The Real: How Bicyclists Actually Behave (and how hard that is for some of us to accept)

Hiles, Jeffrey A. Listening to Bike Lanes. September 1996.

Chapter 5
Bicyclist Behavior 2
The Real: How Bicyclists Actually Behave (and how hard that is for some of us to accept)

Effective Cycling program graduates are rare, even among serious cyclists. Less than 3,000 bicyclists have passed the Effective Cycling course (Clarke & Tracy, 1995, p. 67). Jerry Hopfengardner, chairman of the League of American Bicyclists’ Education Committee estimates that “only three thousandths of one percent of the cyclists in this country have received the training that the Effective Cycling program provides for safe and efficient bicycling” (McClun, 1995). But certified Effective Cyclists are not the only riders who are aware of, or who seriously adhere to, vehicular cycling principles. Repeatedly in his writings, Forester emphasizes that expert cyclists throughout the world have practiced the techniques he espouses since long before he put them in print. Cyclists have numerous sources of information on riding techniques besides Forester and the League of American Bicyclists. It’s hard to tell how widely vehicular style cycling is practiced, or how closely those who do practice it adhere to the official Effective Cycling methods.

Peter Lagerwey, bicycle coordinator for Seattle, Washington, estimates that 80 percent of the bicycle miles traveled in the U.S. are covered by “a hard core of experienced and frequent cyclists.” The remaining 20 percent, he says, “are ridden by the 80 percent of cyclists who consider themselves infrequent or less confident riders.” Seattle has a larger than average adult bicyclist population, so Lagerwey’s estimate of “experienced” cyclists’ portion of mile traveled may run high. The 1990 Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey found that the average bicycle trip length was 1.99 miles, and more than half the trips were “social and recreational” (Federal Highway Administration, 1994, sec. 3, pp. 17 & 21). Given that “experienced” cyclists frequently travel 15 to well over 100 miles on recreational trips, it seems that the bicycle miles are overwhelmingly made up of shorter trips more characteristic of less hard-core riders.

This chapter will leave behind the sophisticated—some would say esoteric—realm of Effective Cycling and examine how ordinary people behave when they travel by bicycle. Most studies of bicyclist behavior start with some criteria for “proper” behavior and count the number of cyclists who either conform with or deviate from the criteria. For this section, though, I ask the reader to, at least temporarily, suspend the temptation to view certain cycling behaviors as deviant or problem behaviors. I ask the reader to assume that cyclists have rational reasons for what they do. The task here is to explore and learn from the day-to-day habits of common bicyclists.