Warm Weather Bicycling: On The Open Road Again

I love it.  As the air warms I emerge from my cold-weather focus on commuting as quickly as possible, and start stretching out for glorious long rides through the countryside.  I am repeatedly amazed at the beauty of the forests and fields I pass through.  And I think about life but also about the interaction of cycling with the world – particularly cars. 

  • How Should Car Drivers Let Bicyclists Know They’re Coming Up From Behind?

I know I’m supposed to be listening for the motor, but often you simply can’t hear things over the wind and noise.  The ones that drive me crazy are the people who wait until they’re right behind me and then honk loudly.  I nearly jump off my seat or off the road.  Of course, I instantly assume it’s a hostile attack by some idiot – until I steady myself enough to look around and realize it’s just some nervous old lady who thinks she’s being helpful (unless, of course, it actually is some hostile idiot).

I think what I’d prefer the driver to do (and I try to do myself) is to give a quick beep while still a hundred yards or so behind the cyclists – it lets me know they’re there but doesn’t blast or surprise me.  This is most important on two-lane roads:  if it’s a four-lane road with passing room, or if there’s a good shoulder or bike lane, I am much less in need of warning.

  • Should Bicycles Have Rear-view Mirrors?

I know that it is good to turn your head and make direct eye contact with divers.  But some of us have trouble turning our neck enough without wobbling (it’s not poor skills – it’s an old injury, or maybe just old).  So since I can’t count on car drivers to politely let me know they are approaching from the rear, I feel much safer using a mirror for advance warning.  It also helps me notice if the group I’m cycling with is still together or if some people have fallen too far behind.

  • Why Don’t All Cars Have Headlights Automatically and Permanently On?

As a cyclist, I am much more likely to notice a car approaching from the rear – even with my mirror – if its headlights are on!  So now, when I’m the car driver, I automatically turn on my headlights every time I turn on the engine.  I know that it wastes a certain amount of fuel, but the benefits are worth the cost.

At one point, it seemed that new cars were being designed to automatically turn on their headlights when started.  But recently that trend seems to be reversed; I don’t know why.

  • Should Bicyclists Wear Bright, Reflective Clothes (and lots of lights)?

Some writers say that bicyclists should act as if no one can see them; good advice if it leads to more careful riding behavior.  But first, I think cyclists should try for maximum visibility by covering themselves with the most brilliant plumage possible – day-glow yellow, reflective tapes, blinking lights on wheels and helmets and backpacks: anything to make ourselves noticeable even if we then act as if car drivers are blind.

I even think we should wear conspicuous yellow during the day:  I’d rather look weird than be dead.

So I’m always confused by friends who think it’s stylish to wear dark blue or green or even black clothes while riding.  I know black is supposed to look cool – although my sister, who lives in Texas where people think its cooler to wear bright colors, says we’re just culturally trapped by the long winters.

  • The Pleasure of “Bike Jams”

I know that bicycling is climbing a wave of increased popularity and importance when I find myself waiting behind five other cyclists at corner after corner as I ride through the city.  What a wonderful problem!

Now, we need to start pushing for bike boxes in front of the car stop-line, so that we can gather in front rather than along the more crowded side of the road and get a head start (maybe signaled by a separate bike light, or a combined ped/bike signal) before the turning or rushing traffic when the light turns green!

  • Urban and Rural:  Lanes, Cycle Tracks, and the Open Road

ASHTO guidelines, the rulebook governing road design and traffic engineering, have historically assumed that a road is a road no matter where it is located, and that the lessons learned from improving Interstate Highway safety are applicable everywhere else — a dangerous idea, since Interstate’s are built to maximize car speed while forbidding bikes and pedestrians entirely.

But riding out from the city through the suburbs and exurbs to the farms and forests graphically demonstrates the falsity of this policy – and the need for different types of bicycle/pedestrian facilities in each area.

Of course, there are some overlapping road realities.  No matter where you are, the faster and heavier the car (and truck) traffic the more that cyclists and pedestrians need to be insulated.*  For cyclists:  off-road bike or multi-use paths, road-side cycle tracks or buffered bike lanes, and wide shoulders.  For pedestrians:  8’ to 15’ wide sidewalks in good condition, wide zebra markings at crosswalks with functional concurrent walk signals, etc.

And I feel perfectly safe, despite the occasional speeding teenager, on quiet roads lacking any markings whatsoever, from center to edge lines.

The difference isn’t in the road, it’s in the context.  The denser the human environment, the denser the street life.  In cities, people are dealing with more distractions.  The blocks are shorter and the possibility of sudden incursions from between parked cars is greater.  I don’t want to romanticize the suburbs with their car-dependent zoning and social segregation; I grew up in one – and left!  But when I’m on my bike, or walking around a town center, they really feel different than downtown Boston.  And the difference is even bigger as the ratio of fields and trees to people increases.

To its credit, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has been pushing ASHTO to recognize the different needs of urban areas.  And ASHTO is beginning to loosen up its highway-based requirements which are, ultimately, based on the idea that non-motorized vehicles and pedestrians simply don’t belong, and should only receive “accommodations” as an afterthought.

But going from the new policy value statements to actual road design and construction is a complicated process – as Massachusetts’ experience trying to implement its own Highway Design Guidelines has shown.  The amount of inertia built in to every level of the transportation planning and building system is extremely high, keeping things going on its traditional car-centric line with gyroscopic stability.

* While bikes should never be forbidden from traffic lanes, cycling will never become the mainstream activity our environment, health, economy, and transportation systems needs it to be unless we make it feel extremely safe – which mostly means finding ways for traffic-intolerant cyclists to use it for short everyday trips to work, shopping, and socializing.

  • Cycling vs. Running

I started biking seriously about 15 years ago when back and knee problems made it impossible to keep running.  I’ve grown to love cycling. The ability to both cover a lot of ground while retaining an intimate connection with the surrounding environment.  The physical effort and the feeling of healthy tiredness, despite the knee soreness until I get warmed up.  The camaraderie of the people I pass, based on a feeling that we’re still outsiders even though our numbers are increasing.

But I have to confess I miss the simplicity of putting on my sneakers and heading out the door no matter where I am.  Bikes are more complicated, and expensive.  They require equipment and maintenance.  They don’t fit in my suitcase.

So it goes….I still need to get enough physical activity each week to keep my wife from commenting on my inability to sit still.  So it’s out on the bike….and I remember, as the sun shines and my endomorphines rise, how lucky I am.

  • Clothes Make the Man – Or Not

I just bought a new set of winter bike clothes…and then brought them back the next day.  Buyer’s remorse:  I just couldn’t spend that much.   Why are bike things so damn expensive?

Ok, I’m cheap.  I understand the status-proclaiming function of things — new bikes, fancy clothes, flat screen TVs, cars.  But I just don’t understand why people get into it.  My commuter bike cost $200 at a bike touring company’s end-of-season sale, and I’ve had it for 7 years.  My “fancy” road bike was put together by Bikes Not Bombs from pieces of three different older machines for $500, and I’ve had it for 5 years through several week-long trips.

The new winter clothes, in total, would have cost more than either of the bikes.

I’m very serious about functionality and appreciate fine workmanship – up to a point.  Most of the high end gear people buy for their bikes (and for much else) is overkill beyond any potential need.  It’s like the people who buy Hummers but mostly drive to the local mall.

And I know that people enjoy looking good – or at least less sloppy than I do on some of my club rides with baggy old windbreaker pants held on with ankle straps, fraying yellow jacket with grease stains despite my hand washing, winter shoe covers rather than snappy boots.

Still, once we start riding, I hope no one notices what I’m wearing and concentrates on the width of the smile on my face.

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