There are no safe streets for cyclists

March 8, 2012

Yesterday, I received an email from a man who had moved with his wife from Portland to South Pasadena.

They had chosen South Pas, at least in part, because it appeared to offer the most rideable streets in the area. Yet in less than a year, he’d suffered two minor right hook collisions.

His point was that riding in the L.A. area is a completely different experience than riding in Portland. And that local communities need to do more to make other forms of transportation besides motor vehicles a priority.

He’s right.

While South Pasadena has recognized the problem, and is actually doing something about it, a lot more has to be done throughout the county to make cycling safer for every rider.

Though not everyone seems to be getting that message.

The LACBC affiliate chapter BikeSGV reports that the Arcadia City Council decided this week not to develop a bike plan — in part because the city’s Mayor Pro Tem doesn’t think bikes are a legitimate form of transportation.

Vincent Chang

Just got back from a disappointing Arcadia City council meeting where Mayor Pro Tem Robert C. Harbicht took the lead to nix a contract with a bike plan consultant to prepare a bike plan for the city. Unfortunately, the rest of the council, including the Mayor (who established a city “mayors bike ride”) went along. Harbict stated he had concerns about federal funding for bike access in general as he didn’t believe cycling can be a legitimate form of alternate transportation. Ironically, both Harbicht and the Mayor claims to be avid cyclists.

I don’t know whether that reflects ignorance of the potential utility of their preferred form of recreation, or the dangers of riding in their own city.

Either way, they’ve failed the residents of their city by denying them the opportunity to ride in greater convenience and safety, whether for recreation or safety.

Then again, the problem could be that they’re “avid” cyclists, as some — though not all — Vehicular Cyclists actively oppose the sort of infrastructure preferred by the overwhelming majority of riders.

They believe that every rider — even the most unskilled, slow or risk-conscious cyclist — is safer riding in the traffic lane ahead of oncoming, often high speed, vehicles than in a separate lane devoted to bikes.

In fact, John Forester, the father of the VC movement, recently commented on the New York Times website that “nobody has yet “create[d] safe bike lanes”; we don’t know how to do it.”

I think many riders in the Netherlands — and even in New York — would beg to differ.

It’s a battle that rages on in cities and states throughout the country. Like in San Diego, where Forester himself helps lead the fight against more and better bike lanes, much to the chagrin of more mainstream riders.

Despite denials from VC adherents, there have been numerous studies that show well-designed bike lanes can improve safety for everyone. Not just cyclists.

Meanwhile, I have yet to see a single credible study that supports the oft-repeated argument that cyclists are safer riding in traffic than in a good bike lane.

Which is not to say there aren’t a lot of bad ones out there.

Maybe that’s because, like Forester, they refuse to believe such things exist. Sort of like another group that denies compelling scientific evidence.

But it does raise a question another rider brought up awhile back, when he asked for my advice on whether it was better to ride a busy street with a bike lane or a quieter backstreet route with no bike infrastructure.

And the sad answer I gave him was that there is no such thing as a safe street for cyclists.

Depending on your perspective, both present their own unique set of dangers.

On a busy street, you have the risk of high speed traffic and an unacceptably high rate of careless and/or distracted drivers. Along with the near-constant risk of doorings, right hooks and left crosses, as well as drivers who consider the bike lane another motor vehicle through lane, or maybe a parking lane.

Meanwhile, riders on backstreets risk drivers backing out of driveways without looking, children and dogs running out into the roadway without warning, and drivers who don’t even consider the possibility of bikes on their bucolic byways.

Even on country roads, where I did some of my most enjoyable riding in my pre-L.A. days, you might not see a car for hours. But there are still dangers posed by truck drivers and farm equipment operators who assume there’s no one else there, and speeding teenagers out for a joyride — sometimes tossing their empties at any unfortunate victim they happen to pass.

And yes, I speak from experience.

And don’t get me started on the ubiquitous risk of potholes and otherwise dangerous road surfaces and designs. Or the unique thrill presented by riding past bears or gators.

Or bees.

That’s not to say bicycling is dangerous.

It’s not.

But it does demand a constant awareness of your surroundings, as well as a focus on defensive riding by anticipating the dangerous presented by your current environment, wherever you happen to be. And being prepared to respond to risks before they arise.

That doesn’t mean that drivers and other in the road aren’t responsible for using it safely. But it’s your life that’s on the line, and you can’t count on them to focus on your safety. Or even know you’re there.

Or care, for that matter.

That point that was driven home the other day on the quiet residential streets of my own neighborhood, as I made my way through the last few blocks at the end of an otherwise enjoyable ride.

I’d just stopped for a stop sign, and was beginning to resume my route across the intersection when an SUV came up on the cross street. The woman behind the wheel looked directly at me, then gunned her engine just as I was about to pass in front of her, cutting right onto the road I was riding on.

Fortunately, I was prepared, anticipating that the driver might run the stop sign — though not that she would attempt to hit me in the process. I was able to swing out onto the wrong side of the road, allowing her to screech past me and race off into the distance.

Yet as so often happens, I caught up to her at the next red light.

So I asked, as politely as I could under the circumstances, with fear and anger and adrenalin coursing through my body, why she’d just tried to run me over.

Her response?

“Cyclists have to stop at stop signs too!”

Never mind that I had already stopped before she ever got to the corner, while I was still the only one at the intersection. Or the irony that she ran a stop sign in her attempt to run me down.

In her mind, she was entitled to enforce traffic laws with the bumper of her car. Just another driveway vigilante using brute force to intimidate, if not injure, another human being.

Fortunately, I’m not so easily intimidated.

I would have loved to continue the conversation, but she quickly cut from the left turn lane she was in to make a quick right in front of high-speed traffic in order to get away from me.

Evidently, I scared her, even though she was the one wrapped in several tons of steel and glass. And I wasn’t the one who’d just tried to attack someone.

Though I did break my Lenten vow to not swear at drivers, however much they might deserve it; risking eternal damnation for the momentary relief of releasing my anger verbally before I exploded into a thousand spandex-clad pieces.

As usually happens in such cases, I didn’t have time to get her license or a good description of her car. And even if I had, there were no witnesses, so there’s nothing the police could have done anyway.

The really scary thing, though, is that the residential nature of the street she was on means that she’s likely to live here herself. Which means that she’s probably one of my neighbors, and there’s a high probability I could run into her again.

Whether either of us will recognize the other is a good question. As is what would happen if one of us does.

Where you prefer to ride is a matter of your own comfort level. Whether that leads you to ride vehicularly in a busy traffic lane, in various bikeways or on quieter bike streets that seldom see another road user, on two wheels or four.

But it’s a good reminder that no matter how peaceful they may look, there are no safe streets.

Even the ones in your own neighborhood.

Thanks to everyone who forwarded me the link to the San Diego KPBS story.

Update: Oddly — or maybe not so oddly, given the KPBS story — Bike Snob wrote Vehicular Cycling today, as well. And as usual, he’s much funnier than I am.


A look at vehicular cycling, People for Bikes, and a lot of links

May 26, 2010

If you listen to the most vocal cyclists, you would assume that vehicular cycling was a long-settled issue, and that everyone agrees that bicyclists belong in the traffic lane, operating their bike like any other vehicle.

But as Boston Biker astutely points out, it doesn’t take much observation to realize that the overwhelming majority of cyclists prefer riding in bike lanes. The European countries with the highest percentage of cycling also have the greatest amount of cycling infrastructure, while here in the U.S. — where a lack of infrastructure has virtually demanded a vehicular approach to cycling — the percentage of bike commuters languishes around 1%.

Adding infrastructure also encourages riding, as shown by the dramatic growth in New York cycling after the city tripled the miles of bike lanes on their streets. Whether or not riders are actually safer in a bike lane, they feel safer, and better infrastructure is frequently cited as the #1 factor that would encourage new riders to take up the sport.

Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle. Given the choice, I prefer riding bike lanes and bike paths, but have no problem riding vehicularly when the situation calls for it.

But whether or not you agree with the writer, it’s a well thought out piece. And definitely worth reading.

………

I’ve been watching People for Bikes with interest lately, ever since the plan was announced at this year’s National Bike Summit back in March.

Formed by Bikes Belong, the bike industry’s leading trade group — and one of the best sources for cycling stats — with the support of several of the nation’s leading bike advocacy groups, People for Bikes has a goal of signing up one million cyclists to create a nationwide voice for cyclists.

By uniting a million voices for bicycling, we will help build a national movement with clout and influence. Our unified message—that bicycling is important and should be promoted—will resonate with leaders, the media and public.

It’s a worthwhile goal, with a pledge I think we can all agree on. And one that I’ve already signed up for.

The Pledge

I am for bikes. I’m for long rides and short rides. I’m for commuting to work, weekend rides, racing, riding to school, or just a quick spin around the block. I believe that no matter how I ride, biking makes me happy and is great for my health, my community and the environment we all share. That is why I am pledging my name in support of a better future for bicycling — one that is safe and fun for everyone. By uniting my voice with a million others, I believe that we can make our world a better place to ride.

But if you need a little further inducement, you have just one more week to sign up and have a chance to win a free Trek Allant that will be given away at the end of this month.

………

In a little bit of non-cycling news, one of the nation’s leading examples of eco living is closing.

Started by Julia Russel in the 1970s, Eco-Home demonstrates how anyone can live with minimal impact on the environment by retrofitting a 1911 California bungalow to conserve energy and water, and grow food locally, along with other ways to live in a more sustainable manner — including riding your bike for more trips.

Three more tours are still scheduled before it closes; read more on the Eco-Village Blog.

………

And in one more non-biking item that found its way to my inbox, Sony is sponsoring the nationwide Rock’n’ Roll Marathon Series, starting in San Diego on June 6 and reaching L.A. on October 24. Events include a two-day Health and Fitness Expo and a finish line concert for runners, family and friends.

So where’s the bike tour to go along with it?

………

In pro doping cycling news, Cadel Evans and Ivan Basso continue their comeback in the Giro D’Italia, as a strong performance in Tuesday’s time trial puts them within striking distance of the leader; today’s relatively easy stage doesn’t change anything.

A silver medal-winning Spanish track cyclist is the latest to test positive for a banned substance. Meanwhile, there may be more shoes to drop in the wake of Floyd Landis’ charges. And a federal investigation could answer once and for all whether Lance Armstrong is clean; international cycling’s governing body claims there’s no conflict of interest despite a $100,000 donation from Armstrong.

………

Cynergy offers a free lecture on how to use science to get race ready at 6:30p today; hopefully they won’t recommend the Landis technique. Damien Newton looks back at bike week and asks where’s our bike plan, while Stephen Box looks at what follows bike week and notes the success of the LAPD Bike Task Force. Sara Bond speaks about Bikeside Speaks! A call to build a bike corridor from Norwalk to the beach. CHP cracks down on BWI — Biking While Intoxicated. Is San Diego on its way to becoming SoCal’s newest bike Mecca? Tucson Velo explores Los Angeles with the locals. Shock in Arizona as police actually enforce the state’s three foot passing law. Five dollars could help fund a new documentary on ghost bikes. New York spends $15.7 million to complete the last half mile of a riverfront bike superhighway — roughly twice the cost per mile to build the proposed extension of the Marvin Braude Bike Path. WashCycle refutes the so-called facts about bike helmets; WalkBikeJersey objects to the media’s attitude of “wear a bike helmet or die.” Federal standards recommend rumble strips on rural roads, without regard for cyclist safety. The woman rider who made the podium of last year’s Leadville 100 while racing under another woman’s name and number pleads guilty — to trespassing? Cyclelicious points the way to a DC law firm that’s started its own in-house bike share program. DC’s bike sharing plan will see a 900% increase in size, while L.A.’s is still in the talking stage, like everything else. Sometimes the biggest danger cyclists face comes from other cyclists. A guilty verdict for the Portland-area man who intentionally backed his SUV over a cyclist. Cyclists aren’t the only ones who ignore stop signs. Police crack down on Copenhagen cyclists — for one week only. Eight riders are injured as an SUV drives into the peloton during an Irish race. A pocket sized guide to the 100 greatest climbs in Britain.

Finally, I’m packing my bags for South Carolina, as developers plan the nation’s first bike-only community.


And now, a not-so-simple adjustment in biking infrastructure

October 13, 2009

Let’s take a look at something a little more involved that just changing signage.

Like changing attitudes, to start.

As Joe Linton noted in a recent comment, a bike boulevard can be a pretty hard sell. The name alone is enough to enflame rampant NIMBY-ism among local homeowners. And leave city officials reluctant to take on a similarly enraged mob ever again.

The simple fact is, not many people want a bike boulevard on their street. At least, not until they understand what it actually means.

And that’s our fault. As I’ve noted before, cyclists don’t have to be sold on the concept. The name alone tells us everything we need to know. Problem is, we expect everyone else to be as excited about it as we are.

It just doesn’t work that way.

On the other hand, the solution is simple. Instead of speaking in terms of our interests, we need to look at it in terms of what’s in it for people who don’t bike.

And there’s a lot in it for local homeowners.

By diverting traffic onto other streets, local residents can finally free themselves from the headaches of high-speed traffic in front of their homes. No more heavy trucks or hot-rodding hooligans in the middle of the night. And no more commuters taking a shortcut through a quiet residential neighborhood to bypass congested boulevards, turning a formerly peaceful street into a mini-throughway.

Eliminating through traffic can give residents a quieter, more livable neighborhood, where children can play outside and families stroll along peaceful sidewalks. It can also mean a more attractive place to live, as homeowners take advantage of the opportunity to clean up their streets, and the barriers themselves provide opportunities for beautification projects.

After all, nothing says barriers have to be k-rails; they can just as easily be planters, artwork, fountains or any number of similarly property-value enhancing enhancements. And that’s another key, because property values often go up as the newly peaceful neighborhood becomes more desirable to home buyers.

Then you tell them the best part. It won’t cost them a dime. Because one feature of this wonderful new street plan is something called a bike boulevard — a gap in those barriers that allows bikes and pedestrians to pass through — the DOT will pick up the entire tab.

They don’t even have to make a commitment. The whole thing can be installed on a temporary basis to prove how well it works before they agree to a permanent installation.

Now how many homeowners wouldn’t beg for something like that? And once people in other neighborhoods see it, chances are, they’ll beg for one of their own.

All you have to do is identify a street where homeowners are already fed up with traffic. Which pretty much means any street with speed bumps.

Military Ave. looking north from National Blvd.

Military Ave. looking north from National Blvd.

Like Military Avenue, for instance, which runs between Pico and Palms just a few blocks east of the 405 Freeway.

Since the street parallels busy Sepulveda and Westwood Boulevards, it’s often used by drivers looking for an easy way to bypass traffic. At least two rounds of speed bumps have already been installed to reduce and slow traffic; when the first didn’t have the desired effect, the response was to install more and larger humps — with little or no apparent decrease in traffic.

Which means they’d probably jump at the chance to block their street to through traffic, while providing full access to local residents. Even if it meant putting up with more of those damn cyclists.

And Military would make an ideal bike boulevard.

Military between National and Palms

Military between National and Palms

It’s straight and flat for most of the way, other than a small hill on the south end. The northern section is more than wide enough for bikes, cars and parking on each side, while the narrower southern section is lightly traveled and easily shared.

A bikeway on Military could also be extended south to connect with the existing bike paths on Venice Blvd. And it would only require a few new stop lights on Butler Avenue at Pico and Olympic to provide an easy link from Venice to Santa Monica Blvd.

Evidently, I’m not the only one to notice this.

The new bike plan shows Military as a “Bike Friendly Street” from Pico to Venice (page 67) — whatever that eventually ends up meaning.

Maybe that means they’re planning to make it a bike boulevard, but don’t want to use that name; maybe it means nothing more than sticking up a few signs indicating it as a preferred route for bikes. Or maybe they have no idea what they’re going to do there, but recognize that it’s an ideal place to do… something.

Then again it could just be a line on a map. One that never results in anything on the street, like so much of the previous bike plan.

That would be a lost opportunity for everyone.

Including homeowners.

………

More on bike racks, or the lack thereof: good and bad placement in West Hollywood; LAPD ignores Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. The next Dim Sum Ride rolls through Old Town Pasadena this weekend. A proposed new development in the Valley straddles the Tujunga Wash and could interface better with transit and a proposed bikeway. Burbank cyclists will get a new route connecting with the popular Chandler Bikeway. Cynergy Cycles offers a free lecture on Heart Rate Specific Training tomorrow night. The LA Times discovers Critical Mass — in Chicago. Tips on how to lead your own themed ride. A NY pedicab driver gets into an altercation with an impatient cabbie. Dave Moulton finishes his look at the history of frame design. Actor/musician Jared Leto leads fans on a bike ride through an unnamed city. Proof that not all drivers hate cyclists. Finally, as if cyclists don’t have enough to worry about, Alaska riders have to watch out for bear attacks.


Selling bike safety, culture and infrastructure to a suspicious public

March 9, 2009

The single most powerful political manifesto I’ve ever read was written by Dale Carnegie.

I don’t think he intended to write a revolutionary treatise. But over the years, I’ve found the suggestions contained in his 70-year old book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, are more effective in creating political and societal change than any sit-in, march or demonstration.

One in particular has been proven over and over to be a brilliant political tool: “Always talk in terms of the other man’s interest.” That is, look at it from their perspective, and think about they’re interested in, rather than what’s in it for you.

I been thinking about that since I attended a session on advanced bike traffic planning tools, hosted by Ryan Snyder of Ryan Snyder Associates, at the L.A. Bike Summit on Saturday. He talked about a number of innovative bike traffic solutions, from sharrows and bike boxes, to painted bike lanes and improved signage.

But what really caught my attention were two things:

First was the concept of Road Diets. Simply put, it’s the idea that traffic flow and neighborhoods can both be improved by reducing the number of lanes.

For instance, a typical four-lane street that carries 20,000 vehicles or less a day can often be reconfigured into two through lanes, with a center left turn lane so that turning cars don’t block traffic, while leaving room for bike lanes on either side. This reduction can actually improve vehicle flow, while calming traffic speeds and permitting a dramatic increase in bike usage — and improve safety for both drivers and riders, while revitalizing the surrounding neighborhood.

The other one was the idea of Bike Boulevards — something a number of local riders have advocated lately.

At its most basic, a bike boulevard is a street, often parallel to a major thoroughfare, that has been optimized to encourage bike traffic. At the same time, it employs various barriers, roundabouts and signal changes to discourage vehicle through traffic.

You don’t have to sell cyclists on the concept of a bike boulevard. Build it, and we will come.

But as Ryan pointed out, the problem for both of these ideas — especially bike boulevards — comes when it’s time to sell local residents and business owners on the idea. With today’s over-congested traffic, very few people are open to the idea of actually reducing traffic lanes.

And no one wants to live on a bike boulevard.

People who live there tend to envision a thundering horde of two-wheeled thugs invading their street, reducing their property values and making them second-class citizens in their own neighborhoods.

Yet the reality is just the opposite. By eliminating through traffic, a bike boulevard will dramatically reduce vehicle traffic, making their street quieter, more peaceful and significantly safer, while local traffic is still able move in and out with ease.

Streets become more walkable, as well as bike-able, encouraging residents to get out and meet their neighbors. And the enhanced landscaping and beautification projects that often are part of a bike boulevard project — in part to get buy-in from the locals — results in a more attractive streetscape.

All that adds up to a better, more livable neighborhood. And means that property values could actually go up, not down.

The same holds true for a business district. Reduced traffic flow means less through traffic, resulting in quieter streets less congestion and easier access for drivers who do want to stop and shop. Parking can be improved and streets beautified, creating a neighborhood ideal for strolling or sidewalk cafes, while the extra bike traffic could actually bring more customers to the area.

Everyone wins.

So we have to do a much better job of marketing — whatever we’re selling. Because the key to getting bike boulevards and the other biking infrastructure, safety improvements, better educated, less biased and more effective police, and acceptance of bike culture, is not to demand our rights, but to look at it from their perspective.

We have to show local authorities, as well as home and business owners, exactly how and why it works to their benefit.

And let them demand it, instead.

***

Streetsblog offers some great biking links this morning, as well as a good overview of the keynote speakers at the Bike Summit. Gary, Brayj and Drew also offer reviews, though in the latter case, I fear I have once again failed to make a good impression. Will offers links to photos, as well as photos and video of his close encounter with Lance following the Summit. Los Angeles Rides quotes from a New York Times article about riding in the city, and how we make ourselves look bad — and not just by wearing spandex. Bicycle Fixation demonstrates that once again, cycling offers better stress relief than any prescription drug. The Biking Lawyer relates the history of the Stop As Yield Law. And Los Angeles Cyclist offers parts 3, 4 & 5 in his five part story of the Ridiculous Pink Fixie.


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