VIEWS FROM THE HANDLEBARS: The Status and Practice of All-Year Bicycling

In a break from my usual essay-length postings, here is a series of short comments and questions addressing a variety of bike-related issues: the growing number of all-year cyclists and their need for more bike parking, the changing tone of driver-cyclist interaction in cities and suburbs, the problem of signaling “thanks” to nice drivers and ensuring eye contact through tinted windows, my annoyance at cyclists who hog the road, and thoughts about where bike boxes should be located.  


Perhaps it’s just that we had so little snow this winter and there were so many weirdly warm (even hot) days.  Perhaps it’s because our area has so many young people shaped by the “stay fit and healthy” culture of recent years -- not just college age but young professionals in their 20s and 30s as well.  Perhaps it’s because it’s increasingly obvious that it takes less time to bike across town than to drive -- and if your destination is downtown you're spared the nearly impossible task of finding a place to park.  Perhaps because rent is so high that people are looking for ways to save money, especially the low-wage service workers coming home after the T stops or getting to work before it begins.  Perhaps it’s just a fad, like hover boards.  But I suspect (and hope) it was something deeper -- there were a huge number of people bicycling nearly all winter, including those killer sub-freezing days (and week).  Even if bicycling will always be a minority activity in this country, maybe we've become a permanent part of the traveling mix.   The surveys show significant increases, but those counts are typically done in the warm weather.  The all-year Cambridge Hubway stations were busy through the winter (total number of rides in the snow-bound 2014-15 winter were about a third of the summer average).  Does anyone have good winter numbers on key routes?



With all these additional bikes on the streets, bike parking is getting scarce.  We shouldn't lock our bikes to small trees and we can't legally lock them to handicapped parking signs.  We need more "corals" and "two-points-of-contact" racks.  There is, of course, never enough money.  But what if cities allowed businesses (and people) to sponsor a bike rack?  We do it with Hubway stations, bus stops, and just about everything else.  I hate the insidious spread of commercials into every corner of our senses.  But if it’s going to happen anyway why can't we harness some of that loot for bike racks?  For an extra fee perhaps a sponsor could also be allowed to specify what general neighborhood a rack “labeled” with their name would be located in!  And for a higher fee perhaps they could have it put within some distance (50 feet?) of a specific spot -- assuming that was physically and legally possible.  The fee would have to include both the cost of the rack (perhaps with several options as to the size), the installation, and at least a few years of basic maintenance.  If it wasn’t too expensive I'd be happy to pull together some people to sponsor one; would you?



Our general culture seems to be getting more anxious, angry, and antagonistic.  Perhaps it’s no coincidence that a growing number of road-rage violence against bicyclists' stories have been circulating in recent weeks.  But at the same time, my personal bike-riding experience is that car drivers are increasingly friendly and cooperative -- even more this year than in the recent past.  Maybe the positive change is an urban core phenomena -- happening only in cities where cyclists have been around for enough years and in enough numbers that drivers have gotten used to our presence and now (usually) extend common courtesies to us as well; as opposed to the "outer burbs" where noticeable numbers are just beginning to happen and driver anger at the new invaders is still raw.  What's been your experience?



Which raises the question of how to say "thanks" to drivers who do something nice, or even just let you go ahead of them?  It's really important to communicate, to strengthen the connection between road users, especially those using different modes.  Yelling "thanks" seldom seems to work -- cars have closed windows and a blaring radio, especially in the winter.   I sometimes try mouthing the word -- but I'm nervous that the driver might not be able to tell if I'm saying "thank you" or "f___ you".   So I usually wave -- not rapidly back-and-forth like a kid saying goodbye to her parent, but like Queen Elizabeth with a discrete turning of the wrist that doesn't turn my handlebar.   But a wave seems more like "hello" than "thanks, and doesn't have enough oomph for those special moments when the driver has really surprised me with kindness. This leaves hand signals, which boil down to three choices.  My first impulse is to flash a V sign – which, however, always seems more like an anti-war or counter-culture peace sign to me and I’m not always sure will be welcomed by the recipient.  The second option is a thumbs up -- this does say "good job" but, especially in cold weather when I'm wearing thick gloves, seems hard for the driver to see as different from a wave.  The third approach is an "ok" sign, with thumb and first-finger touching in a circle -- but this feels even more obscure and difficult to decipher, especially (again) in the winter.  How do you deal with this?



On the other hand, I feel totally stymied by cars with darkly tinted windows.   I know that establishing eye contact is an important first step in safe and polite interaction at intersections and during turns.  At a minimum, I want to make sure that the driver sees me, that he is looking at me.  But this is impossible to do when the window is too dark.  And sometimes it appears that it’s not only the driver's side window but also the front windshield that's difficult to see through (isn't that illegal?).  These are the times I wish I still had my "car horn for bikes" attached to my handlebar! How do you make sure that the driver of a dark-window car knows you're there?



I don't do as many group rides as I would like to.  Somehow, I'm always busy or it rains on the days I can join in.  But when I do I'm always astounded and pissed by the people who simply don't pull over when the "car back" call is made.  Yes, I know that bikes have rights and we can take the lane when safety requires it.  I know that the law gives us the right to ride two-abreast (yes, Carlisle cops, that's the law) if we aren't blocking cars.  But we have no more right to be obnoxious to others than they have to be rude (or dangerous) to us.  It's not a negation of our rights to stay to the right so cars can pass.   I sometimes want to pull up next to the offending cyclist and yell that they're endangering the rest of us, as well as fueling general anti-bicyclist stereotypes.  But I don't -- I just quietly fume.  What do you do?



The core idea of vulnerable road-user laws is that whoever can do the most damage has the most responsibility to take the most precautions.  Cars should have a larger default responsibility than bicyclists; and bicyclists have more than pedestrians.  In both cases, really stupid, irresponsible, or illegal behavior by the more vulnerable person overrules the default;  but the default is the starting point for discussion: bikes need to go slowly around pedestrians and give them right of way.  For many pedestrian advocates this means that crosswalks are sacrosanct – in particular, at signalized intersections, all vehicles, bikes included, should be kept out of a crosswalk when pedestrians have a “walk” light.  However, without negating the default rule that bikers must stay out of the way of walkers, I believe that if the geometry of the intersection allows it bike boxes should be located past (rather than before) the pedestrian crosswalk.  Similarly, in the absence of a bike box, if a crosswalk is located sufficiently back from the corner I believe that bicyclists should carefully roll through the crosswalk to wait for a green light as close to the intersection as possible -- or at least place themselves at the front edge of the crosswalk.   The reason is simple -- bikes need as much time as possible to get into or across the intersection so turning cars can see them and stop in time.  Being closer to the intersection makes a huge difference – especially in urban areas with appropriately wide zebra crosswalks.  I understand that pedestrians are the most vulnerable of all.  And I understand that some cyclists zip by walkers, most egregiously the elderly, going too fast and/or too close.  But this is one situation where the danger to cyclists from cars and trucks is even greater than the danger to pedestrians from bikes.  What do you think?


Some related previous posts:

> SAFE CYCLING – Actual, Subjective, Social; Solo or Group

> Time to Stop Behaving Badly on Bikes


> THE RIGHT TO BE ON THE ROAD: When Bicyclists Have To Pull Over, When Cars Can Pass

> ROAD RAGE, GUNS, & DEMOCRACY: Why Road Safety is About More Than Traffic Lights

> WINTER CYCLING: Snow and Safety

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  • Steven Miller
    commented 2016-05-30 23:24:32 -0400

    Steve: Great blog content, as usual! I liked how you broke out the three different types of safety which, as you said, is intuitive but it helps to see the three concepts individually recognized.

    I also particularly appreciated your blog(s) which note that because our society makes bicycling inaccessible and high-risk, it tends to attract those types of riders. I try to explain to friends and family that not everyone who rides is reckless (and in fact that they make up a small percentage of riders) but it doesn’t always get through. Maybe this reasoning will!
  • Steven Miller
    commented 2016-05-30 23:23:24 -0400
    FROM SARAH FREEMAN: Many thanks for your thoughtful writing, as always. Re: non-verbal communication — When I’m on a bike, I tend to nod in acknowledgment of kindness; when I’m in a car, I wave.

    REPLY: And my friend David says that he “salutes” — which is both large enough to be noticed and politically conservative enough to be acceptable to everyone.
  • Steven Miller
    commented 2016-05-30 22:59:24 -0400
    Hi Steve. …Nice post. When you get all those problems solved, maybe you can move on to why so many cyclists ride at night without headlights and many without rear lights. I think that creates severe problems with riding in winter when there are few hours of daylight, commutes are often with the sun down, and visibility is often especially poor. It’s sometimes hard enough to see cyclists in daytime, they make it almost impossible by riding in the dark without illumination.

    REPLY: I agree…..IMHO blinking lights and highly reflective gear are the most important things we can do to get cars to stay away.
  • Charles Denison
    commented 2016-05-20 17:47:54 -0400
    I biked all winter and I did notice many more people on bikes this winter than I have in the past!

    I have also heard many more cases of road rage incidents between drivers and bicyclists but personally I haven’t had any issues. I tend to ride predictably and courteously and I find most drivers treat me well in return. I do firmly believe that if you give others respect, that you are more likely to get it back. Of course it’s never ok to threaten or injure someone even if they are being rude to you, but it’s not surprising that other people are.

    Agree about stopping in front of crosswalks at busy intersections. As long as you stop first and yield to pedestrians, I think it’s ok to slowly roll over the crosswalk and wait in front of it. I do this regularly at Charles Circle, because I’m going straight but cars like to turn right from all 3 lanes (like true Bostonians, they tend to view lane assignments as mere suggestions)
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