Saturday, 18 February 2012

How Wide Should the Lane Be?

Is this bike lane preferable? This cyclist doesn't seem to think so.
Is this wide outside lane preferable?
Why not this standard width lane?

Many times, I see discussions online about lane width. We are told that cyclists need bike lanes, or that, in the absence of bike lanes, cyclists need wide outside lanes so that we can operate safely alongside motorized traffic. Personally, I think these ideas are both based in misconceptions about what bicycles are and how they work. Both are based in the false notion that cyclists need only a small amount of space on the road, and that bicycles are somehow fundamentally different from other vehicles and ought to be kept out of the way. But in practice, narrow bike lanes tend to confuse motorists and increase conflicts at intersections. Conversely, wide outside lanes prevent cyclists from exerting the control over the lane that they may find necessary. The fact is, there is a precise width of lane that must exist for cyclists to operate their vehicles safely, and it's not the 4ft standard width bike lane, nor is it the 6ft standard width bike path, nor is it the 14ft wide outside lane. The proper width for a bike lane is the same as that of a standard or minimal width traffic lane - between 10ft and 12ft. Let me explain why.

In terms of bike lanes, they were originally designed for the convenience of motorists and they are almost always implemented in ways that were influenced more by what could be squeezed into the existing road width than by what cyclists actually need. Let's face it - bike lanes are as narrow as their designers can get away with. If transportation engineers figured that they could get away with making bike paths 2ft wide, they would do just that - and in some cases, they do. The US is better than Europe in this regard, and the standards here are (mostly) followed, but the fact is, that standard width of 4ft is not wide enough, nor is 6ft, which is the standard width for bike paths, a width that some cyclist advocates are requesting be made standard for bike lanes too. Even 8ft is too little. Such narrow lanes are ill-suited for use by bicycles, because bicycles, being two-wheeled vehicles with an inherent lack of stability and and proneness to wobble (especially at low speeds), need a lot more lateral room than their appearance would suggest. In my opinion, this is a big reason why cyclists on narrow bicycle facilities have so many collisions with static objects. It is also a big reason why bike lanes tend to increase intersection conflicts and why so many cyclists are killed by turning motorists at junctions or as a result of doorings mid-block. Cyclists (and indeed motorists) need a bike lane to be between 10ft and 12ft wide. 10-12ft allows motorists to fully merge before a right turn, and it allows cyclists to operate outside the door zone mid-block and with no fear of their vehicle's inherent instability putting them in conflict with other road users. 4ft is nowhere near enough, nor is 6ft.

As for wide outside lanes (14ft or more) vs. standard outside lanes (12ft), I prefer a standard width lane over a wide lane. The standard 12ft wide lane evolved to be the way it is for a number of reasons, and the design of both the bicycle and the car was influenced by this. The design elements that made up the bicycle, the car and the standard width lanes they travel on did not evolve in a vacuum, and although the full rationale behind these design elements is little-considered these days, there are good reasons for the standard width lane that go well beyond what is necessary for automobile traffic. Wider outside lanes would be good if many of us were driving tanks on the road - but they are not good for other vehicles, because lane control is essential if 'right of way' is to have any meaning, especially where cyclists are concerned. And unless we want chaos on the roads, right of way must have not just meaning, nor just force of law, but it must be supported by road design too. 12ft is good, because it allows cyclists to control the lane when necessary, preventing compact cars and larger vehicles from overtaking in the same lane. 14ft or more is not good, because of two reasons: 1 - in many states, lane control is illegal for cyclists on a 14ft lane (because cyclists are required to operate far-to-the-right in such a lane), and 2 - even where it is legal, when a cyclist finds it necessary to control the lane, the wide lane encourages motorists to squeeze past in the same lane as a cyclist, potentially on either side, at a time when such a maneuver could be extremely dangerous.

The best lane width for bikes is between 10ft and 12ft - no more, no less. That was the case in the 1890s and it's still the case today. It will continue to be the case as long as the bicycle is around, even after the last car disappears from the road. Bicycles are designed for relatively wide lanes (not too wide so that lane control becomes a problem, not too narrow so that bicycle control becomes a problem) - this is something that transportation engineers consistently fail to understand, because they are often not well versed in the mechanical and physical properties of the bicycle, so they do not understand how bikes move on the road or why their operation requires more than a narrow strip of asphalt.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Cycling Safety and Bicycle Infrastructure

Why do cyclists think cycling is unsafe?

Often I see cyclists posting to blogs or writing articles, claiming that cycling on the road is unsafe. Yet the lifetime risk of a cyclist being killed on a bicycle is half that of a car driver's risk of being killed while in a car. Cyclists seem vulnerable, but we are not. If a cyclist is getting hit regularly, more than likely, he's doing something wrong, because an accident on the road is most often caused by a combination of mistakes by all parties involved. Often, cyclists who get hit are doing one of three things - cycling illegally (76% - riding against traffic, riding drunk, disobeying road signs, etc.), riding on the sidewalk (12%), or riding too close to the curb (8%). Fear of traffic puts cyclists at risk more than any other legal behavior, making up 83% of crashes where the cyclist was cycling legally. In cycling, visibility = safety, and if you ride in the gutter, you are less visible to other road users. Bike facilities (bike lanes, bike paths) don't make cyclists any more visible, so they cannot make cyclists any more safe. In fact, most studies suggest they make us LESS safe, especially at intersections.

Road ownership and safety

Yes, drivers think they own the road and many of them think cyclists don't belong. But that only places cyclists at risk if the cyclist also acts as if that is so. We ALL own the road. When we act like it - i.e. when we take control of the road when we have the right of way - everyone is safer. The rules of the road work very well to ensure safety - when people break those rules, the road becomes less safe. Often I hear people claim that cyclists should stay out of the way of cars, because "the rules of the road don't mean much when a 30lb vehicle collides with a 3,000lb vehicle". That's nonsense, because that collision won't happen if everyone is obeying the rules of 'right of way' - and contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of road users do obey those rules. 'Might makes right' has never been a valid philosophy on the road, and if it ever is, cyclists would not be the only ones who would need to avoid the road. In the real world, cars are equipped with brakes and steering wheels, and drivers want to avoid accidents just as much as cyclists do. The idea that cyclists should avoid the road is based on the notion that drivers are incompetent or psychotic - this is nonsense.

Will bicycle facilities save cycling?

While ever cyclists are riding in fear of traffic, no amount of cycling infrastructure is going to make them safe. Even in the most 'cyclist friendly' places, most cycling is done on roads, and there will never be a time when that's not so. So rather than place false hope in cycling facilities, it's far better for cyclists to educate themselves on the behaviors that are contributing to making their commute more dangerous than it should be. The only way to be truly safe on the road is to learn how to use it properly. Sadly many cyclists do not do this, and they often blame other road users for their own shortcomings. Bicycle infrastructure allows cyclists to ride unsafely in temporary safety. It does not make them safe - if anything, it ends up making them less safe, because bike facilities (even when they're done right, which isn't often) encourage cyclists to avoid learning how to ride safely, and because bike paths don't go everywhere and they never will.

Cycling smart

I am living proof that anyone can cycle safely without specialized bicycle infrastructure. I am not some kind of professional cyclist - I've never even participated in a race, I have never worn lycra, my bike probably weighs 50lbs, I am always the slowest cyclist in any group. Yet in 40 years and over 20,000 miles of cycling in 15 countries (all of it on the road with traffic and most of it in big cities), I've never been hit by another vehicle. That is not a coincidence, nor is it some sort of elitist boast - it's simply a byproduct of riding legally, carefully, visibly and confidently. In terms of cycling safety, bike infrastructure is no substitute for confidence and competence on the road. And ANYONE can ride safely on the road. It's not even difficult to learn - a couple of afternoons spent at the League of American Bicyclists' cost-free Smart Cycling course (or better yet, for those in - or near - Florida, Illinois, New England, Missouri or Texas, a 'Cycling Savvy' course) can teach anyone how to ride in safety.

Oh, and buy the T-shirt (shameless plug)

Yeah, that's my T-shirt design - you can buy it at Zazzle.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Future of Transportation - Republican-Style

Isn't that a lovely image! If Republicans get their way, this will be what America will look like.

This week, house Republicans have put forward the 'American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act' - their vision for transportation in this country. It is effectively a Pyatiletka - a five-year plan based on the communist 'Theory of Productive Forces' in which social change is brought about by alterations to the way transport is allowed to be done. No matter that the people want alternatives to gasoline-powered road transport - the new Soviet-style vision is for wider roads, bigger trucks, reduced efficiency of rail networks and, most importantly for cyclists like me, the further marginalizing of cycling in the USA.

It has been called the largest transportation reform legislation since the creation of the Interstate Highway System. By 'reform', of course they mean 'gutting anything that doesn't involve support for big oil'. Although the bill doesn't really threaten cyclists' rights to the road, it would certainly make cycling more difficult in this country.

Clearly, the oil, gasoline and automobile lobbies have put a lot of money into crafting this bill. Considering what's coming down the pike in terms of gasoline prices, it's not surprising. These industries want to reduce the scope for alternative transport methods so that they can keep people using more gasoline and stave off any threat to their businesses as long as possible.

The most egregious part of the bill is the gutting of 'safe routes to school'. Sure, the program is underfunded to the point of being useless anyway, but at least it exists - at least the USA 'appears' to be putting kids' safety uppermost. If this bill passes, it won't even do that.

On the positive side, this bill will prevent the trained monkeys who design bicycle infrastructure in this country from arseing up every bike facility they smear their feces on. I have yet to see a bike lane or path that is actually designed with bicycles in mind: they stripe door zone bike lanes that kill cyclists every year; they make 10 yard bike lanes (the infamous 'stupidest bike lane in America' right here in Silver Spring); they create 'protected' bike lanes that make cyclists less visible and more open to turning conflicts. It's fricken ridiculous. And here in MD, if a bike lane exists, however dangerous it is, we're forced by law to use it. If this bill passes, maybe it'll give us time to modify the law so that we're not forced to use the shoddy, crumbling and dangerous infrastructure that does exist.

We'll see if this bill passes. If recent history is anything to go by, Obama's and the Democrats' willingness to cave to the slightest Republican pressure means that anything is possible. By 2017, maybe our bicycles will be a relic of a bygone age and there will be institutional bike-burning rallies, where bikes are brought to the city square and set afire in an orgiastic nipple-tweaking celebration, after which anyone found owning a bike will be jailed. Hail Stalin! Sorry, I mean Hail Boehner!