My Half-Baked Theory On The Relative Perils Of Cycling


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.

Happy urban cyclists in a nice, wide, bike lane and slower-moving cars well to the side.

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.

Cycling Utopia. Those cars in the background are paying attention, right?

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.


13 thoughts on “My Half-Baked Theory On The Relative Perils Of Cycling

  1. Last year the big one has you describe it, happened to a group of 3 female college studetns on spring break, near my home. They were killed by an 80 year old man who just ran into them, he didn’t notice them.

    I think you are right, I don’t have the experience to really know as I’ve only rarely visted Urban areas. I would go as far as to say that Suburbia is the worst possible place to do almost anything.

  2. I like your theory, half-baked or not, and I totally agree with you. I’m of the opinion that not much good comes out of the suburbs in general, so lack of cycling infrastructure is no surprise!

    You ‘urban’ theory doesn’t hold true in France, unfortunately. Things are changing, with EU initiatives forcing mayors to build more and more bike lanes, but for the most part they are pretty scanty. Go up north to Holland of course and you are into some real urban-riding bliss. But that’s another story.

    The ‘big one’ scares me (usually when I’m not riding), too, and I sometimes wonder how it has never happened, with all the hours I’ve spent plying country roads. There were a few club riders killed some years back near here, a la those 7 or 8 in Italy last year that I think you wrote about.

    But still, for me the pleasure outweighs the perceived risks by far.

    • Cycling on medieval road networks looks very pretty during the TdF, but when the roads are actually open and occupied by cars I can only imagine the terror that ensues.

  3. It is also true to say that people driving cars do so in the knowledge that they may well kill themselves or someone else. One benefit of cycling is that is it quite hard but not impossible to kill other road users.

    What is needed is a critical mass of cyclists in any area so that politicians have to take them into account when commissioning road traffic arrangements. Of course in social democratic countries, we might expect the government, knowing the benefits to health and reducing congestion of cycling, to help create that critical mass through well planned policies and tax breaks etc but in the USA I expect that cyclists are on their own.

    In Britain unfortunately the governing bureaucracy is totally hostile to cycling for the most part.

    • We could organize rides that help create large groups of cyclists to help make this point. We could even call it Critical Mass! Wait – that’s already been done. Never mind.


  4. I’ve never dealt in theories, just realities. The realty is whether in the USA or GB is that there needs to be more understanding from all road users. The roads are the roads in a finite area, there ain’t the political will to change it.

    Everyone just needs an attitude change and deal with it.

    Yeah, right…

  5. I live in Dorval, a suburb of Montreal, Canada, and whereas we have a pretty solid bike path network throughout both the city and the ‘burbs, we are still challenged by some fairly dumb drivers. I get honked at almost weekly just because I am cheeky enough to be on the road with…..a car!

    That being said, Montreal is relatively progressive as a city, and we are one of the few in NA I believe that have invested in a fleet of BIXIs that folk can rent for $5 a go. You collect one from one of the hundreds of stands across town, ride to whereever it is you want to go and lock it back up at another stand. Originally came from Holland I believe. It’s good to see cycling encouraged by the city itself.

    Ride safe all of you.

    • Washington, DC, has a program like that as well. It’s called Capital Bikeshare and there are 1,100 stations throughout the city and Arlington County. Sadly, that’s about 30 miles north of me. I remain stuck in the cycling wilderness of suburbia.

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