The Two Types of Bicyclist

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

I am a bicycle commuter in Los Angeles, which on the face of it is a pretty tricky proposition. The major boulevards here are designed like freeways, and people use them as such. Pico, Highland, Sepulveda, Olympic- these streets were built for speed and make commuting not a little tricky for your serious bicycle commuter.

But there's the difference- I'm not a serious bicycle commuter. I don't shave my legs, seal myself up in neoprene, and take my fixie out zooming like a Tour de France athlete. My bike of choice is an Electra Townie, a sort of more flexible cruiser with a big cushy seat and a not insignificant weight. I'm lucky that I live only 1.5 miles from work, so I can take it easy, ride slowly, and enjoy the show as I roll past the La Brea Tar Pits. 

So should I, at 10 mph tops, be forced to compete with the cars on streets like La Cienega? At a Los Angeles Transportation Committee meeting last week, the committee began to propose just that (LAist)

Many people don't know that as the law currently stands, bicyclists are A-OK on the sidewalks of Los Angeles County.  As long as you don't show "willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property." And in my experience, pedestrians are always willing to scoot over for a cyclist, and do not see them as nuisances. I try to be as courteous in return, slowly edging up on people so I don't freak them out, and using my bell quietly when necessary. 

I submit that there are really two classes of cyclists, and they naturally sort themselves out on the roadway. Faster commuters on road bikes use bike lanes and weave through traffic because the sidewalks are too slow for them, while bikers like me use the sidewalks because it's safer and can easily navigate any obstacles at our slower speeds. And each type is suited for their chosen environment. 

Bicycle planners, what do you think? Can we create a two-tiered system? 

Tim Halbur is communications director for the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).



Two Kinds of Cyclists!

I would most certainly agree that there are two kinds of cyclists, but I define the groups a little differently!

Mike Lydon's picture

Respectfully disagree

I wrote some time back for on my Interchange Blog that there are really three meta-types of bicyclists. See: However, as I note, there are many, many types of sub-bicyclist types, all who have to be "marketed" to in different ways. I ride comfortably on almost any street, but certainly don't rock the spandex or race as if I am Armstrong.

Tim, to me it seems you absolutely fall somewhere into the intermediate category. You ride frequently, but tend to hug the sidewalk in along dicey situations. You would likely ride further and be more comfortable if there were more physically-protected bikeways, or if LA just simply had a network of safe streets that connected to real destinations and services, which were not detailed to be completely auto-centric. Miami has a similar problem, in that much of the "stuff" is along the three and four lane streets where motorists often travel 40+mph...exactly the thoroughfares that are the most difficult to retrofit politically.

Roger Geller, a respected Portland bicycle planner submits that there are actually four types...and I guess he is right, as he includes the completely disinterested! Follow this link to read his excellent essay on the subject:

While I understand that you feel comfortable bicycling on the sidewalk, you should know the relative risk involved. The vast majority of accidents occur at intersections. Unfortunately, when riding on the sidewalk, especially where there are parallel parked cars, most motor vehicles will have a hard time seeing you as the turn into each perpendicular street, as most are looking for pedestrians, not bicyclists,if they are looking at all. Studies also conclude that bicycling in the street is much safer, especially when you ride predictably and follow traffic laws. indeed, you are likely to have a collision with a sidewalk-side door, a pedestrian, a motor vehicle, or another sidewalk riding bicyclist (many, many bicycle accidents are bike on bike). The problem with that is, riding along many streets in that manner says nothing of being comfortable. Comfortability, not matter the bicyclist skill type, seems to be one of the key determinants in people choosing bicycling, or another mode. To change anything in this country we simply need to make bicycling more comfortable for all.

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

biking today, not tomorrow

Everyone's suggestions for bike lane planning are fascinating, and I'm glad I opened up this thread.

But these are suggestions for the ideal, not the current and practical. I bike to work now, and many of the streets I'm biking on do not allow parked cars and are too narrow to accommodate a bicycle and a passing car.

Ironically enough, the megablocks that I so hate as a planner and pedestrian are actually wonderful for biking. There is a 5-block stretch along the Tar Pits and the LA County Museum of Art with no intersections on that side of the street, and big, wide sidewalks. So in the abstract, the statistical average may show that bikers are safer biking in the street than on the sidewalk. But in my practical conditions, there is no way I'm better off in the street.

So in my opinion, all is well and good in the utopian bike plan of tomorrow, but in the world of today's L.A., and many other cities, bicyclists need both options (road and sidewalk) for safety purposes.

Walk Your Bike

If you're willing to walk your bike, use the sidewalk. If not, use the street.

Attempting to be a pedestrian and a vehicle pretty much endows you with the biggest problems and most vulnerable aspects of both.

And riding a bike on the sidewalk is really irritating to pedestrians. You see a bike on the sidewalk, you have to assume the rider is too young to have any sense, or they don't know how to ride well enough to ride in the street. In either case you can't relax until they've gone by.

With daughter in tow, I'm glad to have sidewalks

While I applaud bike boulevards in Berkeley that make bike commuting and other forms of riding the comfortable safe experience they should be, I think Tim's points shouldn't be disregarded.

When I bike alone, I'm often a speed-hungry commuter trying to make a train on time. I use striped bike lanes and feel reasonably convinced that my best safety strategy is wearing reflective gear and being as visible as possible in or near the regular moving lanes of the road. Still, I still treat green lights at major intersections as yellows just in case I'm about to encounter an errant teenage driver in mid text message.

Much of the time, however, I'm not biking alone, however. When my daughter is behind me in her child seat, I leave earlier and avoid the striped lanes. When possible, I connect as directly as possible with former railways that are now bike-walk paths. But when I'm riding the city streets, I stick to the sidewalks. The other comments here demonstrate that I'm not choosing a completely safe option, but it feels like the best one I have. Traveling as Tim does, I find the risks and conflicts manageable. Where we encounter pedestrians — in many traditional neighborhoods, they hardly dominate the sidewalks — we slow down and move over. (Doubly so if we encounter someone in a wheelchair.) When we get to quiet intersections, we slow to a crawl and then cross at the speed of pedestrians, making eye contact with any drivers nearby or using mutual hand signals to determine who goes first. At big intersections (when the can't be avoided), walking the bike in the crosswalk is a good idea.

If my city had bike boulevards or protected bike lanes between parked cars and the curb, they'd certainly come in handy for some trips and I'd certainly fight for more of them. But my daughter will probably have children or grandchildren of her own before these amenities become pervasive enough to make a difference for the bulk of most trips. In the meantime, cities with traditional neighborhoods have already made huge investments in infrastructure that is protected from careening SUVs and other two-ton hazards — sidewalks. I say "use 'em" .... with caution.

There's a Better Way


You bring up an excellent point that there are different types of cyclists. However, riding on the sidewalk creates a number of problems of its own. Sidewalks were never designed for traffic moving any faster than walking speed (about 4 mph), and can for a variety of reasons be more dangerous to the cyclist than riding on the street. There are a lot of studies that back this up.

Also, most sidewalks are only about four to five feet wide, while the average bicyclist takes up about 3.5 feet of width while traveling; inexperienced cyclists often take up more. Not to mention, riding on the sidewalk can really annoy pedestrians, especially those with small children, even if the cyclist is not endangering them. This why most major cities don't permit cyclists on sidewalks.

While a two-tiered system is a great idea in theory, in practice it can have the unintended consequence of leaving less experienced cyclists with only a few limited places to ride.

The real question we should be asking is not whether we should have a two-tiered system of bicycle riders/facilities, but why we're not designing more streets so that bicyclists and motorists can safely share them.

The city of Berkeley has done a nice job of this with their bike boulevard system. These are slow-speed streets that typically run parallel to larger arterial streets and provide access to many destinations. There's a good YouTube video of this system in action:

Different kinds of Cyclists or different kinds of Cycling?

This debate came up last year as the Portland based consultant for LA's Bike Plan Update presented the "Four Kinds of Cyclists" proposal as the foundation for Bikeways Planning.

The presentation was not well received.

The premise is that there are four types of cyclists and they can be categorized based on "emotion" or level of comfort. First is the "Strong & Fearless" followed by the "Enthused & Confident" trailed by the "Interested & Concerned" and watched from the sidelines by the "No way, no how" crowd. Attendees were even given statistics on the breakdown which ran 1%, 7%, 60% and 33% respectively. (totals 101% but it's their math, not mine!)

This presentation was not well received by the audience who came from all over LA with great hope that the bike missionaries from Portland would be bringing Bike-Relief to the Bikeways starved Angelenos.

The first objection was that this particular "framing" of LA cyclists ignored the "Invisible Cyclist" as written about by Dan Koeppel in Bicycling Magazine a couple of years ago. The "IC" or "Workforce Cyclist" rides for economic reasons regardless of emotion but simply out of necessity. Often riding early in the morning and late at night, the bike of choice is sturdy, inexpensive and often not illuminated. The cyclist tends to ride defensively, often adhering to urban legend rules of the road that reflect their homeland culture and rules more than the local law.

The second objection was "Now that there are 5 types of cyclists, let's scrap them and start referring to the types of cycling, not the types of cyclists!"

After all, a single cyclist, having selected a route, might ride on Separated facilities, Segregated facilities, Integrated facilities and then a sidewalk or two, all capped off with an Off-Road facility.

This approach makes it easier to lay down real engineering standards that define real bikeways amenities without having to rely on emotional surveys that fail to address real infrastructure and opportunities to improve it.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not dismissing the emotional experience that riding a bike in LA represents.

I've ridden the freeways (over 1000 miles of freeway are bike legal in CA!) I've ridden rush hour traffic at Westwood & Wilshire (take a whistle!) I've ridden the nasty bike lanes on Sunset (watch for the doors!) Through it all I've experienced exhilaration but how do we measure that and how do we engineer for emotions? Why don't we simply engineer for effectiveness and provide options for all modes?

We've got Complete Streets, we've got Great Streets, we've got Green Streets, we've got Safe Streets, and we've got Shared Streets. All of them come with engineering standards.

When our streets are engineered so that users of all modes have options and are confident in their travel, then we'll have done our work.

To that end, I propose that the new street designation of the day be Confident Streets!

Just the one tier thanks!

As both a neoprene clad roadie, and a casual kid carrying errand-runner, I understand your point. Having guys who can average 20mph, on the same badly designed facility as a kid with training wheels, is a recipe for bike carnage. I disagree that a 2-tier system is the answer though.

Dividing these groups up, and encouraging one to ride in high speed traffic, and the other ride with low speed pedestrians on the sidewalk is not the answer. Riding in high speed traffic is no fun. Riding on the sidewalk can be dangerous at intersections (where cars are not expecting to see you), and can lead to conflict with pedestrians. The stop-and-start at each intersection makes for a very slow, uneconomical trip.

We have to elevate the status of riding a bike and design 'just for cyclists' if we are serious about encouraging people to ride.

We must consider the needs of all cyclists when designing bike infrastructure, and your 2 groups have many more similarities than differences. We both like smooth surfaces, the most direct route, we are most vulnerable at intersections, we don't like to have to stop too much, we don't like being forced to ride too close to parked cars (everyone has been doored at least once), and feel unsafe when being passed by high speed traffic. We need somewhere dry to store our bikes (plastic bag on the saddle anyone?), and when we arrive at our destination a changing room, and a shower would be great too!

There are some differences, as you point out. Roadies and the fixed gear guys seem to be more comfortable in relatively low speed traffic, but most of the time that is a function of necessity. I am willing to bet creating a direct, prioritized bike lane system, free from traffic would be popular with these guys, because it will speed up their journey, and create safer, more relaxing conditions. Do it wrong though, and you discourage, and endanger cyclist even more.

If we create bike lanes that are NOT smooth, direct, continuous, swept clean of puncture causing debris, and clear of stray pedestrians, they will not be used. This will lead to more driver/cyclist confusion, confrontations and worse.

I do feel that as cycling conditions improve, and people start to use their bike as transport, the 'Utility Cyclist', a person in everyday clothes, in an un-aerodynamic position, with a basket, on a heavy, comfy bike, perhaps carrying more than 1 child, with an average speed of 14kmph, will become the most common kind of cyclist. This has happened all over Europe, and we are starting to see them more in our Bike Friendly Towns over here.

Facilities should be designed to encourage people to ride bikes by making them feel safe and important. We don't need a 2-tier system because cyclists understand that people ride at different speeds. If there are a few painted signs on the path that say 'keep to the right' people who don't undersand straight away will, after they recive a few friendly bell ringing reminders from behind.

However, the 1-tier system will only work if the facility is wide enough for people to over-take, and practical enough for people to use.

Safe Routes to School and Commuters

We need to accommodate two levels of cyclists. We do it with parkways that are automobile only and interstates that are designed for trucks. We should do it for the younger cyclists that are not advanced enough to ride in heavy traffic. The sidewalk, multiuse path or neighborhood street works for them.

The commuter needs a robust road system that provides access to all destinations. Sharing roads with traffic works for these riders.

Biking on sidewalks in LA

Just to be picky, but it is legal to ride on the sidewalk in LA CITY, not County as you posted. Other cities within the county generally do not permit sidewalk riding. Therefore it is important to know where you are and whether you cross any jurisdictional boundaries on your ride.

Also, the linked page to LAPD's website suggests walking your bike through crosswalks. While that may be a good idea for safety, it is not written in the law. Many LAPD officers to not realize this and will hassle cyclists for riding in crosswalks (which are an extension of the sidewalk) even though it is legal.

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