“There’s been somewhat of a propaganda campaign to persuade us that only people in cars are drivers,” let drop my CyclingSavvy instructor about 10 minutes into our Truth & Techniques of Traffic Cycling class. “But only in the last 100 years have cars been around. Our traffic system actually pre-dates that, and speed has nothing to do with right of way.”
Passionate would be one word to describe Karen Karabell. Zealous would be another. In the three hours that she and co-instructor Gerry Noll lead us through how to safely “play in traffic” on our two-wheeled transports, Karabell smiles and speaks excitedly while telling my seven fellow students and me things like: “If you want a motorist’s attention, you need to be where they’re looking,” “You should ride as though every vehicle is the size of a truck and trailer” and “There are two reasons motorists honk: because they’re being territorial or because they’re frightened by you.”
If reading those statements doesn’t exactly fan your desire to hop on a bike and ride down Lindbergh Avenue at rush hour, that’s OK. In fact, that’s kind of the point of signing up for the Truth & Techniques of Traffic Cycling class. As the introductory course in the CyclingSavvy curriculum, this class is about teaching you that biking in traffic is not to be feared when you know the rules, communicate and follow certain strategies. But more on that later.
What is CyclingSavvy?
CyclingSavvy is a traffic cycling curriculum that started in Florida with Keri Caffrey and Mighk Wilson and traveled to St. Louis about three years ago. The courses were built “from the street up” to help adult students change behaviors that are strongly rooted in today’s traffic culture. (As one of my fellow students put it, “Everything I know about biking I learned when the training wheels came off, so I have a lot to catch up on.”)
The mission of CyclingSavvy is to empower people to use their bikes to go anywhere they want, safely and confidently. The series of three courses seeks to first reframe people’s way of thinking about cycling in traffic—from a dangerous activity to a safe one. Then, students are taught essential skills (both in the classroom and in hands-on sessions) so they can comfortably interact in traffic conditions. Lastly, students are invited to put their new skills to use during an experiential tour of city roads.
CyclingSavvy offers all three of the courses on a revolving basis here in St. Louis, as well as in Springfield, Mo. You can locate and register for courses at https://register.cyclingsavvy.org/findaclass.
Truth and Consequences
Back in the Truth & Techniques class, we quickly move from the History segment to Rules of Movement. This is where things get really interesting.
We learn there are three types of traffic cycling: sidewalk riding, edge riding and driver riding. The most dangerous? In spite of what you might think, it’s sidewalk riding. The reason for 45 percent of crashes can be traced back to riding on a sidewalk, mostly because motorists just aren’t looking for fast-moving objects there. You make yourself invisible, inconsequential.
Edge riding, or riding on the lip of the road, is the second most dangerous. This is where all of the broken glass, rocks and other obstacles end up, and you’re harder to see for motorists who are turning into or out of traffic. Plus, you run the danger of getting “doored.” That’s just what it sounds like: getting whapped with an opening car door while you ride by. Not fun or safe.
So, the best place to ride is, in fact, where you were always meant to be—in the road! “Regardless of whether or not motorists believe bicyclists have the right to control a lane, or understand why we need to, they will change lanes to pass a lane-controlling bike,” said Karabell. “That’s what matters.”
There are hazards, of course, too many to cover in detail here (take the course, you freeloader). But awareness and communication can help you steer clear of these situations. “Recognizing danger and avoiding it, that’s just being a savvy cyclist,” said Noll, who in addition to teaching CyclingSavvy courses owns Ferguson Bicycle Shop in Ferguson, Mo.
Being savvy can even relate to bike lanes, which, while well intentioned, can put you in the wrong place at intersections. “If a bike lane places you somewhere you wouldn’t be if the bike lane wasn’t there—then don’t be there,” said Karabell. “Don’t let the paint think for you.”
At the end of the day, savvy traffic cycling boils down to choosing the lane that best suits your destination and owning that space. “Ninety-nine percent of motorists want to help you out, and most drivers are willing to cooperate with a bicyclist who communicates,” Karabell said. Use the proper strategies, hand signals and gear (such as reflective clothing and night lights) and “even the cell-phone talking, French fry-eating, multi-tasking driver will see you.”
Easy to say, right? Harder to prove. That’s why we plan to go back for the hands-on course in April and practice what my Truth & Techniques instructors have been preaching. Until then, we leave you with one more Karabell-ism.
“When in doubt, act like a driver.”
Author: Brad Kovach is the editor of Terrain magazine.