Bike Ed: How Well are we Teaching Skills?

Confident City Cycling: on the safety course

At the recent Bike Summit in Los Angeles [recap] organized by the California Bicycle Coalition & LACBC, mobility education was on our collective mind. Comments in an early breakout session concerned state drivers ed requirements and how it fails to prepare society to safely accommodate road users. In whatever form it takes, whether in-school, as private lessons or merely the DVM booklet, drivers ed generally focuses on vehicle operation while treating pedestrians and cyclists as obstacles to be avoided.

‘Mobility education,’ attendees agreed, could be a better frame for unbiased, mode-inclusive safety education. We’re talking about moving people of all ages safely, of course, not just moving tin. As practiced in northern Europe, mobility education begins in primary school and is reinforced through life by well-marked streets (a fetish of mine) and social control that shames careless driving (to say nothing of leaving the scene of a collision).

Drivers education in particular sets a low bar for the effective, safe operation of a motor vehicle (try some sample questions). As blogger Ted Rogers regularly reminds us over at BikingInLA, careless driving and hit-and-run are crimes too often perpetrated. Yet they are effectively sanctioned by lax punishment. Our situation is a predictable consequence of poorly educating road users and then turning us all loose on streets seemingly engineered to increase conflict.

It’s even baked into the educational material. California driver testing materials note that it’s legal to ride on pubic roads, and even recommends a three feet pass buffer, but such materials marginalize cyclists rather than elevate us to the level of legitimate road user. For some cyclists, though, drivers ed just might be the only formal training in road rules that we get. The rest of us will ride as mom and dad taught us – which was a hand on the saddle, on the sidewalk, without regard to cars or the practical concerns of moving with motor traffic.

That is, unless we avail ourselves of effective instruction: traffic rules as they apply to cyclists; and road skills like emergency handling and defensive techniques that help to keep the rubber side down. Even better, let’s make every would-be driver take that instruction too.

League Instruction in Practice: Confident City Cycling

The League of American Bicyclists has organized a Smart Cycling program backed by a safety- and skills-focused curriculum that is administered by League-certified cycling instructors  nationwide. The Smart Cycling program, according to the League, “gives you the tips, tools, and techniques” you’ll need to answer these questions in the affirmative:

As roadways and bike trails become increasingly complex and congested, do you know all you need to know to safely ride a bicycle? Do you feel you know enough to teach your children how to ride cautiously and conspicuously while on their own? When you drive your car, are you confident on how to share the road with bicyclists?

On their site you will find many resources devoted to safe cycling. I highly recommend them.

League certification must start with a local beginner/intermediate road skills class. I jumped at an opportunity to get a leg up on it for free, via a grant-funded free Confident City Cycling class from Sustainable Streets, a local nonprofit organization that encourages “active transportation for everyday mobility.”

Confident City Cycling class with Ron Durgin

Confident City Cycling class taught by Ron Durgin and Meghan Kavanaugh

Over two Saturday afternoons in November I joined ten other cyclists of all abilities for a 4-hour classroom session and then attended a follow-up, 4-hour class in the field at Santa Monica’s designated bike safety facility.

The classroom session ran through the bike’s key components and gave an overview of road rules and described problem situations that arise on the road. Materials were handed out that went into greater detail, such as the useful Smart Cycling guide from the League and a California-specific primer on road rules titled, California Bicycling Street Smarts: Riding Confidently, Legally, and Safely. The latter is a must-read for any cyclist in California.

Confident City Cycling: key bike parts labeled

Confident City Cycling: the bike labeled!

The field session covered basic capabilities like signaled turns and introduced safety maneuvers like obstacle avoidance, abrupt turns, and emergency stops. The focus here was on doing: we had ample opportunity to warm up the riding chops (on a cold day!) with exercises before penultimately taking to the streets and then sitting for a brief exam (required for class completion).

Let me admit right now: I didn’t complete the final road portion of the class or the exam. After about five hours of class-and-field instruction, I was simply impatient. Truth be told, I found the class under-stimulating. I’ve been riding for 30 years in various contexts, with the last ten of them in Los Angeles, riding boulevards like Santa Monica and Olympic where battle-tested skills are forged as if in a crucible. I know my bike components and I have the road basics pretty well down pat. I’m probably better suited to an advanced class.

But then I can cop to acquired road habits that serve me OK but that probably don’t conform to what might be recommended by the League. I could stand to be liberated from such practice, I admit. I’m also eager to refine my understanding of the road rules and my responsibilities. (Concerning the latter, the course materials are helpful, as is Bob Mionske’s Bicycling and the Lawread our review.)

Rather than view Confident City Cycling as simply a box to check off on the way to League instructor certification, I also saw it as an opportunity to explore bike education under the League’s Smart Cycling program. And I found that it isn’t as effective as it needs to be to produce confident cyclists for busy roads.

I don’t want to be too critical as this class is my only experience with the League’s Smart Cycling program. But as classes like Confident City Cycling are recommended (and even funded) by local governments, there are opportunities for improvement that should be embraced as we move toward institutionalizing safe-cycling programs.

Because an introductory class may be the only class most of us ever take, let’s do it the best we can with it. For this student, however, Confident City Cycling highlighted a chasm between what’s required in the real world of everyday cycling and what can be offered in a basic skills class. That gulf is too large, in my opinion.

Confident City Cycling: Classroom Observations

In a class titled ‘Confident City Cycling,’ Road rules and safe riding should be the focus of instruction, but as I experienced the class they are covered too briefly. The 8 hours of instruction is split four hours in class and four in the field field. Classroom time, while a reasonable chunk of time, could be more focused as considerable time was spent on basics like a brief history of the bicycle and naming bike components. Valuable info but it’s covered in the handouts.

Cyclists deal with a wide variety of challenges from simple lane positioning to navigating less-intuitive situations, and here is where classroom instruction should be most valuable.

For example, lane positioning at intersections with multiple turn lanes are not uncommon, and they can trap cyclists. But most busy intersections in the Southland offer cyclists scant guidance about passing through safely (read about two examples in Beverly Hills). In circumstances where there are two turn lanes, the cyclist must control the travel lane especially when continuing on from an optional turn lane. The problem is that intersections striped only for motorists and pedestrians leave the cyclist unguided; they inject ambiguity into what should be a fully controlled situation. Without a facility like a Class II bike lane and a bike box, the cyclist is marginalized.

Another example from Beverly Hills. Narrow streets sometimes have turn pockets that simply appear and disappear. On roads not sufficiently wide for a dedicated center lane, the real estate required for left turn pockets requires that traffic circumvent them before resuming a straight line motion. This zig and zag poses a particular challenge to cyclists: the steady and predictable course that cyclists are recommended to take is impossible. The serpentine path increases the chance that we’ll be pinned between moving traffic and the line of parked cars beyond the pocket. In such a circumstance, the cyclist must control the entire travel lane.

These intersections are failed intersections. It’s one reason why the Federal Highways Administration has assumed a “rewrite the manuals approach” in their Complete Intersections: A Guide to Reconstructing Intersections and Interchanges for Bicyclists and Pedestrians [pdf].

The classroom setting is the opportunity to drill down repeatedly on these most confusing and confounding aspects of sharing roads simply designed not to be shared. The examples on offer in Confident City Cycling are representative of basic traffic situations, but they don’t get to the meat of the problem in everyday urban cycling for tyros: conflict and confusion. It’s critical that even an introductory road skills class cover such topics thoroughly.

Lastly, on a style note, instruction pacing was slow given the amount of material that should be covered (though pace will vary with the instructors) and unnecessary time was devoted to a break. Again, subjective observations.

Confident City Cycling: Observations in the Field

I’ll say it plan: fieldwork needs to be much more productive to impart road skills. At eleven students and two co-instructors, the ratio of student-to-instructor was right, but very often both instructors usually co-taught all attendees. So too much time, in my opinion, was spent queuing up for each exercise and not enough time was spent on the maneuvers themselves.

Avoidance maneuver training was too timid. Emergency stopping and emergency turns are important, but unlike actual road conditions there’s not much at stake when cycling in a protected safety facility. There are no motorists, of course, but there’s not any real-world obstacles either.

Instead, the fieldwork session should be a real hands-on session where emergency maneuvers are put to the test – knee and elbow pads required. We worked through a few exercises, but in our field class nobody fell from the saddle. Emergency maneuver training left me as fresh as when I started the class.

I think that if we’re not breaking some eggs in field training, then we’re not sufficiently reflecting on the real-world urban riding conditions that cause us grief (not to mention occasional injury). On the road, eggs do unfortunately get broken every day.

I feel that as presently structured, Confident City Cycling as sanctioned by the League can’t offer the survival skills that we need in order to feel confident on the road. The problem is that class completion with certificate suggests that we’ve been provided such skills. While an elementary skills class may be better than no class at all, it’s only marginally better when it sets a low bar for read-road proficiency.

Urban Cycling With Confidence: My Suggestions for Improvement

Urban cyclists need to self-protect: not with armor (though that would help) but by gaining a deep, cycling-specific knowledge of the law in class and a preservation instinct honed in fieldwork maneuvers. A greater immersion in defensive riding techniques also might save our life when motorists intimidate us or simply drive dumb as we do sometimes.

Admittedly, I’m no licensed instructor. But I don’t think I have to be to suggest some improvements to make a class like Confident City Cycling more useful to me. Id like to know what you suggest too!

Hammer home the predictable causes of road conflict. Cyclists need to know like the back of our hand what are the most common points of conflict. These should be drilled repeatedly with animated or video examples. And then tested before we enter the field session.

The FHWA succinctly summarized them in its guide to safe intersections. Why not use these as a drill template for in-class scenario testing:

  • Motorist fails to yield. The bicyclist was struck by a motorist traveling in a perpendicular path that failed to properly stop or yield at a stop sign, yield sign, or traffic signal.
  • Bicyclist fails to yield. The bicyclist entered an intersection without stopping or yielding, or was caught during the intersection by a signal change and is struck by a motorist traveling through the intersection.
  • Motorist turns left into path of bicyclist – opposite direction. The bicyclist is struck by an oncoming motorist turning left or by a motorist traveling in opposite direction making a left turn.
  • Motorist turns left into path of bicyclist – same direction. The bicyclist is struck by a motorist traveling in the same direction making a left turn.
  • Motorist turns right into path of bicyclist – same direction. The motorist turned right into the path of a bicyclist traveling in the same direction.
  • Motorist turns right into path of bicyclist – opposite direction. The motorist turned right into the path of a bicyclist traveling in the opposite direction or a motorist turned right and struck an oncoming bicyclist riding against traffic.
  • Bicyclist turns left into path of motorist. The bicyclist attempted to make a left turn into the path of an oncoming motorist or a bicyclist merged into the path of a motorist traveling in the same direction to make a left turn.
  • Bicyclist turns right into path of motorist. A bicyclist was riding in the wrong direction of traffic and turned right into an oncoming motorist or a motorist traveling in the same direction.

Focus on preparing cyclists for the unpredictable too. There is no shortage of situations where hard-won experience makes the difference between safe passage and a spill. Bus stops, traffic jams with cross-turning cars, 5-point intersections, roundabouts, and free-flow interstate interchange ramps all introduce new, fluid situations to the cyclist. Classroom training should run through such scenarios.

For example, the state’s ‘ride right when practicable’ language itself leaves open much for discussion. The classroom heard several questions about specific circumstances and how we could safely navigate them. Let’s exhaust that discussion. By contrast, legal requirements for lights and reflectors need take only 15 minutes with a bit more time for tire inflation and such. Then move on immediately to the hard stuff.

Practice, practice, practice emergency maneuvers. The fieldwork was relatively light on training. We need more effective maneuvers drills. For example, I realized how difficult it is to simulate an emergency turn when there is no present hazard. Or to simulate a near-fall to practice a managed dismount. But our natural impulse is not to fall, after all, and so we’re reluctant put ourselves into a truly compromised situation that will test our avoidance skill. I can’t imagine a beginner cyclist was any more prepared than was I after practicing  a few.

Give guidance on what to do in the event(uality) of a collision. Bike attorney Bob Mionske outlines the basics in a three part series (part 1, part 2, part 3). Class instruction should at least take us through this advisory. Now, some of us will be familiar if we’ve experienced a motor vehicle collision. It still surprises me to hear people say to a cop on the scene, “I guess I didn’t look….” That goes right into the report. Knowing what not to say makes the difference between damages for your injury and not. On the other hand, speaking with knowledge of the law will help you make your case. (Which might only go so far anyway.)

Let’s ‘put some skin in the game.’ On real roads we have to work to avoid obstacles. Potholes abound. Pavement grooves and drain grates catch tires. Pedestrians jaywalk. Motorists whip out of parking spaces. (Parking valets seem like professionalized impediments to safe cycling.) Without literally putting our skin in the game during maneuver training, how will we learn to sidestep an obstacle, bunny hop over a mogul, or tumble with confidence? We’ll get a taste of the real world when we strap on the body protection and fall a few times in class, perhaps on a rubberized surface.

Conclusion

These suggestions may sound more like Survival Skills 201 or 301 rather than Traffic Skills 101, but that’s what our streets call for today. Only primary school cycling education can get by with less, in my view.

When I lived in metropolitan Nebraska, I enjoyed cycling without much of a concern for safety. Behind the wheel, motorists behaved like they were driving tractors, meandering along at 20 or 30mph on major city streets. Drivers almost crawled through residential neighborhoods. Heck, I wanted to shout them out of the way myself. Unlike our own road culture, you see, Nebraskans didn’t bring hostility to driving; apparently they harbor none at all anyway.

Here we face a different challenge.

I’m heartened that cities are recognizing that we need to impart to cyclists some skills to survive life with auto. Safety class is a key part of that program. Yet I’m concerned that we don’t focus on the most critical elements of defensive riding (even in an introductory adult class). Like the unsatisfactory drivers ed decried at the Bike Summit, we will have failed the most fundamental purpose of cycling education – the safer streets mission not accomplished.

4 thoughts on “Bike Ed: How Well are we Teaching Skills?

  1. Mark,
    I was invited to help teach the roadway portion of the traffic skills class that you attended, along with the talented Meghan Kavanagh. Your comments are helpful and perhaps a more challenging roadway experience is just what you are ready for. I am so sorry that you didn’t finish the class, though. You missed out on the chance to take the written exam, to see some of our less experienced riders grow in their abilities to deal with and control the traffic around them; and, to hear all of the students’ testimony about how much more in charge of their cycling they feel. Of course you are always welcome to complete the course at a latter date and I hope that I would be instructing when you do.

  2. Thanks very much for the comment, Christopher. For the record, I found you to be a thoughtful instructor with the patience to explain why it’s important to use certain techniques like moving body mass behind the saddle or standing on pedals when riding on pavement irregularities. I suspect that you have the background of a scientist!
    My concern about cycling education (and not the class, per se) is the gulf between the basics and the skills needed in the urban setting. I’m sure that beginning students got hip to road rules and bike handling. The challenge, I wanted to suggest, is to go deeper – hence my suggestion of drills. We want to dispatch class-takers with confidence, of course, but sufficient skills to warrant confidence.
    I’m in mind of the recent ThinkBike visitors to LA from the Netherlands. There was a bike ride from the Marina to Downtown that I wasn’t able to make. One participant remarked on the relatively tame route, saying that maybe hosts should have brought them through Beverly Hills and then downtown via one of the key east-west corridors. (A sure test of mettle.) We wondered how Dutch bike handling skills would accommodate to, say, Santa Monica boulevard!

  3. I don’t think cycling classes in Chicago are well-publicized. If someone asked me about them, I would just say, “Go see the Active Transportation Alliance website”. But I don’t actually know if that information is on there.

    Occasionally the REI in Chicago holds free informational classes, but can someone sign up for a smart city cycling class there? Or anywhere?

    In addition to the all of the things that the smart city cycling class you describe in the post offers the students who sign up (a self-selection bias to mobility and cycling education), bike shops are a place where people can receive education on how to ride safely, assertively, and defensively on urban roads. The bike shop salesperson or mechanic is the last person one sees and listens to before they put their new wheels on the asphalt.

  4. Thanks for the insight into the Chicago bike ed scene. The point-of-sale is of course very important, and I wonder if there are any industry guidelines to offer shop people. Bikes Belong seems to be the premier industry group, but it’s focus is getting people onto bikes, not necessarily keeping them in the saddle on busy roads. They have a tip sheet for retailers (http://tinyurl.com/18r) but no evident specific prescriptions for safety ed in the shop. I should write a piece on them. I think they’re behind the REI ed effort.
    Also you mention the self-selection issue. I concur. On first glance it’s tempting to think that, well, not enough people self-select for bike safety ed classes. But it’s really about moving past the self-selection bias and putting more folks in the bike ed chair and saddle sooner, before they’ve learned bad habits (or been injured or worse), right?
    I’m just now writing about Bikeability UK, a new program to roll out that material in schools. And I saw a dynamite video on the Netherlands longtime, hands-on bike training for kids as young as toddlers. Unbelievable! We’ve got our work cut out for us, but thankfully there’s these models….

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