Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Review of Spruce Street Bike Lane, Philadelphia

This bike lane is much like the Pine Street lane that I reviewed earlier. Let's take a critical look at this supposedly 'safer' cycling option.

As the cyclist sets off, we can notice by the camera shake that the road surface is very bad. There seems to have been a trench dug here at one point and the patch covering it is very poor. Poor surfaces like this have caused cyclists to lose control and fall. Fortunately, PA does not require cyclists to use the bike lane, so a cyclist can legally choose to use the regular travel lane at this point. Motorists might not understand why (the road doesn't look bad from a 4-wheeled driver's perspective), but the reason is clear to anyone who cycles, and hopefully to most who watch this video.

At 0:42, the two cyclists in front of the traffic queue jump the red light. Not only is this dangerous, but it reinforces the popular conception of cyclists as scofflaws. And will it benefit them? We'll see.

At 0:50 the trench patch is gone and the road surface gets better.

At 1:03, we notice a car parked half in the bike lane with his hazard lights on. The cyclist does not change lanes and instead chooses to pass the parked car in the door zone as he is passed within 2 feet by a vehicle on the left (fortunately at very low speed, reducing the hazard, but the driver should have seen the danger and slowed - it's not as if doing so would affect him - a traffic jam is a few feet ahead). Cycling in the door zone kills cyclists every year, as an opening car door will throw cyclists into the traffic lane. Bike lanes like this are supposed to prevent sudden changes of lane. We have already seen two reasons for cyclists to switch lanes - and we'll see more. Clearly, one of the safety features of this protected bike lane is fatally compromised by illegal parking - one of the more annoying realities of the road.

At 1:19 we notice the same two cyclists who crashed the red light earlier. Running red lights has not got them any farther any faster than the law abiding (and quite slow moving) cyclist making the video. Clearly, all these cyclists have achieved in running the red light is to annoy law abiding road users and to cement the bad reputation of cyclists in motorists' minds.

At 1:38, we see bollards very close to the cycle lane. These are a minor hazard only as long as the road surface is smooth and free from debris. The tree beside the bollards ensure that this will not always be the case. These bollards need to be removed, or they need to be set farther back from the road, or the bike lane needs to be farther out into the road. Unfortunately, neither of the latter solutions is practical, as there is too little space.

At 1:44 we see the two cyclists ahead of us filtering on the right and a third cyclist filters on the right as cars are turning. An impatient or unobservant driver turning right here could easily cause an accident, as the cyclists all go straight as cars turn right. Cyclists here should be in the queue of traffic. Clearly, this bike lane does nothing to prevent right hooks.

At 2:45 a below grade level manhole cover forces the cyclist to move to the left as a taxi overtakes far too closely. The cyclist notices the manhole less than a second before he rides past it (you can tell it surprises him because he wobbles at that point). A standard traffic lane would give cyclists far more room to avoid such hazards. Yet another way in which a so-called 'protected' bike lane decreases safety for cyclists. Around this point the bike lane is once again strewn with road patches which adversely affect the surface - another reason to choose the regular traffic lane.

At 2:55, the bike lane has become a 'mixing zone' where right-turning traffic and cyclists who are proceeding straight must merge. The driver of the car in front of the cyclist realizes late (or is unsure) that he must merge into the right lane to turn right. This confusion is only to be expected, since the normal assumption is that the bike lane is continuous. Many drivers do not know that it is safest (and often legally required) to merge into a bike lane before turning right. Once again, this is a good reason for cyclists to choose to cycle in the general traffic lane, so as to avoid potential turning conflicts.

At 2:58, the cyclists ahead of us once more run the red light. Many cyclists seem to regard red lights in the same way motorists view speed limits - i.e. something to be cautiously but deliberately ignored.

At 3:00, the driver ahead has not fully merged into the bike lane - another clue that he’s confused as to what he must do to turn. Confusion on the road creates danger.

At 3:45, the right third of the lane is covered in a thick layer of leaves. Leaf debris is strewn throughout the bike lane. If this were a standard traffic lane, the leaves would tend to be swept away by car tires. As it is, the presence of the leaf carpet effectively narrows the bike path and the leaf debris presents a potential slip hazard.


Spruce Street is a road that could easily be shared by motorists and cyclists without any specialized cycling infrastructure. In my view, this is another case of a totally unnecessary bike lane. Some motorists here are confused by aspects of a new bike lane design that they have not seen before. Traffic speeds are low as this is a mostly residential area. As with Pine Street, Spruce Street has been turned from a quiet two-lane one-way street into a busier single lane street with a narrow segregated bike lane that 'looks' safer for cyclists, but is actually less safe.

Review of Pine Street Bike Lane, Philadelphia

The bike lane on Pine Street in Philadelphia has been described as 'pretty damned good'. I disagree. Let's run through the video and see what problems this bike lane has.

The Pine Street bike lane is in the gutter and segregated by a painted median that looks to be about 2-3ft wide. The road is a one way street.

As the cyclist starts off along the bike lane, we can see that cars and trucks are passing within about 3 feet of the cyclist's handlebars because he has to ride farther left because of all the crud that has accumulated between 1 and 2 feet out from the gutter. As the cyclist proceeds, we can see a white truck ahead whose right wheels are straddling the median - clearly this road is not really wide enough to fit parking, a travel lane and a bike lane. In practice, the passing distance on this road would not meet the requirements of the law that's in the Pennsylvania Senate right now (Senate Bill 156), which would make it illegal for motorists to pass a bicycle unless there is at least of 4 feet of space between the vehicle and cyclist.

At 0:48, the cyclist swerves into the main traffic lane because a truck has parked in a 'mixing zone' where cyclists and right-turning drivers merge. In practice these zones are often used for parking. As such, they become de-facto 'loading zones'. Their original purpose is completely invalidated by the demands of the real world, and these supposedly safe zones become yet another potential conflict zone by complicating an intersection and its approaches so that this area becomes more dangerous for cyclists.

At 1:00, we see another problem, in that the cyclist comes up on the right of a car. Can the driver easily notice him? What if the driver is assuming that he's still next to a bike lane? What if he's about to make an unsignaled right turn, as many drivers do? If this were a road with standard traffic lanes, there would be no problem here - drivers would recognize a standard right lane and both cyclists and right-turning cars would be in one line in the right lane. Separating cyclists and moving them to the right (even when the segregation is removed before an intersection) creates confusion.

At 1:10 we see a cyclist coming in the opposite direction. There simply is not room on a cycle path this wide for wrong-way cycling, but it happens on roads with bike paths and lanes - it happens far less frequently on roads where cyclists are integrated into the traffic lanes.

Between 1:42-1:45 we can see the dirt on the road is reaching out farther than the arrow mark in the bike path - more than half of the bike path is covered in gravel and junk which makes the surface less safe. To ensure good contact with the road surface, the cyclist has to ride farther left, placing the end of his left handlebar maybe 2ft from passing cars. This is dangerous, especially since in this case, there was a white car which was straddling the median marking as it passed! Then there's a sudden unexpected bump from a road patch which takes the cyclist by surprise. Seemingly minor problems like this, coming together at the same time, are the cause of many accidents. If this was a standard traffic lane, car tires would effectively sweep the lane clear of debris here, which would make it far safer for cyclists. Also, if there were two regular traffic lanes here, the lane to the left would not be so busy, so that if there were a problem, the chances are that drivers could see the cyclist fall and stop in time.

At 2:12 we see a below-grade-level manhole cover right in the bike path. The cyclist has to swerve to avoid it. Is this safe? Of course not. The fact is, manhole covers are often placed here in a traffic lane - drivers feel a little bump as they go over. That's not the case for cyclists, who must avoid such dangers or risk a fall. A bike lane, being narrower than a regular travel lane, does not allow the same amount of lateral movement within the lane. In this case, the cyclist is left maybe 12 inches between the manhole cover and either side of the bike lane - he swerves towards the curb to avoid the obstacle. A fall here caused by inattention or by swerving into loose gravel in the gutter could easily throw the cyclist into the travel lane.

At 2:45, a truck parked (illegally?) in the bike lane. Very unsafe and sadly not unusual. The cyclist stops far too close to the car in front and is not fully into the traffic lane, presumably because traffic behind was not allowing a full lane change. Another cyclist chooses to take the sidewalk at this point - he later filters between traffic and a parked trailer. Our cyclist, forced to start on the edge of the travel lane, wobbles slightly as he enters it at 3:15.

At 3:18, the trailer - roadwork? Most roadwork takes place in this rightmost lane, as can be seen by the various patches along the road throughout the video. Again, something that will impact and endanger cyclists.

At 3:55 and after, the poor surface makes the whole of the bike lane a mess, with potholes and standing water. The road camber quality is often regarded as unimportant at the edges of the road, so this is typical of the conditions that bike lanes impose on cyclists.


Pine Street is a road that could easily be shared by motorists and cyclists without any specialized cycling infrastructure. In my view, this is a case of a totally unnecessary bike lane. All the motorists are behaving well and traffic speeds are low as this is a mostly residential area. A quick look on Google Maps street view shows that this used to be a quiet two-lane one-way street with parking on the north side of the street. The right lane was marked with 'Share the Road' signs and perfectly safe for cycling. Now it has been turned into a busy single lane street with a narrow segregated bike lane that 'looks' safer for cyclists, but is actually less safe.

As I see it, the Pine Street bike lane is nowhere near 'pretty damned good'. It's better than most, but most are atrocious. This is merely bad.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Road Rage

Yesterday, while my daughter and I were traveling our usual route up 16th Street in Silver Spring, we got honked at. Some idiot, thinking cyclists don't belong on a 6-lane 35mph speed limit highway, decided to angrily honk his horn - twice - as he passed me. Startled, I yelled "Shut up!" at the top of my voice. Of course, he probably couldn't hear through his passenger window's tempered glass. Then I became amused as I saw him wildly gesticulating, clearly enraged, as he drove on.

As is true of most states, Maryland law permits cycling on all but limited access highways. I was taking the lane (riding in the middle of the lane) on this road, as it is too narrow for a vehicle to overtake a bicycle in the lane. Taking the lane is specifically permitted under Maryland Transportation Statute 21-1205 (a) 6 and is the safest procedure when a lane is too narrow to share, especially when traffic speeds are high (as they tend to be on 16th Street), as it prevents unsafe passes and makes the cyclist more visible to cars earlier, which allows them to change lanes before they are forced to slow down. I believe there's also a law that's supposed to prevent the use of the horn around cyclists too, but I can't find the statute.

It does worry me that even a very few drivers have no idea that cyclists belong on the road. Not that there's much that can be done about it.

Sunday, 15 January 2012


The above map gives a general overview of the situation. A much
better and more detailed examination of US bike laws is available at
Bicycle Law Reform

As we look at the map of the US as it stands at the beginning of 2012, we can see that, over the last century, cyclists' freedom to ride on US roads has been, to a large extent, undermined in 46 of the 50 states. 18 states have oppressive laws requiring slower vehicles to operate as far right as practicable and for cyclists to use bike lanes, paths or shoulders where such facilities exist. Another 28 states require slower vehicles to operate far to the right. These laws effectively prevent proper and safe access to the road: they increase the chances of turning conflicts at intersections by forcing cyclists to the side of the road (or off the road altogether), which makes us less visible and therefore more vulnerable to collisions.

Alaska is arguably the least bike-friendly state in the union in terms of road access, due to its oppressive state laws. This state not only requires cyclists to ride far to the right, but also requires cyclists to give way to motorists when the motorist honks at them! Effectively, Alaska legalizes road rage against cyclists. Alaskans who choose to cycle are also required to use a shoulder where one exists. One suspects that the only reason cyclists are not required to use bike paths or bike lanes is that Alaska is so oppressive to cyclists that no one in government believes cyclists would ever attempt to ride on the road if a 'friendlier' alternative exists. In Alaska, cyclists are third class citizens (and only barely that) on the road.

Idaho, often given good markings by bicycle advocates thanks to its reverse-discriminatory 'Stop as Yield' law, receives only an amber rating here, due to its 'far to the right' law.

Colorado is also often cited as a bicycle friendly state. I don't see it that way, since it has a 'far to the right' law. Also, the cycling ban in Black Hawk is rightly regarded as an embarrassment to the state.

On the other side of the equation, only four states (Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Pennsylvania) and the District of Columbia have no seriously oppressive or discriminatory laws.

Indiana: Other than limitations on riding two-abreast, road usage law is no different to that which applies to motorists. This state has to be seen as the least oppressive of any in the Union.

Massachusetts: The most recent law passed in Massachusetts covering cycling was the 2008 Bicyclist Safety Bill. This law allowed cyclists to ride two abreast, repealed bicycle registration and mandated police training in bicycle related laws. The only other Massachusetts law that affects cyclists right to the road is the law that states that cyclists may overtake on the right - this is effectively reverse discrimination, since it seems to be beneficial, but it actually reduces cyclist safety by making us more open to intersection conflicts and dooring. Still, Massachusetts cyclists are not 'forced' to overtake on the right.

District of Columbia: DC has the same reverse discrimination as Massachusetts, allowing cyclists to overtake on the right. Other than that, DC cyclists are unencumbered by discrimination under the law.

North Carolina and Pennsylvania also offer no seriously discriminatory laws, although their statutes regarding slower vehicles staying right must be seen, in practical application, as being unfairly biased against cyclists, since, in many cases, cyclists cannot travel as fast as motor vehicles, yet they often have a need to control the lane that is made illegal by such statutes.

Still, these are just a few small islands in a sea of red and amber. As such, these states can be seen as the last bastions of cycling freedom, and are illustrative of how far cycling rights have been eroded in this country due to motorist pressure to get us off 'their' roads, due to the apathy of government, and due to poor leadership and corruption in cycling organizations like the League of American Bicyclists. To see how bad things have become, we need only consider that in the 1890s, the map of the US was a sea of green. Cyclists have fought to retain their rights all the way, but we are a long way from those heady days when cyclists, who effectively pioneered transportation law, successfully lobbied for good roads.

The League of American Bicyclists can be seen in some ways as being complicit in the marginalization of American cycling. In pursuing a single-minded and myopic strategy of advocacy for off-road infrastructure and on-road bicycle lanes, the League has effectively given up on supporting road cycling. Last year the League granted Alaska 29th place on its Bicycle Friendly America map. When a state as cycling-unfriendly as Alaska achieves an average grade, one has to wonder what the League's criteria are for 'bike friendly status'. But it's not a huge secret - the League is very open about the fact that its focus is on bike lanes and bikeways. The League's criteria for a bike friendly state show clearly that cyclists' rights to the road are a minor consideration.

The League, by the way, lists Washington - a state which requires cyclists to position themselves far to the right while using the road - as No.1 in bike friendliness.

The lowest point in the League's history has to be in 2010, when in Texas, the League failed to support Reed Bates, a cyclist who, as far as I can see, broke no traffic law. Prosecutors initially floundered about what violation to charge him with, but the eventual result was that Reed Bates ended up serving 18 days in jail. The League, which claims it exists to protect cyclist’s rights, does not seem to believe in protecting the rights of cyclists to the road.

It should also be noted that the US legal system itself tends to favor the motorist when accidents occur. Typical is the story of Nathan Krasnopoler, a Maryland cyclist and sophomore at Johns Hopkins University, who was struck in February 2011 while in a bike lane, and who eventually died after spending six months in a coma. At first, police didn't even charge the driver and said they did not expect to, though eventually charges were filed and Nathan's killer was convicted of negligent driving and failure to yield. She was fined $220 - the price of a pair of shoes. And that's when the law is (grudgingly) observed by police and the courts. Often in such cases, police don't even mount an investigation and many drivers who seriously injure or kill cyclists are not even charged. Many times, cyclists are charged with failure to yield when the driver who hit them was clearly at fault. In some cases, cyclists are even charged with nonexistent laws.

Added to this, the Federal Highway Administration, the US Department of Transportation and state and local authorities that implement road infrastructure cannot be seen to be blameless in the marginalization of cycling in the US, as these organizations seem to have an uncanny ability to install dangerous, if not deadly, bicycle-specific infrastructure. Many, if not most, transportation engineers who design cycling infrastructure, and many of the government officials who oversee and approve bicycle facilities, do not commute by bicycle and may never have ridden a bicycle since childhood. The FHA and DoT relate to cyclists in much the same way as the 19th Century 'Office of Indian Affairs' related to Native Americans - with condescension and (when criticized) with indignation - FHA and DoT are organizations of drivers, run by drivers, for drivers. As such, even though they are tasked with doing so, they cannot adequately serve the needs of cyclists and even if they could, it is by no means certain that they would want to.

What does the future hold for cyclists? In my view, cycling will only become popular enough to radically change road culture in this country if a large proportion of drivers give up driving and start cycling. Despite the optimism of bicycle infrastructure advocates and their blind belief in the ability of cycling facilities to attract non-cyclists to cycle, I don't think a quantum leap in cycling is likely anytime soon. One ray of hope is the price of gasoline, which has risen steadily in recent years and which will probably continue to rise unless the economy is completely in the tank. If the world is at the peak of world oil production, as many knowledgeable observers seem to suggest, and if the situation in the Middle-east deteriorates still further, as seems likely, the monetary cost of driving will rise to heights not seen since 2008. As prices rise and more and more people choose their bicycles for local travel, we may see a resurgence of bicycle culture in the US. More likely, though, motorists will allow their cars to drive them into bankruptcy, and will still continue to drive, either until they can no longer afford to buy even a drop of gasoline, or until their car keys are taken from their cold, dead hands. The US has been a culture that has worshipped the car since the 1920s - people will not give up their automobiles until they simply cannot afford to run them anymore - and even in the most dire projections of the peak oil devotees, that time is a long way off.

So what do we do in the face of such seemingly insurmountable odds? We do what we always do - we continue to cycle on the road and defend our right to do so. We do this even in the face of motorist anger, government incompetence, the corruption of bicycle advocacy groups, and the misunderstanding of our fellow cyclists. We do it because however bleak the situation gets, we know that we will win in the end. Unlike the automobile, the vehicle we choose isn't dependent upon fossil fuels. The bicycle was here before the automobile and it will be here long after the automobile has gone the way of the Dodo.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.


Wednesday, 4 January 2012

I dreamed my commute became longer

Last night I dreamed that my daily commute tripled in length. I dreamed that my daughter's friend needed a lift to school, and that I would have to go to her house, pick her up and drive back past my house and to the school.

Now most people having such a dream might have woken up thanking their lucky stars that it was just a dream.

But I commute on my bike. So I woke up disappointed that it wasn't real. I wish I had a reason to ride farther.

The dream didn't explain how I could fit two kids on my daughter's Trail-a-Bike, but somehow it magically transformed into a two-seater. Again, when I went into the garage and saw the real Trail-a-Bike, I found it a bit of a disappointment.

Most commuters dream of shorter commutes or no traffic. I dream of longer commutes and two-seater Trail-a-Bikes that let me haul more kids.

Today's temperatures dropped significantly - below freezing and a strong icy wind making it even colder. My motorist friends think I'm unlucky to be commuting in the cold without any shelter from the weather. Today one of them told me I was crazy for cycling to pick up my daughter in this cold. I'm not sure what choice he thinks I have - he knows I don't drive a car. I'm sure if I did drive a car I'd use it - hey, I'm lazy and I like warmth as much as the next guy. But I'm not so sure I'd be better-off: I like getting up close and personal with the weather - it turns a run-of-the-mill commute into a bit of an adventure. Maybe I won't feel the same way after a month or two of this, but today I really enjoyed it.