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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 »