Public safety and the bike commute

An online acquaintance was mugged while riding his bike home from work the other evening, prompting a discussion on personal safety while bicycling.

Bicycle Self Defense 1901

Curtis Corlew, a 61 year old college professor in Antioch, CA, was just riding along when a pair of young thugs with a gun (a GUN!) rolled him hard and stole his iPhone. They hit him hard enough that he says he’s worried about his physical recovery when class begins in two weeks at his college. He’s a lifelong bike commuter, but he’s weighing his options.

People worry about public safety and it’s one of those things that discourage people from commuting by bike. Although rare, strong-arm robberies like this do happen on Bay Area trails, and I think an essential component of encouraging cycling is ensuring a safe riding environment.

“Personal safety concerns” is listed among the reasons I began San Jose Bike Train. The San Jose Bike Pool route from Almaden to downtown San Jose has also empowered a mostly female group of commuters to ride to and from work through what many consider some very sketchy bike paths, namely the Highway 87 path, and the Guadalupe River Trail south of downtown.

Some of the discussion has turned to self-defense techniques when you’re attacked while astride a bike.

Curtis was blindsided, and I’ve heard of similar attacks in which the assailant uses a baseball bat or a pipe to knock the cyclist to the ground. I don’t know how much your awesome Rex kwan doe skills can help in that kind of surprise attack.

All I can recommend is situational awareness. When somebody approaches and asks for a cigarette, a light or for the time, he’s probing your vulnerabilities. If you see a group scope you out and cross the street to deliberately intercept your path, it’s already past time to wake up and pay attention. Predators look for easy targets, and if you’re aware of your surroundings you’re possibly aware enough to hit back a little or to avoid the attack altogether.

I used to commute across what many consider the seedy side of Menlo Park and through East Palo Alto. I wasn’t fearful or worried when rolling through these areas, but I’m watchful and aware. There was one instance over five years of this where a trio tried to intercept me near the Ringwood Avenue bike bridge, but I saw it coming, evaded easily, and rolled past.

Antioch has a problem with growing crime. The city of Santa Cruz, where I often ride, also has one of the highest rates of violent crime in California, making it more dangerous than Oakland. Most of Santa Clara County, by contrast, is very safe, with comparatively few assaults reported on our regional bike paths.

What’s your experience with violent crime where you ride?

Heads up: San Jose Bike Trail rolls next Wednesday, August 5!


  1. Although I don’t know how to make this happen, one solution is more bike commuters. I was alone (Yep, I’m the commuter in the story) on the path for as far as I could see in either direction. That’s not an unusual situation in my many years of bike commuting. The attackers were clearly didn’t want to spend much time with me and ran off quickly. If only there were 1000s of bike commuters I don’t think this would have happened. But that’s just a pain killer induced dream I fear.

  2. I used to live in a not-so-nice area and late at night I was always afraid that drunks or anyone else for that matter may try jump me. I started to carry a camera flashgun with me as its harmless but the sudden flash certainly dazes people when it’s dark outside. I never had to use it thankfully but its a simple, safe and effective way to protect yourself – at night when it’s dark at least. It saves a court case for actually harming someone.

  3. When I used to live in LA, I heard that over of the popular bike trails was the San Gabriel River trail. There were some isolated areas, and an easy target for someone to spread table on there ground, then mug someone. Not sure what can be done in this situation. Just scary all around for all of us commuters.

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