Just how hard would it be to make bicycle commuting practical for the ring of suburbs around our major cities? Drivers’ negative or even hostile attitudes toward cyclists is, in my book, a large reason why it isn’t more popular.
For 40 years, I worked in downtown Hartford about 20 miles from my home in Granby. Cycling was—and still is—my chosen form of daily exercise. I probably average 5,000 miles per year on country roads, but I tried commuting to work only a few times. Each time, I ended up saying that it was too dangerous.
To some extent, we all become different people when we are behind the wheel: walkers and cyclists are annoying impediments to our progress. On two occasions drivers threw bottles at me, neither one being a clumsy attempt to litter! Both missed. One driver forced me off a rural state road in Massachusetts as I was descending a curve at about 30 miles per hour. His intention was unmistakable. I road off onto a lawn into a backyard.
I acknowledge that these are just three incidents in nearly seven decades of bike riding but a few of my cyclist friends have been hit by cars, one of them dying only a few miles from his home in broad daylight.
I have observed that many drivers are ignorant of bicycle laws. Twice drivers have told me that it is illegal to ride on the road when a bike path is nearby. Some drivers believe that cyclists are required by law to ride to the right of the white lines painted on the side of the road. According to others, riding two abreast is always illegal, and still others believe that it is illegal for cars to cross the center line to get around a cyclist safely. All of these are wrong.
Connecticut law only requires drivers to give cyclists three feet of room when passing. I am not sure this law is wise, as it gives some drivers the idea that three feet is plenty. It is not. Experienced cyclists can ride in a straight line on good pavement; children and inexperienced adults usually cannot. Careful, patient drivers give cyclists a wide berth. We are grateful and when possible wave our thanks.
In Europe, where bicycle commuting is more common, both accident and fatality rates are much lower than here in the United States. Apparently this is because drivers are accustomed to seeing bicyclists. In Italy, drivers are said to be very patient, even with large groups of cyclists on narrow roads. Perhaps part of the solution to our problem is to encourage more cycling.
Let me balance my comments by offering a criticism of some cyclists. They should not wear all black or dark clothing. I even found fluorescent yellow shoes, which catch more drivers’ eyes. Fluorescent stripes on jackets are also helpful. Bikers in packs should form a line so cars can pass; not to do that is rude and dangerous. Riding on the wrong side of road (against traffic) is illegal and hazardous.
I maintain that more accidents are caused by car drivers, and in a collision, the cyclist pays the price almost every time. I guess we can hope that a technological solution is on the horizon, as cars may someday have systems to avoid cyclists. When that happens, I hope that many more people will consider commuting.
Originally published in Connecticut Woodlands, the magazine of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, of which Lukingbeal is president and is published here with its permission.