Danger Danger

When I moved to London I began to ride my bicycle around the city the day after I arrived. I didn’t immediately read the rules of the road, but I should have. Roundabouts are confusing but there is a method to them. I also assumed that it was OK to ride your bicycle on the sidewalk (or pavements as they say here), but that you should yield to pedestrians. That’s true in the state of Washington, and in Seattle, but not in London. I’ve been yelled at a few times by pedestrians to “get off the pavements!” It turns out is not legal to ride on the sidewalk.

So Ok, I was wrong to not understand the rules of the road. And I understand why people walking on the sidewalk are so protective of their rights: it is dangerous to mix people walking and people cycling. I once collided with a man who stepped out of a doorway onto a cycle path in Seattle and he went flying when I hit him. We both fell, I “taco’d” my front wheel in the wreck, but neither of us were hurt. But the speed differential is dangerous. I get it.

But statistically, the danger from automobiles is so much greater to pedestrians than from cyclists. When I hit the guy on my bike, we were both stunned but not hurt and could both get up and continue. But if I had the same accident when I was driving, the guy would have been hurt badly. Why aren’t we all more outraged about this? The danger from cars is real, and omnipresent on our streets. It affects all of us regardless of our station in life.

I thought about this yesterday when the road on my way to work was closed because a van had hit a person in a busy crosswalk and fled the scene. This is the kind of thing I would expect people to be up in arms about but it doesn’t seem to engender the same amount of anger and animosity as people have towards cyclists.

Road closed due to hit and run between car and pedestrian

Road closed due to hit and run between car and pedestrian

This I just don’t get.

Does size matter?

One of the barriers to encouraging bicycling as a mode of travel in the US is the perception that cycling is not “safe”. The fear of injury, and the insecure feeling of being run off the road by cars is one of the main factors many people cite as the reason they won’t take up bicycling on the streets. They certainly won’t ride to work, or even just a mile to run an errand.

When I was a kid, we played in the street all the time. Basketball, baseball, tag, or whatever game we were into at the time. We ran around in front of our houses with little fear of being run down – we knew to pause and let cars pass – but in general, it wasn’t a huge concern.

I think the same thing applies to cycling. When I was a kid, I regularly rode my bike from my house to my best friend’s house which was six blocks away. I never worried about the safety of the ride, nor did my parents really, (as far as I know). But these days when I ask friends who tell me they would like to ride, but won’t because they don’t feel safe, what do they report that feels unsafe?  It’s cars and the feeling of the inequity of sharing the road. It’s a mismatch when you are on street: just you versus a multi-ton vehicle. I wonder, what’s changed since the days of my youth on the streets of Portland, Oregon? For one thing, the size of the cars and trucks that crowd the streets now. And the 60’s and 70’s are well known for  gas guzzling muscle cars, and big luxury cars like the Buick Electra “Deuce and a quarter”.

Old-Skool Deuce and a Quarter

I recently reflected on this when I borrowed a full-size pickup to pick up a load of mulch and to make a run to the transfer station, or the dump as we used to call it.

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This truck is a Toyota Tundra. It is incredible how large this thing is. It’s at least six and half feet off the ground, and is probably two feet longer than my old Toyota mini-van which was huge in its own right.

And it’s not my imagination: take a look at this picture of the Tundra next to an older truck at the Transfer Station. It’s mammoth in comparison to this good old Ford truck that was big enough for the same kinds of jobs 30 years ago, and still is today.

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When these giant vehicles pass you on the street, on your  bike or on foot, the sun is blocked out momentarily. It’s ridiculous how over-sized they are and surprising how ubiquitous they have become on our streets. Giant pickup trucks and massive SUVs are everywhere across American cities. People use them as “commuters”. Nutty!

It’s no wonder new cyclists feel unsafe. Imagine being 10 years old riding a bike in the street to school while one of these squeezes past. It’s incredible that we have allowed this to happen.

But that is where we are in America. What makes you feel unsafe on the street?

Elliott Bay trail nears completion!

ImageThe work on the Elliott Bay bike trail is nearly complete. Tonight, the south-bound portion was open which is pretty exciting if you’ve been riding through the crazy construction zone for the last few months.

I expect the north bound section will open in a the next day or two.

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This is going to be a very nice, safe improvement for people who ride from the south end into Pioneer Square.

The biggest improvement is with the north-bound section: bikes will continue from the current bike lane straight through onto the new section. It keeps you out of the way of trucks pulling onto the new overpass near the Bertha Big Dig. It’s been pretty unpleasant for the last few months, crossing a few lanes of truck traffic, threading your way onto the bike path. It’s been downright dangerous at times as noted elsewhere

SDOT is really making room for bicycles and people on our streets, a sign that things are improving here in Seattle. This is also a very nice improvement for pedestrians walking to and from Pioneer Square.  Another reason to enjoy living here!

 

 

Cyclists: Striking fear in the hearts of drivers everywhere

I was thinking about going out for a bicycle ride this morning when I saw this article by Seth Norman on the opinion page in the Seattle Times: Cyclists strike fear in a driver’s heart.

Peace man

As one who rides a bicycle to my workplace every day, and who rides longer distances for recreation frequently, the title grabbed my attention. It is heartening to read that Mr. Norman is fearful of the violence and damage that can be caused by an automobile and is cognizant of the inherent dangers of driving. I agree that riding a bicycle in traffic on our shared public roads can be potentially hazardous.

He writes:  “Fear: Yours really should run rampant, I think, but here I refer to the trepidation of drivers steering massive machines that — mishandled in one moment — will leave you crippled, maimed or dead.”

I don’t feel fearful most of the time while riding my bicycle but I do appreciate when people who are driving cars are empathetic to others they encounter.

And “…you are so fragile, a slow antelope pacing an elephant herd.” This is an inapt analogy: in the wild, antelopes can easily outrun a herd of elephants. But with cars and bicycles it is the opposite. Common sense, as well as countless traffic research studies, show that slower mandated speeds for auto traffic is far safer for all users of the road. Lower speed equals less death, and fewer injuries when there are crashes. But this isn’t the reality on our streets.

He says, “You trust that I’m not oblivious, distracted, half-tanked or a full-blown sociopath eager for sport. Your faith bewilders me, frankly. While I don’t challenge your legal or moral rights to ride, sometimes I wonder about your sanity.”  I find it disturbing that Mr. Norman assumes that drivers behave so poorly, choose such risky behavior, and are so misanthropic that running people down with a car is considered “sport”, and then finds that people who ride bicycles are the ones who are insane.

What I find insane, is that in the US, there are over 30,000 people killed yearly in car crashes, and that auto drivers frequently are not held responsible when those crashes involve  pedestrians and people riding bicycles. In a list of causes of death worldwide compiled by the World Health Organization, death by automobile is in the top ten, just behind diabetes. 

I think that we should all be held accountable for following traffic laws. And while I feel that the laws of the road should be modified to better accommodate more than just automobiles, I still feel you need to be safe no matter how you use the road.

Mr. Norman cites the frustration of sharing the road with others and describes how he breaks the law in order to be a considerate and safe driver. He asks for forgiveness for, “grinding my molars when a pair of cyclists pedal side-by-side on this stretch or a club outing spreads out four deep.”

Many of us purposely move into the middle of lane because it not only doesn’t feel safe, it isn’t safe. There is nothing worse than having a car try to slip by you in a space that really is too narrow to squeeze through. If that cyclist were a car, or an immoveable obstacle like post, most would not risk it. If there are more than two riders abreast, these riders are not following the rules of the road and he should alert the proper authorities. See your local Driver’s Manual for details.

He also hates it when a cyclist darts out of  a bicycle lane. This is a new complaint by motorists. Typically it is that cyclists routinely blow through stop signs. I am more upset when someone driving a car runs a red light scattering startled pedestrians in their wake, but to each his own.

I hope that Mr. Norman will continue to channel his rage-now-turned-to-fear, and push for safer streets for all of us – people walking, people riding bicycles, and people driving – so that he can enjoy his choice of transportation without grinding his teeth, and without fear. That’s all any of us can hope for.

Are bikes traffic?

Are bikes traffic? Off The Beaten Path recently published an interesting blog titled “Aren’t Bikes Traffic?” about whether or not bikes are considered part of our definition of what constitutes “traffic” based on road signs in construction zones. Despite clear legal indication that bicycles are defined as part of what we know as “traffic,”  construction signs are often not helpful in clarifying which road user is entitled to the road.  His photos of a few signs with unclear directives, such as “BIKES MERGE WITH TRAFFIC” where bicycles are already riding in traffic, has made me pay attention to similar signs I encounter on my bicycle rides around town. He’s right: bikes are obviously part of traffic. It would be clearer if the sign said, “BICYCLES HAVE RIGHT OF WAY. PASS WITH CAUTION.”

I came upon this sign blocking the bike lane on Avalon Way in West Seattle the other evening. I have to say that this bike lane is such a nice improvement from what it used to be like cycling up Avalon. But, here is a familiar bright orange diamond sign that signals caution. It says: CENTER LANE CLOSED AHEAD. The sign is directly in the bicycle lane. This  causes anyone riding here to have to veer into the car lane to get around it. The irony is that what this is announcing is that the center lane is closed to traffic. There are still two unimpeded lanes for car traffic to proceed in either direction, but the construction crews didn’t really even consider that this sign completely blocks the lane for bicyclists.

Blocked Bike Lane

I don’t believe that the workers who placed this sign meant to put people in danger, but examples like this, where non-auto modes of transportation are not considered a legitimate use of the road and are rendered invisible, are all to common.

Be careful of the safety infrastructure out there.

Rules of the road – Is It OK to Kill cyclists?

This weekend there was an interesting article in the New York Times, written by Daniel Duane, titled Is It O.K. to Kill Cyclists?.

Duane relates how dangerous it can seem to ride a bicycle in the US, and the fact that people driving cars are rarely prosecuted for car crashes that kill people riding bicycles.

I agree with Duane’s assessment of the difficulties of riding a bicycle in cities: “… the social and legal culture of the American road, not to mention the road itself, hasn’t caught up. Laws in most states do give bicycles full access to the road, but very few roads are designed to accommodate bicycles, and the speed and mass differentials — bikes sometimes slow traffic, only cyclists have much to fear from a crash — make sharing the road difficult to absorb at an emotional level.”

Like the writer of this opinion piece, I love riding a bicycle. Unlike this writer however, I don’t find that cycling is automatically dangerous. Bad things absolutely happen to people doing all kinds of things, including riding a bicycle. I’ve been in many crashes on my bicycle over the years, thankfully, none of them fatal. On the other hand, driving a car is dangerous enough that 33,803 people were killed in automobile accidents last year in the United States. And according to the World Health Organization, automobile accidents have become the 9th leading cause of death worldwide. 

WHO-data

I know that not as many people ride bicycles as frequently and as far as we drive automobiles, but why do you suppose people’s perception is so skewed? The rare fatal traffic accident involving a bicycle here in Seattle almost always becomes front page news. Compared to fatal car accidents? Maybe a line or two in the local  section, but it is so common place to die driving a car that it barely rates mentioning in the news media.

Duane finishes his article with a lame plea that relies on personal responsibility as the answer to create the view that cyclists deserve respect:

“So here’s my proposal: Every time you get on a bike, from this moment forward, obey the letter of the law in every traffic exchange everywhere to help drivers (and police officers) view cyclists as predictable users of the road who deserve respect. And every time you get behind the wheel, remember that even the slightest inattention can maim or kill a human being enjoying a legitimate form of transportation. That alone will make the streets a little safer, although for now I’m sticking to the basement and maybe the occasional country road.”

Traffic laws, and car focused road infrastructure are reasons why use of the road is often difficult for cyclists. This is why a law abiding citizen will break the law while riding a bicycle. Respect? At many intersections, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for a person on  bicycle stopped in the road at a traffic light, to be able to make the traffic light change. We need to make the roads work for all users. I have wondered for a long time why a pedestrian waiting to cross the road has to wait for an entire light cycle to get a walk signal. Wouldn’t it be nicer while on foot, to hit the walk button,  and have the light change so the pedestrian has the right of way? Instead, we’ve made it easiest for automobiles at the expense of other modes of transportation. To change this attitude will take a fundamental shift in how we view automobile transportation in the United States.

Washington State passed the Vulnerable User Law in 2012. This kind of law helps underscore the seriousness and the possible consequences involved when driving an automobile. These kinds of laws are a good legislative step, but only help close a loophole after the fact. I believe that attitudes about transportation choices are slowly changing for the better. This won’t happen overnight and will probably take a generation or more for it fully take hold. It will take work by a legion of people who believe that it is fundamentally fair and economically necessary to promote transit, cycling, and walking as alternatives to driving a car. The plea by Duane for cyclists to always follow the rules of the road to the letter of the law, and stay in the basement isn’t going to help make it happen.

 

Hills are good for the soul

Hills. You either love them or hate them. Me, I really like riding hills. Going up, you get the fight against gravity and you “taste the effort”, as the French say. Going down, that effort is repaid as you experience gravity in the other direction. Fun!

West Seattle Panorama

West Seattle is a good place to ride hills. In 20 miles you can see some beautiful scenery, climb some great hills, and descend like crazy. Good fun in less than two hours.

Not all of us get to ride in the beautiful hill towns of France or Italy, or even around our local Mt Rainier, but the hills in Seattle aren’t so bad either in a pinch. Just up from Alki there are some great streets that have some serious hills. Here are a few that I like.

Hughes Ave SW

College, Hughes, and 52nd streets are fun ones to tackle. It’s steep, has an OK road surface for climbing, and there are usually few automobiles. If you are descending this hill, be careful. The manhole covers are deep, and the road isn’t perfect. Add fall leaves, and a steep road and you can get in trouble.

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But you get some good switchbacks, and will have stronger lungs when you are done. I like to do a loop around Alki out past the Fauntleroy Ferry. Again, good views, good scenery, good hills.

When you get to this intersection of Lincoln Park Way SW and Beach Drive, you can choose to go up the hill to the left, which is a good climb but the road isn’t good, and there isn’t much room. Instead, go the right and ride through Lincoln Park.

Beach Drive and Lincoln Park Way SW

Lincoln Park

You get this view instead and you can ride on the wide gravel path leading past Colman Pool, around the cove, and up a little hill back on to Fauntleroy.

If you continue on Fauntleroy past the ferry you turn left on Wildwood Ave, and then right on 45th S.W. If you are getting hungry you can stop for some old-fashioned pastries and a coffee at the Original Bakery. The line is usually 10 deep inside the door – always a little too long on the week-ends when I’ve thought about stopping.  You continue up the hill on 45th and then it becomes Marine View Drive S.W. This is a good hill if you like long hills, and a great hill for doing repeats. It’s probably almost a mile up to the top.

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As you head up the hill through the neighborhood where Marine View Drive starts just past Roxbury, you’ll notice that sidewalks end, and that there is very little space for walking or cycling up this hill .

Beach Drive past Roxbury

If cars are approaching from behind as you start on this part of the hill, you just have no room.

No shoulder on Beach Drive

There isn’t usually too much traffic on this hill, but as you can see, there is really very little space to get up this hill if you are walking, and on a bike you have about 1-2 feet to the right of the white line.

This issue is worth following up with a separate post. Why do some neighborhoods not have any room to ride or to walk?

To continue the ride, there is a nice loop on the top of this hill that means  you can come back down Marine View.  On the way down pay attention coming around the corner. If a car is turning right up the hill from Roxbury while you are coming down around that corner, it can be a little frightening.

On the loop on the top of the hill, when you come to the stop sign on 106th, take a right and go for a few blocks to Seola Beach Drive, which is nice little out and back through a pretty ravine to a strange little sewage treatment outlet beach, but it’s a nice hill both ways, with no traffic.

Seola Beach Drive

On the loop back you can take a nice detour again through Lincoln Park and ride on the gravel paths through the park. There are some little inclines that make for a relaxed alternative to riding along Fauntleroy with ferry traffic. Head back to Alki via Beach Drive S.W.

Riding in Lincoln Park

See you in the hills!