Advocacy Issues for Cyclists
On my year 2000 touring trip, during which I traveled over 4,500 miles in the US and Canada, I did some thinking about the problems that I was having along the road that are due to prejudice against cyclists. "Prejudice," as commonly used, means prejudice plus intolerance. Some of the following problems include intolerance, but most do not. Some are new, some are old, some are important, some are minor, some are problems caused by government, and some are problems caused by individuals or business. All of these infringe on bicyclists' rights to free travel. I expect no special favors for cyclists; just equal rights. Some of them or all of them may not seem prejudicial to you, as they weren't created to cause problems for cyclists; they just do. However, this is in the same category as the school which fails to provide wheelchair access because they have no wheelchair users. Thus although no barrier was intended, a real barrier exists. As long as barriers exist to traveling by bike, many will feel forced to use automobiles. I have put these issues in an order that seems logical, but it is not based on importance.
Food and Water Issues
A Glass of Water, Anyone?
Thirty years ago, the gas station without an ice-cold water fountain was rare; now the gas station with any drinking water, except the 99¢ per pint "spring" water is rare in many areas. The outside faucet used to be a necessity for car radiators, but now those faucets are rare. I don't mind purchasing drinks, but I do have to have some water between stores, and I can't afford to purchase expensive water all the time. I have found it the best idea to ask about water before purchasing anything, and I refuse to buy food or drinks from those who won't give me water. I think it would be generally helpful if all cyclists would make a point of not patronizing places that won't fill a water bottle and of letting the owners know the reason why. Is free water a right? Considering the fact that bicycling a long distance on a hot day without water can be life-threatening and that homeowners in some areas are hostile to or afraid of people traveling along the roadway, I feel it should be.
Have You a Restroom?
In the Jim Crow South, public toilets were not available for those with dark skin; now in many states, public toilets no longer exist for anyone. A motorist can drive miles to use home or office facilities, but a cyclist travels too slowly to get home in time to pee. To make matters worse, it may be miles before the cyclist reaches some bushes and there he or she may find a fence or "no trespassing" sign. It seems to me that cyclists should never patronize a store which offers food and drink but has no public toilets.
Can I Have a Seat?
Along the coast and in New England, I have discovered that many sandwich shops have not only dispensed with the water and the toilets, but they also fail to offer a place to sit while eating, perhaps due to ordinances which require them to have toilets if they have tables. Although this is a less important issue, I think this is also prejudicial behavior, because motorists carry their eating place with them, while cyclists do not.
I have noticed that in most states, the newer roads are getting a nice paved shoulder which eliminates many of the problems of bicycling. New Jersey, for instance, used to be a terrible state to bicycle in due to the heavy traffic, but now it is a breeze due to paved shoulders. In other states, lanes are kept narrow in order to squeeze in extra lanes and crowd as much traffic as possible onto the roads. Besides making bicycling difficult or impossible, these narrow lanes create congestion and increase the number of accidents. A two-lane road with turnouts and shoulders can often carry more vehicles per hour than a four-lane road without them. This is a good issue that should win motorists' support. In some areas, roads may be kept narrow as a method of speed reduction (traffic calming), but there are good safety reasons for giving these roads good shoulders.
On the first part of my trip, from Alabama to Massachusetts, I noticed that road drain grates are still wider than bicycle tires and are still usually orientated parallel with the roadway, making them ideal bicycle traps. I noticed that Massachusetts was the first state I traveled through in which the grates were consistently oriented in the right direction. I can't say how many states have this problem or what percentage of grates are misoriented, as I just saw a small sample of each of the states I traveled through.
A second kind of bike trap consists of ridges or grooves in the shoulder or along the edge of the road that are designed to alert motorists when they are running off of the road. These indicators can be designed to work without creating a safety hazard for cyclists, but many highway engineers just don't see a reason to bother.
Non-Functioning Traffic Signals
Sensors under the pavement which trip the traffic light are common everywhere, but I have not seen a single one yet that was marked to tell cyclists where to stop. If the grooves are still visible, then parking on the groove will trip the light. However, when the groove has been paved over, the cyclist can't find the place to park without help. According to law, we have all the rights of the operators of motor vehicles, so this is a clear violation of our rights, and hand operated signals on the sidewalk are no substitute; in fact, they encourage cyclists to break the law.
I notice that in many areas motorists make no attempt at staying within the speed limit and that in other areas (or the same areas), these speeds are set too high, which leads to more accidents and more fatal accidents with little real gain in average speed. I think many are discouraged from bicycling due to the speed of the traffic, and I think the strong connection between speed and traffic fatalities should be sound arguments for arguing for traffic control, especially on residential roads.
Aggressive Traffic Behavior
I find aggressive behavior on the part of motorists to be the rule in some areas and very rare in others. The fact that this behavior is not the same everywhere is proof that it is learned behavior and is not absolutely necessary.
Driving Errors Common near Cyclists
I find that there are a number of driving errors made when cyclists are on the road that would not be made, for instance, if a slow-moving truck was on the road instead. These include
1. Refusing to slow down when passing. I'm not complaining here about the motorist who doesn't slow when passing in another lane or when I'm on a wide shoulder or even when we share a wide lane but about the motorist who misses by inches at high speeds. Some cyclists don't see this as a problem, but near misses can easily translate into collisions, and the high speed can then prove fatal.
2. Making a right turn after an incomplete pass. This is a very common error, which is often fatal for the cyclist. I have even had friends make this error after just taking to me.
3. Ignoring the on-coming cyclist and turning or pulling out into traffic in front of him or her. These kinds of near misses are extremely common in some areas and never occur in others.
4. Ignoring the cyclist at a traffic light. I have seen drivers a) practically hit me so they could edge in front, b) park slantwise in front of me stuck out into the pedestrian crosswalk or even into the traffic lane, c) wait for the light partially in the opposite lane, or d) ignore the stop sign or traffic light in order to pass me immediately. I think these kind of violations occur because the motorists do not know that cyclists have an equal right to the road.
Land Use Issues
Camping and Biking on Public Land
I think it's absolutely great that a great deal of land is now being set aside forever. It's too bad that we did not set aside much of this land many years ago while it was still virgin. However, it seems that in many cases this land is being protected not only from the axe but also from the nature lover. At one time, private forest land owned by large corporations was open to all, but most of this land is now off limits as it is rented by hunting clubs, so there is more pressure on the remaining public land. Public agencies have responded by providing more facilities for motorists. It seems like most natural areas are mainly open to those who wish to drive through and enjoy them at 50+ mph. At the same time, restrictions have been added that reduce the amount of non-motorized enjoyment. Most small parks and forests seem to be open only from dawn to dark, evidently with the idea that anything done after dark must include some form of wickedness. Even large natural areas often forbid camping anywhere. A good example of these restrictions from my trip is the Delaware Water Gap. Camping is allowed on the Appalachian Trail for through-hikers only and along the river for boaters. There are no other trails, and camping outside a campground is forbidden elsewhere. It must be pointed out that most of this area has been farmland until recently, so it's not virgin wilderness, that wild animals are not harmed by campers, and that the possibility of fire is small. Why are we keeping people from enjoying these natural areas rather than encouraging them to use them?
I think that bicycling, in addition to hiking, is a great way to explore the outdoors. Riding a bike is at least two or three times as fast as walking, and bicycles do not have a negative impact on the environment. I do see a problem with mountain biking being allowed on narrow hiking trails, as hikers are not expecting the sudden appearance of bikes and as the trails are not designed for bicycle use anyway. It is also a real error to mix people who are enjoying the beauty of Nature with those practicing technical riding skills. However, there is no reason that trails appropriate for mountain bikes (and in some cases, skinny-tired bikes) can not be built through forests. The presence of people on bicycles is not going to destroy the forest or the wildlife, and I think increasing the number of people who can enjoy the outdoors will eventually result in support for conservation initiatives.
I think that camping is very much of a racket. No matter how one travels, the fees for sleeping at night are much heavier than the services warrant. Especially, bicycle campers get ripped out very badly whenever they pay fees to camp. Unlike other campers, we are not there to hike trails, build fires, swim in the pool, play sports, plant flowers, or whatever. We do not need miles of pavement or endless parking lots. We tend to travel alone or in pairs, and the space taken up by a tent is minimal. Yet we are expected to pay the full fees of a family of campers in an RV. Camping fees are now sometimes as high as $23 for a single night. This is a ridiculous fee for a single person, who uses almost no facilities, to pay for a camping area smaller than the parking space of a small car. These high fees can of themselves discourage people from traveling by bicycle.
Another important factor is that these camping sites are very often unsuitable for bicycle camping. RV parks, for instance, often lack trees, tables, above-ground faucets, or any kind of shelter or place to lean a bike. State park campgrounds are often smoky and noisy. Both may require a cyclist to pitch the tent on an extremely uncomfortable gravel pad (gravel pads are designed for stand-up tents and people who keep the tent up for a week at a time, not for overnight pup tenters). The roads to get to the camping site are often long and steep. Another problem, which is less controlable is noise; the last thing a tired cyclo-tourist needs is a drunken party a few feet away (I assume that when people are screaming at each other at two o'clock in the morning that some alcohol has been involved). Certainly, there is need for greater sensitivity to the needs of the bicycling community. I think it would make sense to set aside an area for bicycle camping in the public campgrounds, a place with a low per-person fee, fewer facilities (especially no gravel pads), but greater quiet.
I think that it would also make sense to allow free primitive bicycle camping in some of the areas that currently don't allow it (free primitive camping is already allowed in national forests and on other public land). There would have to be some rules and restrictions, of course. There are some that have taken this step: the Shenandoah National Park has opened up its land to all kinds of campers, and the Natchez Trace Parkway has provided free camping for cyclists in places between their regular campgrounds.
I find it rather discouraging that I seem to have mainly two choices in buying bicycle equipment and accessories: 1) Buy cheap junk (available at every discount store) that will tear up almost immediately or 2) pay extravagant prices for exotic equipment. We might say that with bicycle equipment there is a large upper class, a much larger lower class, but almost no middle class. One component for a high-priced bike will cost more that an entire moderate-cost bike, yet there is very little practical difference between the moderate-priced bike and the expensive bike. SunTour (the name was spelled in various ways) was a company that produced excellent equipment at a bargain price and -- directly as a result -- lost out in our flim-flam bicycle market. Since we have a free market, about all a cyclist can do here is to point out the reality of the situation and hope that enough cyclists will expect reasonably-priced equipment that the market will gradually change.
However, in the area of bicycle lights, the issue involves safety. Right now, to the best of my knowledge, there is no available inexpensive or moderately-priced bicycle headlight. The cheap two-cell bicycle lights from Bell are completely unsafe as they cast an inadequate beam, are not visible from the side, and become dim too rapidly to be of any use. At the very least, some manufacture ought to make some white front LED's for bikes.