By Mara Abbott,
Olympian and CTS Contributing Editor
The weather is warming up, and there are already more bikes and more cars on the road. It’s not just a seasonal phenomenon either: According to an analysis by the League of American Bicyclists using the latest U.S. census data, in some cities the number of people commuting by bike has increased more than 400% over the past three decades.
Still, any kind of bike riding remains a novel activity for the vast majority of Americans. It’s trickier to calculate the total number of folks out pedaling because the census doesn’t track recreational riders, but according to a 2015 People for Bikes survey conducted by the Breakaway Research Group, only 32% of people reported getting on a bike at all in the last year. For those who did ride, not all did so regularly: the median frequency was a bit more than once a month.
That survey also reported that 52% of people are afraid of getting hit by a motor vehicle while bike riding. If we want to expand the reach of our cycling community, we need safer streets — admittedly not always an easy task. Last spring, I wrote a CTS blog about the importance of each cyclist doing his or her part to follow the rules of the road in order to create a safer ecosystem for us all. This year, I’m sharing an excerpt of a column I wrote about bike-car relations for my hometown newspaper, proposing a contract of compromises for road users. It was written with a humorous slant, but I still think it contains quite a few grains of truth.
To the drivers of the world, from one avid cyclist:
I promise I will always signal clearly. I hope you will too. We will all move predictably. Should I run up on roadkill, glass, or a manhole cover, I will make sure the coast is clear before entering your lane, and I’d love it if you would do the same. Acts of mysterious drifting will be avoided by all parties at all costs.
In exchange for you a) passing at a distance that doesn’t ruffle my arm hair, and b) toning down the type of from-behind honking that is more likely to result in a change in underwear than behavior, I will only ride two-abreast in places it is allowed, and will stay on the shoulder when safe and possible to do so.
If we enter an intersection from opposite directions, you’re turning left and I’m going straight, you will not, under any circumstances, smash me. If you are pulling out of a side street, you will look twice. In return, I will not disembark sidewalks like a human-sized jack-in-the-box on wheels, and I will always have a bright tail and headlight with me — I’ll even use them.
I will not dart erratically through parking lots, so long as you back up slowly. I will do my best to not make fun of you when you have to pay for parking or when you can’t find a spot, so long as you feign sympathy when I am fumbling on my expedition mittens in a sleet storm or trudging my flat-tired steed to the nearest shop.
When I put out a request on Twitter for “pet peeves about cyclists” (I didn’t want to miss anything important), one gentleman mentioned that he didn’t like it much when riders blow snot on his car, a form of retaliation that I had honestly never considered. Though entertained, I promise I won’t take up the habit.
I will never listen to music so loudly that I can’t hear you, as long as you don’t get so distracted by texting so that you can’t see me. Come to think of it, I won’t text either. We’ll make that one universal. No. Texting.
Above all, I know I have to take full responsibility for my own safety. Nonetheless, as the combined powers of physics and combustion engines would have it, my life also sort of lies in your hands. Please remember that, because it is very real.
While we wait for the signatories to start lining up, here are a few things you can do yourself to stay safe on your bike this season.
- Wear bright colors – I spent three years riding for teams with either navy blue or black kits, and my mom frequently asked if I couldn’t get a contract with a competing team whose jerseys were fluorescent yellow. Bright colors help you stand out to drivers, and studies have shown the effect to be even stronger if the color is on a part of your clothing that is subject to regular movement, like socks, shoes, or even the hem of your shorts.
- Add a light – Over the last few years, I’ve seen more and more people use a flashing taillight when training during the daytime (including big boss Chris Carmichael!) A flashing light is another great way to catch a driver’s eye, and if you’re ever caught out in the dark, you’ll already be prepared.
- Know the hazards – The more miles we put in, the more familiar we become with the typical situations that can lead to a bike-car crash. Here is a fun animated guide to a few of them that includes “how-to avoid” tips for both cyclists and drivers. It concisely distills many of the things riders know instinctively, and is even a great resource to share with the drivers in your life if you are feeling particularly brave.
- Pick “low-stress” routes when possible – The most direct route out of my neighborhood is a heavily travelled road with a narrow bike lane. There is also a dedicated bike path that can take me to the same area, but my ride is about a mile longer. I’ll admit that I don’t always take the bike path, but I try to make a point to during rush hour or busy event days. Take a look at some of your common routes, and see if there are modifications you can make to use paths or neighborhoods rather than main thoroughfares. A few extra minutes of riding is worth it if it helps you get home safely.