In praise of slow cycling
January 26, 2016 10:04 PM   Subscribe

We had the opportunity to cycle in a number of North American cities in 2015, including Washington D.C., Montreal, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. And it was through the mixed experiences of sharing their streets with locals that we began to observe a seldom-discussed measure of a city’s bike-friendliness: the speed at which its cyclists travel.
posted by aniola (40 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Not only have I seen this on a city scale (Davis vs Portland, for instance), I do this when I'm out riding around town. Am I on the road where people in cars will honk at me and/or pass me unsafely if I take the lane to stay out of the door zone? Better bike fast fast fast! Too bad it's the safest connection! Am I riding in the buffered bike lane? No worry, so so so happy.
posted by aniola at 10:14 PM on January 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

And as a side effect, it seems like the more unfriendly a city's cars are towards bikes, the more unpredictable and dangerous the bikes are toward pedestrians in an effort to get an advantage in dealing with the cars. For example, I have sympathy for bikes trying to take the opportunity of a red light to get ahead of a difficult knot of cars, but don't go blasting across a crowded crosswalk and expect all the people using it to scatter for you! [This message is brought to you by several years of commuting in Boston.]
posted by ostro at 10:50 PM on January 26, 2016 [8 favorites]

Honolulu got a protected bike track running through the middle of town about a year ago, and I've definitely slowed the pace of my commute using it. I was always a speed demon, something I used to chalk up to the simple joy of mashing through town. I used to arrive at work drenched in sweat and grinning. But yeah, it's obvious now that a big part of that rush-rush-rush was feeling safer the closer I was able to match the speed of traffic. These days, with my own lane and no angry drivers riding my ass, I'm downright leisurely! It's nice.
posted by flod at 10:51 PM on January 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

I ride my bike to my early morning yoga class and that's about it. This is because it's not very far and the traffic is not too bad in the early morning, and the New South Wales road rules for cyclists are ridiculous. I'm not supposed to ride on the footpath, or use a pedestrian crossing, and now I have to carry ID with me at all times.

Riding on the road in Sydney is pretty terrifying, especially if you are not very fit. I'd like to ride to work, but it's really scary and I don't want to die.
posted by misfish at 10:52 PM on January 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

The most direct route to work for me by bike is Wilshire Boulevard, the stretch between Koreatown (Western) and Beverly Hills (San Vicente). There are some side streets that are four-way-stop-mostly-bike-friendly that parallel this route (2nd, 4th, 8th) as well as several other crowded, fast thoroughfares (6th, 3rd, Beverly), but Wilshire has been under serious construction along this stretch lately which makes it the safest for me. Traffic is already driving at a sedated pace, and drivers who are already forced to inconveniently slow speeds don't seem to be as volatile or vindictive against a cyclist taking the lane.

Mostly that's the Bus Lane, which is thankfully clear for much of the 5-mile stretch I ride. But in Hancock Park and along Museum Row there's street parking and lots of stop lights, so I'm in the right-hand lane. That's a hustle stretch, and I can keep up pretty much all the way to San Vicente. Even with all the stop lights, people honk and yell out their windows at me while speeding around in their very own lane (the left one) and then look really sheepish when I blow by them at the next light. Over and over again, they gun it and race to the next red light.

Anyway, that's an intense commute, and not in the best way. Lately I've been going a bit out of my way and taking the Nichols Canyon up to the Bettie Dearing Trail off of Mulholland. It drops me off at Franklin Canyon, which is a fun drop down into BH. So instead of 6 miles of thrilling traffic grind I get 18 miles altogether, 1800 feet steady climbing, and 3 miles of sweet, sweet singletrack. That's more like it!
posted by carsonb at 11:08 PM on January 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Do they have actual speed data? I would be curious to see it. Also am curious about European cycling cities-- Copenhagen (where I am) seems to be a different speed from Amsterdam, but both have strong bike infrastructure.
posted by nat at 11:14 PM on January 26, 2016

This is one of the slightly-less-obvious advantages of SF's Green Wave for bicycles: much less need to race ahead, much easier to pedal at a relaxing 13mph.

I love it!
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 11:17 PM on January 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Living in Australia, and riding a granny bike, I don't think I have ever overtaken another cyclist ever (and I get overtaken by almost everyone). But when I have visited the Netherlands (and ridden borrowed bicycles similar to what I ride at home), I would judge I ride faster than about 80% of the others around me. I don't even know how it is possible to ride as slowly as most Dutch cyclists, but I imagine that's because I also don't know how to ride while balancing three friends, a baby, and a case of beer on the bicycle.
posted by lollusc at 11:51 PM on January 26, 2016 [17 favorites]

In warmer weather, I have regularly bicycled in Toronto on the Sherbourne Street bicycle lane, and I am usually the slowest rider on it (and I'm not that slow). The lane seems to be filled with very focused commuters with exceptional leg strength!
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 4:16 AM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would prefer to be a slow cycler in my own dedicated and buffered lane. There is too much anxiety for me in trying to pedal fast enough where cars don't see me as that much of a bother. I am in pretty good shape but having to huff it and puff it because the cars next to me are impatient that I just want to get to my destination safely leaves me miserable.
posted by Kitteh at 4:18 AM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

ostro: I've been very happy to see DC's cycling culture develop an active community reminding everyone else to treat pedestrians with respect so we'll get their support for more non-car-centric designs. It's not uncommon to see someone do something like that and get yelled at by the other cyclists.
posted by adamsc at 4:51 AM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

a relaxing 13mph
Huh. I guess that underscores the point how these things differ by culture. I consider that very fast as an average speed. On the streets where I cycle (in the Netherlands) the average speed seems to be about 16kph (10mph), and that's not counting small inner city streets and streets near elementary schools, where I think the average speed is more like 13kph.
posted by blub at 5:15 AM on January 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is exactly what I've observed. I split my time between NYC and Amsterdam, and in NYC you have to run for your life, while in NL biking feels like a lovely stroll. I mean, bike traffic isn't really that slow in NL, especially in Amsterdam during rush hour. But there isn't that sense of urgency that oh god I'm holding up the car traffic and they're going to start honking and side swiping me that I get NYC.

I don't often bike in New York these days because I usually end up at my destination shook up and angry, and it's just not worth it. But when I'm in NL I'm on a bike nearly every day and it's glorious.
posted by antinomia at 5:57 AM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I guess Boston/Somerville has quite a poor score in this regard. I am a cyclist but am incredibly annoyed by the speed demons who need to pass a row 5-15 of (actually pretty fast moving) bike commuters on a narrow road with heavy traffic. Another time this guy in full racer uniform felt he had to tailgate me on the same road (Beacon) really made me nervous, there's crazy darting pedestrians and I really dread being rear ended by speed racer.

Oh and the nearby bike path I just dread the expectation of reading about a horrific pileup crushing a baby carriage, bad bad thought but it looks like a velodrome as they wiz past doing pedestrian slalom.

Venting aside, I crank it up at times and fast is fun; but my best times riding have been noodling along on quiet streets, looking at things, noticing flowers and architectural details.
posted by sammyo at 6:04 AM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

You haven't truly lived until you've had a bike commute that forces you to cross a lane of car traffic exiting to a freeway. Danger! Excitement! Motorists trying to run you over to shave five precious seconds off their commute!

Thank you, city of Mountain View, California for building a bike bridge across that freeway. You probably saved my life.
posted by Triplanetary at 6:12 AM on January 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

Portland has a rep for being bike-friendly, but a lot of the bike lanes seem designed to kill cyclists. There is not nearly enough driver education on how to interact with bicycle riders and lane crossovers. I'm amazed there aren't more accidents than there are.

That said, I gave up riding in Portland because I just couldn't keep up with the bike traffic speeds, never mind the cars. As a pedestrian, there are certain streets and intersections I've learned to avoid due to the bike traffic. Most cyclists obey signal lights, but there are enough who will blow through a red, or barrel heedlessly around a corner, if they think there's an opening in the car traffic. And they're too focused on the cars to look for pedestrians in the crosswalk.

I'm not anti-bike. I just wish cyclists would remember that pedestrians exist, and can't move as fast as bikes.
posted by Weftage at 6:42 AM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I couldn't help but notice there was only ONE helmet in all of those photographs.

I am here today because a helmet saved my head from a curb. Like seatbelts, it does not matter how far you're going or what kind of ride you're taking. Always wear a helmet.
posted by phlyingpenguin at 7:10 AM on January 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm just about to get on my bike and ride through Seattle to work, half on quiet residential streets and half on calmed almost-arterials. The residential streets are lovely: trees, flowers, people walking dogs, kids walking people, all so quiet I can hear anything but an electric car coming up behind me so there are few surprises. The calmed almost-arterials are not slow or lovely, but are rarely terrifying.

One key factor not mentioned in this article: hills. I am still amazed I managed to persevere as a new cyclist until I was able to huff and puff up every hill on my commute without stopping for air or just giving up and walking. Now as a stronger but extremely cautious cyclist, there is a special terror in crawling uphill in a tiny painted-on bike lane behind a slow-climbing cyclist as people hurtle by in their multi-ton armor suits (i.e. cars) with no time or space to pass and climb at my own pace. We're in the rainy season now, and only the extremely motivated are out in the dark and wet, so I am often the relatively slow climber, which suits me just fine.

I do love the wide bike lanes in Portland. But I've only cycled in Vancouver after riding there from Seattle so I was not in the mood to admire the infrastructure.
posted by esoterrica at 7:53 AM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

(Why does there always have to be a helmet de-rail? Helmets make cycling safer the same way that flak jackets make school children safer -- ie., anecdotally, and if you feel the need to require them the lack of them is not where the problem truly lies. This is what cycling looks like in a country that does infrastructure right. Count the helmets.)
posted by antinomia at 8:09 AM on January 27, 2016 [14 favorites]

I live in Oakland and have bike-commuted extensively in Los Angeles and San Francisco. At this point I'm totally conditioned to go as fast as I can, riding assertively, often at or exceeding average auto speed. I kind of enjoy it, but probably in the same way that others get their jollies from jumping out of a plane.
posted by scelerat at 8:10 AM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

In Chicago we've gotten a few excellent chunks of buffered bike lanes and the stress reduction riding in them when you get to them is palpable. Being so flat, if it weren't for the traffic, just about everyone could be on a bike, but the traffic is still often quite scary (because people die on bikes here). I bike commute regularly and have an 'interaction' with motorists at least once per day. The problem is we have a very disconnected bike network now, so while there are a few new stretches of low stress bikeways, you will almost always need to go through a high stress area to actually get anywhere. Very often those are choke points at either crossing under or over the expressway or crossing the river. There are seriously no good continuous routes still other than the lakefront path and even that has I think only 2-3 places where an actual bike lane can take you back into the city. We just spent millions of federal dollars to put in an amazing rail trail that stops just short of crossing under 90-94 and leaves you to fend for yourself across a horrible intersection with no visibility under the highway, under a rail bridge and then over the river all with high speed traffic 'sharing the road'. So frustrating. Thankfully we have Active Transportation fighting for a Bikeways for All plan (pdf) which is one of the most hopeful things to come out of this city in a long time.

As far as the helmet thing goes, I have fallen on my head while going very slow and will therefore wear one myself, but 'wear a helmet' has been such a bullshit way of getting out of making things actually safe for cyclists for so long that I have stopped excoriating those who choose not to wear one. A helmet won't help if it's you and a car. And you shouldn't need one.
posted by mike_bling at 8:17 AM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Inversely, in regions that had failed to prioritize two-wheeled travel as a mode of transportation, getting on a bike was still seen as a sport predominately done by males moving long distances at fast speeds.
There's definitely a machismo aspect to downtown Toronto bicycle culture, especially among bike couriers. You don't even need brakes if you've got the right kind of fixie and you're the right kind of man.
posted by clawsoon at 8:36 AM on January 27, 2016

Today is Denver's first official Winter Bike to Work Day. In honor of the special occasion, I biked the whole way to work instead of half-assing it by taking the train for most of the trip, and there's a dire hill right before I get to work. It's possible I was climbing so slowly for that half-mile that I was actually making my city more bike-friendly in the process. That's how this works, right?
posted by asperity at 8:36 AM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

You don't even need brakes if you've got the right kind of fixie and you're the right kind of man.
Which is to say "an asshole."

Where I ride in Houston, we have an increasingly large network of off-road shared paths that are widely used for commuting, which is great. The faster folks riding for recreation almost never use them, because 20+ MPH on a shared path is just a bad idea.
posted by uberchet at 8:55 AM on January 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

This post brought to you by Foghat.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:16 AM on January 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Things could be better in Denver, but they're getting there. We have a protected lane on 15th through downtown. That was formerly the scariest part of my ride to work. I ride fairly slowly. I used to feel the need to blast through town, including blasting through red lights. Now I'm much more of a cruiser.
posted by evilDoug at 9:17 AM on January 27, 2016

The faster folks riding for recreation almost never use them, because 20+ MPH on a shared path is just a bad idea.

Our multi-use paths are limited to 20 kph/ 12 mph. And they're enforced (police issue speeding tickets to bikes, complete with demerit points against your DL), and pedestrians complain even so. And the car drivers complain about people doing 25 on the road, because we should be on the MUP. MUPs are a terrible idea as commuting infrastructure in my view. Cities really do need three sets of infrastructure, preferably grade-separated.

I was in Amsterdam last spring for a week. Total paradise for bikes (even if most of them are slowpokes).
posted by bonehead at 10:11 AM on January 27, 2016

We have a protected lane on 15th through downtown.

That thing weirds me out a bit. I'm boggled about why so many new and proposed protected lanes are on the left sides of one-way streets -- I'm just not used to being in that position on the road, and then when the protected lane ends I'm not in a reasonable place to continue.

Our multi-use paths are limited to 20 kph/ 12 mph. And they're enforced, and pedestrians complain even so.

Ours are posted at 15mph, and occasionally enforced. I don't get frustrated at slowing for pedestrians unless they're doing some kind of ridiculous phalanx thing blocking the entire path, and I'm generally fine waiting behind other people on bicycles, too. Notable exception I'm not really proud of: a couple months back I dodged full-speed in between a couple of clots of cyclists in opposite directions. I didn't have the breath to explain that there was no way I was going to wait behind the dipshit immediately in front of me who'd decided that a crowded MUP was an appropriate place to ride with both hands tucked into his armpits.
posted by asperity at 10:18 AM on January 27, 2016

I haven't seen any posted limit signs on the Houston paths, and there definitely ARE speed demons who use them recklessly, but mostly not. The roadie rides I do would never use them because they twist and turn and you can't see who's around the next corner, etc -- we're going fast, and we belong on the roads.

A big part of the appeal, I think, for some of the MUP in Houston is that they enable routes that aren't possible by car.
posted by uberchet at 10:48 AM on January 27, 2016

We just spent millions of federal dollars to put in an amazing rail trail that stops just short of crossing under 90-94 and leaves you to fend for yourself across a horrible intersection with no visibility under the highway, under a rail bridge and then over the river all with high speed traffic 'sharing the road'. So frustrating.

It does that because the viaduct they built it on ends there. The line used to go all the way to the river, and that part was torn down when they built the Kennedy. You can see the remnants of the trestle where the Kennedy crosses Ashland. The whole way used to be light industrial, it's been gradually rezoned to residential, which is why the line closed in 2001 -- there wasn't anybody using it anymore.

The reason the ramp off the trail curves the way it does is twofold. One is to reduce the gradient, so that it's easy to ride on/off the trail. The other is to put the exit on Marshfield Ave, so that you ride north one block to Cortland, which passes under the Kennedy and has a signal to cross Ashland. Cortland takes to Clyborne (if you're heading downtown) and ends at Racine just south of Armitage if you are heading east to the lake.
posted by eriko at 11:12 AM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't know where the sports cyclists train in Amsterdam, but they definitely don't try to do it in the city. Not even in the parks -- all the park paths are MUPs, but I've never seen a cyclist speed on one (and I've never seen police in a park, either). I have seen the occasional lycra-clad helmeted speed cyclist on paths in the countryside (away from towns), so maybe that's where they go.

asperity, I can think of two good safety reasons to place paths on the left side of one ways:

- It puts cyclists on the driver side of moving traffic, so the drivers can better judge distance and are more likely to see you at intersections
- It puts cyclists on the pedestrian side of parked cars, thereby reducing the likelihood of getting doored.
posted by antinomia at 11:12 AM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

- to get you out of the path of perpetually-stopping buses
posted by aniola at 11:27 AM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I was stuck behind a ridiculously slow cyclist this morning. Like I'm usually the slowest bike on the road, and I was having to coast sometimes to not crowd her. But the streets here in Boston are even narrower thanks to snow, and traffic was heavy, and I remembered how much the speeders not "on-your-left"ing me on narrow streets ticks me off, and I just Slowed Down. I didn't have far to go, and gosh! It was even nicer going even slower than usual.

(and then she went through a very yellow light and left me behind and I good zoom afterward, and that was great, too! Bike commutes are the BEST)
posted by ldthomps at 2:20 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Helmets make cycling safer the same way that flak jackets make school children safer -- ie., anecdotally, and if you feel the need to require them the lack of them is not where the problem truly lies.

Where I live, all cyclists are required by law to wear helmets, and it really ruins cycling for me. Footage of cyclists in the Netherlands seems so idyllic - it takes me back to my childhood, when no one wore helmets, and we were care free. I put on a helmet now, and it's such a drag, psychically. It's equipment, and it feels like a sport or a dangerous activity, rather than an idle pleasure.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 3:06 AM on January 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Even adults? Where is this?
posted by entropicamericana at 8:00 AM on January 28, 2016

I'm no fan of helmet laws, but I really love my helmet mirror and find it a lot more useful than handlebar or eyeglasses-mounted mirrors, so I'm comfortable with wearing the helmet. Also if I ride with my hair damp and a silk scarf in between me and the helmet, I end up with better hair than when I leave it to its own devices, so there's that. Unfortunately, the scarf trick doesn't work quite as well when my hair is dry, but it does keep the worst excesses of helmet hair at bay.

I didn't wear a helmet as a kid, either, but then a) my neck didn't protest so much about repeated craning to look behind me back then, b) I definitely didn't care about my hair back then, and c) I didn't have the freedom to ride to any destination I pleased at any distance I cared to back then. Can't say I really want to go back to childhood aimlessness when I've got Places To Go. I don't ride for idle pleasure!
posted by asperity at 8:13 AM on January 28, 2016

etropicamericana, here's a map.
posted by aniola at 4:01 PM on January 28, 2016

Honolulu got a protected bike track running through the middle of town about a year ago

I'm bummed that the freshly-installed bike lane doesn't really make cycling any more feasible for me, but I'm glad to see people like it and it's a step in the right direction. Though all car/bike points of interaction here are so universally terrible that the only way is up.

(I commute from the top of Ward to Waikiki during actual rush hour, and don't have a secure place to stash a bike in my building, nor do I fancy sitting in red-light traffic)
posted by a halcyon day at 4:59 PM on January 28, 2016

Even adults? Where is this?

posted by paleyellowwithorange at 5:35 PM on January 28, 2016

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