Tools, options and doctrine

I was once conversing with a person who was annoyed with my cataloging the known dangers of various bicycle facilities. He fumed, “You only want people to ride a bike if they ride like you do.” And then he stormed off before I could respond.

Some of these dangers are shown in More Misplaced Advocacy: What’s wrong with this picture? and Bicycle Blunders and Smarter Solutions: Blunders in Planning, Engineering & Facilities. The photo below shows a door zone bike lane — a known danger.

So let’s think about that. The last time I had an injury from cycling was 1982. Not a bad safety record. In that respect, and that respect only, I do shamelessly insist that most cyclists should ride more like I do.

There are some things that follow from that. Injury-reducing behaviors should be encouraged. Injury-increasing behaviors should be discouraged.

Normally we find ourselves talking about how facilities and/or education affect cyclist behavior. But today I want to focus on a smaller issue and see if I can bury it. This issue is the smaller differences in riding behavior among knowledgeable, aware cyclists.

There are some things a cyclist should never do: one should never ride facing traffic, never ride at night without lights, never blast through stop lights at busy intersections.

But knowledgeable cyclists can get so caught up in their personal way of doing things that they make absolute stands on things that are minor judgment calls.

The judgment call that inspired this essay was about when to hold one’s position in a lane, versus when to take a position farther to the right to facilitate overtaking by motorists.

Knowledgeable cyclists understand the basics: if you claim more space, overtaking motorists give you a wider berth when passing. They see from a farther distance back that they can’t just skim by you, and they begin their lane-changing (or lane-straddling) maneuver earlier.

An assertive cycling position also helps motorists, making them less likely to make a mistake.

Some times, it’s just fine to ride farther to the right. Other times, you may use a combination of the two positions, called “Control and release” by the authors of the educational program.

But when you get into an e-mail discussion about what you’d do on a particular road, it gets awkward. E-mail can be a less gracious discussion forum. It’s hard to write a truly complete picture of the roadway situation. And different people will make different judgment calls.

What works best is to think in terms of tools and options.

Lane position is a tool. Letting people overtake is an option.

What we want people to understand are the benefits and downsides of various tools and options, not to think “I must do XYZ all the time to be doctrine-pure.” In my own cycling, I sometimes ride to facilitate overtaking. However, on some roads, I insist on riding in the left-most position for specific reasons (avoiding poor pavement, better positioning as I approach intersections and discouraging unsafe passing).

There are other tools that can inspire heated debate. A partial list: Rear view mirrors. (They give handy information, but some people use them to enable unwarranted paranoia.) Hand signals to overtaking motorists. (Sometimes can be a well-appreciated courtesy, sometimes can be misinterpreted or followed poorly.) Filtering forward. (Has hazards that many riders don’t understand and therefore they can’t manage those hazards, but it also can speed up your trip time.)

I have read many passionate discussions about these issues. The discussions underscore something I strongly believe: none of the people who really understand this stuff are at significant risk for a bicycle/motor vehicle collision. Aware cyclists may ride slightly differently from one another, but they all understand how to interact with other road users well enough to keep their butts safe. That understanding is far more important than the differences in their behaviors.

This, by the way, holds true for many paint and path advocates: they are personally safe because they understand the risks. We’ve ‘splained those risks to them, and many of them reveal a reasonably acute understanding of those risks in their personal riding style and in their conversation.. (However, I differ with the paint-and-path people who do not feel a moral obligation to explain the risks to the novice. The belief, which some of them hold, that novice cyclists can simply follow the magic paint, has been proven wrong, body bag after body bag.) The attitude that most cyclists cannot
learn good techniques is elitist
and unethical.

What matters is that you have insight and understanding—not rigid adherence to a particular technique.

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3 Responses to Tools, options and doctrine

  1. danc says:

    Thanks John!

  2. khal spencer says:

    Thanks for posting that here, John.

  3. Bill Hoffman says:


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