I composed this meme this morning because I spent a couple hours studying the roads while on a 30 miles ride. I was noticing how many types of road shoulders cyclists need to navigate while riding. It also occurred to me as I used a short length of bike path along a busy street that most are typically rutted, bumpy, covered with glass or end abruptly with no warning.
This is one of the basic facts of cycling in America. The style of bicycle we call road bikes are not suited for most bike paths. This is especially true on heavily trafficked rails-to-trails bike paths where runners, pedestrians, dog-walkers, children and many other slower types of “traffic” try to use the same 12-foot-wide swath. It’s not safe for fast-moving bicycles to enter those busy zones. That same is true along the big lakefront paths in Chicago. But now efforts are being made to separate the various kinds of trail travelers into lanes. And in the busy parts of the city, designated bike lanes are playing important roles in overall bike safety.
The safest place for a road bike is generally on more open roads, where the faster pace of “skinny tire” bikes is complimentary with traffic moving in the same direction.
Traffic laws in the United States grant cyclists of all types the right to travel on most public roads. The exceptions are Interstate highways, and for good reason. The rate and volume of motorized vehicular traffic on those roads is not at all conducive to cyclists moving 15-25 mph. Even cars that are moving slower than 45 mph in the left lane can be ticketed for going too slowly and creating a traffic hazard in many states.
On standard two-lane roads, bicyclists typically ride within a foot or two of the white line on the side of the road. In some circumstances where the asphalt ends within a few inches of the white line, there is no room for cyclists to ride outside the white line. That means cyclists are allowed to ride in the regular lane of traffic, and passing cars are required to allow three feet minimum as they seek to pass any bike or riders.
The reason for this law is simple. Most people are not adept at judging the span of their vehicle or its width while driving. By requiring three feet of passage on the right side of a vehicle when steering around a bicyclist, the law allows for a margin of error that still protects a degree of protection for both the cyclist and driver.
None of is perfect after all. Add in the factor that cyclists are much more at risk from poor road conditions. The Three Feet law allows for the need of cyclists to swerve around ruts, pavement cracks, tarsnakes or road debris. Unless you’ve ridden a bike on a public road, you may not be familiar with how common these conditions occur. Cyclists are always grateful for “good road,” and most of them drive cars and pay taxes like the general population.
But the infrastructure of America being what it is these days, underfunded and oft-neglected, the condition of roads in this nation is not always good. It is common in an open country ride to find massive variations in road conditions as one travels through several townships during a typical thirty-mile ride. One learns quite a bit about how tax dollars are applied when rubber literally meets the road. And when it meets the fateful “chip and seal” solution to road repair, cyclists curse and mumble as they rumble down the road with teeth chattering inside their heads. It may be cheaper to use, but chip and seal is a disaster to ride upon.
One also learns quite a bit about public attitude and awareness of cyclist during every ride in every circumstance. Be it urban streets or lonely country roads, cyclists must be aware of automobiles and protect themselves by obeying traffic laws in every way possible. Some riders are better at this than others. But all riders are protected by the Three Feet law where it is required by state jurisdiction.
And where it is not a law, it is still a courteous gesture to give cyclists plenty of room while passing. The same holds true for motorcycles, farm machinery, Amish buggies or plain old Aunt Matilda guiding her supercruiser 1966 Buick on the way to the local supermarket. Public roads are thoroughfares that bear all types of traffic. Some of it is predictable. But much of it is not.
Which is why the basic lessons of Driver’s Education need to come into play during every trip by automobile. We all have limited attention spans, but you’ve made it this far in this blog about bike and driver safety, so here’s a link to a set of flash cards that cover terms related to “separating hazards while driving.”
The point here is that separating hazards is a good basic practice in which to engage while driving. But forty years of running on the side of public roads, and close to 20 years of active cycling on those same roads has taught me that a fair number of people don’t know much about either the importance or methods of separating hazards. They either speed up in an attempt to beat the approaching traffic or simply squeeze next to any cyclist on the road and give a roar of the engine to get away from the situation as quickly as possible. Neither of these is a good idea.
But people do these things because they are either incapable of judging traffic situations or too impatient and selfish to care. The former is excusable at some level. But people need to wise up. Cycling deaths are on the rise, and habits like texting while driving are only making things more deadly.
But the latter habit of aggressively refusing to make room for cyclists is truly deplorable behavior by any driver. People that are so selfish they are eager to threaten cyclists by buzzing close to them on the roads are the true losers in society. Their road rage and dismissive attitude toward people riding bikes is inexcusable. The patterns of behavior are so familiar to cyclists it is often taken for granted there will be a close call or scary incident every ride. First comes the gun of the engine, then the rush of air closes in as a truck or car surges past. Then comes another roar of the engine and a blast of engine smoke as they tear off.
But sometimes, we catch up to these aggressive types at the stoplight. Then one of two things typically happens. If they see you riding up from behind, they’ll either refuse to make eye contact or else bark something out the window. “Get on the bike path!” is a familiar refrain. When there are no bike paths around for miles, this makes absolutely no sense. But then again, neither does the way they were driving.
It’s not always pickup trucks. There are sedans and minivans that shove riders off the road. But even when traveling in groups, it is rarely a motorcyclist who intimidates or threatens a group of cyclists. That’s because motorized bikers have enough trouble being seen on the highway. They understand what it’s like to be put into situations that threaten their lives. Their love for the open road and lifestyle may be entirely different than bicyclists, but the one thing these seemingly disparate groups of people have in common is an appreciation for respect shown and given between the two white lines.
I’ve written about the fleet of massive trucks that daily floods out of a gravel mine in tiny Kaneville, Illinois. Those drivers encounter loads of cyclists on Main Street, the country road that leads east toward Chicago. That’s where the trucks are headed, and they’re on a schedule for sure. But every truck that I’ve ever encountered coming or going out of that gravel mine has been courteous and safe, often waiting patiently to steer around a single rider or an entire group of cyclists, and there are many out that way.
And I say that if a 20-ton truck can manage to give a minimum three feet of leeway, and often more, then it is also possible for everyday drivers to spend a few moments looking for the safest avenue around a cyclist or a group of riders.
If people are impatient or grow angry because they have to wait a few moments to steer their vehicle around cyclists in order to pass, then those are selfish instincts that need to be addressed at both a personal and societal level. Because while separating hazards on the road while driving is not a cure-all for what ails America roads, it is a starting point for showing greater respect between differing factions of culture. Rather than driving Americans farther apart, that space between the two white lines actually represents an opportunity to find and share common ground. It could be the start of true American civility.
That’s the kind of populism that actually makes America great.