Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “League of American Bicyclists”

The Close Pass

California’s new “3 Feet for Safety” Act, which requires motorists to give bicyclists 3 feet when passing, went into effect last month.  While most motorists seem to be abiding by the new law, I’ve had a couple of close calls the last few weeks that suggest motorists could use a bit more education on how to safely pass cyclists.  The fact that both incidents occurred on the same stretch of roadway in Pasadena also seems to strongly suggest that this road needs additional infrastructure treatment (i.e., a “road diet” that narrows the traffic lanes and buffered or protected bike lanes) to slow the speed of traffic and provide safe space for bicyclists.

Drivers encroach on the bike lane on Rosemead Blvd at 40 mph. At least half of the cars in the right lane crossed into the bike lane on the morning I took this picture. A buffer and green paint in the lane would increase safety, as would a reduction in the 40 mph posted speed limit.

Drivers encroach on the bike lane on Rosemead Blvd at 40 mph. At least half of the cars in the right lane crossed into the bike lane on the morning I took this picture. A buffer and green paint in the lane would increase safety, as would a reduction in the 40 mph posted speed limit.

The first close call came a couple of weeks ago when I was traveling south on Rosemead Blvd in the bike lane between Sierra Madre Villa and Halstead.  The road curves to the right and as I rounded the curve, a driver in a Honda Civic passed me so close I could feel the wind from her passenger-side mirror brush my left arm, which startled the hell out of me.  Her right tires were actually on the bike lane line.  She was probably doing about 40 mph, and as she passed I involuntarily yelled out of fear.  I tried to catch her, but she was going too fast and I got stopped at the red light on Rosemead and Halstead.  As she sped away, she seemed to slowly drift in her lane from left to right and back.  Was she drunk (this was a Monday morning about 10:00 am)? On meds? Texting?

The second incident occurred last Friday afternoon about 1:30 pm, traveling southbound on Rosemead again, this time between Halstead and Hastings Ranch Road.  On this stretch of Rosemead there’s no bike lane, as it ends at Halstead.  There is a shopping center with a new L.A. Fitness center that opened recently, and now that it is open, there are many more cars parked on the street here.  This forced me to ride in the traffic lane, as the curbside shoulder is now occupied by the cars of people working out at the fitness center.  How ironic that people park their cars on the street here, despite the fact that there is plenty of parking in a lot behind the fitness center, but drivers would have to walk maybe 100 feet farther to the entrance to the gym if they parked in the lot (better to save your walking for the treadmill you’ve paid for inside the gym, huh?).  Meanwhile, the presence of their empty cars in the street creates a hazard for those using alternate modes of transportation.  There would be plenty of room for bike lanes here if Pasadena DOT prohibited on-street parking here, but clearly the safety of cyclists is not a priority.

 

Parked cars (mostly for the fitness center on the right) force bicycles into the fast-moving traffic lane. Pasadena DOT could make this a no parking zone and have plenty of room for buffered or protected bike lanes here.

Parked cars (mostly for the fitness center on the right) force bicycles into the fast-moving traffic lane. Pasadena DOT could make this a no parking zone and have plenty of room for buffered or protected bike lanes here.

As I rode in the right-hand traffic lane and tried to avoid the “door zone” (about three feet away from the parked cars), a driver in a compact sedan sped by me at high speed and far too close for comfort.  This time, I caught up to the driver as she sat at the next red light.  Her passenger side window was closed, but I leaned over and said loudly (my adrenaline was up from the close call), “you need to give cyclists three feet when you pass.”  She rolled down her window and apologized (which surprised me). She explained that another car had been passing her in the lane on her left when she passed me, so she couldn’t move farther to the left as she passed.  I thanked her for her honesty, she apologized again, then the light turned green and she took off.

At least the exchange was cordial, but as I rode on, I thought to myself, “if it wasn’t safe for her to move to the left to give me space, shouldn’t she have just slowed down for (at most) a few seconds until it was safe to pass?”  The answer is obvious, of course she should have.  This is an aspect of driving that most motorists don’t think about when passing a person on a bike.  People are often in a hurry, so they figure they’ll just squeeze by.  Squeezing by another motorist when you’re both wrapped in 2,000-lbs of steel is not perceived as a problem.  Worst that might happen is scratched paint.  Squeezing by a bicyclist is a life-threatening move for the bicyclist.

According to the California Vehicle Code, bicyclists are allowed to “take the lane” if it is not safe for a bike and a car to pass side-by-side, and I probably should have been smack dab in the center of the travel lane rather than riding on the right half of the lane.  It would have forced motorists in my lane to slow down behind me.  Yet, few things irritate drivers more than cyclists “hogging” the lane.  Hey, it’s not a picnic for me.  I don’t like to slow others down and I don’t like the feeling of a car running up behind me, either.  A recent study by the League of American Bicyclists found that the largest portion of car-on-bike fatalities were cars hitting bikes from behind.  Nor do I relish being honked at or yelled at by impatient motorists who don’t give a shit about my right to the lane.  But, it’s probably safer than having a driver try to pass me too close when there isn’t enough room.

This raises a larger point I made earlier about the lack of bike lanes (including protective buffers between cars and bikes) on high-speed arterials like Rosemead Blvd.  There’s plenty of space.  For one thing, there’s no need for on-street parking when the adjacent shopping center has an ample off-street parking lot.  Buffered bike lanes or cycle tracks (bike lanes with physical separation from automobile traffic) could be installed on the shoulder of the road where empty cars now sit and it would not impact traffic flow.  Further south on Rosemead, the city of Temple City has already installed cycle tracks.  It’s time for Pasadena to do likewise.  At the very least, the Pasadena DOT should ban on-street parking on that stretch of Rosemead so bicyclists can safely use the shoulder out of the way of speeding cars.  The fact that I’ve had two close calls on the same stretch of roadway indicates the street is not safe.  There’s too little space for bikes and cars are driving too fast.

I’m glad the 3-foot passing law is now in effect in California, but we still need better education on how to pass a bicyclist safely and, most importantly, protected bike lanes on more of our streets.  What do you say, Pasadena?

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Traffic Safety 101

LCI Dorothy Wong prepares class for obstacle course.

LCI Dorothy Wong prepares class for obstacle course.

Last weekend I attended an 8-hour bike safety class in Pasadena sponsored by the LA County Bicycle Coalition (funded by a grant from Metro).   The safety class, taught by three LCIs, provided an overview of the basics of proper bike fit, maintenance, and especially how to ride safely on the road.

The course leans heavily on the vehicular cycling philosophy that:

Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles. 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a certain amount of ambivalence toward the VC philosophy.  The VC creed assumes people on bikes “fare best” as vehicles in the absence of separated bike infrastructure.  I would argue that people on bikes fare best when they ride predictably according to the rules of the road, but only up to a point.  On the one hand, bicycles are not cars and never will be.  When automobile traffic reaches a certain level of speed, I think cyclists fare best when they are provided with separated bike infrastructure.  Riding a bicycle in automobile traffic scares most normal people, and limits the number of people willing to ride bikes for transportation.  The low mode share of bikes in our transportation system will not change appreciably until we build a network of good, separated bike infrastructure on busier streets (also connected to a transit network).  One can argue about the form the infrastructure should take (bike lanes, buffered bike lanes, physically separated cycle tracks or bike paths), but the reallocation of street space away from cars is one of the big challenges of our time, in my opinion, and a philosophy that relies solely on education of bicyclists (however necessary that may be) remains only part of the larger task of redesigning our transportation system.

That said, I do appreciate the principles of vehicular cycling for streets on which there is no bike infrastructure (and that is the current state of most of our streets in the US, unfortunately), and the skills taught in this course could benefit anyone who wants to ride a bike on any street, from residential street to multi-lane road.  It not only taught me new skills, it reinforced those things I’ve already been doing right.   It was also great to meet other cyclists who commute by bike, some of whom go totally car-free.  Such interactions with fellow bike commuters remind me that I’m not as alone as I sometimes feel on my nightly commute in a sea of steel boxes.

The classroom portion of our course emphasized the safest and legal positioning of bicyclists on the road when there are no bike lanes (ride as far to the right as practicable but take the lane if it is too narrow for a car to pass you safely), the proper way to change lanes, make left turns, and signal your intentions to drivers.     Instructors drilled into our heads the importance of obeying all applicable traffic laws for our own safety.

The second half of the course was devoted to an obstacle course practice in road hazard avoidance (i.e., how to brake suddenly or dodge a hazard immediately in front of you) and culminated in a ride in traffic on the streets of Pasadena.  It was this last portion that was the most useful, enabling us to put the principles of vehicular cycling into practice.

For me, the hardest part of cycling is the sometimes nerve-wracking process of riding in a busy traffic lane when there’s no bike lane for protection.  I’m not a particularly fast rider (and never will be one, due to my old knees), and I don’t like the feeling of cars creeping up behind me or zooming past me too close for comfort.  I shared this with the instructors, all experienced riders, and they sympathized, but said that I should remember that I have a legal right to ride on the road in the lane, and that drivers would respect my assertiveness.  Moreover, I’d be safer if I held the lane in situations where it would be dangerous for cars to pass me and I shouldn’t compromise my safety for a drivers’ convenience (or my own, for that matter).  The key was to use hand signals and eye contact to communicate my intentions with drivers (and to read their intentions), and to confidently assert my right to position myself in the lane when necessary to prevent unsafe passing.

After the ride I felt a sense of accomplishment in taking a step toward being a bit more assertive on the road.  Since taking the class, I have noticed that I feel a little more confident on the road.  I know that I can assert my right to the lane when my safety requires it.

Everyone can derive benefit from these classes, and I’m sure that I’m a better, safer cyclist because of it.  I hope LACBC and other organizations continue to offer these classes, for the skills learned in these classes will make you a better rider, even if you only ride on bike lanes.  So, the bottom line is, these vehicular cycling skills work in situations where you must ride in the vehicle lane, and they are essential for everyone to learn.  But I still think we need better and more bike infrastructure and I still feel safer when there are bike lanes on the street–especially busy streets.  The thing is, as valuable as these skills are, you shouldn’t have to go into full road warrior mode to ride your bike in America.

City Cycling

City Cycling

City Cycling (MIT Press, 2012), edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, is a new collection of essays by a variety of transportation and urban planning experts that promotes cycling  as a sustainable means of getting to work, school, and shopping.  The central thrust of these authors is that cycling can be a viable transportation alternative if we pursue public policies that provide safe space for people of all ages and abilities to get around on bicycles.

The book is divided into 15 chapters that cover issues ranging from statistical analyses of urban cycling, documented health benefits of cycling, the role of bicycling infrastructure, integration of bicycling and public transportation, bikesharing programs, and so on.  There are several general ideas that stand out from the wealth of empirical data provided.  First, study after study confirms that the aversion to cycling in automobile traffic is one of the major factors preventing more widespread use of bicycles for sustainable transportation, especially by more “traffic averse” groups in society (a large proportion of which are women, children, and older adults).

Second, better cycling infrastructure, especially protected bike lanes and cycle tracks, as well as laws designed to protect vulnerable road users (i.e., cyclists and pedestrians) have resulted in the growth of bicycling as a mode share of transportation (especially among risk-averse groups) and, at the same time, lower injury and fatality rates.  The idea that protected space for bicyclists results in more people using bikes for transportation may not seem controversial, and in most countries with large bicycling populations (the Netherlands or Denmark, for example), it is not.

Particularly interesting, in my view, is Peter Furth’s chapter comparing the effectiveness of bicycle infrastructure in Europe and North America in encouraging mass cycling.  Furth, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern University, demonstrates how European and American policies providing bicycle-friendly infrastructure and laws “strongly diverged” after the 1970s, and how these divergent approaches have affected the level of transportational bicycling.  Simply put, European countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden instituted “traffic calming” measures and recognized cyclists’ need for separation from heavy traffic as a fundamental principle of road safety.  The result is a the provision of “a vast network of ‘cycle tracks,'” essentially separated bike paths along roadways, that keep bicyclists safe and encourage “traffic averse” segments of the population to use bicycles for transportation.  Furth documents the much higher percentage of trips taken by bicycle in Europe versus the United States, as well as the much lower bicycling fatality rates.

In the early 1970s, the United States missed an opportunity to follow the European example.  Furth shows how the US DOT was preparing to accept a guideline (designed by UCLA transportation planners) for separated bikeways in 1972 that would have moved the US toward the European model of bike facilities on roadways, “recommending sidewalk-level bikeways, separated bike lanes, and regular bike lanes.” (116)  That effort was significantly sidetracked by the ideology of “Vehicular Cycling” (VC), promoted primarily by John Forester, a cyclist who saw the establishment of separated cycle space as a threat to the principle that bicycles were vehicles that had a right to share road space with automobiles.

In response to the efforts to build European-style bicycling infrastructure, Forester played a major role in developing the VC philosophy that encouraged cyclists to use the roadways like any other vehicle.  “Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as vehicles,” is the central tenet of the VC philosophy, and the greatest danger to bicyclists is said to be the “lack of skill” of the cyclist (for a fuller discussion of Vehicular Cycling, see Forester’s own website).  Forester and other VC-only adherents have long argued that bike lanes and bike paths are actually more dangerous to cyclists than riding as a vehicle in the middle of traffic, and have accused bike lane advocates of being “anti-cycling.”  In his role as president of the League of American Wheelmen (now League of American Bicyclists), Forester and other VC-only advocates steered US policy away from separated bike facilities on American roadways.  It is worth noting that, for his part, Forester belittles those who see the bicycle as a viable form of urban transportation and part of a comprehensive alternative to the auto-centric transportation system we now have.  As a result of the work of the VC-only lobby, the US now finds itself 40 years behind the curve on bike infrastructure design, with lower rates of bicycle usage for transportation and higher fatality rates than European countries with excellent networks of bike-specific infrastructure.

I do not see bike paths, cycle-tracks, bike lanes, and VC as mutually exclusive.  I strongly support bike lanes, cycle tracks, and other bike-specific infrastructure, but I recognize that there currently exists no adequate network of transportational infrastructure for bicycling in the United States, and agree with some key elements of the VC philosophy, namely that bicycles have a right to the roadways and that a knowledge of how to ride safely in traffic is an essential skill bicyclists should learn.  There will always be roads that don’t have bikeways on them, and for those roads, VC is the appropriate and safe approach to cycling (if not the most stress-free).  But emphasizing only VC and opposing bike-specific infrastructure improvements, as Forester and some VC-oriented organizations have done in the past, has resulted in very low rates of cycling for transportation among all but the most fearless, assertive, and experienced cyclists.

It is especially frustrating to think that we could have been building cycle-tracks and bike-specific infrastructure for the last 40 years, could have provided people with an alternative to the automobile, could have made cycling safer for the average, traffic-averse bicyclist, and could have improved the health of millions of sedentary Americans.  Instead, as Furth writes, “the antiseparation vehicular cycling ideology has stymied America’s development of bicycling infrastructure,” and made us more dependent on the automobile. (135)

Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning.  As the studies in this book show, American cities like Portland, Minneapolis, New York, and many others have seen the proportion of people cycling for transportation boom as they’ve built separated bicycle space on their roadways, and the studies in this book prove empirically that bikeways do not in themselves make cycling more dangerous, as some VC proponents claim.

My take on bike lanes and cycle tracks fundamentally stems from my personal experience as well as my desire to see public policy for cycling to be made safe for everyone—mothers, schoolchildren, shoppers, older Americans, and working people of all ages and economic strata—who wants to get from point A to point B on a bicycle.  If you want to limit the appeal of cycling to those who are physically fit and, most importantly, not averse to riding in automobile traffic, a primary emphasis on VC is the way to go.  If you want to broaden the appeal of cycling for transportation to everyone—young, old, rich, poor, male, female, and all levels of fitness—you need to build buffered bike lanes, cycle tracks, and other bike-specific infrastructure.  Of course, bicyclists and motorists must be educated to share the road properly, especially in those instances where the two modes must share road space, so elements of the VC philosophy will always be useful, but it just shouldn’t be the primary or sole basis for bicycle transportation planning.  It is not unreasonable for people to feel uncomfortable riding a bicycle in fast-moving traffic, with 2,000-lb cars whizzing by, and simply exhorting people to assert their rights and “take the lane” will not get more Americans out of their cars.

This welcome volume should be read by bicyclists, alternative transportation advocates, and officials at all levels of government related to transportation planning.  The empirical data reinforce Peter Furth’s conclusion about the need for cycling-specific infrastructure in American cities.

For bicycling to contribute meaningfully to societal goals in the areas of public health, livability, traffic congestion, and energy use, it has to appeal to the mainstream, traffic-intolerant population.  Bicycling infrastructure in many parts of Europe has been successful in achieving mass cycling because it respects the fundamental human need to be separated from traffic stress. (135)

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