Archive | Cycling Safety

Idaho Stops Now Legal in WA

Politics can be a depressing subject these days, but there are occasional good news, too. Here’s one: Washington State just passed a new law that allows cyclists to roll through stop signs if no other traffic is present. The same law also allows cyclists to proceed through a red light if it does not change because the cyclist cannot trigger the sensors. Continue Reading →

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Snares and Traps for Cyclists

What does the photo above show? It reminds me of the traps used to ensnare animals, used by trappers who hunt animals for their fur. As the animal passes, its leg gets caught in the snare…
So why are these snares appearing all over Seattle’s bike lanes? Is it a nefarious plot by cyclist-hating drivers to kill us off?
Actually, the snares are one unfortunate byproduct of creating “protected” bike facilities. The city has been installing flexible bollards to provide a visual separation between cyclists and cars. The reasoning goes that cyclists will feel more comfortable with the barrier separating them from cars, which will encourage more people to ride bikes, which in turn has many positive effects.
The flexible posts are relatively easy to install. The company manufacturing them probably markets them heavily. I can imagine the sales rep bringing one to a planning meeting. It looks very well-made: white and black and reflective…
Alas, this is Seattle – where almost every car has dents because drivers tend to mis-judge the size of their vehicle – and so people tend to drive over these posts. Good thing they are flexible… but eventually, the get ripped off their foundations, leaving a bump and a snare.
During daytime, they are relatively easy to avoid, but at night, they are nearly invisible.
To make matters worse, the city has been installing them not just to separate cyclists from cars, but often in the middle of the cyclists’ path. It is only a matter of time until the center post in the photo above will be ripped out by a car turning out of the side street. Then a bump and snare will be right in the center of the bike lane. When you consider that this is at the start of the bike lane, where cyclists are moving from the road to the bike lane, it’s very likely that somebody will get caught in the trap!
Here is another installation, located at the end of the Ballard Bridge. It’s bad enough that cyclists have to cross the right-turn lane with fast-moving traffic barreling down on them from behind. The safest path is the shortest way across (solid arrow), yet the posts obstruct that path, forcing the cyclist to remain in the dangerous turn lane much longer (dashed arrow). Once they are permitted to cross, they compete for space with the cars turning out of the side street.
Funny thing is, a sharrow roughly indicates where it’s safest to ride, but the flexible posts now obstruct that path. When I now ride here, I actually move all the way to the left into the path of fast-moving traffic to stay out of harm’s way. I have no idea why these posts were installed at all – it’s not like cars are ever driving through that space.
All this is happening in the name of making cycling safer in Seattle. I understand that it is not malicious, but it is so incompetent and dangerous that it must stop. Take out those flexible posts, at least in any place were a cyclist might conceivably go. If a post “must” be there, then make the bases reflective, since they remain after the posts get ripped out, so cyclists can see them in the dark. And have crews go around and replace the posts that are ripped out within 24 hours, before somebody gets hurt. Let’s hope there is not a life-changing injury in the meantime…
Don’t get me wrong – I think cycling facilities are important and often appropriate. Like everything, they need to be designed carefully and maintained well, otherwise, they can do more harm than good.
Stay safe out there.

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Red Lights and the Idaho Experiment


Running Red Lights
Few things raise the ire of motorists (and some cyclists) more than cyclists running red lights. Yet anybody who has ridden in major cities has seen riders proceeding through red lights. Why do they do this?

Cyclists operate on streets that are designed for cars. The current traffic infrastructure does not work as well for cyclists:

  • Many lights have sensors that do not pick up cyclists. Cyclists often wait at red lights for minutes, and the light only changes when a car pulls up behind them. If there is no traffic, they may wait for a very long time.
  • Cars travel mostly on big streets with few stop signs and timed lights. Cyclists tend to use side streets where they encounter stop signs or red lights every few blocks.
  • Cyclists travel at lower speeds and are less insulated from their surroundings, so they are more aware of traffic around them. As they approach an intersection, they usually know where other traffic is, without needing to come to a complete stop before checking for traffic from the right and left.

After waiting at lights that don’t change and after stopping at stop signs without encountering cross traffic, some cyclists take matters in their own hands and ignore these devices that clearly were not designed for them. Unfortunately, we don’t provide any guidance in this process, so many cyclists seem to see only two alternatives:

  • Obey all lights and stop signs
  • Ignore all lights and stop signs

The former are the cyclists who are waiting at a red light at 5 a.m., with no traffic anywhere nearby. The latter are the people who just blast through intersections on their bike without ensuring their safety or others’. Neither makes sense.

The “Idaho Stop”
An interesting alternative has been used in Idaho since 1982. There, cyclists are allowed to treat red lights as stop signs, and stop signs as yield signs. It’s commonly referred to as the “Idaho Stop”. Let’s look at what this means in practice:

  • Red light = stop sign: Cyclists stop and look right and left. If there is no cross traffic, they can proceed. If there is cross traffic, they wait.
  • Stop sign = yield sign: Cyclists look right and left. If there is no cross traffic, they can proceed without fully stopping. If there is cross traffic, they stop and yield.

These rules are clear and make sense. They don’t allow cyclists to run lights, nor be inconsiderate and cut off other traffic. But they do free cyclists from the unreasonable burden of having to stop or wait at empty intersections, time and again.

In Idaho, the law has been a success. There has been no increase in the numbers of cyclists involved in accidents. According to one official, cyclists “have more respect for a law that legalized actual riding behavior.” In other words, if you give people rules that make sense, most will follow them. And that may well reduce the number of inconsiderate cyclists who run lights and cut off other traffic. It adds a sensible alternative to the false choice of either “obeying” or “ignoring” all lights and stop signs. The “Idaho Stop” provides sensible rules of when to proceed and when to stop and wait.

Would it work in the city?
Idaho is a sparsely populated state with little traffic. Would the “Idaho Stop” work in a big city like Seattle? There is only one way to find out: Try it!
For six months, I used the “Idaho Stop” in Seattle. As outlined above, I didn’t run any lights, but after stopping, I proceeded if there was no traffic. At stop signs, I slowed down, but only came to complete stop if there was traffic.
In this experiment, I wanted to find out two things:

  1. Would this be dangerous? Traffic rules are there to protect us and others.
  2. What would be the reactions from other road users? One of the main arguments against proceeding through red lights is that it “gives cyclists a bad name”.

Well, for three months, I tried this experiment and I was upfront about it by wearing my Bicycle Quarterly jersey. Here is what I found:

It’s not dangerous
I did not have a single close call or near-miss. This was not surprising: I proceeded through intersections only if there was no cross traffic. During this whole time, I had one instance where I regretted turning in front of a car that was accelerating much faster than most cars around here. This happened during a legal “right-on-red” turn, not during the “Idaho Stop”. It wasn’t dangerous, but I felt inconsiderate. Note to self: Don’t cut it close during “right-on-red” or “Idaho Stops.”

I did have a few close calls with cars, but all of those happened when I was riding through green lights and oncoming cars turned left in front of me. This situation does not apply to the “Idaho Stop”, but it does show that simply following the traffic rules isn’t enough to make you safe. You need to take extra precaution to make up for the errors of other road users.

Complex situations
Once in a while, I encountered a complex situation, where it wasn’t obvious whether the Idaho Stop would be safe. For example, at some intersections, my direction only had a “plain” red light, but oncoming traffic had a turn lane with a “left arrow” light. Once, I was about to proceed through the intersection against a red light when, invisibly to me, the oncoming turn lane got a green light. If I had been in the middle of the intersection, this would have been inconsiderate. Note to self: Make sure you understand the intersection fully before using the “Idaho Stop”. Or perhaps even better: Don’t use the “Idaho Stop” if there is oncoming traffic waiting at the other side of the intersection.

It’s faster
My travel times across town went down significantly. During a 30-minute ride, I often spend 5 or more minutes waiting for lights to change, even though there is no traffic. And not stopping for all the stop signs kept my speed up and saved energy by not having to accelerate all the time. I could use that energy to ride faster. (A positive side effect is that riding faster allows you to flow better with traffic, decreasing your accident risk.)

It bothers few people
The most surprising result is that my “outlaw behavior” seemed to bother neither cyclists nor drivers (with one exception). If they thought I was “giving cyclists a bad name”, they kept their opinions to themselves. Perhaps they appreciated that I first stopped, and then proceeded, rather than “ran” the light. And no-one saw me rolling through the stop signs, since I only did so when the intersections were empty.

Once, I stopped right in front of a police officer directing traffic at the exit of a construction site. There was no traffic, so he was chatting with one of the construction workers. I was facing a red light, and I was not going to do the “Idaho Stop” this time… until the police officer, without breaking off his conversation, waved me through the intersection. It seems that the “Idaho Stop” might not be a big deal any more, even for the police.

During the three months of this experiment, three drivers yelled at me to “get off the road and use the bike path”. In two cases, the bike path was a block away. In the third case, the bike path was half a mile down the valley and going in an entirely different direction. Some drivers seem to think that if we spend money on separate infrastructure, then cyclists no longer have the right to ride on the road. This is something to consider as we build more “separated cyclepaths”.

One driver was bothered by my experiment. He was driving a van from the city parks department. He had leapfrogged me for a while, so he had seen me roll through two stop signs and proceed through one or two red lights. When he caught up with me again, he was livid about my “incredibly dangerous” behavior. I usually don’t stop and talk to irate drivers, but with him being in an official vehicle, I thought the risk of assault was low. As I explained the experiment, he calmed down and became very interested. Once he understood that I wasn’t just running lights and stop signs, but actually following rules that made sense, he wanted to learn more. I was impressed by his openness to these new ideas, and we parted very amicably. I promised to send him a note when this blog post goes up. If anything, this shows that if the “Idaho Stop” becomes law, some public outreach is needed to explain the new rules, not just to cyclists, but also to the general public.

To sum it up, three times as many drivers objected to me being on the road in the first place than objected to me doing the “Idaho Stop”.

Legalizing Actual Riding Behavior
The “Idaho Stop” has the potential to “legalize actual riding behavior”. Its clear rules provide guidance for cyclists who are tired of stopping and waiting at empty intersections.
One argument against the “Idaho Stop” is that compared to the hard-and-fast rules of “red light means stop”, the “Idaho Stop” requires more judgement and discretion from cyclists. But so do all stop and yield signs. And nobody has started a campaign to abolish all stop and yield signs…

What if other traffic does not know about the “Idaho Stop”? Isn’t that dangerous? I think the answer is “No”, because the “Idaho Stop” may only be used when there is no other traffic that could be impacted. When you do the “Idaho Stop”, you still don’t have the right-of-way. Period.

Right on Red
Some may be concerned about an erosion of the rule of law if we allow traffic to proceed through red lights. However, we already do that: Most states already allow a “Right on Red” when there is no traffic approaching from the left. You stop, check for traffic, and proceed if there isn’t any. The “Idaho Stop” simply adds a second exemption to an already existing one.

The “Right on Red” is beneficial for pedestrian safety when it moves right-turning cars through the intersection before pedestrians get a green light, reducing the risk of getting hit by a right-turning car.

Social acceptance
When I told my German relatives about the “Right-on-Red” after my first visit to the United States 25 years ago, they were incredulous. It offended their sensibilities that you could proceed even though the light was red. “But that is so dangerous!” they exclaimed. “It cannot work!” said others. The consensus was: “That is crazy!”

Today “Right-on-Red” is legal in Germany at certain intersections, and everybody is fine with it. It’s less dangerous than turning right on green, when you share the intersection with pedestrians and cyclists. Drivers who do so don’t give motorists a bad name. They aren’t scofflaws. All the “Right-on-Red” does is make traffic flow more smoothly and safely.

My experiment suggests that adopting the “Idaho Stop” everywhere would pose few risks and complications. It would make traffic flow more smoothly. It would provide rules that reflect actual cyclist behavior. And my experience in Seattle shows that even in a city whose citizens are known for policing each other, few people mind if cyclists ride responsibly, but don’t wait at empty intersections.

For those who prefer to follow the existing rules, there would be nothing to force them to change their behavior. By reducing the impression of “scofflaw cyclists” who “give cyclists a bad name” and increasing a positive view of cyclists, the roads would get safer for everybody. It’s a win-win situation.

To eliminate the problems I encountered at complex intersections, I suggest adding “if no traffic going in other directions is present at the intersection” to the rule.

Hopefully, the various bicycle advocacy groups will pick up the drive to make the “Idaho Stop” universal law. Why don’t you contact the League of American Bicyclists and your state’s bicycle advocacy organization and suggest a coordinated effort to adopt this positive change. Adopting the “Idaho Stop” is easy, and it doesn’t cost much (no new signs or infrastructure required, just outreach to inform citizens of the change in law). Most of all, it makes cycling safer and more efficient, and it encourages cyclists to follow the law.

Already, there is a Washington state law under consideration that allows cyclists to proceed through red lights if the trigger sensors don’t react to bicycles. Motorcyclists already have that exemption. Hopefully, this is one step toward making the “Idaho Stop” universal law.

As for me, my experiment is over, and I’ll now return to abiding the law. I’ll try to wait at every red light and stop at stop signs. I’ll plan some extra time during my commutes for this. And I’ll hope that our traffic laws will follow Idaho’s example soon and “legalized actual traffic behavior.”

Further reading:

More posts on Cycling Safety:

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8 Checks to Get Your Bike Ready for the Season (and PBP)

Whether you are going to ride a brevet with an eye on qualifying for Paris-Brest-Paris, whether you plan to ride a century or race, or whether you just want to enjoy exploring this season, having your bike in good condition is the best way to guarantee success. If you are confident in your bike, you can enjoy the ride without worrying whether you’ll make it to the finish. Here are 8 things to look at:
1. Clean your bike
It’s much more fun to work on a clean bike, so the first step should be to clean your bike thoroughly. This is a good opportunity to check for cracks. Components and frames don’t fail suddenly (unless you jump off a huge cliff), but cracks form and grow until there isn’t enough material left, and the part breaks. Finding a crack before it grows and breaks can prevent a crash. Check for cracks especially on the cranks and rims. On the frame, inspect the area around the bottom bracket and the rear dropouts.
Also check that fenders, racks, lights and other bolted-on parts are tight. This is best done by checking each bolt, but if you are in a rush, just give each part a firm wiggle.
Once your bike is clean and found to be generally sound, it’s time to inspect individual components.
2. Tires
Are your tires worn? How do you check? The best way is to remove the tire and flex it with your hands. Is the center part of the tread thinner than the shoulders? Then your tire often shows a groove in the center when you flex it. Replace the tire now, rather than risk having multiple flats – or worse, a blowout – during your brevet. Cut the old tire in half, so you can see how much tread remained. If there is 1 mm of rubber or less (not including the casing) in the center of the tread, then it was high time to replace. If there is much more, you could have ridden the tire a bit longer. It’s good to know for next time.
3. Brake Pads
Are your brake pads worn out? Modern pads often seem to be made entirely out of rubber, but in reality, there is a metal carrier embedded in the rubber. When that gets exposed, it will score and ruin your rim. Most pads have a “wear line” molded into them that show how far you can wear them down.
Also make sure the pads hit the rims squarely. Check the pad itself. If a ridge has worn into the pad either at the top or bottom (photo above), then it doesn’t hit the rim correctly. Remove it, file off the ridge, then reinstall it with the correct alignment. Poorly aligned pads can cause blowouts if they hit the tire (with sidepull and centerpull brakes) or they can dive underneath the rim, causing a complete loss of braking (with cantilever brakes).
4. Rims
The second part of your braking system are your rims. They abrade as you brake, and eventually, they get so thin that they can explode from the tire pressure. Many modern rims have wear indicators, either a groove or a dot that are machined into the sidewall. When these wear indicators disappear, it’s time to replace the rim. On rims without wear indicators, look whether the sidewalls have become concave. That shows you how much wear has occurred. Worse, if the sidewalls start splaying outward near the tire bead, they are so thin that the tire pressure forces them outward. Replace them immediately!
If you replace the rim with a similar model that uses the same spoke length, you can just swap the spokes from one rim to the next without completely rebuilding the wheel. (For detailed instructions, refer to the “How-to” article in Bicycle Quarterly No. 50.)
5. Cables
Check your brake cables: Pull on the brake levers and feel whether the action is smooth. If you feel grinding or extra friction, then the cable is probably fraying. Replace it now!
If you have downtube shift levers, you can see whether the cables are fraying – it usually happens where the cables wrap around the shift lever. If you have bar-end or brake/shift levers, you may just replace the cables as a precaution at the onset of the season. If the rear shifter cable breaks, you’ll be reduced to your largest gear – not much fun during a long ride.
6. Wheels and Spokes
Are your wheels true? Spin them and look at the distance between rim and brake pad. It should remain constant within 2 mm. Also squeeze the spokes in pairs and see whether any are loose or broken. You can also twang the spokes like guitar strings. The pitch should be similar for all spokes on the same side of the wheel.
If the wheel isn’t true, or spokes are loose or broken, either fix it yourself or take it to a qualified wheel builder. If you have broken two or more spokes in one wheel, it’s a sign that all spokes are getting fatigued. Rebuild the wheel with new spokes now, rather than having to deal with more broken spokes during the season.
7. Bearings
Check whether your bearings are in good shape. Remove the wheels and feel whether the axles spin smoothly. On modern sealed bearings, some resistance is fine, but it should be smooth, without any catching or roughness as you turn the bearing. Bearing play is best checked with the wheel on the bike. Push and pull on the rim and see whether you can feel play in the hub bearings. (Sideways movement is fine – wheels aren’t very stiff laterally – but there shouldn’t be a “knocking” feel.)
Check the bottom bracket the same way after dropping the chain to the inside of the cranks, so it rests on the frame’s bottom bracket shell. For the headset, turn the handlebars 90°, lock the front brake, and rock the bike back and forth. You should not feel any play. (If you don’t turn the handlebars, you may feel play in the brake and mistakenly conclude your headset needs adjustment.) Don’t forget to check the pedal bearings by turning and wiggling the pedals.
Worn bearings won’t slow you down significantly, but they make riding the bike less pleasant. Eventually, they’ll pack up and stop turning altogether. And then your ride is over!
8. Drivetrain
Make sure that all gears can be shifted smoothly. Check whether your chain has lengthened because the bushings have developed play. There are gauges that show how much your chain has “stretched”, but you can also measure it with a ruler:
Pull the rear derailleur rearward to tension the chain. Take a ruler and hold it against the lower chain run. Line up the 0 with a chain pin. The 12″ (1 foot) mark should line up with another pin. If it is more than 1/16″ off, the chain has worn and should be replaced. Unfortunately, it’s likely that your cassette cogs are worn out, too. If you have a big event coming up, test-ride your bike to make sure the new chain meshes smoothly with the old cogs. Pedal hard in each gear for a block or two. If the chain skips over the cog, the cassette is worn out and should be replaced.
Now you know your bike is in good condition. Unless you ride huge distances, it shouldn’t require much maintenance during the season. Check the chain wear every thousand miles or so, keep an eye on the brake pads and tires, and you should be fine. That allows you to enjoy the cycling season confident that your trusted steed won’t let you down. Now it’s time to plan your rides!
What other pre-season checks do you perform on your bike?
Also in this series:

Correction (3/27): The post has been edited to reflect that play in the hub bearings is best checked with the wheels installed (see comments).

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Putting Our Lives on the Line

Testing bicycles may sound like a dream job – you get to ride all kinds of bicycles without having to pay for them – but it comes with risks. We ride the bikes hard, although we don’t abuse them. We are smooth riders, so we don’t stress components unduly. Even when riding the bikes as intended, problems often manifest themselves during our two-week test. We’ve tested more than 60 bikes, and there have been a number of close calls and actual injuries.
On one test bike, the headlight fell off and hung from its wire, dangling in the spokes. On another, a poorly mounted front fender broke loose and wrapped itself around the front wheel during a high-speed descent on a busy road (below). I was lucky not to crash, but a friend of a friend suffered a similar failure on a bike from the same maker and is still dealing with a the consequences of a brain injury.
I’ve broken my thumb when the tires of a test bike offered next to no grip in the wet, and I crashed as I braked for the first corner. Two handlebar bags have flown off the front rack from decaleurs that were too loose or broke off entirely. I rode over one, the other one went sideways. A year ago, I approached a stoplight at the bottom of a steep hill when the straddle cable pulled out of the front cantilever brake, leaving me with only the rear brake and almost no brake power. That certainly was exciting!
I’ve had other close calls. A just-introduced hydraulic disc brake was recalled two weeks after our test. The seals could blow out in cold temperatures, “resulting in abrupt loss of brake power, and an inability to stop the bike,” according to the manufacturer. And I just had taken the bike with those brakes on steep mountain descents and braked so hard that I could feel the left fork blade flex and affect the bike’s steering. Good thing it wasn’t very cold during my night-time descents on the bike.
A carbon fork I had been testing was recalled the next month, because several of them had broken after just a few months of riding. On another bike, a tire was mounted incorrectly with a large wobble. On yet another, a front brake pad came loose. Fortunately, I noticed it before it fell off completely.
Why write about these incidents? There is no glory in road rash or broken bones. I write about them because all these problems were avoidable, and we don’t want the same things to happen to you. The problems were due to poor design, careless manufacture or faulty installation. On our own bikes, these incidents simply don’t happen. We choose parts that have proven themselves over many years of riding. We are careful to assemble our bikes well. If something breaks, it’s usually after many years of hard use.
If you are fastidious, you’ll completely strip down any bike you buy and re-assemble it correctly before you ride it. Car racers do that when they buy a race car… For most people, this isn’t practical, but here are five safety checks that can eliminate some of the biggest risk factors:

  • Brakes: Pull on the lever for the front brake as hard as you can. The brake pads should squish, the brake may flex, but the cable should not pull out of its anchor on the brake. I’ve done this test on three new bikes recently, and on two, the cable pulled out of the brake. On these bikes, the brakes work fine until you really need them in an emergency situation!
  • Check that both tires are seated correctly. Most tires have a line molded into the sidewall that should sit just above the edge of the rim. That line must be concentric with the rim. If it dives under the rim edge, the tire isn’t seated correctly and could blow off while you ride.
  • Push down sharply on the brake levers (with drop bars) or the ends of the handlebars (with swept-back bars). The bars should not rotate in the stem.
  • If your bike has a decaleur, insert the bag and remove it. Is it tight enough to stay put when you go over big bumps? If it isn’t, use additional straps to secure the bag on the rack platform.
  • Problems with wheel quick releases have been publicized so much that they hopefully are rare. Even so, check that they are closed tightly.

Assembly problems are usually easy to correct or mitigate. More difficult is dealing with issues of poor design. Often, the only solution there is to walk away. There are also some things that I prefer not to test, because they are simply too dangerous:

  • Inexpensive carbon forks. There are just too many cases of them breaking.
  • Bikes that have anything clamped to a tapering fork blade. It’s bound to come loose.
  • Fenders that are poorly mounted or have inadequate clearances.
  • Sorry to say, but anything sold by Civia. Too many recalls, and too poorly designed are their bikes. (Both the fender incidents described in the post were on Civias – with two different fender designs – as well as the fork recall.)

Cycling is not a particularly dangerous sport, but like any activity, taking sensible precautions greatly reduces your risk. I wish companies would take more care when they design their bikes and components – they are playing with our lives!
At Bicycle Quarterly, we will keep pushing bike builders and manufacturers to make their bikes safer. As avid riders, our own health and safety depends on it.
Do you have any additional tests you use to reduce the risk on a newly-assembled bike?

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Helmets Wars – Missing the Point


In the U.S., most “responsible” cyclists wear helmets, yet when I cycle in Europe or Japan, I see many cyclotourists who ride without helmets. The Europeans or Japanese don’t seem like dare-devils or poorly informed. What is going on here? I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’ve concluded that helmets don’t matter all that much, compared to other factors that that influence the safety of cycling.

Please note that I am not anti-helmet. When I was in college in Germany during the late 1980s, I was one of two cyclists in town who wore a helmet. I’ve worn a helmet on most rides since then. Even so, I have revised my views on this topic – while continuing to wear a helmet.

As an individual cyclist, safety comes from being able to control your bike and from being able to anticipate traffic’s often erroneous moves. On a societal level, safety comes from having so many cyclists on the road that cycling is normal and accepted.
A helmet is only the last line of defense when everything else fails.

What about the arguments in the “helmet wars”? Let’s look at them one by one:


1. Most cyclists who died didn’t wear helmets (used as proof that helmets save lives).

This analysis assumes that riders who wear helmets and those who don’t wear helmets otherwise behave identically. They don’t.

Consider that 25% of cycling fatalities occur between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Most people who are getting killed aren’t randonneurs on night-time rides. They are people who lost their driver’s license because of drunk driving. (31% of cycling fatalities have blood alcohol levels of 0.08 or higher.) These fatalities were on their way home from the bar. Most of them don’t wear helmets, but they also are riding a bicycle while intoxicated, without lights, usually on busy highways, just after the bars close. The lack of helmets is their smallest problem.

To figure out how effective helmets really are, you’d need a randomized trial, where you assign riders randomly to wear helmets or not each day they ride. The riders shouldn’t know whether they are wearing a helmet, so you’d give the “no-helmet” riders a placebo – something that looks like a helmet, but doesn’t protect your head. Of course, you wouldn’t do a trial where you potentially put riders in harm’s way…

So these statistics are misleading. The good news for us is that the statistics also overestimate the dangers of cycling. If you do not ride drunk, without lights, after midnight, on busy highways, then you already have reduced your accident risk significantly.

A better way is to compare statistics from one country to the next. And there, we find little evidence that the countries where people wear helmets (like Sweden) see fewer cycling head injuries than those where people don’t wear helmets (like Denmark).

Conclusion: Helmet use doesn’t seem to have a great impact on cyclist fatality rates.


2. Helmets make cycling appear more dangerous than it is.

In the U.S., when I part with people and get on my bike, many say: “Be safe!” or “Be careful out there!” I don’t get that in France, where people encourage me with “Pedalez bien!” (Ride well!)

When I drive a car or walk, nobody says “Be safe!” Modern cars are equipped with airbags, so you don’t have a wear a helmet while driving. It would be cheaper and safer to wear helmets – race cars don’t have airbags, yet are much safer than the cars we drive on the road. But helmets would reinforce the message that you are about to engage in a dangerous activity, whereas airbags are invisible until you need them…

In reality, cycling becomes safer if more people ride. Cycling in Copenhagen is relatively safe not because the cyclists there are more skilled. Nor do the cyclepaths reduce the risk of accidents (they don’t). Cycling in Copenhagen is safe because everybody is used to looking for cyclists.
Furthermore, if everybody cycles, drivers no longer harbor resentments against cyclists for their presumed political views and social preferences. In the U.S., much of the animosity against cyclists stems from what people perceive cyclists to stand for – city dwellers, liberals, granola-crunchers – rather than from the minor inconvenience they may cause.

Conclusion: Emphasizing helmets discourages people from cycling, which makes cycling less safe.


3. Helmets provide a false sense of security, therefore people feel they can take more risks.

The initial argument for risk compensation was based on the fact that more cyclists die in countries where riders wear helmets (U.S., UK) than in countries where cyclists ride bare-headed (Europe). The conclusion was that helmets somehow make cycling less safe, and the best hypothesis seemed to be that riders who wear helmets feel invulnerable and take greater risks (risk compensation).

The data do not support this analysis. In the U.S., most riders who die don’t wear helmets (see 1), so the higher death rate in the U.S. cannot be explained by risk compensation of helmet-wearers. In fact, helmets take the “carefree” out of cycling and make people more aware of the risks (see 2.).

There is a concern about helmets, though: If we tell new cyclists that a helmet is all they need to guarantee their safety, we are putting them in harm’s way. Real safety comes from accident avoidance through looking ahead, anticipating others’ behavior, and judging the road conditions correctly.

We see the same in cars, where we North Americans focus on buying big cars with the best safety ratings, but not on learning to drive well. And our traffic fatalities are among the highest in the industrialized world, much higher than in countries where people drive small (and relatively unsafe) cars with greater skill.

Conclusion: As a society, a focus on helmets detracts from teaching about real safety.


So where does all that leave us? From my perspective, there are two conclusions:

  1. On an individual level, wearing a helmet is a good idea. It is likely to reduce your injuries in many crashes, and it rarely seems to do any harm. The “rotational brain injuries” often quoted by helmet opponents seem to be very, very rare, if they occur at all. (I hit my head and cracked my helmet in a recent accident, and fortunately did not sustain a head injury. I only broke my hand.)
  2. On a societal level, insisting on helmets is detrimental. It detracts from the facts that a) cycling is relatively safe, and b) that safety lies in preventing accidents more than in trying to survive them.

Wear a helmet if you are an “optimizer” – the type who worries about the last 5% in performance or safety. (I do wear a helmet!) But don’t tell anybody else to wear one, or not to wear one! Instead, let’s focus on teaching cycling and traffic skills.
Will this analysis end the “helmet wars”? I am not holding my breath… and with that, I am opening up the comments, and ducking for cover.

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When More Visible ≠ Safer: Target Fixation

Looking at the photo above from our Flèche last year, it’s easy to think: “Two of these riders are much safer than the other two.” The reflective vests really stand out in the flash of the camera.
Being hit from behind is one of the primal fears of cyclists. It’s the one accident that we are almost powerless to prevent. We rely on drivers giving us enough room, so it’s important to be visible. It’s perhaps natural to think that if we are even more visible, we somehow can will drivers to give us more room.
In urban environments, the biggest danger for cyclists is being overlooked. There is a lot of visual clutter – even at night – that competes for the attention of drivers. In this scenario, more lights and reflective gear all can be useful to make the rider more visible.
However, the photo above was taken during a moonless night on a backroad miles from the next light. Here, a single red light usually suffices to be seen. Adding a pedal or ankle reflector helps identify the rider as a cyclist. This can be useful for traffic approaching from behind to judge the cyclist’s speed.
Adding even more lights and reflectors may not be a good idea. Most fatalities during U.S. brevets were caused by drivers hitting cyclists who were NOT in their lane of traffic. The victims were on the shoulder or even on the other side of the road, facing the other way. It does not appear that lacking visibility was a concern here – on the contrary, target fixation may have contributed to the accidents.
Target fixation occurs when drivers (or pilots) focus on a light source. As most cyclists know, your bike, car or airplane goes where you look, so if you look at the taillight of a cyclist riding on the shoulder, you are more likely to drift onto the shoulder yourself. This is not a theoretical concern – it has been documented in simulators.
Target fixation appears more pronounced for impaired drivers (whether sleepy or drunk). It also appears to be more pronounced with blinking lights than steady ones. And the brighter the lights, the stronger the target fixation becomes.
Police cars, which are on the shoulder during a traffic stop, are frequently hit by drunk drivers. You would expect drunk drivers to do all they can to avoid police cars, yet they plow right into them. Google “police car hit on shoulder”, and you’ll find many reports of such accidents, and even a video of a car that veers right, glances off a police car, and then hits the car the police has pulled over. Faced with the dangers of target fixation, some police officers now recommend turning off the flashing lights during traffic stops on the shoulder.
What does this mean for cyclists? Really, the safest illumination is one that is powerful enough to show your location, but not so strong that it causes target fixation. When it’s completely dark, even a single red light will be plenty visible.
In fact, when riding on a shoulder at night, it may be safest to be invisible. The odds that a driver will swerve randomly onto the shoulder and hit you may be smaller than the odds of attracting an impaired driver through target fixation.
(However, if you ride without taillights on the shoulder, you are not complying with the law and randonneuring rules, and there is the risk that you will forget to switch on your taillight when you leave the shoulder and ride on the road again.)
When you think about target fixation, you also realize that blinding oncoming traffic with high-powered or even flashing lights appears to be downright suicidal. The same applies to helmet lights – if you are looking at a car coming the other way, you guide them right toward you!
For me, this means that in urban environments, I wear reflective materials. Even there, I don’t see the need to light up my bike like a Christmas tree, because my headlight actually makes me much more visible at night than I am during daytime. On dark rural roads, I will take off my reflective vest. I will rely on my taillight and reflective ankle bands to broadcast my location and speed, without dazzling drivers or having them lock onto me in a bout of target fixation.
How do you stay safe when riding at night?
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Aren't Bikes Traffic?

On a ride around Lake Washington, I began to notice the signs. They occurred mostly at construction sites, and re-directed bikes where the bike lane was closed. It’s nice that they now put up signs, where in the past they simply roped off the bike lane or parked a big truck in it. What I didn’t like was what the signs said:
“Bikes merge with Traffic”? What do they mean? Aren’t cyclists part of traffic? Can you imagine a sign on the freeway saying “Right lane ends. Trucks merge with traffic”? Of course not, that would be absurd. Do traffic engineers or whoever designs these signs still consider traffic to be cars, and cyclists to be secondary users who don’t really belong on the roads?
And then there was “Road closed to vehicles,” with the clear implication that bicycles are not “vehicles.”
To be sure of the meaning of “traffic”, I looked it up in Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language:
traf•fic: 1. The movement of vehicles, ships, persons, etc. in an area, along a street, through an air lane, over a water route.
The definition said “vehicles,” not cars, so now the question was whether a bicycle is a vehicle or not:
ve•hi•cle: 1. any means in or by which someone travels or something is carried or conveyed.
There is nothing in either definition that indicates that bicycles are not vehicles, or not part of traffic. Yet the signs imply that vehicles are only cars and trucks, and that traffic does not include bicycles. And since roads are intended for traffic, they are not intended for bicycles.
Some might say that this is just semantics, but I am concerned about the attitude this implies – an attitude that remains all too prevalent among drivers. Why not simply say: “Bicycles merge left”?
Or perhaps we should just get rid of the merging instructions altogether. After all, if you see a sign that says “Right lane closed” and you don’t know that you need to merge left, you shouldn’t be driving a car or riding a bike! “Bike Lane Closed Ahead” really tells you all you need to know!
As to the “Road closed to vehicles” sign, a better way could be to keep the “Road Closed” sign and simply write on the other sign “except pedestrians and bicycles.”
I am not so much concerned about the signs themselves, but about the underlying attitude they represent, that bicycles aren’t vehicles or traffic and don’t have equal rights to use the road.
What do you think? Do you have better ideas for a concise message to write on these signs?

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Who are you calling Fast and Fearless?!

I am a careful rider, who looks ahead and tries to foresee possible danger spots in order to avoid them. After decades of riding in traffic, I feel competent and confident. I was surprised that cycling advocates characterize riders like me, who are comfortable of riding on most roads, as “Fast and Fearless”.
“Fast and Fearless” appears to be a reference to “The Fast and the Furious”, a movie franchise about illegal street racing in cars (above). The movies show the sort of thing that any responsible driver would abhor, rather than the skills and control that real car racers possess. Unfortunately, this was affirmed by the recent death of the lead actor in a fiery car crash while driving on the open road.
I am still stunned that experienced, confident cyclists are compared to illegal car racers who are a menace to all, including themselves. I am even more surprised that this characterization has made it into official government planning documents for cycling facilities in Seattle, Portland, New York and probably elsewhere.
Competent and Confident. I think this is a better term to describe riders who know how to cycle in traffic, and who weigh the risks and realize where the dangers lurk. We know it’s safer to take the lane at 20 mph than to weave in and out of parked cars at 7 mph. To understand why “fast” and “fearless” don’t necessarily go together, think about driving a car.
Imagine driving your car down the freeway at 20 mph, because you think it’s safer to go slow. You’d be much safer flowing with traffic at 65 mph. Nobody would label you “Fast and Fearless” when you drive at the speed limit. Everybody knows that competence and confidence go a long way toward making you a safer driver.
The same holds true for cyclists. Being able to keep up with traffic, knowing how to maneuver your bike, being able to stop quickly, and especially being visible all make you safer.
Why do cyclists label each other negatively as “Fast and Fearless”? One part is purely political. Many experienced cyclists are opposed to new plans to build European-style cyclepaths in North America. Attaching the label of “Fast and Fearless” to these experienced cyclists makes it easy to disregard their input when planning new facilities, rather than having to consider the expertise they have built during decades of riding.
However, the label would not resonate with many casual cyclists if there wasn’t some resentment toward faster riders. Why the resentment? Unfortunately, racers and especially racer wannabes can be less than welcoming to new riders, whether it’s calling them “Freds” or chasing down anybody who looks like they might be an “easy target”. And since the bike industry still promotes racing as the only valid form of cycling, it’s not surprising that there is resentment toward racing, and by extension, to all riders who enjoy going fast.
Where will all this end up? Are experienced cyclists going to label those who weave in and out of parked cars and ride in the “door zone” as “Slow and Stupid”? I sincerely hope not! I don’t think we want animosity between cyclists. Here are my hopes:
Let’s encourage newcomers to cycling, and not pass them at all costs. Let’s respect those who are competent and confident – without envy. Let’s find the best solution for getting people to ride bikes more often, safer and with more fun – without resorting to underhanded tactics to “win” the argument. And perhaps most importantly, let’s respect every cyclist – no matter how they like to ride.

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Making Cycling Convenient (and Better!)

“Half of Copenhagen residents use bicycles to get to work or school. Not because these individuals are eco-friendly, young or sporty – but because bicycles are convenient and the fastest way to get around in the city.”
I was thinking about this statement from a mayor of Copenhagen as I rode along one of the new “protected” bike lanes in Seattle (above). In the U.S., less than 5% of trips are by bike, because cars remain the most convenient and fastest means of transportation. Our streets are wide with sufficient capacity, stores have ample parking, and usually the car is parked very close to our homes. For many North Americans, it’s hard to imagine just how inconvenient it is to drive (and how nearly impossible it is to park) in many European cities. For example, our photographer in Paris counts himself lucky to rent a garage space for his car which is only a 15 minute walk from his apartment.
We want to think that Copenhagen-style bicycle facilities will increase the bike-mode-share, but we are missing the point that people cycle in Copenhagen because it is too cumbersome and expensive to drive and park a car for everyday tasks.
In the U.S., cycling faces a much stiffer competition for mode share. We have two choices: either make cars slower and less convenient (like in Copenhagen), or make bikes faster and more convenient. I don’t think there is the political will to make driving less convenient in the U.S. yet. So we have to work on making cycling more convenient, faster and more pleasant.
Right now, the advocates of “Copenhagen-style” infrastructure call on cyclists to slow down, and to move off the street into separate lanes that purport to provide “safe” space, but where in reality they have to dodge parked cars and pedestrians. On some of Seattle’s new “protected” bike lanes, they even write “SLOW” on the pavement at regular intervals. Come on, we are cyclists – few of us can exceed the 20 mph speed limit anywhere, except perhaps on steep downhills. If I cannot even ride at 10-15 mph across town, then even I may choose to drive my car, or even walk instead. There must be a better way than designing facilities that have SLOW written all over them!
Fortunately, here in Seattle, popular bike routes are being converted into Neighborhood Greenways. It doesn’t take much – stop signs on cross-streets so that the cyclists have the right-of-way, and perhaps a few speed bumps to discourage cars from taking the “greenway” as a shortcut. The low cost means that these projects actually can be built quickly.
The result is amazing! One of these “greenways” is a route I take frequently. Because I now have the right-of-way, it’s much faster and more relaxing than before. I suspect that by providing a faster and pleasant, safe cycling environment, these “greenways” will get more people on bikes. It’s a brilliant idea, and I look forward to more of these.
In European cities like Copenhagen, many streets already have been closed for cars to create pedestrian zones, and there are no additional streets that can be turned over to cyclists, so they put the cyclists on the sidewalk. Here in North America, we can turn our weakness (low density, hence long distances and ample parking) into an asset (plenty of room for “Neighborhood Greenways”).
Even if cycling won’t be the most convenient or fastest way around Seattle, it’ll be the most pleasant, it’ll be safe, and it’ll fast enough to be viable.
Click here to read more posts about cycling safety, cyclepaths and bike lanes.

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How to Brake on a Bicycle


Whether you ride fast or slow, being able to stop quickly is an important skill. Your ability to stop also depends on how well your brakes perform. In Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 10, No. 1, we tested brake performance to determine:

  • How do you brake most effectively?
  • Do brakes with different stopping power affect braking distances?
  • Do brake shoes and pads make a big difference?


For this test, we coasted from a set point down a steep hill (always using the same riding position), and then braked at a predetermined point. Two testers performed the tests, to differentiate the “rider” factor in brake performance.

Why test on a downhill? The stopping distance on a hill is longer, and thus the differences between brakes and techniques are more pronounced. Afterward, we performed a statistical analysis to evaluate whether we were measuring real differences in braking performance and not just seeing noise in the data.

This test confirmed quite a few things about effective braking technique:

Front vs. Rear Brake

On dry pavement, the front brake alone halts the bike over the shortest distance.
Many riders think they need both brakes to stop effectively, if only because most bikes are outfitted with 2 brakes and that implies that one should use both. Here’s the way to think about it: the momentum of your body continues to move forward as your bike is slowing down, so your weight shifts forward. That’s why your rear wheel can come off the ground when braking hard. When your weight comes forward during hard braking, your rear wheel has close to zero traction. If you apply the rear brake under these conditions, the rear wheel will lock up without contributing significantly to the braking effort.

If you can apply the rear brake without locking up the rear wheel, then your weight isn’t shifting forward – a clear sign that you aren’t braking as hard as you should!

We tried braking with both brakes and with the front brake alone, and consistently found that if we focused all our attention on the front brake, we achieved much shorter stopping distances.


When we braked with the rear brake only, the stopping distance was more than three times as long. In fact, Hahn overshot the stop sign and went into the road at the bottom of the hill (above). This was despite Hahn modulating his rear brake carefully to keep it below the lockup point as much as possible. Skidding the wheel would have increased the stopping distance further.

While we couldn’t test this on dry pavement, the rear brake comes in handy when it is so slippery that even moderate braking will lock up your wheels – when you encounter ice, wet leaves, loose gravel, or other very slippery pavement during the first rain after a long dry spell.

Under these conditions, you cannot brake hard, and the forward weight transfer is much less pronounced. In that case, the rear brake provides added friction that will slow you more quickly. Rear brakes also are useful on tandems, where much more weight is on the rear wheel.


How Hard Can You Brake?

Very, very hard. We found that to get the shortest stopping distance, we had to pull the front brake lever with all our might. Witness the tester’s bulging muscles on his right arm – which controlled the front brake on this bike!

This is despite using very powerful short-reach Dual-Pivot rim brakes. Some hydraulic disc brakes require less force at the lever, but with rim brakes, you really need to pull very hard on the lever.
When we came to a stop, the smell of burnt brake pads wafted through the air. After 21 full-on emergency braking maneuvers, the Aheadset of the test bike had developed play, because the stem had slipped on the fork steerer. Even the quick release of the front hub had loosened. Braking hard is a very violent affair. Not once did our front wheel lock up.


Going Over the Bars

Many riders are afraid of “going over the handlebars” when braking hard with the front brake. They fear that the braking force will cause the bike to rotate around the front wheel. In practice, we found that even on a steep hill, the rear wheel stayed planted for most of our braking. Wind resistance helps you here: It pushes the rider backward.

Once we had slowed to less than 6 mph, the rear wheel tended to rise. In the photo above, you can see how the front wheel has stopped, while the (unbraked) rear still is spinning. The wheel came up very slowly. This was far from dangerous: The rider simply opened the front brake slightly to make it come back down.

The shortest braking distances were obtained when we slightly decreased our braking power just before we came to a stop, so the rear wheel stayed on the ground.

Since few riders ever brake this hard, how come they still go over the bars? Here is what appears to happen to most riders who go over the bars: If riders don’t brace themselves against the handlebars, their momentum will push them forward over the handlebars as the bike slows. (Imagine being a passenger in a car without a seatbelt as the driver brakes hard.)

To avoid this, Hahn in the photo above braces himself against the handlebars and locks his elbows. He has shifted his weight as far back as possible. You can see his bicycle’s saddle underneath his belly. With this technique, he did not “go over the bars.” And if your bike’s rear wheel does lift, it happens slowly enough that you can counter it by slightly releasing the front brake lever.


We found that we could brake much harder than we thought. Car companies have found the same thing: Drivers tend to be too timid when braking in emergencies. Many modern cars are equipped with “brake assists” that apply the brakes with full force during emergency stops. (ABS makes sure the wheels don’t lock up.)

On bicycles, the “brake assist” and “ABS” are quite literally in our hands. Fortunately, instead of having to manage four brakes during an emergency stop, we can focus on the front brake alone.
Without electronics to assist us, we can benefit from practicing braking hard. (In fact, the same applies to your car, where practicing braking will make you a safer driver.) Practice on an empty road, preferably on a downhill where you can reach higher speeds. It takes a lot of confidence to pull on the brake levers with all your might, but it can make the difference between stopping safely and running into something in an emergency.

For the other parts of this research (differences between the two tested brakes and between brake pads), check out Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 10, No. 1.
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Separated Cycle Paths: Who Asks the Cyclists?

In the discussion about separate or “protected” cycle tracks, it has been surprising that planners and decision makers don’t seem to want input from those who actually ride bikes.
In some cases, there is open disdain for those who have been cycling in North America for many years. Now that cycling is becoming popular, largely through the example and tireless efforts of these cyclists, we are labeled “a frustrating deterrent to mainstreaming cycling” on the popular “Copenhagenize” blog. The author even suggests that we hit our children, and insinuates that we prefer to mix with cars and trucks on freeways rather than ride on a separate path. (We don’t, the photo in the blog shows a location where a cyclepath actually makes sense.)

Those are extremes, but the tenor isn’t much different when you talk to many bicycle advocacy groups who have jumped onto the cycle path bandwagon.
Why this animosity? Because many experienced cyclists don’t want to ride on segregated cycle paths (except in the very rare instances where they actually make sense). For the most part, they prefer to share quiet streets with slow-moving cars, rather than ride on “protected” paths that put them in harm’s way at each intersection. And if they have to ride on busy streets, they prefer on-street bike lanes that keep them visible and predictable to other traffic.
On the other hand, if you ask non-cyclists what they would be afraid of – if they were on a bike – many will tell you that it’s cars. To those unfamiliar with riding in traffic, it can make apparent sense to “separate” cars and bikes in order to provide “protection.” But many non-cyclists don’t understand the real risks of riding bikes… which occur at intersections.
What about those who actually have ridden their bikes for many years? Even in Berlin (above), where cycle paths were mandatory until recently and remain deeply ingrained in the culture, more and more cyclists prefer to ride on the street, rather than use unsafe cycle paths (the path is on the right in the photo above).
Even more experienced cyclists in North American are opposed to segregated cycle paths. When “physically separated cycle tracks” were mentioned on the popular Bike Portland Blog recently, the vast majority of comments was by cyclists voicing their dislike of these facilities – even though the blog post only mentioned the cycle paths in passing.
So why doesn’t anybody want to listen to those who actually ride bikes for transportation? It’s true that some experienced cyclists aren’t exactly welcoming to newcomers. So it’s easy to see them as “obstacles” that stand in the way of recruiting more cyclists. But most cyclists are genuinely interested in getting more people on bikes. However, their experience tells them that the “solutions” proposed right now won’t work well in North America. Yet their experience and concerns are dismissed without further discussion.
The push for “protected bike lanes” comes mostly from well-meaning architects and planners. Architects and planners tend to see the world through a lense of facilities. That is their job – designing and building things. When they see a problem – getting more people on bikes – their reflex is to design something to make this happen.
And that points to the next problem: There is real money in segregated cycle paths. Money for consultants. For example, the author of the “Copenhagenize” blog makes a good living by consulting cities on how they can become like Copenhagen – by building cycle paths. There is money for engineers and architects who design the actual facilities. (The contractors may be least to blame, since roads will be built no matter what.) It appears that a whole industry has sprung up around this.
Take the most-often-quoted studies that purport to show that cycle tracks are safer than riding in the street. They are authored by an architect with a background in designing cycle tracks. That alone does not disqualify her, but when her studies are seriously flawed in almost all respects, one wonders about the conflict of interest. Yet those studies are accepted at face value, because they are what decision-makers want to hear. It’s a clear case of group-think, and anybody who stands in the way will be ignored.
That means ignoring actual before-and-after studies of streets where cycle paths were built in Denmark. There are several such studies, including this one from Copenhagen. They all show that bicycle accidents and injuries increased when cycle tracks were installed, because more accidents occur at intersections. (And yes, the studies did account for increases in ridership that occurred with the new facilities.) So when experienced cyclists say that cycle paths are not safe, their assertion actually is supported by the data.
Instead of fostering an open discussion about the infrastructure of the future, we have seen a back-door push for separated cycling facilities.
Now the federal government is “quietly circulating” a proposal to consultants (above), to design guidelines for separate cycle tracks. The proposal mentions:
“There is a growing body of research on cycle tracks in the U.S. and Canada indicating that, when they are designed well, they do not increase bike crash rates. There is also growing evidence that cyclists prefer cycle tracks over other design treatments that require them to operate within or near motor vehicle traffic.”
That “growing body of research” are the flawed studies mentioned above. Even the well-designed Danish cycle paths cause an increase in bike crash rates. It’s unlikely that we’ll do better in the U.S. than the cycle paths of Copenhagen.
And it does not appear that “cyclists prefer cycle tracks”, either. Most current cyclists understand the risks they pose. The proposal assumes that the matter has been settled, and that the only thing left is to implement the segregated cycle paths.
It is time to voice our opposition. This policy change is happening now – the deadline for the government proposals is today (August 14). Instead of blindly adopting cycle paths, we should have an open discussion of what needs to be done to create an environment where cyclists feel safe and are safe.
I suggest we start by e-mailing the contact for the federal proposal above at Ask her to forward your comments to the person in charge of setting policies.
This blog has over 4000 readers. If the Federal Highway Administration gets 4000 e-mails opposing the wholesale adoption of cycle paths, they may realize that there is a “silent majority” out there that has been overlooked.
Here are some talking points:

  • Cycle paths make cycling more risky, because cyclists arrive at intersections without being visible to car traffic.
  • The “intersection risk” makes cycle paths a poor choice for most North American cities, with their many intersections, and relatively poorly trained drivers.
  • The grid layout of most North American cities allows for a separate network of “Bicycle Boulevards,” where cyclists can cycle on low-traffic streets, rather than fight for space on the main arterials used by cars.

I wrote about this in more detail in comments to Seattle’s Bicycle Master Plan. You can find that 5-page pdf document (1.6 mB) here.
The next step is contacting your local bicycle advisory group, and ask them how they stand on cycle paths, and what they think about the intersection risk of cycle paths. If they are unwilling to consider these points, don’t support them. (I cancelled my membership in the League of American Bicyclists.)
What we need is a measured discussion of the best way forward. We need to develop solutions that work for North America’s unique geography and culture, rather than try and copy Europe. Most of all, we need to make our voices as cyclists heard in the back-room meetings of those who are trying to implement a policy that profits them, but that may not be in the interest of those actually riding bicycles.
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Cyclepaths: Perceived Safety and Actual Safety

I’ll say it up front: I want to see more people ride bikes for transportation. However, I am also concerned when perceived safety turns out to be anything but… which is exactly what happens with the “protected” bike lanes that separate bikes from cars.
To illustrate my concern, let me talk about another issue where the perception of safety turned out to be a costly illusion.
In the 1990s, many people bought SUVs because they were perceived as safer. The SUVs were bigger, you sat higher up, and thus many drivers felt safer in them. This turned out to be a fallacy. The high center of gravity caused SUVs to flip over during sudden maneuvers. Their stiff frames also didn’t have crumple zones like modern passenger cars, endangering both the occupants of the SUV and those who were hit by the SUV. Cyclists and pedestrians fared much worse when crushed by the bluff front of an SUV than when they were lifted onto the hood of a modern passenger car. Thousands of people needlessly died in these accidents.
Fortunately, the safety of SUVs has improved with new technology: stability control systems have reduced the risk of rollovers, and the unibody construction of car-based “cross-overs” incorporates proper crumple zones. And traffic fatalities in the U.S. have declined as a result.
Cyclepaths provide a false security, similar to SUVs. On cyclepaths, cyclists feel safe because they are “protected” from cars – until they enter intersections without being visible to traffic.
Being overlooked by car drivers is the biggest risk cyclists face in urban traffic. Intersections are where most cycling accidents occur. Cyclepaths make cyclists more vulnerable right where they face the greatest danger.
Like SUVs, there is hope that the safety of cyclepaths also can be improved through good design – maybe. For now, we are building cyclepaths that are more dangerous than riding on the street. Even in Copenhagen, accidents increase when “protected” bicycle lanes are installed.
With bicycle facilities, we face a choice. We can follow the example of SUVs, and build cyclepaths. We’ll accept increases in accidents until we can make a flawed concept safer at great expense.
Or we can try to start out with a better design from the beginning, and create cycling facilities that are appealing to novices without creating a false sense of safety. Instead of separating cyclists from cars by visual barriers, at least in North American cities, we can designing a network of “Bicycle Boulevards” that provide cycling routes on streets where few cars drive.
Beyond that, why don’t we take some of the money we plan to spend on cyclepaths and invest it instead in education on how to ride safely. Make cycling safety a curriculum in schools, so that future generations aren’t afraid to ride on the road – because they know how!
In fact, the same approach might work with SUVs: Instead of suggesting that people buy bigger cars to feel safer in the “inevitable” accident, teach them how to drive safely and avoid most accidents in the first place.
Click here to read more posts about cycling safety, cyclepaths and bike lanes.

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Cyclepaths in Berlin

I recently visited relatives in Berlin, Germany. One morning, I borrowed an old mountain bike and rode around town. I love Berlin, especially the neighborhoods away from the tourist bustle. It’s so down-to-earth and accessible.
Berlin mixes businesses and residential spaces even more than most German towns, so you’re never far from a bakery. I stopped at one that had two tables outside, and enjoyed a mid-morning cake and hot chocolate.
I was interested in exploring Berlin’s cyclepaths, since they are the type of facility that many U.S. cities are adopting in their quest to entice more people to cycle for transportation. Cyclepaths appeal to many Americans, since they separate bikes from cars. Berlin’s paths are off the street, but they also face the well-known problem of cyclists coming out of nowhere as they enter intersections.
Berlin really is ideally suited to cyclepaths:

  1. City blocks are incredibly long, since the city isn’t built on a grid. This means that there are far fewer intersections than in a typical U.S. city.
  2. German drivers are among the best-trained in the world. It takes dozens of hours of education (both in-car and in-classroom) before you are allowed to take the test, and even then, only two-thirds of the applicants succeed on their first try. This means that drivers know to look for cyclists as they make turns (photo at the top of the post). Even so, I witnessed a close call at one intersection, as a car turned right into the path of a cyclist.
  3. Cyclists travel relatively slowly, making them less of a moving target, and easier to predict.

Bus stops are another issue. Here, it’s just an inconvenience as bus passengers cross the red cyclepath without looking for cyclists like me.
Here, it’s more dangerous. For now, the bus passengers wait off the cyclepath. But if they see the bus approaching from behind, they’ll step out into the path of the cyclist.
No wonder this cyclist has decided to avoid the risk and ride in the street. In Germany, this now is legal, unless there is a sign requiring the use of the bike path. Berlin is the place where the Nazis created the first mandatory bike paths to clear the streets for cars. It’s nice to see that cyclists now have regained the right to the road after 75 years of being second-class traffic.
There are other reasons to avoid the cyclepaths. They are narrow, and passing slower cyclists is difficult.
I witnessed one close call, as a lady wobbled just as a man passed her. They touched briefly, but recovered without crashing (above). The blue sign indicates that this cyclepath remains mandatory, by the way.
Not everybody is so lucky. Yesterday’s paper reported that two cyclists crashed after hooking their handlebars during a passing maneuver. One fractured his skull and injured his neck, and the other only suffered from abrasions.
Like many forward-thinking cities, Berlin has been working hard at getting more people on bikes. Their latest and most radical innovation is this:
It’s an on-street bike lane. Several people here told me how big of an achievement this is: Traffic planners now view cyclists as an equal part of traffic. What I especially like about Berlin’s bike lanes is that they stay clear of the “door zone.”
It was nice to cycle on smooth pavement, without worrying about intersections, bus stops and slow cyclists wobbling into my path. But all good things eventually come to an end, and after half a mile, I was guided back onto the separated cyclepath.
However, as more streets in Berlin are being rebuilt, the city plans to add more on-street bike lanes. I hope the U.S. doesn’t imitate Berlin’s past (segregated cyclepaths), but it’s future (door-zone-free bike lanes).
Click here to read more posts about cycling safety, cyclepaths and bike lanes.

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Partners on the Road

I am always surprised how many cyclists are afraid of cars and their drivers, or have downright animosity to them. I prefer to see drivers as partners in a big game called Traffic.
It starts with the wording: “Share the Road” implies sacrifice. I prefer to think of other road users as “partners” on a team, not competitors fighting for our “share” of a finite amount of road space. After all, we all have a common goal: Keeping traffic flowing smoothly and safely.
Partnership means being aware of each other and communicating clearly. Turn signals indicate our intentions to other traffic. When we approach a “four-way” stop, we can wave a waiting car to proceed before we come to a complete stop. Not only do they get to go earlier, but our wait will be shorter, too.
When a car approaches from behind on a winding country road, we can wave them past when we see that the road around the next bend is clear. This allows them to move more efficiently, and it creates a bond between driver and cyclist that can only be beneficial. (Be sure that the road really is clear before you do this!)
Partnership means obeying the spirit of the rules more than the letter, and not cutting in front of traffic because we can. It means stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks, because we know what it is like to be at the bottom of the “traffic food chain.” (Most pedestrians are drivers, too, so use any opportunity to impress them with your consideration.) It means moving to the right when it’s safe for traffic to pass, but “taking the lane” when it is not.
Partnership also means looking out for one another. If an oncoming car needs a little room to pass, we can move over to help them out. The next time we make a mistake, we’ll be glad if others take up the slack. If a car wants to merge, we can let them in.
When we approach a red traffic light, do we really need to pass the waiting cars on the right and move to the front? If we stay behind, fewer cars pass us when the light turns green, and everybody can proceed with a minimum of stress. If we think of each other as partners instead of competitors, traffic will flow more smoothly and safely for all involved.
If we act with consideration and respect, then drivers soon will see us as partners, too, rather than nuisances delaying their progress. I see this happen more and more in Seattle, where drivers wave “thanks” when I move over to let them through on a narrow street, or smile when I thank them for waiting until I clear a narrow section. These little exchanges greatly contribute to my happiness during my urban rides.
Enjoy the ride, partner!
Click here to read more posts about cycling safety, cyclepaths and bike lanes.

Photo credit: Andrea Schick-Zech
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Bike to Work 4: Best of all worlds, together

In a previous post, I pointed out that the popular “protected” bike lanes in fact are less safe than cycling on the street: The protection ends where cyclists need it most – at intersections. Here I propose an alternative model for getting more people to cycle without increasing the accident risk. It relies on appropriate facilities for each situation, depending on traffic speeds, intersection density and other factors. The example of Munich in Germany shows that this approach can work well.
Different facilities for different situations
Data from the Belgian city of Antwerp looks at the relative accident risk (with the average risk being 1) on streets based on the speed limits and bicycle facilities:
The speed limits really are just a way of distinguishing different types of streets: Neighborhood streets with low speed limits (12/20 mph), busy city streets with many intersections (30 mph) and major roadways with few intersections (45 mph).
The biggest accident risk occurs in separated bike lanes that run along low-traffic neighborhood streets with many intersections. In this case, riding in the bike lane is similar to riding on the sidewalk, which is known to be the least safe location for cycling.
Generally, where cars are moving slowly, it’s safest to ride on the street. However, on major roadways with high speeds (and few intersections), separate bike lanes are safest.
In between these extremes are streets that have a lot of traffic and many intersections. Here, the best approach lies somewhere between no infrastructure and a painted bike lane. These streets still display above-average safety, but they are not quite as safe as riding on the roadway of low-speed streets or on separate paths along highways with few intersections.
I think this statistic can point the way forward with a multi-pronged approach for bicycle facilities:
No infrastructure at all

  • On streets where cars and bicycles move at similar speeds.
  • Speed limits must be 20 mph or lower.
  • Best for streets with multiple intersections, as it keeps the cyclist in the visible part of the roadway.
  • Streets like these also are great candidates for “bicycle boulevards,” which give the right-of-way to cyclists (see below).

Painted bike lane

  • On streets where the speed differential between cars and bicycles is relatively small.
  • Speed limit must be below 30 mph.
  • Suitable for streets with a moderate number of intersections, as it keeps the cyclist close to the main flow of traffic, hence visible.

Separate path

  • On streets where cars move much faster than bicycles.
  • Suitable only for roads with very few intersections, since intersections present a great danger with this design.

Appropriate Design
It is important to realize that there are three parameters that are inter-related:

  1. number of intersections
  2. speed limit
  3. bike facility design

The number of intersections cannot be changed (unless you build bridges and underpasses). It will dictate the design of the bike facility in most cases. The other two parameters, speed limit and bike facility design, should be adjusted to find the best solution for each roadway.
For example, if the traffic speed is too high for a painted bike lane in the roadway, but there are too many intersections for a separate path, then the speed limit should be decreased to make the painted bike lane safe. Fortunately, traffic speeds have to decrease as the intersection density increases, so the needs of cyclists trend in the same direction as those of other traffic. Decreasing traffic speeds a little further will make things safer for all.
With these simple guidelines, it should be possible to design bike facilities that both are safe and feel safe to cyclists. The example of Munich (Germany) shows that it is possible to make cyclists feel safe and get more people to cycle, without pushing them off the street onto separated cycle paths.
Munich and Bicycle Boulevards
Munich, southern Germany’s biggest city, has embarked in recent years on an ambitious program of improving its bicycle facilities. The city has been removing or modifying facilities that have been shown to be unsafe. New facilities are either constructed as painted bike lanes or “Fahrradstraßen” (“bicycle boulevards”, above), which are turned over to cyclists as the main users. Cars are still allowed, but considered secondary users.
Munich also is installing signs that legitimize cycling on the street (above), even where there are separate paths. This is a big deal in Germany, the country that started the trend toward clearing the road of cyclists to provide unobstructed room for cars.
Combined, these measures have increased cycle use in Munich (as a proportion of all trips) by 70% in 9 years. 17.4% of all trips in Munich are made by bicycle. This growth far exceeds that of those German cities where segregated cycle paths remain the preferred option.
It is well known that better facilities, where cyclists feel safe, bring out more people on bikes. Munich shows that this goal can be achieved without segregated trails and without compromising safety at every intersection.
Whereas European cities often do not lend themselves to the creation of “bicycle boulevards,” North American cities provide an ideal setting for streets that are dedicated to bicycles. Here is why:
European cities usually have an “organic” street layout that grew over time (Copenhagen shown above). For any given destination, there usually is only one relatively direct route. This means that cars and cyclists have to be routed on the same, busy streets. Creating a “bicycle boulevard” means closing an important traffic route for cars.
Most North American cities are built on a grid (Seattle shown above), which provides multiple routes for each destination. This makes it easy to provide separate “arterials” for bikes and cars. (The map above shows the “car arterials” in yellow.) Creating “bicycle boulevards” is relatively easy in this setting.
Bicycle boulevards are the ultimate separation, because they channel traffic flow differently for cars and bicycles. Even where bicycle boulevards cross “car arterials”, they do so at right angles, which eliminates the “right hook” and “left turn” hazards. These hazards occur when cyclists and turning cars “share” the same intersection. Where a bicycle boulevard cross a car arterial, either the cars or the cyclists have a green light, so they do not “share” the intersection.
Mark, one of Bicycle Quarterly’s bike testers, pointed out to me that we privately already use what effectively are bicycle boulevards. We have mapped the city to find routes that are fast, efficient and yet away from the main traffic arteries as much as possible (above our northward route). Formalizing these routes as “bicycle boulevards” would be a win-win for all cyclists, and even local residents, who’d enjoy quieter streets and increased safety from cyclists keeping an eye on things.
One thing that is important for efficient bicycle travel is to give bicycle boulevards the right-of-way over cross-streets. Otherwise, they are little different from neighborhood streets with a relatively high accident risk at every intersection.
All we need in North America is the political will to dedicate a few streets – which see little traffic anyhow – as bicycle boulevards. Give them the right-of-way over cross streets, signal the intersections with car arterials, and install appropriate traffic calming devices to sure that cars don’t use them to avoid congestion elsewhere. It’s a relatively simple solution, and we are lucky to have the conditions in place that makes this possible. We could be the envy of Copenhagen cyclists, as they ride on narrow, congested paths and have to deal with turning traffic at every intersection.
Of course, bicycle boulevards cannot go everywhere, so there will still be a need for on-street bike lanes. And separate trails can provide good options in some places. This basic guideline also needs to be adjusted for local conditions.
Conclusion: Better facilities bring out more cyclists. Which facility is best and safest depends on the conditions. North American cities are uniquely suitable for bicycle boulevards, which provide the ultimate in “protection” and “separation” by channeling car and bicycle traffic on separate, parallel routes.
Postscript: For those living in Seattle, the new bicycle master plan, which includes many miles of segregated cyclepaths will be presented at open houses in June. This is an opportunity to make your voices heard. Click here for dates and locations.
Click here to read more posts about cycling safety, cyclepaths and bike lanes.
Photo credit (path along freeway):

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Separated Cycle Paths – A Summary

When I criticized the new “cycle path” in Seattle – the first of many that the city plans to install – I was surprised by the number of comments (more than 260), but even more about how much agreement there is between the proponents and opponents of separating cars and bikes. Since this is an important subject, I am summarizing the “take-home message” here:
Bad design: The commenters from all over the world almost unanimously agreed that the path I showed (above) is poorly designed. One Danish reader wondered whether it was an old path, since putting cyclists on the wrong side of traffic has been abandoned in Europe. (Unfortunately, it’s brand-new, and considered a prototype for future paths.)
Separate paths are less safe: Numerous people posted links to safety studies. There appears to be general agreement that separated cycle paths are less safe at intersections. Data from Berlin and Denmark show a marked increase of cyclist (and pedestrian) injuries at intersections after cycle paths were put in. (The results were adjusted for the increase in ridership.) The graphic above shows the relative risks for cyclists depending on where they are traveling. The most dangerous path is on the wrong side of the street. The safest is on the street.
(If you want to verify the above, check out this bef0re-and-after study from Copenhagen, as well as this study from Agerholm and this one from Copenhagen. The official Copenhagen study concluded: “The cycle tracks have resulted in increases of accidents and injuries of 9-10%.”)
Safety through Design: Several riders from Europe commented that some safety concerns have been resolved through smart design. Above is a brief Dutch video that explains how the separate path can be designed so that cyclists no longer appear from behind the turning car driver. This design does appear much better than the ones we are implementing in the United States right now. However, the Dutch design assumes that both car and cyclist arrive at the intersection when the light is red. Most drivers and cyclists try to time it so that they arrive when the light is green. In that situation, the cyclist again can find themselves behind the car, and close to invisible.
Another problem with separate paths is the inconvenience to the cyclist. Where a car driver can go straight, the cyclist has to make a right, a left, another left and finally a right turn to negotiate the intersection. And if the cyclist wants to turn left, she has to wait an extra light cycle, since she has to cross two traffic lights instead of one. For short bike trips, which predominate in the Netherlands, this is not a problem, but efficiency is key to making cycling a suitable alternative for the longer commutes that prevail in the U. S.
“Subjective” vs. actual safety: The advocates for separate bike facilities point out that most people feel safer on their bikes when they are separated from cars moving in the same direction. “Feeling unsafe” is the main impediment why many people don’t cycle, so getting more people on bikes requires making them feel safer while riding their bikes.
Data comparing different countries shows that increased numbers of people cycling generally leads to improved safety. It is important to make people feel safe while riding their bikes, so that more people ride, which in turn leads to actual increases in safety. In the long term, this may compensate for the decreases in safety due to the separate bike paths.
To me, the most important question is this: Are “perceived” and “actual” safety mutually exclusive, or can facilities be safe and feel safe at the same time?
Turn-around in Germany: Germany, the country that started the trend toward separating cyclists to clear the roads for cars, now is going the other way. “Fahrradstraßen” (bicycle boulevards) are streets that are turned over to cyclists as the main users. Cars are still allowed, but are considered secondary users. Munich, the largest city in southern Germany, is installing on-street bike lanes and signs that legitimize cycling on the street (above), even where there are separate paths. This approach has been successful: Cycling has increased by 70% in the last nine years.
In the next part of this series, I will examine whether Munich’s model may provide a better way forward for North American cities. It’s time to look at the data to see what works and what is safe.
Update: We posted a proposal for design criteria for bicycle facilities in a later post.
Click here to read more posts about cycling safety, cyclepaths and bike lanes.

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Bike to Work 3: Separate or Equal?

In recent years, there has been a worrisome trend in the U.S. to advocate for separate bike paths (“cycle tracks”), or at least some visual barrier between bike and car lanes. An organization called “Bikes Belong” advocates for “protected bike lanes.” Recently in Seattle, guerilla cyclists installed pylons to separate a bike lane from the car lanes. Why do I call this worrisome?
At first sight, separate bike paths seem appealing. You are away from cars, riding by yourself. (The photo above shows that some riders still don’t feel safe on blacktop and prefer the sidewalk.)
Unfortunately, this idyllic view hides some very real dangers.
To understand bicycle safety, it is important to look at the actual, rather than perceived, dangers. The danger of being hit from behind or being “clipped” by a car passing too close is very small. It accounts for less than 5% of car-bike accidents.
Most accidents involving bikes and cars occur at intersections. Leaving aside accidents that are the cyclist’s fault (and thus more easily avoidable), there are three common scenarios:

  1. A car pulls out of a side street and doesn’t notice the approaching cyclist who has the right of way.
  2. A car is about to turn right and doesn’t realize that there is a cyclist traveling in the same direction in their blind spot on the right. The car cuts off the cyclist, often with fatal consequences.
  3. A car turns left and doesn’t notice an oncoming cyclist. The car turns into the cyclist’s path.

In all cases, the driver did not notice the cyclist. This is the greatest danger for cyclists: being overlooked in traffic. Since drivers usually scan the road for cars, cyclists are safest if they ride where drivers look for cars. To be safe, cyclists must be an equal part of traffic.
Look at this view from a car windshield. You plan to turn right at this intersection. You see a car far ahead, but otherwise, everything appears clear. Will you realize there is a separate lane coming toward you, on the far right? Even though the cyclist is wearing a yellow vest, he is not in your immediate field of vision. A few moments earlier, the cyclist was completely hidden behind the parked cars. (At least the city doesn’t allow parking close to the intersection here.)
This photo also shows how misleading the term “protected bike lane” is. The protection ends right where you face the greatest danger: at the intersection.
Any barrier that separates the cyclist visually from other traffic effectively hides the cyclist. This is counterproductive to safety. Moving cyclists out of the roadway altogether, on separate bike paths, is even more dangerous, because drivers don’t look for (or cannot see) cyclists off to the side.
Imagine planning a right turn in the image above. You approach the intersection, the light turns green, you go. If you are vigilant, you can barely see the cyclist behind the parked car. Now imagine if the cyclist was still a bit further back. She’d be invisible. You’d turn right into her path. Let’s hope she has good brakes!
These are not hypothetical concerns. The police department in Berlin, Germany, found that on streets where “protected bike paths” were installed, the frequency of cycling accidents greatly increased. (The results are significant even when corrected for various factors, such as an increased number of cyclists traveling on these routes.)
In addition, this particular separate bike facility is counter to what we’ve taught cyclists for decades: it is dangerous to ride facing traffic. Doing so remains dangerous, even if the bike lane asks you to do so. And if you refuse to ride there, you incur the wrath of motorists. While riding around to take these photos, I had one elderly lady lean out of the window of her Buick and yell: “Now get in your bike lane!” 
A little further down the hill, the city hasn’t constructed the bike path yet (above). Riders ride on the street, where they are visible and expected. This is much safer than the separate bike path. If I were a driver planning a left turn into a driveway here, the cyclist would be right where I look for oncoming traffic. (Moving a little closer to the center of the street would make him even more visible.) I use this street frequently, and I am not looking forward to being pushed onto a segregated bike path on the wrong side of the street!
Separate paths are useful and safe where there are no intersections (above). Cross-country paths can provide a relaxing and safe alternative to busy highways. Trails like these also can be a good place to ride with children who are not yet in full control of their bicycle. (As long as there is little foot and bicycle traffic – busy trails with erratic users are the worst place for novice cyclists.)
On streets with frequent intersections, separate paths only make cycling less safe. I wish those who advocate for them would look at the data and stop asking for facilities that will cause more accidents.
An on-street bike lane (above, on uphill right side) is a much better solution to separating bicycles and cars. It keeps cyclists on the roadway as a legitimate part of traffic. To novice cyclists, it may be disconcerting to be passed by fast-moving cars, but it is safer to be an equal part of traffic than to pop out from unexpected places as you cross intersections on a separate path.
Separate cycle paths are appealing to many cycling advocates because they exist all over Europe. And in Europe, more people cycle, and cycling is safer. So it’s easy to think that the cycle paths are the reason for cycling’s success in Europe.
Having lived in Europe, I believe that cycling there is successful in spite of (and not because of) the bike paths. It may help to know that separate bike paths originally were not introduced to make cycling better, but to clear the road for cars during the 1930s (by the car-obsessed Nazi government in Germany). For that reason, cyclists were required by law to use the bike path, whether it was well-designed or not. Other European countries quickly followed this “innovation.” It spread to yet more countries when Germany invaded much of Europe during World War II.
As early as 1936, the French Cyclotouring Federation lobbied for bike lanes painted on the road, instead of mandatory, but dangerous, bike paths. In Europe, that battle still is going on more than 75 years later, because the Nazi-era laws remain on the books to this day, even in cycling-friendly places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen. (To be clear, I am not implying that those advocating for separate paths should be in any form compared to Nazis. I only included this for a historic perspective on why European cyclists are required to cycle on segregated facilities.)
As North American cyclists, we are lucky that we retain the right to use the road. Let’s not give it up!
Addition: The discussion in the comments was summarized in another post.
Further reading: The most common bicycle accidents.

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Bike to Work 2: Where to Ride?

Many cyclists wonder whether it is safer to ride to the very right of the road – out of the way of cars – or whether they should “take the lane” and ride in the middle of the lane as if they were a car.
The answer is: “It depends on your speed.” If you are going roughly as fast as the cars surrounding you, you should “take the lane.” (If there is no traffic at all, then you definitely should “take the lane”.)
Being in the middle of the street makes you more visible, especially for cars coming out of side streets. Cars also won’t pass you and then cut you off as they turn right. Since your speed is the same as that of the cars around you, you aren’t holding up traffic.
In the photo above, I am riding down a steep hill, and I am taking the lane. The city has painted “sharrows” on the road to encourage me to do so. The sharrows also legitimize my being in the lane, which is important as it affects how drivers react. Rather than being perceived as an “uppity cyclist,” I am simply following the rules.
If you are going much slower than other traffic, it is best to stay out of the way as much as safely possible. For the uphill side of this steep street, the city installed a bike lane. Cyclists travel slowly uphill and can stop quickly if a car cuts in front of them, or if traffic exiting a side street does not see them. Taking the lane in this situation would greatly inconvenience faster traffic and provide few advantages.
Kudos to the City of Seattle for this inspired piece of traffic design, even if it came about because there isn’t enough room for two bike lanes on this street.
The same reasoning applies to route selection. If you are riding slowly, you most likely will be safer and more comfortable on small neighborhood streets (above). Here, you can “take the lane” to be more visible, and you still can stop if this becomes necessary.
However, if you ride fast, you are probably safer on a main street that has the right-of-way at most intersections. Take the lane, and your trip will not just be more efficient, but also safer.
For me, this means that in hilly Seattle, I use different streets for the same routes, depending on my direction of travel:

  • For uphills, I prefer the quiet neighborhood streets.
  • When going downhill, I stay on the bigger “arterials” as much as possible.

How do you select the safest routes in your city?

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Bike to Work Month: Riding Safely

May is “Bike to Work” month. With winter weather behind for most of us, it’s a great time to use your bicycle more often for transportation, and not just for recreation. Cycling for transportation for most of us means that we often ride in the city. Safety is a major concern, so this month we are preparing a series of posts about cycling safety.
To start with, let’s look at one of the greatest dangers to cyclists: poor riding skills. More than half of all cycling accidents and 16% of cycling fatalities do not involve collisions with other vehicles. So how can you improve your riding skills and avoid crashing?
The biggest step is learning to control your bicycle with confidence. It may appear counterintuitive, but riding timidly makes you less safe. Not only is your bike more stable and maneuverable at higher speeds, but if you know its limits, you are better able to respond to unforeseen hazards. You can stop faster or change direction quicker without risking a crash.
Here are four things you can practice to improve your confidence in handling your bike. Do this only while riding on a traffic-free stretch of road:
1. Ride in a perfectly straight line.

  • Why? Not wobbling will make you safer and more predictable in traffic.
  • Where to practice: Ride on the white “fog line” at the edge of the road.
  • How to do it: Relax your grip on the handlebars. Your bike will go straight, if you let it find its own way. As you sense your bike’s movements, decrease your inputs until you are riding in a very straight line.

2. Place your bike on the road with accuracy.

  • Why? If you can place your wheels exactly where you want, it’s easy to avoid hazards like potholes and debris.
  • Where to practice: To practice, go between two lane marker dots without touching them with either wheel.
  • How to do it:  Your bike goes where you look: if you look at a lane marker dot (or pothole), then you’ll hit it. Focus instead on the gap between two lane-marker dots. Here, too, relax your grip on the handlebars. You only can go where you want if you don’t wobble.

3. Brake hard.

  • Why? You will be amazed how quickly you can stop.
  • Where to practice: Braking is best practiced on a downhill. Let the bike roll, then brake hard. Repeat and brake even harder.
  • How to do it: Use only your front brake. Shift your weight back and lock your elbows to brace yourself against “going over the bars”. (This is the only time you want to grip your handlebars with force.) The photo at the top of the blog shows the correct technique.

4. Jump your bike.

  • Why? Being able to jump over cracks, steps in the road or small potholes greatly increases your safety in traffic. Jumping also is helpful when faced with railroad tracks that run at an oblique angle to your direction of travel.
  • Where to practice: First work on just getting the wheels off the ground a little. Then pick a line in the road and jump over it.
  • How to do it: For those of us who did not grow up with BMX, this will work best with clipless pedals or toeclips. Make sure your feet are secure. Bend your knees and elbows, then launch your body upward. Your bike will follow.

Once you master these four skills, you’ll be a much more confident and safe rider. What exercises do you use to improve your confidence and ability to control your bike?

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Are "Safer" Cars a Menace to Cyclists?

Today’s papers report of a new government safety initiative: Cars talking to each other, for example, to warn the driver that cars ahead are stopped at a red light, or that another car is about to ignore a stop sign and blow through the intersection. A pilot project in Ann Arbor, MI, will have 2800 cars “talking to each other,” to gather data about the system’s effectiveness before it is made mandatory in all new cars.
“This is a big day for safety,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said at the University of Michigan, as the experiment was kicked off. I am not so sure. Does more technology make driving safer? Or does it lull drivers into a sense of safety, and makes them less alert?
If I know that my car will warn others if I “miss” a stop sign, do I still look for signs as much as I did before? And if I don’t look out as much any longer, what else will I miss?
My biggest concerns about this new technology are the people it leaves out: Cyclists and pedestrians will not be equipped with transmitters. As a modern driver is approaching an intersection and relying on the sensors to tell whether other traffic is approaching, he or she will be less likely to look out for pedestrians and cyclists. I also can imagine the “talking car” flashing an alert about cars stopped a block ahead, even though the driver really should be watching for a cyclist approaching from the right.
“I didn’t see you” already is the most common excuse we get when somebody almost hit us. Really? You didn’t see a large, bright, moving object that was just 30 feet away?
The sad truth is that with many new cars, the driver might as well say “I could not see you.” Modern cars have thick pillars for rollover protection, and thick padding on top of these thick pillars to protect the occupants’ heads if they slam against them in accidents. All this extra “safety” has created huge blind spots. In fact, the “safety device” used in the experiment (see photo at the top of this post) creates an additional blind spot and adds distraction right in the driver’s field of vision.

A few years ago, I almost was hit by a driver in a first-generation Honda Odyssey minivan (above). She had a stop sign, I had the right-of-way. She stopped and I proceeded. Then she started as well, oblivious to my approach. After I came to a stop, rear wheel off the ground, inches from her passenger door, she rolled down the window and apologized: “I am so sorry, but this car has a huge blind spot at the front, and I did not see you.” Peering inside, I could see that there were two thick pillars with a tiny triangular window in between, creating a blind spot that extended from about 1 o’clock to 2 o’clock – exactly the place where a cyclist or a pedestrian coming from the right would be.
Why is this legal? Despite our obsession with safety, we seem to assume that accidents just happen, and that we can’t do anything to prevent them. In addition to the padded pillars, the Honda was equipped with airbags, so that the driver would be protected when they hit the things they could not see.
There is increasing evidence that this approach is not working well. The United States has the safest cars in the world (mostly because our cars are bigger than most other countries’), yet our traffic fatalities are among the highest in the developed world, and unlike the rest of the world, they aren’t decreasing much, even as our cars get safer. It appears that as our cars get safer, our driving gets worse.
What would happen if we used the money spent on airbags for driver training instead? What would happen if we stopped making accidents “survivable”? Would the quality of the driving improve? Would drivers pay more attention if they realized that each drive might be their last?
As it is, I feel that attempts to make cars safer by correcting for drivers’ errors are a real menace for cyclists and pedestrians. I feel that we should encourage drivers to pay more attention to their surroundings, not less. I hope the study in Ann Arbor looks at that. Will any reduction in car-to-car accidents by the “talking cars” come at the expense of an increase of car-to-bike and car-to-pedestrian accidents?

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The Dangers of Narrow Tires

It is unfortunate that most “road” and even “hybrid” bikes are sold with tires so narrow that you cannot cross streetcar tracks at an oblique angle without risking a fall.
The Seattle Times reported recently about a rail line that crosses a city street not far from my house. “A bicyclist falls there daily,” the article reports. A business owner at the tracks found that “bike wrecks are so constant he keeps a first-aid kit at his front door.”
Over the past decade, there were 66 crashes serious enough to call out the fire department. Then there are the accidents on Seattle’s drawbridges, where cyclists fall into one-inch-wide cracks, sometimes with horrific consequences. There has been much talk about what could be done to make these places safer for cyclists, but gaps and tracks simply are part of the urban landscape in which we cycle.

I know that a skilled rider can bunny-hop across tracks and cracks, no matter at what angle they run. However, the fact is that many people ride bikes who are not that skilled. Nor should they need to be.
With the 42 mm-wide tires of my Urban Bike, I have experimented (at low speed) with the gap next to the rails. Even when crossing the tracks at a very shallow angle, the tires just rolled over the gap.
Since we cannot eliminate tracks and cracks from all roads, why don’t we fit 42 mm tires to the bikes that are sold to most cyclists? Wider tires would make cycling much safer. Besides, the current research indicates that wide tires are at least as fast as narrow tires. In fact, I never felt that I was handicapped during Paris-Brest-Paris last week by the 42 mm tires on my new randonneur bike. Of course, bikes with narrow tires would still be available for enthusiasts who really like the look and feel of narrow tires – but they’d come with warning labels.

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