Cargo bike brakes and safety

Yesterday I took my bike back to the bike shop to replace a brake rotor that was warped and making loud screeching sounds all the time.  For awhile, I tried to convince myself this was a great safety feature: everyone could hear me coming for at least a city block.  But the joy of riding in near-silence was missing, and dogs were more likely to bark as my bike squeaked by.

Disc rotors are prone to warp when they get too hot.  In most cases, my brakes stay relatively cool, because the BionX motor bears the brunt of braking.  There is a little magnetic sensor on my rear brake lever that engages the motor’s highest level of regeneration when I pull slightly on the lever.   Usually, the drag of regeneration is enough to keep my speed in check.  When the hill gets a little steeper (or the load is heavier), I apply my brakes in addition to the regenerating motor, but most of the time I use the brakes lightly and for short duration.

However, there is a problem.  If I sprint up our hill at maximum speed, there is some limitation in the battery or the motor which shuts off regeneration on the way down unless I wait for 10-15 minutes before I descend.  Perhaps something is getting too hot, although I haven’t noticed excessive heat in either the battery or the motor.  I called the motor manufacturer to ask if they were familiar with this situation, but the technical assistant who answered said regeneration shouldn’t turn off unless the battery is fully charged.  I am quite sure my battery is only partially charged when I lose regeneration.

Riding down our hill and carrying two kids (about 150 pounds total) without regeneration, my front and rear disc rotors get very hot.  Hot enough to leave scorch marks on the rotor, actually.

To be fair, this is a steep hill (12-18% grade for about 1/3 mile), and the total weight of the bike, rider, and cargo is around 350-400 pounds.  But the duration of braking is less than two minutes.  It’s hard to imagine a situation where I would worry about hot brakes after two minutes of braking with a car or motorcycle.  Are cargo bike brakes really up to the tasks we’re asking of them?

According to the owner of the bike shop, they are not.  Most cargo bikes come with disc brakes that were designed for single-rider bikes.  A beefy cargo bike carrying a heavy load could easily double the weight the brakes have to stop.  Add a motor and a battery, and you’ve not only increased the weight, but you’ve also increased the capacity to carry big loads up a hill.  What goes up must come down, and the brakes better be ready for it.  I haven’t done rigorous research on this topic, but it seems fairly obvious that the brakes need to be upgraded to handle bigger loads and higher speeds.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem that the biking industry has squarely addressed.  To absorb more heat, the mass of the disc rotor must increase.  My rotor is 6 inches in diameter and 2 millimeters thick.  Apparently, there is a company that makes a thicker rotor (3 mm), and that would help.  Instead, I decided to lay out $100 to buy an 8-inch rotor laser-cut from stainless steel (

The first problem we encountered was that my brake cable wasn’t long enough to move the brake caliper mechanism the extra inch or two to accommodate the bigger rotor.  In the process of replacing the cable, I upgraded to “compressionless housing.”  The idea is that very stiff housing transmits more of your braking force to the brake rather than deforming the conduit through which the brake cable moves.  I had already done this for the front brake on a previous visit to the bike shop, and I can tell a difference in braking responsiveness.  The new cable and housing cost $38 for parts.

Bar precludes repositioning of brake calipers

With the brake cable replaced and the rotor bolted on, all that remained was mounting the wheel.  That’s when we discovered that the Hammer Truck panniers are supported by a bar in the exact position where the brake calipers need to be for that 8-inch rotor.  The shop owner said we could crimp the bar to make room for the calipers, but I was concerned about compromising the integrity of the bike.  Also, the caliper adjustment wheel (red in this photo) would be inaccessible if it were nestled into the dent he was proposing to put in the bar.  (Click on photos to see them full-size.)

In the end, I decided to buy another 6-inch rotor.  It’s nice and true right now, and my bike is quiet again.  I’ve learned enough that I might be able to avoid warping this rotor.  First, I should allow more time to let the BionX motor cool, or I should climb the hill at a slower pace (and perhaps a lower assistance level).  With a little experimentation, I should be able to reduce motor/battery strain and avoid regeneration drop-out during my return trip.  Although it might take a little more time or effort, this strategy might even extend the life of the motor and battery.

Second, my daughter just graduated from elementary school.  Now I will have only one kid to carry down the hill in the afternoon, and that should reduce the braking load.  My immediate concerns over our safety have been reduced.

But my concern for other cargo bikers is escalating.  The electric cargo bikes that I have mentioned in earlier blog posts, Kona’s Electric Ute and Yuba’s elMundo, have no motor regeneration and only one disc brake in the rear (both bikes have a rim brake on the front wheel).  I’m concerned that this might not be adequate to stop a heavy load after a moderately long and steep descent.  It wouldn’t take more than a few mishaps to cause legal problems that could restrict the electric cargo bike market before it has a chance to develop.

Sometimes I try to convince myself that this is just an issue of setting expectations appropriately.  When we get really excited about the economic and environmental advantages of cargo biking, we talk about our bikes as being “car replacement vehicles.”  But it has been over a century since Ford’s Model T was first sold.  Since then, cars have benefited from continuous technological improvements and fierce competition between many different car companies.  The electric cargo bike has barely reached a comparable level of development to those first Model T’s.  Manufacturers are still treating the motor like an after-market option rather than an integrated design feature.

Arrows show exposed pressure plate

My safety concerns aren’t just limited to the brakes, by the way.  As the shop owner was re-installing my rear wheel after the rotor replacement, we got a good look at how the BionX motor mates with the Hammer Truck frame.  The critical interface is where the motor axle bolts onto the frame — the C-shaped flanges called “drop-outs.”  The owner pointed out that my drop-outs weren’t deep enough: at least one-third of the pressure plate that the drop-out should be holding is left dangling below (noted by arrows in this photo).  If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you might recall that I stripped a hub nut during the first month I owned the bike.  The results were catastrophic: the motor wiring was damaged beyond repair and a new motor had to be installed.  When the nut stripped, the rear wheel twisted a little and locked up against the brakes.  The bike went into a skid, but fortunately I wasn’t travelling very fast at the time.  Even though there were cars nearby, I managed to stay out of traffic, and escaped unscathed from the incident.

If I had been travelling a little faster, or if — God forbid! — I had my kids on the bike when that nut failed, it’s not pleasant to imagine what could have happened.  It seems obvious to me that this problem could have been avoided if the Hammer Truck had been designed with deeper drop-outs to accommodate the motor.  This is what I am looking for: a manufacturer that designs the bike, the motor, and the brakes to work together, rather than putting these pieces together and hoping their designs and capabilities mesh well.  So far I have not seen a bike that impresses me in this regard.  It feels like a classic chicken-and-egg problem: manufacturers won’t spend the time and energy to develop that bike until they see a significant market opportunity, but the market won’t grow quickly until there is a serious bike that people can see, test drive, and feel confident about its safety and reliability.

There are still some breakthroughs required in battery and motor technology (and price) that may be required to make electric cargo bikes attractive to the mass market.  However, those same advances will also benefit electric cars.  The market for an electric car is so much broader than electric cargo bikes — I think Americans are going to jump straight from gasoline-powered cars to electric cars, and cargo biking will remain a tiny niche of ultra-environmentalists and fitness freaks.

Of course, that’s only the most likely scenario.  A massive and sustained increase in energy prices would obviously benefit bikes of all kinds.  A generational shift of mindset is also possible and can’t be underestimated.  For example, if teen heart-throb Justin Bieber decided that cargo bikes were the only way to travel, who knows how fast cargo bikes could sell?  But at this point, most of the people reading my blog are more likely to be the parents of the Bieber generation.

I’m in a strange position.  For nearly a year, I’ve been riding my bike and enthusing over this method of cutting carbon emissions, burning some extra calories, and seeing more of your neighbors, nature, etc.  Now suddenly I’m worried about safety.  I’ve always known it’s a little risky competing with heavy metal boxes for a few feet at the edge of the road.  But if you’re not sure your equipment is fundamentally safe and sound, there’s another set of issues to worry about.

Do you think my concerns are overblown?  Does your cargo bike inspire confidence?  Let me know in the comments below!

The Case of the Rude Bicyclists

A family shopping trip by bike.

To a Friend:

I’ve been thinking more about our conversation this morning, about how when you were driving you encountered two rude bicyclists who were biking side-by-side and wouldn’t get out of your way. A few more points occurred to me. One is that when you said this I instantly imagined two lycra-clad men very purposefully getting in your way. I think this is what most people would imagine. And what I imagined does seem rude.

But upon further reflection I thought what if the bikers were a family coming home from the grocery store, as maybe you were that day? What if this family wanted to talk with each other on the way home without another vehicle disrupting their conversation? Does the family in the car have more of a right to a pleasant conversation on the road than the family on the bikes?

Note that the “lycra-clad” cyclists I imagined were recreational cyclists. Our culture has come to see bicycling as a sport rather than as transportation. This helps gives us the feeling that bicyclists are “in the way” rather than fellow travelers on city streets. People think “Bicyclists are just out there for fun and they should get out of the way because we motorists have important things to do”. (I’ve actually had motorists tell me this.) So this view may help explain why a motorist will wait patiently behind a left-turning car but they become enraged when they have to wait to pass a bicyclist.

And notice a third assumption I made: the cyclists were men. I think because most American cyclists are men, cycling here has come to be seen as an aggressive pursuit. I think as more women and children bike we’ll see that attitude change. If I had to pass two women or two kids biking side-by-side I don’t think I’d assume they were making a statement and being purposefully rude.

So this whole issue is kinda schizophrenic. You are a cyclist yourself. And I am a driver sometimes. Heck, some of my best friends are motorists :-). So unlike the civil rights movement in which a black person could never be a white person or vice versa, we can see each others’ points of view on a daily basis. I am hopeful that this ability will lead to a transportation system that works for everyone.

If you want to read a hardcore cyclist’s point of view in a traffic situation similar to your own, check out this  blog post. I think I might pick up Fighting Traffic, the book he mentions. He writes about the book:

Automobile interest groups and drivers wrestled the purpose of streets from everyone else, often by bloody force (200,000 Americans were killed on roads in the 1920’s, a majority were pedestrians back then). It was not uncommon in the early decades of automobiles on the streets for newspapers to depict the typical driver as Satan, and mass memorial services for slain children were common in urban places. Safety campaigns eventually brought down the proportion of pedestrian fatalities, but in the process began to highly limit what had been previously very liberal rights to those who walked in cities.

Making Winter Biking Safer

After my bad fall last December I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make winter riding safer. The first step was to install studded snow tires for both wheels. My fall was caused by only having a snow tire on the back wheel; my front wheel slid out from under me when I was going downhill at 20mph with my daughter on the back of the bike (she was unhurt). There is no good reason not to wear snow tires during winter. My tires of choice are the Schwalbe Marathon Winters, which are designed for icy pavement rather than deep snow.

Another safety factor is simply learning to recognize danger. Some conditions are more dangerous than others. Just before my fall last December I had ridden five miles without incident. It was only when I turned onto a new road that things became dangerous. The new road was recently plowed and the shoulder had a thin layer of innocent-looking slush. Unbeknownst to me the slush hid a layer of ice that was my undoing. I’ve since learned to recognize this “killer slush” and avoid it.

Another danger to watch out for is of course the legendary “black ice” (see photo above) which is caused by melting snow forming puddles which then turn into patches of ice in unexpected places. Now when I ride in the winter I periodically set my foot down to test the slipperyness of the road. If it’s too slippery I either walk my bike or resort to “outrigger mode” (described in the last paragraph).

After my fall I imagined all sorts of technological fixes that would enable bikes to handle snow and ice better (see some of my sketches below, and see for a seemingly successful commercial product). Could bikes have anti-lock brakes? Apparently motorcycles do, and electric bikes already have the electricity and the computing power that is required. Could bikes have roll bars? How about caterpillar treads?

I also wondered whether a trike would be less likely to flop over when it encountered ice. I made a lot of sketches of trikes, and contemplated Xtracycle to trike conversions. I imagined  outrigger wheels that could perhaps fit into the Xtracycle H-rack mounts and prevent a bike from falling over, kind of like giant training wheels for adults. However, someone I know who rides a trike says that in the same situation as my fall a trike would probably flip over rather than lay onto its side. I scuttled my plans for constructing outriggers until I was riding with my son Jasper last week in packed-snow conditions. The going was so difficult that he simply stuck out his legs, planted his feet on the road and let the motor move him along. It struck me that here are the outriggers I was looking for—our legs! They were right here all along at the end of our torsos. So for riding on packed snow I recommend lowering your seat, taking off your toe clips, letting some air out of your tires, taking your feet off the pedals, and taking off. This style of riding wouldn’t have been possible without the advent of electric motors for bikes. Now how about roller-shoes for pavement or ski-shoes for deep snow?

An Appeal to My Sister

Yesterday my sister described how she was driving down a country road, came upon a car parked in her lane, braked suddenly, swerved, and went into the ditch. She went to a nearby farmhouse to ask for help and found that the driver of the parked car was there also. She was livid. She chewed out the other driver. But was the other driver at fault or was my sister?

This question interests me of course because as a bicyclist I am often on the receiving end of anger such as my sister’s. What usually happens is that (1) I am biking in the center of a lane either to turn left, to bike alongside a friend, or to block a car from passing unsafely (all of which are legal); (2) a motorist comes upon me quickly; (3) the motorist stops suddenly and honks and yells at me. Am I endangering myself or is the motorist endangering me? Before you answer note that I am doing something ordinary and legal. From the motorists’ perspective they have been forced to stop suddenly by another vehicle in the road. The correct answer is of course that the motorist is at fault. Their honking and yelling at me is a classic case of “adding insult to injury”.

You might say “but the motorist was forced to stop suddenly! Surely they shouldn’t have to endure such an insult from you”.  Let me be clear: if you are driving so fast that you can’t stop for a stationary object in your path, be it a double-parked car, a left-turning car, a tree, or a bicyclist, you are driving too fast. It doesn’t matter where the stationary object is or why it is there. If you can’t see over a rise or around a curve, you need to slow down. If you hit the object you are not driving at an appropriate speed for the current road conditions. You are at fault, period. Sorry sis.

I might concede extenuating circumstances if the person or object that you struck suddenly moved into your path, or if it’s something difficult to see (such as a deer at night). Even so, I think people succumb to peer pressure and routinely drive above a safe speed. And people don’t think twice about driving their usual speed even if it is dark or snowy.

My son Jasper made the comment that drivers choose efficiency over safety: getting to work on time is more important than concerning yourself with the safety of others. From my perspective I don’t care if you’re late. I do care if your hurry threatens me and my kids. I ask you motorists: what if some sort of divine intervention made sure that it was you who died rather than the person you hit? Would you still drive unsafely? Would you still drive? I have a lot of friends who, when they hear that I’m committed to biking, tell me that they’d like to join me. But they are too afraid of motorists—motorists that include their friends and family. Is this the world we want to live in, where people are afraid of biking in their own neighborhoods? What can we do to change this?

I appeal to my sister and to you to relax, take your time, plan accordingly, and drive more slowly. That could be me on my bike around the next bend. And sis, I think you owe that other driver an apology.

Motorists Are Homicidal Maniacs

Cars are comfortable. Cars are practical. But this comes at a cost. Worldwide it was estimated in 2004 that 1.2 million people were killed (2.2% of all deaths) and 50 million more were injured by motorists. That’s a lot of carnage. Why does this happen?

A lot of accidents are caused by frustrated people in a hurry who forget that they are operating heavy machinery. People who would use the utmost caution operating a table saw will think nothing of flinging their massive tools of transportation at babies in strollers crossing the street. And they generally add insult to injury by honking at the parents.

The other day I was studying how people interact at the grocery store. The store was pretty crowded and some people were growing frustrated with their ability to get their shopping done on schedule. Occasionally I would see one of them tailgate a slower-moving patron and then zoom ahead in a huff. At first I thought it was funny seeing their little dramas, but then I realized that this is the same behavior I’ve seen on the streets, and it’s behavior that has seriously threatened my life. It’s one thing to bump into someone with your 30 pound grocery cart. You can apologize and move on. But it’s a different matter to roll over them with your 3000 pound grocery cart. And yet people approach these two situations with the same inconsiderate behavior. Scary.

You motorists might argue “Well I’ve never killed or maimed anyone personally. Don’t get all in a snit about it!” Even if you haven’t killed anyone with your car lately, you are perpetuating a system that is continuously threatening to kill. And this threat of death keeps people off the streets and diminishes our communities. Before cars you could walk around pretty much anywhere and stand around pretty much wherever you pleased. Now we have what I like to call Zones of Terror. You may have seen these zones—they are paved areas that surround our houses. Whoever lingers too long in one of these zones is facing severe consequences from their fellow citizens. Pets and children must be fenced in to prevent them from wandering into one of these zones. Is that how we want to live?

When you enter your metal box, you lose some of your humanity. You can no longer fully interact with me. I can barely hear you. I can barely see you. To me you look like a big hulking menacing robot. I invite you to exit the box to join me and the other humans.

Why Bicyclists Should Run Red Lights

I remember once at a party a group of people was making disparaging remarks about bike couriers, how they run red lights with abandon endangering themselves and others. I consider bike couriers to be graceful and heroic, a spark of joy and a symbol of freedom in a mass of dumb lumbering vehicles. So I couldn’t help myself from blurting out a response to their baseless accusation. I explained how cars in a big city form into packs at red lights, and bicyclists need to keep ahead of those packs. One way they do this is to run red lights. After running a red a cyclist is not in the way of the motorists, the motorists are not in the way of the cyclist, and everyone is happy. Everyone except for the bystanders who think the cyclists are doing something unsafe, when in fact they have found the best way to be safe. Needless to say the group at the party did not agree with my explanation, even though they themselves did not have any actual experience biking in a big city.

I am not the only one to come to this conclusion about running reds, though among bicyclists I think the idea that “bicyclists should run reds” is something we whisper amongst ourselves lest the children should hear and misinterpret what we’re saying. But ten seconds of web searching brings up this on the second page:

While we’re not advocating running red lights, notice it is in fact safer to run the red light if there’s no cross traffic, than it is to wait legally at the red light directly to the right of a car, only to have it make a right turn right into you when the light turns green. The moral here is not that you should break the law, but that you can easily get hurt even if you follow the law.

Running a red light can be dangerous—and I am concerned that if I advocate it to inexperienced cyclists they won’t use good judgment about crossing intersections. But on the other hand, I think if motorists know that bicyclists are running reds a last resort to make the streets safer for themselves, the good people inside the cars will begin to appreciate the dangerous situation they are creating for the rest of us. A bicyclist running a red light is a very visible symbol of a transportation system gone wrong. A normally law-abiding citizen reduced to breaking the law says more about the law than the person.

If anyone thinks that running a red on a bicycle is dangerous, how about running a red on foot? I mean, at least a bicycle has some speed to get through an intersection. What chance does a pedestrian have for getting across? Any yet most people don’t think twice about looking both ways and then walking across an intersection if there are no cars coming. Many of those same people would be outraged if they were waiting at a red light in their car and a bicyclist pulled up beside them and then shot across the intersection.

Pedestrians should run reds. My son has been trained by my wife to wait at red lights even when on foot. He makes me wait too. This makes me nervous. This morning while we waited at a red, three other pedestrians crossed in front of us. Then when the light changed and we stepped into a crosswalk, the cars that had been waiting to turn zoomed through the crosswalk we were in. I don’t see how anyone can argue that waiting for the red is safer. Don’t take my word for it! Go out there! See for yourself!

Why do people think running a red is always unsafe? Motorists apply their own understanding of their vehicles’ performance to that of the bicyclist. They may be thinking, that bicyclist might hit someone! That bicyclist might get hit! The fact is, bicyclists can swerve and stop much faster than cars. And they are narrow. What’s more, if there is a pedestrian in front of them they can say “excuse me” and do the little dance we all do when we have to go around each other. Try that in a car.

And even if a bicyclist does hit a pedestrian, if the bicyclist is going a sensible speed it’s not a big deal. All that’s needed are apologies, not a trip to the hospital. (I do think it’s poor etiquette for a bicyclist to ride in the vicinity of pedestrians if the bicyclist is going faster than 10mph or so.) I am ashamed to admit that I did once hit a pedestrian when I was a bike courier. A man and a woman were crossing against the red in front of me. Not that I minded. Heck I do it myself all the time. I simply marked their position and trajectory and made adjustments to my own trajectory as I had done a dozen times per minute all day long. However the confluence of three factors resulted in my running into the man. One is that because they were crossing against the red my speed was greater than it would normally be around pedestrians. The second is that when the man saw me coming he jumped back into my trajectory. I still would normally have been able to stop. But the third factor was that there was a thin layer of sand on the road so that I had absolutely no traction. I slammed into him. He looked surprised. We both had maybe a few bruises but no broken bones. We apologized to each other and left. No hospital. No insurance. No problem.

In the previous paragraph I detailed how the confluence of three factors led to an accident. We can generalize this concept to help us answer the question “When should a bicyclist not run a red light?”. My friend Jeff has a theory that the bicyclist brain can only assimilate and adjust for at most two safety factors; if there is a third factor present an accident is waiting to happen. Safety factors include such things as:

  • it’s dark out
  • it’s raining
  • it’s dark out and you don’t have a light (counts for two)
  • there is ice on the road (this one also counts for two)
  • you are going above 25mph
  • your bike has mechanical problems
  • you are lost and not paying attention
  • traffic is fast
  • the streets are congested
  • there is an aggressive driver in your vicinity
  • there is no shoulder
  • a car is pulling out of a driveway in front of you
  • you are running a red light
  • you forgot your luck rabbit’s foot

A smart bicyclist notes which factors are in play when they begin a trip, and then as they ride they scan their immediate area for other factors. So for example if it is dark out and you forgot your light, DO NOT run a red light. Or if your bike has mechanical problems and traffic is fast, ride your bike slowly on the sidewalk. Or if it’s dark out and you forgot your light and there is ice on the road (that’s *four* safety factors), call your wife to come pick you up in the car (I did that once actually). So you can see there are many instances where the safety factors add up to the conclusion that a bicyclist should definitely not run a red light. What do you think I am, crazy?

I’m not advocating that bicyclists be allowed to zip through red lights with abandon. That’s not safe. But certainly it *is* safer to allow bicyclists to cross an intersection ahead of car traffic. Why aren’t there laws that allow this? Why isn’t there transportation infrastructure that allows bikes to go first? We already have special traffic light modes that allow turning traffic to go first. How about an iPhone app that allows bicyclists to activate a special traffic light that allows only them to cross 🙂 ?

Bikes are different than cars. They need different laws to be safe. Just because you, in your car, aren’t allowed to cross doesn’t mean a bicyclist shouldn’t be allowed to cross. The main reason people don’t bike is because of safety concerns. And the main reason they have safety concerns is because there aren’t enough people biking to justify making the streets safe for bicyclists. Help! We’re stuck in a vicious circle! In the meantime those of us who do bike will continue to run red lights in order to remain safe.

Don’t Expect Apologies from Motorists

I think Gandhi would want me to make these posts less mean. But I think he would appreciate that they are provocative. And I have to say writing these posts is very therapeutic. I think I must have bottled up all the abuse I’ve gotten from motorists over the years, and now I’m letting it go, letting it go onto these pages. I’m sure there are readers out there who will think that I must be an angry quick-tempered person. Actually my friends think of me as unusually mild-mannered. In fact one friend once challenged my other friends thusly: “Let’s see if we can make Larry angry!” They failed. But for some reason I do get upset when a motorist puts me in mortal danger and I get even more upset with they scold me for it.

You may think my claim in a previous post that “bicyclists existing” makes motorists mad is an exaggeration. The fact is, bicyclists are inherently unwelcome in our culture. The following story illustrates what I am talking about. I remember once my wife and I were waiting at a red light on our bicycles. A car pulled up behind us and started honking and honking. When I realized they were honking at us I managed to squeak out something like “we have a right to be here!” That made the motorist mad. He stormed out of his car and shook his fist at us and challenged me to a fight. The light changed and my wife and I beat a hasty retreat. A more recent example: my friend and I were biking next to each other on a remote country road with no traffic in sight. Suddenly a motorcyclist came up behind us honking wildly and shaking his fist before zooming off. I can understand a motorist feeling upset because they have to slow down to go around (though it’s not illegal for two cyclists to ride abreast, just impolite if someone wants to pass). But a motorcycle! What’s with that?

Motorists often harbor the assumption that bicyclists (and pedestrians) will always stop for them since their car is bigger than your bicycle, so it is in your best interest to stop for them, right? I mean, you don’t want to get hurt do you? I know this fact from my days as a bike courier. I’ve developed a little dance I do for asserting my right-of-way just enough to encourage a car to stop, but not enough that my life is in danger. I do this by maintaining my speed while keeping a swerve space ready. Often if I suspect a car will cross my path from the right I move left. Drivers behind me may think I’m being erratic and unsafe when in reality I am ensuring my safety.

Once when my wife and I were biking toward an intersection where we had the right-of-way I saw a car on the right pull up to a stop sign. I instinctively moved to the left and prepared to swerve if they failed to yield. My wife however continued on. The car leaped forward straight toward her, and stopped within inches of striking her. In that split second I honestly thought I had just lost all hope for future happiness. I was dizzy with relief. I stopped and tried to express this thought to the driver without using any swear words. The driver didn’t say anything and drove off.

I lot of people will think I’m exaggerating in these posts. I’m not exaggerating as much as you think. The only way you will know how much I am exaggerating is to get on your bike. Try biking 10 miles a day for several years on the streets of a big city (except Portland Oregon :-)). You will see what I am talking about. You will experience not only daily routine abuse, but you may even enjoy some spectacular life-threatening experiences. Don’t expect apologies.

More “Should Bicyclists Follow the Same Laws as Motorists?”

This post continues answering the question from a previous post, Should Bicyclists Follow the Same Rules as Cars?

One argument I’ve heard to promote the idea that “bicyclists should follow the same rules as motorists” is that bicyclists need to earn the respect of motorists before bicyclists will be treated as equal partners on the street. Give me a break. First of all there is a demeaning attitude here that bicyclists are like children and motorists are like adults. Secondly, there is a hidden assumption here: motorists in general follow the rules and bicyclists have to be brought up to their level of morality. This is laughable. In our culture motorists break the rules so routinely they are no longer aware they are doing anything wrong. Ask your friends what their average speed is on the highway. Most will brag about how fast they go above the speed limit, and how fast they can get from point A to point B. They will likely continue like this until you let on that you are testing their morality. Then they will start giving you reasons why it’s okay to break the speed limit. I’d say the percentage of motorists who routinely break the speed limit is close to 100%. I know this because as an experiment I drove from Ithaca to Washington D.C. at exactly the speed limit (generally 55 or 65 mph). I did not pass anyone for the whole 350-mile trip. These are the kind of people bicyclists are supposed to emulate?

In our culture motorists routinely and blithely break another law: they don’t yield the right-of-way to pedestrians in crosswalks. (I should note that California is refreshingly different in this regard.) Motorists in my area feel their role is to “allow” pedestrians to cross if the motorist is feeling generous that day. Motorists have pedestrians trained to wait at the curb until the motorist says the pedestrian can cross. I like to disrupt this paradigm. I like to assert my right-of-way. When I step off the curb into a crosswalk motorists sometimes have to come to an abrupt stop. Sometimes they honk. Sometimes they give me a condescending wave of their hand saying they are allowing me to cross. Listen up: I don’t need your little wave. I’m going to cross whether you “allow” me to or not. I have the right-of-way.

Something about bicycling is inherently friendly. When I see another bicyclist on the road I give a friendly wave and they wave back. If we are going the same way, sometimes we chat (if we can hear ourself over the car traffic). But for some reason when people get behind the wheel of a car they become crazy mean like animals (although to be fair I should note that very few animals kill for sport). Why is that? My office overlooks a busy street in downtown Ithaca. Every few minutes someone honks and someone yells an expletive in response. The first someone then steps on the gas to make a loud automotive growling sound intended to express their displeasure and to surge past the second someone. And what sorts of offenses cause these sorts of displays? A car took more than three seconds to start after the light turned green. A pedestrian stepped into the crosswalk. A bicyclist wanted to turn. A bicyclist wanted to go straight. A bicyclist wanted to stand in one place. A bicyclist existed. Bicyclists frustrate motorists no matter what we do. So why should we follow the rules? We are cursed if we do and cursed if we don’t.

Aspiring bicyclists should know that there are deranged motorists out there who get a kick out of knowing they hold your life in their hands, and knowing there is nothing you can do about it. Some motorists will swerve at you just for fun. Once when I was on a bike tour in Alaska riding on a long stretch of lonely highway we saw an oncoming car in the distance. Curiously, the car changed lanes so that it was coming straight toward us. As the car got closer and closer our alarm grew. Some of us dove into the ditch. At the last second the car swerved away from us. Bicyclists are vulnerable to psychopaths, and following the rules won’t make you any safer. However breaking the rules might save you: I once had to ride onto the sidewalk to escape from a motorist who was trying to run me down. He followed me onto the sidewalk but I managed to stop behind a phone booth. Thankfully he wasn’t willing to smash into the phone booth to get at me. What had I done to him? He was angry because I had occupied the left lane in preparation for turning left.

I’m not saying all motorists are immoral or psychopathic. Some of them are also simply not paying attention. A couple of years ago in Ithaca a right-turning motorist ran over a pedestrian. The motorist was a small man in a big SUV. I suspect he had trouble seeing over the dash. After rolling over the pedestrian he continued on, blissfully unaware he had killed someone, until police caught up with him shopping in a grocery store miles away. How do you protect yourself from someone well-intentioned who doesn’t see you, no matter how many blinking lights and fluorescent jackets and little flapping flags you are wearing? You avoid putting yourself where the accident is about to happen. You make sure you are not next to or in front of a right-turning vehicle when that light turns green.

Motorists can afford to follow the rules. The rules keep them from running into each other and bending their fenders. For bicyclists the stakes are much higher. Bicyclists can’t afford to follow the motorist’s rules. Instead they must follow the real rules of bicycling safety: be alert, assert your right-of-way, get in front where people can see you, take short cuts to avoid dangerous intersections, keep a swerve space, keep moving, and don’t stick around in danger zones.

Should Bicyclists Follow the Same Laws as Motorists?

As a bicyclist who has an aggressive biking style I sometimes hear people tell me (or shout at me) “bikes should follow the same laws as cars”. From my perspective this is a ridiculous statement. And yet even bicyclists say this. I don’t understand how anyone who regularly rides on city streets can believe this. I’m not advocating recklessness. Of course a bicyclist should look both ways before crossing. Of course a bicyclist should never endanger a pedestrian. Of course a bicyclist shouldn’t put responsible motorists in awkward positions.

Certainly there are reckless bicyclists who wear hoodies and endanger themselves and others. I am just as outraged as any motorist (though I am secretly glad that they are reckless with a bike rather than reckless with a car). But more often I see safety-minded bicyclists breaking the law in order to improve safety. I routinely come across situations where following the same laws as cars is absurdly inconvenient, unsafe, or even impossible. Here are some examples:

  • Near my house there is a stop light that can only be triggered magnetically by a car. Whose bright idea was that? Pedestrians and bicyclists have to choose between waiting for a car or breaking the law (by humbly looking both ways and crossing if it’s safe).
  • In Ithaca West State Street has many stop lights as a traffic calming measure so that cars don’t zoom down the street (as they are allowed to do on flanking Seneca and Green streets). Side traffic is minimal at all times of the day. Pedestrians routinely cross against red lights. I suspect the city wants to encourage pedestrians here, and having pedestrians illegally crossing the street is another method of traffic calming. Why should bicyclists be subject to the same traffic calming designed for cars? Compared to cars, bikes are inherently calm!
  • One of the leading causes of death of bicyclists is motorists turning right and cutting off (and crushing to death) the bicyclist. When I come up to a stop light I like to pull ahead of the column of cars so that I am in front of them and visible to them. Sometimes (if there is no cross traffic) this entails pulling ahead just as or before the light changes. Also, turning right on red (even if it’s posted as illegal) is the safest way to get out of the danger zone. I haven’t been crushed yet!
  • In Ithaca there is a confluence of three busy highways so dangerous it is given the sinister name of “The Octopus”. Even though biking on the sidewalk can get you a $150 fine in Ithaca, bicyclists prefer that possibility to navigating The Octopus. I once saw a bicyclist here venture off the sidewalk. He was struck by a motorist as he crossed in a crosswalk. The motorist scolded the bicyclist and the bicyclist (whose bike was ruined) apologized to the motorist.
  • Another common situation I encounter is coming up to an intersection where there is an oncoming stream of cars turning left in front of me. If I try to assert my right-of-way the oncoming motorists sometimes honk and shake their fist at me. That’s if I’m lucky and they actually see me. When they don’t see me I have to use my momentum to swerve out of the way. I’ve had some close calls this way. This situation is caused by motorists blindly following the car in front of them while turning left (and often exacerbated by them talking on a cell phone). My solution at these problem intersections is simply to run the red light if I have the opportunity. That way I’m not in their way, they’re not in my way, and we can all go on our way, no harm done.
  • Country roads have their own issues. I recently had to turn left on a busy highway. My turn was at the top of a hill, so instead of turning while biking uphill I turned before reaching the hill and illegally rode a short bit on the wrong side of the highway. I did this so that I could get across the highway while I was still going fast enough to merge with traffic and cross. I did not want to get stuck straddling my bike in the middle of a busy highway.

These last two examples exemplify a general rule of bicycle safety that they don’t teach you in school: there is safety in speed. It may seem counter-intuitive, but as a bicyclist you should avoid coming to a standstill. It is a sad fact that motorists routinely don’t yield the right of way to bicyclists. As long as you are moving you can swerve out of danger. If you are at a standstill in front of a car you are deadmeat.  Unlike a motorist, you can’t simply step on the gas if you need to. You have to use your wits, your agility and your momentum. And you may have to break some laws to maintain your momentum

This kind of focused and fast riding requires skill. As a bike courier in Washington D.C. and later as a bike commuter in Chicago, I learned this skill to survive, not to irritate motorists or satisfy some sort of death wish. In the book Pedaling Revolution I was pleased to read about other bicyclists who have also concluded that speed equals safety. It takes a certain leap of faith to go faster to be safer. It’s a leap that aspiring cyclists will have to make on their own since the prevailing bike safety philosophy is to wear lots of protective equipment and wait for cars to run into you.

Another lesson here: never trust a motorist to yield the right of way. Always have a backup plan, whether legal or not. Be prepared to ride on the sidewalk to go around a car that looks like it might cut you off. Be prepared to pull into another lane if it looks like someone might pull in front of you. Do whatever is necessary to keep a swerve space ready. Look around you, thing about where everything is headed, and “try not be where an accident is about to happen”. Motorists don’t have to be this careful in city driving since the stakes are perhaps at most a fender-bender. For you the stakes are your life. If you’re off the bike path, take out your earbuds, pay attention, and and bike paranoid dude.

Pop quiz: you are biking. You come to an intersection where you want to turn right but the intersection is marked “no right turn on red”. A car pulls up next to you and it appears they also want to turn right. Do you a) remain beside the car and wait for the light to turn red, trusting that they will yield the right of way to you? Do you b) pull in front of the car where it’s safe and wait? Or do you c) illegally turn right on red? If you read paragraph five above you will know the correct answer to this. If you answered a), it was nice knowing you and my condolences to your family. If you answered b), be prepared to take some abuse from the motorist behind you. But if you answered c), enjoy the freedom that only comes from riding sensible human-scale transportation.

Sometimes bicyclists break laws because our streets in general are designed as if bicyclists don’t exist. Here’s an example:

  • Across the street from my house my neighbor Nancy used to yell at bicyclists riding on the sidewalk in front of her house. I told her that there was a lot of bike traffic on our street because our street leads to a pedestrian bridge. This bridge can save a bicyclist a mile of uphill biking. (Ironically one of the best assets for bicyclists in Ithaca is poorly accessible to bicyclists!) I told Nancy that because of the fast car traffic on our narrow street bicyclists preferred to bike on the sidewalk. Nancy discontinued haranguing the bikers and instead got the city to install a stop sign and speed limit that slowed traffic on our street. Now more bicyclists bike on the street instead of the sidewalk. (However another problem is that it’s a one-way street and they have to bike the wrong way to get to the bridge. Also bicyclists must ride on the sidewalk to get onto the bridge—technically a $150 fine.)

This last example can I think be generalized: if many fine upstanding bicyclist citizens are consistently breaking the law, there is something wrong with the law or the road design, not the people. Don’t take it out on the bicyclists!

Let’s face it, traffic laws exist because cars are lethal things in need of regulation; bicycles are not. When people say “bikes should follow the same laws as cars” I hear “once again we are too lazy to consider how bikes are different than cars and design our roads accordingly”. I hear “once again we are going to leave bicyclists to fend for themselves and then make them wear lots of safety equipment because we can’t be bothered to make room for them on our roads”. And “once again we are going to spend gadzillions of money on automobile infrastructure but for bicyclists we’ll paint a little line on the road and tell them good luck.” Bicyclists don’t have the same rights as motorists. Why should we have the same responsibilities? Don’t get me started.

The bottom line is that bicyclists should follow law—laws that meet the needs of bicyclists. This kind of law is still rare, but I’ve seen some examples lately: the sign at the top of South Hill that says “bikes can use full lane”; the sharrows on North Cayuga Street; the “bike boxes” in Portland Oregon that encourage bicyclists to wait in front of a line of cars at red lights. However, it may be a while before we have more of these laws made for bicyclists rather than hand-me-down laws made for motorists. The best we bicyclists can do in the meantime is to be respectful of pedestrians and do what’s safest, be it legal or not.