Bike Paths

At times when I’m out riding my bike it seems that the motor vehicle has taken over the world. You can feel pretty insignificant out on a four-lane highway, or using that bike path on the side of a major road. What are all these people doing, where are they going? Why are they so focused on getting there so quickly, oblivious to the places they’re passing through, oblivious to the danger of travelling at such speed? It’s easy to feel superior at such times. But that feeling doesn’t compensate for how unpleasant and dangerous the situation can be. It’s enough to make one consider taking the car next time.

Yet that’s absurd, particularly given our concerns about the cars contribution to greenhouse gases. Bicycles must be close to the most efficient means of transport devised. They go about their business quietly and modestly, and can bring great joy to their rider. Most people would agree the world could only be a better place if more people rode them more regularly.

Bicycle advocates often argue the need for more bike paths. There is an opportunity cost in the investment in bike paths. Money spent on cycling this way, is not available to be spent in other ways.

In recent times there has been substantial investment made in the building of dedicated bike paths on the side of some freeways and major roads. I’d be interested in use statistics, but my observation when passing in my car, is they remain largely unused.

This doesn’t surprise me. As a rider I’ve found paths on the side of freeways very unpleasant places to be. What’s more they’re often littered with debris, which can puncture my tires, or even cause me to crash.

Other bicycle paths rarely take the most direct or flattest route. They are also shared with other users including pedestrians, skateboarders, people walking their dogs, or kids learning to ride their bikes. Swift travel is dangerous and unrealistic. Such paths are great for recreational riding and there definitely should be more of them. But if we are serious about people commuting on bikes and leaving their cars at home, then bikes also need to use the road. For this to happen then roads need to become friendlier places for cyclists.

The major reason that roads are not cycle friendly is the antagonistic attitude of a minority of car drivers. I’m sure that much of this antagonism results from a lack of appreciation of why cyclists do particular things, combined with misunderstanding of the legitimate and legal rights of cyclists to use the road.

For a fraction of the cost of adding dedicated bike paths to the side of freeways, we could run education programs to help both cyclists and car drivers better understand each others realities. Why is that you can get a car licence without being tested on the rights of other road users, especially cyclists? It wouldn’t cost anything to add relevant questions to the drivers test. And perhaps as part of driver education, drivers should be seated in a chair and have a two tonne object travelling at 60 kilometres per hour pass 20 centimetres from their head. Let them feel the wind I say. It might help them understand how scary it is when they pass you with no margin for error.

Let’s face it, how many people who don’t ride a bike appreciate why we do some things, or how scary it can be when riding a bike. Perhaps it’s also up to us to explain these things to our friends.

It really upsets some motorists that many cyclists ride a meter or so in from the edge of the road, often where the cars left side wheel travels. As riders know the edge of the road is often littered with glass and other potentially damaging debris that can puncture tyres. Similarly cracks, ridges and drain holes can make it difficult to safely control the bike. Hugging the edge of the road invites cars to try and squeeze past leaving little room for error.

How many car drivers are aware of these cycling realities? How many car drivers know that cyclists have a legal right to occupy a lane, like any other vehicle? They’re also allowed to ride two abreast and to feed through the inside of vehicles at intersections.

This doesn’t mean cars have the right to knock the cyclist out of the way to regain their position once the traffic starts flowing again! Ironically it’s not cyclists who are causing congestion or delay. By leaving my car in the shed and riding my bike, I’ve created more room on the road for cars. Instead of working themselves into an indignant state, drivers should be thanking me with a beer.

Bikes often travel in excess of 40 kms per hour, particularly down a hill. And with only two wheels and a limited amount of rubber on the road, bikes can’t break or swerve as suddenly as a car, or a truck. If drivers realised this, I’m sure they would wait those extra seconds instead of pulling out causing me to break hard and then having to use a fair amount of energy to get going again.

Particularly when riding into a headwind it’s hard to hear an approaching vehicle, yet drivers assume we know they’re coming. It wouldn’t hurt for them to give a brief toot to let us know, particularly on the open road. Also their high beam can blind us at night.

Of greatest mirth to non- riders is our love of lycra. It must seem we’re a bunch of incontinent cross dressers. But the jokes stop when you explain why a chamois with tight shorts stops chaffing and catching on the seat, or how by wearing bright colours we are more likely to be seen. There is no excuse though for cyclists who provide free advertising space, but then in that regard they’re no different to many non-cyclists.

And if we expect respect on the road, then we also need to observe the road rules. We should say something when our fellow cyclists run red lights or don’t wear helmets. We should expect them to be prosecuted in the same way as car drivers who break the law. We should pay attention to approaching vehicles and not unnecessarily impede their progress. And when motorists cause us grief we should explain in friendly terms why. Gesticulating and abuse will only vindicate their bad driving. Understanding and empathy makes us feel good and can only increase our enjoyment of riding a bike.

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