As Laura Jacoby and Sammy Hedlund made clear in their recent post, cycling-specific infrastructure can make our communities more just and accessible to all. But there is another infrastructure, even more critical to fair access. It’s the underlying conceptions inside the cyclist’s head.
Yes, we need to claim more space for bicycles on public rights-of-way, but we must also help riders build the confidence, knowledge and skill that can reduce stress and improve safety. Riding a bike safely in traffic requires some mental preparation. Many riders feel that strength, speed, and bravery are the keys to riding in traffic. In fact, knowledge, awareness, and a comfortable pace are much more effective for safe and stress-free riding.
First, you have to believe you have a legitimate right to be on the road. This can be particularly difficult if you start every day feeling you are marginalized—by gender, color, abilities or income. Actively cooperating with the flow of traffic requires the same kind of confidence as having a voice in the community. For many people, just getting to the point where they believe they have a place on the road is the greatest challenge.
Second, that confidence comes from knowledge—understanding the legal basis for bicycles operating on public roadways. What does the law really say about your rights and responsibilities? Where does the law say you can ride? Who decides how the law is applied in any given situation?
Third, you have to understand how traffic really works, and how to use the patterns and flow of traffic to your advantage as a cyclist. There are many subtleties to traffic flow that are hard to see until someone points them out to you. Even cyclists who have been commuting for years discover patterns in their daily commute they can use to advantage. The most useful and safest path through any traffic situation is often the opposite of what you’d expect.
Building this foundation takes education and empowerment. The American Bicycle Education Association is a national non-profit organization that has taken up this challenge. Its goal is to empower cyclists to ride anywhere they need to go, on any infrastructure, with confidence and in the safest way possible. ABEA has educational programs for cyclists and law enforcement, and for public discussions about how we want our transportation system to work, and for whom.
Bruce is a cycling instructor, daily transportation rider and a bicycle tourist at every opportunity. Bruce is interested in the protection of rights of access to our public thoroughfares no matter how we travel or who we are, and improved safety and community relations through education. He lives in Bennington.