Editor’s Note: One of the missing voices in bicycle planning in the Twin Cities is college students. This series aims to include the perspectives of a generation that is much less likely than their parents to own vehicles. The authors are Macalester students enrolled in the “Bicycling the Urban Landscape” course. The overarching objective is to provide intellectual and active engagement with bicycling, including understanding transportation politics, equity, bicycle culture, local, national, and global trends in bicycling, and steps toward increased bicycle mode share locally and globally. This piece was contributed by Dylan Edwards-Gaherty.
Nearly every man and woman across the United States has had a traumatic experience regarding a lack of awareness of bicyclists on and off the road. In many cases, this can be dangerous for both the cyclist and the pedestrian or driver that are part of the near-misses and accidents that take place every day. Many different states have laws that force cyclists to adhere to specific standards in terms of equipment, with safety being driving force behind nearly all of them. Why aren’t bicycle bells a part of these laws? Bells come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from bright and eye-catching to small and nearly unnoticeable, which allows them to fit the broad range of uses that bicycles are designed for. Most importantly, they all ring, and they all say “Hey! I’m here!” which is why they are so necessary and important in a community filled with cyclists.
It is safe to say that nearly every cyclist, especially those in urban centers like the Twin Cities, have experienced the notorious “On your left!” shout from a fellow cyclist. A fair number of us have been the ones doing the yelling, as well. Most of the time this gets the job done, although it can feel abrasive depending on who is doing the shouting, and the manner in which these interactions take place. The problems, though, are the times when the out-of-breath “On your left!” starts to resemble “Move left!” and suddenly a cyclist or pedestrian is about to be rear-ended by another, faster cyclist.
Currently, Minnesota has laws that require cyclists to have a front light and a rear reflector, or a front and rear light, when riding at night. In addition, cyclists must have reflectors along the sides their bikes to make them visible at night to go with these lights. In cities like New York, there are laws requiring riders to wear a helmet, based on statistics that show riders are more likely to survive a crash when wearing a helmet. All of these laws are meant to promote rider safety on roads and spaces shared with cars. Making sure a car can hear you and is aware of your position on the road promotes safety and is equally important.
Alongside the laws in Minnesota concerning cycling equipment is a statute that reads “A bicycle may be equipped with a horn or bell designed to alert motor vehicles, other bicycles, and pedestrians of the bicycle’s presence.” The statute adds that these bells are meant to alert vehicles, other bikes, and pedestrians that there is a bike headed towards them, in the same way that car horns are used to alert other motorists of the car’s presence when necessary. No one wants to be surprised by a bicycle coming up alongside them at high speeds, the same way no one wants to be surprised by a car in the lane beside them. So why aren’t they required, the same way car horns are?
There really aren’t any good arguments for not having a bell on your bike. If you want them to be big and colorful, they can be. If you would prefer something small and black, or bare steel or copper, or the color of your bike, they exist. If you want something that will sit up on your handlebars and in sight, there are bells that will work for you. Maybe you would prefer not to take up a lot of space on your handlebars. You can find minimalist bells that take up almost no space and add almost no weight to your bike. There are bells that are out of sight, out of mind, and yet still within reach when the moment necessitates them. There are, quite literally, bells for everybody.
I, personally, love my bell from Spurcycle. It is loud, has a nice ring to it, and the brushed-steel look fits in perfectly with the old-school Rivendell style I am going for on my Cross Check. Almost daily, it helps me to make sure that the car pulling slowly through the crosswalks at stop signs in St. Paul know that I am coming, and let me cross in front of them before they continue on their way. As a cyclist who also on occasion has the necessity to drive, I have tested and found that my bell, among many others, are perfectly audible inside the confines of a closed and running car, even with the radio playing.
Since availability shouldn’t be an issue, and bells tend to be relatively cheap compared to other bike accessories, why is it that so many riders do not use them when they ride? They promote safety, are simple and easy to use, and help avoid uncomfortable yelling-match confrontations on our bike paths and other shared spaces. Like lights and reflectors, cyclists should make use of bells, if they are not currently, when riding on the city streets and paths.
 Minnesota State Statute 169.222: Operation of Bicycle.