Monday, January 12, 2009

Classifying bicyclists: as easy as A B C?

If you attend the Louisville Bicycle Summit II on February 12, you will probably hear mention of A, B, and C bicyclists: A for advanced; B for basic, and C for child. (Click here to learn about and sign up for the free, all-day Bicycle Summit, about which I will write more later.) According to the engineers and planners who use this A-B-C scheme, A bicyclists are experienced, skilled riders willing to ride an almost any road open to bicyclists. B bicyclists are casual riders, willing to ride on low-traffic neighborhood streets, not-terribly-busy streets with bike lanes, and on paths. C riders, children, need low-speed, low-traffic neighborhood streets or paths to keep them safe from cars.

It seems like a reasonable scheme, and for several years I accepted it even though some national bicycle advocacy leaders disliked it. I've grown increasingly uncomfortable with it, though. Here are some arguments against separating bicyclists into groups for planning purposes, and some alternative approaches that make better sense to me.

Most of us know some drivers who avoid driving on expressways, or in heavy urban traffic. We know others who will go out of their way to drive on an expressway to avoid the inconvenience of stop signs and traffic lights. We also know inexperienced drivers, including teens and recent immigrants. Yet the traffic engineers and transportation planners don't divide motorists into categories and discuss which subset of drivers will use a particular new or redesigned road. They look at each road as part of a roadway network to serve the needs of the full range of motorists. Good transportation planners look at the various parts of the network (limited-access highways, major and minor surface roads, and neighborhood streets) and prioritize investments in the parts of the system that most need improvement.

I would like to see a similar approach for bicycling infrastructure. Rather than considering bicyclists as three groups, consider the variety of functions that a given road or path might serve for bicyclists - casual recreational riding, short-distance transportation, long-distance transportation, high-speed sport and fitness riding, riding in groups, and so on. Then, consider how this particular road or path fits into the bicycle facility network. Set the goal of providing appropriate roads or paths to serve each bicycling function in each part of the community, so people don't need to drive somewhere else in order to ride bicycle! In short: classify the bicycling function, not the bicyclists.

This acknowledges that the same bicyclist might have different needs and desires at different times. I choose very different routes for my solo commuting and errands than I choose for recreational rides with my wife, for riding with children, or for group rides. Pegging me as an A rider does not account for my variety of bicycling needs.

The A-B-C rider classification scheme also tends to fragment the bicycling community and undermine advocacy. The most well-informed bicycle advocates tend to be highly experienced bicyclists. Many public officials label us as A riders and then assume that we have lost any sense of what less-experienced bicyclists need or want. Of course, some avid riders choose to stay in the world of bicycle aficionados, with little concern or sympathy for the desires of less devoted bicyclists. It is unfair, inaccurate, and self-defeating to assume that all experienced riders have made this choice. Some of us stay in touch with the broader community of bicyclists and know first hand the desire to ride comfortably at low speed and with a minimum of threat from faster vehicles. My ability and willingness to ride on Shelbyville Road at rush hour does not reduce my appreciation for a quiet path far from motor vehicles, or my sympathy for people who can't imagine riding on a busy road without special bicycling facilities.

Instead of talking about "classes" of bicyclists, let's focus on developing a network of facilities to serve the broad spectrum of bicycling activities. Louisville has adopted an innovative Complete Streets manual and policy calling for each new or expanded roadway to provide for the needs of bicyclists and pedestrians. Let's get to know this manual and refer to it every time we consider a roadway project. As bicyclists, let's speak up for our own needs while recognizing the needs of others. Most of all, let's remember that it's all good: any bicycling that does not harm or threaten someone is worthy of our respect and support. The sooner fast, avid riders value and make common cause with slow, casual riders and vice versa, the sooner we will grow into a movement that will change the face and heart of our community.


jimmy said...

Wow Barry, great entry. It's always so refreshing to hear anyone else express this line of thinking. Keep up the great work. See you at the summit

bikeolounger said...

Barry, you are right. We try to fit folks into simple, easy-to-understand categories to gain our own understanding of their needs.

It's like your effort to redefine the road use discussions in terms of polite vs. impolite road users--some folks just don't WANT to get it.

I met a cyclist Thursday morning who had not learned of the Summit. I suggested your web site among a couple others where she could learn more details than we could cover in the mile or two we rode together, but it's clear to me that some folks still aren't hearing the buzz. Maybe we need another hit in the LEO and/or Velocity?

And shouldn't we tell the folks at the Courier that their weekly supposedly-hip thing needs to have some different emphasis in its title? VELO-CITY instead of Velocity.