Mindful Bicycling

Mindful: Bearing in mind; regardful; attentive; heedful; observant



What do these signs tell you when you’re riding? Should you always merge right when a lane is added to the road? Do you know when a bike lane stripe is misleading you? What do you do when your lane is going to end? What can a roadway cyclist learn from a pedestrian countdown clock?

We write often about bicycle driving, a concept that originated with and has evolved from Effective Cycling. The focus of bicycle driving discussion and education is usually on the mechanics of how to position ourselves, handle certain road configurations and avoid the mistakes of other road users.

The mechanical components of cycling education are:

  • the rules of the road;
  • crash causes (and statistics);
  • road configurations (intersections, turn lanes, interchanges, weave lanes, diverges, drop lanes, bike lanes, etc.);
  • safe positioning on the road at and between intersections;
  • and emergency handling techniques.

The overarching goal of teaching all that mechanical information is to give students the resources for situation awareness—the key component of mindful cycling—in traffic.

Situation awareness is the perception of environmental elements within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future.

That sounds pretty complicated, but it actually becomes second nature once you understand where the dangers are and where they are not. For example, it’s hard to have good situation awareness if you’re obsessed with overtaking traffic. A cyclist’s decision-making requires paying attention to the road ahead and reading the signs and environmental clues that allow for proactive decision-making.

We need to look for roadway hazards like parked cars, potholes and curb extensions. We can travel more efficiently and safely when we anticipate and look for signs of changes in the roadway, like:

  • the right lane becoming a continuous right-turn lane, drop lane or highway on-ramp;
  • a new lane entering from the right (where you’ll need to merge right), or forming a short weave lane (where you should not merge right);
  • the bike lane ending or traveling to the right of right-turning traffic, or being striped completely wrong;
  • expiring pedestrian countdown clocks that can tell us whether to speed up to make the light, or slow down because it ain’t gonna happen.

All of these things require situation awareness and forward attention.

Looking and planning ahead is something novice drivers (of all vehicles) don’t do well. This is partly due to their inexperience with road design and traffic dynamics, and partly due to anxiety. Anxiety diverts a tremendous amount of cognitive energy away from awareness.

Mindfulness vs vigilance: going beyond defensive driving

Defensive driving can be characterized by vigilance.

When I first started riding a motorcycle, I experienced a lot of “surprises” on the road despite being tense and watchful. Although I had taken the MSF safety course, motorcycling felt quite dangerous to me because it seemed like there were conflicts everywhere. I was always driving defensively and reacting to my environment, in a state of hyper-vigilance. It was quite exhausting.

Yet, after several months of riding, the surprises went away. I discovered that as I relaxed, I was able to see and anticipate the movements of other drivers. Once I lost the anxiety, the world slowed down around me and I found myself in a state of awareness that did not require so much vigilance or defensiveness. The combination of my relaxed state and the foundation of knowledge I’d acquired in the safety course allowed me to easily process what was a threat and what wasn’t. As I sensed the need, I would casually shift my speed or position on the road to increase my visibility or avoid conflict.

As a motorcycle driver, making the transition from anxious and frequently-surprised to relaxed and mindful was relatively easy—much easier than as a bicycle driver. Why? Because I didn’t have to overcome any cultural stigma about my right to control my environment. There is no taboo against a motorcycle driver controlling a lane, because motorcycle drivers are never expected or required to share a lane.

Unfortunately, that stigma (reinforced by bad laws, speed-centric road users and mollycoddling bike advocates) keeps most bicyclists from making a complete transition to mindfulness. For some, vigilance is as good as it gets because they’re operating in ways that make conflict inevitable. This state of mind is not only stressful, it’s not enough to protect them.

Mindless bicycling

salmon cyclist sidewalk cyclist

Mindless cycling has many forms:

  • Simple ignorance: obliviousness of the need to follow the rules of the road, the danger of riding against traffic, the potential hazards of car doors, blind spots and being invisible to other drivers (not understanding where the dangers are, thus mindlessly staying out of the way of same-direction traffic at all cost).
  • Selfish ignorance: Not considering the impact or logic of our actions. For example, passing a short queue of cars in a narrow lane, and then making them have to pass you again, and again (queue jumping isn’t all bad, but it does require some mindfulness… and caution).
  • Cultural ignorance: the stunted decision-making that comes from the belief that we are not fully equal vehicle drivers. This results in delayed actions or decisions which increase the difficulty of riding in traffic. An example is, waiting until the last minute to merge to the left lane for a left turn and getting trapped by a platoon of overtaking cars, when you could have merged earlier in a long gap between platoons and been where you needed to be when they began to overtake you. Another example is using a gap to swoop clear to the opposite side of to road and then ride against traffic to the left turn.
  • Facility-induced ignorance: riding through a door zone or into the blind spot of a truck because the paint stripe leads there.
  • Groupthink: from club rides to charity rides to critical mass, groups of cyclists can be some of the most frustratingly mindless road users. Some practice submissive inferiority behavior at the expense of group safety. Some use their feeling of empowerment to treat the road like a playground (to the point of endangering other bicyclists). Some just mindlessly follow route marks without thinking about anything (I watched a group on an MS ride, swoop across 3 lanes of traffic when they encountered a left-pointing route arrow).

Unlocking our mindfulness

Whether we are alone or in a group, we all have a responsibility to be mindful individuals.

Becoming a mindful cyclist is much more a psychological process than a mechanical one. Unlike other vehicle drivers, knowledge and experience alone doesn’t take us all the way to mindful practices. Simply teaching a person the mechanics of safe cycling doesn’t always change their behavior. Information is an important component, but it takes more than that to overcome the mythologies and change our self-perception.

Achieving optimal situation awareness, safety and ease of travel on my bicycle required not only understanding the dynamics, but overcoming my enculturation into staying out of the way. Once I opened the hatch and jettisoned that baggage, I was able to achieve the same zen state of mindful bicycling that I experienced as a motorcycle driver.

As a cycling instructor, I’m always looking for the key that unlocks that hatch for students. My end goal is not to deliver information, but to inspire transformation.

Mindful advocacy

The best accommodation a community can offer for cycling is an ongoing, sustainable education system which nurtures and empowers mindful, safe, effective bicycle drivers. The result is good for bicyclists, bicycling and the community at large.

Originally published June 3, 2009 on CommuteOrlando

Safe Joy Riding

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6 replies
  1. Jack Pirson
    Jack Pirson says:

    Mindless cycling has much in common with mindless eating. These are excellent points that I hadn’t read before. To be a safe cyclist, I think one must be totally focused on what one is doing.

  2. Lynne
    Lynne says:

    I really appreciate this article. The roads look so different to me now that I’ve decided to commute to/from work on a bike. I’ve been shopping and will purchase my first bike today. The more I’ve talked with people about riding, the more frightening the road seems. Wish there was a class this weekend, but in the meantime, these articles are educational and calming. Thank you.

    • Keri Caffrey
      Keri Caffrey says:

      Hi Lynne,

      Congratulations on deciding to commute and your bike purchase!

      Remember this when talking to people about riding: our culture suffers from bad beliefs that are self-reinforcing — bad beliefs drive unsafe behavior that results in negative consequences that solidify fearful perceptions and feed the bad beliefs. That spiral can be escaped by a bicyclist who learns the vital behaviors we teach in CyclingSavvy. That doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally have a bad experience, but it gives us the perspective to keep it in context.

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