Category: Law

Bikes and the law

Bikes and the law

“Is it about a bicycle?”

The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien

No, it’s about bicycling and traffic law. I haven’t read the book from which the quote comes, but it looks fascinating, and more than a bit weird. I put it on hold at the library so I can learn what the line has to do with anything. But for now, I’m using this quote to spur me on to other thoughts.

I’m in the middle of thinking through/planning/executing a series of short videos on bicycling and traffic law. If you followed my blog for a bit, you know that working with police officers has been my “thing” for the last few years. Over the next year, I’ll have the opportunity to work with a whole new group of departments. I’ve gotten a grant to expand statewide here at home, so I’ll begin laying the groundwork now. For posts about earlier work I’ve done in this area see posts here (2018), here (2017) and here (2015).

But what’s the connection? The series of videos would be about bicycles and traffic law and directed towards bicyclists, rather than towards police officers. Because experience says that many bicyclists don’t understand the rules of the road…

Hey, that sounds familiar:

Many police officers, while they understand traffic law from the motorist’s perspective, don’t understand how that translates into traffic law while seated on a saddle. So, since I’ve developed a program that facilitates giving officers that perspective, I thought it might be a good idea to bring that to the public-at-large, too.

If will have to be a bit more general, though, since laws differ by location. I would discuss the general principles of traffic and how they might look to a person on a bike, but not get into specifics on any one state or municipality. With every state and many local governments creating their own laws under those principles, it would be impossible to do a comprehensive program.

But there’s still plenty to talk about. What are your rights and duties as a road user? What’s the deal with being a part of traffic? Do you need to follow the same rules as motorists? Can you get a ticket on a bike? How does a bicyclist’s view of the road differ from that of a motorist?

In all of this, I’ll show that it’s about the law and how, and when, it applies to people on bikes. It isn’t about a bicycle.

What do you think?

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More minds changed…

More minds changed…

In this time of the world being “on hold,” I’m digging up random things. I found this post that I wrote mid-summer, last year. Somehow I neglected to post it. So it’s old, but you didn’t know that!

Different towns, very different programs. We taught the same material, showed the same videos, said the same things. But the days were very different. 

In one session, there was mild interest, but little interaction, and almost no one participated in the afternoon on-bike clinic. Our experience shows that the classroom session, as expected, gives the “intellectual” understanding of the issues, problems and concerns regarding traffic law and bicycling. But participants who then join us for a bike ride around town after the classroom session get it to a degree that others don’t. 

In a second session, there was real interest, and a lot of interaction among participants and instructor, and EVERYONE participated in the on-bike clinic. They genuinely began to understand what the world looks like from the perspective of the saddle. They realized that things do not look the same as when they’re driving in a large metal box that protects/insulates from the outside world. As one officer said after the road ride, “It’s amazing how much more you can see when you’re on a bike!”

During another road ride, officers experienced the lack of care some motorists have for other road users: I was riding at the back of the group. We were riding lawfully, two abreast in the right lane, when a motorist decided to pass us in the same lane. We were taking up most of it – so he moved over just barely enough to sneak by us. The left lane was unoccupied. Nonetheless, he passed so close to me that his passenger-side mirror came within about three inches of hitting my left arm.

…The best part of the story? I’m riding next to a police officer, in uniform, with the word “POLICE” in reflective, capital letters across his back! Karma’s a bitch, though. The light just ahead turns red, and the motorist has to stop. His window is open. We pull up on his right side and proceed to discuss idiot drivers who think it’s ok/funny to do stupid things like almost run over a group of bicycle riders with police officers in the group. Of course, he wouldn’t look in our direction. The officer was not local, so could not ticket the idiot, but I think it was probably a good thing his windows were down – he looked like he had an accident in his pants!

The light changed, and off he went, rather quickly. I think he was just glad to get away from us once he realized what he had done.

During the course of those rides, I saw a change in how the officers view the world. In the first case, their eyes saw more things, and saw them differently. In the second, they saw how people driving motor vehicles treat other road users, and began to understand why people driving bicycles may feel threatened whenever they get on their bikes to travel.

And that was the point.

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…a small step. And a big one…

Yesterday I had the pleasure of working with nearly two dozen officers in the New Orleans Police Department. On what? Traffic law and bicycling. Officers from every district came to the session wherein we discussed how traffic law applies to people driving bicycles rather than cars. The session was the culmination of almost three years of effort.

A bit of background: I am a League Cycling Instructor (LCI) for the League of American Bicyclists (LAB). I am also a National Coach for LAB, training other instructors nationwide. In conversations with friends who are law enforcement officers, several of whom are avid bike riders, the topic of police interactions with bicyclists arose. We agreed that many officers, like everyone else, are unaware of the difference in perspective when you’re on a bike. You don’t look at the world the same way as you do behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. So we put together a course for officers. It included classroom time to discuss what the laws are and how they apply to bicyclists, and when they don’t. We included sections on engineering (how road design can help…and hurt), education (what we teach citizens), and enforcement (how officers can enforce the law equitably). It also included time on a bike – to put that classroom knowledge into practice, for officers to experience what it’s like to drive a bicycle as part of traffic. We did a pilot program in 2014, then got a grant to conduct it in multiple locations in one state in 2015. We’ve done it since with close to 400 officers in 4 states.

When I first moved back to New Orleans three  years ago, I tried to get the program up and running here. Two steps forward, one step back. One step forward, three steps back…You know how it goes. Multiple dead-ends. A glimmer of hope, and then another brick wall. But I didn’t stop. And then…a small step. And a big one…I didn’t know it at the time, but a conversation in January led to yesterday.

After the deaths of Sharree Walls and David Hynes on March 2 of this year, New Orleans rose up to voice concern for road safety for all. And after a City Council meeting with hours’ worth of testimony by Ms. Wall’s family, friends, and many other concerned members of the community, my phone rang. That conversation in January planted the seed. The phone call was from NOPD. “Les, that course we talked about? We want to do it.” “Great, when?” “Now.”

Then yesterday happened! I co-taught the class with two officers who are active bicyclists as well. Their dual perspective made it even more real for attendees. We discussed Louisiana and New Orleans law. We discussed the bad behavior we see…in both bicyclists and motorists! We talked about how the road and motorists look to bicyclists, compared to how motorists see the road and bicyclists. We reviewed the most common violations they may see, again, for both motorists and bicyclists.

And after the talking, we got on bikes. And you could see the “Aha!” moment. “Why did the bike lane disappear?” “Riding here (in the door-zone bike lane) is dangerous….” “You expect me to go through all the water and debris in the bike lane?” “Wait – if I turn left here, the road markings say to go all the way to the right…and then cross an interstate on-ramp???” The theoretical knowledge turned into the practical reality of getting from Point A to Point B without the protection of a several thousand pound box of metal. And I think we made a difference. I hope that the officers who came yesterday will see things just a bit differently when they hit the road today. It was a small step. And a big one…

 

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Bicycling and Traffic Law 2018

A year later, and three more sessions in the books. If you’ve seen my posts over the last year, you know I’ve taught classes to police officers on how traffic laws apply to people on bicycles. The fundamental principle is the same as what the League of American Bicyclists teaches the public: “Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.”

It’s appropriate to point out here that bicyclists have the same rights and share the same responsilibities as motorists. IN ALL 50 STATES. The wording of the statute differs from state to state, but fundamentally, they all say that people on bicycles should drive their bicycles. Yes, you read that right. There are some statutes that only apply to motorists, and some that only apply to bicyclists, and some that bicyclists cannot follow by definition.

And that’s what the course is about.

Over the past few weeks, the NJBWC educated nearly 40 law enforcement officers from 18 police departments in three New Jersey counties in the rules of the road for bike riders. Like last year’s course, “Title 39: A Bike’s-Eye View,” it comprised classroom learning, skills building maneuvers on bikes, and a group ride on local roads. The purpose is to help the officers understand how traffic law relates to bike riders, and to give them first-hand experience of what most of us who ride regularly already know: the road is very different when you are on a bike. The course, funded by the NJ Division of Highway Traffic Safety, was held in locations in Atlantic, Monmouth, and Morris Counties in May.

It was modified a bit this year to spend a bit more time on one of the trickiest part of riding on the road…the “far right as practicable” rule. Like many other adults, many police officers, not being riders themselves, do not appreciate how traffic looks to a bicyclist. They also don’t fully understand the challenges bicyclists face in dealing with motorists. With this course, these officers are now equipped to be more effective in working with bicyclists as drivers. The course was designed to help officers also work with motorists, who often do not understand that bicyclists have a right to use the road in the same way that they do.

The course, developed specifically for law enforcement officers, addressed the so-called ‘Three E’s of Traffic Safety’: Education, Engineering, and Enforcement, in a classroom session. Encouragement and Equity were also discussed – some of the new “E’s” that have come onto the scene.

A significant portion of the enforcement section focused on Title 39:4-14.2. This statute says that bicyclists must ride as far to the right of the roadway as practicable (AFRAP), and enumerates several exceptions to that requirement. First: What does practicable mean? It means safe and reasonable. It does NOT mean “possible.” Bicyclists do NOT have to ride as far right as possible. Several scenarios challenged the officers to determine where the bicyclist would be if as far right as practicable. Two scenarios showed that it was actually on the left edge of the lane! We talked a lot about AFRAP as situational. It changes based on both location and time.

After classroom discussion, many of the officers  got on bikes and practiced various drills to learn maneuvers that help avoid crashes. Finally, they participated in a group ride that took them on a variety of roads ranging from low-speed, residential streets to major highways, to help them understand what it’s like to be a bike rider on those roads. On the ride, several “side-of-the-road” talks were used to point out the potential problem areas, designs, and hazards. We also used  these talks to discuss AFRAP in various locations. At one spot, we pulled over near a parked car to show first, how dangerous it can be to ride close to parked cars, and also how far left a rider needs to be to avoid getting doored. Many were shocked to see that required the rider to be at the left side of the lane.

“The real power of this course is its dual approach: classroom discussion helps officers become more aware of the motor vehicle code as it applies to bicyclists. Then, getting the officers on bikes gives them a real taste of how the world looks from the saddle,” said Sgt. John Barbour (Princeton University Public Safety), a co-instructor of the course.

The course was created in consultation with police officers. Classes were led by Mr. Leathem, who is a national coach for the League of American Bicyclists, and by police officers who are also bicyclists. for information about other such courses I’ve done, click here(2017) or here (2015).

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Bicyclists and NJ Police: 2017 version

Bicyclists and NJ Police: 2017 version

Over the past few weeks, the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition educated nearly 150 law enforcement officers in 50 police departments from seven New Jersey counties in the rules of the road for bike riders. The course, “Title 39: A Bike’s-Eye View,” was created and taught by Les Leathem, NJBWC Education Coordinator. It consists of classroom learning, skills building maneuvers on bikes, and a group ride on local roads. The officers were asked to be in plain clothes and to leave their duty belts home.

The purpose is to help the officers understand how traffic law relates to bike riders, and to give them first-hand experience of what most of us who ride regularly already know: the road is very different when you are on a bike. The course, funded by the NJ Division of Highway Traffic Safety, was held in locations in Atlantic, Hudson, Monmouth, Ocean, Passaic, and Union Counties in May and June. The Morris Area Freewheelers Foundation funded the course for Morris County.

While New Jersey law gives bicycle riders the same rights and duties as drivers of motor vehicles, many police officers, not being riders themselves, do not have the perspective of traffic from the bike rider’s view; they are not aware of how traffic looks to a bicyclist. They also don’t fully understand the challenges bicyclists face in dealing with motorists. With this course, these officers are now equipped to be more effective in working with bicyclists as drivers. The course was designed to help officers also work with motorists, who often do not understand that bicyclists have a right to use the road in the same way that they do.

The course, developed specifically for New Jersey law enforcement officers, addressed the so-called ‘Three E’s of Traffic Safety’: Education, Engineering, and Enforcement, in a classroom session. Officers then got on bikes and were put through various drills to learn maneuvers that help avoid crashes. Finally, they participated in a group ride that took them on a variety of roads ranging from low-speed, residential streets to major highways, to help them understand what it’s like to be a bike rider on those roads. Not being in police uniforms meant that they were treated like the public – a very different experience than being treated as an officer.

“The road ride session was eye-opening, and the classroom discussion clarified much of traffic law for bicyclists. Talking about applying traffic law to bicyclists and motorists makes it easier to enforce,” said Sergeant Mike Leming of the Manchester Township Police Department.

“The real power of this course is its dual approach: classroom discussion helps officers become more aware of the motor vehicle code as it applies to bicyclists. Then, getting the officers on bikes gives them a real taste of how the world looks from the saddle,” said Mr. Leathem.

The course was created in consultation with police officers from around the state. Classes were led by Mr. Leathem, who is also a national coach for the League of American Bicyclists, and by police officers who are LAB League Cycling Instructors. For information about our prior work in this space, click here.

Les Leathem, Education Coordinator, & Cyndi Steiner, Executive Director

Photo credit: Les Leathem

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Sweetest cycling experience of all

Sweetest cycling experience of all

“You haven’t lived until you’ve put on a police uniform and hopped on a mountain bike. My daily commute became four to five minutes faster because drivers fight each other to see who gets to let me in the lane I want. Drivers would sooner cross the yellow line and hit a utility pole than breeze a cop on a bike. I’ve completed centuries and even won races, but this newfound respect is the sweetest cycling experience of all.”

Allan Howard, bicycle patrolman, Dayton, Ohio

I wasn’t planning on blogging today. But then I saw this. This one’s gonna be a bit long, I’ll tell you now. But I hope you’ll stick with me. I believe this is important, and have devoted (and will continue to devote) significant time and energy to it.

Any of you who know me are aware that I have a number of friends who are police officers. Some of them are riding this week in the Police Unity Tour, an annual ride in honor of those who have given their lives while serving. You may also know that I teach a class to law enforcement officers, designed to show them the perspective that one can only see from a saddle: how traffic law applies to people riding bicycles

The perspective that Officer Howard shared is not one that most of us will ever know. As a bicycle officer, his perspective is unique. As someone who understands traffic law from both the motorist’s and the bicyclist’s point of view, the position he occupies is rather unusual. Many police officers don’t understand the viewpoint of a bicyclist, because they, like most people, stopped riding a bike about the same time they learned how to drive a car. Like most people, the security of a metal cage around them creates its own world…a world that is sometimes removed from the environment in which the motorist operates..

And in that world, that “sweetest cycling experience” doesn’t exist. Although most motorists are willing to, and do, “share the road” with bicyclists, there are too many who don’t/won’t. In the classes I teach, we discuss when motor vehicle laws apply to bicyclists (almost all the time, by the way) and when it doesn’t. We talk about the most common infractions committed by bicyclists and by motorists against cyclists. We discuss inconsistencies in laws that make things harder for both bicyclists and motorists, as well as for the officers who are sworn to keep the peace, and keep us safe.

Over the course of a day, we work in the classroom to get an intellectual understanding of all those things, with a focus on how officers can respond to road users in a manner that keeps all of them safe. We also get out on bikes, and that’s when the understanding becomes real, physical, and for some officers, a little scary. Once they’re traveling the roads outside the protection of that metal cage, they begin to understand how and why bicyclists behave the way they do. I see the metaphorical light bulbs switch on as we go through our short rides on the streets these officers patrol. I can almost hear their thoughts: “Oh, wow, I need to turn left here. How in the world can I do that?” “That guy almost hit me!””She’s looking right at me, but I don’t think she sees me!”

In one class, the moment we turned onto the road at the entrance to the police academy, ALL the officers immediately jumped up onto the sidewalk! I made them get onto the street right away, and some of them commented right then and there that they had a better understanding of what it means to ride a bike on the road. Five miles later, when we were back at the academy, some were a bit shaken. I had taken them on a major arterial road with no shoulder – a road that MANY citizens in that town ride on every day. The officers thanked me for making them more aware.

The class has made a difference. I surveyed participants in the 2015 sessions one year later, and found that 100% of respondents used the information they learned in the class to educate both bicyclists and motorists. So my impact on a few impacted others, and the ripples began to spread.

The way I see it, educating bicyclists and motorists one at a time means it will take a VERY long time for the culture to change. By educating those who can impact others, maybe we can get the work done sooner. That’s my hope, anyway. I’ll be working with more officers in coming weeks, in 8 counties in New Jersey. I’m also working towards getting a similar program up and running in Louisiana. It’s taking time to get things moving here, but I’ve got time. And energy.

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Educating enforcement

Educating enforcement

After my own crash a few years ago, I decided that I had to figure out a way to expand my reach in educating people about “smart cycling,” as it’s called by the League of American Bicyclists. I enjoyed (and still do) seeing the “Aha!” moments when riders, both new and experienced, begin to understand how to make themselves better bicycle drivers. But I wanted to impact more people.

I started looking around, and found one way to do that. I started working with police officers, talking about the application of motor vehicle law to bicyclists.

Now you’re thinking, “But wait. These people know motor vehicle law! What can you teach them about it that they don’t already know?”

When you drive a car, you see “traffic” as motor vehicles. You probably don’t think of bicycle drivers as part of traffic. From behind the handlebars, traffic looks a whole lot different:

  • motorists often aren’t even aware that you’re on the road
  • some motorists will actually create dangerous situations meant to frighten or hurt bicycle drivers

Patrol officers working in traffic often share the same perspective as other motorists. They may or may not be aware that people riding bicycles have all the rights and all the duties of drivers of motor vehicles. Even if they are, when it comes to enforcement, it’s hard to shake the perspective that they get from inside a metal box weighing a couple of thousand pounds.

That’s where my effort comes in. I put together a class that brings officers together to try to change that perspective. We spend a half day in the classroom, going through the “three E’s:” Engineering, Education and Enforcement. In those sessions we talk about road design/infrastructure, education (of the public at large – and meanwhile, we’re giving them a lot of the same information!) and equitable enforcement of the law.

Then we go ride bikes! First, we teach the same avoidance drills that we teach to the public. Then we go for a ride, incorporating all the principles we discussed in the classroom. We ride on as many types of roads as we can: narrow, wide, busy, quiet. Roads with bike lanes, shared paths. Major highways and residential streets. In other words, all the roads that the public uses to ride bicycles.

That’s when the “Aha!” moments happen. Officers who have never spent any time on a bicycle suddenly feel vulnerable. They begin to understand why bicyclists will take up lane positions that, until that ride, seemed crazy. And many of them will begin to understand how driving a bicycle like a car leads to more effective, confident and visible bicycle driving.

I’ve heard comments like:
“I have a lot more respect for people who ride bikes now.”

“It actually feels more comfortable when I’m riding in the middle of the lane instead of up against the curb.”

“Until I started riding, I never would have believed that drivers would actually try to use their cars to assault me.”

So at the end of the day, I have a small group of officers with a bit of a different perspective on all those people on bikes. How does that meet my goal? My hope is that those officers will take that perspective out into their dealings with bicyclists and motorists. I’ve learned that this is happening: Feedback from participants in the last series of classes indicated that they are looking at things differently! In fact, officers responded that they are using the information from the course to educate motorists and bicyclists. Mission accomplished.

I also hope that they will go back to their departments and share what they’ve learned with other officers. I don’t know whether this has happened.

I’ll continue to offer this training. Eight more sessions will be offered in New Jersey in 2017, and I’m really close to getting it started in Louisiana, too.

Slowly but surely, we’ll change the way people react to bicyclists.

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Motor Vehicle Law: A “Bike’s-Eye” View

A new course offered by the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition and Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University–New Brunswick provided law enforcement officers in five counties with the training necessary to help them understand how New Jersey’s motor vehicle code applies to bicyclists.

Although New Jersey law explicitly gives bicycle riders the same rights and responsibilities as drivers of motor vehicles, most people, including many police officers, tend to see the traffic flow from the perspective of a motor vehicle operator. According to Les Leathem, Education Coordinator for NJBWC, “in talking to officers around the state, we found that many of them don’t realize the difference in the way traffic appears to a bicyclist. They also did not fully understand the challenges bicyclists face in dealing with motorists.”

Ocean County police officers about to start the road ride
Ocean County police officers about to start the road ride

With their seminar, “Title 39: A Bike’s-Eye View,” NJBWC and VTC equipped officers with tools they can use to be more effective in dealing with bicyclists as drivers. The courses, held in Camden, Essex, Middlesex, Ocean, and Passaic Counties in August and September, were also designed to help officers deal with motorists as well, who often do not understand that bicyclists have a right to use the road in the same way that they do.

“This program really helps law enforcement officers understand what it is like to ride a bike on the road. Instead of seeing bikes as ‘in the way,’ the course helps officers understand that bicyclists are another part of traffic,” said Arnold Anderson, Community Traffic Safety Program Coordinator at the Essex County Police Academy.

Officers in the classroom session
Officers in the classroom session

The course, developed specifically for New Jersey law enforcement officers, first addressed the so-called ‘Three E’s of Traffic Safety’: Education, Engineering, and Enforcement, in a classroom session.

Officers then got on bikes to practice drills to avoid crashes, and to ride on a variety of roads ranging from low-speed, residential streets to major highways. Their time in the saddle also took them along roads with and without shoulders so they could understand how roadway design, traffic and road conditions affect bicyclists. “The real power of this course is its dual approach: classroom discussion helps officers become more aware of the motor vehicle code as it applies to bicyclists.

Teaching officers hazard avoidance drills: the Instant Turn
Teaching officers hazard avoidance drills: the Instant Turn

Then, “getting the officers out from behind the steering wheel of a police car and putting them on two wheels gave them an understanding of how the world looks from the bike saddle,” said Mr. Leathem.

The course was created in consultation with police officers from around the state. Funding was provided by the NJ Division of Highway Traffic Safety and the program was administered by the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. Classes were created and led by Mr. Leathem, who is also a national coach for the League of American Bicyclists, and by police officers who are LAB League Cycling Instructors as well.

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Changing minds…a few at a time

Changing minds…a few at a time

As an avid road bike rider, one thing I began to think more and more about was law: specifically, the intersection between motorists and bicyclists. Then, I joined the League of American Bicyclists and took a course that talked about driving my bicycle. That course codified the need for bicyclists to follow the same principles that motorists follow on the road.

New Jersey law, like the law in every other state, explicitly gives bicycle riders the same rights and responsibilities as drivers of motor vehicles. Many motorists do not understand this. Even most police officers, including those focused on traffic enforcement, have the perspective of a motor vehicle operator. Talking to officers around the state, I learned that many of them do not realize how different traffic appears to a bicyclist. They also did not fully understand the challenges bicyclists face in dealing with motorists.

So, I created a course designed to teach New Jersey law enforcement officers exactly how NJ motor vehicle law applies to bicyclists. I thought at the time that the best way to get officers to understand what it’s like to drive a bike would probably be…to get them on bikes.

The course addressed the “Three E’s of Traffic Safety:” Education, Engineering, and Enforcement, in the classroom. Then, I got them on bikes to practice hazard avoidance drills, and to ride on a variety of roads ranging from low-speed, residential streets to major highways, on roads with and without shoulders so they could understand how roadway design, traffic and road conditions affect bicyclists. I was fortunate to conduct the course in Camden, Essex, Middlesex, Ocean, and Passaic Counties in August and September, reaching 48 officers. I taught it with another League Cycling Instructor, who is also an active police officer and bicycle racer. He was able to provide the police perspective to his colleagues. It also helped that he was up front teaching rather than just some guy (me) trying to tell cops how to do their job…

The dual approach made the program work. Classroom discussion helped officers become more aware of how motor vehicle code applies to bicyclists. The “Aha!” moments started, though, once the officers got out from behind the steering wheel of a police car and onto two wheels.

As the experts on traffic law, officers have an intellectual understanding that bicyclists have the same rights and duties as motorists. But, honestly, getting them on the bikes made the difference. Many of the 48 officers who participated in the course commented on this to me. I heard things like, “I have a new respect for people who ride bikes now,” and “Now I understand what it’s like to try to ride on these roads.” I also heard, “I’m not visible on the bike unless I take the lane and ride in traffic,” and “It really does work better when I behave more like a car.”

My hope is that I’ve planted a seed.

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