2010-07-08

Biking in bike-unfriendly cities

I have been cycling as my main mean of transport for more than ten years. I've had the opportunity to bike in Mexico City (MX), St. Petersburg (RU), Sussex (UK), Brussels (BE), and Boston (MA, USA). I have a childseat for our 2.5 year old daughter, she loves it, and it is quite comfortable.
I do not suggest biking to anybody, I just share my experience for people who have made a similar decision. Similarly, I would like to hear from other people's experience.
Different places have different degrees of bike-friendliness, even in the same city, depending on several factors. In my experience, the order from best to worse is: UK, BE, USA, MX, RU. Actually, there seems to be a correlation with the number of bikers on the street. Cities with more bikers tend to be friendlier towards them, and friendlier cities tend to attract more bikers. Conclusion: promote biking to make your city bike-friendlier.

Pros

  • Speed. Studies from Mexico City and Paris have shown that biking leads to the shortest travel times from all means of transportation (car, taxi, bus, metro, walking...). However, if your commute is longer than 20km each way, you might consider a foldable bike + train or car.
  • Safety. At least in Brussels, a study showed that there is a higher risk of death driving a car than biking. It is certainly safer than a motorcycle. The fact that you cannot go as fast as with a motorized vehicle reduces the strength of impacts (unless a motorized vehicle impacts against you... but you have that risk inside a vehicle, as a pedestrian, etc.)
  • Cheap. You can buy a decently equipped bike for 100-200$/€. That is less that the cost of public transport for a year, not to mention private transport.
  • Clean. Environmentally friendly.
  • Fit. Exercise while you move around!
  • Sexy. I've been whistled at several times while biking (well, only in Mexico, maybe it is Latin-repressed-libido-related). But anyhow, I haven't seen anybody whistling at gents in cars, no matter how expensive. For the ladies, the effect is even stronger.
Cons? Not from my side...

Tips

  • Wearing a helmet is cool. Brain damage from not wearing one is uncool.
  • Be aware. This is independent of the mode of transport. Check not only for vehicles, also for pedestrians and other cyclists. Keep your eyes and ears open. Glance now and then to see whether vehicles are coming from behind. Some people use mirrors, I use the corner of my eye. Never use headphones. Even on bike lanes, you should be attentive for pedestrians. If you want music, use loudspeakers.
  • Express yourself. Make yourself present. You will be safe if other people are aware of you. Signal (with the arm facing most traffic: straight to indicate turn; bended elbow, hand up to turn to the opposite side; bended elbow, hand down to stop). Use bell or horn or whistle to indicate your presence, although realize that some drivers will not hear you. Scream if necessary, don't be shy, it can save your life. At night, wear light/colorful clothing (if not fluorescent) and use lights and reflectors.
  • Take your own lane. Dedicated bike lanes are scarce in most cities. Do not stick to the right of a lane, since vehicles will attempt to pass you. Go on the center, so that vehicles will have to change lane to pass you.
  • Avoid lanes that turn. If you are approaching an intersection and several vehicles might or might not turn, take a lane where vehicles will go straight. Many car-bike collisions are because of turning vehicles not seeing a bike.
  • Careful with doors. Assume that all doors of standing vehicles are about to open, take proper distance. Another major source of accidents.
  • Careful with public transport. Never drive on the side of buses/trams where people enter and exit.
  • Double-check at intersections. Even if you have green light. Not only for vehicles, also for pedestrians.
  • Don't cross red lights. But if you do, be extra careful with vehicles and pedestrians coming from all sides. Don't risk it. Better rest a bit and bike faster for the next stretch.
  • Careful with wetness. Water on the road makes it slippery, and if your breaks get wet, they will be less efficient. Drive slower when wet. Mud is even worse. Avoid black ice, as with any means of transport.
  • Don't DUI. Biking and drinking don't mix.
  • Fast is safe. The faster you go, the safer you'll be, since you will have less interactions with vehicles, and these will have more time to see you if they are passing you. Exceptions: when you are going too fast to break on time, e.g. with a race bike, going downhill, wet road...
  • Ignore. It seems that the heavier the traffic, the higher the probability that some driver will honk the horn to show how much you obstruct their path. My advice: smile, signal the driver to use another lane to pass you, wave good bye as they wait at the next vehicle queue, never see again. Don't be intimidated by angry drivers, anger is a sign of weakness. In this case, perhaps mixed with envy.
Did I mention to be careful with pedestrians???

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