Friday, 7 December 2012

The War on Britain's Roads

This BBC documentary aired a couple of days ago in Britain. I watched the whole thing this morning. I guess I'll keep my thoughts generally on hold so that others can comment on it if they want to.
"Less than a month ago, AA President Edmund King had called for an end to the ‘two tribes’ mentality that polarises the cycle safety debate between cyclists and motorists. If anyone from the programme’s makers, Leopard Films, read his comments, it didn’t show."
""War on Britain's Roads" is a serious contender for the most sensational and irresponsible piece of journalism of the year... The documentary is a worthy heir of the work of Leni Riefenstahl."
"The documentary... is at best provocative in a way that might lead to more useful debate... At its worst, however, the film is sensationalist and dangerous. The footage it presents as everyday depicts Britain’s roads as an unremitting war zone." 
"A viewer called Kate Bailey, said: 'This cyclist with glasses on BBC panorama actually deserves to be knocked off his bike and die!!!! Arrogant little t***'

So what do you think?

Are motorists all f***ing idiots, or what?

Since August, I have a daily 7 mile commute, and every fricken day a number of morons do a number of things so unbelievably stupid it makes me wonder how they got their driving licenses.

Yesterday I got three. The first one was in the morning, I'm crossing a 6-lane highway and stuck in the intersection (in the turn lane) waiting for a gap in traffic to my right and some lady lays on the horn because... I haven't got a clue - maybe because she thinks I shouldn't be in the turn lane? The second one, a motorist turning left into the main road at a Stop sign at a T junction had no idea that he was supposed to wait until the through road was clear, so he pulls out like some simpleminded buffoon just as my daughter and I are turning left from the through road. Then in the afternoon, some retard has his indicator on suggesting he's turning left, then he decides to go straight - keeps his indicator on through the intersection.

Today, we were passing a parked car whose driver decided to pull out into traffic without indicating or bothering to look to see if it was safe to do so. We were outside of the door zone, and the motorist responded to my horn after I'd tried a couple of yelled 'Excuse me's, so it worked out okay (except that my muscles tensed up so much that I seem to have strained a thigh muscle and am limping around like Lord Byron), but...

While it's not difficult to avoid the problems these morons cause, and while I seem to have developed a sixth sense about some of these things (I knew that idiot yesterday was going to go straight), we shouldn't have to develop a sixth sense to guard against people who shouldn't be behind the wheel of a two ton vehicle. It worries me that my daughter is going to be exposed to these halfwits all her life.

I'm beginning to think driving licenses must come free in every packet of Cornflakes. I mean these bozos cannot possibly have taken a professionally-administered driving test. If they have, then I think the folks deciding to pass these fools need to be fired.

Researchers Say Cycling Risks Overstated


Finally an article that doesn't equate cycling with certain death. It reports on research done by a team from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London. The research even recognizes what I've argued on occasion - that motorists' tendency to use freeways skews the data in their favor.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Good news: cars are no longer cool!

Is that cool, or lame?

Here's a clue: consider where it looks like it ought to be driving...

then consider where it's really going to be driving...


Last week, on our commute to her school, my daughter said "Ian, cars aren't cool". Now while she may simply have been saying what she thought I'd want to hear, I've heard quite a few kids say similar things recently, and studies show that more and more teenagers are opting out of learning to drive, partially due to the financial climate, but also out of dissatisfaction.

There was a time when cars were cool - back in the 1920s, when the open road was... well, open. When cars were rare, when most of them had an open cockpit, when you started them with a crank and when you needed to wear goggles and a heavy driving coat. But now? My daughter's right - they aren't cool. They are lame.

As far as excitement and adventure goes, driving a car leaves something to be desired: it's air conditioned, you sit in a comfy chair, you can drive in your shirt even in a blizzard. There's a radio, cupholders, GPS, etc. In terms of explorers, it's hardly 'Scott of the Antarctic' - heck, it's not even Michael Palin (for those unschooled in British pop culture references, that's he of Monty Python and BBC travel documentary fame). Okay, driving a car today might (at its best) equate to a Rick Steves travel show: pretty, comfortable, safe. But not exactly thrilling. The motorist's motto is something akin to "Hope the seat warmer is working" or "Glad I've got my coffee". Not exactly stirring stuff.

Even today's car ads have a sort of desperation about them - they're all about danger, thrills and driving fast somewhere exotic, but when the ad gets to the interior, it always just looks kinda weak. And the outside... well, they all look the same - and they're almost always offered in shades of grey. And you know that when you actually drive it, it's not going to be an experience of driving like a bat out of hell at Monte Carlo - it's going to be pottering along at 5mph in bumper-to-bumper traffic while cyclists and bikers pass you by. The fact is, the modern car experience is slow, frustrating and BORING!

Meanwhile, those of us on bicycles and motorbikes have a different and much more rugged experience: you're out in the elements, you're on a saddle (how adventurous is that!), no radio, no cupholder (other than a cage with a bottle of near freezing water), no GPS, you must balance and wrestle the bike through rain, wind, snow. Your motto, like that of the Post Office is "Victory or Death" (well, not really, but sometimes it feels that way). If you cycle more than half a mile you get more adventure than a motorist gets in a week.

So what happened to make cars go all wimpy and boring? And when did it happen? I don't think there was a key moment when the car lost its cachet. I think it happened gradually, but it started in the 1960s. At first, it was just environmentalists that dared to say it. Here's a modern example of those early criticisms:
"America is filled with uncool fools who... still think its oh so cool to glamorize and subsidize man-made machines depleting the world of fossil fuel while spewing carbon monoxide emissions in all directions and building a deadly greenhouse designed to perfection for the ultimate destruction of all humankind."
But then, more and more people started to voice 'that which could not be said' - car ownership is not just 'uncool' - it's stupid and passé:
"Owning a car is thought to be very stupid by Generation Y and they are moving from car ownership to renting... Today it’s not cool to own a car"

"The car, to them, is a passé form of prestige, of assuming, through the BMW or Mercedes label, a dignity beyond what the owner knows she’s worth."
Now auto makers have taken the final step - the ultimate in 'uncool' - trying to be cool:
"...nothing worries automakers more than the mounting evidence that cars are no longer cool... Surveys suggest that “millennials” regard the car as a tired, twentieth-century mechanical device that’s out of place in a twenty-first-century electronic world, where it creates nothing more than congestion and pollution."
So the auto makers are choosing to go with hi tech gadgetry to make cars appear cool to the new generation of potential motorists. But I think they're going down the wrong path. The 21st Century will, I think, be a time when simplification will be key. People will begin to want their transportation to be cheaper, simpler, more connected to the environment and less hassle. But hey, what do I know? As always, time will tell.

Friday, 30 November 2012

'Safety in Numbers' or a 'Target Rich Environment'?

'Safety in Numbers': the idea that by being part of a large physical group or mass, an individual is proportionally less likely to be the victim of an accident.

'Target Rich Environment': a situation in which an attacker is presented with a large number of vulnerable targets.

In the Great War, during 'Bloody April' 1917, novice British reconnaissance pilots were sent into battle after spending just a few hours learning to fly. They were given no training to prepare them for the realities of battle: they learned no combat training or evasion techniques - after all, they could barely fly straight - how could they be expected to learn to fight? Upon arrival at a front line squadron, they were simply given a helmet and ordered to fly their aircraft deep into enemy territory. There, they would form a defensive circle of aircraft, the rearward firing machine guns of each plane supposedly protecting the next - 'safety in numbers'! Veteran German pilots saw things differently - they saw a 'target rich environment' - and they took full advantage of the situation. As a result, the life expectancy of a novice British pilot might be measured in hours.

On our 21st Century roads, there are a few similarities. Novice cyclists are encouraged to get on their bikes with no training whatsoever. Most barely know how to ride. They have little clue as to the rules of the road, how to ride safely or how to avoid collisions with motor vehicles. They are told that if enough of them start cycling, their numbers will magically protect them - again 'safety in numbers'! Like the pilots of April 1917, they too are reminded to wear a helmet. As a result of the failure to properly prepare cyclists, there is a 'target rich environment' in which the roads are filled with vulnerable and clueless potential victims - and London's roads have become more dangerous for cyclists as a result.

Of course, the biggest difference between the situation in the skies above Flanders in 1917 and that of London roads in 2012 is that motorists aren't actively trying to harm cyclists (though there are exceptions). The vast majority of cycling casualties happen by accident, caused by a shared lack of competence and sense of entitlement on the part of motorists and cyclists alike. Motorists seem to think that the fact that they passed a driving test (sometimes decades ago) means they don't need to brush up on the Highway Code, while cyclists think their right to the road means they don't need to do so either. In general, both groups seem to think they can do as they like (as long as they don't get caught breaking the law). Both groups act as if their vehicles are toys. This attitude kills, and as long as it persists, no amount of supposedly 'safe' infrastructure, no amount of green, blue, yellow or white paint, no amount of segregation, no amount of rhetoric and no assurances about 'safety in numbers' will make any real positive difference.

The fact is, 'safety in numbers' doesn't work - at least, it hasn't during the last 5 or 6 years in London; a time when Transport for London and London's 'cycling mayor', Boris Johnson, have implemented a number of schemes intended to encourage people to cycle on the city's new segregated cycle lanes, paths and 'Cycling Superhighways'.

Here's what the Greater London Authority has to say about the situation:

"Our analysis in Graph 1 shows that the safety in numbers effect has not prevented an increase in the cycling casualty rate between 2007 and 2010. Therefore, there remains an imperative for the Mayor and TfL to make improving the safety of cyclists on the roads the top priority in all their cycling programmes."

Safety a top priority? Ya think? Well, that would be a change!

'Safety first' is, admittedly, a novel concept for traffic engineers. Maybe now they'll take some time to consider the actual evidence for and against segregated cycling facilities. Maybe the government will even spend some money teaching novice cyclists how to ride safely on London's roads.

Yeah, right! Who am I kidding?

So just as with the pilots of the Great War, today's cyclists will have to learn purely through survival. The longer they survive on the road, the better their chances of learning the integrated cycling techniques that will keep them safe. They must learn this alone because, according to today's brand of populist cycling advocacy, it's much more important to demonize car culture, to praise the health benefits of cycling and to support questionable infrastructure than it is to teach cyclists how to use the road safely. Like the British soldiers and airmen of the Great War, today's cyclists who dare to go out on the road are 'lions led by donkeys'.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Two odd traffic problems...

Both of these situations happened to me within the last week and I'm not sure how best to prevent or deal with them:

1. Coming up to a 4-way stop. I take a position in my lane for a left turn (two or three feet to the right of the center of the road) and this happens:

The motorist takes a wide left turn and overtakes me in the intersection in order to get ahead of me. As I accelerate, he spends a few seconds in the oncoming traffic lane. This has happened to me twice at this intersection within the space of a few weeks. Motorists seem to think I will be going at 5mph and immediately take a far right position in the lane, but I don't - I accelerate fast and take the lane (and there's often a car parked where that grey car is, so I go even farther left than is shown in the diagram), so they end up in potential trouble. This happened about a week ago, and also a couple of weeks before that.

2. Same intersection, I'm turning left, and this happens:

The green car has stopped, because I arrived at the intersection first. As I check, I notice the purple car approaching from my right, slowing (I assume for the stop). But instead of stopping, he moves into his left lane (the oncoming traffic lane) intending to turn into my lane (again, the oncoming traffic lane). He stops at the second position in the diagram because he can't comfortably get past me (he could have squeezed by but he chickened out at the last second). I proceed to take my turn, shaking my head in disbelief. This happened this morning.

Both situations seem to me to be hazardous. Is there anything I can do to make these scenarios less likely, without undermining my ability to counter more likely problems?

For example, to counter problem 1, I could simply take a wider turn, but that would put me in the oncoming traffic lane longer, which is surely more dangerous for me. It would also presumably put me in danger from a car behind me trying to get by me on the right. As things stand with what I do now, it seems to me that the motorist takes the biggest risk.

To counter problem 2, I could take a more central position in my lane, which would more effectively counter the guy attempting to cut the corner, but which would confuse road users as to what I intend to do (note also that my approach to this intersection is downhill, so signalling is difficult as I need to be using both brakes coming to the stop). As things stand, I did prevent the car from cutting the corner, but I'm not sure if a more aggressive driver would have been so easily dissuaded.

The intersection is the corner of Lanark Way and Lorain Avenue in Silver Spring. I'm going south on Lorain.

Wrong Way Cycling

It seems many casual cyclists believe that if you ride against traffic, you see them and they see you, making cycling safer. However, this is not the case. Let's look at the math:

If you ride against traffic, the speed at which cars are approaching you is increased by a factor of (car speed + bicycle speed) / (car speed - bicycle speed). At average cycling speed this factor ranges from about 1.5 to 3. This gives both parties far less chance to see and avoid each other, less time to brake and, in the event of a collision, it results in an impact speed of between 30 and 60mph (as compared with 10 - 40mph for same-way cycling). Note that bicycle helmets are only rated for impact speeds of about 12mph. Also, because you're riding against traffic, the number of interactions with other vehicles is greatly increased. Finally, at intersections, drivers entering and leaving the roadway are focused on vehicles coming from the opposite direction and are much less likely to see you.

Statistics show that riding against traffic is at least 3 times (some studies suggest as high as 12 times) more dangerous than riding with traffic, and collisions with 'wrong-way' riders are more often fatal than most other collision types.

In short, the most effective way to commit suicide on a bicycle is to ride against traffic.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Woman on cellphone turns left, cuts corner, nearly kills my daughter


She turns left onto our road, narrowly misses the curb, travels towards us in her left hand lane (our lane), then yells at me as she's narrowly missing us. Emily had to swerve right to avoid her.

All I had the presence of mind to do was yell "Get off the road!" as she went by.

In forty two years of road cycling, I've never seen anything that dangerous.

Maybe I should buy a bloody video camera.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Remembrance Day

I'm a Briton. Like many Britons, the Great War took a great toll on my family. My grandfather served, as did my great grandfather, four great uncles and six first cousins. Of these twelve family members who served, five were killed. So for me, the remembrance of these relatives has been an important part of my life.

For many of us in the British Commonwealth, the 'War to End All War' is not something that's truly in the past. The ultimate sacrifice that a million British and Commonwealth men and women made reverberates through the decades, hopefully making us realize the futility of war. The Great War ended at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. In Britain and the Commonwealth, we commemorate the Sunday closest to this date as 'Remembrance Day'. This year, the 11th actually falls on a Sunday and as I write, the 11th hour is only a few minutes away. When I post this at 11am, I will be observing a minute of silent contemplation.

Since this is a cycling blog, I'd like to take this time to remember the Army Cyclist Corps. This was a corps formed from over 8,000 pre-war cyclists, all volunteers who were, like many of the readers of this blog, cycling enthusiasts.

The first complete bicycle unit (the 26th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers) was raised in 1888. During the Boer War, the bicycle was found to be invaluable for reconnaissance and communications work. Unlike the horses that had, until that time, formed the basis of reconnaissance units, the bicycle was silent and needed little if any maintenance, so in the first decade of the 20th Century, as these characteristics became well appreciated, more and more cycling units grew within the army.

On the eve of the First World War, the British Army had fourteen cyclist battalions. In the first weeks of the war, these were employed widely and very successfully as scouts, infiltrating enemy positions, severing communication lines, attacking ammunition columns and generally harassing the enemy. 

These, in the day when heaven was falling, 
The hour when earth's foundations fled, 
Followed their mercenary calling 
And took their wages and are dead. 

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
 They stood, and earth's foundations stay; 
What God abandoned, these defended, 
And saved the sum of things for pay.

In 1915, the Army Cyclist Corps was founded. It was later expanded to include 12 more battalions raised from second-line yeomanry regiments which had been converted to cyclists.

Men from the Corps were sent overseas in small groups, forming divisional cyclist companies. Contrary to popular belief, cyclists were employed in combat, and the common perception that they were ineffective is false: cyclists were always considered to be mobile infantry, and as such they would leave their bicycles when mobility was impossible or unnecessary. So in conditions of trench warfare of course many of the Corps' bicycles were stored and the men of these units were employed in more conventional roles. In 1918, with the deadlock of the trenches overcome, the men of the Army Cyclist Corps once again mounted their bicycles, and their mobility once more conferred an advantage in terms of communications, scouting and reconnaissance.

Despite the success of the cyclists, after the war, the cyclist units were disbanded. By 1922 all remaining cyclist battalions had been converted back to conventional units.

833 men of the Army Cyclist Corps were killed in the Great War. 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, 
We will remember them.
The Bicycle in Wartime
BSA Folding Bicycle
Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries by A.E. Housman
For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon

Thursday, 25 October 2012


After the many incidents in the past few weeks of honking (whether well intentioned or not) I've decided to (reluctantly) start using an Airzound horn again.

I attached one to my bike on my old commute, but the honking incidents were so rare that I never once used it, so I removed it. But since September I've had four or five incidents of honking - mostly friendly "Hey, I'm behind you" toots, but they're still loud enough to frighten the bejeezus out of me, and in every case, I've seen these idiots well before they decided to use their horn.

With the weekly incidents of honking and the fact that the occasional driver still tries to squeeze by me even when I'm controlling the lane, I need some way of sending a message and venting my frustration so that I don't have a heart attack before I'm 60.

Today I was shocked by yet another motorist who appeared in my mirror 100 yards away and as soon as he was 20 yards away, she gives me a friendly 'toot' which (once more) makes me nearly jump out of my skin. I need a way to let these bozos know that it's not alright to do that, and I think the Airzound is it.

I wish these morons would just read their driver's manual.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Aggression In Its Most Elegant Form?

Am I the only one who finds this ad offensive?

Okay, I've been on a bit of an anti-car crusade recently, probably because I've had a spate of incidents with motorists honking, revving their engines, passing too closely and generally behaving dangerously on my commute. And maybe ads like these are part of the reason for such behavior.

The subtext, as I see it: "Buy an Acura, and you have our permission to act like a fricken maniac on the road."

And this campaign was awarded Best Luxury Campaign by the Nielsen Automotive Advertising Awards.

I'm sure this car sold by the thousands. But as far as I'm concerned, this is a disgusting ad and it's only matched in douchebaggery by the auto dealers who continue to use it to sell Acuras.

One blogger (a marketing guy) has noticed.

One cycling blogger has noticed.

Yet there's been no criticism in the mainstream that I've seen, and what criticism there is on cycling sites has often been attacked as being an overreaction. Could that be because 90% of the population (and the vast majority of cyclists) drive, so they are drinking the Kool-Aid and don't see the problem?

Where's the disconnect? Is there a disconnect? Am I overreacting?

Then there's the ad that (I think) made its debut at the 2012 Olympics in which a motorist is driving a Cadillac like a fricken nutcase through a bunch of tunnels on a winding and very scary road (the Guoliang Road Tunnel in China). I can't find the actual ad, but here's an ad for the ad. The ad is far scarier:

What if a cyclist, a pedestrian, or indeed another car, were on that road?

Here's a video of a real life drive through the tunnel. There's quite a difference in speed when you know you don't have the road to yourself and you have to act responsibly. Also, notice the nutcase honking his horn because he wants to drive like a maniac (i.e. 5-10mph faster). Maybe he's seen the Cadillac ad:

Here's another video showing how the tunnel is driven in real life:

And then there's this:

I mean, WTF? The arrogance of the grin on that guy's face when (supposedly - I think the stunt is CGI) he's done a loop that ought to be regarded by any sane person as suicidal says everything.

I find the level of irresponsibility in these ads astonishing. It seems to me there is a deeply ingrained culture of profligacy in the motoring community that is reflected in automobile marketing campaigns. Arrogance, aggression and dangerous driving all seem to be 'en vogue' for motorists at the moment.

Do these things not bother anyone else? Are people who don't own a car the only ones who care about this stuff? Do these ads bother the cyclists who also drive?

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Why Do We Glorify Cyclists and Scorn Motorists.

...because no one else will.

In a recent post on a cycling blog, someone said that people spend too much time and energy glorifying cyclists and scorning motorists.

I'm not sure that's true.

After all, there is something to be said for glorifying cyclists. Cycling does have a certain refreshing iconoclasm to it. In the US especially, it represents a kind of new frontier of independence and rugged individualism in a culture that has always secretly despised all those things even as it pretends to be defined by them. Essentially, in a world in which nothing has come along in 35 years to seriously disturb the status quo, cycling is the new Punk.

I don't have much patience for those who claim the bicycle is a one-stop utopia machine, but it certainly has a lot going for it compared with motorized alternatives in terms of its low environmental impact and its potential health benefits.

And what of the automobile and its acolytes?

Well, I think driving a car is very clearly a bad thing. Driving causes severe pollution problems, motorists kill a million people per year worldwide and injure millions more (because most motorists are incompetent). Driving makes cities and roadways stink, it creates a constant background roar that (if you stop for a minute and 'try' to listen to nature) can be heard anywhere within a mile or two of a moderately busy road. Finally, cars create in their users a sense of entitlement - of ownership of what is by rights a public space. How is any of that not bad? How is it not worth scorn?

And here in the US motorists are parasites. They get subsidized gasoline, they get specialized facilities like interstate highways paid for out of general taxation, motorized traffic flow is given priority on every road, motorists are provided with free parking spaces on public roads and in government buildings and businesses, and what do pedestrians and cyclists get in return? A few poorly designed pedestrian facilities, a few dangerously designed bike lanes and never enough bicycle parking. Oh, and 30,000 deaths per year in the US alone, pollution, stench, noise, bullying on the roads, overbearing motorist arrogance, a gross sense of motorist entitlement. Does that sound like a good deal? Maybe to a motorist, but not to me.

I don’t think for a moment that the freedom to drive an automobile is worth the cost in lives or the cost to the environment. The car, thanks to its immense popularity, has become a ubiquitous horror - a frightening presence on the road, a disgusting blight on the environment and on our health. Surely everyone recognizes that freedom from being run over and killed, freedom to breathe fresh air and freedom to enjoy peace and quiet are things we should work towards achieving. But a veritable internal combustion pandemic prevents any of that from happening.

And let's face facts: motoring is no longer cool or individualistic - it no longer inspires independence of spirit, as it used to do when car ownership was somewhat rare. Driving a car used to be special, but now anyone can do it - worse - everyone is expected to do it. Not only is motoring not special - it's boring! Despite the best efforts of marketing companies to make it appear cool, the car has become the modern equivalent of the pocket protector (if anyone had ever been foolish enough to make a pocket protector that emitted enough fumes to make a person gag).

The automobile 'was' a part of the new frontier back in the early 20th Century. Its invention was a revolution, but like so many revolutions, it eventually got stale and staid. It had its 15 minutes of fame but like so many celebrities past their prime, it outstayed its welcome. It just wouldn't get off the stage, and when something gets that annoying, people start to look at it more critically, and let's face it, the car (and motorists) do leave something to be desired. When people in the 'ingroup' kill so many people, when they habitually show no remorse for their victims, when they act so shamefully, when they actively lobby against efforts to curb their abuses, and when pro-car bias is so profound in society that a pedestrian can be convicted of vehicular homicide when a car kills one of her family, it kinda leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those of us in the 'outgroup'. If motorists would stop the killings, stop the polluting and take their responsibilities a bit more seriously, then maybe they would deserve a bit less scorn.

And if we poll motorists, we find half of them don't even like to drive! Even they find it boring, frustrating, distasteful. But they are like abused spouses - they keep coming back to their cars because they just can't imagine life any other way. The love affair was bound to end at some point. I'm just surprised the honeymoon lasted so long.

One thing is certain - when the last car finally goes the way of the dinosaur and if we ever get our natural world back again, a lot of people will breathe a monumental sigh of relief, and for the first time since the age of the automobile began, they won't risk choking as they draw in the air necessary to breathe that sigh.

In the meantime, at the very least, motorists deserve scorn. To be honest, it disappoints me that they don't get a lot worse than that. They should be publicly shamed. I don't scorn motorists. Scorn requires a particle of humor - it requires me to laugh (at least inwardly) at them, and I can't raise even a smirk. I despise them, I can barely tolerate them, and I feel ashamed that I am so inured to them that I no longer have the internal sensitivity to be physically sickened by them.

And I have to admit that there's an irony there, because I often get into my wife's car far too willingly. The thing is, while cars are disgusting and contemptible, they are also convenient and (in the words of John Lydon) I'm a lazy sod. But if my wife's car was gone, I certainly wouldn't miss it, which is why I've asked her, on a number of occasions, to get rid of the damned thing.

One more thing. When I was searching for an image to use for this blog, I was surprised by the number of photos of burning cars during riots. maybe it's just that cars are easy targets. Or could there be a deeper motivation lurking there?

And to the motorists, I think John Lydon might have said it best:

"There's no future, no future,
No future for you."

 And to the car: what is it I want you to do?

Friday, 5 October 2012

Maryland Driver's Manual - Dammit! It's Not Rocket Science.

Honked at again today by some imbecile. I was actually in what we Britons call 'secondary' position, inviting the driver to pass, but apparently the driver still wasn't sure her SUV's massive frame could fit through the extra-massive gap I left for her and she gave me a pretty loud honk, which was startling to say the least. So, for safety's sake, since the horn had alerted me to the potential danger of this motorist's poor driving ability and her lack of knowledge of the Maryland Driver's Manual, which says, "As you approach a bicyclist, slow down. Avoid honking your horn. Bicyclists can usually hear an approaching vehicle and loud noises can startle bicyclists, causing a crash", I glanced back, gave her the appropriate look of scorn, made sure it was clear to take the lane, then dutifully closed the gap so she had to wait behind me longer. I am damned if I'm going to let people pass me when they insist on showing me that they are a completely incompetent drooling moron.

The Maryland Driver's Manual is surely not a complex or difficult to understand document. It only devotes a few paragraphs to cycling, and one would think even the most stupid motorists could manage to read, understand and put these into practice, but apparently it is too much for many of them.

For any motorist here in Silver Spring or in Maryland who happens to run across this, and who is clueless as to what their responsibilities are when they see a cyclist on the road, here is the entirety of what Maryland's Driver's Manual has to say about bicycles:

F. Bicycles 

By Maryland law, bicycles are vehicles. Bicyclists are authorized users of the roadway, and have rights-of-way and the same duty to obey all traffic signals as motorists. But bicyclists are less visible, quieter, and don’t have a protective barrier around them. Motorists must drive carefully near bicyclists: even a slight mistake can result in serious injury or even death. 

Expect Bicyclists on the Road
Expect to find a bicyclist on all types of roads (except interstate highways and toll facilities), at all intersections and roundabouts, in all types of weather, and at all times of the day and night. Bicyclists may ride out in the travel lane for their own safety due to narrow roads, or to avoid obstacles or pavement hazards. On roads without shoulders, or with cars parked along the right side,often the safest place for a bicyclist to ride is in the center of the lane. In Maryland, a bicyclist may use the full lane even while traveling substantially below the speed of traffic if the lane is too narrow for a car to safely pass a bicycle within the lane). Before opening a car door, check for bicyclists who may be approaching from behind. 

Following a Bicyclist
As you approach a bicyclist, slow down. Avoid honking your horn. Bicyclists can usually hear an approaching vehicle and loud noises can startle bicyclists, causing a crash. Bicycles do not have turn signals so bicyclists use hand and arm signals to alert you of their intentions.

Do not follow a bicycle too closely. Remember that small holes, glass, and other hazards can be particularly dangerous to bicyclists. Bicycles can stop and maneuver quickly so a bicyclist may swerve or change speed to avoid a road hazard that a motorist cannot see.

Pass with Care -- Give Bikes at Least 3 Feet
Pass a bicyclist as you would any slowly moving vehicle. Be prepared to slow down, wait until oncoming traffic is clear and then allow at least 3 feet of clearance between your car and the bicyclist when passing. The same 3-foot clearance applies if you are passing a bicyclist in a bike lane, on the shoulder, or in the same lane as your car. After passing a bicyclist, check your mirror to ensure that you have completely passed the bicycle with enough room before you move back to the right.

Use Caution at Intersections, Bridges and Driveways
Always assume that bicyclists are traveling straight through an intersection unless they signal otherwise, and yield to bicycles just as you would to any other vehicle. Bicyclists often ride on sidewalks and trails, so look both ways before crossing a sidewalk or trail. A bicycle may come from an unexpected direction.

Never make a right turn from a through lane immediately after passing a bike on a shoulder or bike lane. Try to avoid any chance that a bicycle will be to your right or in your right blind spot when you turn right. Before starting a right turn, move as far to the right as practicable within the bike lane, shoulder, or right turn lane.

Yield to bicycles as to any other vehicle proceeding straight. Do not turn left immediately in front of a bicycle. Experienced bicyclists often ride very fast (as fast as 35 mph!) and may be closer than you think. If you are passing a left-turning vehicle by moving right, first look closely for bicycles. Wherever a travel way narrows for a bridge, parked cars, or other obstructions on the right, be prepared for a bicyclist riding on the shoulder to merge left into the main traffic lane.

Driving at Night
If you see a dim reflective object at night do not assume that it is outside of the roadway. It could be a bicycle in the main travel lane. Bicyclists sometimes avoid shoulders at night when cars are not present because tree branches, potholes, debris, and even the edge of the pavement are difficult to see. Your headlights may provide enough light for the bicyclist to safely move into the shoulder for you to pass, but it takes longer at night. When approaching a bicycle, use your low beam headlights.

Watch for Children
Children on bicycles are sometimes unpredictable. Expect the unexpected and remember they are small in stature and may be hard to see. Young bicyclists are especially likely to make surprising changes in direction. Be aware of bicyclists entering the roadway from driveways or near parked cars. Strictly observe speed limits in school zones and in residential areas to allow time to see, and safely share the road with, young bicyclists.

Like I say, it's not hard.

Honestly, 25 years ago, I would be responding to this sort of stuff by adding a fricken sledgehammer to my pannier, so I could do a little subtle remodeling of these assholes' cars. They should be glad that age and familial responsibilities have mellowed my outlook a little.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

London Cycling Accident Statistics

Recently, London mayor Boris Johnson has had to backpedal (no pun intended) on cycling statistics.

The article is well worth reading, I think. Some highlights:

"London mayor's claim that two-thirds of bad cycling accidents were due to cyclist law-breaking is proved to be utterly false. Where's the apology?"

"TfL... figures show that in accidents were a cyclist was killed or badly hurt the cyclist was presumed to have committed an offence in just 6% of cases. The vehicle driver was assumed to have done so 56% of the time while 39% of the time it wasn't clear."

"Not only are cyclists an outgroup, they're also a minority outgroup. Moreover, they are engaging in an activity that is deemed slightly inappropriate in a culture that... views cycling as anti-conventional and possibly even infantile.... It's easy to identify other minority outgroups whose behaviour similarly challenges social norms but who do not get verbally and physically attacked... : vegetarians, for example."

To see a statistic that shows cyclists are almost 1/10th as much to blame for serious crashes as motorists - well, it's a shocking statistic to say the least.

What can we in the US learn from this? Well, unless London cyclists are incredibly careful and law-abiding, unless London drivers are unusually bad, or unless London's police are biased towards cyclists (none of which I believe for a second because, having lived and cycled in London, I've had experience with all three), it suggests to me that the general consensus among cyclists here in the US - that fault in collisions is split pretty much evenly between cyclists and motorists - might need closer scrutiny.

For a while now, it's seemed quite clear to me that there's a lot of 'outgroup'-fueled anti-cyclist and pro-motorist bias in the US legal system and even in the system that produces crash studies, but until now I hadn't seen any evidence to suggest that my opinion might have some validity. I think perhaps the difference in the statistics between the US and the UK might have to do with the fact that, in the UK, 'SMIDSY' (Sorry Mate I Didn't See You) is much more likely to be regarded as evidence of motorist fault than it is here in the US. I think that needs to change in the US - when a motorist hits another road user and then claims he didn't see him, that is not an excuse - it's an admission of guilt.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Going Postal

Yesterday, a US Postal Service driver tried to run me and my daughter off the road as we were cycling home from school. At the time, I was taking the lane, trying to prevent him from making an unsafe pass, but either I was not far enough left or the road was wider than I thought or those post office trucks are very narrow. Anyway, the USPS truck missed me by about a foot. My daughter was cycling farther right, so she wasn't in as much danger.

The driver stopped farther up the road and I advised him that he made a dangerous pass. He became very belligerent and just kept yelling "You was in the street!". We sure were, but why this would be an excuse for trying to kill us, I do not know. I told him that cyclists are supposed to be on the road and I offered him my copy of the Maryland Driver's handbook so that I could show him the relevant information. He refused to even look at it and kept insisting that we weren't supposed to be in the road.

Not sure what to do with people like this. This guy had no idea that cyclists are supposed to be on the road, and apparently the sentence for being there in this guy's mind is attempted vehicular homicide.

Of course, I've reported him to USPS for unsafe driving, though I'm not sure what good that will do.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Welcome to Pleasantville

"Whether it's to boost your fitness, health or bank balance, or as an environmental choice, taking up cycling could be one of the best decisions you ever make."

It never fails to piss me off when articles show up trying to convince us all that cycling can make each of us a happier, healthier kind of planet-saving super-human who falls in love with flowers and smiles all day. It's unrealistic utopian crap, and it has a conformist edge to it: it reminds me of the movie Pleasantville, or the Colonel Sanders scene in 'So I Married an Axe Murderer': "Oh, you're gonna buy my chicken!" and I want nothing to do with it!

I really wish bicycle advocates would stop trying to convince motorists to take up cycling. Let's face reality just for a couple of minutes here and admit to ourselves that motorists are perfectly happy being lazy unhealthy slobs with a polluting fetish. Let's admit that the idea that they will take up cycling for any of the reasons shown in the aforementioned article is nonsense. For one thing, many of the folks who drive everywhere are too goddamn unfit to even get onto a bike, let alone push the pedals. If they did somehow get their lard-asses on a bike, the bike would probably buckle under the weight. Most bikes (even touring bikes) are only rated to carry 300lbs.

The motorists who CAN somehow find the energy to drag what must be at least a semi-arteriosclerotic leg over a bike's top tube, and whose cardio-vascular systems are still in good enough shape so they don't collapse after a few pedal rotations, have their day of cycling in May (the optimistically - or perhaps cynically - titled 'Bike Month'). Those who turn out for this one-day bike love fest clearly have no intention of cycling even 2 days a year, never mind 365. If they did, there would have been a cycling revolution sometime in the last 56 annual 'Bike to Work Days', and the world would be full of fairly fit people who lived to pedal.

The general public's 'huge' commitment to green modes of transport can be seen in this year's World Car-Free Day, which takes place on Saturday! This year, since it falls on a weekend, there's no annoying need to commute without the car and people can be 'car-free' from the comfort of their couch. They don't have to lift a finger to feel they're saving the planet - and that's the way they like it. Even so, I predict the numbers of active participants will be anemic (many will probably only find out that they accidentally participated when they see a news article about it). Yet cycling advocates have this dream that the occasional holiday from the gas tank might encourage motorists to take up cycling all year? These advocates are living in a fantasy world.

I wish bike advocates would just leave off the proselytizing and leave motorists in peace. There is not going to be a sudden boom in cycling - not for another few years at least. Until gas prices hit $20/gallon a cycling revolution is just not going to happen - and it may not even happen then, because the specter of Peak Oil is already encouraging motorists to desperately seek alternate ways to power the mobile couches they call 'cars'.

The current cycling mode share in the US is at about 1% - it's been stuck there for 30 years. All the advocacy in the world isn't going to shift a single lard-belly's fat ass away from his local McDonalds drive-up window and onto a bicycle. Nor is it going to result in environmental, budgeting or health-related epiphanies for the rest of the non-cycling world. Expecting such a thing to happen is a particularly foolish pipe dream.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Are Bicycle Zealots Running Over Common Sense?

Or is it that a 'journalist' just wants an excuse to hate on cyclists?

I spotted an op-ed piece by conservative blogger and so-called 'journalist' Katy Grimes of Cal Watchdog that raised my ire, and the annoying thing about it is that, as an integrated cyclist, I might be inclined to agree with most of what she is saying.

I think she may be right that AB 819 is a wasteful law. The road, in my opinion, is safest for cyclists. Adding specialized bicycle facilities only complicates matters. This bill encourages bike facility production, and I think that's a mistake. Cyclists belong on the road, not shunted off into some side path, where they are at heightened risk for intersection collisions.

I disagree with her on SB 1464 - I think it will probably do some good, if only in terms of helping cyclists be less likely to be found at fault when an overzealous police officer cites them for impeding traffic. Its problem is that in terms of the 3ft passing requirement, it is unenforceable.

I agree that AB 2245 seems a little odd. I would hope that all road improvements would go through a process to ensure they are necessary, harmless and actually useful. Sadly, bike facilities are all too often unnecessary, harmful and useless. This bill, at least at first glance, seems set to make the problem even worse.

But I do have a problem with the article. It's not really the author's points that I have a problem with - it's the thinly veiled anti-cycling attitude that they're drenched in. Here are some excerpts:

"SB 1464 by Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, would require drivers on a two-lane road to veer at least three feet around a cyclist to pass."

To 'veer'. I wonder if the author refers to 'veering' when she's overtaking a slower motor vehicle. I suspect not. 'Veering' sounds uncontrolled, like a swerve, and doesn't suggest competence by whoever it is that's doing the driving. If cars are likely to 'veer' around cyclists, maybe California does need that 3ft passing law, and a way to enforce it.

"The bicycling lobby has become almost as pushy as the environmental lobby. They resent that streets were designed for cars"

Apparently, requiring motorists to behave safely around cyclists is 'being pushy'? Yeah, those uppity cyclists! If only we could lynch a few of them to show who's boss.

Also, the author has no idea that streets were developed long before the automobile appeared on them, and that the first improved roads were lobbied for by cyclists for cyclists.

Finally, the author fails to recognize that roads are not designed for any particular type of vehicle - they are designed for ALL vehicles. More importantly, they are designed for PEOPLE, and some people choose bicycles as their vehicle of choice. Why do they choose the bicycle? To save money, to reduce their medical bills and avoid becoming a burden on others in old age, to conserve American energy infrastructure and reduce our reliance on foreign oil, to keep America strong, and other pinko Commie stuff like that. Damned Hippies!

"I am hoping that legislators introduces [sic] a bill mandating bicyclists to follow traffic laws."

Erm... that law already exists in the California Traffic Code. I wonder if the author has read the California Driver Handbook, which states:

  • Have the same rights and responsibilities as vehicle and motorcycle drivers.
  • Must obey all traffic signals and stop signs."

Having said that, I expect all cyclists to follow the law at about the same time all motorists start following it - that should happen about when Hell freezes over. If there's a benefit to some cyclists failing to follow traffic law, it's that their vehicles weigh a lot less than motor vehicles, so when they do stupid things and crash into people, they tend not to kill. When motorists do stupid things, they are driving 2 ton vehicles, with the result that a million people worldwide are killed every year in automobile accidents.

Clearly, the author is a motorist with a big blind spot when it comes to motorists posing a danger to cyclists. If it were not for this blind spot, maybe she would understand that cyclists ought to be treated with some respect on the road. I find her assertion that cyclists are being 'pushy' by demanding that motorists drive safely very telling.

As for the many knee-jerk anti-cycling comments that the article has generated so far: well, ignorance bears the motto 'Ubique' for good reason, and I need to keep my blood pressure down, so I'm going to try (emphasis on the word 'try' - I'm already failing, LOL) to limit my responses to the article itself. Haters, as they say, gonna hate.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Circus is In Town

On today's commute:

One particularly egregious example of 'Must Overtake Syndrome', when a clown approached behind us and, when we were just ten yards from a Stop sign, honked and zoomed past us, only to stop immediately in front of us while he took his sweet time to take a right turn.

Two attempts to right hook me and the kid - and this while we were very assertively taking the lane (because I could sense each of these clowns was up to no good).

Numerous failures to yield properly at 4-way Stops - apparently, the clowns didn't want to stop at all, let alone stop for us two cyclists who got to the intersection way before they did, had stopped, and were taking our turn.

One attempted right cross and cutting of the corner, which we anticipated because I could see the clown (driving a taxi) approaching the turn too quickly.

One clown, who approached behind us and revved his engine like a fricken nutcase as we were preparing for a left turn.

And finally, two clowns backing out of driveways without properly checking to see if the roadway was clear.

I usually see one of these maybe every week. Today I see 8 weeks' worth in 20 minutes and it's not even a full moon.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Why do Cyclists Behave in Ways that Anger Motorists?

Recently, I had a conversation with a motorist who was perplexed by the way some cyclists behave on the road. She couldn't see why we would impede traffic by cycling in the middle of the lane. As far as she could see, all we are doing is preventing motorists from passing.

The problem is, motorists generally do not understand cycling - at all. They do not understand that most of us are not joyriding but commuting; they don't understand the dynamics of cycling or how we cyclists must act to preserve our safety. Many do not understand the law as it relates to cyclists; they do not understand cyclists' rights, nor do they understand that cycling laws, cyclists' rights and cyclists' actions on the road all arise out of the need for us to be safe. Often they think that safety involves doing what veteran cyclists know to be unsafe - i.e. keeping out of the way of traffic. So I think here, I'll try to explain a little of the unintuitive nature of cycling safety. Hopefully some motorists will see it and perhaps learn from it, but if not, maybe some cycling advocates can use it as a resource to help educate their motorist friends.

Here are some of the more common motorist criticisms I see, and my answers to them:

Cyclists Take Up the Whole Lane!

The most common criticism of cyclists is that we take up the whole lane, riding in the middle of the road. Motorists can't see why we do that, because when you're in a car, the narrowness of a vehicle would seem to be an obvious aid to traffic flow. So why wouldn't a cyclist move right so that other road users could overtake within the lane? Seems like a no-brainer, right?

Well, here's the deal. Cycling safety is all about visibility. The most dangerous threat to a cyclist on the road is another vehicle. Knowing this, many road cyclists do their best to avoid interacting with other vehicles, so they ride in the gutter. In fact, so many of us ride in the gutter that many motorists believe that we are required to ride there, and that we're safer riding there. But riding in the gutter is a mistake. Why? Because when we ride in the gutter, we make ourselves less visible to other road users - this often results in collisions, especially at driveways and intersections, where a motorist has failed to see a cyclist and turns into him. It also results in glancing blows from cars whose drivers have tried to squeeze past the cyclist in the same lane.

It's far safer for cyclists to ride well into the road, so that we are as visible as we can be to other road users and so motorists know to change lanes when passing. Cars have brakes and steering wheels, and their drivers do not want to hit us. But in order to be able to avoid hitting us, they must see us first, and they must not be tempted to pass too closely.

Cyclists Impede Traffic!

Another major criticism is that cyclists go too slow and get in the way. I think this comes out of the general attitude that says that cycling is a leisure activity - so people just assume we're not doing anything useful. People generally fail to understand that most cyclists on the road are commuting to work or going somewhere they need to be. People see bikes as toys and not as tools.

However, the law is very clear - a bike is a vehicle and the vehicle in front has the right of way and basically owns the road - that applies to ALL vehicles, even bicycles. If you can't pass safely, you must wait until you can - hours if need be (in states where slow moving vehicles are not required to pull over), because the law recognizes that a cyclist traveling at a normal cycling speed (average 10mph) cannot be accused of impeding traffic. The assumption that a motorist has a right to a certain speed on the road is not the case.

Note that (having said what I said above) I should clarify that the average wait time behind a cyclist is measured in seconds, not hours. Most cyclists will, if they are not turning off the road soon, pull over to let faster moving traffic overtake. Of course, that wouldn't apply if the cyclist were traveling at, or close to, the speed limit for the road - yet I've had drivers honk at me when they were trying to speed on a low speed limit road. Again, there is no right to a certain speed on any road (speed limits are not minimums, nor are they recommended speeds - they are upper limits), and if a cyclist is traveling at a reasonable cycling speed on a narrow lane, drivers must wait until it's safe to overtake.

Cyclists Should Stay In the Bike Lane!

Many motorists seem to believe that, where a bike lane is provided, cyclists are required to use it. And this is indeed the case in a few states (my own state of Maryland being one of them). However, most states do not require bike lane use, and those that do so recognize that using the bike lane is often unsafe (i.e. when it's filled with debris or waterlogged, or when approaching an intersection) and even illegal (i.e. when turning left), and use is not required in those cases.

The fact is, bike lanes are often dangerous - many of them are striped in the door zone of parked cars - what they call a 'suicide lane' (for good reason). Also, as with riding in the gutter, bike lanes place cyclists out of the focal point of passing motorists. In numerous studies, bike lanes have been found to be more dangerous than the road because, as with any facility that removes cyclists from the traffic lane, visibility is reduced.

Cyclists Should Stay Off the Road!

The road appears dangerous to many people, and many believe that riding on the sidewalk or on the shoulder of the road would be safer because these facilities appear safe. But actually, cycling on such facilities causes many accidents, because sidewalk and shoulder riders are less visible and often come to grief at an intersection due to motorists simply failing to see them. Sidewalks are also often filled with obstructions that make traveling at cycling speeds risky. A study done in 1998 found that riding a bicycle on the sidewalk was 25 times more likely to result in a crash than was riding on a major street with no bike facilities.

Cyclists are required to use the road because that's the safest place to cycle - even when there's a shoulder or sidewalk, because shoulders and sidewalks are less safe than the road for cyclists. That's because riding on the shoulder or sidewalk places the cyclist outside of the focal point of drivers. Many cyclists are killed each year while riding on these facilities - they are clipped by passing cars, they are 'right hooked' by turning cars - both a result of a driver's tendency towards tunnel vision. Shoulder and sidewalk riding is quite unsafe. This is why cyclists have been lobbying to strike down laws that require shoulder use.

But The Law Says That Cyclists Should Ride Far To the Right!

Let us remember that 'as far right as is safe and/or practicable' (which is what most states' traffic law requires) is actually the center of the rightmost traffic lane that serves our destination. Every inch we ride farther right is less safe and less practicable. Unfortunately, some state laws also require that we cyclists ride on the 'right side' of the lane. This part of the law is, in practice, trying to get us killed. Especially so, given that most Law Enforcement Officers believe that cyclists are required to ride far right.

Why Must Cyclists Ride Two Abreast?

Cyclists riding two abreast are actually being safer and this actually makes overtaking easier. They are safer because they are effectively taking the lane (making drivers change lanes to pass, which has the effect of making passes safer), and it's far quicker to pass them than it is to pass two cyclists in single file formation. Often two cyclists in single file will tend to be passed too closely, because drivers tend to underestimate how long it takes to pass cyclists.

Unfortunately, many drivers don't recognize that cyclists riding abreast make it faster and safer for motorists to pass, and I see many comments from motorists saying that cyclists are behaving poorly by doing it. The tendency is for motorists to assume that cyclists belong far to the right, but the safest lane position to take when two-abreast cyclists move to single file would be a central position in the lane - so a motorist would gain nothing. This idea that two-abreast cycling holds up motorists is one of the biggest motorist misconceptions that I see online, and it causes a lot of misunderstanding between drivers and cyclists.

Cyclists Always Ignore Stop Signs!

Not always. For example, I am teaching my daughter always to obey Stop signs. She has never once ignored one.

But the fact is, ALL of us (not just cyclists) tend to break rules we can get away with, especially if those rules involve inconvenience. To a motorist, stopping at a Stop sign requires only that he push gently on the brake, yet this minor inconvenience results in so many motorists failing to stop at these signs that the practice has a name: the 'Hollywood' or 'California Stop'. To a cyclist, stopping at that same Stop sign means he loses his balance and loses his momentum - and starting from a stop is much more unbalanced than coasting through. And many times Stop signs are placed indiscriminately in quiet neighborhoods, purely as a way to calm traffic and reduce engine noise. Many times, when we are faced with a Stop sign on an empty street, there is no real reason (other than what seems an arbitrary law) to stop.

Cyclists run Stop signs because Stop signs are placed indiscriminately, because the law is not enforced, and because for the cyclist, there are major advantages in convenience and safety in running the sign.

But Surely Running Red Lights Is Dangerous!

Absolutely! And I do not understand why so many cyclists do it. Many say that it gets them ahead of traffic so that they are not passed by so many cars so closely. But I think this comes from taking a position in the road that is too close to the curb. If these cyclists rode farther out into the road, they would not have to fear traffic, because they would be controlling it. Also, they would not run the risk of being struck in the intersection where they ran the red light. Only with more education about the real safety issues can we prevent poor practices like red light jumping.

Well, the Reality Is That Roads Are Not Built For Cyclists. Roads Are Built For Cars!

Actually, no. Roads were made for cyclists. Cyclists built the US road system in the 1890s - it was improved specifically for cyclists to have a smooth surface on which to ride. These days, roads are built to accommodate all vehicles, from 18-wheelers to the humble bicycle. But roads are not really built for the vehicles - roads are built for people, and people have a choice of what vehicle they use on those roads. This is how it was in the past, how it is now, and how it always should be, as long as we value the freedom to travel.


A lot of cycling safety is unintuitive; the above are just a few examples of the most common misunderstandings. All drivers really have to do when dealing with cyclists is give them plenty of room. Most of cycling safety lane positioning (as promoted by the League of American Bicyclists - the officially recognized cycling safety organization in the US - and by Cycling Savvy and other cycling advocacy groups) is designed to encourage drivers to pass cyclists safely. That's why some of us (though far too few) ride our bicycles 'in the middle of the road'. It's just to give ourselves enough room to be safe.

Thankfully, cycling is actually a very safe activity. We hear a lot about cycling accidents, but the fact is, cycling has a lifetime risk of death nearly half that of driving. Motorists see cyclists in the road, with no airbags or crumple zones that motorists see as essential, and they assume that the cyclist is vulnerable. However, in practice, drivers are more vulnerable, even with their cars equipped with roll bars, airbags and crumple zones. This is most likely because motor vehicles travel at greatly higher speeds than cyclists do. The funny thing is, as a father who cycles with his daughter to school every day, I often get drivers telling me they would never cycle, as it's too dangerous with all the traffic. I've given up trying to explain to them that they're actually taking a greater risk than I am.

The Motorist's Reaction.

After I explained these things to the motorist, she wrote, " have changed my view on cyclists. I was one of those drivers that were exasperated by them but that is all changed now. I have a clearer view of the rights of cyclists and will adhere by them... What I thought was that cyclists felt like they owned the road and we just had to deal with it. Obviously, that is NOT the case and I thank you and applaud you for your very intelligent and informative answers."

A good result, I think. This shows how, when everyone involved is open to communication, everyone stands to benefit when we take some time to see both sides and to explain our perspective clearly.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Car vs. Bus vs. Bicycle

Just noticed this on John Allen's blog from a few years ago. John Allen has some great criticisms of it, but I had to repost the image, as I think it's a great illustration of the potential solutions to gridlock.

Of course, I say 'potential solutions', because one of the problems with the bicycles in the above image is that they are not in single file and they are taking up the whole width of the road. Apart from the issues of physical space that John brings up, a big problem is that the current state of the most popular brand of cycling advocacy here in the US (paint and path advocacy) makes it almost a maxim that cyclists should always stick to sidewalks, sidepaths, bike lanes and - if all else fails - the gutter - and then they should ride only in single file (for fear of annoying motorists, most of whom have no idea that passing cyclists riding two-abreast is actually easier and quicker than passing them in single file). If cyclists ride in the way the paint and path advocates say they should, the line of cyclists would stretch back to where the line of cars ends.

So while cyclists choose to deny themselves full and proper use of the road, and while state and local laws continue to try to restrict cyclists' right to the road, cycling can never be a solution.

Another issue that this image fails to illustrate is that the bus is unlike a bike or a car in one fundamental way - it is not a form of personal transportation! Buses are communal, and because they are communal, they do not take a rider from door to door, they are often late, and sometimes they don't run at all. So although it is definitely a space-saver, it is not as efficient (in terms of comfort, speed or ease-of-use) as a bike or a car.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Lusk Study - A Critical Assessment

In 2011, a study was published online in the BMJ journal 'Injury Prevention'. The study, 'Risk of injury for bicycling on cycle tracks versus in the street' by Anne C. Lusk et al, got a lot of press (as cycling safety studies go), and it is regarded with respect by many in the cycling community. In fact, I think it's probably the single most referenced study of cycling safety in current circulation. But a more critical assessment shows significant flaws.


Flaws in the 2010 Lusk Montreal Study

The Lusk study measures bicyclist injury rates on cycle tracks and compares the results with results from supposedly similar reference streets. This was done for six cycle tracks and comparable reference streets. Here I will list the streets that were compared and try to illustrate the flaws I found in terms of the nature of the streets being compared.

1. Rue de Brebeuf Cycle Track vs. Rue St. Denis between Rachel and Laurier.
Rue de Brébeuf Cycle Track
Rue St. Denis

These streets are not comparable.

Brebeuf (which has a cycle track) is a narrow 40kph slow-moving one-way residential street with one traffic lane and one parking lane.

Rue St. Denis (which has no cycle track) is a six-lane (two lanes often taken up by parking) 50kph limit two-way highway in a commercial area with lots of stores and distractions.

It seems to me that more accidents will naturally occur on the six-lane highway with a faster speed limit. It's unsurprising then that the study did indeed find a statistically significant advantage in terms of safety for Rue de Brébeuf. However, I would argue that this has nothing to do with the safety of the cycle track and everything to do with the very different nature of the roads compared. 

2. Rue Rachel Cycle Track vs. Avenue du Mont Royal between St. Urbain and Marquette.
Rue Rachel Cycle Track

Avenue du Mont Royal

Do these streets look at all alike?

Rue Rachel (which has a cycle track) is a four-lane 50kph limit commercial street with a lane apparently open to parking on both sides. On one side, the two-way cycle track is separated from the general traffic lane by a physical barrier and a line of parked cars. Along a third of its length, Rachel has a park next to it, reducing the potential for crossing traffic on this cycle track.

For two thirds of its length, Avenue du Mont Royal (which has no cycle track) is indeed a similar 50kph commercial street with parking both sides. But there the similarity ends. Avenue du Mont Royal has no park and has many intersecting streets along its entire length.

One would think that, if the cycle track was safer, Rue Rachel, with the reduction in crossing conflicts - an unfair advantage - conferred by the park, would show it clearly. Yet the differences in terms of injuries between Rue Rachel and Avenue Mont Royal were statistically insignificant. 

3. Rue Berri Cycle Track vs. Rue St. Denis between Cherrier and Viger.
Rue Berri Cycle Track
St. Denis

These streets are not comparable.

Rue Berri (which has a cycle track) is a 50kph limit divided highway along 1/3rd of its length with the cycle track removed from busy intersections by an underpass, so cyclists are naturally removed from the possibility of intersection accidents.

Along this stretch of Rue St. Denis, the road (which has no cycle track) is a one-way street with a 50kph speed limit. However it is a much busier road than Rue Berri in terms of people doing their business somewhere along that stretch, with a relatively narrow street and lots of intersections and distractions in the form of little shops and cafes along the whole route.

Rue Berri showed a statistically significant reduction in injuries compared with its reference street. However, more accidents are bound to occur where there are lots of intersections and where drivers are likely to be distracted. It seems reasonable that the advantage in terms of reduced injury results on Rue Berri derive from the very different nature of the roads compared and not from the presence of a cycle track.

4. Boulevard de Maisonneuve Cycle Track vs. Rue Sherbrooke and Rue Ste. Catherine between Claremont and Wood.
Blvd de Maisonneuve Bike Track

Blvd de Maisonneuve Bike Track
Rue Sherbrooke
Rue Ste. Catherine

One of these streets is not like the others. Can you spot the differences?

Boulevard de Maisonneuve (which has a cycle track) is a quiet 30kph one-way two lane residential street along much of its length. The bike track goes through a park for 1/5th of its length, thus removing any possibility of intersection conflicts in that area. The presence of the park effectively reduces the chance of traffic collisions by 20%.

Sherbrooke (which has no cycle track) is a downtown 40kph commercial street with four lanes of moving traffic and parking on both sides. It has numerous business distractions along its length. It should be noted that a recent study found that Sherbrooke is the single most dangerous route in Montreal for cyclists. Ste. Catherine (which also has no cycle track) is a similar downtown street, but with a 30kph limit and just two lanes of moving traffic and a lane for parking on both sides.

The idea that these streets are comparable on anything but the most superficial level (i.e. they are streets) is a joke. It is ridiculous, in my view, to attribute a reduction of injuries on Boulevard de Maisonneuve to the presence of a cycle track, when the streets being compared are not at all similar - and when the street with the cycle track has obvious and significant advantages in terms of safety that are unrelated to the bicycle track itself. 

5. Avenue Christophe Columb Cycle Track vs. Rue St. Hubert between Gouin and Jarry and Avenue Christophe Columb between Villeray and Rosemont.

Ave Christophe Columb Cycle Track

St. Hubert
Ave Christophe Columb

These streets do seem comparable.

Avenue Christophe Columb (which has a cycle track) is a 4-5 lane 50kph limit highway along much of its length with one or two extra lanes for parking. The cycle track is completely segregated from the road except at intersections.

Rue St. Hubert appears to be a somewhat quieter 4-5 lane residential street with one or two extra lanes for parking and no cycle track. Avenue Christophe Columb between Villeray and Rosemont (which also has no cycle track) is a 4-5 lane highway along much of its length with a 50kph limit and one or two extra lanes for parking, much like the portion with the cycle track.

I would say this street study would be the most fair in terms of the nature of the streets being compared. So it's interesting that the overall injury rate on these streets showed comparison results that were statistically insignificant. However, it should be noted that in terms of relative danger from vehicular traffic, Avenue Christophe Columb (the street with the cycle tracks) had a much worse (and statistically significant) danger factor. I personally think the way they calculated the danger factor is bogus, but it's interesting that, in this case, it works out to favor the street without the bike path. Also interesting is that the study's authors make no mention of this in their conclusions.

6. Boulevard René Lévesque Cycle Track vs. Rue Sherbrooke between Lorimier and St. Hubert.
Blvd René Lévesque Cycle Track
Rue Sherbrooke

These streets are not comparable.

Boulevard René Lévesque (which has a cycle track) is a very wide six lane divided highway with a 50kph limit and very good visibility along its length. On one side, the two-way cycle track is separated from the general traffic lane by a physical barrier.

Rue Sherbrooke (which has no cycle track) appears to be a slightly narrower undivided 50kph limit road, six lanes wide, with one of the lanes used for parking. The area around the street is somewhat more built-up and closed-in than René Lévesque, so sight lines are not as good. Again, it should be noted that, in choosing Sherbrooke for a reference street, the study authors selected the most dangerous route in Montreal for cyclists.

Rue Sherbrooke has slight disadvantages compared to Boulevard René Lévesque in terms of cyclist safety. However, these are related to the nature of the roads themselves, and not to the presence or absence of bicycle tracks. Again, even though the road with the bicycle track had an unfair advantage, the study found no statistically significant differences in terms of injuries on these roads.



The study claims:
"Contrary to AASHTO's safety cautions about road-parallel paths and its exclusion of cycle tracks, our results suggest that two-way cycle tracks on one side of the road have either lower or similar injury rates compared with bicycling in the street without bicycle provisions."
Yes, the results do indeed suggest that. But is it any wonder that the Lusk study finds that cycle tracks are safer than street cycling? I don't think so. With the exception of #5, the streets appear to have been chosen in such a way that safety is maximized on the streets with bicycle facilities, while risk is maximized on the so-called 'reference' streets. In my opinion, given the selection of streets used, the study's conclusions could have been foretold before the first cyclist in the study put his foot on a pedal. With the overwhelming nature of the bias in the study, I find it amazing that three of the six street comparisons still showed no safety advantage to cycle tracks!

Here we have what seems to me to be a clear case of selection bias, and selection bias so blatant that I find it hard to believe that the people doing the study did not have a point they wanted to prove at the outset. In fact, the study itself all but admits this agenda, when it almost lapses into rant mode. Note the use of emotive or dismissive language and a very telling admission of a pro- cycle track agenda:
"Cycle track construction has been hampered in the USA by engineering guidance in the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) ‘Guide for the development of bicycle facilities'... A long-standing, and yet not rigorously proved, philosophy in the USA has suggested instead that ‘bicyclists fare best when they behave as, and are treated as, operators of vehicles.’ "
 In my opinion, the integrated (or 'vehicular') cycling philosophy has been rigorously proved (as much as anything can be) by the very studies that Lusk et al go on to dismiss as 'conflicting':
"...crash rate comparisons between the USA and The Netherlands have been dismissed by vehicular cycling proponents, with arguments of non-transferability to the American environment. Cycle tracks have been controversial, especially due to conflicting studies with warnings of increased crash rates."
Contrary to this assertion of conflict, the studies are interesting in that (apart from a very few exceptions) they don't conflict, and that so many of them agree on this specific point: that bike facilities increase the risk of intersection collisions.

Lusk et al go on to say:
"Public health and bicycling advocates in the USA have faced a dichotomy, believing from surveys and European experience that cycle tracks encourage more bicycling, yet being warned that they lead to higher crash and injury rates. Our results suggest that cycle tracks lessen, or at least do not increase, crash and injury rates compared with the street. The construction of cycle tracks should not be discouraged."
So Lusk et al knew that the weight of expert opinion was against bicycle facilities, and they knew that health and bicycling advocates in the US and Canada were finding it hard to move ahead with their objectives while bicycle facilities were known to be hazardous. So it seems they wanted to find a way to redress the 'imbalance'. In short, they seem to have had a pro- bicycle facility agenda.

In an attempt to find other studies that back up their results, Lusk et al attempt to use Wachtel and Lewiston's 1994 study 'Risk factors for bicycle-motor vehicle collisions at intersections', yet they seem to assume that all non-intersection collisions must be on the roadway. Since driveways are not intersections, and since there will be interactions between intersections even for cycle tracks, I'm not sure they can extrapolate so simplistically. Even if they can, they admit that the extrapolated results merely show that separated paths are "at least no more dangerous than bicycling in the street". Hardly a ringing endorsement of cycle tracks. And let's not forget that it was Wachtel and Lewiston who said, in that very same study:
"Bicyclists on a sidewalk or bicycle path incur greater risk than those on the roadway (on average 1.8 times as great), most likely because of blind conflicts at intersections... intersections, construed broadly, are the major point of conflict between bicycles and motor vehicles. Separation of bicycles and motor vehicles leads to blind conflicts at these intersections."
Anne Lusk, judging from the information available on her website at the Harvard School of Public Health, is keen on the health benefits of cycling. I am too. But I don't think misrepresenting data in a way that makes hazards look safer is a good way to help people to become healthy.

Whether the bias was intentional or merely subconscious, the results are the same, and we are talking about people's lives here.


Implications for Cyclists

At 6:50am on July 24, 2012, a 33 year-old man became the first cyclist (and the first cycle track user) to be killed on any of the streets in the Lusk study, since the study was published. He died on the Christophe Columb cycle track where it intersects Rue Mistral. The driver who killed him may have been dazzled by the morning sun, which would have been in his eyes, and the cyclist may have been partially hidden by the signs on the traffic light post as he approached the intersection. This image shows the driver's view: the cyclist would have been approaching the camera on the cycle track.
The cyclist was killed in a classic intersection turning conflict of the type that bicycle facility experts have been trying to warn cyclists and transportation engineers about for at least four decades. He most likely thought he was perfectly safe - protected by a bicycle track that was physically separated from the roadway. What he almost certainly did not know was that the Lusk study, which supports the facility he was using, admits:
"the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) ‘Guide for the development of bicycle facilities’... cautions against building two-way paths along, but physically separated from, a parallel road. AASHTO states that sidewalk bikeways are unsafe and implies the same about shared-use paths parallel to roads, listing numerous safety concerns and permitting their use only in special situations."
Also, it should be noted that bicycle lane use is no longer mandatory in the province of Quebec. So this cyclist could have legally avoided this bike lane death trap, if he was aware of the change in the law, which happened in 2011. Before then, cyclists were required to use bike lanes.

So far, no roadway cyclists have been killed on any of the study's reference streets. This, despite Quebec's law that forces cyclists to ride on the far right hand side of the road. Presumably this is so that they will be less visible to motorists and therefore more easily killed by them - that way, bike lanes might seem that much less dangerous when everyone finally figures out how hazardous they actually are.

As I said at the beginning, the Lusk study is regarded with respect by many in the cycling community who see it as a confirmation of what we want to hear - that the facilities we expect to keep us safe are indeed as safe as they can be. The problem is, these facilities pose a serious hazard to cyclists, and sadly the Lusk study serves to keep us unaware of that fact. I hope that this assessment serves as a wake-up call to those of us who rely so uncritically on such facilities.


Since posting this, John Allen alerted me to the fact that there are other critiques of the Lusk study - specifically by M Kary and by Wayne Pein. They both go into far more detail than mine and while mine is merely an amateur critique that addresses only a few of the more obvious (to me) concerns, theirs are far more scholarly and convincing. They can be found here: