I was just in Mountain View for most of a week on business, biking to and from work and to work dinners in the evening. The roads are much smoother than here near Boston, the weather was warmer, it did rain once, but wimpily, and it’s flat as a board in Silicon Valley. Biking there ought to be great.
Links go to short YouTube videos illustrating claims/points
However, they blow it. If you need to cover any particular distance, it’s easy to find yourself with no choice but a four-lane road with a door zone bike lane that waxes and wanes with the whim of whoever laid out the road, and parking is prioritized enough that you often find yourself squeezed towards traffic.
One shared use path is designed with the apparent assumption that bicycles are OMFG deadly dangerous to pedestrians, so it’s considered appropriate to encourage lower speeds by installing barriers that make high speeds deadly, and that also makes larger bikes (bakfiets, trailers) difficult to pass through, and that guarantee conflicts whenever people are traveling in opposite directions or if there’s a pedestrian and a bike traveling in the same direction. Imagine, for cars, that a crosswalk was made safe not just by installing a narrowing bumpout in each lane, but by narrowing the road to a single lane for both directions.
Note that this is on a straight path where everything is completely visible, so all that’s really needed in most cases is a “slow for pedestrians” sign. Not all people will go as slow as they should, but not all people will negotiate those gates without injury or conflict, either. Later on, a blind intersection with plenty of cross traffic on the Google Campus goes completely unremarked, and several curves past that are gratuitously blind, either because of untrimmed vegetation, or because bicycles were routed between two chain link fences, and for no particular reason one side (the one that matters) is intentionally made opaque by slatting installed in the fence so that it’s impossible to see oncoming bicycle or pedestrian traffic on the fence-narrowed path.
Incomprehensibly, an underpass with over 7 feet of clearance (I reached a hand up to measure as I passed under, so that’s an estimate – apparently they couldn’t be tasked with actual measurement, but I ride quite tall and cleared easily) was declared to be dangerously low, and thus we’re told to walk our bikes there, as if.
Actual road crossings are designed with zero thought to the convenience of cyclists. At one there’s a gate to force a U-turn to enter it, then a beg button that imposes an interminable wait despite large gaps in motor traffic (I didn’t wait). A cyclist obeying traffic laws to the letter could not ride back that same way – the returning lane slips onto San Antonio, and returning on the sidewalk instead one is greeted with a WRONG WAY sign specific to bicycles (and the sidewalk is clearly intended for bicycles, else the sign would read “no bike riding”). It’s not much wonder that I just wing it.
At another crossing on the Permanente Creek trail, cyclists are vaguely directed to enter traffic and then make a u-turn at the light, as if that is preferable to looking for a gap (which we’d need to look for anyway, to enter traffic to make that u-turn) and just crossing on foot. There’s a sidewalk, but it’s twisty and too narrow for two-way traffic. Crossing on foot is necessary because there’s a big-ass curb in the middle of the road. The same can be seen on parts of Middlefield, where children crossing to/from school have worn goat paths in the median strip, far from any crosswalk. (Video is not great; there were kids, they were waiting to cross, and the median is cut by little footpaths.)
At a larger level, multilane Alma/Central and the RR tracks make a nasty barrier to traveling (peninsula-compass) east-west in Mountain View. Crossings are not well signed, Google Maps doesn’t seem to know about them, the entry is tight, the mirrors at the bottom make it clear the bicycles are known/expected to be there, but the ramps are quite narrow, guaranteeing conflict if there’s 2-way traffic or pedestrians.
This is all doubly annoying because it could be so nice. Remember, flat topography and a mild climate. If there were good, comfortable, safe routes that led anywhere interesting, lots of people could and almost certainly would use them. But right now, Mountain View is failing both in the small (annoying and insulting inattention to details of intersections and safety) and in the large (arteries are for cars – wide, fast, and with varying-width door-zone bike lanes, sometimes very fast).
And yeah, I know, “reasons”. Y’all ought to look at yourselves, a 10-lane highway jammed up every morning, even with thousands of employees delivered by buses instead of single-occupancy vehicles. I rode a bike to dinner after work and beat the people driving. Here’s two free clues as to why Mountain View ought to install a ton of really nice bicycle infrastructure. #1, no matter what you do about traffic, more cars will always arrive to fill the voids that you create, and with high tech salaries I’m not sure even congestion charges would do the job. #2, if you install really nice bicycle infrastructure, if you need to get around your own town, you won’t care about that traffic, and because the land is so flat and the climate so mild, that’ll be true all year. You might want to knock out a few parking spaces and replace them with bike corrals to make this really be true, but I managed to find bicycle parking a lot closer to the restaurant than anyone driving there.
February 27, 2016
I both drive cars and ride bikes, and for years I didn’t think much about how much driving a car impairs all your senses, as well as your ability to communicate. To hear how other people talk about traffic and safety, I think I’m not the only person to miss this.
Where this usually comes up is in discussions of rolling stops, and stop-then-go at red lights. The claim from cyclists (and this claim is absolutely true, which is why I’m writing this) is that they generally can see and hear better than people in cars, and thus are in a better position to judge if it is safe to go or not. This is one of the several justifications for the Idaho Stop Law.
So, vision. Someone riding a bike is as tall as they are standing up, if not taller. To stop, most people must hop off the saddle because they sit too high to reach the ground with their feet. Modern sedans tend to be about 4-and-a-half-feet tall (I just measured a Civic and a Camry), so whoever is sitting in them is shorter than that. On a bicycle, seated, your head is about 3 feet back from the front edge of the bicycle, but it’s easy to lean forward to within about a foot of the front. In a car, leaning forward gets you to the windshield, which is five feet back from the front of the car. Add to that whatever fog or dirt happens to be on the windshield and the windows, plus the various pillars and mirrors and fuzzy dice, and I hope it’s clear that the cyclist has a far better view of what’s around.
Next, hearing. Luxury cars are actually marketed for their ability to make you deaf to the world. That ought to be enough right there, but I’ve actually mentioned this to a degreed+prestigious colleague whose snap reaction was “no, I can hear okay in a car”. No, really, you can’t. Even without luxury soundproofing, cars have noisy engines, ventilation fans, tire noise, often a stereo, and quite often their windows are up. All these things act to block exterior sound. On a bicycle, the default is that you hear everything. There’s wind noise when you’re moving, but stopped at an intersection there’s nothing between you and the world and the bike is silent.
And you might like to think that maybe hearing doesn’t matter–after all, we let people who are deaf drive and ride bikes–but it certainly does. When I approach intersections, I can hear cross traffic coming before I can see it; that’s redundant safety information, which is a good thing. I can hear cars approaching from behind, and tell if they’re slowing or swinging out into traffic to pass, and I can judge the size of the car or truck as well (big trucks without sideguards are very dangerous). For pedestrian safety being able to hear matters, because I can carry on a conversation with the people around me. “I see you”, “go ahead, it’s a crosswalk, I’m stopping”, and of course “oops, sorry”. I can communicate with other cyclists, “there’s a blind woman walking ahead of you” (in the dark). All the sound signals that we’re supposed to legally make when approaching pedestrians are useless when approaching cars because drivers are effectively deaf. All the communication that’s easy with people around us is impossible with people in cars.
People on bikes also see more because of their ability to always position themselves near an intersection before stopping. That means we always get to see the light cycles and light timings, and even if we haven’t learned them all yet ourselves, we can see how other cyclists react to them. We don’t need to catch sight of landmarks as we drive through the intersection, because we always have plenty of time to look around at the front. Once you know the usual timing for a light (easily derived from countdown pedestrian timers on the street and cross street – which you can see because you are stopped at the intersection) you can also judge from quite a distance the appropriate speed to make the next light, which allows you to moderate your speed to only what is adequate to catch the green. Lower speeds make for easier pedalling, and are also safer.
I had meant to make a much longer rant about “windshield vision”, but I think this is good enough for a start. You might ask yourself, if you could drive and fool yourself into thinking that you weren’t half-blind and mostly-deaf, and not realize what you were missing stuck back in a line of traffic, if you might not be self-fooled about some other things. If your reaction to the facts stated here is that they’re the crazy opinions of one of “those cyclists” – don’t forget, I am a licensed driver, I drive often enough, I own a car, and this is true of most adults riding bicycles (knowing this stuff makes driving a lot less fun. Don’t expect any auto advertising to mention this ever).
Bonus sensory deprivation video, in case you still don’t believe me: watch the second driver in this video roll right over a bicycle and a bicyclist’s foot, and not be able to believe she did it. Said bicyclist has right of way, in clear daylight, riding straight on a straight road, wearing a dayglo-yellow jacket, with a front flashing light. The second driver did not see, did not hear the crash, did not hear the crunch of the bike as she drove over it, did not hear the guy she was running over yelling at her.
It occurred to me a few days after posting this that “people on bikes behave unpredictably” is consistent with “people on bikes make decisions based on information I don’t have”. Probably not the only explanation, but worth thinking about before jumping to pejorative conclusions.
February 21, 2016
Most times you see discussions on the internet of global warming, traffic congestion, and road safety, the advocates of the status quo are quick to claim that “we cannot ban cars, because [reasons]”. I’ve got no respect for this style of arguing the point because #1, even pseudo-serious calls to actually “ban all cars” are quite rare ( this recent article is the strongest statement I’ve seen, and that’s just one writer at Gizmodo ), #2 the reasons all assume that we’d do nothing to adapt and when possible remedies are proposed, new reasons are concocted (we can play this game all day), and #3, there’s real live reasons to reduce car use by quite a lot, and those cheerfully get ignored.
Just to motivate this, here are some very good reasons to drive a whole lot less. It’s also helpful to keep this in mind when considering alternatives; if they’ve got the same problems, then maybe they’re not good alternatives.
- Cars kill thousands of people in crashes, including over 4000 pedestrians per year.
- Cars kill their drivers through lack of exercise, enough to raise their annual mortality risk by about 25-30%
(summed over the population of car commuters, this is probably more early death than results from cigarette smoking ). As long as exercise is its own separate activity, you’re unlikely to get enough of it.
- Ignoring the less-death part of the equation, the regular exercise that you get from not-driving to work and results in just plain better health; you get more wind, more stamina, more flexible joints. It tends to help you keep weight off, tends to help blood pressure, tends to help blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, tends to ward off type 2 diabetes. None of this is guaranteed for any one person, but it’s a really good bet.
- Cars are a source of both particulate and noise pollution, which both contribute to poor health. Noise pollution from cars makes public spaces more annoying and less useful; you can’t hear as well.
- Cars use roads very inefficiently. In urban areas the resulting congestion is so serious that one additional car added to Manhattan traffic is calculated to have an aggregate cost of $160 through delays to others on the roads.
- Cars are a major source of CO2 emissions which contribute to global warming and climate change.
- Paying for fuel for cars puts money into the pockets of nations and groups that do not share our values. Al Qaeda was mostly funded from oil money. Daesh is funded from oil money. Iraq would have been a non-issue without oil money (murderous dictators of poor nations don’t get much attention from us). Iran, officially an enemy of the US and ally of our enemy in Syria, runs on oil money.
- From an economic-theory point-of-view, cars are a poster child for market failure. Their use is not independent of other people’s choices; if I want to take the bus, traffic from cars makes my bus ride slower and more expensive. If I want to ride my bike, cars can make the ride so much more unpleasant that many people won’t ride a bike. Even if I want to compromise and just drive a smaller car, the mass of larger cars makes me less safe in any collision; even for cars, it is a safety arms race. These externalities (pollution, noise, risk) are not accounted for in gas taxes. Even the direct costs of driving itself–repair and expansion of the roads–is not fully paid by the gas tax. The one reason that economic theory says ought to motivate people not to drive–that driving is very bad for your health–falls victim to human over-optimism about their good intentions and future luck; we won’t invest rationally in our (near-) future health, because we think we’re “healthy” and don’t need to do more. All this means that you can’t use hand-waving appeals to popularity and market outcomes to prove that profligate driving is what happens in the best of all possible worlds.
Given this motivation, let’s suppose we did ban cars. The question I’d like to see thought about and answered is not “why is this impossible?” but rather “what changes do we need to get by in a hypothetical car-less future? What changes would a lack of cars allow us to make?” My hope is that we would make some of those changes now, so that more of us won’t feel like driving a car is our only option. If the assumption is “cars are banned”, that removes the option of not thinking about a problem by assuming “well of course, for that we would use a car”.
One problem with using the thought experiment for this purpose is that there’s a difference between cars-banned and cars-reduced. If we actually banned cars, we wouldn’t need “bike lanes” because we’ve already got bike lanes. They’re called “roads”, but right now they’re full of cars. But if there’s still many cars on the road, we don’t get those “bike lanes” for free.. So keep that caveat in mind; if we’re planning to use tools from the hypothetical world in the real world, because some might not survive translation.
Another problem is: “what about the car-like things?” This might mean delivery trucks, golf carts, buses, trikes. What about self-driving cars? What about really big “bicycles”? Are those cars? Do we ban them too? I think what makes sense is to look at the costs of each and how they interact with what’s around them. Anything heavy tends to impose unusual wear-and-tear on the roads; this includes city buses. Anything human-guided has the potential for inept or careless use, so there should be some combination of small size, low speed, and/or safeguards to mitigate that risk. Inefficient transportation will produce excess CO2 until our energy supply is properly carbon-free. Even if a motorized robot-guided chair is carbon-free, safe for others, and kind to roads, it is still a motorized chair and will have the same detrimental health effects for its passenger.
So, to consider some of the problems:
There are people who cannot ride a walk long distances or ride a bike.
Anything that assumes bike riding or increased use of transit by default assumes some basic fitness, and some people lack that. How should they get around? In practice I think quite a few of them would use mobility scooters of some sort; modern electric wheelchairs travel as fast as 5mph (according to a wheelchair user I asked) but if they could be made stable we’d want more than that. I think they could be made stable. A larger, faster real-world example is a golf cart, though this is cheating slightly on the “ban cars” assumption. For people who lose their balance a tricycle sometimes works.
There are people with very long commutes.
Back before cars were so popular we tended to use a lot more rail; people would take the train in to urban areas to work. Would we restore our train networks? If the rail line doesn’t pass close by home and work, how are those endpoints connected? My default answer is “bicycles”. Another answer is to modify the zoning regulations that prevent people from living close to transit and work; artificially restricting that supply drives up prices and forces longer commutes. I expect this is one of the harder changes to make because it involves change near where people live; allowing greater density near transit would financially benefit anyone owning that property, and it would also provide an advantage to those somewhat near transit who wanted to use it (higher density allows transit to function efficiently allows better service). However, widespread density increases closer to urban centers might have the effect of reducing property values sufficiently far out as a simple consequence of increased near-urban supply reducing far-suburban demand.
For an all-bicycle commute, from personal experience I’d say 6-7 urban miles is fine, but 10 miles is pushing it, though that depends on conditions. The median commute is nearly 9 miles, which means that half might be done on bikes, but half also almost certainly will not. It’s possible to make biking somewhat faster — current bike routes often contain many gratuitous stops or are far from direct, and bikes with aerodynamic fairing or modest electric assist can cruise at 20mph (a human doing this without “cheating” is likely to get very sweaty) which reduces the time for a 10-mile ride to 30 minutes, which is about what my 6-mile commute-with-stops-and-old-legs takes.
Sometimes it rains, sometimes it snows, sometimes it’s hot. As a general rule the only truly difficult weather is hot weather; we can add rain coats, umbrellas, gloves, boots, and hats for the wet and cold. Some cities have building codes that allow for pedestrian awnings, and those help with sun, snow, and rain. We’d probably do more of that in a car-less world. One useful thing about banning cars is that you no longer need to deal with your car and the weather; no need for car washes, no need for digging cars out of the snow. A pedestrian or a bicycle can fit down a narrow lane, or if in a hurry, can simply push through/over a snow pile rather than shovel out a wide path.
It turns out bikes work pretty well for hauling tiny kids, and once they’re too large to haul, they can ride their own bikes. With cars banned it’s vastly safer for little kids to ride bikes (turns out a ban isn’t even necessary if you design your infrastructure right).
Not much need to adapt here. People who walk already use folding carts. My old retired now-deceased neighbor just carried his bags. People riding bicycles have many options, everything from backpacks to huge messenger bags to front racks to baskets and panniers mounted on racks. Even on a “normal” bike proper equipment allows six bags of groceries (2 front panniers, 2 rear panniers, 2 in basket). Actual intended-for-cargo bikes carry more.
There are heavy things that require heavy machinery to deliver.
True, but this is far from the common case. Delivery vans nowadays are large to amortize the cost of the driver who guides them, and then they drive as fast as allowed to also amortize the cost of that driver. The van is large, but the delivery generally is not. Consider the potential capabilities of self-driving delivery vehicles that need not to be large and fast. We can estimate this somewhat by looking at what humans on bicycles and tricycles are able to deliver. The point is not “this is what humans should be doing” or “look at those crazy people”, but rather, with a small vehicle and a small motor, it is possible to deliver this much stuff if you aren’t in a terrific hurry. Examples: Haley Trike and 400 lbs of sand (video); a chicken coop; a trailer full of Citibikes; a ludicrously large pile of stuff; a mattress, table, chair, and box. Robots could deliver loads of this size, and if it becomes economical for self-driving cars to ferry people around, then it will also be economical for self-driving carts to ferry cargo around in smaller batches.
Well of course, for that we would use a car. With all the other cars and trucks banned, they should be able to move really quickly through the traffic that’s not there. (Bikes don’t take up much space and you can haul them completely off the road if you need to clear a path for an ambulance.)
There is already (one) cable-lift assist for bicycles. E-assist also helps, if a hill must be crossed regularly. For one-shot annoying hills, walking works.
No good answers here yet. Horses? Even electric vehicles are dicey, for sufficiently cold and remote values of rural.
December 12, 2015
I’m a little reluctant to post this because it’s got a bit of a gloating feel to it (“look at my massive calves and thighs!”) but people should understand that if they don’t have the opportunity to bike to work, they’re missing out and they’re being cheated. That means they have to know the sort of thing that they’re missing.
This doesn’t necessarily work for everyone, but it’s clear that most people are suspicious of doing things because it’s supposed to be good for the planet. Instead, I’d like to suggest reasons for biking to work because it might be good for you. I’ll try to be concrete.
I am 55. I weigh between 220 and 225lbs, and I’m 6 feet tall. That makes me officially quite overweight. I hate dieting and so I don’t really do much more than try to keep sweets out of reach. Beer is a regular part of my diet, and food is free at my new job. I weighed more before I started biking to work 9 years ago, but in the last year I started biking even more.
My commute to work, since March, is 6.1 miles by the fast, direct, and less-fun route, and I reliably do that in 30 minutes on a bike without running red lights. At rush hour biking is faster than driving. If I am in a hurry I can do it in 26 minutes, though I may end up sweaty (all I need to go faster is to breathe more; the legs just go as fast as oxygen debt allows). Traffic jams are not a problem; I ride through the gaps and go almost as fast. Parking is not usually a problem (we do almost fill the bike cage at work, but less so now that the weather is cooler, and there is other parking). If I instead take the less-annoying route, biking takes about as long as driving, but not longer. Oh yeah, my bike weighs about 65lbs.
Since March, I have gained over a centimeter in circumference in my thighs, a centimeter in my calves, and I’m regularly pulling my belt a notch tighter. Even before the new commute when I was biking somewhat less per week, I still had enough wind and stamina to shovel snow like a machine; I expect it’s rather better now because the new commute includes more sprints that punch my heart rate up a bit.
So. Would you like a faster commute to work, no parking hassles (and it’s FREE), a little weight loss, a slightly smaller waist, more muscles, and enough wind to shovel snow without fear of heart attack? If your commute is like mine, perhaps you should ride a bike. If your commute is about as long as mine but too unpleasant for you to tolerate, have you considered pestering your local government for some combination of better enforcement of traffic rules (if it’s speeding cars that make it unpleasant) or a reasonably sized lane in which to ride your bike (or perish the thought, a segregated path or lane)? Failure to provide you an adequate place to commute by bicycle is depriving you of a faster commute and measurable improvements in your health and fitness.
And do understand, if you want this and your roads don’t allow it, you should be angry. If I had to give up biking to work I’d be very unhappy. Statistics say this would increase my annual risk of death by about 30%. Do you think it is reasonable to live with that kind of extra risk? Do you have any idea how much larger that risk is than all the risks that usually get people all wound up and excited? That’s not an acceptable status quo.
One warning; if you’re out of shape, your first commutes will not be as fast or as fun. It’ll take about a month and a half to get over that, and then there will be gradual improvement for a few years — not necessarily faster, but one day you may find yourself regarding hills as merely annoying, instead of as an obstacle to go around. Eventually you’ll learn to run up an oxygen debt charging up hills and then rest on the downhill, because that is fastest, and because one day, you can.
Anyone who takes this seriously, if you’re looking for a bike, you could do a lot worse than a 3-speed with fenders, chain guard, dynamo hub, and fat tires. The fatter the tires, the better; you’ll be more comfortable, at less risk from potholes and road cracks, and you’ll spend less time pumping up your tires because they’ll hold their air longer. If you’re gung-ho, get a cargo bike, either an EdgeRunner , Yuba, Big Dummy, or a Gr8, or maybe a Kr8 or one of the several other US–produced cargo bikes.
November 2, 2014
Once upon a time when bike share was proposed for cities like New York and Boston, there was much hand-wringing and pearl-clutching about all those inexperienced cyclists riding around without helmets (except for Hitler; Hitler knew that mandatory helmets for bike share would kill bike share). Boston even went so far as to install helmet vending machines to deal with bike share’s “big safety problem”.
But earlier this year, someone totaled up all the bike share rides in this country (and they can count them for real, because each ride comes with rental data), and in 23 million rides, there was not a single fatality.
So do we still think that bike share needs helmets? Then surely, any other activity with a higher fatality rate and a high rate of head injuries also needs helmets. Let’s see, driving, a fatality rate of 1 in 10.9 million trips, and severe head injuries involved in 41% of fatalities. In 23 million car trips, we’d expect over two fatalities, and a 65% chance that at least one of those fatalities involved a severe head injury.
So are we rational about risk, or not? (And this is not even total risk, this is just risk of violent death, as opposed to death by nonviolent cancer, heart attack, and stroke.) Why would we promote helmet use for bike share, but not for drivers in general, when the measured risk of fatal head injury is definitely higher for drivers?
October 10, 2014
Add 100 more spaces of bicycle parking at the Alewife MBTA station, and what happens? 100 more bikes show up. And they’re not just abandoned — bikes get tagged and then removed after 14 days.
April 9, 2014
Discussions about replacing car trips with bicycle trips often focus on commutes, and whether those are too long or too unpleasant/unsafe. However, it turns out that commuting trips are only about a quarter of all trips, and also disproportionately not-short, so this makes cycling look less practical than it actually can be. Here are bar charts, taken from data from ORNL about vehicle use in 2009, where the heights of the charts were chosen to (1) be roughly in proportion and (2) split evenly into four parts on the cumulative-amount scale. Each pair of bars shows the number of trips of a particular length in miles (blueish bar), together with the sum of all trips that long or shorter (reddish bar). The first chart, with height to scale, shows how this is distributed for commuting vehicle trips only, the second chart shows how this is distributed for all vehicle trips.
Thus, it’s easy to see that half of all vehicle trips are five miles or less long, versus commuting, where the median trip distance appears to be closer to 8 miles (extrapolating on the 5-9 scale). Note also that there are more “all trips” that are three or fewer miles long and not commutes (76.5 billion total, comprising 11.4 billion commuting trips and 64.1 non-commuting trips) than all commuting trips combined (60.8 billion).
Short trips, however, don’t amount to that many road miles. Putting people on bikes may make cities quieter, cleaner, and safer, and their riders healthier, but it won’t put that big a dent in fuel use.
The charts were produced in Numbers, exported as PDF (which is a vector PDF), then imported into OmniGraffle (Pro), with the irrelevant bits of the PDF quickly pruned out as objects. The four charts were then exported as SVG (which is what the “Pro” gets you).