Saturday, October 07, 2006

Bicycling advocacy and the role of planning.

A heart-stopping moment...

I was riding home today, going north along 129th East Avenue. The 86th Street intersection was just ahead, and I was entering that section that widens out to include a right turn lane. A car nosed out into the lane, effectively blocking both it and the sidewalk, a common occurrence. This is an excellent reason to avoid riding in right turn lanes - unless you're turning right, of course.

A teenager on a BMX bike was bombing along at speed southbound on the east sidewalk. He crossed in front of the stopped car, then continued to my left, crossing my path and forcing a car in the southbound lane to brake hard to avoid hitting him. In all, he narrowly avoided collision with 3 vehicles in the space of a second!

I was speechless. I've seen spectacularly stupid maneuvers in the streets, performed by motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. But this was possibly the most outrageous display of bloody-minded idiocy that I've witnessed in a very long time.

And he'll probably be driving soon.

After thinking about it, I decided this young man likely regards his bicycle as a toy, not a vehicle. He'll move on to a 'real' vehicle, and probably start bitching about lawless cyclists in the next couple of years. His bike is a toy that he'll soon leave behind.

Education and Safety.

Bicycling safety is not taken seriously because of the toy bike mentality. There's a good argument to be made that in order to ride safely and comfortably, a cyclist needs an additional set of skills and awareness in addition to those necessary to operate a motor vehicle. This is most evident in getting a motorcycle endorsement. Anyone on two wheels needs to know the traffic laws, know the mechanical operation of the vehicle, and develop good judgment. Learning traffic law and the mechanical operation of a vehicle can be accomplished quickly, often in matter of days. But learning good judgment takes longer. It can be a year or more, and the learning process is largely based on experience. That's one reason teenage drivers have such high crash rates. I once read that motorcyclists are most at risk in the first year of riding, or in the first year after moving up to a newer, faster bike.

To be a safe cyclist then, knowledge of traffic law, the mechanical aspects of a bicycle, and good judgment all combine to form a highly skilled rider. He has all the knowledge to be a good motorist, and an additional set of skills that make him a good cyclist.

Yet our teen bicycle rider on his toy bike isn't interested in learning to ride safely. It never enters his thoughts because he's going to get a car someday soon. He's already reached his limit regarding bicycle knowledge and it's unlikely he'll learn more.

Bicycling advocacy and the role of planning.

I'll assume, for the moment, that you're an experienced and skillful cyclist, comfortable in all sorts of weather conditions and capable of handling any kind of traffic. You're committed to using two-wheeled transportation in order to get from point A to point B with a minimum of fuss. You honestly can't see why friends and family recoil in horror when you tell them you've ridden nearly everywhere. It's no big deal.

Given that level of skill, are you qualified to do bicycle planning or design bicycling facilities?

Think if it this way. Does having a driver’s license give anyone the knowledge necessary to design good roadways and intersections? Does a driver’s license give anyone the knowledge to lay out an interstate highway or build a bridge? Of course not! Yet people with absolutely no adult knowledge of practical bicycling will try to develop infrastructure and policies for cyclists. They learned to ride back in the fourth grade and their knowledge hasn't progressed past that of our teenager above, but they intend to set policy of the rest of us.

On one of the e-mail lists, Darrel Noakes said:

Earlier this week, I was left dumbstruck during an argument about the
merits of sidewalk cycling, among bicycle safety experts attending a
bicycle safety organization meeting. The gist of the argument was that
roads - or at least some roads - are simply too dangerous for cyclists
to ride on and that riding on sidewalks is safer than riding on the road
- at least in areas where roads are too dangerous although possibly in
general, too. Now, bear in mind that the roads we're talking about are
normal, if high volume, urban streets and arterials with speed limits
under 60 km/hr (40 mph), typically 50 km/hr (30 mph). These aren't
freeways or controlled access roads, but typical urban roads through
commercial districts or residential areas. We're also talking about
adult cyclists, not just children....I do become concerned when people
responsible for making recommendations about laws and providing
education to the public are so sorely misinformed.

It occurred to me afterward that so many people who style themselves as
bicycle safety experts are not familiar with the literature. I had just
assumed that everyone at the meeting had a general understanding of the
cycling literature. I don't expect everyone to possess all of the same
knowledge (that's why we create committees - so we can share knowledge),
but I do expect a certain basic grounding in the subject. Since I doubt
that I'm neither the first nor the last to encounter this kind of
situation, or to be working with cycling advisory committees of one kind
or another, I think it would be helpful to be able direct people to a
reading list, an essential bibliography of cycling literature....

Here's some of what would be on my list:

Cross, "Bicycle Safety Education - Facts and Issues" (1978) (because
it's still available and the Cross & Fisher study can't be found anywhere).

Forester, "Effective Cycling" (6th ed., 1993).

Forester, "Bicycle Transportation" (2nd ed., 1994).

Franklin, "Cyclecraft" (1997, reprinted 2004).

Hillman, "Cycling: Towards Health and Safety. A Report from the BMA" (1992).

Kaplan, "Characteristics of the regular adult bicycle user" (1975).

Moritz, "Adult bicyclists in the United States - characteristics and
riding experience in 1996" (1998).

Wachtel & Lewiston, "Risk factors for bicycle-motor vehicle collisions
at intersections" (1994).

Other suggestions included:
Paul Schimek's "Dilemmas of Bicycle Planning"

John Allen's "Street Smarts"

The Boy Scouts of America Cycling Merit Badge book.

Sadly, I've read only three of these, so it appears I'll be adding much of this to my reading list for the winter. I already know that John Forester's "Bicycle Transportation" seems to be missing from the Tulsa City-County Library system, but I may know someone with a copy.

If we're going to influence planning and educate both current and prospective cyclists, we really need to have a common understanding of the bicycling literature, if only to see that we base actions on reality rather than supposition and guesswork.


Blogger Fritz said...

I need to some more reading too. I haven't read Effective Cycling since the 80s.

Planning meetings are... interesting. We do need to show up at these things -- it's more effective to get changes done in the planning stages than after all the concrete has cured.

12:40 PM  

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