Sunday, February 6, 2011

Bicycles and the City: A list guide for survival and sanity

Included in almost every car advertisement is a blurb about the car’s fuel efficiency. Measured in miles per gallon, this tells us how far we get with a measured amount of fuel. Despite the continually increasing “mpg’s” we see, cars are horrible wasters of gas. Check out this chart of fuel efficiencies:

Bicycles are a model of efficiency. Wikipedia says they range from 80-99% efficient. A lot of the juice we put into the pedals comes out favorably as forward motion. Bikes are great.  Exercise, a breeze in your hair, no traffic jams, and some feel goods about not wasting money.

In no place is the bike best suited than a bustling city. All of these benefits are sure to follow so long as you don’t contend face-to-face with that 2-ton inefficient monster known as an automobile.

This is a seemingly obvious list to help you keep things sane. 

1) Helmets: Whereas it was uncool to wear a helmet in our younger years, today it says a lot about the head its protecting. I think of it as someone expressing humility, recognition of mortality. Simply put--your body can take a beating, your head cannot.
2) Best offense is a good defense? As far as the totem pole goes for city commuting, bikers are on the lowest end. Think of it as a glorified and unfair game of rock paper scissors. Car beats all, but cars can be trumped by pedestrians and the following lawsuits. It’s best to assume that bikes  lose no matter what you throw. There are many of cases where bicyclists are involved in an accident and inherit all of the blame and fines, despite having to go to the E.R.

3) Buses…There is one rule only. Don’t mess with them, period. Do not: go around them, in front of them, or behind them (for the sake of breathing.) They are cumbersome and unforgiving.

We can use physics for an absurd example:

Physics has a formula to measure how much Oommph or force a moving object has. If we calculate it out, a bus driving 25 m.p.h. has 768,350 Newtons and a bicyclist driving the same speed has about 3,932 Newtons.

What is a Newton? It’s a unit of force similar to how  we use pounds to measure weight. 1 newton is about 1/5 of a pound, so say a nice sized apple.
Take the bus’s apples and subtract them from the bicyclist's:
768,350 – 3,932 = 764,418 (more apples than you had) This means the bus stole all your thunder and continued to give you all of its remaining thunder in the form of pain.

Ok, so no one needs an equation to know that a bus will destroy a bike, it’s not a bad idea though to look at it from another viewpoint to drive it home. Keep your distance.

4) Blinky lights: As nighttime falls a bicyclists turns into a phantom. Scooting silently through the street canals masked within the periphery of an automobiles limited headlights. For these midnight hours there are many products out there built to obnoxiously announce that there is another being sharing the road. Quickly flashing LED lights keep you safe.
5) The Moment of Truth: The psychology of being knocked off your bike by an automobile is a perturbing event, to put it lightly. 

What happens: You are on your way to your destination and through a blinding mix of probabilities, a car is on a one-way course to ruin your day. Your mind will be at peace as you soar in slow-motion through the air. After a quick inversion from going over the handlebars you will land with the shocking force of everything reality has to offer. 

After realizing a few seconds later that you’re okay, just bleeding, you will notice the automobile driver still there, stopped with no expression. They remain in their fortified cocoon sealed off from all pandemonium in and around you. The car has not a scratch, it didn’t move one bit. You have repairs, a limp and the most unsettling feeling in your gut, you are so fragile and vulnerable with few to empathize or even sympathize.

Moving forward:

Number 5 is no good. So stay away from it, use your head and protect it. You'll be okay on a bicycle. Alternatively, just ride a bus and have an apple--both are financially smart and healthy things to do.


  1. I'd say you could add "Use bike lanes when possible" as no. 6. Too bad the forces of winter, as well as the forces of man that attempt to clear away the forces of winter (i.e., the snowplows), don't do cyclists any favors. The bike lanes are full of poorly parked cars because the drivers are either unable or too lazy to get through the snow on the roadside!

  2. Great list! I wish more people would take your #4 seriously. It's amazing to me how many bikers I see without lights on my ride home! And nice "science content" - now I'll definitely be sure to stay away from buses.

  3. I love the way you worked physics into this post, you gave some good examples to back up your points. Having completely flattened the front of my own bike helmet in a fall (a long, long time ago) I am partial to #1.

  4. I really like the way this unexpectedly veers off from "useful" tips into physics. In fact, a science of biker survival post would be really good - including explainer for LED lights, calculation of momentum when falling...

  5. Eric, your description of being hit makes it sound as though you write from personal experience. If so (speaking as friend, classmate and fellow cyclist), I'm so glad you're okay. I love your visual warning the reader about science content. Finally, I saw a documentary last year about Sweden that featured that country's bicycling culture. It was quite amazing to see the phenomenal bike:car ratio -- I'd say many tens, maybe hundreds in some cases, to one. I think Sweden and other European countries have better-demarcated bike lanes, like the raised divider we have on that small section of University. I'd love to see more of those here -- even in bike-friendly Madison I see too many cars in bike lanes.

  6. Great post! As a fellow bicyclist, I definitely appreciate #1. The number of people I see biking without helmets still baffles me. I also recommend adding the step: Stop at stop signs, especially if you see a bike cop milling around. (I had the unfortunate experience of failing at this step and had to go to a bike safety class)