Thursday, October 18, 2012

Safety and the Austin Urban Cyclist

After my first post about bike riding, I got a couple of comments expressing concerns about my safety.  I hope I'm not jinxing myself horribly, and with a big old' knock on wood, I'd like to take a moment just to explain why I think it's possible to ride regularly in the city and do it pretty safely.

First of all, I would start out by saying that, somewhat ironically, I think it might be safer to actually bike around closer to the city center in Austin than it is to get from place to place farther out in the suburbs.  Closer to downtown, it's easier to navigate without having to get on extremely busy streets with fast vehicle traffic, whereas out in the suburbs there tend to be  areas where you're sort of forced to get onto faster moving, non bike friendly thoroughfares.  This rule isn't uniformly true, but a look at most bike maps confirms that bike routes are a little harder to find in the outlying areas.  As Austin grows, and traffic congestion in the 'burbs becomes just as serious as that found downtown, I think it's becoming scarier to ride in some of the areas that are further out.  Also, at the moment it seems like we've got more bicycle lanes in close proximity to the downtown area, or at least they start downtown and sort of extend outwards from that central point.  Bike lanes really do add an extra level of protection when you're riding on a street.  They're not foolproof, of course, but most drivers, consciously or unconsciously, try to observe lines that are painted on the street, and I feel like drivers give cyclists more space when there's a bike lane present.  Efforts are being made to expand bicycle lanes further out (there's an ongoing initiative to add bike lanes to Bee Caves Road, for example), but as of right now it feels as if more efforts have been made in the areas closer to downtown as opposed to some of the suburban areas. 
Anyway, Austin is a pretty forward thinking, bike friendly sort of place and has been for a fairly long time.  For years the bicycling community in Austin has been helping to mark out bike routes and safe methods of getting from one place to another and then sharing the information.  There are cycling maps at all the bike shops and web sites that get you around town using roads that have lighter, slower vehicle traffic than the major arteries (Ride the City: Austin is a pretty good one, and Google Maps will let you click on a button that shows various bike routes).  There are also bike routes that are marked with street signs to guide you through back streets, and signs that caution drivers to let them know when certain areas have been designated for vehicle traffic(designated bike lanes and so forth).  I can get downtown from our place in South Austin, for instance, entirely on neighborhood streets without needing to get on Lamar, South 1st, or Congress (Bike Route 31).  I can get from our house to Ryan and Jamie's, further south, by taking only back streets, except to cross with the pedestrian traffic at the William Cannon/Westgate intersection.   On those times when I do end up on busier streets, I really make an effort to stick to the ones with bike lanes.  South Congress has bike lanes now, and so does Stassney.  I can get most of the way to our house from downtown entirely on bike lanes.  Lamar has bike lanes for large segments as well, and Bluebonnet, which gets me down to Barton Springs and Zilker, has bike lanes with waist high plastic traffic barriers.  Many other areas have bicycle paths, paved and unpaved, that allow you to get from place to place without having to be in traffic (I regularly use these paths along Lamar, downtown near Auditorium Shores, along Jones Road, etc.).  I will also admit that, when traffic is making me a nervous, I'm not above riding on the sidewalk so long as there isn't really much pedestrian traffic.  The sidewalk has its own perils (people unexpectedly stepping out of doorways, weirdly placed signs and telephone poles, etc.), but at least most of them aren't as threatening as a fast moving car (especially since I ride much more slowly on sidewalks).  When it comes to bike safety, I usually find that cowardice is the best practice.
Anyway, part of what has actually been cool and fun and helped me learn more about Austin has been figuring out all of the side and back streets that let cyclists get around more safely.  You really sort of see your whole city differently when you're thinking about it as a cyclist instead of as a motorist.  Safety aside, I never really gave much thought to hills or elevation changes in Austin until I started riding my bike.  You learn to look at intersections differently and watch traffic in a different sort of way (that big cloverleaf overpass by my house that I drove through twice a day without thinking about for eight years?  On a bike it's an impassable death trap that has to be scrupulously circumnavigated...).

(South Congress actually isn't as scary as you might think.
You have to watch the cars that are getting in and out of parking spots,
but it has nice bike lanes)
You gotta stay aware, and you've gotta watch the cars.  Drivers do crazy things, so I try to give them a wide berth and always err on the side of being overly cautious.
I always wear a helmet, and I turn my bike lights when I'm riding at night or when visibility is crappy (including at twilight).  I try not to make unpredictable movements in traffic, and I really try to be careful about crossing when there's oncoming traffic.
Once again, knock on wood, but I've only really had two notable tumbles so far, and neither one of them involved anything  having to do with vehicle traffic.  On one I rode too close to a passing tree/shrub/angry attack plant, and a branch got caught on my shifter cable.  It yanked my handlebars to one side, and I went for a tumble.  It happened on a sidewalk, and I was riding slow, so no huge deal.  The other time I tried to pull up in front of a house to grab a real estate flyer out of a "For Sale" sign in their front yard.  I wasn't paying proper attention, my tire hit the curb, and I went tumbling onto the lawn.  This event was made a bit embarrassing by the fact that the resident family was in their driveway at the time.  Their little kids stood there gawking, open mouthed, and pointing at me while I got to my feet and brushed myself off.
I am not a cool cyclist.
Anyway, my experience so far has definitely been that accidents happen when you're just not paying very close attention.  When I'm riding in/near/around traffic, I try to pay as much attention as I can.

Now all you car drivers do your part and keep your eyes open for those of us out there on bikes!

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