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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Demand grows for bike education

Image of bike safety education class in San Francisco
From the Christian Science Monitor, 08.25.08:

New bike commuters hit the classroom, then the road
The rush of new cyclists, created by high gas prices, is driving up demand for bike safety classes.

San Francisco - Like many Americans, Tara Collins hadn't bicycled much since middle school. That changed this year when she started paying $50 to fill up her gas tank. Since early July Ms. Collins has been biking to her job in San Francisco. Now she's sitting in Bert Hill's bicycle safety course--along with 31 others--after a close shave with a van.

"When that happened I thought, 'Wow, there probably are things I could learn about safety,'" says Ms. Collins. "I haven't been on a bike in years, and even when I did, it wasn't in traffic."

The high price of gas is creating a surge in bicycle commuting across the country, not just in West Coast cities but in places like Louisville, Ky., and Charlotte, N.C. The rush of newbies has triggered tensions with drivers unaccustomed to sharing the road, and driven cyclists to seek out traffic training.

"I'm getting hammered by mayors asking, 'What are you doing about all these new bikers on the street and nobody knows the rules of the road?'" says Robert Raburn, executive director of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition in Oakland. When the organization started classes in 2003, it offered maybe two a year. Now, it has six slated for September with two more to be announced. In the Bay State, MassBike reports offering two dozen classes this year, compared with three the year before...

A key precept in bike safety courses is the phrase: "Same roads, same rights, same rules." Hill's four-hour presentation highlighted common causes for collisions with cars and how to avoid them. It's partly a matter of proper bike positioning in a traffic lane to minimize driver error and partly cyclists following road rules and acting predictably..."If we look at car-bike crashes and who's at fault, in a sense it doesn't matter," Hill said. The cyclist suffers either way. (Read more.)
It will be some time before we have quantitative information on the growth of bicycle commuting. Among the anecdotal evidence for the recent increase in bike commuters is this article on the growing demand for bicycle safety education in many cities. I'm certified by the League of American Bicyclists as a League Cycling Instructor (LCI #1237). I certainly believe in the value of bicyclist education, and encourage new bike commuters to enroll in courses such as the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition's Urban Bike Training and the League's Bike Education programs.

However, Bike Ed classes in themselves will never be adequate to transform the U.S. into a North American Denmark. Bicyclists in most communities confront a hostile street environment, produced by traffic engineers who have prioritized car speed over every other consideration for more than 60 years. Bicycling advocacy remains the key. It was the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition's advocacy that won funding from San Francisco's Municipal Transporation Agency for the coalition's Urban Bike Training program. It was advocacy that won closure of a block of Waller Street in Golden Gate Park to create the dedicated bicycle training facility pictured above.

I firmly believe Bike Ed should not be offered by volunteer organizations, it should be government funded, supported, and encouraged. Street safety is a public responsibility; the burden shouldn't be shifted to well-intentioned enthusiasts. Bike organizations may contract with public agencies to deliver the training, but shouldn't use their own precious volunteer energies and resources substituting for public agencies. I would urge my friend Robert Raburn of the EBBC to fire back a funding request at the mayors demanding bike safety training.

Beyond class or street instruction, I take a broad view of bicycle safety education. Bike lanes are educational, indicating to motorists the legitimacy of bicyclists on the streets. "Sharrows" are educational, showing cyclists the riding position to avoid the door zone and the direction with traffic, while simultaneously informing motorists of the presence of bike riders. Bike route signs, media outreach campaigns, public service announcements, public art projects, bike racks, bus signs, newsletters, blogs, and websites are all educational, informing both bicyclists and motorists about the rightful place of bicycling in our culture.

Education is important, but infrastructure is critical. Advocacy is the key for bicycling friendly infrastructure.

Image: Dave Campbell.
Visit: Safety tips for new bicycle commuters, KABC-TV (Los Angeles)
Visit: Ridership rise spurs bike classes, Lancaster New Era (PA)
Visit: Bicycling Safety, Bike Commuting Tips
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site
(Yes, there's an esoteric base-superstructure argument here--"do bicyclists create bike lanes, or do bike lanes create bicyclists?" Firmly grounded in Marxist theory, I believe in a dialectical relationship, that base and superstructure influence each other. But the base is dominant.)


Christina said...

I'm glad that bike ed classes are becoming more popular. I grew up riding a horse rather than a bicycle and I was hesitant to venture out in downtown traffic. The class was very empowering and now I ride with confidence.

In addition to bike ed classes and advocacy, I'd like to see more education efforts directed toward drivers.

Anonymous said...

Exactly and christina's idea to educate drivers is right on. Driving exams are too easy as are penalties for irresponsible driving.

Elaine said...

Here in Olympia (WA), it looks like the city is gearing up to offer some bike ed classes as part of a grant to increase bike & ped commuting/transportation. I'm looking forward to hearing when & where to see if I can take one myself.

Anonymous said...

Bike education is not a function of government, at any level. Driver education is not a function of government. Setting laws, enforcing laws, developing building codes that ensure safety for all, building to those codes are functions of government. If you want to learn how to ride a bike, it's YOUR responsibility to do so. By the way, I'm an avid commuter cyclist. I just get tired of every good idea becoming a function of government.

Paul Dorn said...

@ Anonymous (Libertarian)
With all due respect, I disagree. I would be happy making bicycle safety education an individual responsibility if streets were designed for all users. That is, Complete Streets. But if the government continues to prioritize high speed car traffic, creating streets that are hazardous to bicyclists and pedestrians, then public agencies have an absolute responsibility to mitigate that danger.

Many DOTs have avoided that responsibility for too long, leaving at-risk user groups (pedestrians, bicyclists, etc.) to cope with the dangers on their own. Sorry, can't accept that.

There are many cultural functions that are social, not individual, responsibilities. In most of the world, healthcare is considered a social responsibility. In most of the world, including the United States, education (at least K-12) is considered a social responsibilities.

Unfortunately, we live in an era when "government" (once "of the people, by the people") is a bad word. Largely this is due to deliberate malfeasance by privatizing corporate politicians, see Thomas Frank on that.

Anonymous said...

Not to pick a fight and with mutual respect, I disagree. Transportation is not a social responsibility. Transportation choices should not be ranked and then allotted percentages of public dollars. This includes cars. Complete streets means everybody. Do we offer publicly funded education for bus riders, moms with strollers, and in-line skaters?

I was sorry to see Dave Moulton shut down his blog. But I agree with his reasoning. Cycling is not a political issue. Just ride. If you want to get better, take it upon yourself to do so. If you want better streets, get involved. But, please, stop looking for the tax payer to fund your choice.

The Jolly Crank said...

I agree that bicycling classes should be supported by government. As a secondary step I think bike advocacy groups should be pushing to have materials put into traditional automobile driver ed classes that specifically deal with sharing the road with bikes and others.

Anonymous said...

now a days bike ed classes are getting popularity I also join bike ed classes but I cant confident please give me some tips

Robert Anderson said...

Anonymous said, "enforcing laws... are functions of government"

Does this mean that Anonymous would be in favor of testing and licensing street cyclists?

Paul, while I agree with many things you say, I must say that in my opinion, skills development trumps infrastructure. I don't understand your statement "prioritize high speed car traffic". Are you saying that, compared to highway infrastructure, low speed infrastructure (particularly connecting low-speed networks) needs funding and development? OK, I agree. But if you're arguing for massive bike-lane investment, I have to demur. Bike lanes in the absence of skills development is a seriously bad idea. However, skills development in the absence of bike lanes is really no big deal.

The "enforcement" topic goes into civil and criminal litigation. Too often, the states are unwilling to enforce laws on the books in favor of cyclists. One of the things we have to educate cyclists about is: when any cyclist breaks the traffic laws, all cyclists suffer.

Paul Dorn said...

@ Robert:

All education is ephemeral. About 20% of anything learned in a class is forgotten before the class ends. And the rest is lost very quickly. Maybe 20% sticks (wear a helmet, signal.) And that's true for drivers as well; we could have perpetual remedial driver ed.

Infrastructure is more effective, period. Slower vehicle traffic is simply safer than fast traffic; even if all motorists had completely effective traffic education. Bike lanes and sharrows all indicate behavior to the road users, whatever their mode.

Robert Anderson said...


I agree with you whole-heartedly about book-learning and classroom-learning. All good learning of cycle safety is done on the road, to learn what works (and what ultimately has to "feel right".) This is why vehicular cycling is so difficult to transfer: it has to be taught/learned one-on-one (or one-on-few), and on the road.

I feel like bike lanes are of only marginal use. They will be poorly engineered, they will be parked in (to no penalty), they will be filled with debris.

Slowing down motorists with traffic calming just makes (some of) them do strange things. Reducing the speed limit will be ignored, and there won't be enough traffic cops to go around. Speed cameras will only generate constitutional challenges. This is America, and so few places are as enlightened as Davis.

Ultimately, I think that, until a general enlightenment arrives (don't hold your breath), it's going to be the cyclist's personal responsibility for his safety. This means he has to find a safe route and practice vehicular cycling. At least Google maps makes the route-choosing much easier than it used to be.

Anonymous said...

Yes, The rush of new cyclists, created by high gas prices, is driving up demand for bike safety classes. I also think it is incredibly smart! So im happy these classes are becoming more popular!