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.