Resources for Bicyclists

Category: Active Transportation

Cyclists Fare Best When…

There’s nothing sadder to me than a trail head parking lot. You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s a place to park your car so that you can go cycling. My local trail is lined with them. How ironic.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to cyclist safety. One posits that cyclists fare best when separated from traffic via so called “safe spaces” like trails and protected bike lanes. The problem with this approach is that it’s virtually impossible to get anywhere by bike if you limit yourself to protected infrastructure. Advocates for the safe space have a simple solution: just build more. All well and good, but even the Dutch didn’t build their networks overnight.  What are those of us who cycle now supposed to do in the mean time?

There’s really only one viable answer to that question, and it is to learn to ride safely and effectively in traffic. That brings me to the other school of thought. It’s championed by a man named John Forester. Forester’s mantra is that cyclists fare best when they act and are treated the same as other road users. In Forester’s perfect world, we’re just another class of road user.   We might be slower than the average single passenger automobile, but so are Amish and Mennonite buggies, big rigs and buses.  Motorists adapt to them.  They will adapt to us, too.

I’ll never forget the first time I was told to take the lane. I was training to become a League of American Bicyclists’ Certified Instructor. It was November 2014. The weather was cold and blustery and I was on Allisonville Road on the north side of Indianapolis. I thought the instructor was nuts when she told me to ride down the middle instead of as far to the right as practicable,  but I did it anyway and a funny thing happened.  The cars behind me slowed and waited to pass until the oncoming lane was clear.  She wasn’t nuts at all.   She was teaching me John Forester’s worldview and it was if a light bulb went off in the deep, dark recesses of my brain.

When there’s diagonal parking as on this street in Lincoln NE, taking the lane is the safest approach.

Taking the lane also makes sense on this kind of road where motorists can easily change lanes to pass.

So last week while I was browsing the stacks at Half Price Books in suburban Des Moines and came across a lightly used copy of Forester’s classic book “Effective Cycling,” it was a no-brainer to purchase it. I haven’t been able to put it down since. It is without a doubt the best book on cycling I’ve ever read, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is serious about cycling and wants to ride more safely.

This is my favorite kind of bicycle infrastructure. I long for a day when the stencil won’t be necessary.

Is Forester correct? I think that’s up to you to decide for yourself. In my case, I know that since I’ve learned these techniques that I’m now often more comfortable on the street than I am on a trail where ear buds are common and many users are even more inattentive than motorists.   It’s liberating to ride on the street. It opens new possibilities and makes cycling much more enjoyable.  I don’t have to stop and let cars proceed before moving on myself.  I go with the flow.  It allows me to use my bicycle in ways that people who drive to the trail head can’t.

But this post isn’t about me.  It’s about you and so I just want to throw this out for your consideration.   You don’t have to wait 50 years for safe spaces.     There’s an alternative.  You can take a Bike League Smart Cycling class and learn how to ride on the street.   You should, too, because it will make you a more confident and safer cyclist.  This will cause you to cycle more and when you do, we all win.



The Real Cost of Commuting (And What To Do About It)

“Living’s mostly wasting time.”  -Townes Van Zandt

I know that a lot of people don’t understand my “obsession” with the bicycle.  They find it peculiar because they don’t understand what the bike gives me in exchange for what it asks of me.  Interestingly, the people who least understand often have another similar obsession…their cars.

So I sometimes ask these nice people if they know how much their cars have cost them.  If they’re really passionate car people, I usually get defiance in return.   They don’t care.  They can afford it.   It’s better than riding a bike like a poor person or a child or a spandex (it’s lycra but they always say spandex) clad elitist.  Yada, yada, yada.

Most people, though, simply don’t know what it costs to own and drive a car.  If they did, I suspect a lot of them would make some changes, so maybe not knowing is a defense mechanism of sorts.   Maybe it’s what keeps the tears at bay.

Time spent commuting is a sunk cost. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

Bike + train saves money and reduces stress, but can still be a time sink.

This is not a commute.  This is pure joy.  This is living.

For what it’s worth, owning a car costs a king’s ransom.  Don’t believe me?   Using numbers provided by the AAA, if you’re married and own two cars most of your adult life, it’s one million dollars out the door.  This is not an investment, either, no matter what the nice young man or woman at the dealership tells you.

But even worse than the financial burden car ownership imposes  is the inevitable decline in your quality of life that is a non-negotiable part of the deal.   Most of us already know motoring is not good for our health.  Sitting in a car is a sedentary activity.  It’s also very stressful.  They call it road rage for a reason.

Yeah, right.

That’s all bad enough, but I’m not done.   .  According to the nice folks at,  it turns out that a lot of us are literally wasting years of our lives commuting.   It’s not just  cities like LA and Houston.  It’s pretty much everywhere of any size.  Let’s say you live in Denver.  Who wouldn’t want to live there?   Better get their soon, though.   Denver residents waste  427 days of their lives commuting.  Bummer.

So maybe you’re thinking that this is unavoidable.  It’s not.  That’s just what people who feel trapped tell themselves to make the medicine go down a little easier.  Of course it’s avoidable.  You may have to make some trade offs to get there, but in the end it’s all a matter of what that commuting time is worth to you and how you might use it if you weren’t using it to sit on a freeway and inch forward at five miles an hour while raging that the other lanes are all moving faster than yours.

Ames is commute-free, bike friendly, economically vibrant and less than an hour from DSM International Airport.

I’m not of a mind to tell anyone else what to do.  How you choose to live your life is up to you.   That said, if I was twenty-something and just starting out, here’s what I would do.  I would move to a college town in either the Midwest or the Rockies.  College towns in this part of the world are typically affordable.  They have good bicycle infrastructure and robust economies.   Primary jobs are being created in these places…often the kind of tech jobs bigger cities dream of.   They’re not so large that you can’t bicycle everywhere.

The combination of these factors make them easy places to achieve financial balance.  Because they’re smaller, you can get from end to end very quickly.  Quality of life is generally very good.

If I was worried about having access to an airport, I’d find a college town close to a big city (Ames,  Lawrence, Lincoln, Bloomington, West Lafayette, Lansing, Ann Arbor, Provo, Fort Collins) or one that’s big enough in its own right to have  an airport (Boise, Madison, Missoula) that could get me to the big city in one hop. I’d move to one of these places and choose to live car free.  I’d pocket the million dollar dividend and reclaim the 1-2 years of my commuting life and call it even…

…but that’s just me.



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