Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “vehicular cycling”

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.

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.

Bike Safe

LACBC panel2

Last week I attended a bike safety workshop at the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) headquarters downtown.  I like attending these meetings because they’re always informative and I enjoy the fellowship of other bicyclists from different parts of the city.  I also enjoy taking my bike on the Metro Gold Line and riding the buffered bike lanes downtown, especially the brightly painted green bike lane on Spring Street, which makes me feel super safe riding on a busy street.  The transit and bike-friendly amenities remind me that it is possible to shift from a car-centered transportation system, even in the land of the automobile. Growing up in Southern California, if you wanted to go from Pasadena to Downtown L.A., you had to drive.  Now you don’t.  That’s a huge step forward.

This month’s LACBC workshop coincided with the unveiling of the organization’s “Bike Safe: California Rules of the Road” pocket guide, also available online.  It was also a chance to ask questions about bike safety from a panel of five distinguished bike safety experts, including Sgt. Jon Aufdenberg, the LAPD’s bike liaison; Lt. Marjorie Jacobs of the LASD; Attorney James Pocrass; Ted Rogers, LACBC board member and author of the blog “BikinginLA;” and Cynthia Rose, co-founder of Santa Monica Spoke, and director of Santa Monica’s “safe routes to school” program.  The panel was moderated by LACBC’s Colin Bogart.

One of the important issues raised during the panel discussion was that we should use the word “collision” to describe what we have hitherto called “accidents.”  As Ted Rogers put it, “accident” implies that the incident could not have been prevented because no one was at fault.  In the vast majority of cases, however, someone wasn’t following the rules of the road, causing the “collision” to occur.  Understood this way, we all have within us the power, as motorists, bicyclists, and/or pedestrians, to follow the rules of the road and drastically cut down on collisions.  Rogers also noted that following the guidelines on the LACBC “Bike Safe” list reduces your chance of being involved in a collision by 50 percent.

The pocket guide to bike safety is a handy reference that includes common sense suggestions such as wearing a helmet and riding a bike with brakes, as well as the legal rights and responsibilities of cyclists on the road. Each rule is written in easy to understand language and includes reference to the relevant section(s) of the California Vehicle Code.  There are 20 rules included in the guide, and I won’t go through them all (you can do that yourself by downloading the reference here), but I wanted to highlight a few.  For example, basics such as your legal right to ride on the street:

Ride on the Street You have the right to ride on the street.  You are NOT required to ride on the sidewalk. CVC 21200  Exception: Freeways and some bridges may have signs posted forbidding bicyclists.

Or where to ride on the street when there’s no bike lane:

Ride to the Right, But Within Limits  When riding slower than the normal speed of traffic, you are required to ride as far right as “practicable” (meaning safe).  You are not required to ride as far right as possible, which may not be safe.  You are allowed, but not required, to ride on the shoulder.  CVC 21202, CVC 21650, CVC 21650.1

Or where to ride if there’s no room on the right side of the road (i.e., if the lane’s too narrow to share side-by-side with a car):

Take the Lane  If a travel lane is to narrow to safely share side by side with a motor vehicle, you can prevent unsafe passing by riding near the center of the lane.  On two lane roads where it’s illegal or unsafe to pass, you must turn off the roadway at a designated or safe location to allow a line of 5 or more vehicles behind you to pass.  CVC 21202(a)(3), CVC 21656

The advice to “take the lane” is legal and safe (when motorists are driving safely), and most useful in this safe cycling guide.  Where I live and ride, parked cars on some narrower streets are the main reason I am sometimes forced to take the lane.  While it is statistically the safest thing to do, I will admit it can be stressful to have annoyed motorists backed up behind you.

If even I feel uncomfortable “taking the lane,” despite my years of experience, how are we to expect less aggressive riders to feel?  What about children?  Even I feel uneasy telling my children to get in the lane and pretend you’re a car.  Mind you, I’m not criticizing the safety guidelines, but I feel compelled to point out what I see as a major limitation of the vehicular cycling philosophy.  Rule of thumb:  if an experienced cyclist like myself feels uncomfortable telling my teenage kids to do this on the way to school or the park, it’s probably not a sufficient strategy for getting the average American to use their bikes instead of their cars.  While these rules make it safer to ride a bike, it’s important to remember that they won’t increase bicycle mode share.

One related area of discussion that the audience members asked the panelists about was riding on the sidewalk.  As someone who has sometimes felt forced to retreat to the sidewalk on some streets, because of heavy traffic and a lack of safe space to ride, I am aware that there may be times when riding on the sidewalk is necessary.  The LACBC pocket guide says of sidewalk riding:

Avoid Riding on the Sidewalks  Each city in California has its own rules about riding a bicycle on the sidewalk.  Some cities allow sidewalk riding, some don’t.  Check with your city’s municipal code. CVC 21206

The LACBC’s Rogers noted that riding on the sidewalk can actually be more dangerous than riding in the street, since you are often placed in a potential danger zone with cars at driveways and intersections.  Bicyclists going too fast on sidewalks can be a hazard to pedestrians, too.  Sgt. Aufdenberg of the LAPD agreed that it was not safe, but added that sidewalk riding is presently legal in the city of LA, as long as the bicyclist exercises “due regard” for the safety of other sidewalk users.  As with the rest of the guide, the LACBC’s advice on this issue is sound.

Regardless of how problematic sidewalk riding is, there is a larger issue that I want to address.  While I understand that sidewalk riding irks many people, it reflects the fact that we currently have too little safe bicycling infrastructure on our roadways.  Sidewalk riding is essentially the bicyclist’s vote of no confidence in the safety of the roadway.  During the discussion, one audience member expressed vehement dislike for bicyclists who ride on the sidewalk, going so far as to say he wanted extra copies of the guide to “fling” at sidewalk-riding bicyclists.  I bit my tongue at the time, not wanting to get into an argument about something not central to the presentation, but I feel compelled to respond here.  We need to install more miles of protected, or buffered bike lanes on our roads where automobile speeds exceed 35 mph, like those painted on Spring Street in L.A. that make it safer for people to ride in the street.  Until we do so, I would urge less finger-wagging by experienced cyclists at sidewalk riders (as long as it’s not harming anyone), and more attention to building the kind of bike infrastructure that will make sidewalk riding unnecessary.  Let’s be more understanding, use common sense persuasion and not “fling” the guidelines at anybody, shall we?

In my view a larger problem is NIMBY opposition when cities try to reallocate road space to provide bike lanes.  I believe bike lanes (especially those that are protected or buffered) are a vital precondition for a shift to sustainable multimodal transportation, and we are seeing more of them installed in cities across the country.  We are in a transition period, and there’s going to be opposition from people who only understand the world from a perspective behind the windshield.  Nevertheless, opposition from motorists must not deter us from pushing ahead with improvements in bike infrastructure.  In the meantime, we’ve got to keep riding and the LACBC’s Rules of the Road guide is an indispensable resource for building confidence in one’s rights and responsibilities on the road.

The LACBC deserves a big pat on the back for putting together the panel discussion and pocket guide.  Every cyclist (and motorist) should follow these rules, and by making them available in an easily digestible form, the LACBC has provided an important public service.  Read them and “bike safe.”

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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