Tag Archives: Bicycling

About Grant Petersen’s book, Just Ride

Just Ride, by Grant Petersen

This post is a review of Grant Petersen’s book Just Ride, partly in response to a New York Times review.

The basic premise of Petersen’s book is that racing culture is bad for bicycling.

My main goal with this book is to point out what I see as bike racing’s bad influence on bicycles, equipment and attitudes, and then undo it.

I agree in large part, but by no means completely.

I rode a bicycle in street clothes for transportation years before I took up bicycle touring and joined a recreational bicycle club. It was several more years before I first wore the much-derided spandex outfit for my tours and club rides.

So, I live in both worlds. I do think that some elements of racing technique and equipment are useful to everyday cyclists — especially concerning nutrition, how to propel the bicycle efficiently, and how to maintain it. On the other hand, faddish imitation of racers leads to some very poor choices. A fiendishly expensive, fragile racing bicycle buys the typical club rider a couple percent greater speed on a ride with no prize at the finish line. Hello, hello, you’re being taken for a ride! The bicycle industry has discovered how to churn the market with yearly model changes and planned obsolescence! It’s like choosing a Ferrari when a Toyota Corolla would be much more practical — except that a more powerful engine isn’t part of the package.

When rain starts during a bike club ride, why must I be only among the 5% of participants who have a bicycle with fenders — or that even will accept fenders?

I have a few points of disagreement with Petersen, and the Times reviewer. About only wearing a helmet at night: it’s your choice to make, I hope. I’m not in favor of mandatory helmet laws. Examples should be sufficient to make the case for helmet use. (A longer discussion is here.) But — I’ve had to replace three helmets so far in my bicycling career. All of the crashes were during daylight hours. Bicycle gloves, too, are very nice if you are going to have to put a hand out to break a fall. And a rear-view mirror? I don’t think it should be required by law, but I find mine highly useful when interacting with motorists, and with other cyclists on group rides. Actually, the Times reviewer gets this wrong — Petersen recommends mirrors. But the ones I like best attach to a helmet! (My take on mirrors). I use walkable cleated shoes, too. Disparaging simple and effective equipment doesn’t play in my book.

Petersen states that a bicyclist needs only 8 gears — somewhat in jest, giving vague (and charming and humorous) descriptions of the gears: “high”, “low”, “lower”, “super low”. Here, as elsewhere in his book, Petersen gives simple and direct advice, poking a finger at silly fads, while avoiding details that would bog down his presentation. That’s good as far as it goes, but gearing requirements depend on the cyclist, ride purpose and location. I know that Petersen knows this, based on the way he equips the (practical, sensible, expensive but worth the price) bicycles he manufactures. Most have more than 8 gears.

Petersen gives no coherent or comprehensive advice on how to ride in mixed traffic, though he describes something which is a little bit like “control and release” lane usage. Going into detail would, again, bog him down, though in this case, I get the impression that he may not be an expert on the topic.

All in all though, I really like this book. It’s refreshing. Its common-sense perspective is all too rare. And it’s a lot of fun to read, too.

A ride on Comm Ave., Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Comm Ave. Boston: Kenmore Square, Mass Ave. underpass from John Allen on Vimeo.

This is a 4-minute continuous video of a bicycle ride in Boston, eastbound on Commonwealth Avenue through Kenmore Square, to and through the underpass at Massachusetts Avenue. I recommend that you view it on Vimeo site, in full-screen high definition.

Gordon Renkes and I each had a camera, so you can see both a forward and rearward view. We rode safely, and mostly by not using the special bicycle facilities.

Some highlights:

  • The block pavers, bricks and the granite curbstones used as borders for crosswalks made for a very bumpy ride across Kenmore Square and the next intersection.
  • The bike lane for the first block after Kenmore Square was unusable, due to double-parked vehicles. In the next block, it was unsafe, due to the risk of opening car doors and walkouts. One trucker was accomodating enough to park entirely outside the bike lane, inviting bicyclists to run the gauntlet between the truck and parked cars Gridlock Sam-style. We didn’t take the invitation.
  • As we waited for a traffic light, a cyclist raced past us on the right, entering the narrow channel between a row of stopped motor vehicles and one of parked cars. If anyone had walked out, or a car door had opened, the cyclist would likely have had too little time to react, and he would have had no escape route. At least he (and the pedestrian he could have struck) would have been fortunate in that one of the waiting vehicles was an ambulance.
  • There is a bike box along the route, and revealed an issue that I hadn’t noticed before. If the traffic light is red, you’re supposed to filter forward in the bike lane on the right, then swerve across two lanes of traffic to the middle of the 4-lane wide bike box, to be in line with the bike lane which is to the left of 2 lanes — see Google satellite view — note that this is an angle shot from the west. If the light is green, you could merge either before or after the intersection, but there is an advantage in merging before the intersection, as the counterexample of the video shows. You also don’t know when the light is going to change — so in either case, you make a widely divergent choice — merge left, or head for the bike lane at the right — based on insufficient information, and if the light is red, you also could be swerving abruptly across two lanes of traffic just as the light turns green.
  • The buffered bike lane in the underpass makes for an easier ride through the underpass, but where it connects to a narrow left-side bike lane outside the underpass, there is little clearance for motor traffic in the next lane, which is the faster of two travel lanes. There also is a risk of left-hook collisions. I used to ride in the right lane, claiming the lane, and that was simpler and less stressful.

More general comments:

  • The block pavers, bricks and curbstones buried in the street are not bicycle-specific, but certainly not bicycle-friendly. I predict that they will be paved over within a few years as they deteriorate.
  • The attempt to engineer a “bicycle friendly” or “low-stress” solution on busy, crowded Commonwealth Avenue is like ornamenting a pig with lipstick, costume jewelry and a party dress. The bicycle-specific measures, except the bike lane in the underpass, fly in the face of the way traffic works, and the way it uses this street. Experienced, competent cyclists like Gordon and me know how to avoid the hazards, but they worsen our experience anyway — it is in Kenmore Square (during another ride) that I first heard the call “get in the bike lane” in Boston. Less knowledgeable bicyclists garner a false sense of security, following the painted lines, and expose themselves unnecessarily to risk.
  • Meanwhile, other, better solutions beckon. I have long advocated that Boston designate and improve alternative routes on lightly-traveled streets for through bicycle travel. That would be especially easy in Back Bay, with its grid layout. My candidate for an alternative to Commonwealth Avenue would be Newbury Street, the next one to the south, a shopping street which could make a very nice bicycle boulevard, and which, with a little bridge across the Muddy River, would also connect under the Bowker Overpass into the Fenway area. A worse solution also has been proposed: the City is considering a so-called “cycle track” — a bikeway behind a row of parked cars — on the next Street after Newbury Street, Boylston Street. More about these topics later…

Link to my letter to Senator Scott Brown

My letter to a staffer of Senator Scott Brown about the mandatory sidepath provision in the Federal Tranportation Bill is online. Feel free to re-use it, or parts of it.

Mandatory sidepath laws, state by state

I don’t like mandatory sidepath laws for bicyclists, but I like the one in the Transportation Bill, applying to roads on Federal lands, even less.

(d) BICYCLE SAFETY.—The Secretary of the appropriate Federal land management agency shall prohibit the use of bicycles on each federally owned road that has a speed limit of 30 miles per hour or greater and an adjacent paved path for use by bicycles within 100 yards of the road unless the Secretary determines that the bicycle level of service on that roadway is rated B or higher.

I have had a look at state laws on the Internet.

I’m pleased to report that I couldn’t find the ones which Dan Gutierrez earlier listed on his map for Colorado, Hawaii, North Dakota and Louisiana. Dan has updated his page: these laws appear to have been repealed.

The national trend has been for repeal of these laws. While the states have been repealing them, the Federal Transportation Bill, as of March, 2012, includes a provision which is more draconian than any of the remaining state laws, in that it would ban bicycles on a road even if the path is unusable. It might be called the “you can’t get there from here” law, to quote a New England expression. See my previous post for the details.

States with mandatory sidepath laws are shown in red in Dan Gutierrez's map

States with mandatory sidepath laws are shown in red in Dan Gutierrez's map

Mandatory sidepath laws, as far as I can determine, now are on the books in only 7 states: Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah and West Virginia. All except for Oregon require the path to be usable; the Oregon law has been explained to me as not actually having any effect, because government agencies will not take on the legal burden of having to defend paths as being safe.

Some of the laws have additional limitations on where path use can be made mandatory. See comments below. The boldface is mine.


Section 32-5A-263
Riding on roadways and bicycle paths.

(c) Wherever a usable path for bicycles has been provided adjacent to a roadway, bicycle riders shall use such path and shall not use the roadway.


Note discretionary application, and design standard and destination accessibility requirement for the paths.

O.C.G.A. 40-6-294 (2010)

40-6-294. Riding on roadways and bicycle paths

(c) Whenever a usable path has been provided adjacent to a roadway and designated for the exclusive use of bicycle riders, then the appropriate governing authority may require that bicycle riders use such path and not use those sections of the roadway so specified by such local governing authority. The governing authority may be petitioned to remove restrictions upon demonstration that the path has become inadequate due to capacity, maintenance, or other causes.

(d) Paths subject to the provisions of subsection (c) of this Code section shall at a minimum be required to meet accepted guidelines, recommendations, and criteria with respect to planning, design, operation, and maintenance as set forth by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and such paths shall provide accessibility to destinations equivalent to the use of the roadway.


(d) Wherever a usable path for bicycles has been provided adjacent to a roadway, bicycle riders shall use such path and shall not use the roadway.


60-6,317. Bicycles on roadways and bicycle paths; general rules; regulation by local authority.

(3) Except as provided in section 60-6,142, whenever a usable path for bicycles has been provided adjacent to a highway, a person operating a bicycle shall use such path and shall not use such highway.


My understanding, based on a sicussion with former Oregon state bicycle coordinator Michael Ronkin, is that this law is never enforced, because state and local authorities will not risk ruling that a path is suitable.

814.420: Failure to use bicycle lane or path; exceptions; penalty.

(1) Except as provided in subsections (2) and (3) of this section, a person commits the offense of failure to use a bicycle lane or path if the person operates a bicycle on any portion of a roadway that is not a bicycle lane or bicycle path when a bicycle lane or bicycle path is adjacent to or near the roadway.

(2) A person is not required to comply with this section unless the state or local authority with jurisdiction over the roadway finds, after public hearing, that the bicycle lane or bicycle path is suitable for safe bicycle use at reasonable rates of speed.


Note that this applies only where signs have been posted directing bicyclists to use a path.

41-6a-1105. Operation of bicycle or moped on and use of roadway — Duties, prohibitions.

(4) If a usable path for bicycles has been provided adjacent to a roadway, a bicycle rider may be directed by a traffic-control device to use the path and not the roadway.

West Virginia

§17C-11-5. Riding on roadways and bicycle paths.

(c) Whenever a usable path for bicycles has been provided adjacent to a roadway, bicycle riders shall use such path and shall not use the roadway.

Bikes, Cars, Light Rail, E. Jefferson St., Phoenix, Arizona

Build it and they will…wait. Well, at least they’re supposed to wait.

If you click on the title in the image or caption, you can view this at a higher resolution.

Bikes, Cars, Light Rail, E. Jefferson St., Phoenix, Arizona from John Allen on Vimeo.

An intersection with light rail, motor vehicles and bike lanes requires bicyclists to cross from one side to the other of a multi-lane street, resulting in delays of 2 to 3 minutes. Alternative solutions are described.

“Shared space” — longer video and discussion

This post is a companion to my earlier one titled “No Rules.” The video here shows my entire ride on Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with a forward and rearward view, while the one in “No Rules” shows only highlights in a forward view. I discuss the “shared space” phenomenon at length in this post.

Commercial Street is one lane wide and officially one-way, but it is heavily used by pedestrians and bicyclists traveling in both directions, to the extent that motorists can only travel at a very low speed and often must stop. Bicyclists also must take special care, ride slowly and often stop. Some do and others do not. Pedestrians need to be alert to the hazards. Some are and others are not.

“Shared space” has become a buzzword among people who want to “return the street to the people,” meaning, in reality, make the street into a pedestrian plaza — a social space. Pedestrians, then, serve as obstacles to slow down faster modes. “Shared space” advocates regard this as a benefit, and point to a reduction in the rate of serious crashes. This reduction, however, results from the very low speeds at which travel is possible in such an environment. Even so, there are safety problems. Even cycling at a moderate speed is hazardous to pedestrians — and equally, to cyclists who collide with pedestrians. As the video shows, I had to ride slowly and cautiously to avoid colliding with several pedestrians who made sudden, unpredictable moves.

Another buzzword is “no rules”. Sure, pedestrians can bump into each other without usually causing injury. “Shared-space” advocates, however, often consider cyclists to be like pedestrians — a serious misconception. Cyclists traveling at their normal speed can socialize only with each other, and are antisocial, not social, in a pedestrian plaza. Safe sharing of “Shared space” requires cyclists to travel so slowly that there is little advantage over walking. Cyclists and motorists in “shared space” must pay strict attention to the basic speed rule, to go no faster than is safe under the conditions at the time and place. Violate this, knock a pedestrian down, and then hope that you have good insurance. Other rules apply, as well, in many “shared space” installations: yielding before entering the roadway; overtaking on the left; exclusions or limited hours for motor traffic.

The one rule that most cyclists disregard on Commercial Street is established by one-way signs. Cyclists disregard it for a particular reason: there is no comparable street which allows travel in the opposite direction. Bradford Street, one block farther from the harbor, is hilly and carries regular motor traffic. Commercial Street is the location of businesses which appeal to tourists who pile off the ferries from Boston, while Bradford Street has few such businesses.

What would improve the situation here? The first thing I would suggest is to block off the west (up-Cape) end of Commercial street where it separates from Bradford Street so motor vehicles can’t enter, and to install signs directing them to use Bradford Street. I think that many of the motorists who enter Commercial street are tourists who don’t know what they are getting into. If they used Bradford Street instead, they would get where they are going sooner, and would need to travel at most one or two blocks on Commercial street to reach any destination. It might also be helpful to sanction contraflow bicycle travel, and paint a dashed line down the middle of Commercial street to encourage keeping to the right. Moving parking off Commercial street also could help, especially in the few blocks near the center of Provincetown where traffic is heaviest. That could at the very least allow more room for pedestrians without their getting into conflict with cyclists and motorists. There is an abandoned rail line — partly on a lightly-used dead-end street, and paralleling much of Bradford Street and Commercial Street. It could carry the bicycle traffic heading in and out of town.

Beyond that, I don’t see much that can be done. Commercial Street is what it is, a quaint, narrow street like those in many European cities. Short of a horrible disaster — a huge storm or tsunami which would destroy the entire waterfront — Commercial Street isn’t going to get any wider.

No rules?

Quite by chance, I encountered an advocate of “shared space” and had a conversation with him at the start of a ride I undertook to illustrate the concept. The advocate expressed that there are “no rules” in this kind of space, which is dominated by pedestrians. Do you agree?

How many people would go to the trouble?

Christmas Eve, and the temperature outside is 17 degrees Fahrenheit.That’s 7 degrees below zero Celsius.

I am wearing trousers over sweatpants, a flannel shirt over a T-shirt, and a watch cap. That way, I am comfortable with the thermostat in our house set below 60. Church, with Christmas Eve service, is 1 1/2 miles away. There is a good, reliable car in the driveway.

I put on a fleece jacket, and over that a parka; my cycling shoes, which I bought a half-size large so they would fit over two layers of wool socks; I tuck the cuffs of my trousers into the socks; I don my bicycle helmet. reflectorized legbands and vest, lastly fleece-lined leather mittens.

I disconnect the battery for my bicycle lights from its charger and carry it out to the garage. I slip it into a pocket of the touring bag on my Raleigh Twenty bicycle, and plug it in.

The streets are almost empty. I am comfortable and warm except for the parts of my face that are not covered by my beard or eyeglasses. The exercise feels great. In 12 minutes, I am at church. I park my bicycle against a railing right in front of the door.

It took me about ten minutes to get ready for this ride. I could have gotten into the car and been at church just as soon, even counting the extra walk from where I would have had to park.

Nobody but me, of the 60 or so people at the service, arrived at the church on a bicycle. How many people would go to the trouble to take a short trip like this on a bicycle in the cold and the dark? Well, there’s your answer, for now.

As for me, why did I? Certainly not to save time. I do reflect on the irony of a worship service which makes such a contribution to use of non-renewable resources and environmental degradation, but as one among 60, I’m not doing much to turn the tide on that. I did win on comfort — I was warm from the indoor heat when leaving my home, then from exercise inside all those layers of clothing. If I’d dressed for the cold in the car, than I’d have been sweaty once the car warmed up. Mostly, though, I rode my bicycle because outdoor exercise is the only way I know to beat the winter blues.

Cold weather is not conducive to long bicycle tours, because feet might get cold, because there’s no way just to sit down and rest comfortably on a park bench or a stump by the side of the road; because most social activity happens indoors.

On the other hand, winter cold poses little problem for short cycling trips. Summer heat and humidity are much worse — ever notice how in hot countries, people switch from bicycles to motor scooters as soon as rising income makes that possible? In cold weather, though, motor scooters really lose out.

A hot climate is a serious impediment to transportation bicycling; cold weather needn’t be, as long as the streets are clear. In winter, there’s no sweat, and no need to freshen up or change clothes on reaching one’s destination — only strip off the extra layers.

Getting ready does take extra time, though, and for shorter trips this can be a concern.  Ice and snow in the streets also certainly can be a problem, though there were none on that Christmas Eve. I do have studded snow tires for one of my bicycles, though I haven’t taken the trouble yet to install them. The streets get cleared soon enough here that there are only a few days each winter when I would need them.

For me, the feeling of physical well-being justifies the extra time getting ready. Yet, often I pass people at bus stops who spend more time waiting than I did getting ready for my ride, and who are stomping their feet to stoke up the warmth that I get automatically from cycling.

When I get where I am going, some people marvel at how I could brave the cold, to which I reply: people go to Vermont to ski down mountains. I’m getting as much exercise as they do, with much less wind chill!

I enjoy riding in winter, and maybe I can encourage you to give it a try if you don’t do it already. But I don’t expect to attract a massive following. Come to think of it I have read that Boston’s Hubway community bicycle program has shut down for the winter — which makes sense, I suppose, as a business decision.


The Six-Way in Rush Hour

Here’s another video showing conditions at the six-way intersection of 16th Street, U Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW in Washington, DC, where special bicycle facilities have been installed.

Also please see my earlier post about this intersection, with another embedded video.

Guest posting: Ian Cooper on Euro bicycling cultures

Note from John Allen: Ian Cooper originally wrote the following essay as a counter-argument against the idea that there has never been a European bike culture, based on observations that did not extend beyond typical urban cycling on heavy, black bicycles.

I cycled throughout Europe in 1984 and 1985. I spent a year and a half there and covered 10,000 miles. I cycled through 13 countries, often together with locals.

Ian Cooper with the massive black bike

Ian Cooper with the massive black 'family bike' he borrowed

There were three bicycling cultures in Europe at that time – as there have always been since at least WW2. There’s the culture of the family bike, there’s the culture of the hobby bike, and there’s the commuter bike culture. The family bike crowd kept their dad’s and mom’s bike in the basement – often it was heavy, old, cranky and rusty. It worked – barely, but it got them out doing errands every week or so when the family car wasn’t available. The ‘bike as a hobby’ culture used mid- to high-end bikes for weekend outings and tours. Then there was the commuter, and he needed an everyday bike that could go faster and had more gears than the family bike because he was on it every day for a good amount of time – so he chose the mid-range racing bikes too.

I have been a cyclist for 40 years – since I was 8 [in 1971, more or less]. In 1979 or 1980 I started commuting to work on a mid-range Peugeot road bike. This was in England. I was not a bicycle enthusiast – I was just a commuter, and as a commuter I needed a bike that was light, fast and maneuverable, and one that could get up hills. I did that for 4 years, 250 days a year, rain or snow.

My European trip started as a walking tour to Istanbul. In Holland I pulled a muscle in my foot and couldn’t go on. I met a family on the border between Holland and Germany and they loaned me a bike – a massive black thing (I still have a picture of it) and the family and I went for a ride – at 4mph through the Dutch countryside. Even though it was slow, it showed I could continue my journey because my foot could pedal without pain.

Now, I spent time with about 15 families during my tour. Most of them were like this one – they owned an old cranky ‘family’ bike but their main transportation was their car. I stayed with three families who owned at least one mid-range or high-end bike. They all owned a car too, but they were the ‘hobbyists’. I didn’t stay with any bike commuters that I remember – one may have been.

I set out for Cologne and sought out a bike shop. I asked the owner for a good touring bike for under $300. He steered me to a Motobecane Super Mirage (I still have a few pictures of it). Then I set off to Istanbul.

Ian Cooper in Kozani (Macedonia) with the Motobécane

On my way (and on my way from Istanbul to Granada, and back to England again) I met very many cyclists, some on day trips, some foreigners like me on tours. But the local cyclists I met were much the same as the ones we see today on bike trails, some vacationing commuters with racers and some hobbyists with touring bikes (I don’t remember many mountain bikes back then – some Americans and Australians used them). I rarely saw the heavy bikes on the tour routes because they were used by families pretty much purely for shopping. When I did see them they were in the towns.

If you didn’t tour by bike you wouldn’t see many quality bikes, because their owners spent little time in the cities. If you did tour, I can’t imagine how you could miss all the local tourists and commuters with their middle and high-end Motobécanes, Peugeots, Raleighs, etc. The Dutch family I first met certainly did not have a mid-range or high-end bike in the house, and if I had turned around and gone home at that point, I might be agreeing about the lack of a bike culture in Europe in the 1980s. But I went on and found the bike culture. It’s not in the towns and it’s certainly not in most European homes. But it is in evidence along the tour routes and I know it DOES influence the transportation scene. The problem is, it doesn’t influence it as much as the family bike culture, which is much the same as it is here – scared of cars and wants bike lanes. This is essentially, I believe, because it is not really a bike culture – it’s a car culture in which the car is often stranded at the main breadwinner’s work, so the rest of the family get stuck having to use the family bike. It’s obvious who these people are in Europe – they all ride those heavy and nasty Dutch bikes. But here [in the USA], the family bike, the hobby bike and the commuter bike all look pretty similar, which makes it hard to sort the family bike folks (who aren’t really cyclists) from the true bike culture.

Anyway, I fear I’ve started rambling, so I’ll shut up and just post my thoughts. Hopefully they make sense to someone besides me.