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.