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Posted by on Jan 11, 2011 in Uncategorized | 33 comments

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.

CommuteOrlando group at Bikes Beans & Bordeaux

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.

Course Review

CyclingSavvy Course opening screen

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 of regular people handling intimidating situations with confidence

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.

Cone weave is a warm-up drill to loosen students up for the progression to emergency maneuvers

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!)

Chalk Drawing

Mighk chalks out the infamous Ivanhoe interchange with Interstate I-4

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.

A door-zone bike lane, encouraging cyclists to ride where they could be injured or even killed

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!

33 Comments

  1. John,

    Although I didn’t have much of a chance to get to know you, I am glad to have at least ridden with you and take the course. This article was great and seemed to sum my feelings of the course perfectly. Happy riding!

    Zach

  2. While I wholeheartedly agree about the benefits of education and the problems with infrastructure, I’m concerned with this presentation’s tone that weekday commuters are more virtuous than weekend recreational riders, and particularly with the inferences that could be drawn from your comment “Anyone who has commuted by bike full-time for more than a year has encountered these types of problems at least once!”

    There are lots of massively experienced cyclists, both commuters and recreational, logging thousands of miles annually, who still lack the traffic understanding that comes from Road 1 or Cycling Savvy. Some participate weekly in large group charity centuries on nearly-vacant rural roads, or who travel the world on guided touring vacations. These are the people who write letters to the editor and stand up at planning meetings, asserting that their miles*years of experience confers expertise and authority (thereby claiming to be simultaneously both elite and anti-elitist), and pleading for more paint on the streets to protect them.

    I understand your point that commuters will (per mile traveled) be exposed to more signalized intersections and more traffic situations than riders on charity centuries. But that doesn’t mean those commuters will necessarily have thought any more clearly or employed any more valid methodologies in handling those situations. Without education they’re likely just hugging the curb or salmoning on the sidewalk, hoping for the best.

    • Bob,

      Many often do not chose to travel by bicycle because of the perceived fear that the roads are inhospitable to do so. Especially in the non rural areas. I’m sure you have heard the argument before.

      Cycling Savvy is designed to make the cyclists that WANT to know more comfortable with themselves and their bicycle handling skills. It is all about empowering them to become a better cyclist, regardless of riding style.

      In all fairness, I personally took the TS101 class in February 2010. This class was led by seasoned “roadies” and very limited mention about transportation cycling. All static displays were high end road bikes and clothing example was limited to cycling specific, not everyday clothing. I was bored out of my wits to say the least.

    • Bob,

      As someone who is more of a transportation rider than a recreational or fitness rider, I guess I’d have to admit to some temptation to identify more with the one group than the other, and you know how the different bicycle subcultures sometimes like to poke fun at each other. That was not my intent, but I’m sorry if my tone in places may have implied that.

      My comment that you quoted was meant to say that the regular commuters are the ones that are most likely to be confronted about their lane position choice, because they are out there every day in situations that often require more assertive positioning. (And also, as you point out, more likely to be exposed to more intersections and traffic.) I guess that does somewhat imply they are the ones being assertive and riding correctly. Did it come off sounding like ALL regular commuters know what they’re doing, or that regular commuters are MORE LIKELY to know what they’re doing? I guess I meant by implication just the ones who do know what they’re doing, since they are the only ones being assertive. And it’s true that it’s not just commuters who are educated and know what they’re doing, but then we still come back to the fact that educated assertive commuters are more likely to get flack for it than educated assertive recreational riders, only because the commuters are in those situations more frequently. So I guess I was saying “they would know”, which I suppose could sound a little condescending.

      I’m still not really clear on what you meant, so I hope this sort of answers your concerns. If not, let me know.

    • I think many planners, engineers and public officials like paint because it’s quantifiable and the general public is very interested in results, metrics and other types of ‘baseline measures’. Florida’s comprehensive planning regulations require that objectives be ‘measurable’, our newly elected Governor is very much looking for ‘results’.

      As a result, we’ve gotten very good at counting in this state. But I’m not sure that we’ve achieved the desired results. So, one way to ‘measure’ improvements in safety for cyclists and peds would be to set an objective of X number of cycling savvy attendees. Along with those other ‘measures’.

      Public officials need these metrics to justify the money spent. Capital is just always easier than the more esoteric ways of making cycling safer/more accessible.

      To that end, Central Florida has some really nice trails that are used quite a bit as actual transportation facilities. The Cady Way Trail is adjacent to some excellent trip generators and it’s a wonderful alternative, even with its warts, to other more intimidating arterial roadways nearby.

      Anyway, I’m not necessarily in favor of all this counting, just pointing out why capital/paint is so often used to cite how a community has become more ‘bicycle friendly’.

      • Laura,

        Thanks for that! Very good points.

        One of the ways we’re trying to generate “results” is through pre- and post-course surveys. If we can show an increase in confidence and miles traveled for students, that creates a compelling reason to fund the program. Anecdotally, we know the efficacy is very high. Many of our students stay in touch with us through other local activities and tell us all places they are going that they never thought they could go before. We just need to convert that into something that can be processed in the bean-counter world of government.

        I’d love to do a photo essay on the “results” of bike lanes: showing all the salmon on Edgewater; the door-zone riding; the sidewalk cyclists next to the “mandated” arterial lanes; and the predictable intersection mistakes made by uneducated cyclists and encouraged by bike lanes. Could throw in some debris photos there, too. Livingston was particularly disgusting yesterday.

  3. Thank you John, for a wonderful overview and perspective on the course. I wish I’d had more time to talk with you over the weekend.

  4. Great review John.
    Perhaps someday police will actually give out tickets to bike salmon and other illegal cyclists. Then allow them to take the Cycle Savvy course in lieu of paying the fine.

  5. Bob, I’d like to respond to your concern, but I cannot take the time at work to do so. I will try later.

    Meanwhile, apropos to the bike lane discussion, news from the LCI list is that Washington state may be the next state to pass a mandatory bike lane law.

    • I sent the bill’s sponsor an email highlighting the widespread opposition within the “bicycling community”. It looks as if in the sausage making that is drafting legislation, mandatory bike lane was a trade off for safe passing distance. Ironic, I know, since the data shows drivers pass more closely when riders are in a bike lane.

      Rep. Pedersen’s day job is in the same place I work, and he’s an actual bike commuter himself (either that or he likes to buckle a helmet to his bag and drink a lot of water upon arrival at work in the morning) Next time I see him I’ll try to man-up and have a chat.

      • Some of my Facebook friends summed it up very nicely: They seem to be trying for a virtually unenforceable safe-passing law in return for also allowing a very ENforceable mandatory bike lane law. Doesn’t seem like a good deal to me, especially given that assertive lane control already works pretty well for getting decent passing distance.

        • I’ll give them credit for a fairly liberal (and explicit) description of “safe”, and declaring that the cyclist is the judge of what is “safe”. Logically, that makes the law unenforceable, since whatever position the cyclist judges to be “safe” is valid.

          But it’s written in the same style as typical mandatory usage laws, so the chances of that logic actually being understood and followed seem slim.

  6. Hello John, I wish I could have talked more with you but, with all of the folks at B3 that evening, it couldn’t happen!
    Thank you for your great message above. I am one of the 18% over 65 and learned a lot from taking the Cycling Savvy class. I still find it hard to believe that I can do what I do when riding on the streets here in Orlando.
    Best of luck to you and I hope to see you in Orlando again someday.

    • Hello, Stix. Sorry I left you off the thank-you list in the last paragraph. It’s always a risk mentioning any names, because you just know you’ll leave someone out! Thanks for the well wishes, and maybe I will get down there again sometime.

      To everyone down there: Maine’s a nice place in the summer! C’mon up in about 8 months, our August is MUCH nicer than yours! :-)

      • John, as for coming up to Maine, a trip is in the plans for Judy & I.
        A neighbor was there this past summer and spent a week in the East Boothbay area. When they returned they told me I had to go there as I liked boating and boat building. I guess south Maine, in August, is big into showing off the many boat building shops and they are open to visitors. I would love seeing those places.
        We won’t be there this next August as we have another trip planned for this year but, there will be other times available!!
        And, I’m sure, your August would be a lot nicer than ours!

  7. Interesting discussion! I plan to learn more about this program.

  8. John wrote:
    “…education is necessary even with facilities (ironically).”

    Kevin’s comment:
    I have to agree… and don’t really see any irony here. The benchmark of excellence, is, of course, The Netherlands, where there is comprehensive cycle education delivered through the public schools.

    See:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16AO0_08r3o&feature=player_embedded

    I must add that this is paid for by the Ministry of Education, NOT the Ministry of Transportation.

    • The irony is the people promoting facilities in the US are promoting them as a substitute for education with the argument that Americans are not interested education and won’t take a class.

    • Yes, what Keri said is exactly what I meant. That’s how it is here.

      I would probably agree with you that the Netherlands are on the right track with bicycle education. But I say that not knowing anything about the content, just that it is required in school and prioritized much higher than here in the States, and that much is a very good thing. The view of most of the public on bicycle education in this country falls into two categories, both eschewing education: (1) I learned how to ride a bike when I was 6, what more is there to know, I’ll just go out and do it, or (2) I’m afraid to ride with cars, bikes and cars just don’t mix, so I’m just not going to try. I wonder if both views originate with the idea of bikes as toys, not real transportation, that is still prevalent here.

      • JohnB described one of the reasons for lack of bicycle education: ‘I’m afraid to ride with cars, bikes and cars just don’t mix, so I’m just not going to try.”

        It doesn’t have to be fear, it could also be unpleasantness. It’s generally noisy and uncomfortable to be near a lot of fast-moving cars without being inside one of them.

        • Mike says, “It doesn’t have to be fear, it could also be unpleasantness.” This is true and was my one of my reasons for not riding on the streets. But, since I took Keri’s Cycling Savvy class, I have started feeling less ‘unpleasent’ and the more I ride the less it gets.

          Granted, I don’t ride on the streets regularly as I am retired and don’t have a schedule to meet (most of the time). Being with the cars/trucks/buses on the streets is scary but the more I’m exposed to it the less scary I am and I have Keri, Mighk and Lisa to thank for that!

        • My “unpleasant feeling” comes from riding in a concrete canyon like http://goo.gl/maps/acGW because the traffic noise reflects off both walls and aggravates my tinnitus. When there’s open space my ears can relax and I don’t mind traffic nearly so much.

        • “unpleasantness”

          Not to mention the 90+F (33C) weather with 90+% humidity that we have most of the year here. So there are plenty of reasons.

          • Oddly enough, engineering for cyclists rarely includes any sort of weather protection. I can’t recall a city earning “bicycle friendly community” status based on “miles of awnings”. ;-)

          • If I was giving awards, I’d have a category for miles of connected tree-lined streets (without #$#% bricks).

          • Hey, that’s my neighborhood you’re talking about!!

          • Orlando is in exactly the same climate zone as Osaka, Japan. This is Köppen Cfa. To quote from:

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osaka#Climate

            “Summers are very hot and humid. In the months of July and August, the average daily high temperature approaches 35 °C (95 °F)”

            The bicycle mode share in Osaka is 25%.

            That flushing sound you hear is another flimsy excuse going down the toilet.

          • Yeah, and Orlando has exactly the same culture, land use and transit system as Osaka, too.

          • In general, there are a lot of variables involved in mode share, and to boil it down to one or two, such as infrastructure, climate, topography, or whatever, is probably an over-simplification. Probably economics plays a larger role than any of those. But rather like bicycle advocates, it is said that if you laid all the economists in the world end to end, they still would not reach a conclusion. ;-)

          • Keri,

            Those things are all human choices. Climate is not. Those human choices can be, and have been, changed in many places. One of those places is where I live. I know it can be done because I’ve seen it being done.

          • John,

            In my opinion, the #1 reason for high bicycle mode share is to make the bicycle the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of getting from A to B. All other factors such as climate, hilly terrain, whether or not people enjoy cycling, cost, etc, etc, fall into second place.

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