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Best Practices of Cycling Advocacy

By Fred Oswald, Bicycling Safety Instructor

Cyclist on road

Planning and designing bicycle facilities is serious business.  Both safety and mobility must be considered.  Get it wrong and someone may die.  Yet we know of many people who do such work without understanding the best engineering practices, or even how the basic rules of the road apply to cyclists [1] [2].  These people fail to support (beyond lip service) teaching people how to use the roads we have.  Instead, they insist on building separate facilities that keep cyclists dependant on the facilities and that often put at risk the people they are supposed to protect.

We offer guidelines to avoid these mistakes and instead to empower cyclists to ride almost anywhere in real safety.  People taught these best practices will enjoy cycling and want to do it more.  This is the most effective way to promote cycling.  We have much more information about avoiding serious mistakes in Bicycle Blunders and Smarter Solutions.

The Old Facilities Debate

Almost everyone in our society has been miseducated about cycling.  Think about how we are taught:  Typically a well-meaning authority figure (parent, police, teacher) who has no training and little relevant experience repeats “good advice” from some other misinformed “expert”.  Much of this advice is based on fear, typically “fear from the rear” that has little basis in fact.

In contrast, a large minority of cyclists has learned the best way to ride in traffic, called integrated or vehicular cycling.  This involves driving a bicycle as a vehicle according to the standard rules of the road.  Many of the vehicular cyclists started out trying to use pedestrian methods but learned through experience that these did not work well.

In contrast, most “bicycle advocates” have never learned the best methods.  They are so frightened by traffic or hate cars so much that they cannot see the benefit of vehicular cycling.  Therefore, they cannot understand why anyone would choose to ride on the roads and they refuse to acknowledge the hazards caused by segregated facilities.

Many “bicycle advocates” are completely blind to one side of the facilities debate.

Vehicular cyclists who started out with pedestrian methods can understand both sides of the issue.  But many “bicycle advocates” are completely blind to one side of the old facilities debate.

Basics of Cycling Advocacy

  1. First, Do no harm!
  2. Always encourage cyclists to follow the best practices of bicycle driving.
  3. Educate the public, including motorists, that bicycles are vehicles that belong on the road.
  4. Teach public officials that bicycles should be operated on the same roads, by the same rules and with the same rights and responsibilities as other vehicles.
  5. Never confuse cyclists with pedestrians.  Their needs are very different.
  6. Work to get cyclists (except the youngest children and perhaps frail elderly) off sidewalks.
  7. Learn how to drive a bicycle so you can encourage others to do it too.
  8. Work by the slogan “Every lane is a bike lane!”

The Three E’s

Some in the bicycle community recommend an approach based on the “Three E’s”:  Education, Engineering and Enforcement.  These can be good if they are applied in a balanced and logical way.  Some would also add another E, Encouragement.  However, if we teach people to enjoy cycling and treat them fairly they will need little encouragement.

  1. Education is the most important factor and the most neglected.  Most people in our society are badly misinformed about cycling.  Without proper education, the other E’s are generally done badly.
  2. Engineering is too often done wrong.  Cyclists rarely need special facilities, only good roads.  Bike lanes contribute more to motorists’ convenience than to safety.  A wide outside lane allows for safe sharing for bikes and motor vehicles.  Narrow roads should have lower speed limits.  Demand-actuated traffic signal sensors must be calibrated to detect bicycles.  Cracks, slots, parallel bar drain grates and other hazards must be fixed.

    One type of facility that is needed is bicycle parking.  Even here, we need the right type of parking — secure bike racks (or better, lockers) that are placed in safe and convenient locations.
  3. Enforcement must start with good laws.  Then police must enforce those laws fairly.  This means that police must understand bicycle driving.  Police must take road rage seriously and never tolerate assault on cyclists.
Any bicycling encouragement program must have a strong educational program at its core.

More recently, more “E’s” have been proposed.  “Evaluation” should mean honestly considering whether bicycling programs really benefit cyclists.  Many programs introduce hazards that the promoters refuse to acknowledge.  “Equality” (or more accurately, “Equity”) is an important principle too often ignored.  Finally, too many bicycle advocates are lacking in “Ethics”.

A Completely Beneficial Form of Paint on the Roadway

Some people want a visible symbol to show that bicycles are welcome.  Unfortunately, they often choose either “bike paths” (sidepaths) or striped bike lanes.  Both of these introduce significant safety problems and they discourage the best practices of cycling while encouraging mistakes that often cause collisions.

Here’s a better way — without adverse side effects!  There are beneficial markings a community can apply:  stencils to show cyclists where to put their wheels to trigger vehicle detectors that control traffic lights.  The photo at right from NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio is an excellent example.

Note the stencil on the pavement.  This is directly over the sensor wire that controls the traffic light for vehicles entering the center.  If a cyclist stops his wheels on this mark, the red light will turn green.  The marking also benefits motorcycle users.

Marking detectors (if done correctly) has important safety benefits and no dangerous side effects.  By marking detectors, officials will be treating cyclists as legitimate users of the roads and encouraging them to follow traffic laws.  In contrast, segregation treats cyclists as incompetent children thought not worthy of using more than the edge of the road.

Unfortunately, even a good idea, if done incompetently, can work out badly.  In lower photo at right the detector is too close to the curb.  This encourages “gutter bunny” cycling, which can lead to right-hook hazards at the intersection.  There is another detector under the car stopped at the light.  If this detector were marked, it would encourage much better lane position — right in the middle of the right lane.  The sign at right, which directs cyclists to stop on the mark, would be good if the mark were in the right place.

Stripeless Bikelanes (“Shared Use Arrow”)

The best bicycle facility is simply a correctly designed, properly built and well maintained road.  Where traffic volume is high, a wide outside lane can help motorists and cyclists who travel at different speeds in the same lane, minimizing conflicts between different road users.  If lanes are not wide enough to share safely, cyclists must be expected to “use the full lane”.

Some people propose stripeless bikelanes as a compromise.  Instead of a stripe, there is only a stencil, in the form of bike and chevron markings or “bike in a box” plus a direction arrow (sometimes called a “sharrow” for shared lane and arrow) to indicate the direction of travel [3].  The photo at right [from ref. 4] shows a sharrow in Denver.  Unfortunately, this is in the door zone, too close to the parked cars.

Here are some guidelines for bike stencil placement:  Where parking is permitted, stencils must be at least 13 feet from the curb or five feet from on-street parking (further is better) so they do not encourage cyclists to ride in the door zone.  Also, it is a good idea to add hatch marks at the left edge of parking stalls to discourage parking too far from the curb.  Better still is using “parking crosses” to mark a door zone buffer.  Even where parking is not allowed, the stencils should not be too close to the edge of the road.

The best location for the symbol is the center of the lane, like other pavement symbols such as directional arrows, speeds limits, etc., so they can easily be seen by motorists.  The symbol will also last longer if not in the wheel track of traffic.  Stencils should not be placed at the approach to intersections, lest they direct cyclists to the wrong spot on the road.

Stripeless bike lanes can have some advantages:

However, stripeless bike lanes may also contribute to problems:

This author concludes that these stencils without the lane stripe are a considerable improvement over traditional bike lanes.  The “best practice” would simply be to provide adequate space, mark vehicle detectors and provide appropriate instruction on cycling best practices.  Adding the stencils may be an example of second-best practice.


[1] All planners and designers of bicycle facilities must be familiar with the books of John Forester: Effective Cycling, MIT Press, 1993 and Bicycle Transportation, MIT Press, 1994.  It takes some effort to get past the confrontational attitude of the author, but once you do, you can learn from the master. [2] A good concise source of cycling information is Bicycling Street Smarts.  This booklet is used as a bicycle driver’s manual in several states. [3] The Chevron stencils are compared to “sharrows” in the report San Francisco’s Shared Lane Pavement Markings: Improving Bicycle Safety  Unfortunately, the recomended spot for the markings is too close to parked cars: “The markings were placed so that the centerline is 11 feet from the curb, or about 4 feet from parked cars.”.  Considering that some car doors open to 4 feet (or slightly greater) and a bicycle half-width is about one foot, (or slightly greater) the 11 foot spacing is not safe.  The minimum should be at least 13′, not the 11′ recommended.  The diagram in fig. 3 shows an open car door that protrudes 2’6″ into the traffic lane.  This writer has measured over two dozen doors and not found one that small.  The minimum door “stickout” found was 35″.  The maximum was 49″.

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