Changing Perceptions


As I was riding home the other night, with cars streaming by and not another bicyclist in sight, it suddenly dawned on me that we have a long way to go before we bike commuters “own” a significant portion of the urban/suburban landscape. Sure, there are bright spots such as Portland, Davis, Boulder, Minneapolis, and a handful of other unusually bike-friendly cities, but in most places, the reality on the ground is still fairly bleak. However you choose to spin it, it’s difficult to get past the fact that bicycles still only account for around 1% of the trips made in the U.S.¹.

There are many people working to improve that number, but everyone agrees it’s going to be a long time before our bicycle share approaches what we see in the bike-centric European countries. To put things in perspective, according to the same source cited above, the Netherlands has a bicycle mode share of approximately 30%. Education, political action, improvements in infrastructure, and rising gas prices may help to increase bicycle use in the U.S., but ultimately it’s going to take a profound change in the way we Americans think about personal transportation to break the spell of the automobile.

So what can we do as individuals to help move along this process? Supporting organizations such as The Alliance for Biking and Walking, the League of American Bicyclists, Bikes Belong, and the myriad other regional and local advocacy groups is a great start. These organizations work in the political and public realms to further the interests of all bicyclists. But on a personal level, perhaps even more effective is the act of simply riding our bikes everyday to set an example for those who have never considered using a bicycle for transportation. By using bicycles for transportation in our local communities, we demonstrate that bicycling is a simple and effective way to get around and get things done. The sight of average people doing practical things on bikes is a powerful image that helps to dispel the myth that bicycling is only for children, athletes, or the less fortunate in society. Changing that misperception is arguably one of the most effective things we can do to get more people riding.

1. Source: John Pucher, Transportation Quarterly, 98-1

Bikeways as Bridges to Sharing the Road

Studies have shown that the number one reason people don’t ride their bikes more frequently is the fear of cars. Considering this, the most obvious way to help newcomers feel more comfortable is to provide high-quality, separated bikeways. While it’s unrealistic to hope for a 1-to-1 ratio of bikeways to roads, even short stretches of bikeways that connect adjacent neighborhoods and road networks may encourage newcomers to give bicycling a try.

Consider the above beautiful piece of bicycle-specific infrastructure in my hometown. It’s part of a relatively short trail network that connects four neighborhoods with a shopping area and a school. I often take this route when I run an errand to the market. The direct route takes me along a two lane, 50 mph road. I’ve ridden the road many times, and though I find it relatively benign, I can imagine it would be intimidating to an inexperienced rider. By instead taking a longer back route through a neighborhood that leads to the bikeway, I reduce my exposure to high speed traffic by approximately 75% while only adding about 5 minutes to my travel time. I suspect that for many people, just having the option could mean the difference between taking the bike or driving the car.

For the foreseeable future, bicyclists here in the U.S. will need to depend upon existing motor vehicle roadways, but strategically placed separated bikeways can serve as safe havens for novices in the process of developing the confidence and skills they need to share the road with cars, while also providing a pleasant respite for those already out there mixing it up with traffic on a regular basis.


SHadow Panda

“When man invented the bicycle he reached the peak of his attainments. Here was a machine of precision and balance for the convenience of man. And (unlike subsequent inventions for man’s convenience) the more he used it, the fitter his body became. Here, for once, was a product of man’s brain that was entirely beneficial to those who used it, and of no harm or irritation to others. Progress should have stopped when man invented the bicycle.” —Elizabeth West

I agree with Ms. West in spirit, though I have to admit I love my laptop and digital camera. But when it comes to transportation, you have to wonder what the world would be like today if the internal combustion engine was never invented. It’s hard to imagine. One thing’s for certain; our love affair with the automobile and our continuing and overwhelming desire to “make thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels” as Kurt Vonnegut so wonderfully described it, has placed a major stress on our environment.

Most of us grew up in the age of the automobile (my Dad, who is in his mid-80s, is the only person I know who remembers getting around by horse and wagon), and consequently, the unnaturally high speeds made possible by the internal combustion engine seem natural to us. And as cars become safer and safer, we become more and more insulated from the dangers of driving at high speeds, hence the increasing number of people who multi-task behind the wheel, texting, plucking eyebrows, and trimming sideburns while driving with one knee (yup, seen ‘em all).

Let’s face it, bicycles seem impossibly slow when compared to almost any automobile, and if we’re not careful, this dramatic discrepancy in speed may compel us to race from light to light in a vain attempt to mimic a car.

I believe we’re so accustomed to traveling at high speeds that we sometimes ride our bicycles as fast as we can without realizing what we’re doing. Let’s face it, bicycles seem impossibly slow when compared to almost any automobile, and if we’re not careful, this dramatic discrepancy in speed may compel us to race from light to light in a vain attempt to mimic a car. This is neither a pleasant, nor an efficient way to ride a bicycle (unless you’re training for a race or you enjoy sweating in your street clothes).

Instead of focusing on how slow I am compared to automobiles, I try to concentrate on how fast I am compared to pedestrians. Even at a comfortable pace, the bicycle multiplies a pedestrian’s speed and reach by a factor of four. When I focus on where I’d be if I were walking, instead focusing on where I’d be if I were driving a car, I find myself relaxing and slowing down to a more leisurely pace, basking in the knowledge that I’m getting there much faster than I would be otherwise.

Speed is relative, and how we think about it makes a tremendous difference in how we feel about it. So the next time you find yourself feeling a little slow and tired on your bike, just remember that you’re actually flying along at over four times the speed Mother Nature intended you to travel.

Nothing to Fear…

With the number of heated discussions related to bicycle safety that circulate around the internet, one might get the impression that riding a bicycle is dangerous. The statistics say otherwise. Following is a list compiled by Failure Analysis Associates, Inc. (Design News, 10-4-93) that compares the fatal risk associated with participating in various activities:

Activity Fatalities Per Million Hours
Skydiving 128.71
General Aviation 15.58
On-road Motorcycling 8.80
Scuba Diving 1.98
Living (all causes of death) 1.53
Swimming 1.07
Snowmobiling .88
Automobile Driving .47
Water Skiing .28
Bicycling .26
Flying (domestic airlines) .15
Hunting .08

I’ve seen other similar lists, and while the numbers and activities may vary a bit, the overall message is the same: bicycling is relatively safe when compared to other common activities. So, for those who are unsure about bicycling, educate yourself, make informed choices about your equipment, ride responsibly, and get out there and have fun; the benefits of bicycling far outweigh the risks!

Perceived Versus Actual Efficiency

Michael on the Betty Foy

My wife and I have been riding together for a number of years now. We’re at the point where we ebb-and-flow together on the road without even thinking about it. As long as we’re on our usual bikes (a pair of Rivendells), we can ride for hours without either of us needing to say a thing about the pace.

It’s always interesting though, to bring a new bike into the mix. Because she rides her trusty Betty Foy most of the time, and we ride together so much, she acts as a baseline against which I can gauge the relative efficiency of any new bike we have on hand.

My new Civia is a good example. I rode it alone on my commute for two weeks before riding it with her on a weekend for the first time. I had pretty well convinced myself that it was less efficient than my Rivendell. I’m not 100% sure why I came to that conclusion, but it probably had to do with the general consensus that internal gear hubs are less efficient than derailleurs, and that the internal gear hub concentrates weight at the rear of the bike, making it feel heavier than it actually is.

Much to my surprise, on that first ride she had some trouble keeping up with me (if anything it’s usually the other way around). I kept finding myself absent-mindedly cruising along at what felt like our normal pace, then looking back to see her falling behind. It finally dawned on me that it was the bike. Subsequent rides on those two bikes confirmed my suspicion; in their current configurations, the Civia is more efficient than the Rivendell.

After thinking it through, this all makes sense. As we all know, a large majority of the effort we expend propelling a bicycle goes toward overcoming wind resistance. In the case of these two bikes, the Rivendell is set-up to place me in a comfortable, upright position. The Civia, on the other hand, has lower bars and a longer reach to the grip area which places me in a slightly less comfortable, but more aerodynamic position. I believe this difference in rider position explains the Civia’s higher efficiency, even with its potentially greater rolling resistance due to the internal gear hub and heavier tires. I’m pretty sure that reversing the cockpit set-ups would make the Rivendell at least slightly more efficient than the Civia.

Of course, none of this is anything but totally subjective. But I suppose that’s the point. We can make all kinds of assumptions about the efficiency of a bike based upon our pre-conceived notions regarding drivetrain efficiency, weight, handlebar height, etc., but it’s all conjecture until we get out on the road and see how a bike actually rolls along in a familiar setting.

One Foot in Each Camp

Separated Facility

A debate regarding the validity of separated bicycling facilities has continued non-stop for many years. On one side there is John Forester and the bicyclists and planners who support a strictly vehicular approach to bicycling, and on the other side we have John Pucher and the bicyclists and planners who support a system based upon separated facilities such as those seen in The Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany.

Bicycling may be a relatively safe activity, but the perception that it’s dangerous is a major obstacle to increased ridership.

The vehicular side argues that we currently have a fully functional road network and bicycles are already classified as vehicles, so all we need to do is maintain our rights as road users and educate bicyclists on the techniques of riding a bicycle as a vehicle. One of the strongest arguments for this approach is that these goals are attainable and realistic.

The separated facilities side argues that until we do more to separate bicyclists from motor vehicles we’ll never see the numbers of bicyclists in the U.S. that we see in other parts of the world. Numerous studies support this notion, with the fear of cars often being cited as the number one reason people don’t ride their bikes more. One of the strongest arguments against separated facilities is the difficulty of creating such a system here in the U.S.

My thinking falls somewhere in the middle between these two opposing viewpoints.

On the one hand, when I ride on roads, I employ many of the principles of vehicular cycling as laid out in Forester’s Effective Cycling. Many of his techniques truly are “effective”, and with proper training and experience, they’ll serve riders well in a wide variety of situations. That said, I like to think of myself as a “pragmatic vehicular cyclist who rides as a vehicle when it’s appropriate, but then switches to a bike-pedestrian mode when conditions call for it.

On the other hand, I fully agree that the fear of auto traffic is one of the main obstacles we have to overcome before we’ll see a dramatic increase in bicycle use in the U.S. The data support this idea, and anecdotal evidence supports it as well. The fact that we see so much sidewalk riding suggests many casual bicyclists are fearful of cars. The studies tell us that bicycling is a relatively safe activity, and I believe this to be the case, but still, sharing the road with fast moving motor vehicles is frightening to many people on a gut level, regardless of what the numbers tell us. Personally, I find riding on a quiet separated path far preferable to riding on a busy roadway just feet from cars traveling at a high rate of speed.

Bicycling may be a relatively safe activity, but the perception that it’s dangerous is a major obstacle to increased ridership. We must find a way to build more separated facilities to make bicycling less intimidating to beginners and non-enthusiasts. We also need more training in vehicular cycling techniques to build rider skill and confidence for dealing with the realities on the ground as we build those new facilities. This combined approach will give us the best chance of growing bicycling for transportation in the U.S.

[A slightly different version of this article was originally posted in 2009. —ed.]

Anti-Car Culture

NYT Screenshot

An article in today’s New York Times titled, “Across Europe, Irking Drivers Is Urban Policy” takes a look at how various European cities actively work to discourage automobile use. Policies such as closing roads to automobiles, levying congestion charges, instituting “environmental zones” where only low emission vehicles are allowed, and strictly limiting parking spaces have been successfully implemented across Europe as part of efforts to reduce automobile use and encourage bicycle and transit ridership.

I’ve mentioned here many times that I think it will take both carrots and sticks if we ever hope to see bicycle and public transit ridership in the U.S. reach the levels enjoyed in Europe. While the “carrot” measures such as high quality infrastructure and financial incentives are very important, I believe we also need to actively discourage automobile use by making it more expensive and less convenient, particularly for the short, urban trips that could so easily be made using alternative forms of transportation.

Read the Article

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