How to Feel Safe (Almost) Anywhere: Make Good Routes
I grew up in a house of people who rode bikes. My parents had us out on the road from a very young age. Riding a bike was second nature. Since I lived in the city center of a small, ride-able city, I rode everywhere. My friend lived across town and my bike was the way to visit. When I got my first job on the edge of town, I rode my bike there and back. Back then, I didn't fully appreciate what that meant. I also, when I got back into cycling as an adult - more seriously than ever - took for granted the fact that I could easily create safe routes and knew what to look for in terms of creating a safe route. I had seen my parents do it before me. I knew how to feel safe on the road. I was a confident cyclist. And what's more, when I increased mileage, I did so in a group setting with more experienced road cyclists.
When I hear people say "I don't know how you ride on the road" or "I don't know how you feel safe pulling a kid all over" I ask people why that is. Why do they feel unsafe? After talking to a number of would-be commuters who love to ride on trails and after observing my much-less-confident spouse freak out a bit on the road, I realize that road skills are a big thing to build and confidence has to come first.
So how do you build that confidence? Well, I have a theory. I like to sit down with colleagues and friends and ask where they are travelling from (where is their neighborhood) and where are they travelling to. Many of them are putting their bikes on cars to get to a trailhead. They will admit - especially with kids - that this is annoying and a huge barrier to getting out. I have to admit that putting the kid in the trailer and riding off to anywhere or hitting the trails on my lunch break is so easy. Putting bikes on a car to go? No fun! So, recently, I've been offering to help them troubleshoot. How do we get them on the road feeling confident? And, if you're reading this, how do you get more confident on the road? Well, let's build a better route.
Identify where you want to go. Is it a trail? Is it a park? Is it a grocery store? Is it work? Identify at least one place you think is a fun and easy jog.
Start small. It's probably unwise to start with a real "reach" ride. If you're riding 5-10 miles round trip, a 15 mile ride is too much. If you're pulling kids, account for the difference in your weight and resistance. Even 18 miles for me with a kid is a lot despite the fact that I think I could go out and knock out 40 miles right now with little preparation.
Look at the infrastructure in your area. Most localities publish maps of trails, bike lanes, and bike routes. Even in towns without a lot of bike lanes (like my hometown), bike routes are probably more common than you know! My home county and the surrounding counties offer so many safe routes already! Look for them. They offer brochures to help you find a close route. While google maps is not perfect, on the "bike" setting, you might get some ideas for safer routes. In my experience, they may not always account for the newest trails. In our town, we have substantial bike infrastructure projects finishing right now so these directions may not account for these for a couple years. A bike map would be better.
Map out your route to make sure it feels safe and you know how to get there.
Think like a cyclist. The most direct route may not be safe but there are simple ways to account for this, right? This is what I learned as a kid and something that many have to learn as adults. It gets better with time.
Drive it if you're still worried or unfamiliar. Driving the drive-able parts may make you feel better about it.
Ride it alone before you haul a kid or cargo. Make sure it feels good.
Adjust it as new information becomes available. Be open to exploring and finding better routes over time. So many things are unknown until you ride.
Ride with people. Obviously in the time of Covid, this isn't advisable but it has to end eventually, right? Riding with more experienced cyclists will help you feel safe on the road. It takes time to gain confidence. Having about 30 years of road experience is different than 30 days. Give yourself to adjust and gain safe mileage.
Ask for help! I love to help people figure out routes and talk to them about good loops in town (which often involve trails). Cyclists love to help other folks out. Search for local cycling facebook groups and put a call out! I bet someone will offer to help you out.
Getting out on the road is not only good for you. It will teach your kid to respect the rules of the road and feel some sense of autonomy. Just watch! They will do great things on a bike following your lead.