but with the caveat “only when road conditions make riding on the street dangerous”. I rarely ride on the sidewalk in the city center – there are too many pedestrians and store fronts that open directly onto the sidewalk. I will occasionally get off and walk my bike on the sidewalk if the circumstances get too crazy though.

  • Croupier says:

    “Only when road conditions make riding on the street dangerous”

    That would give the rider quite a bit of leeway when pleading their case to the powers that be. Thanks.

  • Alan says:

    I spoke too soon – my friend, a long time downtown rider, provided the information “Only when road conditions make riding on the street dangerous”. To be sure, I just checked the City website and found this:

    A. Except as authorized under subsection B of this section, no person shall ride a bicycle on a sidewalk except within a residence district or where a sidewalk is designated as part of an established bicycle route. Pedestrians shall have the right-of-way on sidewalks.
    B. The provisions of subsection A of this section shall not apply to the following persons:
    1. Peace officers, as defined in Penal Code Section 830, who are actually on scheduled duty and who are acting within the course and scope of their employment.
    2. Employees of the Sacramento downtown district (hereafter “district”) who meet all of the following standards: (i) perform guide or related services as employees of the district; (ii) are actually on scheduled duty and are acting within the course and scope of their employment with the district; (iii) have been designated in writing by the district as required to ride a bicycle; and (iv) have received a permit from the city manager after making written application therefor.
    3. On-duty emergency medical personnel as designated by the fire chief of the city.
    C. The city manager shall, prior to issuance of any permit pursuant to subsection (B)(2) of this section, develop and implement an appropriate application form, criteria to implement the standards set forth in subsection (B)(2) of this section, and a form of permit. No permit shall be issued without a written request from the district, which designates individual employees as being required to ride bicycles in the course and scope of their duties as employees of the district. The city manager may limit the number of permits issued pursuant to this section. (Prior code § 25.05.070)

    Sorry about the confusion. I double-checked the Roseville website just to be sure, and as I originally stated, riding on sidewalks is legal there.

    Alan

  • Charlotte says:

    Very well-written post.
    I try to be a vehicle as much as I can, but I don’t have crumple zones or air bags, so I try to be reasonable and occasionally that takes me onto a sidewalk. Proceeding at a reasonable pace I’ve never had a problem.
    Thank you for your post.

  • Croupier says:

    Yeah, I think the trick really is just to be aware. There are a lot of times where it is not safe for us in the bike lane but it isn’t fair to those on foot if we make sidewalks dangerous for them (as I so quickly found out). If US cities would start implementing systems like Alan mentions are already in place in bike-friendly European cities, that make cycling accessible and not intimidating, then we can start to let our guard down.
    It’s funny, I almost look forward to the day when there are more bicycle vs. bicycle accidents (most of which I’ sure would be non-fatal), they would sure be a welcome trade-off for these horrible bike vs. car accidents that keep occurring in my area.

  • andyparmentier says:

    whoa, just wanted to take a time out to thank alan for this wonderful site. i’ve never blogged before, and just like my first running road races, the adrenaline rush had me sprinting out the gate. so, off my bloggerdelusions of grandtour, i also use the sidewalk. all i was saying about walking down the MIDDLE of quiet night streets is that it gives me a feeling that i just love, like the world was made for me, and not the cars. i have been using my rocking chair at night instead of going out walking then. and will soon reunite with my tour easy and reassemble my unicycle.
    thank you alan for giving me a voice.
    andy

  • Nate Briggs says:

    Alan:

    Good job on the post. My dogma is that it is ALL situational out on the street.

    The goal is always to arrive at a destination alive … coherent … and with all extremities still in place.

    One thing you do not mention, but which I have found to very important working in an office with co-workers who are considering leaving their cars at home and bicycling to work. And that is: arriving safely every day.

    Serious accidents – which happen on our freeways almost every day – have never been enough to deter them from driving back and forth to work.

    But if I were to announce that I even have a hangnail that I can trace back to bicycle commuting, that would be enough – in the view of some – to completely discount the possibility that they would ever ride … because then bicycling would be “unsafe”.

    Arriving whole and unhurt is a big part of the PR campaign – and, of course, PR is much better than the ER.

    Later….

    Nate (SLC)

  • MikeOnBike says:

    The vehicular “dogma” does not forbid becoming a pedestrian:
    http://bikexprt.com/streetsmarts/usa/chapter3a.htm

    More generally, there’s a range of valid cycling behaviors and preferences:
    http://cyclistview.com/inclusivepdintro/slide15.htm

    Either way, most of the danger is at intersections and driveways:
    http://cyclistview.com/inclusivepdintro/slide24.htm
    http://cyclistview.com/inclusivepdintro/slide37.htm

  • Duncan Watson says:

    I am very pragmatic in my cycling approach. I know the risks of driveways and intersections and consciously make the choice sometimes to ride on the sidewalks of the eastside (seattle area). It all depends where I end up and where I am going and when. Some of these roads are just suicide to ride on. OTOH sidewalks are my choice when route changes won’t do.

    In the end it is about arriving safely.

 
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