I Have Seen the Future, and It Is Wobbly and Unsafe

By Josh Cohen May 13, 2010

Working from home severely limits the amount of bike commuting I do these days, but I still like to get out for a spin before work most mornings (usually to do my lactic threshold training on the Burke-Gilman —joking!)

I, like Josh Feit and many of you, have been noticing the vast increase in the number of bike commuters in Seattle. This is partly because it's Bike to Work month (Cascade Bicycle Club's Commute Challenge has more than 10,000 participants), and partly because of the warm, sunny May mornings.

This morning, I saw dozens of cyclists lined up on Dexter at the light at Mercer (didn't have the chance to snap the traditional PubliCola cell-phone shot before the light changed). I saw double or triple the number of cyclists on Eastlake and the few miles I rode on the Burke-Gilman bordered on uncomfortable because of the crowds.

I also saw some atrocious on-road cycling behavior. Of course, a significant increase in the number of cyclists also means a significant increase in the number of riders who are pulling the bike out of the basement for the first time in a decade and have little to no experience riding in traffic.

It's tempting (if mean) to just laugh at the image of a DayGlo-clad man wobbling his 40-pound, late-'80s mountain bike up Stone Way. But it's probably more productive to offer up a few tips on riding safely as part of traffic.

Most of the advice I can offer is based on the tenets of vehicular cycling, the brainchild of longtime cycling advocate John Forester.

Be Predictable: Predictability is the most important thing for staying safe. If you're riding along in a straight line, drivers can usually guess your next move and act accordingly. If you're weaving all over the road—like the woman in front of me on Stone Way this morning who kept switching from bike lane to parking lane and back again as we coasted down the hill—you're putting yourself at risk.

Signal: This goes hand and hand with predictability. It seems obvious, but a lot of cyclists (and drivers) have a bizarre aversion to signaling. Throw your hand up (as shown in the handy diagram below) and let cars (and other bicycles) know what you're about to do. Even the half-assed, point-from-the-hip-with-one-finger signal is better than nothing.

Take the Lane: If riding down the center of the travel lane makes things feel safer for you, do it. Taking the lane is particularly good when the only other option is to ride in the door zone. Sure, you might inconvenience some drivers for a few seconds, but getting honked at is definitely preferable to getting hit with a car door.

Stay off the Sidewalk: It might seem safer to ride on the sidewalk than a busy road, but this is rarely, if ever, the case. You're far more likely to get hit by cars entering or leaving driveways and parking lots on the sidewalk than on the street. Drivers don't expect a fast-moving bike on the sidewalk and likely won't look for one as they pull in or out.

This, of course, doesn't begin to broach the subject of commuting etiquette (don't draft off someone you don't know, don't pass someone then immediately slow down, etc). But the tips above will go a long way toward keeping new cyclists safe on the road, which might even inspire them to keep riding past May 21.

Sketchy riding aside, it's exciting to see a boom in cycling. I feel like I'm getting a glimpse at the future of Seattle cycling. When (if?) the Bike Master Plan is finally complete, it is supposed to nearly triple the number of trips taken by bike. The long lines of cyclists you see a month or two out of the year in 2010 might be the status quo in a couple of decades. That status quo will be even easier to achieve if the wobbly, panic-stricken newbies loosen their death-grips, signal, ride in a straight line, and make it safely through a summer of commuting.
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