Roads are for People

Photo by Keri

I dream that some day this gentleman will feel comfortable, safe and welcome riding on the road with his dogs, his kids or a load of groceries.

It is already safe to ride on the road—far safer than the sidewalk—no matter your cargo. But people can’t get their heads around that because they don’t feel safe. And more importantly, they don’t feel welcome.

Bicycling and our community

We hear lots of buzzwords these days: livable communities, sustainability, complete streets, mode share. The core principle behind the buzzwords is that a community where people can easily use non-motorized transportation (walk or ride their bikes) is economically and physically healthy, and a desirable place to live. It’s a place like this.

People want to live, and employers want to locate, in a community where kids ride their bikes to school, families ride together to a park, people ride or walk in their neighborhoods, or to nearby shopping opportunities.

Essential ingredients to creating this kind of community are civility and respect.

Another way to look at the roads

We take to the roads every day to get from point A to point B. We think only of our own schedule and purpose (which is more important than “theirs”). As motorists, we become anonymous islands in steel boxes, crossing paths and getting in each others’ way for several hours every day. But what’s happening here?

Our roads are the one place where we interact as a community every day. We touch each others’ lives on the roads, every day. And we’re stressed out, pissed off and treating each other like enemies.

I’ve said this before. If my only interactions with fellow road users were behind the wheel of a car, I would probably believe the roads were too dangerous and inhospitable for cycling. Fortunately, I have a different perspective because I’ve learned to operate cooperatively among my steel-encased, fellow citizens. Sometimes our interactions even help them remember their humanity.

Much of my writing on this website is to try and help other cyclists learn to do the same. The Dance is a beautiful and empowering thing. Every cyclist who learns it is making a contribution to enhancing the quality of our community.

Our traffic culture

While most motorists are cooperative with an assertive and confident cyclist, there are still the few who wish to enforce selfish beliefs that we do not belong on “their” roads. Those people are emboldened in a community which does not take a stand against their corrosive attitudes. Their actions limit cyclists’ access to roads which are perfectly safe, but made unpleasant by harassment. The result is fewer people choosing to ride, and the majority of those who do, choosing to ride in ways that make them less safe.

Here’s the reality:

  • On the whole, cycling is much safer than motoring (with about half the fatalities per million hours).
  • In an analysis of Orlando bicycle crash data1, only 8% of crash victims were riding lawfully on the road.
  • Only 2% of daytime crashes involved overtaking motorists, and all but one were sideswipes (motorist trying to squeeze past in a narrow lane).
  • 44% of cyclists who were hit by cars were riding on the sidewalk – because riding on the sidewalk increases your risk of being hit by a car!
  • In 2003-04 there were 17 fatalities. Sixteen involved cyclists violating right-of-way, riding at night with no lights and/or riding while intoxicated. (In light of this, go ponder that first bullet-point again.)
  • 63% of Florida adult cycling hospitalizations do NOT involve a motor vehicle (Fla. Dept. of Health)2— the most common hazards are in the places cyclists ride to stay out of the way.

It’s safe and easy to ride on the road and follow the rules. In fact, that is the best way to enjoy crash- and conflict-free cycling. People don’t do this largely because they have been made, by our culture, to feel like interlopers. As a result, many cyclists put themselves at risk of injury or death—riding on the sidewalk, riding against traffic, hugging the edge of the road and skimming parked cars.

To empower more people to ride safely, we must change perceptions, defeat mythologies and cultural biases, and improve civility toward our fellow road users.

Forgotten truths

Roads are for people.

All citizens have a right to travel by human power on public roads (except some limited-access highways). We test and license operators of motorized vehicles, they operate by revocable privilege (though that’s been sadly skewed toward entitlement in recent years).

All citizens have an interest in the way we interact in our public spaces. All citizens have a stake in the livability of our community.

All citizens will benefit from an environment of civility, cooperation and respect for all road users. And all of us are pedestrians sometimes!

Safety is a product of behavior.

The notion that safety comes from devices like reinforced side-panels, full-curtain airbags, helmets or huge vehicles has led to an overall degradation of conscientious driving behaviors. “But I had to buy a Hummer because everyone else is driving Expeditions!”

Safety is not something we can build or buy. Safety comes from our decisions and actions. Traffic is made up of individual drivers making choices. It is not an uncontrollable force of nature.

We cyclists can control our environment on the road and encourage drivers to make good choices. When we assert ourselves on the road, we are not hapless, helpless victims buffeted by forces outside our control. But we should insist on nothing less than conscientious behavior from all drivers on our public roads.

Changing the culture

Through the generosity of the Winter Park Health Foundation, a coalition of citizens from Eatonville, Maitland, Winter Park and surrounding communities has been formed to take on our traffic culture. The coalition is made up of a broad base of stakeholders—law enforcement, pedestrian advocates, cycling advocates, Safety Council educators and community organizers—working with social marketing experts, Sara Isaac and Tait Martin from Salter>Mitchell.

This will be a testing ground for a Better Way of promoting a culture which supports non-motorized mode share and all its health and livability benefits.


1 Orlando Area Bicyclist Crash Study by Mighk Wilson
2 Traffic Taboo: Law Enforcement’s Key Role in Bicyclist Safety by Mighk Wilson

12 replies
  1. andrewp
    andrewp says:

    Keri, I’m gonna be Devil’s Advocate yet again …… 🙂

    Do you think there is a speed at which a bicycle should not get on the road? I’m looking at the picture you posted, and I’m betting Dad isn’t riding faster than 10mph. Do you see him taking the lane on say, a two lane road with a posted speed limit of 40? Now, if there was this nice, unoccupied-by-pedestrians sidewalk that got him where he was going — maybe to the next neighborhood so he continue his slow ride with his child with minimal worries — is he being unsafe by using the sidewalk? As long as he uses a little caution at any intersection, I don’t think so ….

    I’m not yet convinced about the dangers of sidewalk riding, despite the numbers claimed. I need further break-downs of these numbers. How many of these accidents were kids? How fast were people going when they had these accidents? How experienced was the bike rider? How many at night? Answers to these questions would tell me much more than the raw number given above — but I suspect this would be very hard information to obtain.

    I have ridden, and continue to ride on the sidewalk for part of my daily commute. You know where I’m talking about — Hall Rd. I’m very, very aware of the place where accidents occur — intersections (driveways or roads). By slowing down your speed (to 10mph or less) and looking in all directions, I believe you can negate almost all of the risk associated with sidewalk riding.

    Riding a bike on a sidewalk does not absolve you of your need for “situational awareness” any more than riding on the road does. It’s folks that lose this awareness that are more likely to get into accidents — on a road, a bikepath, or a sidewalk.

    OK, sorry, the Devil made me do it … 😉

  2. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    One has to be careful to control for direction of travel and for whether or not the cyclist was otherwise obeying the rules of the road.
    Since riding against the flow is about 4 times riskier than with the flow, those going against the flow on the sidewalk highly skew the sidewalk risk. A much lower percentage of roadway cyclists go against the flow. If you look at the chart in the Taboo presentation with bicyclist position with motorist at fault, about half were on the sidewalk against the flow. Only 13 percent were on the sidewalk with the flow, and 32 percent were on the roadway with the flow.
    Of course sidewalk cyclists are rarely hit from behind (there was actually a freak fatality during the period of this study where a motorist ran off the road and hit a sidewalk cyclist).
    What we don’t know is how many miles are ridden on sidewalks versus roadways, so a true risk assessment is not possible from the Metroplan data.
    Looking at the law abiding, with the flow sidewalk cyclists, 31percent involved right hooks, 22% motorist driveway driveouts, 27% motorist intersection driveouts, 8% opposing left turns, 5% overtaking/lost control.
    If we just look at adult, law-abiding cyclists hit in the daytime (night-time tends to skew things, too), it looks like this (of 164 crashes):
    Roadway (including bike lanes and paved shoulders) 32% (52)
    Sidewalk Against 54% (88)
    Sidewalk With 15% (24)
    Bike Lane or Paved Shoulder 7% (11)
    Overtaking motorists are of course the key difference between sidewalk and roadway with-the-flow cyclists. When we look at daytime roadway adult cyclists hit from behind, 18 of the 20 involved misjudged space, which can be mitigated by lane positioning. The other two reports did not give enough information to determine why the overtaking motorist hit the cyclist.
    The thing is, the same lane positioning strategy that reduces overtaking crashes, also reduces right hooks, opposing lefts, and driveouts; this is something sidewalk cyclists cannot do.
    So simply moving from the sidewalk to the roadway MAY not significantly reduce a cyclist’s risk; training in lane positioning would seem to make the real difference.

  3. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    BTW, this is all pulled directly from our crash study database and not found in the on-line report. There are nearly infinite ways to slice and dice this data.

  4. Keri
    Keri says:

    Thanks Mighk. You address the statistics better than I do.

    Set aside actual crash data and apply the Heinrich Triangle of near-misses and conflicts vs crashes. Sidewalk cyclists have to avoid a lot of conflicts that roadway cyclists don’t. A cyclist can understand the dangers of riding on the sidewalk, but the compromise in speed and efficiency he must make to avoid those dangers is often unacceptable — especially in a dense urban area with lots of cross streets and driveways. I’m not talking about riding 10mph vs 20. On a sidewalk in a commercial district, a cyclist can barely ride at walking speed to be ready to avoid sudden conflicts. And even at that, a sudden drive-out can clobber the slowest cyclist. As can a right-turn when a cyclist is in a crosswalk.

    Cyclist who are aware of the dangers of sidewalk riding appear to be a minority, in my observations. I see cyclists riding on sidewalks at high speeds, showing zero awareness of the potential dangers. I also see cyclists riding on sidewalks next to roads that are SUPER easy to ride on – the sidewalk cyclist swerving around surface hazards and light poles, ducking under branches, dealing with intersection conflicts… while the roadway cyclist floats by at a very moderate speed with a lane to herself and no conflicts.

    Obviously, there are places where sidewalks are wide and clean with few driveways or streets. And obviously, it is relatively safe to ride on those sidewalks.

    But the point of my post is not that cyclists shouldn’t ever ride on the sidewalk. It’s that they SHOULDN’T EVER HAVE TO. They shouldn’t feel bullied by an intolerant culture into riding in ways that increase conflict and frustration and decrease safety and efficiency. There is more than sidewalk riding at issue here – fearful cyclists are skimming parked cars, riding against traffic on the roads and hugging the curb in narrow lanes, too.

    And no. It is not wrong for a 10mph cyclist to ride on a 40mph road. Clearly, there are roads where the traffic is so dense in both directions that it would be uncomfortable to do so. It would also be uncomfortable to ride 20mph in those conditions. But there are not that many roads like that which can’t be avoided by an alternate route for the few hours of the day they are that busy. Hall Rd. is one and I don’t envy you having to use it.

  5. Kansas Cyclist
    Kansas Cyclist says:

    This is a beautiful piece — thanks for posting it.

    I very seldom ride on sidewalks or sidepaths, though there are some places where high speeds + heavy traffic + narrow lanes make it hard to ride on the road where I belong. In those case, it’s hard to avoid the allure of the almost-empty and seemingly-safe sidewalk…

  6. andrewp
    andrewp says:

    Keri: Your article is, as always, making the good point, it’s just some people get (in my opinion) irrational about riding on sidewalks. It should be an option, in most cases not your first option, but it certainly doesn’t have to be labeled as so unsafe that no one should ever do it.

    I think I find the arguement of “sending the wrong message of where bikes belong” to be a stronger one than the safety arguement when it comes to sidewalks ……

  7. Keri
    Keri says:

    Point taken, Andrew.

    I think I find the arguement of “sending the wrong message of where bikes belong” to be a stronger one than the safety arguement when it comes to sidewalks …

    I like that argument, too. But if a person believes the sidewalk is safer than the road, he may regard us as offering him up as cannon fodder if we tell him to ride on the road to “send a message.”

  8. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    We can also look at it this way: out of 427 daytime adult cyclist crashes involving motor vehicles, only 24 (6%) involved a law-abiding, with-the-flow, sidewalk cyclist, while 52 (12%) involved a law-abiding roadway cyclist. (Caveat: cyclists making a left turn from the sidewalk are often/usually characterized as “entering the roadway/failure to yield;” it’s often not possible from reading a crash report to determine if the cyclist was simply crossing the roadway or making a left. One could argue that such a cyclist is really behaving as a pedestrian anyway, so it’s hard to compare that aspect to roadway cycling.)
    But Keri’s point about non-motor-vehicle-related crashes is well taken. It’d be nice to know how many of those involve sidewalk hazards. William Moritz’s study can shed some light on that, but his subjects were mostly experienced cyclists who rarely ride on sidewalks.
    Any “stay off the sidewalk” message has to be multi-pronged:
    * TRAINED roadway cycling is safer than UNTRAINED with-the-flow sidewalk cycling
    * Roadway cycling is faster and more convenient
    * Sidewalk cycling is unfair to pedestrians
    I don’t think the “we have the right” argument carries much sway with most people.
    Thinking from the “early adopters” marketing strategy, the Critical Mass folks are probably our best audience. They’re already prone to challenge the status quo. What better way to challenge it than by obeying the law to the letter!

  9. fred_dot_u
    fred_dot_u says:

    I like your last paragraph, Mighk, but know of one “cyclist” who would not accept our suggestions and have publicly rejected the simplest idea of following any road rules. His online nickname comes through one of the groups as sail4free, but he’s a dangerous road rider as well. Fifty-some years old and believes that he has the right to ride facing traffic and his personal freedoms are violated when he “follows the herd” by conforming to traffic rules. I ceased to reply to his posts, because he’s one of those people who will not accept rational thought or experience. Apparently others have recognized this as well, because no one else posts to his comments either.

    Your suggestion about teaching critical mass riders is great, since we really need the mass on the roads to show how well it works. More riders in my area would be a boon, since I am apparently the only one and it’s lonely in the middle of the lane 🙂

    I had the exquisite pleasure to ride with a father-daughter pair on Tuesday, who are traveling from Texas to Florida. The adult daughter is learning VC practices from her dad and it was great fun to ride with someone who understands the safety benefits. We were a crowd of three for only a short time, but it was a start.

    Katy’s blog is here:

  10. Keri
    Keri says:

    TRAINED roadway cycling is safer than UNTRAINED with-the-flow sidewalk cycling

    This is a really good distinction. Curb-hugging and skimming parked cars fit under “law-abiding” but they are probably as risky as sidewalk riding… maybe more risky.

    Fred… Thanks for the link to Katy’s blog! Adventure stories are such fun.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Roads are for people, not cars—all citizens have a right to travel by human power on the public roads. The right to the road is based on First Come, First Served, not your ability to drive fast. We’ve really damaged our communities by engineering everything for the speed and convenience of motorized vehicle drivers. It makes it that much harder to overcome the social expectations created by our infrastructure. But, believe it or not, engineering separation for slow vehicle drivers only feeds that beast! […]

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