Riding With Tornadoes

A friend asked me: why everybody can’t simply learn to drive their bikes on the roads? Why do we need all these special bikeways on any roads except the busiest? Why do riders need to be physically protected, why not just a painted bike lane? For perspective, he and I are typical lycra-clad MAMILs doing training rides on road bikes and not hesitating to take the lane whenever necessary.

He made an interesting analogy: tornadoes present a similar risk to riding a bicycle and yet people readily accept this risk in Florida, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Minnesota. (Florida actually has a quintuple threat; tornadoes, hurricanes, poisonous snakes, alligators, and quite dangerous roads).[1]

Statistically, this is a tough comparison. In the U.S. over ten times as many bicycle riders are killed by drivers each year as are people killed by tornadoes, but there are many more bicycle riders than tornadoes though. I’ve no idea what the exposure risk is between these so I think any meaningful statistical comparison is difficult. This did prompt the following comparison.

Riding in a tornado in Kansas

Riding in a tornado

Close calls and nerve rattlers

Over the past 25 years living in our house, we’ve had numerous tornado warnings. We’ve gone down to our basement about a half-dozen times; we had one close call when I heard a tornado nearby about 2am and woke my wife and grabbed our son to go downstairs. Tally: close calls. one in 25 years; nerve rattlers, one every 4 years; warnings, about three per year.

Motor vehicles are perhaps a bit like tornadoes. They’re big, deadly, and an encounter can feel like a near-death experience. Riding on most roads close to cars and trucks is like a tornado warning — there are tornadoes in the vicinity so be on heightened alert, extra vigilant, and ready to take action to protect yourself.

Riding my bicycle on the road for a couple of thousand miles each year for transportation (on a Dutch bike) or exercise (on a road bike), I experience what I consider a close call about once every 500 to 1000 miles and a nerve rattler about once every 20 miles. More specifically, a nerve rattler about 1 in every 92 car passes based on some GoPro analysis. How I define these encounters:

  • Nerve rattlers: someone driving a car and passing within maybe a foot or two; a right or left hook with sufficient time to react; a near miss with someone opening a door; or similar events which usually leave me more angry and frustrated, but with a slight bit of fear. The fear tends to be cumulative; after 3 incidents within about 5 minutes, I was feeling a bit shaken and vulnerable. Nerve rattlers are like going to the basement; they put you a bit on edge.
  • Close calls: a mirror brushing or almost brushing my shoulder or a right hook with little time to stop; these cause a bit of nervous fear.  Close calls are like hearing a tornado nearby. The possibility of death and destruction feels imminent and leaves you thankful you’re still alive afterwards.

Every time you hear a car coming. you don’t know if it’ll be one of the 90% who pass safely, the 9% who may rattle your nerves, or the 1% who aren’t paying attention, in too much of a rush, or are an immature jerk. Riding on the road you can’t relax, for even a minute.

If living here was like riding on the road, we’d have tornado warnings multiple times every day, run to the basement once a day because one was nearby, and hear a tornado very close by a few times each year. I’m not sure how many people would still live here; perhaps only the Strong & Fearless would stay.

Stress versus Comfort

There are two places, I somewhat regularly ride to lunch. One is Panera Bread, about 1 mile from my house; the other is Paninoes which is 2.5 miles from my office. For both, I’m riding about 11 mph on a city bike (which is considerably different than riding 25 mph on my road bike in lycra).

The ride to Panera is on residential streets, a bit of county road, and some sidewalk — about 1/3 mile each. The sidewalk portion is safest, though bumpy. There is minimal stress on the residential streets though occasionally someone will follow or pass too closely. The county road is the most stressful part. Cars passing close by, a bit of concern when the next one wandering over the white line will be, getting tailgated or honked at for the portion I have to ride in the traffic lane. This is a considerably more stressful and less comfortable journey and one that friends, family, and neighbors don’t enjoy and don’t do.

Image of road with wide shoulder

Road with wide shoulder

The ride to Paninoes is on a protected side path along a 45 mph county road. It is a comfortable, relaxed and stress-free ride. There are a couple of junctions that require a bit of attention but that’s about it. It is overall a very pleasant ride and one that friends, family, and neighbors enjoy as well.

Image of county road with off-road path

Bike path along county road

I and others comfortably ride the protected path to Paninoes anytime, day or night, year-round. Riding to Panera Bread during morning or evening rush is harrowing, riding at night (with lights and reflectors) is scary, and winter with snow is nutty. My wife and I, like our friends above, often ride to Paninoes together and we can safely and comfortably ride side-by-side and talk the entire way on the protected path; this doesn’t work so well on the road or painted bike lanes.

The trip to Paninoes rarely includes a tornado car. Maybe once in every 20 trips or 100 miles. The ride to Panera typically includes about 1 or 2 nerve rattlers per trip and maybe 1 close call every 10 trips so about one per mile.

And that, I explained to my friend, is why we need good protected bikeways (and why there are nearly always a bunch of bikes at Paninoes and never at Panera Bread).



Young boys enjoying a ride to football (soccer) practice on safe, comfortable, and convenient protected bikeways. No worries about getting their nerves rattled by people driving cars.


[1] Florida has about 52 tornadoes per year which is 9.6 per 10,000 square miles. We in Minnesota have 19 which is about 2.4 per square mile. Texas has 137 tornadoes per year but only 5.2 per square mile. Florida is also, according to the IIHS, the most dangerous place to ride a bicycle.

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at localmile.org, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN

13 thoughts on “Riding With Tornadoes

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      As a philosophy major, tornadoes could be thought of as a kind of Deleuzian singularity in much the same way that a bicycle journey is an assemblage of becoming, a composite body of affective capacity relating bicycle, body, road, and proximate speeding metal vehicle that lasts for a duration, sometimes results in disaster, and eventually tires out.

      1. Wayne

        How about existential cycling? Life is absurd, ride a bike. Hell is definitely other road users, though.

  1. Wayne

    I think only 1% for distracted drivers is pretty generous. When I’m waiting for the bus I like to observe people in their cars and I’d say about 1/3 to 1/2 have their cell phones in hand, and probably another 1/3 are fiddling with the radio, talking to a passenger, applying makeup, eating, or some other manner of distraction.

    1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

      Agree that 1% is a bit low, but in my occasional observational walks, I found that 1/3 is too high. Generally, I found the distraction percentage was in the 10-20% range.

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      I was counting near miss events based on a go pro mounted under my seat pointing backwards and my memory of those that felt too close. I had enough of my rear tire in view that I could also calculate approx how close they were.

      I’m sure there were many more distracted drivers but they didn’t pass close enough to alarm me. These were all along a 40 mile loop around the Bald Eagle and White Bear Lake area.

  2. Serafina ScheelSerafina

    I love the Oz tornado biking image, but to me, the need for bike infrastructure is precisely because streets are constructed spaces: their safety depends on the structure of those spaces, he rules that govern behavior on those spaces, and the human nature of the people who travel those spaces. We humans have much more control over those spaces than we do over a force of nature like a tornado, and we have more and different options for dealing with the dangers.

    I want my kids and neighbors to have safe ways to bike to school, to friends’ homes, and to recreation, and right now, just .4 miles to the Westgate Station, we’re hemmed in by streets without infrastructure and safe pedestrian crossings.

    We’re limited in what we can do to prevent tornados. We build our homes, businesses, and public buildings to protect us from the dangers of weather (cold, heat, floods, wind), but weather events are subject to natural forces. The dangers we worry about on the streets are different.

    1. Rosa

      You said it – we build our homes, businesses and public buildings with tornado shelters. We should build our roads with protective infrastructure for what we know of human nature (drivers *will* be distracted or incapable a fair amount of the time) just like that.

  3. Thomas Mercier

    Great analogy. And like others have pointed out, analogies fall apart when you dig too deep. But the intent of analogies is to raise awareness of characteristics by connecting the familiarity of something else with those characteristics and I think you’ve done an excellent job of that here.

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