Cities large and small across North America are looking to increase the number of bicycles on their streets. Most, including Peterborough, now have goals to increase cycling backed by measures like building new bike lanes, providing bike parking, and limiting car parking.
Cycling education is one other important measure cities will need to use to get more people pedaling. Infrastructure projects like bike lanes make it to the headlines, but it takes good public education programs to make sure they are used safely.
Cyclists on sidewalks, pedestrians and parked cars in bike lanes, cyclists going the wrong direction in bike lanes, impatient motorists; there’s no shortage of safety concerns and oblivious road users to discourage potential cyclists and make cycling less safe. NYC blogger Chris O’Leary has posted photos of some all too common misuses of bike lanes in his city.
Both cyclists and motorists love to complain that the other is using the road unsafely, but when it comes to sharing the road, most of us are still playing a guessing game. How far should one cycle from the curb? What is a safe passing distance between a car and a bicycle? Unless you've been trained in safe cycling or read the Ontario driver's manual closely, you're probably cycling too close to the curb and parked cars and, if you're a driver, honking at cyclists who take the room they need in the lane.
Cycling rules vary by jurisdiction and cities come to develop their own particular cycling codes. For instance, the oldest cycling organization in North America, the League of American Bicyclists (through which I was trained in road safety last month at Peterborough Green-Up) promotes acting like a motor vehicle (signalling and taking the left turn lane) as the safest way to navigate intersections. While this is fully legal in most North American jurisdictions, many cities like Vancouver and Portland promote pedestrian-style "two-stage" or "Copenhagen-style" left hand turns. Cyclists must cross to the next corner and then wait in painted "bike boxes" between the crosswalk and the white stopping line for the green light before continuing in their new direction. (Bike boxes have other uses, like allowing cyclists to filter to the front of traffic at stop lights and on New York’s many one-way streets, they make for safer right hand turns (video here)).
Bike box in Portland. Source: Oregonlive.com
Cyclists will debate things like bike boxes forever, but whatever way a city decides to go with its cycling rules, they must be publicized and enforced. The clearer the rules are, whatever they may be, the more people will feel safe and confident cycling on streets.
Cities can provide everything from pamphlets, brochures, webpages and workshops on safe cycling and their city’s unique cycling code. For instance, the City of Portland’s Office of Transportation website has information on everything from guides to using Portland’s cycling infrastructure (like bike boxes) to safe routes to school.
The safe cycling course I took in July was one of three offered this summer through Peterborough Green-Up in partnership with the city. The instructor mentioned that in Tucson, Arizona when police issue tickets to cyclists for infractions like cycling on sidewalks (anyone remember the crackdown here in Peterborough this summer?), the fine is waived or reduced if they pass a safe cycling skills course. It's an easy way to fill seats in those courses and get safe cycling information out to those who need it.
Motorists also need to be made aware of how to share the road safely. Too many motorists fail to give cyclists safe passing distances and honk at us for riding a safe distance from curbs and parked cars (0.5 and 1 metres, respectively, according to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation). I spoke with Peterborough MPP Jeff Leal last month and recommended cycling awareness be made a larger part of new driver training in Ontario. Let him know if you agree.
Let’s take the guess work out of cycling. While safe cycling infrastructure is much needed, let’s balance it with investment in safe cycling promotion and education.