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Bicycles and Traffic Laws

Today I ran across an essay I wrote nearly three years ago, which exhorted cyclists to apply peer pressure to get each other to obey traffic laws.  Upon reading it, I had two realizations.  First, I realized that I still agree with every word.  Second, I realize that the problem has (if anything) gotten worse in the past three years.

Let me say it one more time, for the record:  Cyclists, every single traffic law that applies to cars also applies to you!

But I’m afraid I’m in the minority.  The other day I was walking across a cross walk and was nearly taken out by a kid on a bicycle who blew through the four-way intersection without stopping for the sign.  This is typical.  Later that day I posted on Facebook, “Am I the only cyclist who respects traffic laws?”.  One of my long time riding buddies responded succinctly:  “Yes.”

Obviously, peer pressure isn’t working.  It hurts my libertarian soul to say what I am about to say, but I think the only answer is increased enforcement.  Anyone on a bike who fails to stop at a stop sign or give proper turn signals, needs to be ticketed and pay a big fine.  They are a public safety hazard and they give us few law-abiding cycle commuters a bad name.  Anyone who can’t obey traffic laws doesn’t belong on a public road.

If you feel the way I do, feel free to write a letter to your local police department asking them to enforce traffic laws for cyclist the same way they do for cars.  If possible, send a paper letter.  E-mail is too easy to delete; paper usually stays on file for a while.

Traffic Laws: Cyclists Need to Educate Each Other

City traffic is full of annoyances for a bicycle commuter. Running the gauntlet of gridlocked intersections, double parked cars, angry drivers, and noxious exhaust fumes is enough to dampen anyone’s mood. One of the most irritating sights a cyclist can see, however, is another cyclist breaking the law. It is far too common to see cyclists riding on the sidewalk, cutting off cars, wearing headphones, or running stop lights. A law abiding cyclist sees this behavior and flinches, knowing that angry motorists will judge the entire cycling community by the actions of a few. Cyclists who disregard traffic laws damage community relations and provoke violence. To regain the respect of the community and protect themselves from road rage, cyclists need to educate each other to be more law abiding.

By law, bicyclists have “the same rights and responsibilities as automobile drivers.” (California Department of Motor Vehicles [CDMV], 2009, p. 47). A cyclist has the right to occupy the road, use turning lanes, and move within their lane to avoid hazards such as parked cars and debris (CDMV, 2009, p. 48). However, the cyclist also has the responsibilities of signaling turns and lane changes, riding in the same direction as traffic, and obeying all traffic lights and stop signs. In cities such as Los Angeles that allow cyclists to ride on sidewalks, bicycles are usually required to move at a walking speed and yield to pedestrians (Pool, 2008). Unfortunately, while most cyclists are quick to demand their rights under the law, they are slow to remember their responsibilities. Cyclists clamor for the public to take bicycles seriously, but the public has difficulty seeing bicycles as a serious adult form of transportation when the riders’ actions are so juvenile. Until cyclists begin obeying traffic laws and showing courtesy and common sense, their relations with the motoring community will continue to degrade.

Many motorists see bicycles as a nuisance. Packs of bicycles two and three abreast block whole lanes. Other bicycles fly on and off sidewalks in front of cars, causing near misses. Bicycles on the wrong side of the road cut off left turns. Too many cyclists ignore traffic laws, courtesy, and common sense. One man, quoted in a Los Angeles Times editorial, summarizes motorists’ view of cyclists: “Adults on bikes ride with an attitude and commonly perform endless illegal actions… I see them as accidents looking for a place to happen.“ (O’Dell, 2001).

A growing number of motorists feel that bicycles have no place on the street at all. Anger between motorists and cyclists can flare into road rage. Some incidents are almost surreal in their violence. In Denver in 2000 a man named James Hall drew a handgun and shot a cyclist to death for cutting him off at an intersection (Pankatz, 2000). Last year in Los Angeles, a man named Christopher Thomson became infuriated because the cyclists in front of him were not riding single file (Groves & Winton, 2008). He deliberately swerved the his car in from of them and slammed on the brakes. Cyclist Ron Peterson, hit the car at 30 miles per hour and flew through the rear window. His companion Chris Stoer attempted to avoid the car but caught a wheel and crashed, sustaining a separated shoulder. Both men, while seriously injured, survived the attack. Other assaults stop short of attempted murder yet still injure or humiliate cyclists. It is common for bicycle commuters to be abused with profanity, pelted with garbage, and forced into the gutter (Stein, 2007).

The best way for cyclists to avoid such violent scenes is to educate their irresponsible fellows. A cyclist is much more likely to listen to common sense advice when it comes from another cyclist. The good cyclists need to be proactive. They need to not only set an example, but to engage in an active dialog about safety, courtesy, and traffic law. In Los Angeles, one of the more dangerous bicycling cities, a non-profit group called Cyclists Inciting Change through Live Exchange (CICLE) is doing just that (Stein, 2007). CICLE uses group rides, free repair clinics, and other events as venues to educate new cyclists. Their official Internet site is full of tips on how to ride safely and avoid confrontations with drivers (Cyclists Inciting Change Through Live Exchange, n.d.). CICLE, and similar groups in other cities, provide hope for bicycle education.

By educating each other cyclists can protect themselves and their lifestyle. Cyclists who habitually break traffic laws infuriate motorists and create a backlash against the entire bicycling community. Law abiding cyclists need to educate the scofflaws by setting an example, joining cycling education groups, or even just offering friendly advice. Better cyclist behavior will make the streets safer for everyone.

California Department of Motor Vehicles. (2009). California Driver Handbook. Sacramento,
CA: Department of Motor Vehicles Customer Communications Section.
Cyclists Inciting Change through Live Exchange. (n.d.).  Riding Tips that Can Save Your Tail.  Retrieved September 22, 2009 from
Groves, Martha & Winton, Richard. (2008, July 9). Narrow road is a zone of conflict; Frustration boils over after two bicyclists are hurt in ‘road rage’ in Mandeville Canyon. Los Angeles Times, p. B1. Retrieved September 20, 2009, from Proquest database
O’Dell, John. (2001, July 25). Carmentary; Motorists, bicycle Riders collide over misbehavior on the roadway. Los Angeles Times (Home Edition), p. G1. Retrieved September 20, 2009, from Proquest database.
Pankratz, Howard. (2000, June 21). Shooter “consumed” by road rage. Denver Post, p. B2.   Retrieved September 18, 2009 from
Pool, Bob. (2008, July 8). Cyclists, walkers to share space; Backpedaling on a ban, pedestrian friendly West Hollywood prepares to legalize sidewalk bike riding. Los Angeles Times, p. B1. Retrieved September 20, 2009 from Proquest database.
Stein, Jeannine . (2007, August 13). On the mean streets of L.A.; Insults, hurled bottles — it’s ugly out there for cyclists and runners in an everyone-drives city. Los Angeles Times [Home Edition], p. F1. Retrieved September 20, 2009 from Proquest database.


Bicycle Review: Gran Royal Union Flyer

For most of the past two years I have primarily been a walker. I had been living in a loft above a downtown commercial building and had abundant retail opportunities within a few blocks of me, so there was hardly a reason to ride a bike, much less drive. In fact, I gave away my bikes to people who could use them because I hated to see them gathering dust.

A few months ago, however, I moved to Riverside, CA, to go to grad school. Riverside is quite a bicycle friendly town (by California standards). It has well marked bike lanes in most major streets and bicycle buttons on many intersections. In general, I have found that motorists here hate cyclists much less than those in Los Angeles (who deliberately tried to kill me a couple of times). Too, most of the stores were much further from my new apartment than they had been from my old one. The supermarket is about a five mile round trip. I have no problem walking five miles to buy groceries, but it gets 110ºF (43ºC) here in the summer, and it was impossible to buy frozen food without it melting before I got home. I decided it was time to buy another bike.

After a long search, I settled on the Union Flyer from Gran Royal. I have now been riding it for nearly two weeks, and feel ready to write a review.

When I chose the bike, I knew I needed something simple and basic. After commuting for years on an 18 speed road bike, I knew I didn’t want to mess around with any more derailers or skinny high-pressure tires. Also I didn’t want anything too fancy because it would be locked on campus at all hours and was likely to get stolen or vandalized. The Union Flyer seemed to fit the bill and, at $140 (on sale at Nashbar) the price was right.

The bike has classic lines, reminiscent of English Raleigh and Hercules bikes from the mid-20th century. Gran Royal calls it a “single-speed comfort bike” but most of the world would probably think of it as just an ordinary. It uses an American style one-piece bottom bracket–not surprising, since Gran Royal is owned by a BMX company. All the other components, from the 700×32 wheels to the threadless headset, are modern and metric. The only brake is a Shimano coaster hub.

The Good

  • The design is simple, and should need very little maintenance beyond repacking the hubs every couple thousand miles. This is a bike that will probably last longer than I will.
  • The price, as mentioned above, was quite affordable.
  • The frame is heavy, but the welding is clean and the alignment is good. Steel is real!
  • The bike has full fenders and a chain guard so I can wear nice pants without them getting trashed. The overall look of the bike is quite classy and gets noticed by people around the bike rack.

All in all, I am delighted.

The Bad

  • The paint is pretty but seems overly delicate. Already I have several small paint chips. I can see myself repainting the whole bike in a year or two, or even getting it powder coated.
  • The hand grips get a little slippery when my hands are sweaty (see above about the hot summers here). I am thinking about trying a different brand.
  • I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the coaster brake. I like the simplicity of it, but I am having to revise my whole riding style. For example, when stopped in traffic at an intersection it is impossible to track-stand. Also, to get going, I need to change feet. I have accidentally locked the back wheel a couple of times when I was bunny-hopping potholes and brought my feet back too far. I think that most of these problems have more to do with changing my technique than with any problem with the bike itself, however.
  • The bike comes standard with a 44T chainwheel and an 18T cog. This works out to be about a 5.5 gain ratio (using Sheldon Brown’s calculator) which is probably fine for a bike path, but is a little too high a gear to climb a hill with a load of groceries. I installed a 20T cog (5.0 ratio) and realized an immediate gain in rideability (total cost less than $10, including shipping).

Changes I Would Like To See

  • Rod Brakes – Which are almost impossible to find in this country, but this bike would be a perfect application. They would be as durable as the coaster, but much more effective.
  • Lower Gearing – As described above. 44X18 seems perfect.

Of course the rod brakes are a fantasy and the gearing is cheap to change in the field. I am really rather happy with this bike as it is.

Still Angry, or “What I Believe”

I realized last night that I hadn’t logged into this blog in over two years. I’d like to say a big “sorry” to all the poor people whose comments have been in blog-limbo all this time, waiting for me to mod them!

It’s hard to say why I haven’t been posting. Certainly, I am still really pissed off at the way our transportation system works here in North America. If even one person who reads this blog is inspired to get rid of their car, or grows up to be a decision maker and enact pedestrian friendly policy, then I have made a difference. And it helps me to have an outlet for when I’m angry at the system and slightly buzzed.

As I relaunch the blog, I thought it would be useful to summarize my transportation platform. Basically, I believe there are way to many automobiles in use in the world. All of the following planks are designed to make it harder to use a car and easier to walk or use a bicycle:

The Platform

  1. It should be hard to get a drivers license–hard enough that anyone who doesn’t need one or shouldn’t have one won’t get one. As a start, we could make the exam more difficult, require yearly medical checks, and require people to hold a learners permit for three or four years before the apply for a full license.
  2. Roads and buildings should be designed for people and bicycles, not cars. Cars can use the space that is left over after the sidewalks and bike racks go in. Parking for cars should be extremely limited.
  3. No housing tract or apartment building should ever be built more than half a mile from a grocery store. Ideally, retail and residential occupancies should be well intermixed so people can easily walk to shop.
  4. It should be much more expensive to register large vehicles than small vehicles. This could be implemented by a tax schedule that goes up in relation to weight, height, or engine horsepower.
  5. It isn’t feasible to outlaw all cars. Contractors and house movers, for instance, need to be able to buy trucks (but should be made to jump through many hoops to get them). Disabled people or people with small children might need to drive golf carts. I don’t really have a problem with golf carts, as long as they are small and can’t go any faster than a bicycle. A golf cart license should be like a concealed weapons permit: they only give it to you if you take a class and come up with a plausible reason why you need it.
  6. No one should ever be allowed to design another intersection with a pressure plate. Every time an engineer puts in a pressure plate, it’s like saying “screw you” to bicycles. Actually, 95% of existing intersections could be redesigned to be more bicycle friendly while constricting automotive traffic.
  7. Bicycle education should go back into elementary schools. No one should get past fifth grade without being trained in basic bicycle safety, riding technique, and maintenance.
  8. All traffic laws should be enforced at least as severely for cyclists as for motorists. Bicycles will never be accepted as a mature mainstream mode of transportation while most cyclists keep acting like children: running red lights and ignoring hand signals.

Folding Bicycles, Part I

The other day I was given a folding bicycle. I have wanted one for some time, because it seemed like it might be a good way to take a bike on buses and light rail trains. When I put my bicycle on the rack at the front of the bus, I always worry that the driver will drive off before I can get it off. OCTA even has a 1-800 number for claiming lost bicycles. On the subway, of course, you walk your bike right onto the train. At rush-hour, though, you get a lot of glares from people who want to stand where your bike is.

Now that I have the folder, I am a little dubious that the bus drivers will let me carry it on. Even folded, it is still sort of a bulky package. For the train, though, I can see that (even unfolded) a 16” wheel bike is going to take up a lot less real estate than my 700cc road bike.

My folder is a vintage Dahon, which was bought new by a pilot acquaintance of mine. (Plane+folding bike, how’s that for a car free mode?). It has a steel frame and weighs about half again what my road bike does, so it will probably be no fun to hump up the stairs on the subway.

After I cleaned it up, I rode it for about 4 miles on the Whittier Greenway. The short cranks are going to take some getting used to, and the brakes are certainly not as strong as I am used to. That being said, I was surprised how fast I could cover ground.

The next step is to take the bike into the city and see how it does. Stay tuned for my conclusions.

The War Against the Car and the War Against Diabetes

It may surprise my readers to know that I spent most of this weekend on a stationary bicycle. After all, I walk to work and use a bicycle for most of my shopping. Why would I want to spend even more time exercising?

I walk two miles each way two and from work. I bicycle every chance I get but I do not like to ride too far in the dark. Considering that I leave for work before dawn and do not get back until after dark, this cuts into my riding possibilities. All in all, I only seem to be walking and riding about twenty miles each in a typical week. That’s not even enough to stay in shape. So much for giving up my car being a lot of work and exertion.

I am training for some pretty big rides right now, including a century in May for The American Diabetes Association. To feel like I am even remotely prepared, I try to get in 80-100 miles of cycling every week. Thus the stationary bike for five or six hours per weekend.

I bring all of this up for a reason, of course. That reason, as you the reader have probably already guessed, is to hit you up for money. It may seem like Diabetes has no relation at all to an anti-car blog. A little thought, however, will quickly show that there is indeed a connection. The rate of diabetes is increasing dramatically in this country. In fact, as many as 40% of Americans will probably develop the disease over the course of their lives. Adult-onset diabetes is a symptom of America’s lazy, indulgent, energy wasteful lifestyle. Most people who developed diabetes are over-weight and out of shape…often because they have spent their whole lives driving cars when they should have been cycling or walking. Overuse of cars contributes to the diabetes epidemic. Take away the cars, and we will have less diabetes.

In the men time, while we work to eliminate private car ownership, the good people of the American Diabetes Association work to educate people about the disease and how to prevent it with exercise and a healthy diet. If you would like to support them, the best way is by sponsoring me in the Tour De Cure in may, which you can do here.

The added benefit is that every time we ride in a highly publicized 60 mile (100 km) ride, we have the chance to raise awareness of bicycling as long distance transportation. Next time someone tells me that five miles is too far to ride to work, I am going to point out “Five miles? I’m riding 60 miles for the American Diabetes Association”. See how that works?

What Is an “Urban” Bike?

Several of my less bike-literate friends have asked me to explain this latest trend in bicycles. Basically, I would define an “urban bike” as any bicycle that survives in the urban environment. This is tougher than it sounds because the hazards are many. A bike that somehow  avoids being stolen might be destroyed by or quickly discarded because it is too heavy, too slow, or too temperamental for commuting use. In a moment, I will explain three different takes on the concept (including my own). Always keep in mind, however, that the bike that works for you is always the perfect bike. I currently belong to a bike club at work. There are about 5 active members and no two of us have bikes that similar. All of these bikes are ridden in group rides every week however in places like East LA, Hollywood, and Whittier. By my rule, they are all “urban” bikes because they work for their riders.

When the bicycle industry talks about urban bikes, they usually mean a kind of all-around bicycle. These bikes are a bit lighter than a mountain bike, a bit sportier than a comfort bike, and cheaper than most road bikes. The bars are usually flat, the forks are usually rigid, and the tires are medium wide. Actually, I think this sort of bike has much to recommend it. For the last two decades most bikes sold in this country have been mountain bikes that were ridiculously unsuited to city riding. I can think of few things sillier than riding a full suspension mountain bike in the city. Most people will rarely go on single track and are best served by a simple all-around bike.

There is another paradigm which comes not from the bike companies, but from the bike subculture itself. Bicycle messengers have been common in North American cities for many years. Many of them started out with more-or less stock road and mountain bikes. As time passed however, they created a very distinctive style of bike. In the last few years many of younger riders who have never worked as messengers have adopted this style. In general, these bikes are built on light-weight frames, usually steel (the better to survive the inevitable wrecks). They tend to have drop bars, or sometimes “bull horns”. Quick release wheels and seat post clamps are shunned because they make it too easy to steel parts off the bike. A front brake is considered optional. A rear break is considered a nuisance. Most importantly of all, these bikes are single-speed or, even more commonly, fixed gear. Dérailleurs are simply not considered worth the weight, expense, and hassle.

Urban fixed gear bikes are highly optimized for aggressive riding in the thick of inner-city traffic. Their riders tend to have a high level of physical fitness and technique (or else they don’t last long in that kind of riding anyway). They are certainly not appropriate for all riders. However, if you are an advanced cyclist who regularly needs to get around a downtown area in a hurry, you should probably check into them.

A few months ago, when I felt recuperated enough from my injuries to begin riding again, I was faced with the need to choose a bike. I have owned dozens of them over the years and worked on hundreds for other people, so I had a pretty good idea of what I needed. Unfortunately, I had one big constraint: I only had about $100 to blow. Lucky for me, I almost immediately found an early ’90s Nishiki at the goodwill for $30. I repacked all the bearings, put cushy commuter tires on it, and chopped the original steel bars into bull horns, and threw away the back brake (it drags on the new tires and I never use it anyway). I had enough money left over to get a good pair of break levers and some bar tape. (I put on both levers so it wouldn’t look lopsided).

My bike doesn’t look like much (a big plus, because bike thieves are less likely to notice it). I have been very happy with it, however. It keeps up quite easily with my friend’s nice road bikes, not to mention Hollywood traffic. My only beef is that, at 25.5 lbs, it is a little heavy to carry up subway staircases. I plan to swap on more allow components as time goes on. So far, I have resisted the urge to convert it to a single speed/fixed gear. I can’t say what will happen as I get in better shape, however.

I realize that my answer to the original question of “what is an urban bike” lacks brevity. I hope, though, that I have at least demonstrated the range of possibilities within the class.