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Why teach on the Road?


BicyclingLife and Chris Law have received questions about why the boy scout Cycling Merit Badge course is taught on the road instead of bike paths.  Chris has supplied the following explanation:

The reason that bikepaths are not germane to the BSA Cycling Merit Badge is that the badge is exclusively about road cycling.  Some people have come to me with ideas to turn it into a mountain bike or trail riding badge but my answer to them is that they would be missing the whole point of the badge -- learning to operate a vehicle on normal roads.  This is a life skill that needs to be taught in a realistic environment to be effective.  Learning how to operate a vehicle in traffic can be applied not only to cycling but also to operating a car. You may want to think of the badge as a pre-Drivers Ed course. The more road time you can afford the scouts, the better. If something is worth doing, it is worth taking the time to do it right, by the book.

When a driving instructor takes a student out on his/her first driving session, the instructor doesn't take the student to a go-cart track. Why? Because the instructor knows that aside from learning to use the throttle and brake, the track environment does not mimic real driving experience.  Far better to take the student driver out on a quiet road.  So it is with the beginning cyclist.

What are the bad things that cyclists may learn on bike paths?

1. Might makes right.  Imagine a group of scouts bearing down on a couple of pedestrians.  The pedestrians see the pack coming and jump out of the way. That's exactly the opposite of what we want to teach the scouts.  All users of the roads have rights as defined by law. We need to teach the scouts to respect the rights of others at the same time that we teach them about their vehicular rights.

2. On bike paths there are no rules.  Pedestrians wander around aimlessly, skateboarders pop tricks in the middle of the path, dogwalkers may or may not have their animals under control. Skaters are lost in their own world.  People operate on the left, right and middle of the path.  How different is the road where everything is regulated by the laws and rules of the road.  Not everybody does it perfectly all the time but in general, it is an orderly process governed by known rules that everyone must follow.

3. On bikepaths, actually MultiUser Paths (MUPs), no one looks before making a lateral move. Pedestrians act as if they are the only ones on the path and will sidestep or stop in a heartbeat.  Cyclists, knowing that they are the fastest users on the MUP, just veer around objects without ever looking back. Unfortunately, failure to look back before merging is one of the major causes of bike accidents on the road. Teaching scouts (and scouters) to look before, than look again while merging, is one of the hardest things to get them to do every time.

4. MUPs have nonstandard intersections that people use without applying vehicle rules.  MUPs frequently intersect other paths.  Who gets to use the intersection first is often based on mass or might.  Pedestrians starting to cross a path intersection are blown away by bikers flying through at 15 to 20 mph.  Pedestrians stop in the middle of the intersection consulting maps on which way to go.  Where the MUP crosses a road, Critical Mass rules apply.  Cars go barreling through ignoring the presence of the path.  Where pedestrian and/or cycling traffic is heavy, the mass of non-motorists will reach a point where they will just burst across the road and continue streaming across without regard to lights, signs or any rules.

5. Paths cannot be used to teach proper positioning for cyclists.  The average paved or semi-paved path is about six feet wide.  The normal cycling position is on the right about 2 to 3 feet from the edge of the lane being followed. On a path, this would place the scout in the middle of the path.  Even the concept of riding on the right cannot be adhered to as MUP users are all over the place.  Cyclists are forced to pass on the right, the left and up the middle.  Frequently they must ride off the path to pass a group of pedestrians. Path traffic is usually two way, even if the path is marked one way. Chaos, not order is the general state of affairs.

6. Teaching the scouts to ride in an orderly group is very difficult to do on a path.  Normally, in road riding, groups ride single file so as to allow faster oncoming traffic to pass with the minimum of effort.  Riding two by two is reserved for low volume roads or wide breakdown lanes.  On an empty path, trying to enforce the single file rule is virtually impossible.  I know this from personal experience having taught a group of young people in a carless environment.  It just makes no sense to the scouts.  Better to take them out on a low volume road and practice single and double file riding with the occasional passing car to give a sense of reality to the exercise.

7. Contrary to popular opinion, MUPs do not offer a safer place to ride. According to studies done in the US and Great Britain, among others, cycling on roads is about two times safer than riding on side paths. Using Vehicular Cycling methods as outlined in the BSA Cycling Merit Badge book increases this safety factor.

If you are going to teach the BSA Cycling Merit Badge as it is written, then you must teach road cycling.  If you teach road cycling, the best place to teach it is on the roads starting with very low volume roads and gradually moving up to moderate volume ones.  Should you never go on a MUP or teach about them? No.  Using short connector ones is fine.  Riding to a park and taking a MUP inside it to a picnic area is OK as long as the majority of the trip is on the road.  Discussing the benefits and problems of MUPs should be included in the course.

Personally, I'd like to see the BSA put together an off road cycling merit badge.  I think there would be a lot of interest in it and there certainly is a good deal to teach about it.  But that, as they say, is another badge.  




Christopher R. Law Assistant Scoutmaster, Troop 603


BSA Merit Badge Program


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