Switching gears a bit

© The Guardian

© The Guardian

Those who speak transportation wonk will know that much has been said of Roger Geller of Portland Office of Transportation’s (PBOT) “no way, no how” bicycling categories.

Portlanders [and, many would argue, cyclists everywhere, but these figures represent Geller’s approximations of Portland’s population] can be placed into one of four groups based on their relationship to bicycle transportation:

The Strong and the Fearless (<1%)
— The Enthused and the Confident (7%)
— The Interested but Concerned (60%)
— No Way No How — nonriders (33%)

Survey after survey and poll after poll has found again and again that the number one reason people do not ride bicycles is because they are afraid to be in the roadway on a bicycle.

I believe, and research in the US increasingly shows, that traffic moving at high speeds is one of the greatest impediments for vast majority of people who want to ride a bike but are scared (interested but concerned) and, quite possibly, even those who aren’t considering it (no way, no how). In other reports and surveys, it is frequently women who are underrepresented in the cycling population – they come in at a mere 24% nationwide in the 2009 national travel survey, and one of the main reasons often stated is concern about traffic volumes or speeds.

I recently took a survey which asked me what kind of rider I was, loosely based on PBOT’s categories. I was surprised to find that, where I definitely used to be a “strong & fearless” kind of gal (true fact!), I now place myself squarely in “enthused & confident” — in other words, “comfortable sharing the roadway with automotive traffic, but prefers to do so operating on own facilities. Attracted to riding in Portland because there are streets that have been redesigned to make them work well for bicycling. Appreciate bicycle lanes and bicycle boulevards.” If it weren’t for the fact that cycling was already such a huge part of my life, I would probably be “interested but concerned.”

Don’t get me wrong, I realize there is much that I do that many other people would question and shudder at — such as putting the kids in the bike in the first place. But what has happened to bump me down? Why don’t I just ride anywhere, anytime, any more?

It’s certainly not because I’m a woman, or I never would have been fearless! In fact, it makes me happy to see so many women cycling on the streets of Portland, even though I know that’s not the norm in the US.

But I’m intrigued by this. Is it because I’m a mom now, and have to think about not just my own safety? To some extent, yes. But that denies the fact that I believe the kids are safer strapped in the bike box than they would be strapped in a car. They’re getting fresh air, seeing the world around them, able to have a human-paced conversation with me and others on the street, and — barring a crazy driver swerving into us (which could happen in a car just as easily) — I do consider them very safe.

Is it because I now ride slower, upright bicycles? There could be something in that. It is certainly the case that when I felt like I could go as fast (or faster) than a car in city traffic, I had less fear of the traffic. And perhaps there was a certain confidence or belief that cars would stay out of my way because I was acting more “like them.” However, it’s interesting to consider that on an upright bike I can see a lot more than I could before, both because of my position and because a slower pace allows me to take in my surroundings instead of rushing through them. That certainly counts for a lot, and I feel much more confident in my ability to assess and navigate a traffic situation.

Perhaps it’s simply because of my experiences overseas. In other words, the (superior) bike facilities of Copenhagen, Berlin, and Vienna somehow ruined me. Perhaps.

Regardless, my new position behind the handlebars has certainly made me think about bicycle facilities in different ways, and about how our planners ought to be thinking about them if they want to tackle the “interested but concerned” set. Yes, a connected cycling network is still incredibly important, but what now takes more priority is the type of facility — and primarily how separated it is.

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