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Where to Ride My Bike

And, No, the Answer Isn’t ‘Somewhere Else’


Here’s a topic sure to generate a lot of diverse opinions from bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists. To get us started, readers, try this quick pop quiz: Where exactly are cyclists supposed to ride?

A. On the street with cars

B. Only on bike paths

C. Only in bike lanes

D. The sidewalk

E. All of the above

I’ve determined by unscientific surveys that the correct answer often appears to be “somewhere else.”

To start with, bicyclists, wherever they ride, always seem to be traveling at the wrong speed. They ride much faster than walkers, but not at car speeds. Walkers average 3 mph. Cyclists ride 10-20 mph. City streets are usually posted for 25 mph. Cyclists are like high school misfits. They aren’t jocks or nerds, and end up eating lunch alone.

Many motorists would prefer that bike riders stay on the sidewalk. But if we ride on the sidewalk we endanger pedestrians, dog walkers, and families pushing strollers … and when we ride on the road, we often are often left searching for a place to call our own. Let me state the legal position clearly. According to the California Vehicle Code, it is absolutely legal for me to ride on almost any California road (some freeways and bridges are common exceptions). It is absolutely illegal to ride on the sidewalk in almost all parts of Santa Barbara County, and it brings along a hefty fine if the police catch me, let alone the dangers it brings to my fellow peeps walking. Let me summarize the case against riding on the sidewalk. Sidewalk users are moving slower than bicyclists and can stop and turn on a dime. Bicyclists aren’t so nimble—we take longer to stop and turn. Think about it, it’s a sidewalk. Not a sidecycle!

What about bike paths? Bike paths are a bit like freeways. They take you someplace, but rarely to your final destination. Think about Highway 101 in your car. It’s great for getting from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, but you still have to travel on city streets to get to your final destination. The Obern Path is a beautiful route connecting UCSB, Goleta, and Santa Barbara, but it won’t get you all the way home. Other paths, like the East Beach bikeway, are primarily designated these days for cruising: sightseeing tourists on foot or in surreys, skateboarders, and families with strollers. This mix of users is fine if you are ready to slowly cruise the beachfront, but not useful as a transportation artery if you are traveling at normal cycling speeds and trying to get to work, a store, or home more swiftly.

Of course, the biggest problem with these multi-purpose pathways may be that many car drivers think of them as separate-but-equal, all-inclusive systems and, as such, the smug cyclists riding on the road are taking up valuable car space. Are bicyclists required to ride on a parallel bike path if one exists? In California, the answer is NO! The law clearly states that even if a bike path exists, bicyclists are legally permitted to ride on an adjacent road.

So then there’s the road. As a “vehicular cyclist,” I drive my bike as if I were a slower-moving car. I am predictable and polite, and I ride on just about any road and always aim to get to my destination as fast and efficiently as possible. That’s the same goal as motorists. Do I ride down Anacapa Street instead of the lower State Street bike lanes? Yes, because State Street has many crosswalks and traffic lights. Do I know that this infuriates car drivers sometimes? Yes, and I do my best to stay with the speed of traffic and allow motorists to safely pass me with a smile and a wave. I’m a confident street driver.

If you are unsure of your road skills, don’t be embarrassed—take a class. The Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition offers adult road skills classes. Learn to drive your bike safely and confidently on our city streets—all road users will thank you.

Not everyone is into riding on the street. I, too, adore the parts of my commute when I’m listening to birds and the trickle of a creek rather than idling car engines. I wish that there were more bike paths out there and that they connected into a real network. And I support the government and nonprofit groups helping to make that network happen. In the meantime, I remember which advocacy group was instrumental in road construction in the 1880s. Was it the automobile lobby? Nope, they didn’t exist. It was the League of American Wheelmen (now the League of American Bicyclists). These mostly well-to-do athletic men founded the Good Roads Movement that fought for intercity roadway improvement projects for cyclists. Ultimately, those roads became part of our interstate highway system.

Sometimes it’s good to think outside the lines. Here’s a different approach to solving the puzzle of where cyclists should ride. A handful of European towns are trying an interesting transportation experiment. There, traffic planners are dreaming of streets without the harassment of prohibitions, restrictions, and warning signs. They want drivers and pedestrians to interact in a free and considerate way—by means of friendly gestures, nods of the head, and eye contact.

Seven cities in a European Union project are clear-cutting their towns of traffic signs. Ejby in Denmark, Ipswich in England, and the Belgian town of Ostende are participating in the experiment. They have eliminated traffic signs, lights, crosswalk markings, lanes, and other warnings that are commonly used to denote who has rights where. That complex system has been replaced with a simple rule. Respect the needs of others whether you are walking, jogging, cycling, or in a vehicle. The result has been a significant reduction in accidents. Cars slow down when they see a family pushing a stroller at an intersection. Cyclists signal a turn. The result isn’t anarchy, it’s socially responsible behavior.

I can dream about Santa Barbara roads without thousands of traffic signs and markings, but I’m realistic. So, I’m riding on the road when it’s the best way to get from here to there, and take bike paths when that’s the right alternative. I always try to follow three simple rules wherever I ride: be visible, be predictable, and follow the rules of the road. Motorists can do the same and share the road by slowing down and using turn signals. Let’s be honest. If all cyclists and motorists followed those rules, there would be fewer accidents, conflicts, and angry letters to the editor.

Erika Lindemann was born and raised in Santa Barbara and returned home after college to work in bicycle planning and promoting sustainable transportation. She now works for Wilderness Youth Project, but remains active in the bicycling community as an advocate and aficionado.

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