Thursday, November 08, 2007

Tulsa Bike Lanes (LONG)

(Image from Alan Snel)

This was written as a response to a charge that the local bicycling advocacy group pursues their own narrow agenda, one that doesn't include all shapes, sizes, and abilities when it comes to riding a bicycle on the road. I'm trying to explain in detail why we oppose bike lane construction...............ed.

Kenosha said, “Like every good idea, the devil is in the details...I gotta be honest. I think they were/are wrong on at least two fronts: their strategy and in calling themselves bike advocates in the first place.”

This is a corollary to 'the large print giveth and the small print taketh away' – something anyone involved in advocacy should take to heart. The devil is truly in the details, and those details are worked out in utterly dull committee meetings. It's the nasty but necessary part of advocacy, sitting through endless meetings. It's where a good idea can die the death of a thousand cuts or a good proposal can become Frankenstein's monster.

Balancin' ain't bikin'!”...Preston Tyree

Preston Tyree is the education director for the League of American Bicyclists ( ) and he was one of my instructors at LCI class. That quote was his way of saying that knowing the physical aspect of riding a bicycle is far removed from knowing how to ride it safely in traffic. Similarly, I can teach my teenage son how to operate a car – where the controls are and how they work – in an afternoon, but it will take several years of driving experience for him to learn all the critical judgment skills he needs to be a safe, confident driver. Driver's education is a way to shorten that learning curve, just as bicycling education can shorten the learning process for cyclists.

I'm a League cycling instructor. That isn't meant to imply that I know everything about cycling and cyclists. Far from it, in fact. The League looks for the ability to teach, not an all-inclusive knowledge of bicycling. So in order to teach well, I have to study too, just as writing requires a lot of reading.

As for the local advocacy group, we are not bicycle advocates. That is the purview of manufacturers and businesses that exist to sell bicycles. We are bicycling advocates engaged in an effort to educate cyclists, motorists, law enforcement, and public officials regarding the best practices that make cycling enjoyable and safe. This demands an approach that reviews what's effective. By and large, bike lanes are not effective at providing real safety since the crash rates are essentially the same whether a bike lane is present or not. Bike lanes have an undoubted psychological effect, because people believe they're safer. However, statistics do not support this belief. People fear being hit from behind, the one type of crash that bike lanes are supposed to prevent. Yet hit-from-behind crashes are only about 10% of all bicycle/motor vehicle accidents, with 6% attributed to cyclists swerving in front of cars. Of the remaining 4%, about half result from a motorist not seeing a cyclist. These crashes are nearly always at night and involve a cyclist without reflectors or lights. The majority of bicycle/motor vehicle crashes, 85%, involve turning or crossing movements. Typically, that means intersections. Bike lanes make intersections more complicated. (Source- Effective Cycling by John Forester)

The division between facilities advocates (bike lane supporters) and vehicular cyclists (who believe cyclists should act and be treated as merely another vehicle on the road) is a fundamental disagreement about human nature. In very broad strokes, on one hand you have a camp that tries to influence behavior through engineering, paint, and concrete. The interstate highway system is an excellent example of this approach. On the other hand, you have a camp that tries to change behavior through education and training. Driver's Ed and the League's Bike Ed are examples of this approach.

While it's true that rigorous engineering standards can produce a very usable bike lane or system of bike lanes, eventually those lanes come to an end. Then what? When a motorist exits the interstate system, his behavior changes as an adaptation to the surface street network with its lower speed limit and myriad intersections. Some cyclists cannot or will not learn those adaptations that permit them to operate comfortably on a road surface shared with motor vehicles. That is their choice, but should the whole street network be changed to accommodate them? Would we think it's a good use of tax monies to re-design the roads to accommodate new drivers, in effect, using engineering to counteract their numerous driving errors as they learn?

We've all heard the complaint, “You can't get from A to B because there aren't any bike lanes!” Some cyclists, and sadly, some bicycling organizations, are utterly dependent on them. The advocacy group here in Tulsa has had the luxury of reviewing successes and failures in other regions, and takes a wider view of promoting cycling, one that empowers cyclists themselves so that they may ride safely on any roadway regardless of the presence or absence of a designated lane. We invest in people, not paint.

Kenosha complains that we are not trying got get more people onto their bicycles, that we don't care about increasing ridership. The “butts on bikes” approach to advocacy is widely endorsed by the bicycle manufacturers and the advocacy groups that rely on those manufacturers for large portions of their operating funds. While it's certainly desirable to get more people out of their cars and onto their bikes, and the Tulsa advocacy group does as much as it can to encourage and educate them, economic factors play a larger role. Every time the price of gasoline spikes, more people decide to use their bicycles for basic transportation, whether that's going back and forth to work or running errands. And every time that happens, we all see more sidewalk riders and wrong-way riders. Getting back to Preston's quotation up above, these people know how to balance, but they don't know how to ride on the street. They're intimidated by motor vehicle traffic so they ride on sidewalks where they have a 3 times greater chance of crashing. (Source – Effective Cycling)

Would any of us be in favor of turning more untrained drivers loose on the streets or re-designing our streets to accommodate untrained drivers? Probably not. Yet facilities proposals almost always get hyped as efforts to increase ridership, presumably because people can use them without any education or training. Again, statistics do not support this. Despite the ever-increasing expenditures on all types of bicycle facilities on the national scale, and the lobbying efforts of bicycle manufacturers, bicycle sales have remained essentially flat while spending increased by an order of magnitude. Indeed, the Thunderhead Alliance Benchmarking Report stated flatly that cyclist numbers have been declining since 1960. Bicycle Retailer and Industry News (BRAIN) had a statistics issue in April of 2007, using the National Sporting Goods Association figures of 40 million cyclists (those who use a bicycle even once are counted) and another figure of 5-6 million who used their bicycles more than 110 days per year. (Source – BRAIN and NSGA)

We're being asked to set public policy and spend public money to entice motorists from their cars, and get those occasional cyclists – roughly 35 million if that figure up above is accurate – to ride their bikes more often. We've spent ever-increasing amounts of money to do so, yet the number of cyclists remains flat. In 1992, we spent $22.9 million. In 2006, it was $394.9 million, more than 17 times the 1992 figure. Why promote the same policies and initiatives that presume to increase the numbers of cyclists when those proposals have no effect?

We agree on many things like smooth pavement and signals that reliably detect cyclists, yet because we do not agree on the benefits of bike lanes Kenosha insists that we cannot be bicycling advocates. Instead, we're a “special interest group.” I find that more than slightly odd, since to my way of thinking a special interest group wants something from government, usually something that involves spending more tax money on their pet projects. We don't do that. We merely ask that the laws be enforced and that public monies spent on our roads and streets benefit all users. “Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.” I don't see any demand for special treatment or exclusivity in that.

Kenosha said, “Anyone who doesn’t ride the way they do; with confidence, in traffic, on EVERY road; shouldn’t be riding a bike. If you’ve ever ridden on a sidewalk, you are out. If you are too scared to ride in the street, you are not one of them. If you think trails, like the Creek Turnpike Trail are a good idea, you’re out.

Let's take these one at a time. First, riding with confidence. Were any of us born with the confidence necessary to ride a bicycle or operate a motor vehicle in heavy traffic? I certainly wasn't. I distinctly remember that death grip on the steering wheel the first time my Dad let me drive. Going around street corners was difficult because I would not let go. I was scared. But in time I learned to drive the car and with experience came confidence. Riding a bicycle in traffic is no different. It's a skill that can be learned and doesn't require any steely-eyed macho bullshit.

Next, sidewalk riding, wrong-way riding, and fear. I lump these together because fear is the common denominator. People are terrified of riding in traffic, so much so that they'll do some things that appear to be safe, yet have the opposite effect. Forester calls this the cyclist inferiority superstition, yet I think a simpler description is ordinary fear. It need not be rational or justified to have an impact on behavior, as anyone who's sat through a horror movie can attest. As I said earlier, sidewalk riding has crash rates three times that of riding in the road, because every other sidewalk and driveway is an intersection, and intersections are where the crashes occur. Wrong-way riders are equally fearful in traffic, but their position on the roadway puts them where motorists do not look. How many of us have had the unpleasant experience of having a wrong-way cyclist suddenly appear in front of us? As motorists, we're effectively programmed to look for vehicles approaching in the proper lane as we pull out at an intersection. Wrong-way cyclists simply don't register.

Someone in the crowd is sure to say, “Statistics don't mean much when you're the one being loaded into an ambulance!” Specifically, that would be my mother. While it's a common response to all those dry statistics, it's an emotional argument that ignores their true impact. Decisions and public policy should be based on rational discussion, not emotion, however appealing. There's no denying that emotion, specifically fear, is a common subject when the idea of riding on the street is presented. If you remember your first driving experience, it's likely you were nervous or fearful. I distinctly remember sweaty palms and a death-grip on that steering wheel. But as we learned to drive, we can also learn to ride bicycles safely and confidently. None of us were born with that confidence. It had to be learned. For some, it was a long, slow process involving years of trial and error. For others it was much faster, either through club riding or a more formal education plan. The point is it can be learned.

Trails. I don't know of anyone who opposes building trails or linear parks other than the NIMBY types who hate these projects until they see the positive effect on their real estate prices. I've written previously that I oppose the use of transportation money for some trail construction, particularly when a project has no transportation value. An overly-simplified example would be a trail that leaves a parking lot, winds around a pretty lake, and returns to the parking lot without any connection to another destination. When such a facility is clearly intended for recreation only, it should be built with parks and recreation funds, not transportation money. That's not really a bicycling issue. It's more in the realm of good governance. But most trails in the Tulsa area could justifiably be called transportation projects since they connect people with popular destinations. So it shouldn't be surprising to learn that the various entities responsible for trail construction and maintenance try to push off expenses onto somebody else's budget. That's one reason trails can be difficult to construct and maintain. They cross between city, county, state, federal, and tribal lands, and various departments of each level of government may have some responsibilities.

Bike lane deficiencies

Design. Anyone with even a little cycling experience has encountered poorly designed facilities like the magical, vanishing bike lane on Archer, the abrupt corners on the Creek Turnpike trail, or a host of others. Too often a public works department will design and build a bicycle facility as cheaply as possible in order to conserve funding for more 'important' projects. A shoddy facility is tossed out as a sop to local cycling interests, and sadly, some cyclists are happy to get any facility, even a bad one. AASHTO standards are ignored. As motorists, should we accept poorly designed roads?

Maintenance. Poorly maintained bike lanes are simply dangerous. Debris collects because car tires do not sweep it away. An amazing assortment of car parts can be found in bike lanes too, many of them hazardous to bicycle tires. For particularly bad examples, look at Mohawk Boulevard west of Mohawk Park, Archer Street on the North side, or the shoulders of 46th Street west of Mingo Road. What inspires motorists to throw bottles out of their windows, strewing glass all over the road side?

Dependency. As noted above, some cyclists cannot imagine riding on the road with traffic under any circumstances. So if a bike lane isn't available to their destination, they simply won't ride there. Some so-called advocacy organizations feed into this dependency by insisting that these fearful cyclists must be accommodated on area roadways. These organizations exaggerate the dangers associated with road cycling, generating more fear (as as a byproduct, more dues monies).

Complacency. Both cyclists and motorists regard the solid white line delineating a bike lane as a wall between their traffic lanes. Cyclists think that motorists will never cross it to the right, and motorists think cyclist will never cross it to the left. In reality, the painted stripe merely provides the illusion of safety. People will swerve across the line when necessary, and the danger is that the unprepared motorist or cyclist can be caught unaware. I've witnessed people making left turns from a bike lane, and I've also seen motorists make a right turn across the path of a cyclist (a maneuver commonly called the 'right hook'). In that instance, a bike lane traps the cyclist into a smaller area on the road, giving him less room to maneuver and try to avoid a car. Likewise, a bike lane puts the cyclist closer to the curb where he's less likely to be seen by a motorist pulling out from a side street in front of him. Being further left in the travel lane makes him much morre visible and give him maneuvering room.

Disingenuous concern. A motorist pulled up beside me and said, “You really shouldn't be riding here until the city builds some bike lanes!” It was more polite than the common, “Get the hell off my road!” but the intent was the same. Ultimately, bike lanes are more beneficial to motorists than cyclists, putting those slow-moving bikes off the roadway so more 'important' traffic can speed by unimpeded.

Bicycling education deficiencies

Here's the biggest one – most people believe that since they learned to ride a bicycle in the fourth grade, they don't need bicycling education. That their knowledge hasn't progressed much since then just doesn't occur to them. Surprisingly, the most resistant group is composed of experienced cyclists.

In conclusion.

Recent tragedies in Boise, Portland and Seattle, where cyclists were killed in the bike lane, highlight the perfect storm of bad law, bad design, and bad choices on the part of both drivers and cyclists. It's truly sad that it takes some deaths to make cyclists, motorists, public officials, and law enforcement re-think the issues regarding bicycle lanes and question the initial assumptions that lead to their implementation.

Finally, as an example of the futility of bike lanes, consider the following examples. In Portland where bike lanes run continuously to the intersection, some cyclists are now referring to them as 'suicide slots' because motor vehicle traffic is required to make right turns from the lane to the left of the bike lane. In California, on the other hand, motor vehicles are required to merge into the bike lane before making a right turn. New York City is experimenting with a physically separated bike lane, where the bike lane is to the right of parked cars. All of them illustrate the basic flaw in trying to gold-plate a large chunk of fecal matter.

It's time for a new approach, a fresh sheet of paper, and that could involve lowering speed limits, re-purposing city streets, adding new licensing requirements, and incorporating more extensive driver and cyclist training. I'm open to ideas, but not the failed ideas of the past.

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Blogger Thomas said...

My town (Bowling Green, KY) has recently decided to pursue classification as a Bicycle Friendly Community. This is good.

I have not, however, had any luck convincing people that bike lanes are not the answer we need.

We have built a few bike lanes in the past two years or so, and I must admit that I've only used one of them one time (partly because I never ride in that part of town).

I was driving past one of the new lanes the other day though, and could not believe how much gravel and junk was built up--it was as bad as one of the bridges I ride over on my commute.

On top of that, the lane just....ends. In 50mph traffic. I guess they want you to take to the broken sidewalk at this point.

Of course, we also keep earmarking funds for separated bike paths that go...pretty much nowhere.

I think the advocacy efforts need to focus on education and (even better) funding some bike racks for area businesses, or possibly even requiring their installation. It's hard doing much utility biking when there are four bike racks in town (Target, Barnes & Noble, and two bike shops).

9:58 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Great thoughtful post applying common sense. My own commute is along a narrow road in agricultural Scotland. I feel safest out in traffic (with cars passing me at 50mph) because they can see me and give me a wide berth. I have at times longed for a bicycling path, but I think your logic has convinced me that it is not necessary.

Interestingly, I have almost been hit twice in recent months in town (St Andrews, to be specific). My friends marvel that I am riding on the highways. But my experience has taught me that I'm safer out there than in town with so many distractions for drivers and cyclists alike.

The specific problem I encounter on a regular basis are drivers parking and opening doors without looking. By cycling defensively, I have enough swerve room to avoid collision, but it's disheartening nonetheless.

5:09 AM  
Blogger Drew said...

Well said!

5:57 AM  
Blogger dvicci said...

This was a good and enlightening read. I've been thinking a lot about city cycling for the last few weeks. My brother living in Portland has given me a lot of interest in the recent spate of tragedies there. Additional tragedies in my area (Kansas City, KS) have merely invigorated said interest as I gear up to ditch the car in my morning and evening commutes.

I would have liked to see more attention paid to the idea of education and licensing. As you said, it is the "biggest one." I am an advocate, silent thus far, for increased vigilance in driving education, training and licensing, and apply the same philosophy to motorcycling and bicycling. Sad, but true, that one of the biggest obstacles to cyclist education, training and licensing is the more experienced cyclists themselves. Overcome that, and get them on board and it'll be that much easier.

It's a long and hard road ahead, full of glass, steep climbs and big fast angry dogs, but there is a SAG waiting at the end somewhere.

8:03 AM  
Blogger Paul Tay said...

From TulsaNOW:

Civic Leader
Posted - 11/09/2007 : 11:37:49
Impressive points.

But don't you think, given the acknowledgments of human psychology, that devoted bike lanes will encourage more folks to get out on the roads? I just don't see what's bad about that, having seen and ridden in such lanes in Chicago and Amsterdam.

My reply:
Actually, Floyd might be onto something. Yep. We should build bike lanes to ENCOURAGE folks like Floyd to get out on the roads. Great way to cull the herd of IGNORANT folks. I'm taking the lane. Thanks for the suggestion! But, no thanks.

The herd culling continues in Seattle.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Kim @ Socius: Daejeon Central said...

Hear, hear! Nicely put.

As far as infrastructure goes, put the bike lanes down the middle of the right-most lane. Use sharrows or what have you to mark them and make it clear that cyclists belong in the lane. Then, nervous new riders get the designated space they feel they need, and experienced cyclists get the support they need to go with the law they already have.

And yes, education. Licensing? No, but PSAs, education of the media to report things properly, local cycling events to raise awareness and police support on the roads.

7:35 PM  

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