A Maine Yankee Bike-Commutes Orlando
In Maine, where I live, people who are visiting, or even people who may have lived in Maine for years but who were not born there, are referred to as “from away.” I’ve lived in Maine for 13 years, but I’m not from there, so I’m still “from away.” But Southern Maine has enough other people who are “from away” too that we still feel at home, most of the time.
Over the weekend of January 7-9, I was warmly welcomed and made to feel very much at home, even though I was “from away”, by the good folks at Commute Orlando. I traveled to Orlando to experience the Cycling Savvy course first-hand. Although I have been bike commuting full-time for 8 years now, and have been a licensed bicycle educator with the League of American Bicyclists for two years, I sensed that this course had a fresh approach to offer, and that I might even learn a thing or two I hadn’t thought of before, and I did. Commute Orlando founder and Cycling Savvy co-founder Keri Caffrey was a very gracious host, arranging for a get-together Thursday night at Bikes Beans & Bordeaux to allow me to meet many of the regulars here, and devoted her Friday to showing me some of the highlights of bicycling around Orlando.
When the class started on Friday night, the first thing that got my attention was the title presentation slide, specifically the course subtitle, “Empowerment for Unlimited Travel”. I’m sure I must have seen this phrase before, like in the sidebar just to the right of this article, but somehow it really struck me anew seeing it up there on the big screen. That is exactly what bicycle traffic education can and should offer, and which purely engineering solutions, in the absence of any cyclist education, never can and never will. Education is empowerment to allow the bicycle transportationalist to keep him or herself safe without relying on the planners, the police, the pedestrians, or the paramedics, and certainly not on the other drivers (to paraphrase Robert Hurst’s turn of phrase in The Art of Cycling). It is unlimited because the techniques are based on the rules of the road which have been developed for drivers of all vehicles over the last 100 years, which have been proven to help prevent roadway crashes on all roads, not just those that include on-road bicycle markings. (In many cases, the rules of the road are clearer and work better for both cyclists and motorists when they are not complicated by those markings.) And while this is good stuff to know even for the weekend warrior road cyclist who may rarely encounter a major signalized intersection on her training route or charity ride, it’s absolutely crucial to those biking primarily for travel in urban areas, some of whom will never show up for a weekend club ride.
Keri is a professional graphic artist, with experience in website implementation illustration and Flash animation. She has spent the last few years adding point-of-view videography to her skill set, working with experienced bicycle videographers such as Brian DeSousa and Dan Gutierrez at Dual Chase Productions and Robert Seidler (the producer of the Effective Cycling video). She has also been through the motorcycle safety course. All of these skills and experiences come together to make Cycling Savvy different in some major ways from other bicycle education offerings. She and co-teacher Mighk Wilson (Orlando Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator) have married the traditional left-brained traffic cycling education curriculum of crash statistics and rules of the road, with a new and exciting right-brained presentation approach which respects different adult learning styles. Visual presentation, discussion, and experiential learning are all incorporated into the complete 3-session course.
Video footage of ordinary people of both genders, riding in ordinary clothing on ordinary bikes, on local streets that are familiar but initially very intimidating to many of her Orlando students, is used extensively throughout the classroom component, as are Flash animations of common problem scenarios and how to avoid them. With technology what it is today, it was inevitable that someone would do this, but Keri has done more than just be one of the first out of the gate, she has done a first-rate job of it to boot.
In the classroom session, the videos and animations, with information about applicable traffic laws, are presented as discussion points, leading the students through the primary psychological hurdle facing all bicycle traffic education: getting students over the notion that riding with motor vehicle traffic is dangerous, foolish, and only for the young, fast, fit, and brave. Keri kids that she used to believe, along with many critics of vehicular cycling, that it was only for the bold and fast, but now that she’s gotten “old and slow” instead, she has realized how untrue that is. (Although, it must be noted, she’s only my age; draw your own conclusions. ) In fact, higher speed is often less safe, and there are distinct advantages to being small and slow. Most cyclists imagine small and slow to be drawbacks in an imagined “battle” against motor vehicles, but this combative perspective is disdained by Cycling Savvy in favor the metaphor of traffic movement as a dance you can join.
Many adults returning to cycling may start out unconvinced about their ability to ride in heavy traffic, but they do at least want to learn better bike-handling skills for their recreational riding on trails or through their quiet neighborhood. The “train your bike” parking lot drill class addresses this need, and is for some people the gateway to the confidence they need to dare hope that maybe they could actually do more. This session is the most similar to existing bicycle education courses, but Keri and Mighk have broken the drills down into smaller components than usual, to lead students who may be uncertain of their bike handling skills, sometimes to the point of fearing their bike, slowly but steadily to the traditional stand-by’s such as the quick turn and instant stop, building confidence along the way. Keri tells the class she and LisaB developed the “follow-the-leader” exercise as a way to teach Keri’s mother. (Imagine teaching your mother to bike!)
All three sessions may be taken separately, but the classroom and skills session are both prerequisites to the crowning session, the “Tour d’Orlando”. (I just made up that title.) More than just a simple group ride through the city, this session leads students through a series of problem-solving exercises incorporating some of Orlando’s most challenging sections of road, including complicated interstate exchanges. Each exercise is described, often drawn in chalk on the ground, and after a demonstration by one of the teachers, each student is given the chance to ride individually through the area. Extremely nervous students are allowed to request someone ride with them, but Keri reports that even the most traffic-shy are often game for giving it a try alone, after watching the others, and the euphoria they experience after doing it successfully is literally life-changing for them. Suddenly they can ride, alone, somewhere they always assumed was impossible for them to go!
League Cycling Instructors will note that this curriculum does leave out some components of the League’s education courses. For the audience that Cycling Savvy is intended to reach, Keri reasons that most of them are not primarily interested in working on their own bikes, and most bike shops teach tire changing, so why should bicycle education duplicate that effort? Also omitted is some associated general knowledge such as different kinds of bikes and the names of the parts of the bike. Mechanical information on gearing is included only insofar as it is necessary to understand how to shift.
The Future of Bicycle Education
Cycling Savvy is clearly directed at the adult transportational cyclist, not the traditional club cyclist. Given the current economic situation and the rise in gas prices which will surely occur as the economy recovers, the adult transportation cyclist could become cycling’s fastest-growing demographic. Cycling education has traditionally found it difficult to reach this demographic, probably because they don’t tend to join the cycling clubs that education has traditionally been based out of. Paint proponents have observed this and concluded that “education doesn’t work”. Aside from the fact that by that, some of them simply mean that it isn’t an easy way to make beginning bicyclists feel safer in the way that bike lanes do (actual safety issues aside), they do have a point that traditional education has had difficulty gaining cultural traction. It asks more of the bicyclist, in return for the greater independence it gives.
So far, Cycling Savvy has done well in attracting this urban transportation cyclist, and well beyond the stereotypical fit young males that vehicular cycling critics claim are the only people willing or able to ride in this style. In fact, since the curriculum first started being taught last summer, the average age for Cycling Savvy students has been 47, 18% were 65 or older, and 36% were female. Only 24% were under 35. These are no Lance wanna-be’s.
But despite Cycling Savvy’s success thus far, more marketing work probably remains. Just as the classroom session of the course must help students overcome the cultural fear against mixing with motor vehicles, the marketing must somehow reach potential students with the same message for them to even consider taking the course. As noted above, hooking people into the curriculum initially with the drills session is one promising strategy.
The need for this education is obvious. Assuming that economic conditions and gas prices will indeed work to increase transportation cycling over the next 20 years, what will we do when we get even larger numbers of uneducated cyclists taking to the streets (and sidewalks) on old bikes that don’t fit them, riding chaotically according to their own idiosyncratic logic that no motorist who must react to them can decipher? Build more bike lanes, in which they can ride the wrong way in door zones, only to find themselves at intersections with no clear idea of what to do then except head for the crosswalk? Even if paint facilities do increase cycling numbers (a debate I do not have the time to get into here), is this the behavior we want to induce? Clearly, education will be required with or without paint facilities.
Some paint advocates do have good intentions regarding cyclist education, and some are beginning to realize that education is necessary even with facilities (ironically). But follow through is often lacking. Funding is much easier to get for capital infrastructure projects than for education, and the paint advocates have become very established at petitioning their local officials for more miles of bike lanes (to be perceived as “bicycle friendly”) and making sure the federal support keeps flowing.
If you ask them, the majority of bicycle advocates (many of whom don’t ride for transportation in urban areas every day) will tell you they think that both paint facilities and education should be done. To them, facilities simply provide a more accessible alternative for the traffic-shy cyclist, and experienced cyclists are still “free” to make a more vehicular choice. But I am coming to believe, and I think I can safely speak for Keri on this, that paint markings and bicycle driving are not nearly as compatible with each other as many want to believe.For one thing, by the time you take into account operational problems, non-standard implementation, and discontinuity, using bike lanes can really be more complicated than just following the rules of the road in the first place. Many Cycling Savvy graduates have gone into the course as bike lane fans, but as they begin riding more assertively in more places around Orlando, have gradually reached the conclusion that the bike lanes just complicate the situation. If that’s the case, and we must educate cyclists in any case, that complicates the education too, and makes the riding appear more difficult than it really is.
Secondly, how true is it really that cyclists have a choice to not use a paint facility where one exists, even in places where they have not (yet) been made mandatory? Taking up road space for a bike lane almost always decreases the adjacent general travel lane to a non-shareable width, eliminating the possibility of safe lane sharing outside the bike lane. Try riding outside of the bike lane on a street that has one, even where it is narrow, in the door zone, and/or full of debris. Try defending that choice to a police officer, or another cyclist who is convinced the bike lane is necessary for cyclist safety and accuses you of doing harm to all cyclists by not using it. Try responding to the motorist who tells you, as one told me last month, “They make bike lanes for a reason, you know.” (This was on a road totally lacking even a shoulder, much less a bike lane, although in any case most people have no clue there is a difference. The implication was clearly that bicyclists should only be on roads with bike lanes, a conclusion others I know have had stated to them point-blank.) Anyone who has commuted by bike full-time for more than a year has encountered these types of problems at least once!
To their credit, some advocacy organizations, such as my own Bicycle Coalition of Maine (full disclosure: I am a board member, although the opinions I express here are not necessarily those of that organization, its staff, or other board members) have great intentions for education and are actively working in that area, with some good results. Those of us critical of some paint infrastructure especially need to have an effective alternative to promote. It is my belief that the Cycling Savvy program should be a model for education efforts to the adult transportation demographic, and I am personally anxious to help bring the program to Maine. All bicycle educators should be extremely interested in the Cycling Savvy program, and I look forward to its being developed to the point of export to other places around the country.
Thank you Keri and Mighk for developing this curriculum, and to Lisa, Rodney, John, Kitzzy, Jason, Bill, Brad, Darlyn, and all the others I had the opportunity to meet and talk with during my visit! Enjoy your winter riding season, have fun, and be safe!