Herding Cyclists

When the EDS cat-herding commercial first appeared during the Super Bowl five or six years ago, I nearly spit out my beer from laughing. As any cat owner knows, convincing their pet to follow a given path is an absurd challenge, to say the least.

Like cats, cyclists often fail to follow set boundaries when it comes to getting from place A to place B. We know shortcuts across schoolyards and parking lots. We’ll ride along sidewalks and improvise our way through traffic. Some of these riding tactics are illegal and even dangerous to ourselves and others. But like cats we see the journey as rewarding as the destination.

Governments, however, being what they are, want to modify our behavior for our own good, mostly with the complete support of cyclists. That is, they want to provide us with bike lanes and paths, routes that can herd us from place to place safely and efficiently.

This week  through an elaborate online survey my town is soliciting input from its cycling citizens about their preferred two-wheeled transportation options. These data will be fed into the city’s master transportation plan with the hope that those few projects that can get funded will be the ones cyclists will actually use.

Down in California there is a scheme afoot to monitor cyclists actual routes to see if that data can be translated into realistic bike lanes and paths. My friend David Leishman sent me this link to a story about how local governments there will use a GPS-tracking app for iPhones and Android devices called CycleTracks to follow your rides and ultimately plot new bikeways.

Both approaches are well-meaning, but flawed. The survey I completed is a fine idea, but it is limited because only a small subset of cyclists will participate. Also, it has me choosing from predefined routes from an existing master plan. Similarly, CycleTracks will only be used by an equally small subset of riders who own particular smartphones, choose to download the app, and then bother to turn it on. Who’s to say whether the information gathered with either method is valid or not?

Nonetheless, I applaud those seeking to get at least some hard data to make their decisions about where to herd cyclists safely. But just as we know that there is a best route for our cats to travel when out and about, there’s a good chance that cyclists, like our favorite felines, will find a more fanciful path to follow.

© Mark Everett Hall 2011

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