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Commentary: Knowledge is best protection for bicyclist

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 18, 2012 - A Jan. 5 article by Ryan Schuessler, "Great Rivers Greenway works to make the area bicycle friendly" described efforts by both Great Rivers Greenway and Trailnet to expand existing bike lane striping or similar road markings in the St. Louis area. The only criticism mentioned was that the pace of such efforts was too slow.

As a transportational cyclist for more than 40 years, the last 14 as a certified bicycling instructor, I have a very different view. Years ago, I concluded that what cyclists lack most are not bike lanes but knowing how to safely use the existing road system.

Let's start with Missouri law, which says that bicyclists have the same rights and duties as other road users. On-road bike lane striping prejudices those rights by effectively confining cyclists to the extreme right edge of the road, creating conflict between cyclists and motorists.

Bike lanes do not readily allow cyclists to merge left safely in preparation for a left turn or to change lanes. When bike lanes are placed alongside on-street parking, there is the ever-present danger of the cyclist being fatally struck by an opening car door. Cyclists riding in a bike lane are also at risk from a passing motorist turning right across their path, a leading cause of car-bike collisions. Advance cyclist stop boxes at intersections do not eliminate this threat because the light may change as the cyclist is about to enter the box.

There is a belief that on-road infrastructure created especially for bicyclists obviates the need for any cyclist training. In fact, this infrastructure often is contrary to safe cycling practices, and requires more education and effort on the part of the cyclist to be used safely. Worse, it reinforces motorists' belief that cyclists must stay near the right-hand road edge, increasing hostility toward cyclists who are driving defensively when controlling the lane.

I started cycling for environmental reasons in the late 1960s. At the time, I was a scientist working at ITT's Central Research Lab in Harlow, England. Lacking good information on how to use a bicycle safely in traffic, I became a leading advocate for expanding the local system of off-road bicycle facilities.

My views only changed after getting a job at the former McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Co. in St. Louis in 1980 and meeting Bob Soetebier, a local cycling enthusiast who introduced me to the principles of safe cycling. Subsequently, I learned that most bike crashes could be avoided by a combination of improved bike handling techniques and best practices for safe cycling on-road, which turns out to be the best facility for transportational cycling.

A fellow employee who jogged in frequently recommended living north of Lambert airport if I wanted to cycle to work. I eventually located in Ferguson, which proved to be a happy choice, with numerous routes available, both low-traffic residential and main road.

Fourteen years as a League of American Bicyclists (LAB) Cycling Instructor have confirmed my understanding of safe on-road cycling principles. For several years, I was also coordinator of a mainly federally funded bike promotion program for the City of Ferguson. This aimed to promote bicycling via bike education and such improvements as quality bike racks.

In 2006, 50 students from the St. Louis area participated in comprehensive bicycling education courses I conducted. Several went on to become League Cycling Instructors, among them Karen Karabell, who last year launched CyclingSavvy St. Louis. Founded in 2010 in Orlando, Fla., CyclingSavvy is spreading throughout the U.S. and is increasingly recognized as the leading adult bike education course. 

(Information at http://cyclingsavvy.org/ and http://cyclingsavvy.org/category/midwest-region/st- louis/ )

Videos showing knowledgeable cyclists coexisting safely with motorists in everyday traffic situations are online. "Cyclist's Eye View - Driving Your Bicycle In Traffic" features LCI Chris Quint demonstrating safe on-road cycling techniques while being videotaped by fellow LCI, Dan Gutierrez, using a small helmet-mounted camera. 

The method was refined by Gutierrez and LCI Brian DeSousa, simultaneously taping each other. Their picture-in- picture video shows their interactions with both following and passing motorists, an excellent example being"The Rights and Duties of Cyclists."

As a 75-year-old cyclist with no special abilities, neither a road warrior nor a speed demon, I have no problem using my bicycle for transportation in Ferguson and elsewhere: knowledge of safe and proficient on-road cycling is the key.

When cyclists behave and are treated as equal users of our public roadways, it is both amazing and gratifying how well it works.

Martin Pion is an advocate for bicycling education.