Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the month “February, 2014”

Bikes and the Law

Why do some drivers feel entitled to yell at cyclists?  My working theory is that the power and relative anonymity of the automobile provides people with a space in which to give their anti-social tendencies free reign.  That, combined with the fact that many drivers do not understand the basics of the vehicle code as it applies to bicyclists, and you have the recipe for misunderstandings on the roadway.

I was reminded of this on a recent ride home from my local REI.  For a brief stretch of about a block, I must ride on Arcadia’s busy Santa Anita Blvd., a four-lane arterial roadway that lacks bike lanes or a right lane wide enough for bikes and cars to ride side-by-side (I’ve written about Arcadia’s woeful lack of bike-friendly infrastructure here).  In such cases, the California Vehicle Code allows bicyclists to “take the lane.”  I’ve never enjoyed “taking the lane” because it can be stressful to have car traffic riding up your ass, revving engines as they pass, and so on, but make no mistake, my taking the lane is legal, and, in such circumstances, safer, because it prevents an unsafe pass by the automobile.  In this particular instance, there was little stress, insofar as I merged onto Santa Anita and took the right lane with no traffic behind me.  As I approached the next block, I stopped at the red light, in line with traffic in front of me. During the red, a car pulled up behind me.  As the light turned green, I proceeded to the corner, signaled, and made a right turn onto a side street.  The driver who’d been behind me at the light yelled as he passed, “get on the sidewalk!” This, despite the fact that I hadn’t slowed him at all, and riding on the sidewalk would have made me less visible to any motorist who might have been turning right (moreover, in many municipalities sidewalk riding is illegal).

Like all of the other times I’ve been yelled at by drivers, I’ve been riding legally and safely, and the driver’s “advice” was wrong from a legal and a safety standpoint.  In one or two of these cases, my presence on the roadway may have forced the driver to slow down for a second or two at most, but in most cases (such as the one above), my presence did not even cause any inconvenience to the motorist.  Hence my theory that the automobile turns normal people into assholes.

Many drivers are ignorant of the basics of traffic law as it applies to bicyclists, as a recent column in the San Jose Mercury News demonstrated.  The columnist took her written test at the DMV and noticed on one question that California’s Vehicle Code requires bicyclists to ride in the road (not on the sidewalk) “as far to the right as practicable,” and not to impede traffic.  She then complains about a cyclist she encountered who was riding in the middle of the lane making it “impossible to pass him.”  When she finally did pass him, she “beeped lightly” and then was shocked when he gave her a middle finger salute.  She was convinced the cyclist was in the wrong, but more likely it was the other way around.

Here’s the thing: CVC 21202 does require cyclists to ride as far to the right as practicable, but that does not mean as far to the right as possible.  Moreover, there are numerous exceptions to this rule, such as when preparing to make a left turn, or passing parked cars, when the cyclist needs to leave about 3 feet on her/his right to stay clear of the “door zone,” or if there is debris or other road hazards on the shoulder.  This year, motorists in California are required to leave 3 feet of space when passing a bicyclist.  That takes up about half of a 12-foot wide lane and most cars are at least 6 feet wide.  Therefore, by law the bicyclist may “take the lane” any time the lane is less than 14 feet wide, and thus too narrow for a bike and a car to safely occupy side-by-side.  For this same reason, you may occasionally see two bicyclists riding side-by-side taking the lane.  Chances are, they’re not being inconsiderate, they’ve made a judgment that the lane is too narrow for cars to pass safely.  The proper thing to do is slow down, wait until it’s safe to pass, and then give the cyclists 3 feet of room as you do so.

In any case, don’t honk or yell.  It’s neither helpful nor necessary.  Curing yourself of the antisocial behavior caused by the automobile?  That will require you to get out of your metal box and propel yourself under your own power once in a while.

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Car-Centered Culture at CalTrans

Bicycle and alternative transportation advocates often lament that state and local departments of transportation (DOTs) seem locked in a time-warp with regard to road design.  Many DOTs continue to privilege the level of service (LOS) to automobiles, regardless of how it impacts the safety or ability of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users.  In short, they continue to design roads for cars, as they have since the 1950s, despite the fact that multimodal transportation solutions are essential if we are to address the interconnected problems of gridlock, road safety, public health, pollution, sprawl, and climate change.

Thus it was with some interest I read a new report assessing how well CalTrans is meeting the multimodal needs of California in the 21st century.  The report’s authors, to put it bluntly, excoriated CalTrans, accusing the agency’s transportation policies of being woefully “out-of-date” and the department itself ossified by a “culture of fear” that looks with suspicion on innovation.  The report accuses CalTrans of operating under “an anodyne mission that might have been written in the 1950s.”  CalTrans, said the report’s authors, continues to privilege automotive LOS while ignoring other measures of multimodal road usage, and has failed to align its policies with California’s laws encouraging transportation design that reduces dependence on the automobile and GHGs.  Indeed, the report noted that the word “sustainability” does not show up once in the department’s most recent guide (indeed, the word was apparently struck from the final version).  Perhaps most damning was the picture painted of a culture in CalTrans not only resistant to change, but apparently hostile to it.

This reaches into every community, insofar as CalTrans’s Highway Design Manual is frequently followed by cities as a standard for roadway design.  The current HDM does not incorporate modern best practices that enable cities to design roads to accommodate multiple road users, such as bicycles.  The report notes that, according to CalTrans’s HDM lane widths are set too rigidly, often preventing innovative road designs that might better accommodate bicycles:

The “mandatory standards” for lane width and shoulder width are high—12-foot minimum lane widths are generally required, with 11‐foot lanes allowed in a few limited circumstances. In contrast, off high-speed limited access highways, current best practice nationally calls for lane widths of 10‐12 feet, depending on the context. (p. 30)

The report’s authors also note that CalTans standards prioritize high automobile speeds on such roads, despite the deleterious effects on other non-automobile road users:

The manual’s approach to motor vehicle design speed, which does much to determine the character of a road or street, favors high speeds without regard to their impact on other modes. (p. 31)

The report’s findings are significant for a number of reasons.  First, wider lanes have been shown to induce motorists to drive faster, which increases road danger, and creates an intimidating environment for bicyclists and pedestrians.  For example, on Sierra Madre Blvd., a divided road in Pasadena (under the jurisdiction of Pasadena DOT) with 12-foot wide lanes and a substandard (4 ft-wide) bike lane, the traffic speeds are posted at 40 mph.  The wide lanes encourage high traffic speeds, making the road less safe and intimidating for bicyclists when drivers zoom by, despite the bike lane.  It is no wonder more youth and families don’t ride their bicycles to nearby Pasadena High School and LaSalle High School or to nearby shops.  The report also notes that CalTrans’s standards effectively discourage communities from installing protected bike lanes through innovative use of curbs, bollards, planters, or other barriers that would insulate bicyclists from high-speed automobiles.

Yet, on Sierra Madre Blvd., there is plenty of room on the roadway to widen the bike lanes, making them safer and encouraging more people to ride.  Measuring the road width, I produced a mock-up of that section of road (top image, shown below), using the open website streetmix.  Note that as currently configured, the bike lane forces the bicyclist into the “door zone” of parked cars on the right as with little room to protect her from the speeding traffic on the left.  Not only that, the current road design actually provides a wide buffer along the center divider, and not the bike lane.

SMBlvdWB_unimp

On the other hand, if the lane widths were reduced to 10 ft, or even 11 ft, as allowed by the most up-to-date transportation design manuals used in some other states, it would provide at least three additional feet that could be used to widen the bike lane and perhaps provide a painted buffer between cars and bikes, increasing safety and comfort for all (see same street view modified below).  However, as long as California’s state standards prescribe 12-ft lane widths, local governments will be loath to change.

SMBlvdWB_current

I ride the above route to school with my daughter every week, and I would like the street to be safe enough for all the high schoolers who live nearby to ride their bikes to school.  It would reduce traffic, reduce pollution, reduce GHGs, and improve the health of the community.  This road could easily be redesigned, with no inconvenience to motorists, other than perhaps slowing down 5 mph.  But we need state and local DOTs in California to get their heads out of their a—–, uh, get with the program.

The independent reviewers recommend a significant change in the culture of CalTrans away from the auto-centered perspective that has dominated the department since the 1950s:

Modernization of Caltrans will require a difficult conversation about the conflict between mobility, as conventionally understood, and sustainability, which is not yet well understood by the department at all. Mobility [for CalTrans] has meant facilitating more and faster travel, particularly by automobile. While sustainability … means looking for ways to meet Californians’ needs without increasing auto travel and speeds. (pp. 39-40)

The report’s diagnosis certainly confirms my own frustrating experience with an out-of-date, auto-centered street infrastructure in most of the communities where I ride.  But its diagnosis raises the hope that things may be changing.

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