I ran into my town’s police chief and his wife yesterday at a local coffee shop while waiting for my ride partners to meet up for the ride we had planned for that day. I chose to ride my bike to the coffee shop and got there a little early so I could enjoy some coffee. Our police chief is an avid runner and his wife is a triathelete. We were chatting a bit and she expressed surprise that I had ridden my bike to the coffee shop. She asked what route I took and was again surprised by my answer because the route was a 4 lane divided road with no shoulder. She asked me if I was worried about motorists. I told her that I wasn’t too worried, especially at that time of day and I was riding with my lights flashing.
I thought about our conversation later in the day and some of the excellent posts by my twitter friend, Tim on the subject of bicycle safety while out on the road. If you’ve not read any of Tim’s posts, you’re really missing out. He spends a fair amount of time commuting around Austin on his bike along with volunteering his time for the Yellow Bike Project. You gotta love a guy like that! Anyway, back to the subject of route planning. I’m pretty comfortable riding in traffic and would consider myself a pretty experienced rider. So here are some of the things I consider when I decide to ride a route from my house.
I try to avoid riding in heavy traffic when there is no bike lane or shoulder. There are several reasons for this. First, it’s no secret that heavy traffic increases the stress level of motorists. This stress level leads to frustration and sometimes even aggressive behavior. I worry a lot about aggressive behavior because as a cyclist, I know I will lose against a several thousand pound vehicle. Second, the last thing a cyclist needs to do is impede traffic any further because it’s unlikely motorists will find room to get around me if I’m going slower than they are. This only adds to their frustration.
I try to avoid roads under construction for several reasons. One of the most important reasons is that drivers will be distracted by workers, equipment, flashing lights and other obstacles. This reduces the likelihood that they will see me and that’s not something I want to chance. One of the other big issues are the barriers you often find that are there to protect the workers. Unfortunately, these barriers literally put a cyclist between a rock and a hard place. Not some place I want to be when there’s a lot of traffic. Last, but not least, construction zones often have a lot of debris that I then have to avoid or, worse, gets kicked up into my path.
As a cyclist, it’s really important to pay attention to the speed differential between yourself and motorists. The higher the differential, the bigger the buffer I will want to have between motorists and myself. Combine a high differential with either of the other two conditions I mentioned and you end up with a lethal combination for a cyclist. That’s why I prefer routes where the speed limit is 40 Mph or less if there’s no shoulder. I also look for routes where there’s more than one lane in a particular direction. This gives motorists a clear path to get around me and give me the space I need.
I can’t stress enough how important visibility is. There’s couple of things you can do to improve your odds of being seen. First, wear bright clothing. Consider your surroundings when choosing your colors. Colors such as yellow, orange or white are always good choices. If it’s cloudy, I’d avoid white also. In low light conditions or at night, be sure that your clothing has reflective patterns. Second, consider using one of those red flashing LED lights. I’m partial to the Serfas TL-ST rear light because it is easily mounted on a variety of places on my bike, including on the road side of the rear triangle. It has several light flash patterns that are all very visible.
You can’t always count on bike lanes and wide shoulders, so hopefully you’ll find these tips useful when planning your next route. With a little forethought, it’s easier than you think to find a route that gets you where you need to go even if there are no bike lanes.