The Stories We Tell – Part One

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting the challenges for encouraging bicycling in America.

Part 1: Origin & Influence of Our Stories

The stories we tell are a product of the experiences we have. Our experiences are the product of our choices and behavior. There’s a saying popular among pilots: “Good judgment comes from experience. Unfortunately, the experience usually comes from bad judgment.” In bicycling, the journey to good judgment is complicated by inhibiting beliefs and social norms.

Test Your Recognition of Potential Conflict

The image below is similar to one we use in the CyclingSavvy course. It’s a participation exercise to engage students in spotting conflicts they have just learned about in a previous section on crash causes and prevention. Test yourself in Tab 1. Tab 2 shows the potential conflicts faced by the cyclist in red (practicing edge behavior). Tab 3 shows the potential conflicts faced by the cyclist in green (practicing driver behavior).

[tabs slidertype=”top tabs”] [tabcontainer] [tabtext]Spot the Potential Conflicts[/tabtext] [tabtext]Edge Bicyclist[/tabtext] [tabtext]Driver Bicyclist[/tabtext][/tabcontainer] [tabcontent] [tab]


click images to enlarge

Count the conflicts faced by each of the two cyclists on the left side of the picture, then click the tabs above or below for highlighted conflicts and explanations.

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There are numerous mid-block conflicts:

  • Door zone: every parked car is a potential dooring conflict.
  • Parking pull-out: every parked car has the potential to pull out when there is a gap in traffic. The edge-riding bicyclist may be in the drivers’ blind spots.
  • There is a wrong-way bicyclist weaving in and out of parking spaces. He will be a head-on conflict for an edge-riding bicyclist.
  • Beyond the intersection is a pinch point where the lane is too narrow for a bicyclist and a truck or bus to fit.
  • Buses entering or leaving the bus stop are a problem for the bicyclist. He is likely to be in the blind spot of the bus drivers.

The driveway offers several crossing conflicts:

  • The driver of the green truck could suddenly decide to turn right into the driveway.
  • The driver of the yellow car may pull out and go in any direction—if he is working a gap, to turn left or get to the left-turn lane, he will be focused on the cars and unlikely to look at the edge of the road.
  • The driver of the turquoise SUV is looking for a gap to make a left turn. The green truck screens the edge bicyclist from view.

The main intersection offers several crossing conflicts:

  • The pedestrian may try to cross before the light changes. He will step into the edge of the lane before proceeding.
  • The tractor trailer might turn right. It will look as if it is going straight because the driver needs to steer wide. He will need to navigate the turn slowly to avoid off-tracking over the sidewalk, allowing plenty of time for the edge-riding bicyclist to enter his blind spot.
  • The driver of the red truck wants to turn right on red. He may jump the light, or be looking for a gap.
  • The driver of the yellow car is planning to turn left. If the red cyclist is fast and that driver runs the stale yellow, they would be on a collision course and invisible to one another.

The frequency of potential conflicts on the edge requires managing multiple threats at once… and that’s if the bicyclist even recognizes the conflict potential. Many bicyclists who ride this way don’t. They suffer constant close calls. Their trips are full of unpleasant surprises because they are frequently invisible or irrelevant to other drivers. But unlike the pilot, most don’t have the training to recognize the root cause of their bad experiences or how to eliminate them.

[/tab] [tab]


The green bicyclist is clear of all of the mid-block edge conflicts. She is well outside the door zone. She’s easily seen by drivers pulling out of parking spaces. She also has plenty of space to avoid them. She won’t be bothered by the wrong-way bicyclist.

Drivers of all vehicles face potential conflicts at driveways and intersections. Like a motorcycle driver, this bicyclist has positioned herself for the best vantage and visibility—she can see conflicting drivers and they can see her. She simply needs to be aware of a potential moving screen: cars to her left screening her view of left-turning drivers.

With only a few potential conflicts to monitor, the driver bicyclist has a virtually stress-free ride. She prevents most right-of-way incursions just by being visible and relevant. She knows where to place her attention and the value of communicating with others. She encounters almost no surprises.

[/tab] [/tabcontent] [tabcontainer] [tabtext]Spot the Potential Conflicts[/tabtext] [tabtext]Edge Bicyclist[/tabtext] [tabtext]Driver Bicyclist[/tabtext][/tabcontainer][/tabs]

To learn more about the types of bicyclist behavior and how they influence crash risk, see Bicyclist Behaviors & Crash Risk in the Engineering section. In this post, we will explore the cultural influences and social implications of bicyclist behavior. 

The Distorted Lens

The two bicyclists above not only have vastly different personal experiences, but the people with whom they interact also have a dramatically different experiences. For better or worse, we are all ambassadors. A close call or crash involves two people: the bicyclist and the motorist. They both leave the encounter affected by it. They also influence their families, friends and co-workers with the stories they tell about bicycling and bicyclists. Those stories become the lens through which the people around them view bicycling.

Anyone who has spent any time on bike blogs, forums and comment sections has encountered many, many “motorists are idiots” stories. These are predominantly stories of the unsuccessful bicyclist practicing edge or pedestrian behavior. He gets buzzed and cut off frequently. He wants new laws requiring motorists to move over, or yield to him when he’s passing on their right. He loves PSA campaigns that tell motorists to look for bicyclists, but it hasn’t occurred to him that there are things he can do better. He’s riding the way he believes he is expected to. Good thing he’s tough. Bicycling on the edge of the road is only for the fearless, fast and thick-skinned warrior.

Under the bravado is a disempowered, unsuccessful road user who needs other people to change so bicycling can be less frustrating. Most of us know this guy, or we’ve been him. He has been the face of American bicycling for decades.

If he never learns there’s a better way, he gives up and goes back to driving a car.


The Stories of the Unsuccessful Bicyclist

I’m a second class citizen.
I’m at the mercy of others.
Most motorists are careless and mean.
Bicycling is difficult and frustrating and won’t be safe until other people change and we have special facilities.

The majority of American bicyclists are locked into this cycle of conflict and frustration. In fact, the beliefs of our culture are designed to hold them there.

Get Out of the Way or Be Killed

Throughout history, dominant cultures have held their norms in place with stories, symbols and ideas designed to discourage deviation. This is called control mythology. It is insidiously woven into the culture so that it is not recognized as anything other than “the way it is and always has been”—an unchangeable fact of life. It is the underpinning of beliefs, customs and laws. It is the root cause of many intractable problems throughout the world. Tragically, it is often held in place most strongly by the subordinates it is intended to suppress.

The plight of the unsuccessful bicyclist is the product of the control mythology by which motordom, and its culture of speed, came to dominate our public roadways. Our current beliefs about the road date back only to the 1920s. As the motorcar entered our cities, it quickly ran up against the dominant pedestrian culture—a culture that had believed for thousands of years that streets were for people. The speed of the motorcar was incompatible with that culture’s customary use of the streets for socializing, commerce and movement of people and goods by human and animal power. The resulting clash—and death count—threatened to curtail the usefulness of the motorcar.  So began a deliberate effort by a wealthy minority of motoring interests to reframe the purpose and preferred users of our streets.

The Great Reframing resulted in the creation of a control mythology designed to clear the roads of anything that slows motorized traffic. To control by fear, it changed the perception of cars from vehicles being driven by people who are responsible for safe and competent operation into traffic—a faceless force of nature which must be avoided. That alone has had repercussions for safety, civility and justice for all road users. The reframing dissociated higher speed from greater responsibility, foisting upon us the utterly false belief that it is dangerous to be slow. But fear alone isn’t enough. Being slow and in the way is also socially unacceptable. Thus, if you shake off the imposed irrational fear, your peers will try to keep you in your place.


After almost 100 years, the beliefs that inhibit successful behavior have been accepted unquestioningly by most people. The forces that deliberately reframed our roads are long gone. Tradition now holds their legacy in place. Worst of all, the mythology is now so thoroughly perpetuated by the stories of unsuccessful bicyclists, the status quo would seem to have little to fear.

We Shall Overcome

Understanding these beliefs is essential to the task of encouraging bicycling in America. These beliefs are the root cause of why bicycling seems difficult, dangerous or impossible to most people. These beliefs have inhibited bicycling for decades.

These beliefs are a false construct that can be overcome by individual bicyclists. Even with all the imperfection of motorist behavior, the physical issues of land use, street design and other ills of our culture’s diversion into motor-centric transportation priorities, the individual can be empowered to thrive as a human-powered vehicle driver… right now. Not just the strong, brave, fearless….whatever. Anyone.

The green-shirted bicycle driver in the illustration at the top of the page is not unique by any physical characteristic, age or gender. That bicyclist is simply someone who has learned the same defensive driving skills taught to the drivers of another common narrow vehicle: the motorcycle. What’s less simple is that she had to overcome the baggage of the control mythology before she could learn the behaviors that allow her to have a successful and conflict-free experience. A future post in this series will discuss strategies for belief change.

diana_3The reward for the bicyclist is tremendous: empowerment for unlimited travel. But the reward for those of us wanting to encourage bicycling is also significant. This bicyclist tells stories, too. She tells stories about all the places she goes on her bike, how much better she feels when she arrives at a destination, how easy and rewarding it is to use a bike for transportation and how courteous her fellow road users are. She’s positively connected to her community. Her enthusiasm is infectious. It inspires her friends to dust off their bikes and try a trip to the park or the store, too. If they implement her style of riding, they, too, will be empowered by success. New positive stories will begin to edge out the old negative ones.

The Stories of the Successful Bicyclist

I’m a first class citizen.
I’m in control of my safety.
Most motorists are safe and courteous.
Bicycling is safe, easy and a great way to connect with the community. I don’t need special infrastructure, but there are some ways better infrastructure could enhance my travels.

Imagine a community where this is the dominant story. At I Am Traffic, we believe we can make it so. But first, there are some common advocacy strategies we need to reexamine. That will be the topic of part two.

Encouraging Cycling

Twice a month since 2006 I’ve taught a course for the local safety council on “alternative” transportation to adults with suspended driver’s licenses.  The students routinely recognize the benefits of bicycling when prompted: improved health, reduced environmental impact, reduced transportation costs, increased sociability, and of course, simple fun.  To varying degrees they also believe cycling to be slow, dangerous, uncomfortable, physically demanding, and impractical if one needs to carry things.  So encouraging people to bicycle is more a matter of removing barriers (practical or psychological) than convincing them of the benefits.

The psychological barriers to bicycling are often more common than the practical ones, so helping people to see the possibilities is a key strategy.  People are influenced and encouraged in different ways and through different channels, including the social realm, finances, urban planning and engineering, and the practical aspects of the bicycle and its accessories.


In November of 2012 writer Ray Keener dug up some data from a 1990 Bicycling Magazine survey.   While shops and manufacturers might have wondered at the time if an easier-to-use shifter system might have been the answer to getting more people on bikes, only 12% of “infrequent” cyclists said so.  The top motivator the “infrequents” reported was “If I had someone to ride with (46%).”  That was followed by:

  • If I had a more comfortable seat (37%)
  • If I had a safer place to ride (33%)
  • If I were in better condition (29%)
  • If I had a more scenic place to ride (28%).

A good riding partner, or better yet, an entire group of friendly, supportive riding partners can do more to show a new cyclist the possibilities and joys of cycling than anything else.  Too often cycling groups have themselves placed limitations on cycling.  “We go fast.” “You need a road bike.”  “We only ride trails.”  “Helmets required.”  “Our rides are 30 to 60 miles long.”

I believe the most effective thing experienced cyclists could do to encourage others to ride is simply to ride with them in a place and manner that the newcomer would find comfortable.  That may initially mean on a trail or quiet local streets.  Don’t set any preconditions.  Each ride is an opportunity to share your knowledge and expertise.  But take care to open up the floodgates of information.  Find just a few things to make improvements on each time — get that saddle at the right height; teach proper mounting, starting, stopping and dismounting; get her generally in the right cadence range but don’t fuss about it; etc. —  and spend the rest of your ride simply enjoying the trip.  Your task is not to make your friend into an expert rider in a day.  It’s to show him that cycling can be enjoyable and that there are lots of things he still needs to learn to make it better.  If you agree to give the ride a purpose — to go to a restaurant, a park, another friends place — anyplace they’d routinely go by car — that’s even better.

I’d really like to see each cycling club start a serious new-rider program.  Each weekend there should be rides designed for absolute beginners.  This doesn’t mean going 15 mph instead of 20.  It means taking the one-on-one approach I outlined above and adapting it to a group.

A CommuteOrlando social ride.

In Orlando we’ve been running rides through and Bike-Walk Central Florida that appeal to those riders.  These rides are set up to show new riders the possibilities.  Our First Friday rides are social rides of about 10 miles in length that are run all on multi-lane roads.  We maintain a well-controlled double pace line at about 10 to 12 mph and controlling the right lane.  Ride leaders manage it in such a way that everyone is comfortable and knows exactly what to do.  Ice cream rides are held on summer evenings.  New riders get to see that there’s no need for exceptional speed or extreme skills to use a bicycle around town.  Eliot Landrum in Dallas, Texas has some good ideas on this as well. [link to come]

Stop “Dangerizing”

In my 2009 essay Which Cycling Politics: Doom or Possibility? I began with a story.

A woman walks into a marketing and public relations firm and sits down to talk with their lead strategist.

“Our organization has a fun, safe and healthy activity we wish to promote, but we’re struggling to figure out the right approach,” she says.

The strategist thinks for a moment, then responds, “I recommend the approach bicycle advocates have been using for the past 20 years:  reinforce the public’s fears about your activity.”

The woman is taken aback, pauses for a moment, then says, “Oh!  You had me going there for a moment!”

“What do you mean?” asks the strategist.

“Well, you were joking, right?…”

We must stop being our own worst enemy.  While on the one hand we tout the benefits of cycling, too many “advocates” feed the belief that cycling is dangerous.


Money can be either a motivator or a hindrance in convincing people to bike, or to bike more.  For the person of average means, a bicycle can save money, particularly when replacing auto trips.  Illustrating the full costs of auto use can be effective with them.

A Get Active Orlando bicycle giveaway for low-income adults.

For some lower income persons an auto is essential, and the extra expense of a good quality bike is beyond their means.  Further down the economic ladder, many very low income workers use bicycles, but are limited to poor-quality “big box” bikes.  Helping lower income people gain access to good quality bicycles while also providing good cycling education could cast “bicycle advocacy” in a much more positive light.

At the community level, a bicyclist-friendly business program can help in many ways.  Businesses that provide discounts or other bonuses to cyclists make people feel good about the businesses and themselves, and such programs tend to interest local businesses rather than chains.  Business owners also come to recognize cyclists as customers, rather than just strangers out on the road.  Employers and cyclists can also take advantage of federal tax incentives that that allows bicycle commuting costs to be paid for with pre-tax earnings.

A more challenging strategy is removing some of the hidden subsidies for auto use.  Parking, for example, is a valuable service that motorists don’t pay for directly in suburban areas (for retail parking all customers pay for parking as the overhead portion of goods and services), and often pay a subsidized less-than-market rate in city centers.  Reducing the supply of parking where feasible and getting motorists to pay for parking both out-of-pocket and at its true cost will get people to consider cycling for shorter urban trips (though it really must be done in conjunction with significant improvements to the public transit system).

Planning and Engineering as Encouragement

inverted U
An inverted U rack; the can’t-miss default for quality bicycle parking.

Of course, along with reducing subsidies for and dominance of auto parking, communities also need to improve the availability and quality of bicycle parking.  In a 1995 survey of Orlando area residents, respondents identified good bicycle parking as a more important incentive than trails or bike lanes.  Forgotten in the discussion of bikeways and increased bicycle use in New York City is the fact that the City also changed its codes in 2009 to require commercial buildings to accommodate bicycle driving employees.   Bicycle theft has long been a serious deterrent to cycling in New York.  Leaving a bike locked along the street – even with the best of locks – has always been a risky proposition for cyclists there.  It’s quite possible the bike parking code did more to encourage cycling than the bikeways did.  Local governments should require quality short-term parking for customers and more secure long-term parking for employees.

Chicago 16
Chicago Bike Station.

It’s also imperative that permit review staff understand the particular needs and criteria for quality bicycle parking.  There are myriad ways to do it wrong, and relatively few ways to do it right.

Many Americans live in far-flung suburbs, in which important destinations are beyond comfortable cycling distance.  Combining bicycling with transit can overcome this challenge.  To do so, planners need to provide good connections to and good bicycle parking at transit stops, bicycle accommodations on buses and trains, and other useful amenities, such as bike-sharing systems and shower and locker facilities.

neighborhood connector
A short path connecting cul de sacs in California.

Trails, bike lanes and other types of separated facilities are often pitched as encouragement as much as they are for safety or mobility.  I will leave discussion of the validity of such claims for the Engineering section of this site, but there are engineering treatments that can serve as productive encouragement without compromising the principles of integrated bicycle driving.

Trails in their own rights-of-way and short connector paths can help cyclists stay on neighborhood street networks and avoid busier arterial and collector roads.

Shared lane markings (“sharrows”) and “Bicyclists May Use Full Lane” signs can make it clear to cyclists and motorists alike that bicyclists are normal and expected users of the roadway, and that a centered lane position is usually the preferred position.

Shared Lane Marking or “sharrow.”

Ensuring traffic signal detection systems detect bicycles not only improves safety, but demonstrates that a community cares about the details.


Many non-cyclists and inexperienced ones make assumptions about the practical aspects of cycling: that bicycles are inherently uncomfortable; that one can’t carry very much; that bike thieves can’t be foiled; that bicycling requires a high level of athleticism.  No doubt many who hold such opinions are simply expressing rationalizations to excuse themselves from having to consider cycling at all. Those people are probably not the “low-hanging fruit” of potential new cyclists.

CommuteOrlando and Bike-Walk Central Florida “S-Cargo” ride.

But others simply haven’t been exposed to the practical solutions to those challenges.  On the personal level, we can offer to check that our friends’ bikes fit well and have appropriate saddles.  Advocates for cycling can work with their local shops to encourage them to carry accessories like panniers and trailers if they don’t already.  Cargo bikes could be an element of a bike-sharing system.  CommuteOrlando and Bike-Walk Central Florida lead “S-Cargo” rides, in which the group rides to a local farmers’ market with cargo bikes, trailers and panniers.  Those without such accessories also ride along and get to see the practicality of these tools first hand, as do many of the market or store customers and employees.

All of the Above

It should be clear that there is no single silver bullet for encouraging people to bike.  Some of these strategies can be advanced by us as individuals; others require organization and sustained effort.  Communities that take such an all-of-the-above approach are likely to see real progress.