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On The Streets: Successfully Cycling With Cars

On The Streets: Successfully Cycling With Cars

It’s the main reason why more people don’t bicycle commute.  Fear of cars.  I completely understand.  I really don’t like cars at all.  I lived without one for four years.  I recently did get a little used Mini Cooper.  It’s so cute.  But there it sits in my driveway.  I only drive it a couple of times a month when I absolutely have to.  I much prefer to ride my bike.  Nope, I don’t like cars very much at all.  And when I’m riding my bike on the roads, there are times when I absolutely despise them.

You know it’s kind of a catch-22 situation… not riding your bike on the roads with cars because you hate cars and so you drive in a car everywhere instead because you don’t want to ride your bicycle on the roads with cars because you hate cars…  you see where I’m going with this.  Well I refuse to run on that gerbil wheel.  I want to ride my bicycle and I’m not going to let a fear of cars keep me from doing that.

I actually really hate these signs. Motorists often think the message is directed toward the cyclists... that the cyclist should move over out of the way. Worst verbiage choice ever.  And this one is especially bad because the car is passing much too close to the cyclist.

I actually really hate these signs. Motorists often think the message is directed toward the cyclists… that the cyclist should move over out of the way. Worst verbiage choice ever. And this one is especially bad because the car is passing much too close to the cyclist.

Over the years I’ve found some good solutions to my car aversion… strategies that make me feel safer and enjoy my bike rides even more.  Keep reading…

PLAYING KEEP AWAY

I believe bike riding should be FUN.  But if cars are whizzing by me, I’m not having fun.  So my first aim is to avoid busy roads.  It’s usually pretty easy to achieve using Google Maps.  Google Maps are a fantastic resource.  Obviously Google Maps can be used to find alternate routes to wherever it is I want to go.  I almost never bicycle the same route I would use in my car.  Auto drivers are usually going to choose the fastest route to get to their destination and this is going to utilize busier roads with faster moving traffic.  Not on my bicycle.  Instead I enjoy cycling through quiet neighborhoods where I seldom have to worry about cars.  I’ll gladly cycle further to avoid high traffic roads.

In Google Map’s satellite view I often find little known neighborhood cut-through sidewalks, unmapped alleyways and trails.  These always add a little adventure to my biking excursions.  Every once in a while a route I plan to take is impeded by a fence that didn’t show up in satellite view.  It’s good to have a backup plan. I use Google Map’s street view to scout out new routes as well.  In street view I can determine if a road is high traffic and how wide the shoulder is.

These signs are better.  The 3 feet law is true in many municipalities but often motorists aren't aware of it.

These signs are better. The 3 feet law is true in many municipalities but often motorists aren’t aware of it.

Then there’s Google Map’s handy bicycle route feature which I only recently discovered.   To use it first click on “Directions.”  Then select the bicycle travel mode and all of the bike trails in the area should appear in green.  Google seems to have done a pretty comprehensive job of mapping all of the bicycling routes in St. Louis.  I thought I knew all the bike trails in my area but the bicycle route feature has alerted me to a bunch of trails I had no idea existed.  I always incorporate trails into my commuting whenever possible.  Nothing is more fun than cycling on a dedicated trail without having to worry about cars at all.  Pure bliss.

SIDEWALKS, SHOULDERS OR LANES?

Then there are times when you just HAVE to cycle on a busy street because there are no other routes.  And of course I’ve developed a system of safety strategies for these situations.

I like these signs.  They might be kinda wordy but they get the message across politely.

I like these signs. They might be kinda wordy but they get the message across politely.

Contrary to what you might think, cycling on the sidewalk is not necessarily the safest place to be.  Many cyclist-vehicle accidents happen to cyclists who were happily pedaling down the sidewalk believing they were safe from danger.  Motorists turning into drives and pulling out onto the street are watching for other cars in the street rather than for cyclists tooling down the sidewalk and this is when accidents can happen.  Sidewalks are really intended for pedestrians, not bicycles.  In some municipalities it is even illegal to bicycle on the sidewalk. I almost never bike on the sidewalk myself.  But I see lots of folks doing it.  If that includes YOU and you just can’t bring yourself to get out there on the street, then BE CAREFUL!!!

For the sake of full disclosure, there are SOME roads that I simply refuse to bicycle on because they are way too busy, too fast, and too narrow with no shoulders.  If in the rare occasion I must use these roads in my commute, then I will indeed use the sidewalk.  But I’m extremely cautious, cycle slowly and keep my eyes and ears open for motorists turning into driveways and pulling out into the street.

wrongway

RIDE WITH TRAFFIC!

If a road has a LARGE shoulder, and by large I mean at least four feet wide or wider, then I’ll sometimes ride in the shoulder usually as far to the right as possible.  Whatever you do, DON’T ride against traffic on the shoulder which is very dangerous.  But I see people doing this all the time.  Both you and the cars are moving toward each other and you can’t get out of the way fast enough.  Use a rear view mirror attached to your bicycle, helmet or glasses so that you can see what’s coming up behind you and RIDE THE SAME DIRECTION as traffic.  But the same rules for sidewalks apply… motorists aren’t looking for cyclists zooming down the shoulder.  They are watching for other cars in the lanes. So be careful!

These signs are being used in Wichita.  They are better than the "Share The Road" signs but I still don't think motorists will understand.

These signs are being used in Wichita. They are better than the “Share The Road” signs but I still don’t think motorists will understand.

And this is why I believe that the safest place to be on your bicycle is IN THE MIDDLE OF THE RIGHT LANE. Gasp!  I know it seems to go against all instincts of self preservation but after thousands of miles of cycling in the streets I’ve observed time and time again that this is true.  Just as true is that the most DANGEROUS place to be is over to the far right of the lane or riding the white side line when there’s no shoulder.  Here’s why.

I’m convinced that most motorists aren’t trying to be nasty when they buzz by you too closely.  Most motorists simply don’t know what to do when they encounter a cyclist riding in the street in front of them.  If the cyclist is over to the far right or on the white line, the motorist thinks you are giving them permission to squeeze by you.  A lot of drivers don’t have a good handle on just how much space their car actually requires.  And this is when accidents happen.  A nervous motorist will actually speed up just to get the horrid passing-the-bicyclist experience over with as soon as possible.  Well, you see how that makes the situation even worse.

These signs are GREAT!  I don't see how they can be misunderstood.

These signs are GREAT! I don’t see how they can be misunderstood.

So we’ve got to help them out a little bit.  If you cycle in the MIDDLE of the lane, the motorist understands immediately that they cannot squeeze by you.  They see you sooner because you are right where they are looking… the middle of the lane.  So when they get closer to you, they should be mentally prepared to move around you instead of trying to squeeze by you.  They have to change lanes to pass you just as they would if they were passing another car.  This is how you want them to behave and your actions can mold their behavior.

But what if they DON’T move over?  You can be sure that I’m keeping a keen eye on them in my rear view mirror as they approach.  If someone just isn’t going to move over then I’ll quickly move to the right to get out of the way.  When bicycles meet cars the cars always win.  I do NOT want to test that theory.  I’m trying to modify their behavior, not play chicken with them.  But that very seldom happens and so far I’ve never witnessed someone not moving over to go around me.

The signs are absolutely the very BEST!  A couple of them have been posted in my own little town of Ferguson, MO.  YAY for my wonderful city council for approving these.

These signs are absolutely the very BEST! A couple of them have been posted in my own little town of Ferguson, MO. YAY for my wonderful city council for approving these.

But what if they get mad at me?  You’d be surprised at how infrequently this happens.  Like I said before, I’m convinced that most motorists aren’t trying to be rude when they pass too closely.  They just don’t know what to do.  And most motorists don’t seem to get too bent out of shape when I show them what they should do by my bicycle position.  Now I’m not going to deny that the occasional motorist does express his irritation by honking, shouting or gesturing an uplifting message to me as they pass.  But I just ignore them.  I’m much more concerned with my safety than I am with what an anonymous driver thinks about me.  It’s not a popularity contest.

Be careful of bike lanes.  While I appreciate the effort, they can be dangerous.  They are often too narrow and pose hazards such as opening car doors when they are along a row of parked cars.  Sometimes it's safer to ride in the lane with cars.

Be careful of bike lanes. While I appreciate the effort, they can be dangerous. They are often too narrow and pose hazards such as opening car doors when they are along a row of parked cars. Sometimes it’s safer to ride in the lane with cars.

Now I’m not as callous to the poor motorists’ plight as my previous paragraphs may imply.  I know they are in a dreadful hurry to get wherever it is they are heading to and I’m such an infuriating impediment.  But remember that my first goal is to avoid the busy streets entirely.  I’ve dedicated a lot of words to describe my strategies for high traffic roads but I almost never bicycle there. 90% of the time I’m serenely pedaling away on a quiet neighborhood street bothering no one.  If I’m on a busy road in the first place, it’s because I have no other choice.  I’ll soon be getting out of the way entirely when I turn off the busy street into a quieter one at the very first possible opportunity.

THE NITTY GRITTY

Sharrows work well to let motorists know that cyclists are supposed to be in the lane.

Sharrows work well to let motorists know that cyclists are supposed to be in the lane.

My fellow bicyclists, it is OUR responsibility to watch out for cars.  Don’t assume drivers are going to see us.  They are often distracted, in a hurry, not very observant, and sometimes make dumb decisions.  They are not usually on the lookout for cyclists.  I’m a very defensive cyclist.  I wear a rear view mirror on my glasses and am always mindful of what’s around me.  I wear bright clothing.  If it’s after dark, I’ve got my bike lit up and blinking like a Christmas tree.  I signal my turns, stop at stop lights, and give a friendly wave to motorists who treat me well.  I give myself every advantage that I possibly can.  Cyclists do have some advantages over motorists.  We’re out in the open so we can hear and see better than they can.  We can maneuver quickly.  All of these things keep me safer and happier on the streets.

Protected bike lanes are the BEST!  Hopefully we'll get some of those around here some day.

Protected bike lanes are the BEST! Hopefully we’ll get some of those around here some day.

My desire is to encourage others to get on their bikes and ride, safely and without fear.  I believe it is possible if you use these strategies and some good old common sense.  But you can’t learn this stuff just by reading about it.  Nothing replaces time in the saddle.  The more you ride the more comfortable you will feel out there.  So get on your bike and RIDE!

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