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Bicycle Safety

Two weeks ago, I drove to Berkeley, eager to attend the first in a series of CyclingSavvy workshops, which were being offered for the first time on the West Coast. I arrived to find a room full of equally eager people, from all across the state of California (and beyond.) There were some impressive resumes in the room, people who have spent years, decades, advocating for and educating cyclists. The kind of people everyone who uses roads in California should thank, but who rarely get the thanks they deserve, because bicycle advocacy isn’t as high-profile or glamorous as one might think.

For those of you wondering what CyclingSavvy is, it’s a new bicycling education program focused on teaching effective traffic cycling skills. If you’re wondering what the big dealio is, let’s just say that, in the bicyclist educators ring, there’s been a lot of buzz about the curriculum’s approach. Sure, you may not have heard of CyclingSavvy, but bicycle education gets about as much media coverage as bicycle advocacy. For a more thorough discussion of what CS is and how it’s different, you should read this.

In an effort to avoid a review so lengthy it requires an intermission, I’ll try to limit this post to broad impressions and save the nitty gritty for future posts. Having been certified by the League of American Bicyclists as a League Cycling Instructor, my comments will likely compare the CS material to LAB’s.

The inaugural West Coast classes were led by CyclingSavvy Co-Founder, Mighk Wilson, from Florida, and CyclingSavvy Instructor Gary Cziko, from Illinois. Friday’s workshop was a lecture on topics ranging from bicycle traffic code and traffic cycling principals to route planning and problem-solving strategies. First, let me say that no matter how you dice it, there’s a lot to cover in the lecture. And presenting the material to a room full of seasoned, outspoken cycling educators presented unique challenges, to put it mildly. While Mighk was presenting the second half of the lecture, Gary snapped a quick shot of the room:

Oh sure, they look soft and cuddly, but this crowd asked some tough questions.

So, general impressions: The helmet-cam videos were awesome. They serve as a powerful illustration of the traffic cycling principals being taught, more so, I imagine, when the audience is familiar with the roadways in the videos. But that’s a job for future California CyclingSavvy Instructors to tackle. Gary and Mighk are visiting from out of state so we’ll cut them some slack. The lecture is content-heavy. Even with certain commonly covered topics eliminated, CS introduces enough fresh content that it’s a lot to absorb in 3 hours. The slides are complex the presentation could use some streamlining. There were just too many words on the screen most of the time. Perhaps broad concepts could be covered in an online module similar to this one and the lecture used to reinforce the ideas and discuss details.

In the interest of getting this review published sooner rather than later, I’ll save the on-road review for another post. From what I saw in Friday’s lecture, the CyclingSavvy program offers some awesome, practical
information on how to plan routes and take advantage of patterns in traffic flow and clearly communicate with motorists to minimize potentially stressful interactions on high traffic roadways. There is a heavy emphasis on urban riding which is, for the most part, great, except that I would love to see the program delve further into strategies for the heavily trafficked narrow, rural roadways that we encounter here in Southern Marin. Sharing the roads in my little slice of California presents challenges for which I have yet to find a good solution. CyclingSavvy is a big step in the right direction and, with a few modifications to address certain West Coast conditions, is the type of course that all cyclists could attend and walk away from having learned something new and useful. This isn’t cycling 101, it’s dancing for cyclists. We could all stand to learn a few new moves.

About two weeks ago I signed up for group CompuTrainer classes at Velo SF, located in San Francisco. In case you missed my last post, I’m in Mill Valley, north of the City.

I'm up here and Velo SF is down there.

So over the weekend I decided it was pretty silly driving my car to a cycling class in hopes of getting fitter on the bike. Much better to ride to class. I’ll be leaving at 6am when it is still dark outside which of course means I’ll need gear. I have lights but what I don’t have is a good hi-vis jacket and a backpack. While florescent hi-vis yellow may not be fashionable, it is easier to see at 6am before the sun is up and the coffee has kicked in. In low light, our eyes are particularly perceptive to bright yellows and greens. I’m so behind the haute couture curve, I don’t really care how cool I look in a jacket, but I do care about getting to where I’m going safely and being seen by sleepy motorists is an important part of the equation.

So I headed off to Studio Velo where I found a Rapha jacket and backpack with some cool visibility features. The chartreuse colored jacket with reflective accents is a shade hipper than florescent yellow but still very easy to see in low light. The backpack is pretty cool. In normal light it looks like a rather plain black backpack:

Back of jacket, side of backpack without the camera flash.

But when a a light hits the reflective stitching and details, the backpack looks a little different…..

Front of backpack and jacket, with camera flash.

Back of jacket, side of backpack with flash.

Nice! Visibility? Check.

The jacket is windproof, water resistant, and easy to wash. Sorta.

I'm pretty sure there are no othems of like colour in my closet.

Bolinas-Fairfax Road, typical of many of the roadways along the area's popular cycling routes. Note the narrow lanes, poor shoulder conditions, and my lane position. (Photo by Chris Hobbs)

California’s commonly misunderstood “Far to the Right” law reads:

C V C Section 21202 Operation on Roadway

Operation on Roadway

21202.  (a) Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except under any of the following situations:

(1) When overtaking and passing another bicycle or vehicle proceeding in the same direction.

(2) When preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway.

(3) When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes) that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge, subject to the provisions of Section 21656. For purposes of this section, a “substandard width lane” is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.

(4) When approaching a place where a right turn is authorized.

(b) Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway of a highway, which highway carries traffic in one direction only and has two or more marked traffic lanes, may ride as near the left-hand curb or edge of that roadway as practicable.

Out of all the reckless cyclist and motorist behavior I’ve seen in California, I think a majority stems from the misunderstanding/misinterpreting of this portion of the California Vehicle Code. The misunderstanding is across the board – cyclists don’t use the rights this law gives them, motorists don’t seem to think it gives cyclists any rights to the roadway, and perhaps worst of all, law enforcement doesn’t seem to think so either.

Honestly, this section of the CVC should be an empowering, liberating bit of law for cyclists. After all, it reinforces a previously given right – to ride on the roadway. Here’s a newsflash: Shoulders are not roadways. Per CVC 530: “A ‘roadway’ is that portion of a highway improved, designed, or ordinarily used for vehicular travel.” Shoulders certainly aren’t designed or improved for ordinary vehicle travel. I cannot help but wonder if cyclists are dooming themselves to the shoulder by making it a place “ordinarily used for vehicular travel.”

There are some common-sense items written into the code, such as moving left to avoid hazards, moving to the left for left hand turns and when approaching right-turn only lanes. Aside from being not-so-common-sense for some, these are topics I’d prefer to save for future discussions. Back to the liberation….

21202 (3) empowers cyclists to take the lane on narrow roadways: “For purposes of this section, a “substandard width lane” is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.”

Many of the roads on which I, and countless others, cycle are narrow roads, with one lane in each direction and a disappearing/re-appearing, debris filled shoulder. Speed limits range from 25mph to 55mph on these twisty, hilly roads and traffic can be quite heavy on a warm sunny day. More often than not the cyclists are crammed, single file, into the shoulder as motorists pass, often alarmingly close. Seriously, alarming. Perhaps the worst was a ChPs patrol car who passed within 3 inches of me along Hwy 1, where the speed limit was 50mph.

I don’t know if I have a point for this post yet. It’s a warm, sunny day today and I did a humbling, crippling set of intervals this morning. I think I will take my bike for a walk, perhaps take a few photos of the road conditions (assuming I can make it up Mt Tam to get to these roads) and I’ll take note of the motorists’ responses to my lane positioning. I can tell you from previous experience, it’s not what some of you will be expecting….

Recently I moved from Dallas Texas to Mill Valley, California which is just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. While there are many things I love about riding here, there are just as many things I hate, bike lanes being one of them. Many of the bike lanes I’ve experienced here are Door Zone Bike Lanes, DZBLs, consisting of a bike lane installed adjacent to parallel parking. It looks something like this:

Bike lane along Bridgeway, a busy thoroughfare in Sausalito, CA. Photo by Joshua Hart.

In less than four weeks I have been in so many hazardous bike lane situations that I have lost count. They are fraught with danger, these bike lanes. Some are relatively obvious, such as debris the bike lane, parked cars in the bike lane, drivers side doors opening while you pedal along in the bike lane, and cars turning right at intersections without checking for traffic in the bike lane. There are also some less obvious hazards such as getting cut off by a motorist who suddenly sees an open parking space and jacks their car into it without remembering there was a bike lane between him and that parking space. Or getting cut off by a motorist turning right to enter a driveway or parking lot, especially the motorist who has just realized THIS was the parking lot and quickly brakes then turns into the lot.

I find it ironic that for the two years that I lived and rode in Dallas, Texas, with all it’s busy streets and cyclist-hating rednecks, I hardly ever felt like I was in danger of getting hit by a motor vehicle. The streets where I rode in Dallas had no bike lanes, I rode on the road in a lane just as any other vehicle. Yet here I am in Northern California, well known for it’s cycling culture, and I am absolutely convinced that I will be hit by a car here. Pretty much every time I ride my bike here I encounter at least one situation which could have resulted in a collision had I not been riding alert and defensively, aware of potential dangers. Now I suppose you could argue that one ought always to be riding alert and defensively, and you’d be correct. I agree, knowing what potential dangers exist and how to avoid them is a very important element of bicycling safety. However, I think minimizing these dangers by not creating hazardous conditions in the first place is equally important.

California has a mandatory use law that states that if a bike lane is present, cyclists must use it. The law does allow cyclists to leave the bike lane under certain conditions, one of them being to avoid a hazard. Lately I have wondered if I am riding on a street with a bike lane, which I have come to view as hazardous by their very nature, I am legally justified in taking the lane with the rest of traffic since the hazardous condition that exists is the bike lane itself. Personal experience has taught me that I am far safer driving my bicycle as a vehicle on the road with the rest of traffic, than I am riding in any bike lane. Hmmm….now that I think about it, that sounds vaguely familiar…

“Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.” – John Forester

Door zone bike lane on Bridgeway in Sausalito. Photo by Joshua Hart.

Currently, I live in East Dallas in an urban area. To get anywhere on bike requires navigating city streets with moderate to heavy traffic. This morning a friend (we’ll call him Joe) and I were talking about a group ride dilemma he’s facing. Joe, who is himself an experienced cyclist, has been asked to plan safe ride routes for A (experienced) B (intermediate) and C (novice) level groups from an urban starting point, Mockingbird and Central Expressway.

Mockingbird and Central Exprwy, close to where many of my friends live.

Joe wants to find a route that avoids traffic but, as you can see, where we live that’s not possible. My advice: Hold urban cycling workshops and make attendance a prerequisite for ride participation, preferably for all riders but, in the very least, for the novice cyclists. Rather than trying to avoid traffic, I think a better solution is to learn how to ride safely IN traffic.

Joe may be on the fence about offering urban cycling classes but, fortunately, there are several organizations in the Dallas area that do hold skills workshops and traffic safety classes, many of which have on-the-bike lessons. Below are links to the groups I know about. If I missed someone, let me know!

Cycling Savvy – An excellent program, originated in Florida, now being offered here in Dallas by friend and all-round great guy, Waco Moore. You can find out more about the DFW Cycling Savvy program by visiting them on Facebook and on the Cycling Savvy website.

Cycling Center Dallas: SMART Cycling Classes – Learn how to ride with confidence and competence in an urban environment. Develop basic skills and hazard avoidance maneuvers in a safe, friendly environment. For the current class schedule visit the Cycling Center Dallas website.

Bike DFW Traffic Skills 101 – Techniques and skills for riding in North Texas’ cities including: riding on multi-use trails, riding in bike lanes, and techniques for negotiating city traffic safely and comfortably. For a course schedule send an email to education@bikedfw.org or check their website.

There’s a lot of good urban cycling advice online, but there’s also a lot of bad, potentially dangerous, and just plain wrong information out there too. Use your common sense. Think of your bike as a vehicle; navigate intersections and traffic using the same principals as you would were you in a car. Don’t just ride your bike, drive it.

Here are a few trustworthy sources for information on safe cycling: