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Posted by on Jun 3, 2009 in Smart Moves | 16 comments

Mindful Bicycling

Mindful: Bearing in mind; regardful; attentive; heedful; observant

What do these signs tell you when you're riding? Do you know when a bike lane is misleading you? What do you do when a lane ends? Do you always merge right when a lane is added to tthe road? What does a roadway cyclist learn from a pedestrian countdown clock?

What do these signs tell you when you’re riding? Should you always merge right when a lane is added to the road? Do you know when a bike lane stripe is misleading you? What do you do when your lane is going to end?  What can a roadway cyclist learn from a pedestrian countdown clock?

We write often about bicycle driving, a concept that originated with and has evolved from Effective Cycling. The focus of bicycle driving discussion and education is usually on the mechanics of how to position ourselves, handle certain road configurations and avoid the mistakes of other road users.

The mechanical components of cycling education are:

  • the rules of the road;
  • crash causes (and statistics);
  • road configurations (intersections, turn lanes, interchanges, weave lanes, diverges, drop lanes, bike lanes, etc.);
  • safe positioning on the road at and between intersections;
  • and emergency handling techniques.

The overarching goal of teaching all that mechanical information is to give students the resources for situation awareness—the key component of mindful cycling—in traffic.

Situation awareness is the perception of environmental elements within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future.

That sounds pretty complicated, but it actually becomes second nature once you understand where the dangers are and where they are not. For example, it’s hard to have good situation awareness if you’re obsessed with overtaking traffic. A cyclist’s decision-making requires paying attention to the road ahead and reading the signs and environmental clues that allow for proactive decision-making.

We need to look for roadway hazards like parked cars, potholes and curb extensions. We can travel more efficiently and safely when we anticipate and look for signs of changes in the roadway, like:

  • the right lane becoming a continuous right-turn lane, drop lane or highway on-ramp;
  • a new lane entering from the right (where you’ll need to merge right), or forming a short weave lane (where you should not merge right);
  • the bike lane ending or traveling to the right of right-turning traffic, or being striped completely wrong;
  • expiring pedestrian countdown clocks that can tell us whether to speed up to make the light, or slow down because it ain’t gonna happen.

All of these things require situation awareness and forward attention.

Looking and planning ahead is something novice drivers (of all vehicles) don’t do well. This is partly due to their inexperience with road design and traffic dynamics, and partly due to anxiety. Anxiety diverts a tremendous amount of cognitive energy away from awareness.

Mindfulness vs vigilance: going beyond defensive driving

Defensive driving can be characterized by vigilance.

When I first started riding a motorcycle, I experienced a lot of “surprises” on the road despite being tense and watchful. Although I had taken the MSF safety course, motorcycling felt quite dangerous to me because it seemed like there were conflicts everywhere. I was always driving defensively and reacting to my environment, in a state of hyper-vigilance. It was quite exhausting.

Yet, after several months of riding, the surprises went away. I discovered that as I relaxed, I was able to see and anticipate the movements of other drivers. Once I lost the anxiety, the world slowed down around me and I found myself in a state of awareness that did not require so much vigilance or defensiveness. The combination of my relaxed state and the foundation of knowledge I’d acquired in the safety course allowed me to easily process what was a threat and what wasn’t. As I sensed the need, I would casually shift my speed or position on the road to increase my visibility or avoid conflict.

As a motorcycle driver, making the transition from anxious and frequently-surprised to relaxed and mindful was relatively easy—much easier than as a bicycle driver. Why? Because I didn’t have to overcome any cultural stigma about my right to control my environment. There is no taboo against a motorcycle driver controlling a lane, because motorcycle drivers are never expected or required to share a lane.

Unfortunately, that stigma (reinforced by bad laws, speed-centric road users and mollycoddling bike advocates) keeps most bicyclists from making a complete transition to mindfulness. For some, vigilance is as good as it gets because they’re operating in ways that make conflict inevitable. This state of mind is not only stressful, it’s not enough to protect them.

Mindless bicycling

salmon cyclist sidewalk cyclist

Mindless cycling has many forms:

  • Simple ignorance: obliviousness of the need to follow the rules of the road, the danger of riding against traffic, the potential hazards of car doors, blind spots and being invisible to other drivers (not understanding where the dangers are, thus mindlessly staying out of the way of same-direction traffic at all cost).
  • Selfish ignorance: Not considering the impact or logic of our actions. For example, passing a short queue of cars in a narrow lane, and then making them have to pass you again, and again (queue jumping isn’t all bad, but it does require some mindfulness… and caution).
  • Cultural ignorance: the stunted decision-making that comes from the belief that we are not fully equal vehicle drivers. This results in delayed actions or decisions which increase the difficulty of riding in traffic. An example is, waiting until the last minute to merge to the left lane for a left turn and getting trapped by a platoon of overtaking cars, when you could have merged earlier in a long gap between platoons and been where you needed to be when they began to overtake you. Another example is using a gap to swoop clear to the opposite side of to road and then ride against traffic to the left turn.
  • Facility-induced ignorance: riding through a door zone or into the blind spot of a truck because the paint stripe leads there.
  • Groupthink: from club rides to charity rides to critical mass, groups of cyclists can be some of the most frustratingly mindless road users. Some practice submissive inferiority behavior at the expense of group safety. Some use their feeling of empowerment to treat the road like a playground (to the point of endangering other bicyclists). Some just mindlessly follow route marks without thinking about anything (I watched a group on an MS ride, swoop across 3 lanes of traffic when they encountered a left-pointing route arrow).

Unlocking our mindfulness

Whether we are alone or in a group, we all have a responsibility to be mindful individuals.

Becoming a mindful cyclist is much more a psychological process than a mechanical one. Unlike other vehicle drivers, knowledge and experience alone doesn’t take us all the way to mindful practices. Simply teaching a person the mechanics of safe cycling doesn’t always change their behavior. Information is an important component, but it takes more than that to overcome the mythologies and change our self-perception.

Achieving optimal situation awareness, safety and ease of travel on my bicycle required not only understanding the dynamics, but overcoming my enculturation into staying out of the way. Once I opened the hatch and jettisoned that baggage, I was able to achieve the same zen state of mindful bicycling that I experienced as a motorcycle driver.

As a cycling instructor, I’m always looking for the key that unlocks that hatch for students. My end goal is not to deliver information, but to inspire transformation.

Mindful advocacy

The best accommodation a community can offer for cycling is an ongoing, sustainable education system which nurtures and empowers mindful, safe, effective bicycle drivers. The result is good for bicyclists, bicycling and the community at large.

16 Comments

  1. Thank you, Keri, for a wonderful post. Mindfulness is something that we should all be practicing. Not just when cycling, but throughout life.

    Sergeant-Major Stafford, of my reserve unit, The Royal Regiment of Canada, had a saying: “Learn to use your head for more than a hatrack!” This saying would normally be uttered along with a few other colourful expressions when someone was not mindful.

    The problem with cycling is that cyclists include people like eight-year-old children cycling to school. Or people like myself who sometimes get lost in thought or distracted. I am mindful about 98% of the time, but would rather not get killed during the other 2%.

    Quite frankly, there are a lot of urban roads in the USA that I would never, ever send my children cycling upon. For those like my children and myself who cannot be 100% consistently mindful, safety can only come through engineering and infrastructure. See, for example, the children and adults cycling to school and work in Holland at:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=NL&hl=nl&v=2n_znwWroGM&feature=channel

    or

    http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2008/09/rush-hour.html

    The great thing about cycling in these videos is that people don’t have to be mindful. Virtually all primary and secondary school children cycle to school because their parents know that it is safe to do so. I would not send my children cycling to most schools in the USA because it is not safe to do so.

  2. 1) I would most definitely NOT want to use a facility full of bicyclists who were not being mindful! My experience with bicyclists on busy trails or at mass ride starts is that if you’re not vigilant, you stand a good chance of crashing. If find it incredibly stressful. Children, in particular, are extremely unpredictable. Motorists are, for the most part, predictable. The established rules of the road are designed to make them predictable. And most of them make mistakes or break rules in ways that are pretty predictable, too.

    2) People get killed on trails when they are not mindful, too. The combination of thinking you don’t have to be mindful and stop-sign fatigue from constant intersections can be deadly.

    3) We have several trails in this area that lead to schools. Some get use, some don’t. We also have a lot of schools in residential areas with nice quiet streets leading to them. There’s no need for a system of cycletracks in residential areas. A lot of access problems can be solved with spot infrastructure. It’s not trails that create that kind of ridership, it’s encouragement programs.

    4) The Dutch do have education programs. They take cycling more seriously and they treat the bicycle as a vehicle, even as they segregate bicycles from motor traffic. That cultural difference is significant. They engineer the cycletracks with a whole different attitude than we build trails. You can’t import the concept without the culture.

    5) even so, you’ll find this on the website of the Dutch Ministry of Transport:

    “The blind spot has been a problem for cyclists and pedestrians for years. Too many road users die every year because drivers do not see them when turning. In 1998, twenty moped riders and cyclists died in blind-spot accidents. Relatives and next of kin are devoting themselves to solving the problem.”

    Blind spot crashes are preventable by a cyclist who is informed, mindful and not forced by discriminatory laws to use facilities which put him out of position at intersections. Building facilities that place people in bad positions instead of teaching them how to avoid completely preventable crashes is irresponsible. (Same applies to dooring.)

  3. Keri wrote:
    “I would most definitely NOT want to use a facility full of bicyclists who were not being mindful! Children, in particular, are extremely unpredictable.”

    Kevin’s question:
    I presume that you do not mean to imply that you do not want to share the road with children. My own approach is that one has to take care around children, but that every so often an eight-year-old is going to do something unpredictable and crash into me. Even if I’m completely stopped and not moving at all. Fortunately, such crashes usually result in zero damage.

    Keri wrote about Dutch traffic engineering:
    “You can’t import the concept without the culture.”

    Kevin’s comment:
    They did in Japan and many other Asian countries. Indeed, I think it fair to say that there are far greater cultural differences between Japanese and North American culture than there are between Northern European and North American culture. There are certain laws of physics and engineering that transcend culture.

    There are also certain laws of human nature that transcend culture. One of which is that it is impossible to be 100% mindful all the time. I certainly am not. I’m estimating for myself that I’m at 98%.

    That doesn’t mean that I’m going to go around deliberately pushing that number down by riding around wearing headphones and chatting on a cell phone. I does mean that I’m mindful of the fact that I’m an ordinary fallible human being who every so often is going to get distracted, lost in thought or not pay attention.

    For eight-year-old children, I’m estimating that number at about 70%. So that 30% of the time they are not as mindful as they should be.

    Fortunately, engineering our public spaces and roadways to make them safe for children to travel also has the effect of protecting me in that 2% of the time that I’m not mindful.

  4. I see the software removed my little snip indicator. There were two sentences that I deleted from the quotation from Keri in my previous post. Next time I’ll use ellipses. Apologies for any confusion.

  5. 85% of my ride to work is on roads where it is suitable for me to be lost in thought (so long as I’m present enough to obey the stop signs). Those roads are also suitable for children to ride on. For the other 15%, it is unlikely that parallel infrastructure would create an environment safe enough for an eight-year-old. Intersection crossings on parallel infrastructure create MORE need for mindfulness, not less.

  6. “A true bicycle method is one that can be safely used by a child” – Enrique Penalosa, Mayor of Bogota 1998-2001

    That quotation is taken from around second 45 of the video at:

    http://www.streetfilms.org/archives/physically-separated-bike-lanes/

    The video is based upon the New York environment, but also has examples from Canada and Northern Europe. I particularly like the examples of bad and good bicycle infrastructure. Sometimes knowing what not to do is a vital tool to knowing what to do.

    I also particularly like the video’s examples of intersection treatments to ensure cycle safety at intersections.

  7. fan·ta·sy (făn’tə-sē, -zē):

    The creative imagination; unrestrained fancy. See synonyms at imagination.

    Something, such as an invention, that is a creation of the fancy;

    A capricious or fantastic idea; a conceit;

    An imagined event or sequence of mental images, such as a daydream, usually fulfilling a wish or psychological need;

    An unrealistic or improbable supposition;

    Bicycle infrastructure suitable for children along complex urban or suburban/arterial roads.

  8. If something actually exists, it is a bit… well… fantastic to call it a fantasy.

    Many cities ranging from Copenhagen to Montreal to Seoul to Bogota to New York have taken complex urban roads that were dangerous for children (and adults!) to ride on and transformed them into safe routes. Note the wide variety of continents and cultures in these examples.

    Public space, such as roads, is just that, public. And should be safe for children and everyone else.

    “There are those who say it cannot be done. Then there are those who go ahead and do it” – Rudyard Kipling

  9. Kevin, your comments are off topic. This is not a discussion about cycletracks, trails and other infrastructure that separate cyclists from motorists. This is a discussion about the need for anyone operating a bicycle — which is a vehicle, not a toy — to be mindful when “driving.” The kind of mindless behavior you describe as being acceptable — no desirable — is exactly the kind of behavior I steer clear of — on cycletracks, trails, roads, parking lots….

  10. Kevin Love wrote:

    “Fortunately, engineering our public spaces and roadways to make them safe for children to travel also has the effect of protecting me in that 2% of the time that I’m not mindful.”

    So you choose to be mindless your 2% of the time when you know that you are with children and are protected on some bikeway with 0% possibility of collision with motor vehicle. Or, you advocate 100% segregation so that you can be mindless 100% of the time. I pity the other bikeway users.

    I’m not convinced the Dutch treat bicycles like vehicles; they are more like rolling pedestrians. Bicyclists there have inferior rights to even mopedists, who with a max speed of 45 kph (I hit 60 kph everyday on my bike) are granted broader use of the roads than bicyclists. Woo hoo! The thought of riding my bike at 8 mph in order to have the illusion of safety (mindless) on Dutch style urban facilities makes my brain scream in pain for conscious mindfulness.

    Wayne

  11. It is dubious that a road transportation facility can be designed that can be safely used by untrained children. Or, quite possibly, by untrained adults, either. However, what is certain is that a facility designed for use by such persons requires all users to operate as if they were ignorant children instead of as competent drivers of vehicles, and thereby significantly reduces the utility of bicycle transportation.

    This works at a low level of satisfaction when the competition is between cycling and walking, but it is absolutely useless when the competition is between cycling and motoring. This is the typical case in modern cities, and is particularly so in the USA.

    To say nothing of the fact that facilities said to be designed for safe use by children are, in origin and all to frequently now, merely intended to make motoring more convenient.

  12. KL: “Virtually all primary and secondary school children cycle to school because their parents know that it is safe to do so. I would not send my children cycling to most schools in the USA because it is not safe to do so.”

    Cycling to school by primary and middle school-aged kids has dropped dramatically in the last couple of decades, not because parents are afraid for their kids to ride their bikes (although there is some of that), but because they are afraid of pedophiles (another media-hyped fear campaign).

    The drop in 8-18 year old cyclists has had a positive impact to a lot of cycling “activists”. It has caused the number of cycling fatalities to decrease. Some prominent bicycle safety organizations think that reduced cycling by children is a positive trend.

    The two primary causes of young childrens’ auto-related fatalities on bicycles are ride outs and failing to yield right of way at intersections. Segregated facilities have no impact on the driveway ride-outs, and will exacerbate the intersection problems.

  13. (An attempt to shift the discussion away from the interminably boring (to me anyway) path vs. roadway debate.)

    Teaching mindfulness entails the hands-on approach. Many people are incapable of mentally projecting themselves into a new situation; (e.g. vehicular cycling and lane control). Keri & I both come from a graphic arts background, so we may be better attuned to the challenge of having someone understand a concept without seeing the final product. It’s one thing to create a mock-up of an ad to show a client; it’s quite another to try to get someone to do something they are fearful of. Video will work with some, but it’s still too easy for the inexperienced and fearful person to discount. “So you showed me 5 minutes of video; so what.”

    Of course this isn’t an either/or problem. People are on a continuum of being able to imagine themselves in the new situation.

    It was relatively easy for those of us with many miles of roadway cycling experience to accept and attempt the “new” concept of lane control. We were already doing it in situations like left turns.

    (To go back to the graphic arts analogy. In the old days before computers, we’d first do a rough sketch of the idea and get the client’s preference, then work up a few “comps” which were more detailed and get the client to choose one, then work with the printer to develop an image of exactly what the piece would look like. At every key step of the way we made sure the client was comfortable with the product before making a more expensive (riskier) decision.)

    You have to start with where that individual is and bring them along incrementally, introducing them to faster and more complex roadways only when they are ready.

    Which means that WE as INSTRUCTORS must be MINDFUL.

    And we must do that when we’re WRITING as well.

    Bravo Keri!

  14. Mighk said: Video will work with some, but it’s still too easy for the inexperienced and fearful person to discount. “So you showed me 5 minutes of video; so what.”

    When I’m sitting in front of an hour of video from trips on University Blvd. and Goldrenrod Rd. and all that video has are perfect interactions — motorists changing lanes and giving us plenty of space, I’m faced with this dilemma. How do I show this? I mean, it’s really the entirety that makes it so significant. The entirety of uninterrupted good behavior, as well as the long gaps during which we are utterly alone on a 6-lane arterial road (at rush hour) are what I want to show.

    How do I show that? No one is going to watch hours of boring video where nothing dramatic is happening.

    People who want to prove that cycling is dangerous can ride in ways that invite danger. A series of close-calls can be captured with relatively little riding time. They can be cobbled together into a short and dramatic video that people are drawn to. It will resonate with the audience because it confirms their belief system (and everything they’ve been told about cycling).

  15. “How do I show that? No one is going to watch hours of boring video where nothing dramatic is happening.”- Keri

    It depends on who the Star of the video is. If it is Keri or the BOBies, it would be easy to watch! ;)

  16. I second that opinion, ChipSeal. Watching Keri on her bike is better than watching ballet or the opera. My latest favorite is the lane-change-from-the-rear, but it’s only my favorite until her next installment appears.