09/30/09

Ambassadors Update: How to Teach a Downtown Biking Skills ClassAmbassadors Update: How to Teach a Downtown Biking Skills Class

On a sunny Saturday morning, I pedaled to Loring Park to meet the first Downtown Traffic Short Course class. Seven individuals lined up with their bicycles to boldly declare their readiness to take to the not-as-mean-as-you’d-think streets of Minneapolis and demonstrate their rights as vehicles on the road.

Many people have asked us how they can become more comfortable bicycling in busy places like downtown. We already have a two- to three-day curriculum to teach people almost everything they ever need to know about vehicular cycling (Traffic Skills 101), but nothing packaged to be short and sweet (1.5 to 2 hours). After many conversations with downtown employees and residents in the course of many bicycling outreach talks, we decided that something special was needed to slay the Downtown Dragon. The Downtown Traffic Short Course was born.

We started with a short talk about bicycle safety and rules of the road. We discussed bicycle fit and body position, basic mechanics, bicycle control, the importance of wearing a helmet, on-road bicycling, gears, hydration and nutrition, and sharing paths. We make sure to go through this information before every class or bike ride. You’d be surprised how often a little basic information on how high a seat should be or routine monitoring of tire pressure can save a lot of headaches (and just plain aches) in the world of bicycling.

The class wanted to go through some fundamentals before starting on the street. Everyone wanted to make sure that they had some of the basic abilities to avoid dangers and hazards on the road. We tried mounting and dismounting, starting and stopping, dodging rocks and cracks, scanning over our shoulders, signaling, and emergency stopping.

Taking to the streets, we worked on some essentials – riding safely on the right side of the road (not in the gutter, and far enough out from parked cars to avoid opening car doors). A lot of people feel that they need to stick as far to the right as they can, but the law tells us that we’re allowed to ride to the right side of the road as practicable. And honestly, would you really want your beautiful bike rolling over broken glass, discarded bolts, sand, grit, newspapers, and whatever else you might find in the gutter? Exactly. We recommend that you ride in the right lane that takes you where you need to go, roughly where the right tire of a car might pass. Don’t dip in and out of parking lanes – you’re a moving vehicle, not a parked car. Ride in a straight line. If you’re turning left, scan, signal and use a left turn lane (just like you’d do it in a car), or head across an intersection, stop, and set yourself up in the right lane to head off when the light turns green (this is called a box left turn).

None of this is rocket science, but it does take some confidence to realize that you have the ability to get where you need to go on a bike. When you cycle in a smart, confident, assertive way, cars respect your skill and predictability.

We started on a side street with lane positioning and avoiding the car door zone. Then we moved onto a bigger challenge – Hennepin Avenue. Hennepin is a big street, and it takes some confidence to master it. As a group, we were able to practice some of what we talked about with lane positioning, including positioning at stop lights. We even had a chance to experience and discuss some common driver errors, such as pulling around a cyclist at a stop light to make a right turn. It’s important for cyclists to anticipate when and where some of the most common driver errors occur so that they can avoid dangerous situations.

We practiced riding through construction zones for the Marquette and 2nd project, and got some experience with changing lanes on Portland Avenue. While standing on the side of the road, we observed how cars move left across the southbound bike lane. Finally, we stopped at a downtown transit hub to get a drink and let students practice putting their bikes on Metro Transit buses. Most students had never done this before; it’s a great way to vastly increase your travel envelope as a cyclist, and it makes a lot of sense for people living and working downtown to have this skill.

I really enjoyed teaching this class, and I can’t think of a more practical thing than building people’s confidence in downtown. Those of us who do this a lot take for granted that we know how to get around busy places, but it’s exactly that knowledge and assurance that we need to circulate so that the general public can use their bicycle to get anywhere, anytime, for any reason. That’s when a bicycle becomes a truly elegant vehicle.

The Bike Walk Ambassador Program teaches short courses on Bicycling with Traffic, Skills and Drills, Basic Maintenance, and Learning to Ride. We have a small fleet of bicycles and can arrange to teach short courses at your place of business. We also teach Traffic Skills 101 – a comprehensive 9-hour course on bicycling from the League of American Bicyclists, and are available to provide talks and information about biking and walking in Minneapolis and its adjoining communities. All of our services are free. Visit www.bikewalktwincities.org/ambassadors for more information, or call us at 612-333-3410.