For the bicycle-curious

And now, some good news: David Roberts, superstar environmental journalist has apparently recently returned from a year-long hiatus at grist, which is great, because he is a very good journalist (note, this was a lot more recent when I started writing this post). In connection to this, I was browsing the grist website and came upon something unrelated: a video by Daniel Penner about starting to bike for the bicycle curious. Here it is.


The good parts: this video is nicely hipster-charming, features Mayor McGinn, Top Pot Doughnuts and shots of the city of Seattle, and is informative. Another good part: the goal. I think getting people to try biking is a good cause for many reasons, but, as someone who bikes, the main thing that the cause has going for it is that I think it is the most important step that can be taken for bicycle safety. So, as someone who wholeheartedly endorses the underlying message, I wanna go through the video point by point and talk about what I think grist got right, what it got wrong, etc.

1. Plan a route. This is indispensable advice for biking in Seattle, and in many other places. But it shouldn’t be. While planning a route is never a bad idea, it’s also something most people don’t bother with if they have a rough idea of the city and are going by car, for example. Going by bike should be the same, but as a beginning cyclist in North America it isn’t, because there are some streets you don’t want to bike on. The ultimate solution to that is to make those streets more bikeable. But your average North American city is not going to turn overnight into a place where every single street has a segregated bike lane. The easy solution is good signage. If you are biking on a street where it’s not comfortable, (a) there should be a street nearby going to the same place where it is comfortable and (b) signs should let you know that there is this option. I continue to think that the lowest hanging fruit in bicycle infrastructure budgets is signage (and more biker-controlled intersections) and if a city was serious about making biking easy for the uninitiated, more maps, distance markers, clearer and more frequent signs would be the indispensable first step.

2. Bike check: check tires / check brakes. Excellent advice. Of course, it also helps to know what to do when your checks fail. Know your nearest bike shop!

3. Suit up: dress for the weather / protect the head / no spandex required. I like the “no spandex required” message. The point is, to get somewhere on a bike, you don’t need to be a “biker”. People who are really into biking as a hobby or profession may have super-cool messenger bags or clip-in shoes or those weird bike cap things or whatever. But the smaller that population is as a proportion of the people biking, the healthier the biking scene in a city, roughly. Biking shouldn’t need accessories because it should be easy and convenient to do at any time, rather than some special hassle. Which is why I don’t like mandatory helmet laws, for example.

4. Find your zen. This is dumb. You don’t need to pep talk yourself into riding a bike. Just do it.

(not a number) she uses a single speed bike. In Seattle. In a part of Seattle that isn’t Georgetown even. That seems… how shall I say it? Unwise?

5. Use a bike lane where possible. Duh.

6. Avoid door zones. This is a huge psychological issue more than anything. I’ve been doored, and it’s scary riding thinking that it can happen at any point. As a result, I go out of my way to avoid door zones, and so make other types of collisions more likely. Since by far the majority and the most serious types of collisions are with moving cars, my guess is that this is objectively a bad idea. But the fear of getting blindsided by a door is just so high that I still do it, and so do most other people. Fortunately, there is an easy fix from the drivers perspective: open the door with the further hand! It works! This one is on you, drivers. Hopefully more on this soon in a separate post.

7. Claim the lane. I’m not sure about this one. As a biker, you should not have to give up your safety just for a car’s slightly greater convenience. So claim the lane if you need it for visibility, for example. But if you don’t need it, there’s no reason to take up a lane that I can see. I don’t think antagonizing drivers is good either as a strategy or as a goal in itself.

8. Expect the unexpected. Don’t do that, silly! That would make the unexpected expected, which would make it something that this bullet point no longer asks you to expect! What a conundrum! OK, I know the point is: be alert to what’s on the road. And that’s damn important. And also totally common sense. Nothing bike-specific here.

9. Making turns. Good to know that the two-step manoeuvre is called the Copenhagen left turn. Getting into traffic to turn left on a big street is definitely something that makes me feel unsafe at times, so letting people know that the Copenhagen turn is an option and making it sound cool is a good idea. All the same, making left turns is not nearly as frightening as the video makes it out to be.

10. Respect pedestrians. A-men. For me, the number one rule a new biker needs to learn that isn’t blindingly obvious. I mean, respect cars, too. But respect pedestrians because you’re in a position of power over them and so respecting their right of way and movements is just basic not being a dick. Although, as you can tell, I think the less preparation necessary for biking the better, this is really something that needs to be learned right at the start, because there really isn’t anything that will cause you to learn.

11. Occasionally people will throw stuff at you. What kind of terrible dystopian world does this video live in? I’ve never had anyone throw stuff at me while I was on a bicycle in Seattle, so if this is happening to you, something is probably going terribly wrong. And also you should report it. I thought maybe I just had an atypical experience, so I asked several people who bike more than me, and none of the people I asked had ever had stuff thrown at them while/for biking (including T., who used to work as a bike messenger. Although last week a pedestrian told V. they hoped that V. got run over by a car, so it’s definitely not because there aren’t assholes out there on the street). But putting this point in is totally discouraging to a potential cyclist. I don’t know, maybe some people enjoy this kind of stuff, but if I was considering biking and watched this video, I think my reaction would be “Oh gee, I’d love to, but not so much if people will OCCASIONALLY PELT ME WITH GARBAGE!!” Are you trying to encourage potential cyclists or scare them off?

12. But mostly you’ll feel good about yourself. True.

Overall this is just repeating what I have long said on this blog: for bike policies to be effective, they have to work for people who are not seasoned bikers and aren’t planning to go through a ton of prep. But because those are not the people who are going to care at all about bike issues or bike advocacy, currently pro-bike policy, to the extent that it exists at all, is skewed towards the subset of people who are way into biking already. But you don’t have to be a messenger or act like a messenger or bike like a messenger (please don’t bike like a messenger) to go biking. Thus, I think the grist video is good in that it attempts to disintimidate people somewhat, but is not radical enough in how disintimidating it should be.

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3 Responses to For the bicycle-curious

  1. vj says:

    Can attest to having been thrown stuff at. A cigarette butt, still lit, in the face. Unpleasant.

  2. Pingback: I wanna be non-doored | Rated Zed

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