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”.

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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?

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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. 

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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.

 

A Cycle Story

How many of you had a bike when you were a kid?

My first bike was a Schwinn Sting Ray that my Dad custom spray painted; orange with silver sparkle. The anticipation of riding that bike was so sweet, I could hardly wait.

7th Birthday Bike

I still feel that way now every time I get on my bike.

About a year ago I was riding home from my office downtown when I got in an accident with a Mercedes Benz. Most people worry about being hit by moving cars, but I managed to get hit by one that was parked. Thinking back, the accident was the result of a series of unfortunate mishaps. I was riding legally in the street, cruising at about 15 miles per hour. A car approached from the rear on my left and as I glanced behind to judge its proximity, my front wheel grazed the edge of a manhole cover. I swerved slightly, lost my balance, and there just wasn’t enough space between me and that Mercedes. Next thing I knew I was flying head first into the rear window.

I rolled myself off the back end of the car, pulled some broken glass out of my cheek and nose, and moved my broken bike to the sidewalk. The women driving the car pulled over and made sure I was alright and called 911. An aide car arrived within minutes and the paramedics asked me if I was OK – but I waved them off. My arm hurt, but I was in shock! I felt fine! I filed a police report with a couple of officers, and hailed a cab home.

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But a few days later I realized something was really wrong with my leg – I couldn’t lift it – and after seeing an orthopedic specialist, I learned I had a torn Quadriceps tendon that would need surgery to fix.

I was devastated. I just wanted to get back to riding. But reattaching tendon to kneecap is not minor surgery. And recovery from knee surgery is a slow and painful process. What kept me motivated all those long, slow months was the desire to be able to ride again. I was driven by that same sweet anticipation I knew as a kid, to feel the wind in my face, riding through the streets on two wheels. I am happy to say that I am back on the bike saddle again, but this experience gave me a new understanding of the importance of advocating for improved infrastructure, safety, and education for everyone on the road.

I want more safe travel space for everyone who uses our streets – for cars, bicycles and pedestrians – and I believe we can do better than we are doing now. We need slower speed limits on shared streets so that it is safer for everyone. We need traffic laws that make sense for all users of the road. And we need enough space that a rider can have a series of unfortunate mishaps without crashing into the back of a car or getting run over by a semi.

All bicyclists should to be able to feel the wind in their faces, and to then to arrive home safely.