savvy cyclists co-exist with ease

The Special Mode

No reasonable person expects pedestrians to behave like vehicle drivers. If you’re walking down the street and planning to turn left at the next intersection, nobody expects you to walk in the left turn lane to do that.

Similarly, no one expects motorists to behave like pedestrians. Driving on the sidewalk is illegal — as well as highly dangerous and impractical.creating a virtuous transportation culture

But when it comes to bicycling, some people expect cyclists to behave as pedestrians, and some expect them to behave as vehicle drivers. Many cyclists switch back and forth between the two approaches.

Bicycles were both commonly and legally defined as vehicles by the 1880s, well before the invention of the automobile. Until the middle part of the 20th Century, most people expected bicyclists to behave as drivers. Practically speaking, the operating characteristics of bicyclists are that of a vehicle, not a pedestrian.

We don’t design different types of pedestrian facilities for “beginner” and “experienced” walkers. We design pedestrian facilities based on their operating characteristics and legal requirements. We generally want those “beginner” pedestrians to become “experienced” as quickly as possible, because we know experienced road users are safer.

While we don’t provide different types of sidewalks and crosswalks, we recognize that quiet neighborhood streets present fewer conflicts than busy commercial arterials, so we prefer that beginner pedestrians (children) keep to those neighborhood streets until they are mature enough to handle the busier ones. More experienced pedestrians (parents) prefer to accompany their kids on those busier streets.

We don’t have special lanes or facilities for beginner motorists.

We design their facilities based on their operating characteristics and legal requirements.

We generally want motorists to become “experienced” as quickly as possible, because we know experienced road users are safer. As with pedestrians, parents prefer to accompany their teen drivers or have them taught by professionals — especially in more complex driving environments — until they have shown they are competent to drive on their own.

Best bicycling practices often counterintuitive.

Unlike with walking and motor vehicle driving,

few parents understand the strategies of successful, experienced bicycle drivers, and often believe them to be unsafe. So they themselves stay with the untrained and inexperienced pedestrian approach to cycling, and teach their children to do the same. This inexperience has now been passed along for a few generations.

This approach is okay on quiet residential streets. But when used in busy commercial districts, it greatly increases the risk for the cyclist, due to all the turning and crossing conflicts with motorists.

Is it possible to provide bicycle facilities for “beginner” cyclists?

Yes, but the opportunities for such facilities are very limited. Trails in their own rights-of-way are great places to learn bike handling skills and get comfortable operating the machine. But when a path is placed along a busy urban or suburban street, it presents users with more turning and crossing conflicts with motorists than a cyclist would encounter using a regular travel lane. In Central Florida, where I study bicycle and pedestrian crashes, 82 percent of motorist-caused bike crashes involve cyclists riding on sidewalks, sidepaths and crosswalks.

savvy cyclists co-exist with ease

Rebecca Bealmear in St. Louis understands where the risks are (and where they are not) wherever she rides

Bikeway advocates are fond of calling experienced bicycle drivers “strong and fearless.” How often are experienced pedestrians or motorists referred to in that way? The key characteristics of bicycle drivers are their understanding of how conflicts and crashes are most likely to happen, and their use of the best strategies to prevent those conflicts. Inordinate strength and fearlessness are simply not necessary for successful bicycle driving.

This “strong and fearless” framing is clearly intended to marginalize cyclists who are competent and experienced. How many novice cyclists would express a desire to become “strong and fearless”?

Ultimately, whatever type of accommodation is provided along our roads, cyclists will need to understand the true causes of crashes and the best strategies for avoiding them. Neither the causes nor the strategies are common knowledge, and they sometimes run contrary to popular belief. That’s why cyclist education is essential.

how to change American bicycle culture

How to jumpstart a virtuous traffic culture

At the American Bicycling Education Association, we also want America to have the best motorists. By “best” we mean competent, predictable and courteous. Here’s what’s exciting:

We bicyclists can create a virtuous transportation culture.

It’s beyond the scope of this post to describe how, but when you explore CyclingSavvy Online or attend a CyclingSavvy workshop, we’ll show you how. You’ll discover how motorists who seem so dumb and careless can become quite smart and courteous when you change your behavior.

The best bicyclists are educated bicyclists, who fully understand the difference between being a bicyclist operating as a pedestrian, and bicyclist operating as a driver.

The best cyclist is a savvy cyclist.

ABEA wants American bicyclists to be the best in the world.

3 replies
  1. Katherine Tynan
    Katherine Tynan says:

    I am reminded of one school of thought on the answer to the seemingly simple question “How long did it take you to knit ______?”. My answer would be 15 years. On a clock it took me a few hours or a few hundred hours to finish that project. However, the experiences of knitting for many years gave me the skills to complete the project quickly.
    The same is true of the route that lead me to take Cycling Savvy. I didn’t wake up the same week I was allowed to ride on the road alone and decide to ride Riverview Blvd. Good cycling pedagogy made my answer to a flooded Riverfront Trail riding 3 miles on an arterial.

  2. Gary A Cziko
    Gary A Cziko says:

    Another thought-provoking piece from Mighk–thanks!

    I suspect that critics will say that bicyclists are different from both pedestrians and motorists. Faster and less maneuverable than pedestrians. But slower, narrower and more maneuverable than motorists. So ideally, bicyclists should be separated from both pedestrians and motorists.

    Special bike infrastructure can be designed to make that work. But what we typically see in the U.S. are facilities such as door-zone and edge bike lanes and cycle tracks that increase bicyclists’ conflicts with both motorists’ and pedestrians and creates a third mode of transportation for which the rules are often not clear (such as who yields to whom when a bike lane slants diagonally left across a travel lane that slants diagonally right?).

    What’s unique about CyclingSavvy is that it provides education for cyclists operating in all three modes–as a driver, as a pedestrian and–perhaps trickiest of all–as that in-between mode between driver and pedestrian operating on special bicycle infrastructure.


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  1. […] the way” of “car” traffic. Bikeway advocates have got to sprinkle in a bit of identity politics too. Honors go out to Alta Planning and Design for doubling down on this […]

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