Note: This article by Chris Eatough originally appeared in the July, 2011 issue of Spokes Magazine.
There is no doubt that cycling is on the rise in our region. More people are discovering the convenience and fun of getting around by bike, and bike lanes and other helpful infrastructure are popping up everywhere. I notice this everyday as I travel around Arlington, D.C., and Maryland by bike and it's great to see. As I find myself sharing space on the road with fellow cyclists, I have been experimenting with different riding styles to see what is more comfortable and efficient. In particular, riding alone or forming spontaneous bike platoons. Each style has its own merits. Here is what I have found:
The Merits of Bike Platoons
Forming a spontaneous bike platoon involves joining up and riding with another cyclist, or cyclists and riding as a group that flows down the road and through intersections like a single unit. Of course, this should not be too close for comfort. Leaving breathing room of at least four feet on all sides is advised.
Riding as a platoon increases the visibility of cyclists to drivers, creates more order and predictability in their actions, and simplifies the interactions between bikes and vehicles. Bike platoons generally behave more like vehicles than individual cyclists, which is a good thing.
I find the ideal size of platoons to be two to five bikes. More than that becomes unwieldy. Five cyclists riding as a platoon takes up about the same amount of space on the road as a car, and it's easier for a car to make one pass of a five bike platoon than it is to pass five bikes riding individually.
These platoons often form at intersections as several cyclists find themselves waiting together for their turn at a traffic light or stop sign. If the group forms here and stays together, they will often find that passing through upcoming intersections as a platoon is more controlled and less random.
Additional benefits include making new friends, increasing the camaraderie among cyclists and the opportunity to pick up new skills and safe riding habits from others. Riding with experienced cyclists with good skills and safe habits is the absolute best way to learn for a less skilled cyclist. Even those of us that have been riding for a long time still have something to learn.
Merits of Riding as Individuals
There are certainly some advantages to riding alone as well. Primarily, staying away from other cyclists reduces the chances of crashing with another cyclist. Any touching of wheels can cause a crash. Riding alone also makes the individual cyclist the sole decision maker. This includes choosing the pace and not be slowed down or rushed by other cyclists, deciding whether to go through the intersection as the light turns from green to yellow, and what position in the travel lane to take.
Like many aspects of my bike riding, I like variety. Some days I want to ride at my own speed with less interaction with other cyclists, but more and more recently, I enjoy the unity of the bike platoon. This is especially the case on roads with lots of intersections and interactions with vehicles. Thankfully, more cyclists on the roads means more platoon opportunities.
Chris Eatough is the Bike Arlington Program Manager. BikeArlington is an initiative of Arlington County, Virginia to encourage and enable more people to go by bike more often. To stay up to date on biking in Arlington, follow BikeArlington on Twitter or visit the Washington Area Bike Forum.