Monday 16 September 2013

Road Safety 

When I started to ride more often, and on roads more than trails, I started to think explicitly about how I rode on the roads. This was odd as cycling is the paradigm case of something you know intuitively, or to be more precise tacitly. That is why it is hard to describe riding a bike, but fairly easy to show someone how to do it. As a result there is very little in the way of riding instruction available for the newcomer to traffic. We have books telling us how to fix our bikes, and outlining routes to take, but very little in the way of discussion of how to ride in traffic. The prominent exception to this is Forester’s work, and I would warmly recommend his discussion of road riding. Perhaps it is simply assumed that if you know the traffic rules you will be good to go. However, the traffic rules don’t tell you anything about what to do about cars other than that they are fellow vehicles on the road. For me, it isn’t just a question of where you ride, on the road or on the sidewalk, but rather of how you ride when you are on the road.

I found when I gave it some thought that most of what I did on the road was heavily influenced by my cycling history in small town Ontario. I learned to ride my bike in a place with very little traffic and relatively safe roads. And since I was so young when I started to ride the bike, my early habits became “intuition” and I applied them more or less without thinking.

When I sat down to re-think the cycling process I decided to go from the ground up, looking for basic principles then extrapolating them to the cycling environment in question, rather than either evaluating my instinctive practices or using the traffic rules as the only guidelines. The resultant “system” I have developed is neither foolproof nor optimal, but it has contributed to my safe arrival on many long-distance urban cycling trips, and I recommend it.

Starting Points
When reconsidering my cycling methods from the ground up I wanted to have a few reliable premises to work from. The more assumptions you make the more risk you run of making mistakes, so I wanted a small number of assumptions to start with. I also wanted assumptions that are relatively solid and uncontroversial. I didn’t want to risk my life on wild ideas. As a result I started with three assumptions:
1 Bikes are vehicles (legal)
2 Bikes are slower than cars (physical)
3 Bikes are lighter than cars (physical)
The first assumption is legal, the next two physical, and a few words about all of them. With respect to assumption 1, for the most part I believe that cyclists should follow the rules of the road. While I’m not above a certain amount of latitude to ensure safety (e.g. if I have to cross a solid line on the road to avoid being crushed by a car I will do so, despite the fact I’m not supposed to), I want to be as responsible as possible. The law tells us that a bicycle is a vehicle, and thus should be on the road. There can be exceptions to this, and I will note them as we discuss individual situations, but you will be spending most of your cycling time on the road, as you are for traffic purposes a vehicle, not a pedestrian.

Assumptions 2 and 3 are also relatively uncontroversial, cars are for the most part faster than bicycles, and even if they sometimes are slower, for the majority of the time you are on the road cars will be faster than you. Cars are also much heavier than bicycles, to be precise orders of magnitude heavier than bicycles.
Individually these are unremarkable facts, but combined they structure the cycling environment. Cycling involves you sharing the road with a bunch of heavy, fast moving objects. Looked at slightly differently, motorists are presented with a field of light, small, slow moving vehicles they have to avoid while driving at significant speeds. The problem is that 2+3 imply that any impact with a car is dangerous. This is not to suggest that there are no dangers on the road outside of cars, weather complications, road conditions, cyclist error can all contribute to injury. Still cars are a meaningful risk to the cyclist and the main deterrent to new cyclists. This fact is the inevitable result of the physics of the situation, a large number of vehicles moving at different speeds in the same space are bound to be involved in collisions, and any such collision has the most likely outcome of being bad for the cyclist and only moderately damaging to the motorist. One might even be tempted to suggest that cycling is an inherently dangerous activity, as it involves these conflicting components.

Given these assumptions, is there any way to change cycling from an inherently dangerous activity to one with an acceptable level of risk? I put the question this way for a reason, I want to be sure that I convey the idea that cycling can be more or less risky, not that it can be safe. It is possible that you can make your cycling safer, but not safe. The idea of safety is rather fuzzy to begin with, think of the Titanic for a moment. The Titanic was designed to be safe, and it sank into oblivion on its maiden voyage. Safety is an illusion, even if you do everything right and take every precaution you can still have an accident. If the driver beside me falls asleep at the wheel and veers right at precisely the time they pass me there is very little I can do to help myself. This is why I would encourage you to think of more or less risky cycling practices, or how to make cycling safer, not whether or not it is a safe activity.

The key to making cycling safer is to realize that, just like any other activity, traffic has patterns to its flow. Those patterns are based on a combination of social interaction (traffic laws, the interpretation and obedience to traffic laws, etc.) and the physical environment (automobiles, bikes, the road, the speeds involved, weight of vehicles, etc.) I spent a considerable amount of time observing traffic patterns on different kinds of roads and discovered that there are several general characteristics of traffic that you can use to your advantage.

Given the pattern of traffic (which I will discuss below) and physical environment in question my first realization is that my primary goal as a cyclist is to be wherever the cars are not present. That seems like a bit of a no brainer, but it is important to highlight. Cars are not everywhere, not every street is busy, not all times of day are busy, and not all parts of the road are used by the car. We tend to be so overwhelmed by the car that we can’t think of the road without cars on it, but once you start looking for the absenceof cars you will start to look at the road very differently. My goal on the bike is to occupy the “spaces” around the traffic. I alternately think of these spaces as ‘gaps’ or ‘pockets’, and if this approach was to be given a name I would call it ‘pocket’ cycling.

The goal is simple, find the “pocket” or space without cars and cycle there. Sometimes this is the gap between “packs” of high speed traffic, sometimes this is the narrow band beside the sidewalk to the right of the lane, the “ditch”, where most cyclists spend most of their time. So if the goal is to find the pocket and avoid cars, how do you maximize your time “in the pocket”? Two possibilities will be considered, one, pick where you are going to ride, and two, change how you ride. I will discuss both.

Where you Ride
When people think of “safe” cycling they often think about bike paths. This is unfortunate as bike paths don’t actually add much to cycling safety, there are many other ways to reduce your road risk, and some of the other options I would argue are significantly better. In no particular order, here are six ways you can increase your cycling safety by varying where you ride:

Locations for Safer Cycling
1 cycle on designated trails + in parks
2 cycle in designated bike lanes
3 cycle on wide roads and 'shared roads'
4 cycle on low-traffic or secondary roads (residential or service roads)
5 cycle major roads but in off peak hours
6 cycle on sidewalks, in parking lots

I will discuss each of these individually, then say a few words about how they can be combined in my next post.

Bike Trails
Bike trails are, in principle at least, the best option available. With the exception of service vehicles, bike trails are empty of motor vehicles, and for the most part they have a low volume of people, other bikes and animals as well. This “pocket” of obstacle free space makes trails a preferable option for those uncomfortable with traditional road riding. Since most cities are near rivers, and most cities have park systems, most cities have some sort of trail network as well. Trails are generally wide enough for two bikes to ride side by side, or for one car.

Still, you are not alone out there; even if the trails aren’t “thick” with traffic, other cyclists, pedestrians and their pets use trails as well, and this presents some interesting challenges. With respect to pedestrians, keep in mind while on trails that bikes are comparatively silent, so pedestrians will be startled if you whip by them from behind without sounding your bell in advance. Sound it too early won’t help, sound it too late and you will terrify someone. Still, sounding your bell is an absolute requirement to alert slower moving pedestrians to your presence. I have personally asked scores of pedestrians over the years (usually dog owners taking their dogs for a walk on multi-use trails) and they have all responded in the same way, ringing your bell is always preferable to whipping by silently.

On the subject of dogs, people walk their dogs on park trails, and dogs will often chase bicycles. Well trained dogs won’t, but you don’t know the story. And make no mistake, dogs are pack animals, and evolution has fashioned them in such a way that they chased prey down in packs to eat. A dog will catch up to you if it isn’t sick or old. For the most part people who take their dogs on trails have well behaved dogs, otherwise their owners would not be comfortable allowing them off leash. Still, caution is always wise, I have been chased a few times and it is disconcerting.

In addition, bike trailsare only safe if they are well maintained and clear of debris. Since many trails are in parks and green spaces, there are frequently branches and leaves lying about. Trails can be closed in the winter if they are not cleared throughout the year by the city. Although you can certainly ride on a snow covered trail, it is not a pleasant option. For that matter, in the fall leaves are everywhere, and wet leaves are a major safety concern. When you hit a patch of wet leaves you can lose your grip with the road entirely, and given that most cyclists tend to speed up a bit on an empty bike trail, this can be very dangerous.
Also, trails often follow rivers and creeks, and rivers and creeks are low elevation (water seeks out the lowest route), and do not tend to follow straight lines, meaning that you have to climb in and out of river valleys to follow trails, and taking a trail can add time to your trip. 

Finally, many trails go through parks, and for better or for worse, some people go to parks and green spaces for the privacy they can offer in order to do less than socially acceptable things. I have cycled past people shooting drugs into their veins, people engaged in, how you might say, close coupling, and people exchanging money and unmarked packages from the trunks of expensive cars. Also, when you are on a park trail you can often find yourself in a situation where there aren’t a lot of people around, there aren’t a lot of people in earshot, and you are suddenly passing by someone who might make you uncomfortable. As a result I do not recommend riding bike trails at night (there is also a visibility concern here, as most park trails are not lit), and I do recommend exercising a degree of caution when your instincts tell you that someone you see isn’t “right”.  So, trails are not perfect, still, being in the trail pocket significantly reduces risk, so they qualify as a safer option.

Bike Lanes
I posted on bike lanes below, so I won’t repeat what I’ve said, but suffice it to say that non-separated lanes are still risky, particularly for novice cyclists, and separated lanes, though a tougher sell for the non-cycling public, are safer in most circumstances.

Wide Roads and Shared Roads
Wide roads are “unofficial” aids to safe cycling. Although they lack formal line divisions on the road, wide roads are often safer than roads with bike lanes as bike lanes in many ways just formalize what was already happening, people were riding off to the side of the road anyway, and bike lanes just paint a line to the left of the cyclist on the road to mark out this area. Thus a wide road without an “official” bike lane can present you with a larger and safer “pocket” than a narrow road with one.

Wide roads are often found in new housing developments or in areas where there is heavy vehicle traffic. They are, for the most part, not indicated on maps in any formal way as, for example, one way streets are indicated on some maps. This is unfortunate, as along with secondary roads, wider roads provide the cyclist with an optimal riding experience, lots of space while still sharing the road with vehicles. The main disadvantage to wide roads is location, they may not be convenient to your commute. Still, once you have found the wider roads in your commute you will likely keep them as preferred options as they allow you a significantly larger pocket.

Shared roads are roads where there are prominently placed signs indicating to motorists that bicycles are encouraged to ride on these roads. Formal recognition of the “shared” status of roads is sometimes linked to frequency of use, e.g. when a critical mass of cyclists has been using a road for a period of time it may receive this designation before lanes are formally introduced. In other cases wide roads are often designated as “shared” as this will be less of a burden on motorists as there is more room on the road. Whether it be due to the fact that the road traffic is less intensive, or that the road is particularly wide, formally shared roads alert motorists to your presence and provide a larger pocket for you use. The main disadvantage to shared roads is, again, location.

Secondary Roads
Low-traffic or “secondary” roads (primarily residential roads, commercial service roads or in downtown areas neighborhood back alleys) are a little discussed option for the urban cyclist. They are not without risks of course; residential secondary roads can be poorly maintained depending on the area of the city where they are located. Commercial service secondary roads (roads used by commercial vehicles, for example in industrial parks) have a lot of heavy vehicle traffic. Still, these secondary roads are “cycling gold” in my experience. They are low traffic for the most part, and commercial service secondary roads tend to be wide as they have to accommodate large vehicles backing in to docks and making sharp turns. Residential roads may have parked cars and such, but their general levels of traffic tend to be much lower, and thus they are much safer.

There are always exceptions of course, certain residential roads tend to be busy by virtue of their particular location (for example near a school) but for the most part you can have them to yourself. In my experience secondary roads provide the largest, most consistent and most enduring cycling pockets that you can find. I have spent many an hour cycling on the road with no cars anywhere near me by using secondary roads. The chief disadvantage to secondary roads is their location, by definition secondary roads are not main arteries, they often wind or wander compared to larger, busier streets.

Off Peak Cycling
Cycling busy roads in off peak hours can be surreal, to say the least. One day a few years back I had to work late at York University, and when I left the office it was 3 am. Keele is a major street that passes by York. It is one of the busiest streets in Toronto and during regular hours it quite frequently has traffic jams. At 3 am however, it was empty. I rode down the top section of Keele, an area that is normally quite busy, riding on the dashed line between Southbound lanes with my arms stretched out in either direction, touching nothing but air. It is important to be guarded in your enthusiasm in situations like that. Even without traffic major routes can still be dangerous, for example, major routes get a lot of traffic, which means that the road is frequently in bad shape. Still, experiences like this opened my eyes to the value of off-peak cycling.

There are two ways in which off-peak cycling is more of a viable option than most commuting experts might realize. First, I think we need to rethink the assumption that many or most commuters need to be on the road during peak travel times. I agree that the fact these are peak travel times implies that they have the greatest traffic volume; that seems unproblematic. My concern is that there may be many people who don’t have to be on the road at peak times, and as a result there is more flexibility around travel times than might first be obvious. I have often thought that we underestimate the number of people who travel at non-peak times as they are distributed over the rest of the day.

For example, there are many people who do not work 9-5 jobs. Some work part time hours, those in the service industry that work in stores that don’t open at 9 am may be able to arrive to work later. Restaurant workers are a good example, but many retail workers fall into this category as well. People who work night shifts, self-employed people, people who work multiple jobs, people who go to school full or part time, custodial workers who prepare your workplace after hours, the list is actually quite long. For all of these people the option of riding at non-peak times is real and appealing.

The other way to think about off-peak cycling is in terms of “straddling” the rush hour. Leaving well before or just a bit after the rush hour can substantively reduce traffic on the road. Since we are considering long distance commuting, leaving a few minutes early won’t help, as you will still be spending the majority of your trip on the road during peak traffic volume. So if you want to leave early to reduce traffic you need to give yourself a decent buffer. Where I live the road gets busy around 8:15-8:30 and stays busy until 9 or so, then there is a precipitous drop in traffic volume. So if I want to leave early I need to be on the road around 7:30 or so to miss the majority of the rush hour. Leaving a bit later can also bring significant traffic volume dividends at a minimal time cost. You would probably be surprised at how much difference a small delay in departure can make. I know what some of you are thinking, “Maybe he can arrive late to work by I certainly can’t”. Fair enough, there will always be jobs that can’t tolerate tardiness, and for those late departures are out. Still, for those with flexibility late and early departure present the option of being on the road during periods of much lower traffic volume.

Next Post: Sidewalk and Parking Lot Riding and Putting it Together.

And here are a few pictures from the Don River Trail

South End of Trail Near Riverdale Farm Looking North

The Danforth Bridge, Looking North on Trail

Trail Looking South Near the Brickworks

The Don River Rapids, near Pottery Road

    Bridge just South of Sunnybrook Park

Me, near the turnoff at Taylor Creek Park 

Cheers, Ian


  1. I enjoyed your debate over at I Bike Toronto - while not necessarily agreeing with it (not a proponent of licensed cyclists)- it was a rousing debate and brought up some good points on both sides. Montreal is a cycling mecca - awesome place with its separated bi-directional bike lanes that go EVERYWHERE - i means km and km of them! Toronto sucks for infrastructure- which does not however stop people from cycling. As someone who commutes at 4:30 a.m. - I too love the off-peak ride -love the quiet, the clear streets, the zen of it!

  2. Selkie m,

    Thanks for the comment. I too am enjoying the debate at IBIKETO, too bad it wasn't happening here, LOL. I have come around to a new position as of today, after considering the arguments and evidence presented, so I'm glad it raised some comments and interest.

    What I’m actually doing there is crowdsourcing ideas. I find internet forums ideal for starting discussions where a variety of views and evidence come out. They can get a bit scrappy at time, and personal, but you just keep it civil and make your case. It is as valid a way of researching a subject as doing literature searches and reading journals. Someone always ends up making an argument I wouldn't have thought of or gives a reference I haven't seen.

    I think forums and blogs, with their ability to draw together geographically distributed individuals with relevant specialized knowledge (most posters at bike forums and bike bloggers are fairly regular cyclists I would assume) are a gold mine for understanding complex practices like urban cycling. This sort of shared experience base, tapped through public discussions of potentially controversial issues, is a problem solving tool yet unharnessed by policy makers and citizen groups.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Thanks for reading,


  3. It's a great idea - and your readership will grow! Nothing wrong with a rousing debate! Also brings in new perspectives, as you point out, from cyclists with a different venue for their biking - going to reply to your latest in a second about that.