Zen and the Art of Bicycling in Traffic
Down by the river: Riding safely in the Flats, near the Ohio City Bicycle Co-Op
Most people who ride regularly in traffic have had the adrenalin-raising experience of being “buzzed” by a motorist: you’re riding along, minding your business, riding legally on the right side of the road, and some idiot passes you within a foot or two of sending you to the hospital, or worse. Your fight-or-flight response kicks in: maybe you make a futile, angry hand gesture -- or you catch up to them at the next red light, and engage in an angry (and, usually, unfulfilling) “discussion” of the finer points of traffic law.
Lots of us learned over time to accept these life-threatening encounters as a cost of using our bikes; whether it’s because we want to get some exercise without driving to a bike path with the bike on the car, or to a gym to pedal on a stationary bike – or because we’re just trying get where we want to go without a car at all. We learned to put up with the occasional threat of death, because riding a bike is worth it.
But there is another way. It’s not popular, like riding in Critical Mass once a month, but it is just as exhilarating; and it’s not dependent on politics, like lobbying for “safe” bike lanes, but it doesn’t diminish bike-advocacy efforts to that end -- in fact, it will help strengthen them.
The way to ride without having to fear for your life is simple and “empowering” – and will make you more confident and comfortable in traffic – by becoming the driver of a vehicle that happens to be a bicycle. Riding farther out in the lane, rather than being scary, leads to less close calls. You get fewer flats. You get honked at less. Obeying traffic laws, rather than being a drag, becomes liberating. You butt gets a rest and you appreciate the scenery while waiting few extra seconds at red lights. You have more fun, and arrive more relaxed, when it’s not a constant fight for survival just getting where you want to go.
Traffic Skills 101, taught by instructors certified by the League of American Bicyclists (the folks who lobbied for paved roads in the 1890’s), is based on the principle that “cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as operators of vehicles.” The full course, for a certificate from the LAB, requires 9 hours, but the Ohio City Bicycle Co-op (where I teach) offers an Intro to Traffic Skills that covers the basic principles in an informal setting, from 9am to noon on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of every month (April 13 and 27, for example). It’s basically breakfast and a bike ride -- we eat and talk about how to avoid crashes for an hour or so, and then ride around downtown looking at intersections to see how it works in the real world.
If that still seems like too much bike education, we also have a very informal -- but safe and legal – free, Social Ride, from 10am to noon on the first Saturday of every month. On April 6th we’ll be visiting sites of Cleveland baseball history -- loaner bikes and helmets are available: for more info please visit OhioCityCycles.org.
Jim Sheehan is Executive Director and a founding member of the Ohio City Bicycle Co-op, a non-profit bicycle education facility in Cleveland Ohio. He was region 4 director of the League of American Bicyclists from 2006-2009, has been a League Cycling Instructor since 2003, and is a founding member of Bike Cleveland (and previous local advocacy groups, since 1992). He has been a bike mechanic, messenger, tourist, racer and (as often as possible) a bike commuter. He lives with his wife in Shaker Heights, where he enjoys mountain biking on nearby deer trails in the company (and at the "unhurried" pace) of their 12 year old beagle, Fressie.