Last week, I found myself stopped at a red light in the middle of eight lanes of traffic, sandwiched between impatient SUV drivers and growling semi trucks. The corner of Brentwood Boulevard and Eager Road in St. Louis Missouri is not so much a “corner” as it is a cluster: besides two giant stroads, the intersection sits at the convergence of not one but two highways, complete with a tangle of overpasses, offramps and onramps that all dump off or pick up the same soup of motorists, many of them driving just a bit faster than the posted 35 mph. According to rumor, it’s the single busiest intersection in the St. Louis area, and a frequent site of vehicle crashes.
And, oh yeah: I was on bicycle
And also: A bicycle safety instructor had told me to do this.
For the past few months, I’ve been studying with and learning about Cycling Savvy, a national bicycle training program that instructs average riders in the principles of a method they call Mindful Bicycling. Over the course of three sessions and about 9 hours of on- and off-bike education, I’d learned their unique perspective on how cyclists can move through even the densest city traffic safely, and why it’s important that they empower themselves and take charge of their fate on their bikes. For the final component of the course—a road tour of some of our city’s most stressful traffic features—Cycling Savvy had been the ones who’d taken me and the rest of my class to that corner of Brentwood and Eager and challenged us to ride, one at at time, in some of the most intense traffic I’ve ever experienced in my almost fifteen years of biking for transportation. They were the reason I was sitting there, the SUV behind me revving his engine just a little, waiting for the light to turn green.
THE GREAT BIKE DIVIDE
So you might be reading this and thinking: these people are nuts.
Or you might be thinking: So what? I ride in worse conditions every day.
Even among those who bike often, to say there’s disagreement on what constitutes a “bikeable” road is an understatement. At one extreme are what I’ll call the Off-Roaders: people who believe that bicycling is an inherently dangerous activity that must be conducted only on dedicated, protected bikeways, ideally miles from any type of motor vehicle, and in a perfect world on paths lined with bowling alley-style rubber bumpers and down pillows to guard against injury. (A lot of non-bicyclists, it should be noted, skew towards this perspective.)
At the other extreme, there are Road Warrior types: capital C cyclists who believe bikes belong absolutely everywhere, including the dead center lane on interstate highways, and that the mere existence of protected bikeways threatens the vital perception that bikes are a valid form of transportation, and we should rip them all down.
I’m being hyperbolic here, of course; I, personally, know precisely no one who doesn’t at least somewhat acknowledge that people in cars can kill people on bikes, and that people on bikes should have the right to ride nonetheless. But that doesn’t mean that our conversations about the balance between bike safety and bike access isn’t both vital and divisive. And when it comes to organizing the cycling community to join the fight to build better our cities, this meta-conversation can become overwhelming. If people on bikes can’t agree on something as simple as whether they should ride with vehicle traffic or stick to the greenway, how are we supposed to make any progress at all? While we’re busy infighting, how many miles of stroads are being built—even if we all agree that getting more people on bikes somehow would make our cities a hell of a lot more prosperous for everyone?
CARS HAVE LAWS. BICYCLES HAVE CHOICES.
Cycling Savvy, at first glance, might seem to be on the Road Warrior side of the spectrum: they do, after all, teach you how to ride in heavy car traffic, including on ultra-wide streets where vehicles tend to reach speeds that would likely kill a cyclist on contact. But from the very first training session—a three-hour classroom bootcamp—it was clear to me that Cycling Savvy’s relationship to hardcore “vehicular” riding styles is a bit more complicated than it might seem.
While riding a bike in the street might seem like a daring act today, Cycling Savvy begins its course by pointing out that historically, it’s actually long been the norm. The father of our modern traffic safety system, after all, never learned how to drive a car himself. Born in 1858, William Phillips Eno is credited with the invention of the stop sign, the one way street, and the traffic circle among other innovations we now think of as commonplace. But the most radical suggestion he made was a simple one: the suggestion that pedestrians should not share a roadway with automobiles, and that dedicated infrastructure like sidewalks and crosswalks should be provided for them.
What that means for bicycles, though, is still unclear even today. While the coordination of bicycle and pedestrian services are often lumped together in many of our city planning departments, bikes do have the legal rights to the road space in every state in America—and in some cases, it’s expressly illegal for them to ride on pedestrian-only sidewalks. In still other states, including my home state of Missouri, bikes can fluidly move between the road and the sidewalk as they see fit, with a zillion laws and guidelines navigating, roughly, when they should change their path, many of which are completely unknown to most citizens. As Cycling Savvy instructor and Strong Towns member Karen Karabell put it, “Cars and pedestrians have laws; bicycles have laws, but far more often, they have choices too.”
As an educational organization, Cycling Savvy bypasses the debate over how we wish our roads might look and teaches cyclists, simply, to negotiate those tough choices on the roads where we actually ride. The first session was dedicated to learning the history of the road system, and segued into modeling the real, snap-second choices riders are often asked to make in real traffic situations. That did include, in certain situations, riding on sidewalks, though CS is careful to note that it’s often a more dangerous place for cyclists to ride than in the flow of traffic — especially when moving from a sidewalk and into a crosswalk.
When it comes to road riding—and especially stroad riding—Cycling Savvy encourages a biking style that’s heavy on observation, communication, and riding defensively. Riders—or as CS refers to them, “bike drivers”—are trained not simply to look both ways before crossing the street, but to read common patterns in traffic that might precipitate a crash, or might even leave them with an opening of super-safe, empty asphalt to ride on between “platoons” of cars that tend to travel together based on light signals.
When they do come upon car traffic, CS trains bicyclists to use “control and release” hand signals, signaling to auto drivers not only when the bicyclist is ready to make a maneuver, but what that bicyclist wants the driver to do, whether that’s passing them across the center line (a quick swoop of the arm usually does the trick) or refraining from passing to avoid a crash with an oncoming vehicle (a firm, flat palm works wonders to tell someone to hold off.)
And finally—and perhaps most controversially—Cycling Savvy advises all its riders to ride defensively at all times, even if that means behaving in a way that might not seem predictable to every driver (though, truly: what does?) That includes avoiding that paint-only, unprotected bike lane if it’s been placed squarely in the path of a parked car’s driver’s side door, or riding squarely in the middle of a lane if there isn’t the requisite five feet of buffer space necessary for a car to safely pass you, or flagging a truck to pass you over a double yellow line if it’d make you safer than having them tail you for miles on end. While all these maneuvers are ones that might make some drivers angry, Cycling Savvy is careful to note that nothing they advise cyclists to do is illegal: as Karabell put it, “No state in America requires cyclists to endanger themselves for the convenience of a driver.”
BIKING IN THE REAL WORLD
I’ll admit that I was resistant to Cycling Savvy’s style of riding at first. But as I completed the classroom session and the skills lab in a parking lot, and then slowly began to incorporate some of their techniques into my daily riding style, I realized how much their method made sense.
I was irate, at first, that I should be required to wave my hands around like an elementary school crossing guard in order to get cars to notice me—if drivers are the ones steering the death traps, shouldn’t it be their job to pay attention to me?—until I realized that drivers actually seemed to appreciate when I helped them decide when to safely pass (or, as Karabell’s co-instructor Matthew Brown gracefully put it: when I signaled, I became “a person instead of an impediment.”)
I was a little annoyed, at the outset, that it should be my responsibility to read the patterns in traffic—shouldn’t I be able to ride anywhere, anytime I want?—until I experienced how nice it was to bike down an eight lane stroad with no cars around me, precisely because I’d waited for a car platoon to pass me by.
And I was frustrated that, despite all the good Cycling Savvy did me, drivers still occasionally yelled at me, or sexualy harassed me, or honked and leaned out of windows and told me to get off the road, until Cycling Savvy gave me a lesson in that, too: “Think of them as barking dogs,” Karabell said. “It’s territorial. But you’re far more likely to get hurt by a driver who doesn’t notice you there and says nothing than by a driver who does notice you there and calls you a mean name.”
But my strongest reservation about Cycling Savvy was how it intersected with my values as a Strong Towns advocate. If I believe we need to #slowthecars if we want to keep people safer and create community wealth, do I do the Strong Towns movement a disservice by demonstrating that I can easily handle myself on a 55 mph stroad? When I’m passing a downtown highway exit and signaling all the drivers around me that I’m the one in control when I ride, am I also subtly signaling to them that it’s okay to go on building highways through our most valuable neighborhoods, because bicyclists can always just toughen up and take a class to teach them how to be a badass?
A DIFFERENT KIND OF BRAVE
But as the light turned green at Eager Road and Brentwood, surrounded on all sides by hundreds of tons of metal and horsepower and people that could kill me simply by flexing their ankle a little to the left, I realized something.
I wasn’t afraid.
So much of our road education—if we get any at all—is about fear. From those Red Asphalt movies in driver’s ed that traumatized me as a teen to lectures on liability insurance and why jaywalking is deadly, nearly every conversation I’d had about how I use my roads was not about what power I had, or even about my own ability to guard against the powerfully destructive elements of my city's transportation system. An airbag wouldn’t necessarily protect me from being killed by a drunk driver; the only thing I could do was stay alert, and not drive drunk myself. I could maybe keep my insurance rates from going up by not saying “sorry” if I rear-ended another driver, lest a lawyer think that meant I accepted liability, but that certainly didn’t mean that no one would ever rear-end me. Car “accidents” were just a part of life. I could armor myself against them, somewhat, and I could follow the laws and do my best to not add to the problem, but I certainly couldn’t change the world.
Using a road, I was taught, was inherently scary. But doing something scary doesn’t make you brave.
If we want to build better roads, we don't need to armor ourselves like soldiers, or grit our teeth as we climb on our bikes, knowing that sooner or later, we’re likely to get hit. We don’t need to be badasses—and it should be noted that Cycling Savvy riders, by and large, are not what we think of when we picture Road Warriors, nor do they seem to want to be. In training, CS goes out of their way to show how many of their riders are just people on bikes, of all shapes and sizes. That includes, by the way, riders who are elderly, or who are towing small children in bike trailers, or who have chronic health problems that slow them down.
What Cycling Savvy seems to want their riders to be is brave, yes, but mostly, they want them to be smart, and to enjoy the ride. Instead of badasses, they want riders on the road who observe the world as they go, making a million small decisions and adjusting for feedback, moving carefully down a path that will make everyone around them just a little bit safer. They want to teach people a way to ride that, while it will probably put them further into the stroad than they're used to, will paradoxically make them more comfortable, more confident, more able to go more places knowing that they have some power over their fate on their bikes.
And having empowered bicyclists out on the road doesn’t mean that we can’t also advocate for protected bikeways and slow speed limits in our town centers. Just because I now know how to bike on a stroad doesn’t mean I can’t also fight against them. It means that I’m sending a message that no matter what my city looks like, I’ll be here on two wheels. I’ll bike on the roads that I have while I work for the roads that I want.
As the light turned green on Eager, I signaled that I was making a left, shoulder-checked the truck behind me, made sure that we made eye contact and the driver recognized what I was about to do. I didn’t speed up and power through the turn. My heart didn’t pound, nervous that a Sedan was about to fly in from nowhere and toss me into the air. I knew where the cars around me were, and I knew that they noticed me. I wasn't riding my bike, passively waiting for an inevitable disaster. I was driving it.
I pulled into the parking lot and biked up to where the rest of the class was waiting, all of them cheering for me as I came.
(All images courtesy of Karen Karabell.)