Baby Steps

Waiting on the Trail
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I’ve been riding bicycles my entire life, but some people might find it surprising that my wife only took up riding as an adult around 5 years ago. She started tentatively, testing the waters on short rides on bike trails and local streets, eventually working up to the point of confidently navigating city streets in heavy traffic. It was a slow building process that took a number of years and couldn’t be rushed.

When approaching others about taking up bike commuting and utility riding, it’s important to remember that hopping on a bicycle and sharing the road with motorists can be quite intimidating to those who haven’t previously ridden bicycles as an adult. Those who are already riding bikes for sport or recreation may find it easy to make the transition to riding for transportation, but those with less experience need time and positive experiences to build their confidence as riders.

When talking with potential newcomers, suggesting an occasional short trip to a local grocery store or coffee shop might be better than suggesting they immediately jump into a full-fledged commute. In the case of my wife, she took short rides on backstreets and trails long before venturing out onto main arterials. Over time, she extended the length of her rides, and as those rides became longer, she also moved onto larger, busier streets. This slow building process enabled her to improve her skills and build her confidence at a rate that matched the conditions in which she was riding.

A number of studies have shown that the number one reason more people don’t ride bicycles is the fear of sharing the road with cars. The U.S. is sorely lacking in subjectively safe infrastructure in the form of separated bike lanes and trails, and unfortunately this is not likely to change in the near future. In the meantime, it’s important to remember how intimidating our roads can sometimes be. We should encourage newcomers by suggesting that it’s OK to start slow and small before eventually stepping up to the larger challenges when they’re ready.

33 Responses to “Baby Steps”

  • JQFrederick says:

    Alan (or anyone), do you know of a “bicycle skills” type of course, written or implemented, that would hasten the learning curve? My wife is in somewhat the same position, having not ridden a bike in her childhood (!). When I think of how much learning is accomplished “just riding around” with other people, without ever being conscious of it, and how much of this is accomplished at a much younger age when occasionally falling off was kind of accepted as something that happened…
    If there is, or could be, a logical training system I think people would progress much faster from neophyte to confident user.
    And, hopefully, would be able to enjoy the freedom of the long downhill as opposed to braking at the top (and all the way down) because “I’m going too fast” (and I’m not mentioning any names, either…)

  • Alan says:

    @JQFrederick

    Probably the best place to check for bicycle training courses is on the League of American Bicyclists’ “Bike Education” page: http://www.bikeleague.org/programs/education/ You might also check with your local bike shops and city parks & recreation department.

    In conjunction with the City of Houston, LAB offers an online “Traffic Skills 101″ course here: http://www.bikeed.org/ It’s the classroom portion of the full course that includes the 5-hour, on-road training. The on-road portion is required to complete the course.

    Alan

  • Matthew Hopkins says:

    About 10 years ago, I worked in a Bike shop and through that, organised a bike club for Ladies only (apart from me!). The idea to get girls in the local area meeting, riding and organising group rides themselves, without the pressure of faster and/or male riders. It was a great success, meeting once or twice a month and going for a no pressure 2-3 hour casual ride over the summer months. Both on and off road. I also gave brief, but simple tutorials on bike technique, maintenance and general advice on bicycles. Many of the girls now good friends, continue to ride today, although there were people were convinced I had ulterior motives! But genuinely, I wanted to get more females involved in a mainly male orientated sport. It is such a simple thing to organise, and once set up, the Girls can organise it amongst themselves. I have worked in and visited many bike shops since then, but while I have suggested it to many managers or owners, I have yet to see anything like it organised. Such a shame. They are missing out on 50% of their clientèle! And oh, I am still single!

  • Garth says:

    Of course, if you’re really stubborn, like me, a little adversity might make you commit more deeply. Not long after I decided to commute by bike year round (a harder decision for those of us with real winters!) a car broke my clavicle, but it only made me that much more determined. From that day (well, from a day 6 to 8 weeks later!), I could not imagine giving up my bike.

    @JQFrederick: One book I found very helpful was _The Art of Cycling_ by Robert Hurst. It is not a how to ride book (though it covers a few specialized skills), but rather a book about riding in traffic, drawing from a wide experiential base (the author’s and numerous biking communities’). Given how skewed most cycling content is towards recreation or sport, I found this kind of urban commuting resource to be rare and invaluable. Its audience is definitely the commuter who has already committed to the bicycle, but I think every bike commuter would benefit from giving it a read. Even though I hard developed a lot of my own strategies by trial and error by the time I read it, I found it to contain a lot of great information, and to fairly treat numerous topics in a highly accessible tone. And if I had read it before I started, I might not have broken my clavicle. Of course, I also might not have learned the lessons as well, or become so determined to stick with the whole bike commuting thing. Pain is a great teacher, and adversity a better motivator.

    Garth-

  • Matthew Sterling says:

    I agree that starting small and easing into more and more bike commuting and utility travel is the best approach. It’s a sad reality that safe bicycle infrastructure is lacking in most areas. This means that developing the skills and confidence needed to ride with automobile traffic is a necessity. Unfortunately this can still be a very dangerous venture for even the most seasoned bicyclist. I believe that the largest contributing factor to this danger is the high rate of speed that automobiles travel at in this country. I’m surprised by how little advocacy there is for lowering speed limits. In fact the opposite seems to be the case. A bill is currently working its way through the Texas legislature to raise some speed limits to 85mph. Obviously this won’t be on roads shared with bicycles but I think it’s indicative of a nation more obsessed with speed than safe transportation networks.

  • Don Bybee says:

    As Alan stated, for USA viewers, the League of American Bicyclists is the place to start. League sanctioned classes from all over the country are listed in their education link. They also have a list of league certified instructors from all parts of the country. You can contact the instructors directly and set up individual or group classes discussing a number of subjects, which include:
    Safe riding skills in traffic
    Bike commuting
    Introductory bike maintenance
    And others
    The full traffic skills class is 9 hours and is usually done in three sessions with the last two sessions out on the road practicing your new skills with an instructor.

    In the Sacramento region go to smart-cycling.org for a list of upcoming classes. Most of these are free to the public.

    Don, League Certified Instructor
    Sacramento California

  • Another Don says:

    A very important topic, Alan. I agree that slow and steady expansion by the individual is a great way to go.Your wife’s may reflect a common couples dynamic, where one spouse rides and the other does not. And of course, it’s important to not fall into gender stereotypes on this. There are plenty of women with different threshholds and different terrains, as well as plenty of men with different threshholds and very reasonable qualms. This is a topic around which the macho attitude that sometimes lurks around cycling helps no one.

    My favorite part about the LAB approach is the “five layer” model. That is, begin with competent control of the bike itself, then the rules of the road, etc. Riding habits that are predictable to others around you may not seem as carefree as the loopy, side-to-side riding style favored by children and that we all associate with joyfulness, but they are a critical part of riding in traffic.

    Many production bikes sold today are designed for “maneuverability” and as a result can be more twitchy to a novice than older low-trail bikes. As I attempt to teach my younger son the rules of the road, I often think the job would be a heck of a lot easier with my old banana seat special growing up, which held a line no matter what, than with his mountain bike and its lateral movement.

  • grrlyrida says:

    When I was in college, my crappy Fiat car broke down one time too many. So I went to my LBS and bought a Trek hybrid. Like Michael I took small trips to my jobs as a lifeguard through small residential streets. Eventually I was able to get enough skill to travel across Virginia on my own. Today when fellow female coworkers ask about bike commuting. I suggest short trips to grocery store plus using the train or bus and then using small residential streets as their final connection to the workplace.

    @JQFrederick Alan is right about looking on the LAB site. If your wife takes a class I strongly suggest you take it too. I learned so much from the Sustainable Streets Confident City Cycling in LA and I’ve been cycling off and on for 15 years. We can all learn something new no matter how long any of us have been riding. :)

  • Alan says:

    @Another Don

    I’m with Don; this topic has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with experience and time on the bike.

    Alan

  • Velouria says:

    I somewhat disagree that this topic has nothing to do with gender, in that it is fairly well documented at this point that males and females tend to approach problems and situations differently. I would argue for instance that women (who are not athletes) tend to be adverse to learning cycling via books, classes or coaching sessions. Instead, they prefer to observe or to read about the experiences of persons they can relate to, and get encouraged that way to try for themselves. It is a touchy subject, but I do believe that gender plays a role.

  • Billy says:

    Thanks for this post. I recently had a conversation with a coworker about starting slow. She is terrified of riding on the road. (“You ride on the right hand side?? Aren’t you worried about cars behind you?”) I tried to explain to her that biking gets a bad rap safety wise, but I’d like to show her some stats. Do you know of a good source for bicycle safety stats?
    Thanks,
    Billy

  • Alan says:

    @Billy

    Bicyclinginfo.org is a good starting place:

    http://www.bicyclinginfo.org/index.cfm

    Thanks for your efforts with your colleague. You advice to start slow is spot on. You might also see if there are any training courses coming up in your area (see the links above). I’m not sure if the stats are going to help much, but it’s certainly worth a try.

    Thanks,
    Alan

  • Alan says:

    @Velouria

    I see your point regarding learning styles. I was thinking more in terms of who might be intimidated by sharing the road with automobiles. In that regard, it’s been my experience that men are just as likely to be fearful as women (though men may be less likely to admit it).

    Alan

  • Matt DeBlass says:

    Unfortunately, it does seem to be true that women are statistically far less likely to take up cycling for transportation than men. And it does seem that the intimidation factor of sharing the road is a big deterrent for both genders. And, to tell you the truth, it’s hard to argue with some of it, cars are SCARY sometimes, and it does take a degree of experience before its comfortable to deal with some of the quirks of local riding (I’m currently teaching my 10-year-old daughter to ride safely on the streets, which is a constant reminder of how much there is to learn).
    Unfortunately I think the lack of friendly group rides is actually compounded by the perception of danger, at least here in NJ where many shops have stopped having organized rides because of the added insurance costs.

    (A recent study on women and cycling from UNC seems to bear a lot of this out: http://www.apbp.org/resource/resmgr/downloads/womens_cycling_survey_091420.pdf)

  • voyage says:

    @Alan, @Velouria

    Oh, c’mon you two! It’s not clear to me that being afraid to ride a bike indicates pathology or even something as seemingly simple (-minded?) as subject’s gender.

    http://arno.unimaas.nl/show.cgi?fid=1250

    Looks pretty complicated.

    But it’s not my area.

  • Jim says:

    Hey Alan, have you got any links to this? “A number of studies have shown that the number one reason more people don’t ride bicycles is the fear of sharing the road with cars.”

    Thanks!

  • tim says:

    My experience with my spouse taking up bicycling mirrors many of the others’ above. One way to compensate with the slower mate is to adopt a slower, big tire, more relaxed pace. Beside the benefit of sharing the trail with my wife, slower riding allows me to see more of the countryside.

  • Michael says:

    I’m also a newbie to bike riding, and it’s been tough getting started after a 10 year hiatus.

    This might be funny, but I didn’t even want to start cycling again because of aesthetic sensibilities that I found lacking in the majority of bicycles available today.

    I wanted a road bike, but all the bright colors and race graphics (like many running shoes) turned me off so completely I couldn’t stomach the thought. It’s clearly not my vision of what’s appealing, despite what the marketing media keeps spewing.

    The generally uncomfortable geometry, lack of utility and inability to mount wider tires also kept me spinning in circles about getting a road bike. All I could find was mostly race bikes, or race bikes with slightly higher handlebars that were somehow considered ‘comfort’ bikes. Even many classic and vintage options were race bikes. It’s very frustrating.

    It wasn’t until I found out that you can get a quality custom or semi-custom bike styled as you want from a few small shops that I finally committed. I didn’t even know about sport touring/randonneuring bikes until very recently. But the prices… are quite hard to take for a person that wants to get started in biking.

    It’s strange that all I wanted was a comfy, road-ish bike with some utility, good quality and good looks. But I had to spend more than a year searching in frustration. When I finally find something, it’s far too much for any average person to spend.

    Just wish there were more sport touring options out there in diamond and mixte styles. It’s sort of like spiting hairs between a touring bike and a road racing bike, but it seems to be the most logical choice to me.

  • Don Bybee says:

    The statistics I teach from the LAB have bicycle accidents that include a motor vehicle as a small percentage of overall accidents. (18%) The highest percentage is a single bicycle accident. (45%) Our greatest fears are not always the most likely thing to happen. The sound of traffic as it passes, even at a safe distance, is what intimidates most people. It is intimidating to have a truck pass, even if it is quite far away. As you ride in progressively busy streets you become attuned to these sounds and what they mean, and less afraid of them in the process. That in combination with seeing how traffic responds to your vehicular riding skills (an LAB term) allows you to become a more confident rider, with less chance of accident.

    Sacramento, California

  • Alan says:

    @Jim

    http://www.portlandonline.com/transportation/index.cfm?a=158497&c=44671

    http://www.bikeleague.org/blog/2009/12/does-traffic-discourage-walking-and-bicycling/

    http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/15/6/369.short?rss=1

    http://thinkingaboutcycling.wordpress.com/article-fear-of-cycling/

    Hopefully those links will get you pointed in the right direction.

    Alan

  • Bernie says:

    This post really rings true for me. I picked up a bike a few years ago after a hiatus of ~20 years, and as of last year my bike is my main transportation. Riding in traffic made me very, very nervous. I took a local bike safety class & it made a huge difference: I ride differently because of it, and I think I am safer for it. The other thing that is helpful is more experienced riders who take my safety questions seriously and are willing to share how they improved their skills or tips on how to deal with traffic. My concerns about riding in traffic caused me to turn down an invite to do touring regionally and up the coast, but for now that’s ok because it helped me identify skills and comfort zones I need to actively work on. We assume new car drivers improve their skills over time, there’s no reason bicycling should be different.

  • Riina says:

    Great post – I started commuting in the last 6 months myself, after a more than 15 year hiatus since my teens. I’d pretty much forgotten how to do everything other than propel myself forward – it’s a bit hard to leap into commuting when you can’t really steer, stop gracefully or start without weaving all over the place. Or you’re too scared to have your seat at the proper height because you want to be able to put your feet down.

    Thankfully I live in Melbourne and can get all the way to work on off road bike paths with the occasional back street and one tiny stretch of footpath. It’s only recently after months of practice that I’ve started doing little bits on road in traffic.

    But it still took weeks of riding around on deserted streets before I was even game to brave a peak hour bike path (the path I take has serious commuter traffic – some of whom have little patience for beginners).

  • Sally Hinchcliffe (aka townmouse) says:

    Regarding the male / female issue, it’s interesting that in countries with better infrastructure like the Netherlands, women make more bike journeys than men (I think 55% of trips are taken by women – don’t have the citation to hand though). Mainly this is because women take more trips (e.g. less likely to simply be commuting back & forth to the office but doing school & shopping as well etc.) and shorter trips too. So it’s probably not cycling per se that’s dominated by men, but cycling with traffic.

  • Another Don says:

    This topic gets richer and richer! Another aspect might be how one responds to genuine anxiety (based on plausible danger rather than perception). Surely we all remember that first sense of intimidation when a semi blasted past from behind, even at relatively slow speed. One might either respond with, “Wow! That was intimidating! I should get a mirror!” or “I must be out of my @$#%&! mind! I’m never doing this again!” It is the fortunate rider who has someone available with more experience to process the event, to translate anxieties into an action plan. The nuance required is what this blog does so well.

  • Another Don says:

    @Michael,

    I have a feeling there are bike makers slaving away as we speak to respond to the requirements you describe. Just look at how quickly the VO Polyvalent sold out and the anticipation of its next iteration. I also believe Rivendell is working on a budget-priced commuter. You are not alone. And the handling of the bike can have a large influence on one’s confidence in traffic.

  • Karen Lynn Allen says:

    I think it’s a mistake (and mildly patronizing) to focus on “subjective” safety, as if all we need to do is make people realize the loud, aggressive traffic around them is not going to hurt them and all will be well, perhaps by showing them statistics or having them ride with an experienced rider to gain “confidence” and not be “intimidated.” As if “confidence” and “intimidation” (It’s all in their heads!) are the real problem rather than the very tangible, woeful lack of bicycle infrastructure in the U.S..

    As a woman who has been bicycling in San Francisco for three years now, I am rarely “nervous” riding in traffic these days. However, I often find riding in traffic unpleasant and stressful regardless of my high confidence level and my thorough knowledge of bicycle accident statistics. Part of this may be due to gender differences in sensory perception. Women hear better than men and have greater sensitivity to sound. When that large loud truck passes six inches from my elbow, whether or not it is likely to hit me, I really do find it unpleasant. Repulsive. Arousing intense distaste or disgust. Women also have wider peripheral vision than men, they perceive a wider arc of visual input. Men tend to see a narrower field–mild tunnel vision–with a greater emphasis on depth. So as that truck goes by, I am very likely more aware of its looming physical presence and find it more threatening than a man in the same situation. I also will say that the odors of smelly car traffic seem to bother me more than the men who ride around me, although maybe they dislike it as much as I do and just don’t show it.

    As Sally above says, it is better infrastructure that is proven to get women riding bicycles at the same rate as men. We need to make getting around by bicycle *pleasant* and then *confidence* will not be an issue.

  • Alan says:

    @Karen Lynn Allen

    I 100% agree infrastructure is the long-term answer, but we’re a long way from fully-integrated bikeways in most cities in this country. The question is, “What do we do in the meantime?”

    I believe that to improve people’s experiences (another way of describing subjective safety) and raise their actual on-road safety, we need to help them gain the skills to better navigate those challenging areas where the infrastructure we all want is non-existent.

    Alan

  • Jim says:

    Thanks for the links Alan!

    I guess this is one of those topics, but I think no matter who you are, when a semi comes past you, a big ass truck is a big ass truck, and that’s going to intimidate you even if you think you won’t get hit…

  • Karen Lynn Allen says:

    HI Alan,

    I actually agree with you that when helping someone new to biking start out, it makes sense to begin with short trips on quieter streets and build up from there. (In San Francisco, I would also choose routes that are relatively flat and have bike lanes if at all possible.) I’d also add some don’ts–don’t expect them to bomb down hills as fast as you might be able to, don’t expect them to run red lights or even yellow ones, and to turn left at lights be willing to cross one direction and then the other rather than expect them to turn left like a car. And don’t discount their fears/aversions. Being wary of cars on a bicycle is a healthy and normal human response. Also, when my husband and I ride together we usually agree on our route in advance and how we’ll tackle the tricky parts so we’re on the same page when the time comes.

    I guess I’m just sensitive to the line between making do with what we have and “vehicular cycling is perfectly fine and if women were more rational, they wouldn’t have a problem with it.” (Which I know is not what you said.)

  • Another Don says:

    @Karen Lynn Allen,

    Both subjective fear and rational fear are impediments to cycling, as are foul odors, obnoxious sounds and other insults to one’s aesthetic or sensory well-being. We need not rank the powers each of these has to dissuade anyone from riding in traffic, regardless of gender or sensory acuteness. But pining for potentialities is different from evolving step by step in the right direction. I will grant you your powers to suffer visceral disgust while eschewing nervousness, but I know plenty of women and men who are riding the change they seek, and it is they who will make better infrastructure a reality. I rode with a fine group of them this evening in a Ride of Silence. Of course, we had a police escort, but hey, one step at a time.

  • d'Andre says:

    This is more about basic skills than most of this excellent discussion, but I really enjoyed and highly recommend this post by Dave Schlabowske, who is the Bike/Ped Coordinator in this fine city of Milwaukee – he is a League listed instructor who last year taught an adult to ride a bike and did a nice writeup of the process:
    http://overthebarsinmilwaukee.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/learning-to-ride-a-bike/

  • Billy says:

    Thanks for the links Alan and others. In my experience, most adults that have not been on a bike since they were a kid have an unfounded fear of bicycling and an exaggerated view of how dangerous riding a bike is (if done in the correct way). I believe that there are some people who will never get on a bike because of this fear. If the goal is to encourage them to get on a bike and start slow, I think safety information, including stats, is key (beautiful bike pics help too). I’ll have the conversation about getting buzzed by a semi and how the US lacks proper bike infrastructure after they have made it around the block a few times:) I don’t think that there is a statistic in the world that could help someone feel less anxious in traffic. That comes with skill building and experience.

  • Bruce says:

    I’m surprised that no one has suggested riding a tandem together yet. If you’re in no rush, after a couple of years of riding together on a tandem the less experienced partner will have gained a lot of confidence riding in traffic and will have learned a number of practical riding tips without even trying.

    Dare I say that it is also the most enjoyable way to ride with someone else. No disparity in speed, everyone gets to put in their desired level of effort, easy to have a conversation, everyone who sees you riding together smiles (a much better response than I get riding a single bike!), and your riding partner never gets caught by that red light that you made it through.

    After a couple of seasons of running errands and going out for coffee (ice cream actually worked better here) and maybe even some tandem bike touring; your partner will have greatly increased their riding skills and confidence and can make the transition to solo utility biking that much easier. If the expense of a tandem is intimidating, look for a used one. If you sell it after a couple of seasons (hopefully because you love tandem ing and are rewarding yourselves with a shiny new tandem!) your net cost will not be all that much.

    As a further note, ours continues to be a practical utility bike. I take my kids to soccer, baseball, karate lessons, swimming, run errands with them and even take them to school with it (with a Burley Piccolo out back when required). Hopefully it puts the kids on to a lifelong love affair with bikes too!

 
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