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Guest Opinion: Trading four wheels for two

Thomas Bowden October 30, 2009 14

The views expressed in Guest Opinions represent only those of the author and are in no way endorsed by Richmond BizSense or any BizSense staff member.


I am a bike commuter – every day I brave traffic, potholes, snarling dogs and sometimes even rain and snow on my way to work.  Some things you can’t avoid.  But what I don’t understand is the drivers who honk, try to brush by me as close as possible and practice their sign language skills from the safety of their rigs.

But whether they like it or not, the Virginia Code gives me and other cyclists the legal right to use almost any state road in Virginia. This should really not be a surprise, because it’s historical fact that the first paved roads in America were paved for cyclists, following a campaign by the League of American Wheelmen (now the League of American Bicyclists). Membership included John D. Rockefeller, “Diamond Jim” Brady, the Wright Brothers and, no doubt, numerous other fine upstanding citizens.  We were here first, but we are happy to share.

So we have the right to ride on the roads – but why do we do it?

Some think they are saving the planet. Good for them. Regardless of your opinion on global warming, where’s the harm?  Others just want to keep a few more dollars out of the hands of the oil magnates of Moscow and Venezuela. We all benefit from that.  Me, I just ride because it makes me feel good, and it beats sitting in a steel cage blowing college tuition out the tailpipe of my SUV every morning. Yes, I am a bike commuter who owns an SUV (multiple SUVs, actually) — so yes, I do pay my share of road taxes. I’m not so different from you, really.

In fact, cyclists, serious cyclists, bike commuters like me, are the motorist’s best friends. Think of it this way — you may get frustrated if you have to veer around me in your rush to the next stoplight (where I will probably catch up to you waiting for the green). But ask yourself — would you rather veer around my bike or be stuck behind my Grand Cherokee? When you are looking for a parking space, isn’t it nice to know that there is at least one more out there — the one that I would have used if I had driven? And when you go to the gas pump, think of the 7.5 million gallons of gas that we bike commuters didn’t buy last week. That has to help keep prices down for drivers.

Bottom line — bikes are good. Bikes make sense. Granted, bike commuting is not for everyone, but if just another 1 percent of daily commuters rode a bike to work, there could be 1.5 million fewer cars on the road burning 4.5 million fewer gallons of gas per day. That means a faster commute and lower gas prices for you.  There would be 1.5 million more parking spaces, all without one dime of federal, state or local tax money. And if just 10 percent of commuters rode their bikes, even on sunny days only, we could probably stop buying oil from Saudi Arabia and Iraq.  At 15 percent, we could tell Russia and Kuwait to take a hike, too.

So on Monday, if you happen to pass me on my way down Cary Street, please don’t honk – just wave, and give me three feet when you whiz by. Sure, the law says I’m only entitled to two feet, but what’s another 12 inches when we’re talking energy independence? We’re not trying to make you give up your cars – we’re trying to help you keep them.

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  1. Matt October 30, 2009 at 7:23 am - Reply

    Cheers to you Thomas!

  2. Matt October 30, 2009 at 7:39 am - Reply

    There’s a pretty high-profile road rage case in the courts today:


  3. Dillon Franks October 30, 2009 at 8:07 am - Reply

    Thomas’ guest column underlines the importance and advantage of redesigning our urban space. I do believe more of us would escape the expense and hassle of our mechanical horses if our environment were more welcoming to pedestrians, bikes and people movers.

  4. Ethan Seltzer October 30, 2009 at 8:08 am - Reply

    Nicely worded Mr. Bowden!

  5. Alan Slabaugh October 30, 2009 at 8:19 am - Reply

    That is excellent. As an avid mountain biker and road rider, I am extremely jealous that you are able to commute via bicycle as well. The stories I have heard from my bike commuter friends are almost unbelievable.

    I love this short documentary that covers how Boulder, CO became a bicycle friendly city. Truly inspirational.

  6. Karen Cole October 30, 2009 at 8:50 am - Reply

    Great column. If more people were like you, there probably wouldn’t be any problems when we have to “share the road.” Unfortunately, you are as rare as the Hope Diamond in that I know you exist, but I just don’t see you very often.

    I do not have a problem with cyclists… that follow the rules! However, I am sick of people on bikes that either don’t know or don’t care to follow legal and safety guidelines or use plain common sense. While I do not practice sign language or act like a jerk, I have blown the horn for cyclists that put all of us in danger. Now that the weather is pretty and people are out in droves on their bikes, here are just a few things that I observed within the last month alone:

    1. Cyclists crossing against red lights almost causing accidents because they are too impatient to wait the green light with the rest of us.
    2. Cyclists that bike (especially at night) without wearing bright clothes while in the middle of the road.
    3. Cyclists (especially in Downtown Richmond) that bike in between two cars on Main Street when the right lane is taken up by buses.

    One of the worst things I can ever imagine is accidentally hitting a cyclist even if it is their fault. I know that it would ruin my life and I would never get over it. So maybe now you can understand why many of us would rather have some cyclists stay off the roads instead of putting us all at risk.

    And as far as getting the roads redesigned for cyclists in Richmond, I would love to see that happen. However, if they couldn’t agree on a baseball stadium in just one area of the city how do you think they are going to agree on something citywide?

  7. adam haller October 30, 2009 at 8:52 am - Reply

    Excellent writing Mr. Bowden. If you haven’t yet, make plans for a trip to the Netherlands where you will find a society where bicycles are the primary measn of transport for most people of all ages. They have a seperate bicycle road network, complete with overpasses, signals and parking decks designed to hold 10,000 bicycles. Yes there is such a utopia, it is just not in central VA. Touch base with the Richmond Bicycling Association for the only real advocacy around here.

  8. Joey October 30, 2009 at 9:52 am - Reply

    Great column,, I have to agree with Karen though, I have no problem with people who obey the laws. I think it is great that you love to bicyle and it makes you feel good. I just wish that everyone that rides a bike would be considerate to follow the laws. Nothing is more dangerous then trying to get around people who bike in the middle of the road. Good luck with your bike and I will wave next time I see you.

  9. Nic October 30, 2009 at 12:51 pm - Reply

    Excellent column by Mr. Bowden, but Karen and Joey raise legitimate concerns.

    As a bike commuter myself (in Los Angeles, a city that’s wildly bipolar concerning bicyclists on city streets), I must agree that bicyclists are our own worst enemies, as far as winning the respect of the drivers who occasionally share the road with us. Unfortunately the responsible cyclists like myself and Mr. Bowden, are eminently forgettable when you meet us en route– we obey traffic lights, ride on the correct side of the street, are visible without being ridiculous, signal our intentions clearly and with good timing, and generally bike like gentlemen. Which means we do not make it onto anyone’s “list” or stick in their minds.

    The cyclists who ride against traffic, or on the sidewalk (which belongs to pedestrians), or flagrantly violate traffic laws and common sense, THOSE are the ones which stick in the minds of drivers. It only takes one jerk to outbalance ten responsible bike commuters. Bikers, let’s police our own, so others won’t be tempted to do so for us.

    But a couple of comments that Joey and Karen made, I want to clarify: there is a right way and a wrong way for a bicyclist to “bike in the middle of the road”. The right way is called “taking the lane”, and a responsible bicyclist will do this only when hugging the right is not safe for some reason, or when they are about to make a left turn and there is no room in the center of the road (between oncoming traffic) to avoid being “scissored.” As soon as the hazard is past, or the left turn is accomplished, one returns to far right to allow motor vehicles to pass. But please be patient with a bike that’s responsibly and temporarily “taking the lane”.

    Same with “filtering”, riding between slow or stopped cars: this is legal for motorcycles on freeways, and for bicycles on city streets, as long as the bicyclist does so responsibly: not at excessive speed, and in such a way that when traffic starts moving again, the bike is not a hazard but is able to move with the flow of traffic. Aside from basic patience with a slower vehicle (in this case a bicycle), a good “filtering” move will usually help drivers rather than hinder them: the faster the cyclist can penetrate and eventually leave traffic, the better the general flow of traffic.

    THIS IS WHAT WE CYCLISTS MUST TEACH OUR PEERS. If we can do these things right, we will win the respect of Karen and Joey and other reasonable drivers like them.

    (and if it’s safe for me to do so, Joey, I’ll wave back at you!)

  10. Sheryl October 31, 2009 at 6:04 pm - Reply

    Great column Thomas. Wish I could commute by bike everyday, but have to settle for only now and then. Must say that coming in from the north side to downtown I find the vast majority of motorists to respect my space on the roads – THANKS to all who share responsibly.

    I do get frustrated with bicyclists who run red lights, ride on the wrong side of the road, or ride in otherwise unpredictable ways. But I also get frustrated with motorists who don’t respect speed limits or for whatever reason need to race pass approaching a red light.

    Nic described well the need for bicyclists to sometimes “take control of the lane.” But his comment that this should only be done when hugging the right is not safe. “Hugging the right” is never safe, the bicyclist should always ride a foot or two to the left of the right edge of the road. Hugging the right, leaves the bicyclist in a very dangerous position for reasons to many to describe in a short space.

    Let’s all drive (whether with or without motor) responsibly and with respect and we’ll all get to where we are going safely.

  11. Ben Gustafson October 31, 2009 at 9:19 pm - Reply

    I agree with Joey – I have no problem with bicyclists who follow the traffic laws (as I am a bike commuter myself). The problem I have is with drivers who think they know traffic laws as they apply to cyclists, but don’t. Sorry, Karen – if I interpret what you mean by “Cyclists … that bike in between two cars on Main Street when the right lane is taken up by buses”, bicyclists who ride in the traffic lane are doing what they should do in order to allow the bus to safely drop off and pick up passengers, and are exercising their right to ride in a traffic lane when they cannot ride safely more further to the right. Cyclists also have the right to take the lane when setting up to make a left turn, as this is a natural part of moving from the far right side of the road to the left side of the lane.

    We all as vehicle operators have a responsibility to know what the rules of the road are for all vehicles – including bicycles.

  12. Ben Gustafson October 31, 2009 at 9:24 pm - Reply

    Also, I have no problem with motorists who follow the laws — and notice how I’m not following up that statement with a list of the annoying and downright dangerous things I see motorists doing every day when operating their vehicles (and I am a cyclist and own a car).

  13. Stuart Squier November 1, 2009 at 11:12 pm - Reply

    Nice writing Mr. Bowden, from a fellow daily bicycle commuter! I have commuted by bicycle to my place of work in Shockoe Slip for nearly five years now and I love it more every day!

    But yes, it’s funny how any discussion of cycling automatically brings out the traffic cop know-it-alls to make comments about how they “don’t have a problem with cyclists, but…” Car drivers have a deeply internalized belief that the road somehow “belongs” to them and not only are they quick to find every other user’s faults, but they feel no one should use the roads in a different manner than they do.

  14. Stuart Squier November 1, 2009 at 11:33 pm - Reply

    @Karen: “So maybe now you can understand why many of us would rather have some cyclists stay off the roads instead of putting us all at risk.”

    Those are actually good reasons for keeping cars off the road, not cyclists. But since car driving is our society’s “sacred bull in the china shop” the best we can do is find ways to minimize our exposure to their dangers. As a student of urban planning at VCU I am studying ways to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and traffic calming is the principle means to that end. We will slow down auto speeds with a number of different measures and make them safe for people again. Remember our city was designed for people, not cars. Pedestrians and cyclists belong in the city; cars should be more carefully contained because they are inherently dangerous.

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