Cyclists And Drivers Can Keep Each Other Safe

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced in April that he wants to make cycling as important as driving. But anyone who's pedaled two wheels through rush hour traffic knows most roads cater to cars. Loren Mooney of Bicycling magazine talks about how to make room for all on the roads.

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POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made the announcement in March.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Last month, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's announcement that he wants to make travel by bicycle and by foot as important as driving, was met with both praise and derision - in no small part due to the simmering feud between cyclists and drivers. Anyone who's pedaled through traffic knows that it's a four-wheeled world out there, where cars and trucks buzz past hapless two-wheelers and cut them off in sudden turns, while drivers complain about cyclists who weave in and out of traffic and blow through red lights.

Warmer weather brings a lot more bikes on to the road. It's also a bike-to-work week, so we want to hear from cyclists and drivers: What do those other idiots need to know about sharing the road; 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We begin with Loren Mooney, editor in chief of "Bicycling" magazine, who joins us from member station WDIY in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. LOREN MOONEY (Editor in Chief, Bicycling Magazine): Thank you, Neal. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And you're an editor for "Bicycling" magazine. You're on one side of this war.

Ms. MOONEY: Well, I have to - I'll start with a confession. I actually am a driver as well.

CONAN: Oh, no.

Ms. MOONEY: Yeah, it's true - as are the vast, vast majority of Americans.

CONAN: So actually, we find ourselves on both sides of this conflict. And indeed, walking as well, where we start cursing both of those two-wheeled and four-wheeled idiots.

Ms. MOONEY: That's right. And I do walk too, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It's not just bikes and cars. You've had some run-ins with pedestrians.

Ms. MOONEY: Well, I live in New York City, and when you bike in New York City, you do tend to have all kinds of odd run-ins - hotdog carts, police cars who fail to signal, pedestrians as well.

In urban settings, the key is really alertness if you're on a bicycle. I try to watch within at least a half block ahead of me. If I see someone hailing a cab, there's a good chance that a cab may cut in front of me.

CONAN: And one of the big - what happened with the hotdog cart?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOONEY: He was pushing his cart, trying to get to the truck at the end of the day. Hopefully, the cart was empty, but I did manage to, you know, apply the brakes in an emergency situation, got out of trouble.

CONAN: And came away with one with sauerkraut?

Ms. MOONEY: Right.

CONAN: OK. And another big problem in cities is cyclists are generally on the side of the road. Suddenly, somebody parks and then opens their door and -right in the path of the cyclist.

Ms. MOONEY: Right. They call that getting doored, and that's one of the five most common bike-car accidents. It's one of those situations where, again, alertness can help quite a bit. But in addition, the cyclist should be actually in the traffic lane. It is legal in each of the 50 states for cyclists to be on the roadway and using it just as cars do.

Some cycling advocates are proponents of taking the entire lane. That can anger some drivers, as you might imagine...

CONAN: Sure.

Ms. MOONEY: ...getting caught behind a slow cyclist. But the general rule of thumb is, if you can give yourself enough space where if that door opens you're not going to get hit, that's the safest place to be.

CONAN: Yeah, but sometimes that space is not available, so sometimes I guess you have to take your chances.

Ms. MOONEY: Again, alertness is the name of the game when it comes to urban cycling.

CONAN: Here's an email from John(ph) in California: I commute on a motorcycle, so I and a few hundred thousand others like me are strangely in the middle of this. I groan every time I see a train of Spandex-clad, Armstrongites blow through a stop sign without so much as slowing, yet I share with them the danger of some chatty jerk on a phone glued to their face, not bothering to check their mirrors as they move over and subsequently, introducing me to the guard rail.

Ms. MOONEY: You know, he is in a really unique situation and I think, to his point, this whole issue of drivers and cyclists - there's room for growth and improvement on both sides. The drivers do need to get off the cell phones, stop texting, pay attention to what they're doing. There was actually one study that likened the distraction with driving to having a blood alcohol content above the legal limit. So essentially, texting, being on the phone equals drunk driving in terms of your level of impairment. So distracted driving can be a huge issue. It's a matter of life and death to some of those more vulnerable roadway users, like cyclists.

When it comes to cyclist behavior, it is, again, legal in many places to ride two abreast. For the good of everyone, I suggest that people go single file when they do know there's traffic behind them. Try to stay out of the way but, again, you don't want to be run off the road. You need to keep your safety paramount.

CONAN: And red lights, do they apply to bicycles?

Ms. MOONEY: They do. Interestingly, there's one state - in Idaho, they have what cyclists call the Idaho law, which makes it legal to treat stop signs as yield signs, and stop lights as stop signs, if you're a cyclist.

They have had this law for a number of decades. They found that it actually did not increase the incidents of accidents and injuries. And I think the legal theory behind it is that they were simply legalizing behavior that cyclists were already doing.

However, I think that for the good of driver-cyclist relations, cyclists should obey the rules of the road, you know. Again, it goes a long way towards making the streets safer for every one when nobody's angry.

CONAN: Let's get David(ph) on the line, David, calling from San Antonio.

DAVID (Caller): Hey, Neal. Love the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

DAVID: I just want to make a quick comment about driver's education. I think the biggest problem we have now, as cyclists, is that the motorists are not giving any sort of test for pedestrians and cyclists when they go for their driver's license.

CONAN: Oh, yeah, it's not on the written test.

DAVID: Not - not at all. And I have had motorists stop me while I'm riding and say, you know, get off the road, you dont belong here. And they just really don't understand our legal rights.

CONAN: Loren Mooney, might that be a useful reform?

Ms. MOONEY: Well, yes it would be, and it's very interesting that you mentioned because there is one advocate - I believe he is in Michigan - who did work to get a question about bicyclists onto the driving test in that state. So there's a small movement going on among cyclists to try to get the DMVs to have the question, simply the question on the state test. Now, that's not going to ensure that all drivers understand the legal rules as they pertain to cyclists, but it is going to at least to ensure that when somebody's skimming that booklet, about to get their driver's license, they at least have to read the page that deals with cyclists. And so it's a small measure but again, it's not going to ensure that everybody understands every law.

CONAN: I guess it's impossible to have cyclists volunteer to be obstacles in driving tests, too. I mean, that might be awkward.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOONEY: I don't think you're going to get a lot of volunteers for that one, no.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the phone call.

DAVID: My pleasure.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Carl, in Orlando, writes: I'm a college student and an avid cyclist while living in St. Petersburg, Tallahassee, now Orlando. I have experienced many instances of both cyclists and motorists creating dangerous situations on the road.

I feel that further reform should take place to recognize that cyclists belong on the road just as much as motor vehicles, and inform motorist of our rights and responsibilities. I feel if both parties are aware of and recognize our individual rights, dangerous and potentially fatal situations by both parties could be avoided.

Well, yes, if both signs did recognize it, it would be a great improvement. The problem is, you don't any tests of any sort to ride a bicycle so you're not aware of the motorists' rights, too.

Ms. MOONEY: Well,I think, you know, we are all motorists as well - at least, most of us are - and you know, are required to know those rules. It does tend to be the rules regarding cyclists that the most people don't understand.

I think in some parts of the country, particularly in the Deep South, you know, there is a prevalent opinion still that cyclists belong on the sidewalk. That's exactly where they don't belong because they are an extreme danger to pedestrians. And so, you know, there should be, I think, further education on what the cycling rules are.

The good news is that there are a lot of cities in this country now that are trying to create more things like bike lanes, signs, real indications on the roadway that cyclists do belong there. We at "Bicycling" just came out with our top 50 bike-friendly cities lists. The whole list is on bicycling.com.

CONAN: Are any of them in this country?

Ms. MOONEY: No, they are all in this country. All in the U.S., top 50 U.S. cities. And it's just been remarkable what some cities have been able to do in terms of raising awareness, even just in the last few years.

CONAN: Well, I made that crack because we got this email from Jane(ph) in Portland. I've just returned from Amsterdam, where bikes float by you - two or three every minute. They've figured out how to make it happen; we can, too. Here in Portland, one of America's most cycling-friendly cities, decent, sensible human beings ride a bicycle to work or for recreation without swearing or finger-pointing or flipping the bird. It can be done.

Let's talk about the successes of cycling and not the childish fights that erupt on occasion. Many happy miles are ridden without a single negative interaction. Would you agree that Portland is among the friendlier bike cities?

Ms. MOONEY: Yes. Portland, we ranked number two. They are the paragon, in terms of the percentage of people who bike-commute regularly. They're at near 6 percent of people in Portland ride their bikes to work regularly.

However, in a place like Amsterdam, you're looking at 40 percent of people who bike to work. You know, they have longstanding - for a long time made it a priority. They have installed the infrastructure in the form of protected, separate bike lanes; they have mandated with high taxes - let's not forget - to help promote the use of cycling; they do things like time the traffic lights according to the speed of cyclists instead of according to the speed of cars, really making it inconvenient to drive. They also have very flat terrain.

CONAN: I was going to say, very flat...

Ms. MOONEY: And some short distances that make things easier for them. In Portland, you do have quite a bit of rain, but people still do seem to get around it. So the gold standard, really, in the U.S. for the volume of a population biking regularly is Portland, and that's about 6 percent.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in, quickly. Jim(ph), Jim calling us from Philly.

JIM (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. Recently, in Philadelphia, a pedestrian was killed by a bicyclist. And as a result of that, the city council looked to ban bicycles without brakes. A lot of people in Philadelphia ride bikes that do not have any brakes. And they also were looking to require every single person who rides a bicycle - should register it. And I was wondering what your guest thought about those, and if there were similar problems with that in other cities. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: OK, Jim, thanks for calling.

Ms. MOONEY: The registering bicycles point has come up in a number of places, and it's one of those things - the bicycle sort of fits in the middle, between driving and walking. The argument for licensing bicycles is - well, cars have to do it and you're using the roadway. And against it is, well, what's next, are you going to require me to get a license for walking?

CONAN: Register my feet, yes.

Ms. MOONEY: Do I have to register my 6-year-old, who just learned how to ride a bike? And so, you know, my opinion is that it shouldn't be required to be a licensed activity. I know that particularly in some urban areas -Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, all over - there is a trend toward fixed gear riding, with no brakes. You do have a lot of talented riders who can actually just, through the sheer force of their legs, stop their bikes as if they're using brakes. But personally, I think it's a good idea to have brakes.

CONAN: And quickly and finally, you mentioned Portland is the number two most friendly to bike city in the country. What's number one?

Ms. MOONEY: Well, we ranked Minneapolis number one. Now, their percentage of bike commuters is just a little lower, at over 4 percent, but we ranked them number one because they have had tremendous success in just the last couple of years. They've doubled their percentage of bike commuters just in the last three years.

They also have a pretty foul weather factor. You have to be very dedicated to be biking in Minneapolis in the dead of winter. We found that...

JIM: Yes.

Ms. MOONEY: ...oftentimes, the bikeways are plowed before the streets are plowed in the winter.

CONAN: Loren Mooney, thanks very much.

Ms. MOONEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Loren Mooney, editor in chief of "Bicycling" magazine, with us today from member station WDIY in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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