Using the Road as a Traffic Engineer: CYCLING

By Ms. Stephanie Taylor P.E., PTOE posted 05-20-2014 09:14 AM


May is National Bike Month and includes days when students are encouraged to bike to school and adults are encouraged to bike to work, but cyclists are on traffic engineers’ minds throughout the year. Buffered bike lanes, cycle tracks, bikeshare stations, bike boxes and all kinds of treatments are changing travelways in Arlington County, VA for the better. Back in April, a Civic Association member asked me how to bike safely in Arlington, and several coworkers asked me if I was participating in Bike to Work Day.

I didn’t know how to ride a bike. So I didn’t have much to say besides a quiet “I don’t know.”

Can you imagine how embarrassing it is to work for an agency that tirelessly promotes something you don’t know how to use? County employees get a free Capital Bikeshare membership, and I couldn’t take advantage of it. I sit 10 feet away from people who ride their bikes every day, and I couldn’t relate. I felt like the odd woman out in so many meetings and conversations and there was a huge disconnect between me and the people I was serving, so something had to be done. I had to learn how to ride a bike.

I signed up for an Adult Learn to Ride class with the Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA) and after less than 2 hours, I was zipping around a parking garage. It felt amazing and I was more motivated than ever to become familiar with this mode. It was April 27 when I learned, so I had less than three weeks to feel prepared for Bike to Work Day on May 16. I practiced on my bike which had been sitting idly by since 2011 and slowly got used to biking around pedestrians and vehicles. I even combined biking with a bus ride when I went to a bike shop for a check-up. I checked the bike map obsessively to learn my route and did a practice run the weekend before. I was ready.

And then the weather reports came.

Apparently, I should have practiced riding around boats. The forecasts all called for heavy thunderstorms from Thursday night until Friday afternoon and included flash flood warnings for both where I live and where I work. Even the die-hard cyclists in the office looked defeated. I was beyond disappointed. I had overcome years of fear and practiced until I was sore in all kinds of places only to be rained out.

I woke up to the sound of a torrential downpour at 5 AM on Friday, and my heart sank even further. I went back to sleep until my alarm went off at 6 AM, and saw that the deluge had tapered off into a light shower. The air was still cold and the roads were full of puddles. I sadly looked out the window like an actress in an anti-depressant commercial, and out of nowhere, I decided to bike to work anyway. Instead of disappointment and excuses, my head was filled why I absolutely had to ride my bicycle. I couldn't give up just because conditions were less than ideal if I really wanted to experience a different point of view. I traversed streets, trails, hills, and driveway lips while soaking wet. I’m sure I looked quite clumsy compared to the seasoned bikers, but in spite of my awkwardness, I have never felt more impressive.

Transportation professionals do highly complex work that most people assume can be done by anyone who has ever completed a trip; however, biking close to 5 miles through chilly rain less than three weeks after learning how to pedal is an achievement that no one, not even the most cynical citizen, can take away from me.

What I learned:

  1. Bike helmets are like umbrellas just for your hair.
  2. I am just as overly vigilant about traffic laws on a bike as I am in a car. Even if no one was approaching, I refused to cruise through a red signal. The last thing I need is a headline like, “Traffic Engineer Violates Traffic Law, Struck at Intersection.”
  3. Arlington drivers are far more courteous to cyclists than I assumed.





05-29-2014 08:06 PM

Congratulations on learning how to ride a bike! Unfortunately I'm all too familiar with not being able to ride a bike either for someone interested in the transportation profession, but I did take a good old college try at it the previous year - the only thing on my case now is developing the proper sense of balance.
I hope next month's experience of riding the bus goes pleasantly for you, as well.
Awesome experience; welcome to life on two wheels!!!
Yes--great job Stephanie! That was very courageous of you especially in inclement weather! Thanks for sharing your experiences too John!
I am very thankful for May being bicycling month because as of May 29th, I will have met my 12-day bicycling to work goal for the month. In college in MI, it was my only mode of transportation besides walking even in the snow! I also biked to work about 7 years ago as well but for various reasons, including my bike path being closed due to out-of-control irrigation water, I didn't continue at that time. It has been great to get back to it and I've been memorializing the unique things I've come across in my to/from work bicycling commutes that really pertain to our daily work and perspective as traffic engineers and transportation professionals!
Great blog! Reminded of 20 years ago, I had a similar occasion of being challenged on my opinion regarding a bicycle issue at the time, and was asked if I was a “rider”. My reply was no, but I had ridden a bike years ago (like 15 or so). As a result, I was invited to "ride” with a local bicycling group, which I could not refuse. Sooo 20 unexpected miles later and very very sore from not remembering the last time that I "rode", I gained a much needed appreciation for how traffic engineers must remember that we work with people first and foremost, and not just only with standards and specs found in a "rule" book.