Star City Bicycle Commuting

Commuting by bike is a blast. Nothing wakes you up in the morning and gets things off on the right foot like riding to work. It may be hard to fathom, especially if you are not a morning person (I’m certainly not), but if you can get up and force yourself out on the bike, you will thank yourself later in the day.

Regardless of what most regular bicycle commuters will tell you, riding a bike in the streets is dangerous. The fact is that most folks in our town are not used to sharing the road with a bicycle. That is one thing that Bicycle Lafayette hopes to change over the coming years. For now, commuting by bicycle requires you to quickly gain a new appreciation for our roads and those that share them with us. For those that have never commuted to work, or anywhere else via bicycle in Lafayette or West Lafayette, let me drop a bit of knowledge on you.

  1. We have quite a few bike lanes and bicycle paths, but more often than not, they don’t really follow the fastest routes to work or anywhere practical, really. Typically to take a bike lane (which you would assume is the safest option for riding in the roads) for your route, you are required to go out of your way to get to them. That is something we hope to help the city realize and change.
  2. Outside of some places on Purdue’s Campus,it is illegal to ride a bicycle on a sidewalk. It is also dangerous. We have heard of some information that will be published by the city soon showing that there is a high level of crashes that happen on sidewalks in our area soon. Things are typically made illegal for safety reasons, contrary to popular belief.
  3. The fact is, just about everyone thinks that when they are going somewhere, be it Vons Comics, Walmart, or your work, that your reason for being on the road is typically more important at that precise moment than anyone else’s reason for being on the road. It typically isn’t a spoken thing when driving, or even a conscious thought, but that entitlement exists. See the feeling you get when – Someone doesn’t go right away when the light turns green, someone cuts you off, someone pulls in front of you and slows down. Oddly enough, when you are on a bicycle, these sentiments suddenly become easier for drivers to voice. For those that might be inclined to yell at cyclists, please don’t it’s scary enough out there without the feeling that someone is actually aiming for you with their car. For cyclists that are yelled, remember, you may know that you are in the right, and you may be comfortable and confident, but cars are still bigger than bicycles. Smile and wave and hope the person remembers that next time.
  4. Drivers don’t appreciate when you break traffic laws. Remember when you were little and someone taught you about sharing? Bicycle Commuters just want to share the road, not own it. That means that you need to obey the same rules that everyone else using your toy does. In fact, the law says that bicycles are required to follow the same laws as cars. This means head and tail lights, a way to signal turns, slows, and stops, as well as something to make noise besides your mouth, like a bell or horn. No one likes to see someone else get to slide past rules that they are forced to obey. There will always be scenarios when you just can’t trigger that light changing magnet with your bicycle, and there are no cars for miles…so you just slide through on your way. However, you should always at least come to a complete stop. I won’t go through all the “acceptable” ways cyclists break laws, I just wish to point out that you should be conscious of those that seeing you do it, if it is really needed, and what kind of message that teaches a non-cyclists about cyclists in general.
  5. Helmets are not required by law. Currently, in the state of Indiana, you are not required to wear a bicycle helmet if you are over the age of 18. However, as a co-founder of Bicycle Lafayette who has busted open 3 helmets in crashes in the last two years, I am a HUGE supporter of wearing a helmet. Bicycle Lafayette is an educational organization, so we will never try to enforce our beliefs that you should wear a helmet by excluding you from a ride,event, or anything else, but it is our official stance that helmets should always be worn. I don’t care if they don’t look nice, I don’t care if they don’t match your bike, I don’t care if they make you feel stupid, they will save your life. Be smart, wear a helmet. If you really need something trendy, visit Virtuous for the latest from Bern Unlimited, or for a cheap option, stop by the weird building full of… stuff on Brown Street downtown of 4th. Note the use of all-caps in this paragraph.
  6.  Lastly, the biggest thing I have learned about commuting by bicycle is that drivers, or anyone in general, typically has no idea what it’s like. I won’t try to sugar coat it, until you get used to the roads, and navigating traffic, bicycle commuting anywhere is a little scary. It takes time to get used to pulling alongside cars that are 10 times the size of you, being passed, and taking the lane. Drivers don’t have a frame of reference for this fear. That means that when they buzz by you closer than you would like them to, they typically aren’t being rude, they just don’t know how terrifying that can be. In fact, I find it more comforting when a driver buzzes close because I feel like that means they are at least used to seeing me and are confident that I am confident in what I am doing. If you don’t like being passed close, then the only thing to do (and technically the rule most hardcore cyclists will tell you, though I feel like it is much easier said than done for someone starting out) is to take the lane. That means don’t ride on the white line, ride three feet away from it, in the lane. This is not only for your safety but for the safety of the drivers riding behind you. If you are further out into the lane this forces them to cross the centerline to pass you, which should force them to think carefully about when they do it. Currently the laws say that a bicycle in the road should be treated as any other vehicle, which means that you should technically never be passed on a double yellow, but most drivers won’t care. If you take the lane, at least the act of passing you might make it more apparent to the drivers that they will have to break the law to go around you. People will still pass you, but if you are out in the lane drivers tend to always give you more room when they pass.

The fact is that many of the laws around bicycle commuting just don’t make sense. Bicycles are required to stay off sidewalks and in the roads, but lights don’t always accommodate this. Likewise, most people can’t ride their bicycle for any long distance at a consistent speed of 25mph or more, and yet a bicycle could ride down the center of the lane on a road with a speed limit ranging from 10mph to 50mph, and be perfectly legal. Bike paths and lanes are great, but until there are more of them, I will never use them to get to work because it will take me longer to ride to the start of one than to go straight to work.

Still, we encourage bicycle commuting. It takes getting used to, but it is fun, promotes health, saves money, and so much more. The more people who do it, the more the inconsistencies in the laws will be apparent, and the more the people with the power to enact change will be forced to respond. Try to obey the laws when you can, be safe, always keep an eye out for drivers that aren’t used to seeing you, and have fun.

3 comments on “Star City Bicycle Commuting

  1. Dan says:

    Lots of great points here, especially concerning the rules of the road. All road users need to follow the laws, drive/ride defensively, and be courteous. Both the ignorant cyclist happily riding against traffic or on the sidewalk, or the arrogant rider blatantly running lights and squeezing between lanes hurt the reputation of us all. Plus, these riders are more likely to have a bad encounter with a motorized vehicle (the dreaded “he came out of nowhere”).

    (As I write this comment, I just saw a young man ride past cars stopped at the light at Northwestern and State, run the red light, and head down State St hill against the one-way traffic)

    Also, your discussion of the infrastructure not supporting cyclists is spot on. Groups like Bicycle Lafayette can make a difference by pointing out these inconsistencies to local politicians and street designers.

    However, I don’t agree with the main premise of this post that riding a bike on the streets is dangerous. Sure, I avoid a few routes on which it is legal to ride because of the high average speeds and lack of infrastructure (South St east of 52, all of Sagamore Parkway, most of Creasy Lane, etc), but riding downtown, in neighborhoods, down county roads, and on campus is a pretty safe way to travel.

    I have found that taking the lane whenever appropriate (which is most of the time since, as you mentioned, bike lanes are hard to find, an many are also used for parking and trash cans) makes me visible and predictable to motorists passing by. Maybe a few of them have been angry, but all have seen me from far away and have acted accordingly. My one collision with a car was with a young lady turning right from the left lane. I think she would have hit me in a car, too.

    In short, riding safely makes riding safe.

    Thanks for the article. I look forward to reading more.

    1. aaronthestrong says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting Dan! I totally understand what you mean about city cycling being safe. Honestly I feel safe when I ride too. The truth is that to someone starting out, the fear can be pretty strong, and I just didn’t want to minimize that. At least that is kind of what I was trying to get at.

      1. Dan says:

        No doubt! I took me a while to get used to the road.

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