In last week's Los Angeles Times Op-Ed piece, Tom Babin made the case for how protected bike lanes are needed to encourage people to bike more regularly. While we at LACBC agree that protected bike lanes (and better bicycle infrastructure in general) are needed to keep riders safe and encourage more riding, we are a little disappointed to see vehicular cycling (VC) attributed to having “pitted cars against cyclists” as the title of the piece claims. In fact, VC, which is the basis of most bicycle education, is becoming increasingly important, not less, as more people start riding a bicycle, with or without protected bike lanes. The core of VC is this phrase: “Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.” This is not anti-car. Rather, VC, which is at the root of League of American Bicyclists' “Smart Cycling” program, has always taught bicyclists that they are a part of traffic and a big piece of this is knowing and following the rules of the road. The people who are trained to teach the League’s curriculum, League Cycling Instructors (LCIs), are expected to know the vehicle code as well as general principles of traffic law and VC.
At LACBC, we believe that both strong infrastructure networks and education for people driving, biking, and using the streets in general need to exist together to create a Los Angeles County that is healthy, safe, and fun to bike in.
Even in a future with plenty of protected bike lanes, why does someone riding them still need education?
First, we’re not likely to see a complete network of protected bike lanes in Los Angeles for a long time, so education (for bicyclists AND drivers) is one way to give those who need or want to ride a fighting chance, bearing in mind that education alone is not enough.
Second, it is unlikely that protected bike lanes will be everywhere, so bicyclists and motor vehicles will have to share the road in some places, unless you only live, work, and shop strictly on streets with protected bike lanes.
Third, most collisions happen at intersections, and bicycle education informs riders about how those collisions happen and how to ride to prevent or respond to situations that lead to collisions. Protected bike lanes can’t eliminate at least some interaction between people riding bikes and motor vehicle traffic at driveways and intersections. The design of the protected bike lane on Los Angeles Street includes special bike signals to help prevent conflicts, but education rooted in VC makes it far easier to see, anticipate, and respond to conflicts that may still occur despite the best efforts of the city’s engineers.
One simple example is the three motor vehicles I recently witnessed turning right onto Temple in Downtown L.A. despite a red right turn light and mutiple no right on red signs and the green bike light that gave me the right of way. Again, this is just one example. Also, bike-only signals are rare here and many riders aren’t familiar with them. We’ve already heard from LAPD that there have been problems with riders not following the bike-only signals, which is likely if you’re not usually looking for them because such signals aren’t normally there. Education is key for this. If we don’t teach riders to always look for the kinds of conflicts that can occur with or without bike lanes and let them think they can just ride a protected bike lane without any interaction with traffic or a care in the world, never mind other bicyclists and pedestrians, we’d be missing an opportunity and doing would-be riders a disservice.
Which takes us back to the law and the fourth reason why education is still needed and may even be more important with protected bike lanes. The laws are still the same, and knowing what the law says for bicycling is truly a powerful way to enable people to ride safely. It would also go a long way towards informing drivers who may not know what moves are are actually illegal and which ones are legal (e.g. using the left turn lane on a bike). LACBC publishes the Bike Smart pocket guide which gives simple, easy-to-understand summaries of the major laws governing bicycle riding in CA. We do this because roughly half the time bicyclists and motor vehicles collide, the motor vehicle driver did something wrong. But, half the time bicyclists did something wrong. We tell bicyclists that if they learn and follow those rules, they can eliminate themselves from that second half of all potential collisions and know that that if they do get into a collision, they didn’t cause it.
Our bicycle education program, as well as the programs of countless other bicycle groups across the country, spends a great deal of time teaching bicyclists to recognize what drivers might do wrong and how to react. This helps give riders the confidence to ride in more places, but that alone isn’t enough and most LCIs recognize this. The League, LACBC, and countless organizations and LCIs nationwide are finding ways to incorporate new infrastructure, like protected bike lanes into educational programming. In many countries known for being bike friendly, these countries have both welcoming bike infrastructure and education.
Only the strictest of VC cyclists are refusing to adopt new infrastructure instead of adapting. So perhaps the strictest approach of vehicular cycling is dying, but that doesn’t mean we should toss aside VC principles and bicycle education as a whole. Rather, we should nurture bicycle education. If ridership does indeed increase with new infrastructure like the protected bike lanes on Los Angeles Street, we’re going to need even more education, not less.