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I replied to someone on Twitter with an offhand remark doubting the goodness of the bicycles-as-vehicles principle, I thought I should explain it, because it’s not really simple.

I think we make two principal mistakes, cycling-as-sport, and the emphasis on bicycles-are-vehicles in the context of “vehicular” rules that are actually more automobile-centric than general.

Cycling-as-sport results in impractical bicycles.  A practical bicycle looks much like an English 3-speed, or even more so; wide tires, upright posture, a relatively comfortable saddle, and some provision for carrying stuff.  Also, fenders to keep off the rain, a chain guard to keep your clothes clean, and perhaps a built-in light.  Modern materials make an even fatter tire possible and also make the lights more effective.

In contrast, cycling-as-sport leads to bicycles variously specialized for high speeds on tracks, high speeds in road races, good handling and traction on actual mountain sides, and sometimes, good skills for tricks and stunts.  None of these bikes will keep your clothes clean, none has a fender, and they tend to lack mounting points for racks.  Racing bikes tend to position the rider in a bent-over aerodynamic posture, which is good for speed, but less good for visibility, less good in crashes (head down and forward is not good).  Mountain bikes by default are equipped with knobby tires for traction in mud, which are merely noisy and draggy on paved roads, and with wide handlebars for improved steering leverage on rough downhill terrain, which in urban traffic are a hazard in narrow spaces.  The skinny tires on road and track bikes aren’t noisy and draggy, but they are easily caught in road imperfections, vulnerable to road imperfections, and prevent you from easily riding anywhere except on well-paved roads.  You’ll also have to reinflate those skinny tires much more often.

What this means is that if some well-meaning person hears that they should bike to work, they trot down to their bike shop, and are presented with a wall (or two) of mountain bikes and a wall (or two) of road bikes and triathlon bikes, and perhaps a few “ohyeahtheseareourcitybikes” bikes off to the side.  There’s a good chance they’ll be sold a bike that they’re not comfortable on, and that doesn’t enable them to carry the stuff that they need to carry.  

And likely they’ll see, wonder about, and perhaps be sold, some of the bicycle-specific gloves, and socks, and shoes, and pants, and jackets.  This is mostly a waste of money, and in daily use, more steps added to the bicycle ride that aren’t really necessary.  And in the end, for them, bicycle commuting turns out to be impractical, why did I take the advice of those Dirty F*cking Hippies on the internet?

The sort of bikes we ought to be selling are much more common in Northern Europe; I saw a lot of them in Sweden and Denmark.  The cargo bike that I ride is sort of an extreme version of such a bike; lots of ability to carry things, no expectation that I would carry things in a backpack (my back sometimes does not like backpacks), nice fat tires, fenders, built-in lights, and a chain guard.  Basically I just get on and go, and the bike carries my stuff, and I sit super upright and see everything around me.

The vehicular cycling mistake is harder to describe, because for now, given the roads that we’ve got, vehicular cycling is partly right; roads are public ways, bicycles are a legitimate means of travel, and anyone riding a bike has the right to use those roads.  Vehicular cycling is also right when it points out the need to think about what drivers might be expecting; if you come from an unexpected direction, don’t be too surprised if drivers aren’t looking for you.

But, unfortunately, it fails when its proponents mistake a method that works for some people (including me) for a method that works for everyone. If, for some reason, you don’t feel comfortable riding in traffic, it’s not that vehicular cycling has failed you, instead you have failed vehicular cycling.  Unsurprisingly, this did nothing for improving cycling’s ride share when vehicular cycling was the only game in town, and in practice, the safety that it actually delivered (if/when taught to, and usually rejected by, most actual cyclists on the road) was unimpressive compared to safety improvements in other countries.

Vehicular cycling is also mistaken because the existing vehicular laws were first designed for cars, which means that they’re not necessarily the best fit for bicycles, and the safety margins and safety rules in those laws are often overkill for bicycles.. The need to hammer home “bicycles are vehicles” means that these differences are ignored, because it might undercut the message.  Changes to the laws “for bicycles”, whether Idaho Stop, Copenhagen Left, or bicycles-only counterflow lanes on one-way streets encounter initial default skepticism because “wait, bicycles are vehicles, now you are making special rules?” — there is an assumption that we need the “simple” bicycles-are-vehicles treatment because exceptions are bad and confusing.  And also because bicycles-are-vehicles, rule-following by bicyclists is claimed to be of paramount importance because after all those rules are for safety, and we created those rules so vehicles (ahem, “cars”) would be safe and not run into things and each other.  This is a problem, because in fact, for others on the road if not for themselves, bicycles are far safer than cars, and cyclists can see and hear what’s around them far better than drivers can, and even when they do crash into people or property, do so with orders of magnitude less energy and destructiveness.  But because we’ve made the rules our focus, safety discussions often get derailed into arguments about who follows what rules, and lose track of silly things like how to minimize deaths and serious injuries.

Vehicular cycling also fails because the laws, designed for cars, are in some sense designed more as a framework for blame than as a safety maximizer.  In countries with lower pedestrian fatality rates, “jaywalking” is not a law.  We use that law in the US to provide an excuse for crashing into pedestrians with cars, if we really cared about safety, we would use different laws (because countries that do better use different laws, and we could just copy from them.  There’s no need for research or innovation).  When cyclists, thinking of themselves as vehicles, internalize these same laws, their tendency is to be rude to pedestrians even when there is no need whatsoever and there’s no actual safety issue. “Rude” can mean gratuitous bell-ringing, yelling, or close passes, and it’s completely unnecessary.  It takes only a little forethought to not run into a pedestrian; they are visible, slow moving, we can even communicate with them in real time if we need to coordinate our motions (I do this all the time, it’s easy).  If we accept that rule #1 is to not run into pedestrians, that changes how we bike, and we quit expecting that “jaywalking” pedestrians ought to get out of “our way” (which is a ridiculous concept for a bicycle, we’re stupidly maneuverable).

Furthermore, even if you dispute the extent that our laws are a blame-framework, they are designed around the abilities and limitations of automobiles; someone on a bicycle has several safety options that drivers do not, but these options go unmentioned in the laws because the laws were designed for cars.

It’s important to remember that we’re not infinitely capable, and we’re best at what we practice.  If our default reaction to someone breaking the rules is to follow the framework of vehicular laws, on a bicycle that means it’s not the safest reaction, and in the rare case that time is tight and the default reaction matters, we’ll do the wrong thing.  So instead of thinking about jaywalking, and how it is our job to shame the law-breaking pedestrian (or to shame the wrong-way skateboarder, etc, etc), we should think about what is safest, and what our safety practices should be, and always do those.  Usually, this is some combination of modifying our path so that it passes behind the pedestrian, and so that there is so much clearance that there’s no need to alert them.  It means, if there are several dogs or small children around, that we should slow down, because we cannot possibly keep track of three or more randomly moving objects, and it would be a disaster to hit a child.  It means, in practice, to never ride between a dog and its owner, because (1) it’s common for dogs to turn back towards their owner and (2) invisible leashes are a thing.  In all these cases we can invent rules that other people should be following, or we can directly act to reduce risk.  Vehicular cycling’s emphasis on car-oriented rules leads us towards blame first, risk-reduction second, and when it really matters, that means we don’t do the best possible job of risk reduction.

I could say more, but this is probably enough. There are issues with vehicular cycling’s lack of safety-in-numbers, and with their blind spots regarding speed, and really anything that isn’t “biking like a car”, but, later.

Notes on visiting Copenhagen

December 23, 2018

I got a reduced-cost trip to Stockholm, Copenhagen, and London, thanks to my wife and her work/book-publicity tour.  The longest stop was in Copenhagen, about a week.  I only biked one day, because we were staying a nice 10-minute walk from my employer’s Copenhagen office, and because the bicycle rental that I could find (DonkeyBike) seemed to have a 24-hour rate, not a single-trip rate; i.e., not worth it for a simple to/from work, plus the walk was a shorter distance (bicycles discouraged on pedestrian mall) and quite nice.

But one day I had to do laundry, and the nearest place (The Laundromat Cafe, very nice) was a bit far to walk carrying a bag of laundry.  And I had to bike at least once, so I rented a DonkeyBike.

All the other people on bikes were very skilled, more so I think that the norm among Boston-area commuters.  They rode quite close to each other and quite close to the curb (something I was aware of riding a new-to-me rental bike with a load of laundry on the front end).  By US standards I think I am pretty skilled, and most people in Copenhagen seemed at least as skilled as me.

Donkey Bike rental was pretty good.  It’s dockless-but-has-geofenced drop-off, and the rental is per-day, rather than per-trip.  It may be that doing a timed rental helps them avoid the problem of your (intermediate) destination(s) not being within a geofenced; while you’re renting, it’s “your bike” (you can even add theft insurance to the rental, I did, not wanting to deal with complications and not knowing the local theft rates).  I didn’t see any signs of rebalancing the whole week that we were there, and my walk to work and to the subway station took me past several drop-off zones.

In Copenhagen, they have a sort of two-cycle left turn where you ride straight across to the corner, wait (and turn 90 degrees) and then continue on your way.  There’s a built-in next-cycle delay, except that if the ordinary cycle is straight-then-left, then you have no actual delay.  This works, we might want to do that here, though it does interfere with cross traffic doing right-turn-on-reds, but those are not such a good idea anyhow for cars.  Locally, there’s a similar intersection in Arlington at the intersection of Mass Ave and Pleasant Street, except there I think the left-turn is leading (not sure now, it used to work that way before the redesign) which gives a people on bikes a chance to game the lights, not sure that is the best plan but that’s no surprise here.

There’s huge volumes of bicycles; it helps to count how many go buy in N seconds, and then realize that in a lane of cars, one every two seconds is best base.  Parked, the numbers are scarcely believable; they’re everywhere (before you get all fired up about bicycle clutter, they take far less space than is devoted to cars here in the US, and even in Copenhagen, probably still less space than cars.  We’re used to cars, we don’t even notice the space they take.)  People ride in terrible weather, too, like 40F and raining (speaking from experience, that is much worse than 20F and clear; sooner or later, water gets into things).

Two donkey bikes, in their natural habitat, one with rack, the other without:

IMG 20181205 092505

A Dane, on a bike, in the cold rain, with a cello(?) on his back (through a Cafe window):IMG 20181202 140202

A little bike parking and a no-cars gate:

IMG 20181130 173059

Bike routes vs where I ride

November 28, 2018

I spoke at a recent meeting of our town’s selectmen about a proposed bike path, and mentioned how planners often have a blind spot about what people on bikes actually want. And to be clear, this is not “what they should settle for” or “what they deserve” or “their fair share” — this is what they want, or at least what I appear to want — and if I don’t get what I want, then I’ll ride somewhere else, or not ride.

These examples are routes that I ride from time to time where I have a choice, and what I chose, and why I made that choice.

The first example compares two routes across the edge of Harvard Square, one using alleged bike routes on Garden, Cambridge, and Broadway, versus the one I take, that uses a stub of Concord Ave, cuts across Cambridge Common, then in front of the Littauer Center, across the Science Plaza, then onto Broadway. The route I take has no cars, but does have plenty of people, sometimes children, and at times I have had to ride for a minute or two at a walking pace (I have video) or do a sharp stop for a child (I have video). If I had to spend two minutes at a walking pace every day I might find another route, but that is not usual.

Why do I prefer this often-slower route? (I’ve measured, it is, by maybe 30 seconds, i.e., the delay of not quite making a green light in Cambridge).

The other route has two problematic sections. On one section, marked in yellow, the lanes are extremely narrow and there is also a line of parked cars. It is not very comfortable, and it seems like I might eventually have some small collision there; not a bad one because everything is slow, but something to avoid. It’s 100% uncomfortable for a new rider, they don’t know what to do (do they squeeze through the tiny gap? Do they just sit in the middle of a lane in a line with the cars, or wait at the edge of a lane?)

In the next section, marked in red, bikes and cars go into an underpass together. In theory the bikes have their own lane, but in practice cars frequently swerve into that lane (video), sometimes when it also has bikes in it. The grooved pavement makes it very noisy, too. Sometimes cars are changing lanes there or swerving around stopped traffic, and that is also unsettling and probably dangerous. If Cambridge were willing to reinforce the painted lane separator with Jersey barriers I’d be more interested in taking it, but for some reason that doesn’t happen (I think that drivers and I both fear that they might drive into the bike lane, and have different feelings about the function of Jersey barriers should that happen — i.e., not only does it feel dangerous, but the use of mere paint in such a scary place makes it clear where bicyclists fit in the safety hierarchy).

The return route is marked in orange, it has the same problems as the red.

In Belmont, there’s a marked bike path on Blanchard that gives the impression that this would be a good place to ride a bike. However, I prefer a different route if I am riding past Concord, especially if my destination is the bike path to Alewife or the businesses near the intersection of Blanchard/Brighton and Hittinger Street. (The arrow marks drawn on the road indicate a grade).

Blanchard is somewhat narrow, yet drivers get the impression that they can move relatively quickly on it. The curbs are sharp-edged granite, which could cause serious injuries in a crash. It feels unwelcoming and unsafe. Bright Road, in contrast, is wide, and traffic is a little slower. It does include a small hill (Blanchard dips, and then rises, so about the same). Across Concord, Blanchard continues to be narrow and trafficky, where Baker is residential and has slower and less traffic. Continuing across Concord, it’s also instructive to notice how drivers cut the chicane so close that the have scrubbed all the paint off the edge of the road. Is that a safe place to ride a bicycle? So I prefer to ride elsewhere.

To ride from Belmont Center to Arlington Heights, the fastest way (saving a few minutes) goes up Belmont Hill and then up Park Avenue into Arlington. This is a steep climb that not too many people do. One sometimes-recommended route is to go up Clifton, to Prospect, to Park. Most of the car traffic, however, also goes up Prospect, and it is narrow and also has sharp-edged granite curbs. A slightly longer route is to continue on Clifton and then up Rutledge. This has several advantages. First, the climb up Belmont Hill is hard, but the section of Clifton after the rotary is flat and gives you a bit of a breather. That route also has much lower traffic (hardly any at all) and no curbs, not that you feel much risk of a crash anyway.

Here are two routes where I have a mild preference, but less experienced riders would probably have a stronger preference. The apparently straight route is Concord, however the higher traffic makes it much less pleasant. Concord is narrow, in the first part (climbing from left to right up to the intersection with Huron), but generally I can squeeze through. There’s also an additional light, compared to Garden.

Garden has much less traffic, which is good and bad. It’s good because it’s not usually necessary to squeeze into tight spots, it is bad because sometimes drivers have an expectation that they should be able to zoom! up or down the road, and will sometimes honk at you for no reason other than you are “in the way”. The fewer lights on Garden are also somewhat more “hackable”, if you happen to be in an inbound hurry. At the intersection with Huron, if you miss your light (easy, it is run by a sensor and cycles quickly if you are not traveling with cars) you can veer left across the fire station parking lot and cross with the last of the traffic from Sherman. At the Linnaean light, the road on the right is very lightly traveled and you can either safely run the light after stopping and looking, or dismount and jaywalk (the socially acceptable way to run a red light). Where Garden and Concord join, the plan is to bear left across the sidewalk onto the stub end of Concord. This is not easy to do if arriving from Concord, but if you arrive on Garden, the light makes it easy, and you also have the option of crossing over to the sidewalk early if you can pass through a gap in traffic.

Traveling westthrough Harvard Square on official bicycle routes requires a bit of a detour, shown in yellow. A shortcut that is possible if the lights are favorably timed is shown in red — take a U turn immediately after the north point of the pedestrian plaza and join the auto traffic there. I decided that was not safe enough and now tend to use the route shown in green, walking where it is dotted. This probably saves time over the official route, and is probably also safer.

Right Hook Videos

August 5, 2017

I was trying to explain to someone on Facebook that right hooks are a problem, and a problem caused by drivers, not by people riding bicycles. No dice, cyclists are jerks for yelling at drivers when this happens, and jerks for putting their license plates on the internet, thus spake the driver. But it was a lot of work to collect these videos (seriously Youtube, can I have a “search my videos” option?) so here they are:

https://vimeo.com/111294266

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ndvz4ZJRoek

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNbvCgEBrLo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RnHfXaYcQ08

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZII3ImASVQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJ2pe3_KClU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LA3EQ4Q6avs

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4C6jFk3uVm8

https://vimeo.com/111805880

Been meaning to write something, always too distracted to “do a good job”, as if getting nothing written was a good job. So….

Just now read a Copenhagenize article on bikes and trains saying something I had believed, but had no data to support. They have data. They also point out by example yet another way we do bikes wrong here in the US.
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Hypothesized mechanisms for “safety in numbers”

Safety in numbers is a cycling safety rule that says that the more people ride bikes, the safer each rider will be. Hypothesized mechanisms include (1) driver familiarity – because drivers more often see bikes on the road, they become better-trained to see them on the road and (2) driver empathy – because so many drivers also ride bikes, they are more aware-of/concerned-about bicycle safety issues. (Here’s a nice pile of pointers to papers, tracked down by a real live researcher.)

I think both of these mechanisms are entirely possible, but riding an actual bike in actual traffic in actual crowds of cyclists, I’ve noticed what looks like other ways that greater numbers provide safety. In at least one case I’ve captured it on video. The difference between these mechanisms and the others that are hypothesized is that they are extremely short term – “safety in numbers” can appear whenever there is a biking crowd and disappear as soon as it disperses. These are also somewhat more likely in crowded urban areas and depend somewhat on the existence of traffic jams.

The first mechanism I might call “schooling” (after Bike Snob’s “shoaling” and “salmoning”). Bikes riding in a line are schooling, and for several common cycling hazards, most of the risk is borne by the lead fish, and the rest get a free ride. If someone in a parked car is not looking for bikes and is about to open their door, but then a bike zips by, it’s not unreasonable that they would be startled, and maybe then look to see if it was clear – and if the bikes are schooling, all the followers get the benefit of that. The dooring risk is almost entirely on the lead cyclist. Similarly, cars pulling into or across traffic represent a threat only to the lead cyclist, and very little to the ones in the rear. A line of bikes is also somewhat protective against right hooks, since those usually occur when a driver thinks they can overtake a bike and turn right, or forgets the presence of a single bike. With a line of bikes, once the first is across the side street, it is obvious to the driver that a right turn is not possible.

A second method is less obvious, but safety decreases markedly in the range of speeds between the slowest and fastest typical commuters. A low-speed (below 10mph) crash is stupidly survivable; you can almost step off your bike as it falls down. A high-speed crash (above 20mph) is far more likely to send you to the hospital or worse. Bike lanes at rush hour tend to run single file for some distance, usually because the bikes are hemmed in between parked cars on the right and “parked” cars on the left. Inevitably, some riders will be slower than others, and the inability to pass then compels the would-be-faster riders behind to slow down until they can pass. This makes them safer, whether they like it or not. This, I’ve seen on video, where I play the role of impatient rider. The probability of this delay and the difficulty of passing both rise pretty quickly once there’s more than a couple of riders delayed behind a slow leader.

After dark, a school-of-fish also multiplies the effectiveness of any lights that cyclists might be using. Just considering use of lights and not, if an unlit cyclist pairs up with one using lights, they can obtain most of the safety benefit of the lights. When two cyclists both have lights, the variations in their movement or in the flashing style of their different lights will create additional visibility over a single cyclist; for example, one cyclist’s flashing light might draw attention, but the other’s steady light might allow a driver to accurately locate the pair. Not nearly as many cyclists ride at night, but bicycle lighting use in the US is not nearly as good as it should be, so there’s plenty of room for this to help.

I don’t know if I’m typical, but if I’m riding at night and overtake another cyclist without lights who’s not too much slower than me, I’ll slow down to give them the benefit of my lights. I’ve even done this with a (impressively fast and competent) rollerblader caught by the late-fall early sunset on the local multi-use path.

The interesting (to me) thing about these is that they can work in the US, they take no time to work, and they take no change in driver empathy or enlightenment. And if a crowd of bikes disassembles, then the safety effects do as well. The effects should appear most often at rush hours, when the largest number of bikes are on the road and when they are most hemmed in by traffic.

A historical/hysterical note is where the idea for safety-in-numbers comes from, and why we assume its existence even when we’re not entirely sure how it works. Once upon a time, when Effective Cyclists were peddling their prescriptions for safer cycling (ride in the road, in traffic, just like the “vehicle” that bicycles legally are, and that legal status is a good thing for which the EC movement certainly deserves some credit) the counterexamples of “the Dutch” and “the Danes” came up, where many people often ride bikes on lanes entirely separate from auto traffic, with crash fatality rates 5 times lower than ours. The EC people were very good at finding and/or interpreting studies that “proved” that if only the Dutch would get rid of their separate facilities, they would be even safer than they are now, that in fact their extraordinary safety must have some other cause. (This might even be true, but nobody’s ever managed to get more than about 1% of the population to bike in an “Effective” style.)

And what was the obvious difference that might be the cause of that anomalous safety? “Numbers”. It must be “Safety in Numbers”, assumed to exist to fill a (huge) gap between theory and reality. This was convenient for the Effective Cyclists because they got to continue to feel correct about their prescriptions (“just you wait, once everyone here rides bikes, we’ll be the safest cyclists on the planet!”) but now this same hypothesized mechanism is used to justify creation of cycling-specific infrastructure that Effective Cyclists hate (“we’re tired of waiting, EC is phenomenally unpopular and we’ll never get the numbers that give us the safety we want if we do it your way. And by-the-way, global warming, particulate pollution, pedestrian deaths, urban congestion delays, traffic noise, and public health, we need this now. Infrastructure will get butts in saddles and safety-in-numbers ‘proves’ that they’ll be safe.”)

I got a GoPro as a treat/present. Other people seem to use theirs to show how dangerous drivers can be (especially in London, what is it with London?), I figured it would be more constructive to show how things can work. And yes, sometimes drivers can be clueless and/or dangerous, that’s just the way our world works right now, but a lot of that risk can be managed.

Here are little bits and pieces of my commute, showing how various bits of safety advice play out in the real world. This is “non-legal” because so often the safety advice to cyclists starts and mostly ends with “obey traffic laws” as if that were either necessary or sufficient (and as if that were actually standard practice for drivers). The laws that people tell you to obey were not designed with bicyle safety in mind — sometimes they help, sometimes they don’t. They’re definitely not enough. The examples below illustrate rules I actually use.

My background is “long-term recovering Effective Cyclist” — I learned all the moves for riding in traffic, and I’m relatively comfortable doing that, but I think that overall that’s not going to work for most people. If it weren’t so necessary to “share” the road with drivers so often, this advice would be much less useful — but we’re stuck with crappy shared roads, so maybe this will be helpful to you. I recorded several commuting videos without specifically intending to demonstrate anything and then reviewed them looking for examples, so this is more or less rules-as-practiced, warts and all (I think I ride too close to the door zone, at least it sure looks like it on the video).

Without further explanation: Read the rest of this entry »