Friday, 21 June 2013

A Response to 'In Defense of Cyclist Salmoning'

Jake Dobkin, of The Gothamist, wrote an article that my trusty bicycle news radar picked up today: 

It's an interesting read. Incredibly stupid and liable to get unskilled and naive cyclists killed if they take it seriously, but interesting. First, as a counterpoint to an argument for salmoning that he never actually makes, the author claims that salmoning is suicidal. Then he recounts a story in which he rides against traffic because he's late, gets yelled at by a woman for doing it, then asks said woman why it's too dangerous, she is too angry at him to answer coherently, so I guess he figures she's just ignorant. After all, he can salmon safely - he's done it a few times - it's fine when you're late, if you do it slowly and carefully - and hey, New Yorkers live for danger anyway and (presumably) 'Danger' is Jake Dobkin's middle name.

Now Jake's probably never going to find his way to my little corner of the internet, so I've posted the following to his article's comments section. And I recognize that I'm kinda preaching to the converted here, but that is my stock in trade. What I hope is that other 'Jakes' will come here, find this and maybe it will do some good. So here's my response to all the Jakes.

So, Jake, let's make one thing clear - salmoning is not suicidal - no form of cycling is. Cycling is very safe, no matter how stupidly we choose to do it, though that is no guarantee that even the safest cyclists cannot be hit and/or killed in a collision. No matter what you do, as snake oil salesman Allardyce T Meriweather says in Arthur Penn's great movie 'Little Big Man', "life contains a particle of risk".

Many people ride against traffic all the time and they don't die. They do tend to have lots of accidents though, and a few of them do die - probably 9-12 times more of them die than those of us who travel confidently on those "scary" streets with "hairy traffic" and past "popular corners to die at" where realistically only about 1 in every 10,000 cyclists die. However, salmoning does increase danger - it has been shown in studies to be 9-12 times more dangerous than riding with traffic. So if salmoning cuts your trip length by a factor of 9-12, then I guess it would be arguably just as safe as riding in the street with traffic. The problem is, in most real life cases, salmoning reduces trip length by only a factor of 2-3 - if that.

I don't salmon because I prefer survival, and I prefer to reduce my risk as much as possible, so that I can survive longer and in a healthier state. So far I'm doing okay - 40 years cycling in the road, mostly in big cities and not a collision, not a fall, not even a scratch so far, so I must be doing something right.

The fact is, those cyclists who are liable to salmon are already in the group that is far more likely to be killed while cycling. This group does not understand the real risks of cycling, so they already ride in ways that greatly increase the risk they're taking. These people fear traffic so they try their best to avoid it by riding on the sidewalk (3x more risk than riding in the street, well away from the curb with traffic), by riding on the sidewalk against traffic (6x the risk), by riding in the gutter (2x the risk), etc. No one who seriously considers salmoning rides well into the travel lane to avoid the gutter and the door zone - many probably don't even know what 'door zone' means, and they certainly do not know that the way they fear to ride most - well into the travel lane with cars, fully visible to other road users - is actually safest.

So, Jake, you ride how you want. I admit I don't like seeing news articles about folks like you getting killed, but I recognize that it's your life and you have to make your own mistakes: nothing I've learned, no study I've read, no safe cycling courses I've taken, and nothing I say based on those things can change that. I suspect that everyone has to come to the conclusion that vehicular cycling is best on their own - when experienced cyclists try to tell others about it, they tend to be seen as either elitist or worse.

At some point, Jake, you may come to understand that heavy traffic and the design of a certain intersection are only small parts of what makes it "a popular corner to die at" (as you put it). How you ride through the intersection is the biggest part of the equation that determines whether you survive to get to the other side. Hopefully you'll find that out sooner rather than later, or soon enough rather than too late.

In the meantime, I advise you to always leave for important deadlines on time. If you can't and you're late, ride with traffic on the streets, or walk those wrong-way streets and be late. Is your boss going to kill you if you're late? No. But a motorist might accidentally do so because of your suicidal desire to be early when you failed to start out in time, and if that happens, your boss, your family and friends (and me, as it happens) might not be too happy.

Bicycle Infrastructure Studies

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