Columns / Discourse / May 16, 2018

Bike Nice: Bikes are tools, not toys. Let’s teach how to use them

Biking to work this week, I crossed paths with a car full of high school students taking driver’s ed. Perhaps the instructor said something like, “By the way, when you pass cyclists, you’re required to give them three feet of clearance…”

Even if that really happened, and likely it did not, and even if these soon-to-be drivers follow the lesson of the law, it’s too late to protect a Knox colleague who recently told me about biking through an underpass and being forced into the wall by a passing car.

Myself, I’ve never been bothered by cars in Galesburg. Do I cut that imposing a figure on two wheels? Ha! A recent head-on crash was neither my fault nor the driver’s fault. That’s why, another Knox colleague says, they’re called “accidents.” Still, other than excessive speed, I’ve found Galesburg drivers to be friendly and courteous.

But that’s not everybody’s experience. Perhaps the driver, who almost killed someone by trying to squeeze through an underpass, didn’t have the drivers ed lesson about giving bikes three feet. Which would not be unusual, since the three-foot law took effect only a few years ago. But the practice in this town and many others is to neglect bike riding lessons at the very age when they’d be most influential.

Perhaps instead of drivers ed in high school, teenagers would benefit from “bikers ed.” That way they’d learn to obey traffic laws, whether biking or driving. They’d be brought into the biking culture.

However, bikers ed, if it happens at all, is limited to little kids. Whether intended or not, these little kid bike lessons reinforce the idea that bikes are toys for children. And when young people grow up, they put away childish things. Which apparently includes the idea of using the bike as a transportation tool.

Getting high school students onto bikes would engage them with their community, neighborhood and world in ways that cars do not. It would normalize the cycling agenda – such as shareable streets and sidewalks, lower speeds. It saves money, almost always a good thing, and promotes fitness, always-always a good thing. Is there a reason that Galesburg, our own little Planiverse in the middle of Flatland, can not be a better “biketown”? (Our DFA climate is not an excuse.)

While down at the personal level, biking is an economic winner, being more bikeable doesn’t guarantee a city’s fame or fortune. Among the nation’s top bikeable towns, Alma, Michigan will never be rich and big, and Rexburg, Idaho will never be rich and liberal. If a city is big enough and rich enough, getting a low score for biking is not a problem. See Houston and Orlando.

I won’t rebut bike lanes or speed limits. There are also business practices that discourage biking. Where are the secure bike parking facilities, showers, lockers and dressing rooms? On-site or near-site or nonexistent? There’s a cost to all that infrastructure, but bike-friendly businesses supposedly score cool-points. How much is that worth? If employers, employees, voters and taxpayers demand bikeable cities, it’ll happen. It begins with education. Instead of defaulting to drivers ed, bikers ed could help impart values such as DIY, fitness, thrift and sustainability.

Peter Bailley

Tags:  bike nice

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