Long work hours and crummy weather have combined to limit my cycling as of late. This is unacceptable, I know, and I intend to remedy it shortly. In the meanwhile, let me share with you one of the many half-baked theories that wander about my subconscious and occasionally pop to the surface, sometimes with amusing or catastrophic consequences.
My brushes with SUVs on Sunday’s ride have me wondering about whether the risks to cyclists change depending on the environment they ride in. If you break the world down into three basic areas – urban, suburban, and rural – I believe there are distinct differences in the risks incurred by cyclists in each area. Naturally, I believe the risks in my area, suburbia, are the most significant. Please let me explain.
Urban. That urban riding can be quite dangerous, there is no doubt. Lots and lots of cars trying to occupy the same roads as a great many bikes can be problematic. With so many cars on the road, the chances a given cyclist will encounter an idiot are pretty high. But cities have a lot going for them, including miles of bicycling infrastructure such as bike lanes/paths and cars that are driving considerably slower than in suburbia or in the country. There are also many more cyclists on the road, meaning the drivers are more likely to expect and look for cyclists. These are all pleasant advantages that cyclists in the country and suburbia do not enjoy.
Rural. To me, rural cycling is all about waiting for “The Big One,” the accident that will no doubt involve a vehicle traveling at high speeds and will result in a very unhappy situation for the cyclist. Roads in the country are pleasantly free of large numbers of cars. Bicycle lanes/paths are rare to nonexistent, but it is much easier for bikes and cars to share the road since the traffic density is significantly less than in cities. Yippee. The only thing getting in the way of cycling bliss is the inattentive driver who drifts just a tick too far toward the shoulder, thus creating “The Big One.” One shudders at the thought. Incidents like this are very rare, much rarer than the less dramatic confrontations in cities, but it only takes once…
Suburban. Finally, we come to my neck of the woods: suburbia, or as I like to call it: “The Worst Of Both Worlds.” In suburbia, we have traffic densities approaching that of urban environments, with cars moving at speeds approaching those found in the country, with almost no cycling infrastructure. The number of cyclists are significant, but spread out over more land, meaning the densities are very low and drivers are not always expecting to see them.
Take my neck of the woods, for example. My home county of Prince William has 400,000 people living in it. Nearby Loudon County has 300,000 people. That’s a lot of people, but not as many as Fairfax County to my north with one million souls. One would expect more cycling structure in the more heavily populated Fairfax County, but you may be surprised to see how much more there is. Take a look my hand-crafted editing of a google bike map below:
Those green lines are bike lanes and paths. There are many many more lines in Fairfax and DC than in the outlying counties of Prince William and Loudon Counties. Combined, the population of these two counties is about 70% of Fairfax, but the amount of trails is only about 10% (based on my scientific calculations after scanning the map for a few seconds). Cyclists in these counties are left to fend for themselves against huge numbers of cars at speeds over 60 mph and with drivers who are regularly surprised to see them. Not good. Not good at all. I therefore conclude that suburbia is the worst possible place to ride a bicycle.
So that’s my theory. Thanks for your time. As always, your comments are welcome. Please try to be gentle.