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Bicycle Blunders and Smarter Solutions

by Fred Oswald, LCI #947

Bicycle Friendly?
This is a composite picture. We do not know any city that puts a BFC sign on the same signpost as a no bikes sign. But there are cities that have both signs. We think that’s a disgrace.

4.  Blunders in Advocacy

One cannot increase bicycle use by treating cyclists as second-class road users.  Hence, Vehicular Cycling rejects a symbolic priority of motorized over non-motorized road use but instead upholds the status and dignity of the cyclist as a fully equal road user.
— John Finley Scott, Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, at U.C., Davis

“Bicycle advocates” (people who promote the bicycle to advance some other agenda, such as reducing auto use) stubbornly refuse to admit that there is any problem with separate bicycle facilities that direct cyclists to ride in dangerous places such as the door zone of parked cars.  They would rather pretend this dangerous practice is OK and then blame the motorist when there is a crash.  If “bicycle advocates” would simply refuse to build facilities in the door zone and instead teach cyclists to ride a safe distance from parked cars (at least 5′) then this problem would largely vanish.

Blunders in advocacy include:

  1. Promoting dangerous facilities
  2. Giving only lip service to education
  3. Undermining cyclists’ rights to the road
  4. Refusing to admit that segregated facilities create hazards
  5. Misrepresenting some bike lane design features, such as in the “Chicago Bike Lane Design Guide” [1]

One of the worst examples of bicycle advocacy gone wrong is the Bicycle Friendly Communities program, which emphasizes segregated facilities over education and fair treatment.  The program refuses to support cyclists’ right to road access.  Instead, they have given awards to cities that ban cyclists from important roads and that install dangerous separate bicycle facilities.  The program is really “bicycle planner friendly” rather than friendly, or even fair, to cyclists.

Among the cities “honored” by the BFC program are Chicago, IL, which produced a Bike Lane Design Guide [1] in which sizes of cars & trucks were falsified on scale drawings.  Fort Collins, CO “won” the award despite banning bicycles from four miles of U.S. 287/College Ave. a stretch of road that has two of the city’s bike shops!  Ann Arbor, MI got the award after the assistant city attorney argued “The bike ordinance cannot be interpreted to allow for defendant’s safety considerations. … [It must] require operation at the shortest distance from the right side of the road that the rider is physically capable of effecting.”

Here are some of the questions asked on the BFC application:  What was your community’s most significant investment for bicycling in the past year?  (In other words, how much did you spend?)  What is the mileage of your total shared-use path network? And What percentage of arterial streets have bike lanes or paved shoulders? [3]

BFC Applicants are never asked whether these bike lanes and paths are appropriate facilities nor are they warned that facilities may be unsafe.  Nothing encourages them to educate citizens about hazards of riding on the facilities or that the street is usually safer.  The communities are not told that laws that unfairly restrict cyclists’ access to the roads will disqualify their application.  As a result, many BFC communities have unsafe facilities and some mandate using the unsafe facilities.  Door zone bike lanes and dangerous sidepaths are considered “bicycle friendly”.  They are certainly not cyclist friendly.

Bicycle facilities advocates have an unwritten rule, sometimes called the 11th Commandment:  Thou shalt not criticize a facility advocate’s work product.  The problem with this rule is that people who make safety-critical decisions need to be willing to have their work vigorously examined, and its weaknesses corrected.  Doctors and engineers rip into each other’s work during review sessions.  It’s considered a professional responsibility to let safety-critical work be exposed to careful review, free from any constraint to make nice or avoid hurting someone’s feelings.

In bicycle facilities, bad designs that were shown to be dangerous 30 years ago are still used today because facility advocates don’t want to spoil the party, even when doing so would save lives.

There’s another unwritten rule we call the 12th Commandment:  Thou shalt treat all bicycle users and all bicycle use as equally valuable.  The mere fact of using a bicycle is what counts, not whether it is used safely or competently.

This commandment is largely based on the assumption that one more bicycle equals one less car.  That’s because the facilities movement is more anti-car than it is pro-cyclist.  Therefore, whatever attracts beginners is justified, even if the facility, the usage pattern or the rider is known to have safety problems.

By contrast, vehicular cycling advocates have as their first priority, breaking the causal chain behind crashes.  We encourage dangerous riders to learn more about safety, rather than praising them for riding dangerously.  We insist that road designers and trail designers learn about accident causes and avoid building them into their designs.  We also take a long range view of encouragement.  People taught to ride properly will do it more.

Under the vehicular system, everyone has a stake in avoiding a crash.  But under the “12th commandment,” all cycling is created equal.  With that as an imperative, you can’t have standards for either cyclists or for facility designs.

Fig. 1 at right illustrates a blunder in advocacy.  This was part of a pop-up advertisement featuring Lance Armstrong on the League of American Bicyclists website.  The photo shows a warm and fuzzy suburban scene with a young girl riding her bike.  The problem is the girl is riding on the sidewalk, in the wrong direction with respect to the adjacent street and with visibility blocked by large trees.

Studies of bicycle crashes show that riding on sidewalks creates a car-bike collision risk about two to nine times higher than riding on the street.  The risk is especially high for riding against traffic.  Studies that examine all crashes (not just car-bike collisions) found that the sidewalk is up to 25 times more dangerous than the street.  The ad with the sidewalk cyclist remained more than two years after League cycling instructors objected to promoting a known dangerous practice that is completely contrary to principles taught in its BikeEd education program.  It finally disappeared when the site was extensively revamped in 2006.

The LAB leadership was incapable of understanding the problem.  They regard all bicycle use as equally valid (the 12th Commandment), even if this exposes cyclists to danger.  Apparently cyclists are pawns to be sacrificed for the higher purpose of a “Bicycle Friendly America”.

We believe that anyone who encourages other people to ride bikes has a moral responsibility to encourage those people to learn safe practices.  The LAB leadership’s failure to teach proper operation contributes to the bicycle crash rate being much higher than it should be.

The “Safe Routes to School” program is based on the faulty premise that children can be made safe through installation of separate facilities.  However, no route is safe for a person who rides dangerously.  Conversely, almost any route is reasonably safe for the person who uses proper techniques.

Riding on the wrong side of the road is a serious blunder; the collision risk is over three times higher than the rate for right-side operation.  Yet right on the cover of the “Safe Routes to School” booklet [4] is a photo (see Fig. 2) that shows a child apparently riding on the wrong side of the road.

Blunders in Promoting the Fear of Cycling

Bicycle Advocates often stress the hazards of riding on the roads.  This is a very odd way to convince people to take up the activity:

“Hey folks, I’ve got a great activity for you.  It’s dangerous, you might get killed because of all those crazy drivers out there.  You dare not get in their way either lest they get mad at you.  And you don’t really deserve to be on the road except in places reserved for you.  But try it, it’s good for you.”

For another way to look at this problem, read Mighk W’s article: Which Cycling Politics: Doom or Possibility?  Mighk points out how safe cycling really is:

The average bicyclist – and this includes all those ones who ride in a less-than-competent manner – will travel about 4 million hours before experiencing a fatal crash.  That is equal to 456 years of non-stop cycling.  Cyclists who follow the basic rules of the road will travel significantly farther before a fatal crash.

Blunders of a Bicycle Advisory Committee

Many cities appoint an advisory committee comprised of citizens interested in bicycling.  Often, committee members’ interest is primarily motivated by other considerations, such as reducing car use or promoting “healthy lifestyles”.  Rarely are they knowledgeable and experienced road cyclists.  This is a serious deficiency since many issues facing bicycle advisory committees involve roadways.

This author knows a retired NASA engineer who organized and chairs such a committee.  The chairman has a PhD, is a very experienced recreational cyclist and is very good at working with public officials.  However, he never learned how to ride properly in traffic and he is not interested in learning.  For example, the only way he will make a left turn on a busy street is by pedestrian methods that are appropriate for a young child.

The chairman once told his committee that he had four near crashes in the previous year.  This was intended to show that the roads are “dangerous”.  In my answer, I told him that I ride at least two or three times as far as he does, on roads he is afraid to use, usually in rush hour traffic and in all weather.  If he had four near crashes, then I should have had at least 20.  But I had none — because I follow the best practices of bicycle operation.

The chairman and his Bicycle Advisory Committee would not accept my offer to demonstrate how to ride in traffic.  They were just not interested.  Through ignorance, they have produced several bicycle blunders.

In other articles on the LAB Reform website, we show several other serious blunders in advocacy.  Including how “America Bikes” promotes facilities by pandering to fear of traffic  In the “Smarter Solutions” sections of this article, we show better practices for avoiding blunders.


[1] City of Chicago Bike Lane Design Guide depicts cars & trucks about 20% undersized — a pickup truck is shown as though it is no wider than a VW bug.  You can see how this was done in this drawing. [2] This photo was part of a pop-up advertisement and also in a video on the LAB Website.  The girl appeared about 1/3 of the way through the ad. [3] BFC application [4] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Safe Routes to School, DOT HS 809 497, Sep 2002.

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