[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Cycling Types and Codes of Behavior
The bicycling traffic code for children in the 50's, of the 70's eco-cyclists, of the consumeristic cyclists of the 80's, and of cyclist interest groups today; the problem that conflicting codes present.
Questions What traffic code were children given in the 50's? How was that cycling code helpful to them? Was bicycling more dangerous in the 60's? How was cycling related to the lifestyle changes of the 60's? What did cycling clubs look like in the 70's, and what was their code of behavior? When did comsumerism first start appearing among young people? How were the cyclists of the 80's different in appearance and behavior from the cyclists of the 70's? How did attitudes change towards sidewalk cycling? What is "bicycling" like in some of the cities? Why are bike paths dangerous? How do conflicting codes of behavior make this danger worse? What is college bike riding like? Based on motivations and attitudes, what are the different types of bike riders? How accurate are these observations? What are the three cyclist interest groups fighting for? Why can't people follow their own codes and ride however they please?


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Cycling Types and Codes of Behavior

Childhood Cycling

My introduction to the cyclist traffic code began when I learned to ride my bike. That was in Pittsburgh in the early fifties, when the street car was more important in my family's life than the automobile. I didn't get a bike until I was eight (embarrassingly old; however, my twelve-year-old brother got his first bike the same year, and my even older sister never received one at all). I was forced to use training wheels for a year, either because I was very small (3' 6" and 55 pounds the next year) or because the bike had been sold with training wheels attached. In addition, we lived on a steep narrow brick street with some cars parked on the street and "hills" and "valleys" in the brickwork. Nonetheless, I was expected to ride my bike only in the street and only on the right-hand side. For years, I thought my father was responsible for these instructions, but I have recently found a clearly-worded safety bulletin from my school, reminding us kids and our parents that bicycles belonged on the street, not on the sidewalk.

My father did make one exception to the rule: to get to another street where some other kids lived, we had to travel a section of very busy main street. That was mainly church property, with only one house. So, my friends and I were permitted to use that sidewalk to get to the other street but only because we were children. We were also firmly warned to always be careful of pedestrians. I still remember clearly the one hedge that obstructed our vision and how we would interrupt our play, slow down, and watch for anyone coming whenever we approached that spot.

After I moved to Alabama in 1955, my new neighborhood gave us over a mile of suburban streets to ride on, so we kids rode a lot. Even though we were just children, we enforced a code of etiquette: we expected everyone to ride on the right side of the road and to stop for all stop signs, even when playing chase. This code protected us from collisions with each other as well as from problems with cars. In fact, none of us was ever injured beyond a little cry, except for one boy from another neighborhood who thought he could stand on the seat and let go with his hands.

Cycling in the 60's

I quit riding my bike before 1960 because I was "too old to be riding a bicycle." However, after going to college, I had a change of heart and began riding again. When I resumed riding, I rode my bike the same way I would drive an automobile, except I kept a little to the right except at lights. I rode on the same streets and highways as the motor vehicles, except I would take the less-traveled route whenever possible. I persuaded a few students to ride with me on occasions, and they obeyed the same rules without question. Even though I was practically the only cyclist, I only had problems from motorist on two occasions, both quickly resolved in my favor. As I have stated before, the only improvement that I've seen in my years of cycling is that the roads are now a little wider.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I was part of a great revolution. The period of the sixties was one in which young people were rebelling from the fifties. We wanted a more relaxed lifestyle with greater personal freedom -- such as being able to grow a beard or not wear a miniskirt, and we wanted a cleaner environment and a less wasteful way of life.

In particular, there was a great reaction against the American gas guzzler, the 5,000 pound behemoth with giant fins. Some of us bought Volkswagens, and some bought bicycles, and many bought both.

Cycling in the 70's

I made many rides with the Birmingham Bike Club in the early seventies. We didn't look much like the bike clubs today: no helmets, no Lycra, no bike shoes; in fact, few wore toe clips and straps. My only displeasures with the rides were 1) the pace was fast, 2) we would stop only at restaurants, and 3) the starting places were often way out of town (I usually rode to and from the ride). I never saw anyone on one of these rides run a red light or disobey any other law or do anything that I considered unsafe.

We cyclists all seemed to share some common beliefs; maybe some of us were more proud of our sports cars than of our bicycles, but even those cyclists believed in our absolute right to share the road. On the other hand, we were very relaxed about specific equipment. It was no disgrace to show up for the club ride with an old bike or a touring bike. Occasionally, someone would wear a helmet or some other special gear, and we would have an open discussion of its merits. I don't remember anyone ever discussing these things in terms of right or wrong. We had the same kind of attitude towards bikes: I was riding a racing bike with sew-ups, but I said I thought a touring bike would be more suitable for me; racing, touring, and sports bicycles were sold side-by-side and ridden side-by-side with no suggestion that there was anything wrong with any of them. At one point, I strapped a child's seat to my racing bike (for obvious reasons). No one thought anything about it.

We did have some racing enthusiasts in the club, but they did not act differently from anyone else, except for sticking to the front of the ride.

Cycling in the 80's

I first noticed a shift towards consumerism on a hiking trip in the early eighties. One of the hikers asked about camping, and the trip leaders began reciting a list of "things you must have," going so far as to give brand names. I thought, "This is crazy; there's nothing that's mandatory." I had begun camping without a sleeping bag, tent, or pack (I used blankets, a plastic tarp, and a bed roll) and still had a wonderful time. I did not realize that, in the future, many cyclists would be more concerned about components that about riding.

In the mid-80's, I saw a major shift. Between 1977 and 1985, I had been largely unable to bicycle, although I hadn't lost my desire. I returned to find all the cycling magazines interested in touring bicycles. These weren't the day touring bikes of the 70's either, but had a longer wheelbase, a more stable ride, and eyelets for racks front and rear, so they could carry a heavy load long distances. Every bike shop in Alabama had a touring bike (although the sales boys pushed the racing bikes instead). The Olympics and other sports events had just created a lot of interest in cycling, and rapid changes were being made in bikes, clothing, and other gear. Mountain bikes were first appearing in numbers, and the salesmen would say that if I didn't want a racing bike, I ought to buy a mountain bike instead (they never bothered to ask me what I wanted to use the bike for, nor did they see any reason for a bicycle with qualities between the two extremes).

For the first time in my life (and maybe the last time as well), I found my small Southern town full of cyclists. They were all well-equipped with new bikes, helmets, shoes, and cycling shirts and shorts. I also discovered something else odd: no one wanted to ride with me. Was it my 70's style touring bike with fenders and my lack of cycling gear? One day I was riding down the road when I was suddenly passed (on your left, Fred!) by a well-dressed fellow on a new Cannondale racing bike. I quickly caught up with him and asked him about riding together. He first said I couldn't keep up with him; then, after I clearly demonstrated that I could, he said his schedule was too busy. I noticed how uncomfortable he was for me to even be cycling with him for a short distance, so when he ran a stop sign, I lingered behind.

On Saturdays, a group would gather at the town square, well-dressed in expensive clothes and with nice bikes. None of these people wanted to ride with me; they didn't even try to be polite. To tell you the truth, I never saw them riding anywhere, anyway. They seemed to be riding their bikes a short distance to the square and then spending the rest of the day where everyone could see them, their cool clothing, and their cool bikes. Within two years, these cyclists had disappeared. One weekend, there was a ride sponsored by the local fitness club. I didn't know about the ride ahead of time, and everyone in the ride was supposed to have some sponsors who would donated to charity according to the number of miles they would ride, so I couldn't ride with them. However, I watched the beginning, middle, and end of the ride, and I noted that most of the riders had never ridden 25 miles before. It seemed at first that they would soon be cycling regularly, but then I realized that most of them seemed to think that cycling on the roadway was possible only with escorting motor vehicles.

Bicycling and other magazines were full of stories about the bicycle revolution. Starting in 1988, I finally was able to make long trips to see the revolution, but I didn't find it. I noted on my trips that I saw almost as many bike riders on the wrong side as I saw on the right side. I also discovered that I found cyclists only in cities. (The nuclear power plant near our town was probably responsible for the cyclists I saw there.)

Sidewalk Cycling

And in the cities, I discovered that as many cyclists were on the sidewalks as on the street. In Birmingham, in the seventies, signs along one boulevard indicated "bike route on the sidewalk," but I never saw a single cyclist use that "route" nor did I ever find any other cyclist who didn't also find them ridiculous.

In the late eighties, Bicycling Magazine had indicated that Boulder, Colorado, was the best place in the nation to ride a bicycle. When I got there, I discovered that, although some bike lanes had been marked in the streets, most people were cycling on the sidewalks. The city was busy building more sidewalk bicycling trails. Denver went a step further; the city published a map of "bike routes," most of which were sidewalks. Even on the best routes in Denver, Washington, and Philadelphia, I found places 1) where cyclists were supposed to ride on pre-existing sidewalks and 2) where there were more dog walkers, strollers, joggers, and rollerbladers than cyclists.

I had been brought up with another code of behavior. When I was a child, I would have been given a good paddling if I had ridden my bike through a crowd of people like that. As kids, we had a code of behavior; on the road, I had the uniform traffic code to guide me; but how is anyone supposed to behave in such a mixture of people? I sure didn't need statistics to tell me that a bike path is dangerous. Every time I passed someone on a bike path (and since there were many pedestrians, that was often), I had the problem of predicting how they would behave. Some people enjoyed creating hazards, including kindly-looking people with dogs on leashes, who would never have been as dangerous in their cars.

Some of the deliberately dangerous behavior was an effort to show off, but a lot was due to conflicting codes of behavior. For instance, the dog walkers really though everyone should get off their bikes and walk politely past, patting the dog on the head, and complimenting everyone. While this may sound ridiculous, it is good pedestrian behavior. Many of the cyclists, on the other hand, were clipped tightly to their pedals and were under the impression that everyone must get out of their way, and I saw several falls occur when that didn't happen. Rollerbladers tended to feel that no one needed to go faster than them and that everyone could stop as quickly as they could. As a group, I thought the joggers were the safest, very alert to the people behind them, and always willing and able to get off of the path.

I really don't know why pogo sticks and go-karts weren't also encouraged. They would definitely add to the flavor without really making the situation much more dangerous.

One solution seems to be multi-laned paths; a separate lane for each kind of traveler. However, in Philadelphia, there was already a separate jogging/walking lane that no one used. In fact, the people walking down the middle of the cycling path got immediately huffy if it was suggested that they use the clearly-marked walking path.

Even if only bike riders were on the bike path, it could still be very dangerous. Someone is going to bring the whole family: Momma who hasn't ridden a bike in twenty years and is fifty pounds overweight, Dad who has been drinking all morning long, Sis who is riding a bike with no brakes, Bud who has a mean streak, and Junior who is on training wheels (or who should be). On the Philadelphia bike path, I was asked to help a "cyclist." His wheel was rubbing, his seat was too low, his gear shift was broken, and he was in the small-small rings. After I adjusted his wheel and changed the gear, I explained why he should remain in a lower gear and rode behind his party for a while to make sure my temporary repairs held. He immediately shifted back to the small-small and wobbled down the flat, smooth, paved path at seven mph. Fortunately, his group was too far away from the busy crowds to ever get there.

College Cycling Behavior

On my trips, whenever I traveled through a college town, I would discover the college students riding on the sidewalks. This was even true at schools like Carbondale where bike lanes had been carefully marked in the streets.

When I attended the University of Alabama for two years (1990-92), I saw unbelievable behavior. No bike rider (except me) followed the round-about traffic routes. Instead, a rider traveling at full speed would run a red light, moving from the right lane to the far left sidewalk, without yielding to any motorist, pedestrian, or cyclist. Most bicyclists and pedestrians ignored the red lights and stop signs. Traffic was heavy almost all the time; so fortunately, it was usually moving slowly. The student motorists were as foolhardy as the bicyclists: when I slowed to stop for some pedestrians in the crosswalk, the car behind blasted past both me and them. I was chased up onto the curb by one student motorist who was screaming at me to get out of his way (he then had to back his car up to proceed). For a while, I had an "office" above an intersection. I thought, for curiosity, I'm going to count the number of traffic violations that I see in the ten minutes between classes. No such luck! I couldn't count fast enough.

I also stopped two police officers riding their bikes on the sidewalks. I said, "Don't you know it is against the law in Alabama to ride a bike on the sidewalk." The woman said, "Ignore him." The man said, "I know it's against the law, but I'm on duty." He then wobbled off at walking speed.

While the campus police gave out $700,000 in parking tickets in one year, I did not see a single ticket for traffic violations, although the president did have the main street on campus barricaded to prevent speeding (students were hitting the double nickel on that stretch).

The local bike club was no better. One day while waiting for the light on my way to class, I was passed by them, and I thought I'd like to make friends. I immediately caught up, in spite of my school clothes, book bag, and all, but they ignored me and blasted on through the next intersection without slowing. There was a long line of cars which they passed on both sides both in the same lane and in the oncoming lane. If the sidewalks hadn't been elevated, they probably would have used them too.  At the next intersection, they turned left anywhere they found a space and disappeared around the corner, having ignored oncoming and turning vehicles and pedestrians alike. Unlike the old Birmingham bike club, these people were dressed alike. While they were ignoring the traffic code, their dress showed that they had their own separate code.

In fact, I think that we have several different groups of riders who follow more than one code of behavior. One of the sidewalk riders at the University was a student teacher with me. He loudly defended his way of riding as being, "the way everyone rides in New Jersey." He told me flat out that "cyclists are supposed to ride on the sidewalk whenever one is available" and "that is why the curbs were lowered: to make it easier for cyclists when crossing streets." He also told me that the law requires "cyclists to cross at marked crosswalks." He probably was more careful than most, although I never observed him riding.

I have stopped and talked with cyclists who were disobeying traffic laws. I am not very preachy; however, I usually say something like, "Why are you traveling on the left side when the law asks you to ride on the right?" It's easier for me to question someone traveling the wrong way (and in my way) than someone who runs a light (and is speeding away). Usually, the cyclist gets angry. The most common rebuttal is, "Why aren't you wearing a helmet?" I'm not sure if this is the quickest comeback or the greatest concern. However, the cyclist usually tells me that he is obeying the pedestrian "law" to travel facing the traffic. Many times he denies that he is actually using the roadway at all; however, if a truck comes, he usually stays on the pavement anyway, and he does not dismount when he reaches intersections.

My Conclusions

Now, here is my theory as to what is happening. I think almost all the cyclists we see, whether obeying the traffic laws or not, are following some kind of code, but each type of cyclist follows a separate code.

The type of cyclist I belong to might be called the eco-cyclists.  We believe that we have an equal right to the road, and we fight to protect that right.  We hope to see a more environmentally healthy future with large numbers of people using bikes to get to work and to go on vacation.  Our code of behavior encourages us to ride on bikes and to show no fear in traffic.  While some of us wear helmets religiously, we tend not to be rigid in our judgments of others.  On the other hand, we take vehicular safety very seriously.  While we ride almost any kind of bike, we are about the only ones who ride touring bikes.

We are not only snubbed by newer cyclists but by magazines and shops as well.  Ten years ago, when Bicycling was still writing about touring, the articles became stronger and stronger put-downs.  One article asked, "Do you sleep in old highway culverts at night?" and another advised mooching a bed instead.  Every review of a touring bike was negative.  However, a few years later, there were wild cries of admiration for the "hybrid" bike.  Bike shops have a double standard. When traveling, I find that I am treated like royalty; at home, I find poor treatment (always polite, seldom helpful).  Once another customer told me, "They don't want you around; you don't spend enough."  To change Jesus' words somewhat, "A touring cyclist is not without honor save at his local bike shop."

Another type could be labeled the "cool" cyclists. When cycling began to be perceived as stylish, many people started riding who do not care about the environment or about equal rights for cyclists.  Since they see being cool as an important goal, they are not going to fraternize with some old hippie or ride with someone in blue jeans. These cyclists reveal themselves by their stylish clothes and bikes.  In their discussions, they are more concerned about what is trendy than about what is practical.  One friend, who leans in this direction, has three bikes, racing, touring, and mountain, all carefully fitted with expensive components.  He is about fifty pounds overweight because he rides so little.  The cycling magazines and the bike shops love these people because they are frequent customers who make expensive purchases.  Rather than wanting to "change the world," these cyclists want to change their chainrings for the latest type. Of course, these cyclists are not going to make a strong stand for cyclists' rights; they are quite happy with a bike path or sidewalk.

A third type are the fitness cyclists.  These cyclists wear heart monitors and keep records of their times.  They fall into several sub-groups due to their various levels of fitness.  However, they tend to not be very interested in being stylish per se, and they show little concern for the politics of cycling.  In riding, they tend to chose isolated spots; they are not interested in practical cycling, nor are they interested in the sport.  They buy only bike gear that seems helpful and sometimes wear some jogging clothing.  Like the first group and unlike the second, they may use old equipment.  However, unlike the first group, they show little attachment to such gear. Again, these cyclists are not going to feel a strong commitment to cyclists' rights; however, they won't ride on sidewalks or bikepaths because it's impossible to achieve fitness there. They would be more likely to drive their bikes out to the country. However, they will probably obey the traffic laws where they ride.

A fourth type are the speed cyclists.  I think every cover of Bicycling has the word "fast" pasted somewhere, with even combinations such as, "Get Fast Faster!"  It strikes me as funny; if you want to be fast, why ride a bicycle?  While interested in fitness, cyclists of this type just consider it a means to an end.  Most are also interested in racing.  Like the fitness riders, their interest in equipment is mostly practical, but they buy covered wheels, streamline helmets, and ultra-light bicycles to increase their average speed; unlike fitness riders, they have great interest in racing news and history.  Like the cool cyclists, they are impressed with new gear and bikes, but they also are impressed with old bikes as well. These cyclists are also likely to drive out to the countryside to ride, they would be more interested in cyclists' rights, and they would obey the traffic law when riding, except for stop signs and traffic lights which might slow them down.

A fifth type is interested in skills; therefore, they like mountain bikes or specially made bikes.  These people don't seem to ride enough to get any exercise, but they can really perform the stunts. They do not ride in the streets usually.

A sixth type is just interested in fun and general recreation. This is the least defined group but also the largest.  They have a more casual interest in cycling, being the least informed group (except for the sixth) and thus are the last to wear helmets (they also have the greatest number of accidents per mile).  They generally ride slowly because they are not very fit and because they have poor cycling skills. They usually ride mountain bikes, but they seldom purchase them at bike shops.  Many of them are very careful to obey the law as they know it (which may include riding on the wrong side), and many don't give a rip.

A seventh type seems to be wrapped up in the dangers of cycling.  These people constantly tell us that bicycles are extremely dangerous -- far too dangerous to ride on the road -- and then report traversing steep hillsides or flying down paths at high speeds on their mountain bikes. One rider reported that his group frequently sent people to the ER (emergency room) and said that accidents are unavoidable. These people say they obey safe behavior, but they obviously don't.

The eighth type is common in foreign countries but generally unusual here.  These are the people who have to ride bicycles for practical reasons but are not interested in cycling.  Some bike trails have created this kind of rider by making the trip to work easier by bike than by car, but most are college students, not allowed by the school or their parents to have cars or not able to afford them or not able to park them anywhere near the campus.  A lot of these people stubbornly pedal down the sidewalk at walking speeds; they are not fit enough to walk to class; they certainly aren't going to get on the road, no matter what anyone says.  At the University of Alabama, a couple of hundred abandoned bicycles are sold every year; students get their parents to fork out $600 for bikes (they aren't going to ride Kmart stuff), leave them sitting outside firmly locked for four years, and then either sell them for a song or just walk away.

The ninth type is the club cyclist. What distinguishes the club rider from other cyclists (and the member could belong to one or more of the other types) is a strong desire to ride in groups, sometimes very large groups. There are a number of rides held each year in the US and in other countries that involve thousands of riders, many of whom travel thousands of miles to be at the event. Perhaps the group event is more important for many of them than the cycling. These cyclists are going to ride in the street, but they are going to follow the traffic behavior of the leaders of their group, more or less.

A tenth type is the rugged individualist. These cyclists like to set out alone or with a friend or two to accomplish some difficult goal, such as crossing a continent by bicycle. They won't be on the sidewalk, and they will be careful to observe the traffic laws, with the exception of a few contrarians.

None of this is based on research but just on my personal observations. There are undoubtably more types, and the types I listed here may not be the most important. In addition, many or even most cyclists might share the characteristics of more than one of these types; I know that I do. The important point that I'm making is that people's attitudes, motives, and social relationships greatly affect their behavior in traffic.

At present, there seems to be three cyclist interest groups battling for traffic control in the cities. The first group, the vehicular cyclists, is fighting to maintain the equal status given to cyclists in most current traffic laws. A second group feels that most bike riders will never be competent enough to ride in traffic, and thus this group supports the building of bike lanes and bike paths wherever possible. This group is also supported by non-cyclists who see cycling as a way to reduce congestion and pollution, and by other non-cyclists who would like to separate bicycles from the rest of the traffic.. A third group, while supporting bike lanes would also like to see laws favoring the cyclist over the motorist on the streets, since they feel cyclists operate at a great disadvantage.

The arguments of these three groups are probably not even noticed by the majority of cyclists. However, there is a definite battle going on to win the hearts and minds of the majority, as their support is essential. I think that understanding the motives of the various cyclists might be a major step towards winning their support. Such an understanding, of course, would have to go deeper than the sketchy information that I've provided here. Generally, unless people feel that something is of benefit to them, directly or indirectly, they will not support it. An even thornier problem lies in winning support from non-cyclists. However, without a good base of support in the cycling community, winning non-cyclists over will have no meaning.

On this subject and others, people have said to me, "Why not let people do as they please?" Certainly, this is possible, perhaps even desirable, in some ways. Recreational bike paths, for instance, provide parents and children who live on busy streets with a place to ride, and some of those children might become cyclists one day. This kind of riding, however, should not be given credit for having an environmental benefit or even a strong health benefit. Taking a walk would be just as beneficial and would avoid the use of the car. On the other hand, letting people do as they please leads to death and injury in traffic situations. We cannot have multiple, conflicting traffic codes. Although people who don't ride bikes feel that cycling in traffic is very dangerous, both statistics and experience tell us otherwise and provide us with a guide to improving future bicycle traffic safety. But as we are now moving away from lifestyle issues and into traffic issues, I will just suggest reading my various articles in the traffic directory.


Types of Bicycle Riders This web article also looks at cycling behavior but focuses on specific traffic behaviors and says little about the cyclists themselves.


Land-Use, Climatic, Demographic, and Cultural Issues Affecting Utilitarian Bicycle Travel in the Triangle  by Steven G. Goodridge. Section five deals with cultural issues.

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