On Bicyclists

Mike Lydon's picture

There are three types of bicyclists: Advanced Bicyclists, Intermediate Bicyclists and Beginner Bicyclists. We need to plan and build facilities to accommodate all of them. Those cities that do are experiencing ridership numbers far above the national average.

Advanced Bicyclists are highly skilled, comfortable "taking the lane" in traffic, and move consistently at speeds greater than 12mph. This group is largely comprised of daily commuters, racers, bicycle messengers and "weekend warriors" (those spandex/jersey wearing regulars you see plying the streets early on Saturday and Sunday mornings). Such riders often move in pelotons or "packs," and customize their road, recumbent, commuter and fixed-gear bicycles to reflect their riding eccentricities. Many own more than one of the above. Advanced bicyclists tune their bikes regularly, take bicycle touring vacations to Europe or Napa, and may pack a folding bike while traveling on business. They willingly participate in competitive racing, rides for charity and/or or Critical Mass. They subscribe to Bicycle Magazine or actively participate in obscure email listserv discussions. They form the memberships of grass-roots advocacy organizations and road biking clubs across the country. They were the first to buy Livestrong Bracelets and may let you know it. Advanced Bicyclists generally ride with great confidence, but often do not ride safely – opting to skirt existing traffic laws in favor of efficiency.

Despite sharing a passion for two wheels, Advanced Bicyclists are fragmented into two distinct schools of thought: those who favor bikeway facilities like bicycle lanes and bicycle boulevards, and those who do not.

Although capable of riding without them, those who favor bikeway facilities believe they increase predictability, their own safety and the number of cyclists on the road. In defense of bikeway facilities this subset focuses on qualitative issues, finding bicycle lanes and the like to be instructive for intermediate or novice riders. They also appreciate the space and dignity a designated bikeway provides. Thus, this group finds bicycle advocacy to be a populist endeavor, one that ostensibly improves safety, awareness, and the environmental issues for which they are passionate. Portland, Oregon and Davis, California are model examples.

Those who loathe bicycle lanes tend to view them as a form of nanny-state coddling. Alternatively, they implore "vehicular cycling," as the only means for safe and effective bicycling. This subset conducts quantitative studies to disprove the assertions of bicycle lane supporters. They are largely comprised of engineer-type male bicyclists who suppose their superior cycling abilities can be achieved by the masses if taught correctly...by them. They emphasize training classes and support laws that support their agenda. Their leaders are John Forrester and John Allen, whose passionate bicycle lane dissent is, for better or worse, becoming increasingly irrelevant in the face of a growing movement of populist bikeway facility and infrastructure advocates.

The truth is that both groups could learn a great deal from each other, if they would just stop bickering. Their greatest hope for compromise is the "Sharrow."


Intermediate Bicyclists are relatively skilled recreational and utility riders who bicycle with varying regularity. If proper bikeway facilities exist, they might use their bicycle for commuting. This group is the largest users of bicycle racks (especially those on buses) and off-street bicycle paths. Less ideological and discerning than Advanced Bicyclists, they ride road, electric, hybrid, mountain, cruisers and retro-cool Schwinn ten speed bicycles. Intermediate bicyclists occasionally frequent the local bike shop and still ride on the sidewalk if they feel threatened. They will eventually teach their progeny to do the same. This group generally supports bikeway facilities and would probably ride more often if bicycle lanes and boulevards were to expand into a coherent network. They are not aware of the bikeway facility divide between Advanced Bicyclists. Generally in tune with other aspects of bicyling culture, Intermediate bicyclists brought Livestrong bracelets from niche cause to international trend.

Appealing to Intermediate Bicyclists in America is essential, as they represent the largest opportunity for an increase in bicycle ridership.


Beginner Bicyclists include children and other first-time bicyclists. They ride primarily on sidewalks, recreational bicycle paths, or in parks or college campuses. They ignore traffic laws with regularity, not knowing they apply to bicycles. They ride new big-box store mountain bikes, BMX, and cruisers, or inherit "hand-me-down" bicycles from family members and friends, which they rarely, if ever, tune. Ideally, they would undergo some level of safety instruction before moving onto busier thoroughfares, but will likely be acculturated by observing those properly and improperly using the existing network. As it relates to children, a well-formulated Safe Routes to School program can do the most to promote safe cycling.

Although all of the above is subject to scrutiny, I cannot ignore years of observing bicyclist behavior, trends and pecularities. In general, I write because striping a network of bicyle lanes or adding "Share the Road" signs is simply not enough to create a complete system for all three user types. Thus, a much more fine-grained approach is needed in bicycle planning, one that will help interested bicyclists evolve "up the ladder." I will outline how this might be conceived in a not-too-distant future post.



Mike Lydon is Principal of the Street Plans Collaborative and co-author of Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Actions for Long-term Change (Island Press, 2015).



This is great Mike. I had

This is great Mike. I had heard that there were differences but wasn't sure of the extent. I would guess i'm on the low end of the intermediate cyclists, taking my ride on BART then to Gramma's house. Looking forward to the next post.

biking groups

I like your analysis of the different biking groups. Where do food deliverymen in NYC fit into the mix? I've seen dudes biking during snowstorms at night without helmets, backwards down one-way streets, all to make sure the food arrives hot. Amazing.

On a more serious note, in addition to bike lanes (and rubber bracelets), what would you say are the best ways to reach out to the middle group of intermediate bikers?

Perhaps we could do a better job of "selling" cycling

I've written a post in response to this article at Landscape Architecture Resource asking if perhaps we could learn from marketing. Every day marketers get millions of people to try new things, adopt new habits or ideas, and even become devoted loyal fans (think of Mini owners clubs, sports fans, mac users). Maybe there's a lesson to learn from the perspective of "selling" the cyclist lifestyle.

Dan Wood

Thanks for thinking about everyone else!

After going to planning school with a class full of advanced bicyclists who love riding in 40 mph traffic, it is nice someone acknowledged there are other bicyclists too. I think I am still in the beginner category, although considering moving closer to the intermediate group if I get a job within biking distance. I have read about the theory of vehicular cycling and it made some sense in theory. In reality, the thought of sitting in a double left-hand turn lane in the middle of traffic on a big arterial road scared me.

In Berlin, many people ride in the separated bicycle lanes. They are usually located at sidewalk level or sometimes at street level and mostly between the sidewalk and the parallel parked cars. In order to increase bicycle trips, the city of Berlin is adding more dedicated bicycle lanes. Considering there are kids as young as 5 years old in these bicycle lanes, a separate lane makes sense for safety. Who would let their 5 year old pedal in traffic?

The bicycle lanes here are more user-friendly than some of the ones I have seen in the U.S. For example, on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis the bicycle lane is placed in the middle of the road between a southbound bus lane and 3 lanes of northbound traffic. It works fine for the bike messengers who have nerves of steel... but not for me.

Integrate bike lanes with contiguous paths

Faith noted a crucial difference between European bike lanes and North American ones: In Europe, bike lanes tend to be integrated more with the pedestrian environment than with the road network. Bikes mix better with pedestrians than with cars. Of course there can also be problems with bicyclists encroaching on the pedestrian environment, but it's not like the pedestrian environment in North America is something to be proud of!

In addition, there is more awareness of the importance of creating contiguous bike/pedestrian pathways that actually lead somewhere. It is not enough to have a pedestrianized street or even a pedestrian 'zone'; users of soft-transportation modes need to have proper accessibility to destinations too! Corridors with limited motorized vehicle access can allow travellers to move through large sections of the city without being in direct proximity to large numbers of vehicles. See for example the transport section of the Charter of Stockholm of the Council of European Urbanism or some picture of examples here.

Mischaracterized Debate

Mike--You have mischaracterized the "lanes vs no lanes" debate. Although there are zealots out there who take these extreme positions, many if not most, bicycling advocates take a much more pragmatic position. But before I get into that, let me address one issue. Vehicular cycling, particularly as taught by the League of American Bicyclists, is not an anti-lane curriculum at all. In fact we teach (I'm a certified instructor) how to ride safely and legally on bike paths and bike lanes, as well as roads with no facilities. Most communities have a mix of roads with and without lanes so we address both situations and how to transition from one to the other.

The pragmatic position recognizes that lanes and paths are good for encouraging cycling, particularly among beginners. So money for bike facilities is a needed and useful investment for a community. But it also recognize two problems: (1) most communities have few facilities and it will take time to get more in place; in the meantime bicyclists should understand how to ride without them; and, (2) many communities have improperly constructed, unsafe facilities; for example, many communities put bike lanes in the parked car "door zone" which we know from accident statistics is a much worse place to be than in the road taking the lane (there are many more examples). The pragmatic position is to advocate for both bicycle facilities (lanes, paths, parking) and for bicycle driver education, NOT engage is this zealous, irrelevant lane vs no lane debate.

At this time the jury is still out on the sharrow. We have one sharrowed road in our community and we are carefully monitoring and getting cyclists feedback. So far so good.

Finally, let me say that the single biggest improvement we could make for cycling is to start educating middle and high school students on the proper way to drive their bicycles. The more they view it as a form of transportation rather than a toy, the more likely they are to ride. The more educated they are, the safer, more comfortable, and more efficient they will be.

Now, how about that helmet vs. no helmet debate?!

Mike Lydon's picture

Fully agree

thanks for your well-informed and pragmatic comments/approach. I agree with everything you say and do not think my post says otherwise. I would say I simplified the "lanes vs. no lanes" debate, not mis-characterized. This was for ease of readership.
You shall see in the follow-up piece that my approach is very similar to the one LAB supports and teaches. However, you will also read a pro-active strategy for reaching out to all cyclist types, something communities tend to forget.

I am aware that studies are still being conducted on the sharrow. TO date, all of the completed studies I have read are positive. I also rely on careful observation. Everywhere I observe the sharrow in use, it has been a great tool, especially get cyclists riding in the right direction and away from the door zone (the sharrow is VERY importantin mixed-use/commercial districts). Here in Miami Beach, we are about to have a sharrow along one of our major commercial thoroughfares. I will certainly report on that as it is implemented and used.

Thanks again, I hope you read the next part of the article!


Accomodating all Cyclists=good!

Thanks for noting the differences among cyclists. I think you are spot-on in your evaluation of the nutty Forrester crowd.
Here in SF, we have found that after striping a bike lane, commuter bike traffic usually doubles. Leaving the safety debate aside, this is great news for increasing cycling in our hilly, traffic-laden streets, and also great for reducing our carbon footprint and increasing our fitness.
When evaluating the bike network for safety and convenience, I usually put forth the "TDG" formula, which is, what if Two Danish Girls rented bikes to tour the city? What would their experience be like? Would they feel safe? Could they find the bike routes that would take them where they want to go?
I can't imagine that riding in traffic, as Forrester suggests, would in any way give them a positive experience of our environs, or get them where they want to go safely.
To increase the popularity of cycling as a viable means of transport, all levels of cyclists must be accomodated.

Thanks for the article, here's the Paris version

In Paris there is a bit more public support than in most American cities, so far, as evidenced by the public-private Velib' program.

See here for my colleague's review of the Velib' system:

Then, read Warren's commentary on the Danish bike scene:

Although increased private bike ownership and additional public bike amenities are the main keys to increased usage, bikeshare can help, at any level of organization. (co-housing to city-wide)



(I am not connected to any bike-share companies)

Lets think about context . . .

Dividing cyclists into groups based on expertise is a fairly limited gesture. Although it does begin to assess the different needs of cyclists at different levels, the categorizations are far too broad to really begin a meaningful dialog. Further, these categories position the argument in favor of policies aimed towards the “intermediate level” of rider. The debate between integrated and separatist cycling needs to be sensitized to context, not skill level.

Full disclosure: I’ve been riding bicycles my whole life, and undoubtedly would be considered an advanced rider. I grew up in small, rural town in New England and used my bike as my primary means of transportation locally. This eventually segued into a stint as at mountain bike racing, and braving the streets of New York City for a number of years. I’ve ridden through Berkeley and the Oakland Hills. I’ve observed ciclovias in Bogata and Mexico City (didn’t bring my own wheel, too bad). Currently, I reside in Philadelphia, and use my bike as my principal means of transportation.

My wife, on the other hand, has been riding a bike for less than a year. She bought a used Raleigh when she moved here, and now rides it on here 20 minute commute to work nearly everyday (and throughout the winter, I might add). Philadelphia has been “blessed” with a profusion of bike lanes in recent years. Unfortunately, these lanes are a little too narrow, roughly the width of the door zone – just where they happen to be placed. Besides being a great place to get door’d, these lanes are also a great place to double-park. As West Philadelphia also happens to have an abundance of above ground trolley tracks, which are a great place to get your wheels stuck if you get a little to close to them. You can imagine the perfect storm of a cycling accident that could take place, given these conditions. So my wife, despite being a “beginning” cyclist, opts for vehicular cycling – because in these conditions, it is simply the safer option that riding in the bike lane. Does this mean this is always the case? Hardly; but it does mean that appropriate facilities can vary from place to place.

The rather incendiary tone of this blog entry's treatment of vehicular cycling does all cyclists a disservice and is patently sexist, implying that only a small, male contingent of cyclists are capable of observing vehicular traffic laws alongside automobiles. Even the Wikipedia link he includes cites arguments countering his implications. I will admit that there are a number of cyclists out there flouting traffic laws and generally being a danger to themselves, pedestrians, other cyclists and automobiles. You can imagine my frustration when, while walking across the Williamsburg Bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn, I was nearly run down by a rider on a track bike yelling “No Brakes! No Brakes!” as a warning (and an excuse). That sort of reckless mentality is unacceptable on a bike as it is in a car, and I’m inclined to agree with the reader who suggests greater advocacy towards middle and high school students. But for bicycles to really be viable as a transportation alternative, ALL cyclists should aspire to be competent enough to safely ride with traffic. After all, what major American city has a one to one accessibility level between bike lanes and plain ol’ streets? Portland, wet dream of the CNU, has even cited in its cycling studies that about half of all bicycle-automobile accidents are caused by the cyclists. Training people to ride safely and responsibly should hardly be derided.

Maybe I’m biased towards my own, highly urban context. After all, the only serious accident I’ve ever gotten into on a bike was in the suburbs. Maybe I should have been riding on the sidewalk. Just try that in Manhattan.

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