8th Avenue bike lane in New York. Image credit: Stephen Miller.
Princeton Joint Pedestrian and Advisory Committee was pleased to welcome Les Leathem of the League of American Bicyclists to our regular meeting in November of last year. Les encouraged members of the PJPBAC to participate in the League's 'Traffic Skills 101' course. At our meeting in January, several members of the committee agreed to join one of these courses this year, to try to expand our education efforts with cyclists in the Princeton community.
Education efforts to cyclists are particularly important for teaching them how to ride safely in mixed traffic. Many occasional cyclists do not realize that the safest place to be when cycling is often several feet out in the roadway or even right in the middle of the traffic lane. This is clearly set out in this helpful guide from NJ Department of Transportation. This concept of 'vehicular cycling' means cyclists ride as if they are a vehicle, occupying the travel lane. The League of American Bicyclists has a position to "encourage the instruction of vehicular cycling principles and techniques to as large and wide an audience as possible".
Some cycling advocates have advanced the idea that education to promote vehicular cycling is the best way to promote safe cycling, and is a better alternative to adding specific road infrastructure for bicycles. Those of us (like me) who were taught vehicular cycling as kids recognize that it helps to make a dangerous activity- riding in mixed traffic -much safer. It still requires significant confidence to 'take a lane', however, and many car drivers do not like to drive behind a slower moving cyclist. The effectiveness of a cycling policy based on vehicular cycling has been questioned by experts such as John Pucher, Professor of Urban Planning at the Vorhees Transportation Center of Rutgers University. Pucher's studies have consistently revealed that communities that invest in on-street cycle infrastructure see a greater increase in cycling participation, and significantly fewer accidents involving cyclists and cars.This fits with other reviews from the scholarly literature.
Real-life studies in New York have come to the same conclusion: a 35% decrease in traffic crash related injuries was recorded on 8th Street after a cycle track was installed in 2007, and a 58% decrease in casualties occurred on 9th Street after separated cycle infrastructure was added. Retail sales in nearby locally-owned stores also increased by 50% after the cycle improvements were added, even as the city-wide economy stagnated. These observations offer a compelling basis for a holistic approach to cycle planning based not just on education but also on improving our streets so that people perceive cycling to be a safe alternative to driving. Personally, I see cycling on a busy street in mixed traffic as a risky activity similar to whitewater kayaking (another sometime hobby of mine). With appropriate instruction and if you know what you're doing, it can be done safely and can even be fun. But if we are serious about reducing the rate of accidents and making cycling something that everybody can participate in, we need to provide space for cyclists of all abilities to use our roads.
In Princeton, there does not have to be a conflict between education to promote safe cycling and adding improvements to provide a safer experience for cyclists. Both approaches are necessary, and both are likely to be of benefit to making cycling safer and more pleasant for our residents. PJPBAC will be pursuing both approaches in 2014.
Over to you: Is it a good idea to teach cyclists to ride in the middle of a traffic lane? Where should the balance lie between expanding education and infrastructure? And would you be interested in attending the League of American Bicyclists' 'Traffic Skills 101' course?