The State of American Bicycling
The self-reinforcing spiral of fear
The root cause of the problems for bicycling in the U.S. is the oppressive belief system about who the roads are for. We have car-culture amnesia about our public road system and who is entitled to use it. Enforcers of the culture of speed have used intimidation and fearmongering to subjugate the drivers of human-powered vehicles. The result is that most bicyclists ride in ways that increase their risk, leading to a spiral of increasing fear:
FEAR OF BEING HIT BY CARS
People fear being hit from behind, so they ride on the edge of the road or on the sidewalk
—> SELF-CREATED RISK
Riding on the edge of the road increases risk of being doored, sideswiped and hit at intersections/driveways. Riding on sidewalks increases intersection/driveway crashes and falls from pavement defects and fixed objects.
—> CONFIRMED FEAR OF CARS
Close calls and crashes confirm the belief that roads and cars are dangerous.
—> CALL FOR FACILITIES
Not understanding the cause of their problems, people clamor for bike facilities to make them “safe”
—> MORE CLOSE CALLS AND CRASHES
Bike facilities offer the same crash-conflict problems as curb-hugging and sidewalk-riding
—> HARASSMENT FROM DRIVERS
The belief that cycling on the road is dangerous is echoed by beleaguered cyclists and permeates the entire community. Selfish car drivers feel emboldened to harass cyclists for being “foolish” and “dangerous.”
—> DEEPER FEAR/RESENTMENT OF CARS
The combination of increased conflicts and harassment deepen the belief that “cars” are predators and bicyclists need more and fancier special facilities to protect them.
—> US v THEM
Disenfranchised cyclists make up their own rules and ignore traffic controls meant for all drivers, further increasing their risk and stress, and giving car drivers easy justification for their prejudice against cyclists. Social dysfunction deepens the spiral of fear and ignorance.
Transcendence of the sprial begins with the recognition that there is no “them.” It is us vs ourselves and the culture we have created and continue to reinforce.
The joke is on us
If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything
This conversion of a 14ft lane to 11ft for cars and 3ft for bicycles was done after a bogus study: Effect of Wide Lane Conversions on Bicycle and Motor Vehicle Interactions. Through flawed research methodology and reasoning the investigators conclude that bicycle drivers benefit by having their space reduced from 14 available feet to a 3-foot substandard “undesignated” lane next to a substandard width 11-foot lane. Read more here.
Critiques for similar studies
Critique of An Evaluation of Red Shoulders as a Bicycle and Pedestrian Facility evaluates a report produced by William W. Hunter of the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center for the Florida Department of Transportation.
Bicycling and On-Street Parallel Parking discusses door zone bike lanes (DZBLs) and critiques 2 papers that endorse these dangerous structures.
Your first clue should be that the stencil doesn’t fit. Critique of Evaluation of On-Street Bicycle Facilities Added to Existing Roadways explains why this University of Texas/TXDOT “research” is junk science.
Critique of “San Francisco’s Shared Lane Pavement Markings: Improving Bicycle Safety” is a take-down of one of the most egregious studies I’ve seen. A sharrow is used where a lane is not wide enough for bicycles to be operated along side motor vehicles. There is no reason whatsoever to place a sharrow anywhere but in the center of such a lane. Yet this study resulted in the MUTCD guideline allowing placement of sharrows IN the door zone. You can see the consequences of that poor guideline as documented by Dan Gutierrez here.
Remove the wool from your eyes with more study critiques at Bicycling Matters.
A closer look at some facilities that get us out of the way at our expense
Mandatory use laws: the natural extension
When the non-cycling majority believes it is funding facilities designed to keep cyclists out of the way, it will ultimately demand we be required to use them. In the spring of 2010, a mandatory bike lane law was added to the Florida statutes.
Critical thinking and holistic problem-solving
Creating a healthy cycling culture requires a holistic, multidimensional approach to solving traffic culture problems and changing core beliefs about our roads. These beliefs, and the behaviors resulting from them, are the root cause of why people get injured on bicycles and why many people are afraid to use bicycles for transportation.
For decades, the dominant bicycling advocacy organizations have been stuck in a one-dimensional strategy—building segregated facilities and painting bike lanes. This approach not only doesn’t solve the core problem, it reinforces it by catering to the damaging beliefs at its root.
Bicycle specific infrastructure is an important part of the way forward, but the infrastructure we choose should be designed to increase access and enhance enjoyment, not to shove us out of the way and increase conflicts. And no infrastructure can stand alone in a bad culture.
Bicycling is inhibited by a range of issues from the absurdities of traffic justice, to the territorial behavior of people driving cars, to the behavior of bicyclists themselves. The issues are driven by lack of respect for the bicycle as a legitimate mode of transportation… and cyclists as drivers. The root cause for that lack of respect is the Culture of Speed — an individualistic transportation culture built around the private automobile and the speed and autonomy we perceive it delivers. Every other issue, from substandard infrastructure to bad behavior, comes from the meme of the culture of speed. None of the issues can be solved without addressing the meme.
Key neglected issues
Some articles on traffic justice:
Traffic justice: restoring equity and personal responsibility
Cycling suffers directly from two damaging traffic justice issues:
- Negligent motorists who injure or kill cyclists often receive little more than a slap on the wrist, and sometimes not even a traffic ticket. The culture of speed places little value on the lives of the people most vulnerable to its consequences.
- Bicycle drivers are the only drivers who face police harassment for legal, defensive driving. Defensive bicycle driving often requires a cyclist to operate assertively in a travel lane. The traffic laws in many states, including Florida, are written in such a discriminatory manner as to place the burden on the cyclist to prove s/he is operating legally.
Cycling also suffers indirectly from a broader cultural apathy to justice and roadway safety. Because we’ve built our communities around private automobiles with virtually no provisions for alternative transportation, what used to be a privilege—a license to drive—has become an entitlement. We miss numerous opportunities to reform bad drivers or remove them from the roads before they kill innocent people because, in our culture, it’s viewed as an unreasonable hardship to take away this privilege.
All users of the road pay the price for this, it’s just that bicyclists (and pedestrians) are the most exposed. The overall feeling among the general population is that the system is out of control — the most common justification people give for “needing” an SUV is that they don’t feel safe in a small car — yet the car culture is not motivated to take real action. It is in the interest of advocates for cycling to work for a reform of our traffic justice system and restore a requirement of competence and attentiveness to the responsibility of driving a motor vehicle.
Quality control: demanding facilities that actually benefit cyclists, refusing to settle for inadequate minimums
If bicyclists don’t protest ill-conceived and poorly designed facilities, who will? The roads themselves are perfectly usable, there is no reason for us to be beggars, acting grateful for crumbs from the Man.
DOT studies done in several states have shown that when offered marginal, substandard facilities, bicyclists use them without complaint. Even when the objective results—measuring passing clearance and speed of motorists—show a decrease in service to the bicyclists, the subjective results—surveys of the cyclists “feeling” about the facility—show that cyclists don’t know the difference. Untrained cyclists were so fooled by having their own special space, they thought cars passed farther away when they were actually closer. Similarly, uninformed cyclists were happy when given bike lanes that were almost entirely in the door zone of parked cars. Now, this is good news if your goal is to get cyclists out of the way as cheaply as possible. Not so much if your goal is to look out for the best interests of cyclists.
The lack of quality control from the cycling community—and advocacy organizations that should be safeguarding our interests—emboldens DOTs to build increasingly shoddy facilities, designed only to get us out of the way.
We believe that advocating on the behalf of cyclists, means empowering all cyclists for unlimited, enjoyable transportation… then adding infrastructure, where appropriate, to enhance the access and quality of cycling trips.
One of the goals of this site has been to look critically at infrastructure and expose the most egregious facilities. It is also our mission to empower cyclists to operate on the roads in a safe, conflict-free manner. An empowered cyclist has completely different needs and desires for infrastructure. In fact, much of the infrastructure provided for the uninformed is inimical to the safe and efficient operation of the empowered cyclist. We believe that advocating on the behalf of cyclists, means empowering all cyclists for unlimited, enjoyable transportation—FIRST—then adding infrastructure, where appropriate, to enhance the access and quality of cycling trips.
Permeability: recognizing it’s often small, low-profile things that make the biggest difference
This is a collaborative map we created to allow local cyclists to pinpoint existing or desired connections. Read more about it.
View larger map
Advocates and infrastructure designers love to focus on expensive, symbolic urban projects which cover only a few miles, or even a few blocks, of road. But real bike transportation requires access to the entire grid for connectivity to all destinations. In an urban area, existing infrastructure—quiet streets—creates most of this connectivity. Small permeability enhancements can capitalize on these preferred streets, allowing for greater access to destinations without the need to use noisy, busy roads.
In addition to connectivity, wayfinding signs help cyclists navigate quiet streets. In cities like Orlando, where there is virtually no grid, wayfinding is essential to help a new rider connect preferred streets without getting lost. One of the most comprehensive wayfinding systems I’ve seen is in the city of Dallas (a city much-maligned by bike advocates for having no bike lanes, yet one of the nicest places I’ve ridden a bike).
Civility: changing beliefs about who the roads are for and how that benefits everyone in the community
One of the greatest mistakes of public awareness campaigns is that they are created from the perspective of the beneficiary (in this case, cyclists) rather than the perspective of the target audience whose behavior they want to change. What’s in it for the target audience? Obviously they are engaging in whatever bad behavior you want to change because it benefits them to do so. What’s your better offer? Why do we think telling them to change their behavior to benefit us is going to mean something to them?
The belief that roads are for exclusive use by cars was manufactured by the automobile industry 90 years ago and has, since then, been reinforced with increasing intensity into a mindlessly-accepted culture of speed.
Most cycling public awareness campaigns attempt to convince motorists to see cyclists or pass cyclists safely (most popular are the campaigns advertising the 3ft law). Most are ineffective because they fail to connect to something that is meaningful to the target audience. They’re also fairly redundant because a cyclist can be visible and encourage the desired behavior from overtaking motorists. The motorists most of us have problems with are the ones who see us just fine, but don’t want us on their road.
An attitude study done by Salter>Mitchell showed that the core issue behind roadway incivility (honking, yelling, etc) is the belief that roads are for cars. Of course, this belief was manufactured by the automobile industry 90 years ago and has, since then, been reinforced with increasing intensity into a mindlessly-accepted culture of speed. Sadly, this destructive and pervasive belief is shared by many cyclists as well as motorists. Until that belief is changed, we will not truly achieve an environment where the average novice feels welcome to operate assertively and safely on our roads. Regardless of how many miles of facilities exist in a city, without easy use of the complete road system, cyclists are cut off from many destinations.
But what’s in it for people who don’t ride bikes? ALL citizens are stakeholders in creating a more civil and cooperative roadway environment. The roads are the public space in our community where we all interact every day. The way we treat each other, the way we coexist in that space, affects the quality of our community and the quality of our lives. Read more about this.
This quality of life translates into a community where people want to live, thus quality employers want to locate, businesses thrive and property values are stable even in hard times. Simple civility—tolerance and courtesy—can do this. And it’s free!
Culture change is hard work, but it’s possible if we embrace all citizens as stakeholders and work together toward a common goal of a more human-friendly community
Reality check: telling the good stories
Another fundamental mistake of our messaging is that we paint a picture of constant conflict. This sends a message that being mean to cyclists is socially-acceptable, majority behavior. The good news is, the majority of motorists do not act out in accordance with the core belief system. Regardless of what they may believe, 99% of motorists are civil and safe when encountering an assertive cyclist. In fact, for every one negative encounter, I have a dozen or more experiences with motorists being exceptionally courteous or helpful. This reality gives us an advantage in establishing a new norm. Rather than publicly focus on the bad behavior of the few, we can focus on the good behavior of the many. The more we remove a sense of solidarity with his peers, the less the “one-percenter” will feel comfortable to act out.
Education: changing beliefs to change behavior
A revolution in cycling education requires addressing the core beliefs and misconceptions about safety, delay and who are the intended users of our public roads. CyclingSavvy is the first course specifically designed to change students’ beliefs about their role on the road and teach problem-solving strategy. We are removing barriers to human-powered transportation and transforming lives. Learn more.
As with civility, in order to change behavior, we must change beliefs. A person who consciously or unconsciously subscribes to the belief that bicyclists are second-class road users cannot adopt the essential techniques of an empowered cyclist.
Changing the behavior of cyclists on the road is one of the most powerful elements of changing the traffic culture. Cyclists themselves can establish new norms just by asserting their right to use the road.
There is no substitute for education to give a person safe, efficient access to destinations.