Fear and Loathing in Bicycleland

In my last post, I talked about how fear can hold us back from taking on actions that are better for us, society, and the environment, like bicycling to work or cooking dinner. I offered a number of ways to tackle these fears and learn to enjoy such experiences. However, I have a confession to make. Despite biking for almost my entire life, there are still a few things that can strike fear in my heart. Thankfully, most of these situations can be prevented by either more common sense and courtesy or better transportation engineering.

1) Children and dogs.
Normally, I love both children and dogs. But when I see them on a multi-use path, especially a narrow one, I have to swallow a little. They’re both incredibly unpredictable and have no understanding of directions like “Bicyclist on your left.” In addition, if the kid is on a bike, he or she usually doesn’t have the physical control to prevent swerving all over the place. My usual solution is to pass both extremely slowly, but even then, there’s always the chance they’ll veer right into my path.

This issue is pretty unavoidable for obvious reasons, but can be lessened significantly by designing multi-use paths as mini-roads that are used for both transportation and recreation. If planners keep in mind that people use them to get places in addition to just being out on a jaunt, they would make them wider and therefore safer.

2) People who fundamentally don’t understand (or pretend they don’t) “stay to the right” on a multi-use path.
These people may not know how to read, have English as their second (or third) language, or just don’t give a crap, but they scare the heck out of me. There has been so many times that I have said, “Bicyclist on your left” and the person has stepped to his or her left into my path and then just stared at me as if I had three heads. One time this happened while the person was actually standing next to a “Stay to the right” sign and I was going downhill towards her. Even though I wasn’t going that fast, I had to slam on my brakes to avoid hitting her. Please follow the directions on a multi-use path just like you would if you were driving on a road.

3) People with headphones turned up too loud.
Again, this is another multi-use path problem. Honestly, most of my nervousness about safety isn’t about cars per say, it’s about the drivers. Those drivers sometimes use multi-use paths for recreational purposes and many of them are just as oblivious as they are when they are driving. I get nervous about people who keep their headphones turned up too loud because there’s just no way they can ever hear me coming, even if I yell loudly. Even if I don’t have to use it, the lack of ability to communicate unnerves me.

4) Very quick people passing me with no warning.
I acknowledge that I am not a bicycle racer. If I ever participated in a race, I would be laughed out. As a result, I get passed a lot, especially when I’m on roads that people use to train. While I’m used to it – I was a well-meaning, but not very good high school athlete – I would appreciate a bit of a warning when someone is going to pass within a few inches of me. This doesn’t scare me so much as startle me, but it’s still not a nice feeling.

5) Bicycle lanes that abruptly stop, forcing you into the lane.
These aren’t so bad if they’re well-marked or if I know the road, but there’s been a couple of times where the end of the lane has come out of nowhere. This happens quite a bit in D.C., where a bike lane goes for several blocks and then ends. Fortunately, most of the time, there’s a light or intersection between them that allows both the cyclist and automobiles to transition. It’s worse in the suburbs where occasionally, lanes just randomly dead-end. (The one between Anderson and West Montgomery in Rockville is particularly bad. Thankfully, it’s a known problem that the town is working on.) Of course, the solution to this problem is more and better-marked bike lanes.

6) Parked cars in the city
Biking alongside parked cars in the city makes me very nervous because of the chance of being “doored.” Being doored occurs when someone opens the door of their car from the inside and violently smacks an oncoming cyclist. A surprising number of people have gotten killed from being doored, usually from losing control of the bike and going into traffic or getting flung by the door straight into traffic.

There are a couple of ways of preventing this problem. The first part of the solution is educating people that it’s only basic safety to look behind them while they are opening their door. This PSA makes the point extremely bluntly, but it’s effective. The second part of the solution is to make bicycle lanes separate from the parking lane altogether, like a few are in D.C. Thankfully, separate bike lanes are becoming the blue ribbon in safety standards among transportation planners.

7) Large trucks at intersections.
One of the most common causes of cycling fatalities are bicyclists getting hit by trucks turning right. Frequently, the cyclist is to the right of the truck, either in the bike lane or the right-most part of the vehicle lane, and as such, in the driver’s blind spot. This diagram is a good illustration of what happens.

Although that page has a very comprehensive list of countermeasures, there are two solutions that seem to make the most sense to me. The first is creating green-shaded bicycle boxes at intersections with green painted lanes that go through those intersections. The boxes allow the cyclists to get up in front of the traffic, where they are more likely to be seen, and the lanes show drivers that someone may be going straight at the light instead of turning. The second solution is to train truck drivers. In London, lorry drivers are taking classes that help them understand where their blind spot may be, how to purposefully look out for cyclists, and what the world looks like from a cyclists’ point of view via on-road bike training.

Despite all of this, I feel fundamentally safe cycling, often far moreso than I do driving. Although there is always the possibility of an accident with both, cycling has long-term physical and mental health benefits while driving just stresses me out. But the best thing with cycling, is that unlike driving, many of the most dangerous aspects can be fixed. A little education and improved infrastructure can go a long way.

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