Commuting By Bicycle In Pocatello, Idaho

I’ve been an almost daily bicycle commuter in Pocatello, Idaho since 2007.  I’m writing this article to briefly point out my experiences cycling on the streets of Pocatello, and to also give a few tips on some commonly occurring points of minor, and easily avoidable, contention I’ve experienced coexisting with motorized vehicles.  I’ll be just going over some basics and some gotchas I’ve personally encountered.  However, all beginning cyclists should read the bible of bicycle commuting: Bicycling Street Smarts.   Disclaimer:  I’m no expert or authority on traffic law nor cycling technique; rather, I’m just bringing out a few points from my personal experience as a bicycle commuter.

So, How Is Cycling In Pocatello?

I think Pocatello is a lovely place for cycling.  The weather is far milder than many other locations around the United States, which makes cycling easy here.  We don’t get much precipitation thanks to the semi-arid climate, and that also makes for mostly mild winters.  With proper clothing and bicycle components (like fenders for wet days and studded tires for winter), daily cycling is almost always feasible.  I would say the only possible hardships to Pocatello cycling are the steep hillclimbs.  Pocatello is nestled in a deep valley, so if you’re trying to get up on one of the “walls” of the valley, you’re in for a bit of a workout.  Hit your low gear and relax.  You’ll be fine.

The population is right around 50,000 people, so traffic isn’t very thick.  When rush hour is happening, there are plenty of residential streets to get you where you want to go safely.  And the folks are very friendly here.  Oftentimes, motorists are actually too courteous.  They’ll do things like stop for a cyclist when the cyclist is at a stop sign at an intersection and they don’t have a stop sign.  Always gives me a smile, a chuckle, and a mental facepalm.  ;-)

Idaho bicycle traffic laws are also looser than in any other state!  You may treat stop signs as yield signs, and red lights as stop signs.  This is called the Idaho Stop.

I’ve cycled in St. George, Utah (hotter than hell) and Roanoke, Virginia (thick traffic and NASCAR-crazy motorists), so I have had an opportunity to compare and appreciate my home town’s climate and people.

The Most Commonly Occurring Gotchas And Awkward Situations

slow moving traffic sign

I should put one of these on the back of my cycling jacket.

Now it’s time for me to get on my soap box and talk a bit about some awkward situations that I personally encounter somewhat frequently.  With practice, these awkward situations can be handled with ease and finesse, though, so they really aren’t that big of a deal.  Again, your experiences may be different and you are highly encouraged to read Bicycling Street Smarts, and then get out on the road and develop your own techniques.

So, bicycles are in the same category as slow moving traffic, such as tractors, and they are to conduct themselves in pretty much the same manner.  If you read all the material you can find about how to cycle in traffic, it all boils down to this:  follow regular traffic laws (just like any other vehicle), and allow faster traffic to pass you when it is safe to do so.  Pretty simple.  Additional tips to remember are:

  • Plan your route ahead of time.  Map out your route utilizing low traffic streets, such as residential streets.  I used to cycle on the Jefferson Ave. as part of my commute, which has very little shoulder, is 30 mph, and loaded with traffic most of the time.  I don’t do that anymore.  I stopped stressing myself out and frustrating motorists.  There are plenty of side streets to select from that will get you almost anywhere you want to go.  ;-)
  • Don’t use the sidewalk unless you’re planning on going at a very, very slow pedestrian-like speed.  People backing out of driveways, or trying to pull out from an intersecting street are not looking for something going 10 mph or faster on a sidewalk.  I ran into a truck that way once upon a time!  Not cool.
  • I prefer using lane-position language as opposed to hand signals.  This way my hands are always on the handlebars, which is where I like them.  If you’re planning on making a right turn, cycle to the far right side of the line, and vice versa for left turns.  If you going straight, be in the middle of the lane.  Being in the middle or the left side of a lane may feel funny for new cyclists, but you’ll get used to it.  Some motorists may be grumpy that a cyclist is using the road, but they will at least understand what you’re doing and where you intend to go.

Cycling on the road is straightforward and easier than most people think.  But here’s my list of potentially awkward situations.

1. The motorist sitting at a stop sign on the left.

So, you’re cycling down a calm, residential street, and you’re approaching an intersection.  You have no stop sign, so you’re pedaling at normal speed.  If there’s a motorist waiting at a stop sign on the right-hand street at the intersection, they can see you very plainly right through their driver side window.  As you get closer to the intersection, you’re practically eyeball-to-eyeball with them.  They notice you and they’ll wait patiently for you to get through the intersection before proceeding.  But the eyeballs of the motorist sitting at the stop sign on the left-hand street of the intersection is a bit farther away, and their vision may be partially blocked by a window pillar.  About 20% of the time, they’ll attempt to proceed out into the intersection, see you, stop, smile, wave, and mouth “oops!” to you.  And then sometimes they won’t even see you at all until they’re all the way into the intersection.   Anyway, just be a little more cautious than usual when someone’s on the left street of the intersection you’re passing through.  :-)

2. Approaching a stop sign or stop light with nearby motorists.

Here’s another semi-challenging situation:  cars and bikes all sort of slowing down and crowding to a stop sign or stop light at the same time in close proximity.  The main idea is to keep everyone in a nice, neat, single-file line.  Here’s the rules I follow for this:

  • When in doubt, just slow down while way over on the shoulder (to make it very obvious that you’re letting the driver behind you pass), wait for the car to pass, and then merge in directly behind the car in front of you so that some other car doesn’t pull up, getting you stuck you on the shoulder.  It is better to err on the side of “you first” and being patient than attempting to floor it to get in front of a car, then slamming on your brakes before the intersection.  ;-)
  • Avoid turning 1 lane into 2 by pulling up to the right of a car.  There are times to be on the shoulder, but this isn’t one of them.  Why?  Because you don’t want them to try to do a right turn in front of you.  If you are approaching a stop and you’re already in the lane, stay to the middle or even the left of the lane.  This leaves all ambiguity out of the picture, and forces the motorist to stay behind you where they belong.  Additionally, it gives them the option of pulling up to the right of you and making a safe right turn.  If you are wanting the car behind you to trigger the red light to change, you can always pull up into the cross-walk so they can trigger it.  This usually isn’t necessary since I can just proceed through the red light when traffic clears anyway.
  • If for some reason you’re cycling in the shoulder, and traffic is so thick that you can’t merge into it when coming up to a stop, then just stop on the shoulder.  Be patient and wait for traffic to pass.  This usually shouldn’t happen because you should be cycling on a low-traffic street, or in line on a slow moving, high-traffic street (like Main St. or Arthur Ave.).  What should you do on a high-speed, high traffic street?  Avoid them unless absolutely necessary, of course!  Unless there’s a big, fat comfy shoulder to cycle on (like Garrett Way).

So there you have it.  Those are a few tips that I have personally given some thought to and found useful in my daily commute.  Feel free to comment with questions, corrections, complaints, or other cycling issues you’d like to point out!  Happy cycling, everyone!

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