The Chainlink

This concept has been circulating through my social media feeds a lot lately with no mention of where it came from. So I went back and found its origin: a 2005 report from the Portland Office of Transportation by Roger Geller. It's worthwhile reading, especially in light of the summer we've had in Chicago this year. It is my personal belief that the four types of cyclists themselves are actually unimportant, and that the entire purpose of the report is revealing the role of fear in city cycling. So let's get after it, shall we?

Survey after survey and poll after poll has found again and again that the number one reason people do not ride bicycles is because they are afraid to be in the roadway on a bicycle. They are generally not afraid of other cyclists, or pedestrians, or of injuring themselves in a bicycle-only crash. When they say they are “afraid” it is a fear of people driving automobiles.


Yes, fear. It manifests itself in many ways as we ride, from the heart-pounding type that follows a driver running a red and nearly hitting us to that small voice reminding us that even if we remain in our lanes we can still be crushed by a truck. It is based on fear that Geller groups cyclists into his four categories:

For lack of better terminology, Portlanders can be placed into one of the four following groups based on their relationship to bicycle transportation: “The Strong and the Fearless,” “The Enthused and the Confident,” “The Interested but Concerned.” The fourth group are nonriders, called the “No Way No How” group.


My own gross oversimplification breaks it down like this:

The Strong and The Fearless - Think messengers and the people who ride like them. Avid cyclists, chain oil in the veins. They've come to terms with traffic and ride with its ebb and flow, occupying the transient spaces where other vehicles do not (even if just for a moment). They either do not fear, or have completely come to terms with their fear. This is ~0.5% of the population.

The Enthused and The Confident -  This is the majority of bicycle commuters. They know the danger is out there, and though it's worrying they love riding too much to let it stop them. They like their bike lanes for the safety they provide, and push hard to advocate for better infrastructure. They have a healthy respect for traffic and its potential for harm, but don't let that stop them from riding. This group is ~7% of the population.

The Interested but Concerned - This is the largest group, people who like the idea of cycling but are too concerned with the risks to be comfortable outside of dedicated pathways and the like. They like to ride, but they're constantly worried about speeding cars and trucks, road conditions, and the other things that make cities less than optimal for cycling. This keeps them from riding as much as the other groups, which is a shame because they're ~60% of the population.

No Way, No How - This is the Tribune editorial board.

Though the report is only documenting the categorization, I strongly suggest reading it. The full text is here. Please give it a skim at least.

It is my personal belief that understanding why people fall into each of these categories is the key to effective advocacy to shift them around. To understand what makes our fear tick, and make sure that members of the interested but concerned group move more in the direction of enthused and confident rather than no way, no how. When a cyclist is hit and killed, the reaction can go any way. If we blame the victim, we say they were trying to fit into the strong and fearless group and it got them killed. Don't be like that. That doesn't get anyone anywhere, not to mention that it's factually inaccurate. But facing the reality of crashes like Lisa Kuivinen's is even more insidious: even if we ride in our dedicated lanes and take advantage of the infrastructure the city gave us, we can be killed. We don't have to do anything wrong. And that's a whole different can of worms, a concept that eats you from the inside out and tests what you really feel about riding in the city.

What do you feel when you ride in Chicago? What worries you? How do you categorize yourself?

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With 47 Perimeter Rides under my belt so far this calendar year alone, when I ride in Chicago I feel completely at home on the streets. (Full disclosure -- I was a Chicago bicycle messenger from 1986-2000.) Although I DO feel strong, fierce, and fearless, I am quite aware of my vulnerability. My anger response to overtly aggressive motorists is a defensive posture and potentially my undoing, as anger/aggression begets more anger/aggression and one is more prone to making mistakes while hot-headed. I still struggle with keeping it in check. My urban cycling philosophy is to Be Like Water and Flow (Do Not Disrupt the Flow!) into the cracks and seams. However, not all water is soft, gentle and placid -- sometimes water can be rushing, torrential, powerfully fierce and destructive. 

What "worries" me? It's my boys, of course. I am the father of two strapping 14 year-old sons whom I am paradoxically not prepared to take with me on my Perimeter Rides. We keep it mostly to the LFT, with a some exceptions. 

How do I categorize myself? A Lone Wolf outlier (the .05%.) I don't see myself as "representing" the "bike community." I'm just a guy who loves to ride his bike in the street -- where I belong. 

Thanks for finding that paper; it is an interesting story how they developed the model. And thanks for sharing your conflict as a parent, Curtis! I notice some days it's easier to stop thinking and get into the flow you described, and other days the anxiety keeps creeping back in. And I especially notice that when I'm tired, or hungry, or need the bathroom that my bad encounters seem to spike. Probably it's just that I get more bothered by things that I would just shake my head at and move past otherwise. In any case, I think the best way to move people into biking is to ride together! One day maybe I'll try it...

I don't think anyone is fearless. Everyone who rides a bike in the street is concerned about cars, but they manage that fear

So I would call the first group the Very Confident. Like the strong/fearless or the prototypical 'bike messenger', they'll ride wherever, whenever. Traffic? Not a problem. They'll handle it, or go around it. Sometimes too confident. About .5% of the population.

The second group is similar to the first group in that they'll ride throughout the year on city streets, but they're more cautious. I call them the Got Places To Go. They ride a bike for transportation because it's the best option. Public transit is inconvenient, slow or expensive, and they have to get to wherever they're going, so they take a bike. Slower than the Very Confident, and they ride for shorter distances. They'll also take to the sidewalk or ride against traffic if they feel unsafe. They'll use bike lanes if they're available, but will ride regardless. About 1% of the population.

The third group I call the Let's Ride Commuter. They like bike lanes and separated bike paths because they feel safe there, but will primarily ride in the warmer months. You won't see them much at all from late fall to early spring. About 5% of the population.

The fourth group is similar to the third, but they're not about commuting. They're the Let's Ride Recreational. You'll usually see them on long, separated paths such as the Lakefront Trail, Salt Creek Trail, or North Branch Trail, but you'll also find them occasionally on quiet residential streets. About 5% of the population.

The fifth group is the aforementioned 'Interested but Concerned', but they're not 60%. (People fib when talking to pollsters). They're 25% of the population.

The rest are No Way No How.

I'm a mix of the first two groups. I'll ride in the street with traffic because I'm confident in my bike handling skills, but I prefer to ride on a quiet residential street.

Just by way of checking in...I ride without fear but more in a disassociated way.

I like paths and quiet streets because they can be less work, and I have come to question the wisdom of the Idaho stop

But what scares the crap out of me? Actual heart pounding, glad I made it, good to be alive? Ice. Black Ice. Ice under snow, sheet ice. The ice ruts. Damn that Ice

Count me as part of the group of 0.5%ers with concerns about anger issues and educating 2 sons how to ride safely.  Perhaps we should start a club.

 

I grew up in Chicago at a time when there was no cycling safety education.  Every parent would just shove their kids out into the street on poorly fitted and poorly maintained bikes with no helmets or lights and just assume that drivers would not run them over.

 

I guess that 0.5% figure was a lot higher back then. 

They say women are the bellwether population when it comes to biking. I feel fairly representative of this sector, or the way we are perceived to be anyway. I am confident for the most part, I ride all year round in all weather conditions. I ride all over the city. However, that said, I love infrastructure. I feel much safer, happier and confident when it is there. I go out of my way to find a safer route where there is infrastructure--especially protected lanes and off street trails. I wish there was a 606 in every neighborhood.

I preferentially ride streets with bike lanes and side streets. There are many streets that are marked shared that I simply do not feel comfortable on, unfortunately I find myself riding them anyway for a lack of better options. After nearly 7 years of riding the city streets, I have learned many tricks to help me feel safer (the European left turn for example) but sometimes I wonder if I'm deluding myself. (My family sure thinks so).

It scares the hell out of me to think that I could be riding responsibly in my designated lane but am helpless and completely vulnerable if a car or truck drives over the line. My fear will never stop me from biking all together, but I do feel it, every time I ride.

Tragedies like the ones we've experienced this month sharpen this fear. But we can't let them dissuade us from riding. The more of us who ride and ride often, the more seriously the city will take our demand for true infrastructure beyond the false promise of a painted line. 

I truly believe that we have come to a "critical mass," a tipping point. The people who lost their lives needlessly this month were "enthused and confident" women riders. The bellwether population. The people city officials hope to attract with the infrastructure they have built so far. Well congratulations, Chicago City Officials, you've done it. We're riding. Now live up to your promise and give us the streets we deserve.   

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