"Take the lane." That's going to be my new motto. After practicing with Bruce Rosar for an hour, I am totally comfortable riding among the cars in the center of Cary. And I mean not just over on the side of the road but right out in the travel lane ahead of the Land Rovers and F-150s. Screw 'em if they're forced to slow down behind me. Of course, it helps that I have the man I've taken to calling "Mr. Bicycle" riding wing for me. Because otherwise, novice cyclist that I am ... But I'm getting a little ahead of my story.
Here's the thing. $3.79 ... no, make it $4.01. The price of gasoline is headed for whatever, we're polluting the planet, and besides which, given how much running (and I use the term loosely) my back can handle at an advanced age—it's time for me to get a bicycle. If only to eliminate the car trips to Cameron Village (a half-mile from my house) and downtown Raleigh (about a mile, not counting the search for parking) that are not just wasteful but indulgent given Bush-world. Weather permitting, on a bike I can get some exercise, save money and feel less like a hypocrite when writing about the environmental transgressions of others.
However, I have not seriously employed a bicycle since 1964, when I was a daily commuter to the eighth grade. Moreover, my riding then was on small-town streets with wide lanes, short blocks, little car traffic and lots of other kids around. Where I live now in Raleigh, there's some of that, but there's also Hillsborough Street, Peace Street and the dreaded "one-way pair"—as the traffic engineers so lovingly call it—of Dawson and McDowell streets, where the cars fly through the intersections four abreast. They sure aren't "pedestrian-friendly" streets, in the new-urbanist parlance, nor bicycle-friendly either. They're pretty scary—even in a car.
The good news is, Raleigh's aware of its shortcomings and, with some funding from the state, is working up a bike plan in conjunction with our forthcoming new comprehensive plan. The term "complete streets" has even been heard lately at City Hall, meaning that cars should share the realm, at least, with people. Indeed, it was at just such a "complete streets" meeting, hosted by the city's transportation planners, that I met Bruce Rosar.
Rosar lives in Cary. He's a software engineer and a board member of the League of American Bicyclists who teaches bicycling. He offered to help me get started, which he did when I arrived at his house a few days later with a borrowed bicycle in the bed of my truck.
I grabbed the bike, he handed me a helmet and I was ready to hit the road.
He was not.
He wanted to go over a few basics first.
When we sat down to talk, I told him how as a kid, I always rode facing traffic, though I understood things have changed since then.
"What's that?" he said, in a tone somewhere between horrified and "Aha! A teaching moment has presented itself."
Pedestrians are supposed to walk facing traffic, Rosar told me. But the key to good cycling is, you must not think of yourself as a "POW"—a pedestrian on wheels. You are, rather, the driver of a pedaled vehicle. And as a driver, you are entitled to ride with the other drivers—you on your pedaled vehicle, they in their motorized ones—and not merely entitled, you are obliged to drive with them and obey the same fundamental traffic-safety principles. That's the law.
This is my shorthand version of what we discussed. For about 30 minutes, Rosar impressed upon me that the same skills I use to operate a motor vehicle are fully applicable to a pedaled vehicle: Passing is a privilege; the safest place to be is in the middle of the right-hand lane; always signal your lane and directional changes. Oh, and look behind you first.
Because motor vehicles are so much more dangerous, they're subject to much greater regulation: Operators must be licensed, the vehicles must be registered, and in some places—greenways, sidewalks, bike lanes, no-truck lanes—some or all motor vehicles are banned completely.
But where they're not, motorized vehicles have no more right to the road than pedaled vehicles. The only exception to this in North Carolina, though not in many other states, is that bicyclists are not allowed on freeways such as I-40. (On the other hand, roads like U.S. 1 or 64 are not freeways.)
OK, I said, I've got a right to be out there with the cars. But there is the fear.
"Yup, there is that perception," Rosar said, that a predatory car "could come up from behind and squash you and kill you."
He said it so matter-of-factly, I knew another teaching moment had arrived.
It's true, Rosar continued, there are occasional bicycle fatalities—including two recently in the Triangle that were packaged as a front-page "bicyclists be fearful" story by The News & Observer. But the rate of bike fatalities is unknown, because no one keeps good statistics on how many bicyclists use the roads. According to the League of American Bicyclists, fewer than 1,000 people are killed on bicycles each year—less than 2 percent of those killed in automobiles.
The important point, Rosar believes, is that most bicycle accidents involve riders falling without being hit at all. And even in bike-car collisions, he said, it is "vanishingly rare" statistically for a motorist to run into a cyclist from behind, especially in the daytime. Most collisions occur at intersections (or "conflict points") where the cyclist is hit while trying to turn left, into oncoming traffic, or else fails to stop or yield to a car that has the right-of-way.
In short, he said, 80 percent of bicycling accidents are caused, in whole or part, by the cyclist making a mistake.
The exception to this might be the dreaded "right hook," which rates—after falls and left turns—as the third most common type of accident.
The right hook occurs when a car is traveling in the right-hand lane and the cyclist is riding to his right, either on the right edge of the same lane, on the shoulder, or in a designated bike lane. If the motorist unexpectedly makes a right turn while the cyclist continues to go straight, wham!
That one's the motorist's fault, but an alert bicyclist must be aware of the danger and can avoid it with what's known as an "instant turn" (a technique that must be learned) or by anticipating the motorist's mistake and slowing to let him get ahead.
The danger posed by right-hooking motorists is one reason, however, why Rosar is generally opposed to designated bike lanes. Rather than separating traffic by "type," which puts the cyclist in danger, he thinks motorists and bicyclists should learn to cooperate with each other by sharing the same travel lanes—and by cyclists "taking the lane" whenever they can.
Instead of bike lanes, the best way to encourage safe cycling, he says, is to make vehicular road lanes wider, especially outer lanes.
But even with wider lanes, when approaching intersections cyclists are safest in the middle of the lane when they plan to go straight ahead. They should move to the right side of the lane only if they're turning right, or to the left side of the left-most lane if they're going to be turning left.
It's almost time to ride. But before we do, Rosar teaches me three critical things I need to know to operate safely in traffic: Starting, scanning and signaling.
Starting? When I jump on, cowboy-style, the way I did in '64, the look on his face again says: teaching moment. Later on, when we're riding, I understand why. You don't want to miss your jump, stumble and get caught flat-footed in the middle of the road. Instead, straddle the bike, raise the left-foot peddle (if you're right-handed) so you can step down with a strong first move, and go. That's important.
Then there's scanning. It means looking back while you're riding to see if any cars are coming up behind you while not turning your steering wheel inadvertently as you turn your shoulders. Sounds easy. It isn't, or it wasn't for me. I need to practice steering with one hand.
Scanning is the prerequisite to signaling. Always scan, and always signal before turning, taking a lane, or moving right or left within a lane. The law says to signal with your left hand, the same as with hand signals in a car. But the law's an ass, Rosar says. Most folks point with their left hand if they're moving left, with their right hand if moving right. Hand down, palm-side back says you're slowing down.
We practiced these moves awhile in Rosar's neighborhood, riding unmarked streets with little car traffic while I got the hang of always scanning, and always signaling, and always setting that left pedal high at a stop. I say always. Fortunately, I had my wing man, and he always scanned, signaled and got us started.
After 30 minutes or so, we headed for downtown Cary, a three-mile ride that took us onto some 35-mph and 45-mph roads. En route, we generally stayed on the right edge of the travel lane while cars sped up from behind and passed by with plenty of room to spare between them and any oncoming traffic. As we approached the downtown, though, and our road merged with West Chatham Street, Rosar merged smoothly as well; but I took a quick scan, decided safety was the better part of valor, and pulled off onto the grass. Ah, well.
In the downtown, the traffic slowed, and at 15-20 mph, we took our lane and rode along in it just like we belonged there. I have to say, it was an exhilarating feeling, because we did. I did. Scan, signal, move left. Scan, signal, left-hand turn lane. Scan, signal, turn left. Easy.
When we got back to the house, I was a little moist, to say the least. We talked about clothes, sweat, helmet head, and about riding in the rain and at night.
As a result, I have three other insights to share.
First, wearing the legally required bicycle helmet is going to mess up your hair. One answer: Carry a brush. Another: Bring a hat, and put it on when the helmet comes off.
Second, if you showered before riding, there should be no odor problem afterward as long as you towel off and change to a fresh shirt.
Third, there's a reason why cyclists wear those bright clothes. You don't have to look like a billboard. But contrasting colors—especially the artificially bright ones—will help assure that people do see you coming.
A simple poncho will keep you dry in the rain. But I don't expect to ride in the rain. Nor at night.
But if you do ride at night, the key to safety is the best possible lights and reflectors—go to a bike store and upgrade, is Rosar's advice. He likes riding at night. Still, he added, on that rare occasion when a bike is hit from behind, it's almost always at night, and typically because the bike had no lights and lousy reflectors.
A few days later, I joined Rosar and 75 other cycling enthusiasts in Raleigh for a bike ride from the Legislative Building around the State Capitol to Fayetteville Street and back, an event marking "Bike to Work Week." Various politicos were there, promoting bike riding and their advocacy of it, and some grizzled cyclists too, including Ken Bowers, Raleigh's deputy planning director and manager of the comp-plan process, who arrived in business attire (and helmet) to show that it can be done.
When we hit the intersection of Fayetteville and West Martin streets on our way back, we were slowed briefly by a motorist attempting to turn left—into us—while we proceeded straight-ahead.
This allowed us to signal her that she was in error, and must yield to cyclists the same as cars. Even better, she yelled something back indicating that her four-wheeled gas-guzzler should have the right-of-way, not any two-pedal thing.
Too bad. The world is changing. Gas is $4 a gallon, and bikes are the future.
Which made me so glad, for the first time since '64, to be on the right side of that argument.
Come join the discussion on the future of cycling in Raleigh at the next meeting, in August, to discuss the bicycle-pedestrian plan. To be notified of the meeting, contact Fleming El-amin of the Public Works Department at email@example.com or go to greenways.com/raleighbike and fill out the survey.