How to bike safely with a child in LA
Bike share in New York City is branded under the name Citi Bike.
As of April 2016, U.S. bike share riders have made 35 million trips without a fatality. Over 22 million of those bike rides were in New York City. Many of the people riding those bikes were tourists navigating Manhattan for the first time on a bike they'd never ridden before while "sharing" the streets with New York cabbies. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you are almost thirty times more likely to get struck by lightning THIS YEAR than a New Yorker is likely to get struck by a taxi and die while riding a Citi Bike.
I think we've pretty clearly established that riding a heavy bike with wide tires, lights, a step-through frame, and upright handlebars is freakishly safe. Arguably safer than driving our kids on LA freeways. Yet, we're talking about our kids here, so how do we minimize that infinitesimal risk even further?
Your number 1 job is to be seen. You must never assume that a car can see you until you've made eye contact with the driver. See the gear guide for tips on how to increase your visibility. The chances of a driver not seeing you go up exponentially when you are backlit by the sun. Therefore, when the sun is low in the sky, be extra aware.
Stay away from fast moving cars. The graphic below is the #1 thing that informs where I choose to ride with my child:
I avoid riding in streets with traffic moving faster than 25mph. That doesn't mean that I never ride on arterials, it just means that I avoid them whenever I can. If there is an alternate route down a residential street with calm traffic speeds, I will choose that route instead. Why Los Angeles doesn't install parking protected bike lanes like the rest of the civilized world is completely beyond me. Please contact your councilman and ask for these:
Riding in bike lanes
I love bike lanes that give you decent separation from traffic that isn't traveling at highway speeds. I'm also pretty happy in bike lanes that abut a road with a wide right lane, so cars are able to give you a lot of room as they pass. Unfortunately, many of the bike lanes in LA do not meet this criteria. Bike lanes in LA often leave very little safe area in which to ride between the parked cars' "door zone" on your right and fast-moving cars racing past you on your left. If you return to one of my main points safety points above: STAY AWAY FROM FAST MOVING CARS, these bike lanes do not pass the test. I will ride them without my kid, but I avoid them when my child is with me.
If you do ride in the bike lane between parked cars and traffic, you always want to hug the the left side of the bike lane (the side nearest to moving traffic) which is counterintuitive. You would think that you should stay as far away from the moving cars as possible, but the greater danger is "dooring" (someone throwing open their car door in your path). YOU MUST STAY OUT OF THE DOOR AREA.
When the patch of "safe" area in the bike lane does not leave much room for error, I will take an alternate route through a residential neighborhood or ride the sidewalk instead when my child is riding with me.
Riding on a sidewalk in L.A. is completely legal.
The laws amongst the various municipalities around L.A. vary, but it is 100% legal to ride on the sidewalk in the city of L.A. as long as you aren't riding "recklessly."
If side streets with calm traffic or a good bike lane are not available, and if an arterial has a wide sidewalk with good visibility and a minimum of blind driveways, walkways, or pedestrians, I'll take the sidewalk. Re-read my caveat. Sidewalk riding can be very safe as long as you ride slowly and there is good visibility along with few driveways, doors, or walkways intersecting with the sidewalk. But, it can also be MUCH LESS safe than riding in the street if there is a high frequency of shop doors, poor visibility, pedestrians, driveways, etc.
Many bike guides strongly advocate against sidewalk riding, but those guides aren't written with slow moving parents biking with sixty pounds of gear and kids in mind. Use your judgement. When in doubt, slow down even more or walk the bike. With kids, the journey is the destination...as long as they're not screaming.
Tips for riding on the sidewalk:
1. Ride slowly. I'll generally be more likely to ride the sidewalk on the uphill portion of a route. I'm traveling about the speed of a jogger anyway when pedaling up an incline on a Dutch bike with bags and a kid. Beware of losing track of your speed on downhill sidewalks. It is often safer biking in the street for the downhill.
2. Exercise extreme care with pedestrians. Once again, watch out for walkways and doors intersecting with the sidewalk. You are responsible for the safety of ALL pedestrians. Ride as if your child was about to dart out from behind a tree. Slow down.
3. Be neighborly. If you are riding toward a pedestrian who gives you the right of way, an "excuse me, sorry, thank you" is an appropriate way to spread the love. If they don't give you the right of way, wait until it is safe to pass. A friendly ring of your bike bell is a nice way to make them aware of your presence.
4. Once again, you must ASSUME that EVERY DRIVEWAY has a car about to enter or exit it.
5. Cars have more difficulty seeing you on the sidewalk than in the street. Never assume a car can see you until you make eye contact with the driver. YOUR #1 JOB IS TO BE SEEN.
6. Avoid riding "salmon" on the sidewalk. Salmon riding is traveling the opposite direction of cars in the traffic lane nearest to you (like a salmon swimming upstream against the current). You should usually be riding "with" traffic instead of "against" it because cars pulling out of driveways will not be expecting you to be riding against the flow of traffic. The driver's head will be turned away from you looking for a break in traffic coming from the opposite direction. If you must travel salmon on the sidewalk for a short distance, slow down and take extra precautions.
As I continue to post suggestions for safe bike routes with your kids, I will only suggest riding salmon on the sidewalk for limited, specific short distances of certain routes because the alternatives are not as safe or practical as long as you are riding the speed of a jogger.
7. If you ignore my advice about riding with wide tires, then sidewalks are not a good idea for you. Your front wheel can get caught in large cracks thereby tossing you off the bike. My wide-tired Workcycles bike glides over all sidewalk cracks. On the other hand, my Brompton has the widest tires on which it can ride, but they could still get caught in cracks. I avoid sidewalks much more often on the Brompton.
There is a good general guide on how to avoid bike accidents here.
In short, biking with your child on a properly equipped bike separated from fast moving traffic is an incredibly safe activity. If you are a novice cyclist, start with some practice trips without the kid. Then, as you gain more confidence, add your kid to some short neighborhood trips. Be amazed as you expand from there.
Your kid will love it. You will love it. Happy pedaling.
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