Monday, December 22, 2008

The Traffic Lights Turned Green for Christmas

I wonder if reader Purple Haze can identify that reference to Jimi Hendrix...

I wrote earlier that traffic engineers at Louisville Metro were looking into how to make the inductive loop traffic detectors in our fair city respond to bicycles. A couple of weeks ago, their efforts and mine started to pay off. Dirk Gowin, who oversees bicycle and pedestrian transportation programs for the city, met me and two traffic signal technicians at the corner of Spring Street and Payne Street to test the loop detectors with various bicycles. As usual, only the less busy of of the two streets (Spring Street in this case) has loop detectors. One of them would detect a steel diamond-frame bicycle, but not my mono-tube recumbent bicycle. The other would not detect any of the five test bicycles. To my amazement, the technicians needed only to change the sensitivity setting on the detector circuit board to make the first detector respond to all of the bikes. For the other loop, swapping one circuit board for another made the signal responsive to all of the bikes. Voila! an intersection fixed!

From there, we went to five other intersections. With one exception (apparently due to a problem in the underground loop itself), the technicians made all of the loops sensitive to all of the bicycles. The other newly bicycle-sensitive signals are located at:
  • Payne Street and Lexington Road
  • Payne Street and Baxter Ave. (westbound only; the eastbound loop appears damaged)
  • Bellaire Ave. and Frankfort Ave. (the first signal west of the railroad crossing on Frankfort Ave.)  Have patience - this signal takes 45 seconds to change.
  • Hillcrest Ave. and Frankfort Ave.
  • Bauer Ave. and Frankfort Ave.
Weather permitting, the crew will go out again a week from today to reset another several traffic signals to respond to bicycles. I have provided a list of ten more intersections in the Highlands, Original Highlands, Cherokee Triangle, Clifton, St. Matthews, and farther out US 42. If you know of signals with loop detectors that will not respond to bicycles, please e-mail the locations to and I will add them to the list. We can't guarantee a quick fix to any intersection. If the wire loop buried in the pavement does not work properly, the signal probably won't get fixed  until the next repaving of that street. Given the city's interest in making the signals work properly for bicyclists, though, I expect we'll see lots more progress over the next few months. Thanks again to Dirk Gowin and Pat Johnson of Metro Public Works for making this happen.

A final reminder: At least until Metro Public Works begins stenciling bicycle logos on the sweet spots of the loop detectors, you will need to know where to place your bicycle to trigger the signal. For a dipole loop (which looks like a rectangular outline on the street with its corners cut off), place your bicycle on the line along the right or left edge of the rectangle. For a quadrupole loop (which looks like a long dipole loop, but with another line running lengthwise down the middle of the rectangle), place your bicycle on the middle line. In either case, you do not need to move the bicycle beyond the stop bar painted on the ground. Anywhere on the line of highest sensitivity should trigger the detector. If you have trouble with any of the detectors mentioned above, write to me and I'll try to get it repaired.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Making progress

Metro government officials have made good use of comments from Bicycling for Louisville lately. In response to my complaints about bicycle-insensitive loop detectors at traffic signals, two engineers at the Department of Public Works and Assets have been looking into how to improve the situation. They made clear that improvements will need to take place gradually: the loop detectors get replaced routinely in connection with repaving a street, but are too expensive to replace otherwise. They have decided to make bicycle-sensitive detectors their new standard, to place the "sweet spot" of the detector behind the stop bar, and mark the sweet spot so cyclists can find it easily. I'm thrilled. Thank you, Dirk and Pat.

As money becomes available (and one can only guess when that will happen), they also want to move the signal-change buttons back farther from the intersection of Spring Street/Adams Street with Story Avenue so that a bicyclist who stops to hit the button will be able to ride back into a safe lane position before the light turns green. My comments spurred this change, too. Thanks again to Dirk Gowin (Public Works) for listening.

Two of us from Bicycling for Louisville, with help from Scott Render in the Mayor's office, appear to have influenced Louisville Downtown Management District (LDMD) to use simple design guidelines to ensure that the next round of artistic bike racks downtown actually serve well for parking bicycles. After looking at several sets of bike rack standards from around the country, I supplied LDMD the ones developed by Atlanta Bicycle Campaign for a design competition a few years ago, with one added requirement. I thank Ken Herndon of LDMD for listening to the bicycling community and taking advantage of this opportunity to make their investment in public art serve also to improve the stock of functional bike parking downtown.

Dirk Gowin at Public Works has responded very rapidly to an incident in which an experienced bike commuter crashed (without injury, thankfully) on the railroad tracks on Frankfort Avenue when an impatient motorist attempted to pass him on the right (!) while crossing the tracks. Dirk has explored several options for improving safety at that badly angled crossing and is pressing to find a solution that the city can afford. This has involved a long (and continuing) dialogue with me and three other League Cycling Instructors associated with Bicycling for Louisville.

In his first year at Public Works, Dirk has gone beyond any of his predecessors in the city's bicycle program to seek and incorporate input from technically savvy members of the bicycling community. I probably give him heartburn sometimes, but he keeps listening to me and we keep learning from each other. I really appreciate this improvement in the quality and quantity of communication. It bodes well for cycling conditions in Louisville Metro.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Puzzling pedestrian pronouncements

Yesterday evening, I rode east from downtown as usual on Liberty Street. One-way eastbound, it has four travel lanes and a left-side parking lane from Second Street to Preston Street. Between First Street and Preston Street, both of the two rightmost lanes become right-turn-only. These two lanes carry heavy traffic to the interstate highway on-ramp between Floyd Street and Preston Street, and to right-turn destinations before the ramp. To avoid the heavy traffic and make my path obvious, I ride in the third lane from the right - the rightmost lane that serves my destination. Just east of Preston Street, the right-turn lanes disappear and this becomes the right-hand through lane.

As I rode in the middle lane of Liberty Street near 1st Street, a pedestrian on the sidewalk shouted, "Get out of the street!" I smiled at the absurdity of it. I was riding at 21 mph, keeping up with most of the traffic. No vehicles were waiting behind me; as usual, 90% of the traffic drove in the lanes to my right, and the remaining cars chose to pass me on the left. Had I attempted to ride at that speed on the sidewalk (even if that were legal), I would have terrorized any pedestrians including the one who would have me get off the street. My riding on the street created no possible inconvenience or hazard for the person on the sidewalk. What motivated him to show disdain for my riding on the street?

Would he have shouted had he seen a bicyclist near the right-hand curb? I don't know. A construction worker in a building shouted at me to get out of the traffic lane on Muhammad Ali Boulevard one morning a few weeks ago. Again, I could not conceivably have been causing him any difficulty or delay. Again, no traffic was "stuck" behind me. A few years ago, a man standing at a bus stop on Frankfort Avenue shouted at me to get off the road. That time, I was riding far enough to the right to allow overtaking vehicles to pass me easily. I stopped and asked him why he thought I should not ride on the road. "You slow down traffic," he said with certainty. (I disagree - a topic for another post.)

Kentucky averages 53 pedestrian deaths per year due to car crashes. I have never heard of a pedestrian in Kentucky killed by a bicyclist. (If you know of one, do tell - I don't want to spread misinformation.) Pedestrians ought to appreciate people using bicycles instead of cars to get around. Even if I did slow traffic, thoughtful pedestrians should celebrate that, rather than berate me for it. Faster traffic increases the number and severity of pedestrian crashes.

In fairness, many pedestrians have shouted encouragement as I rode hard to keep up with the traffic lights, asked me about my unusual bikes, or said, "Cool bike, mister!" They have thanked me for yielding to them in crosswalks and commented on my bright headlight. Sometimes we will nod or wave to one another.

Somehow, though, I feel that the pedestrians who take offense at my riding in the street reflect a widespread notion that we need to address. That notion says that speed trumps safety, civility, patience, and diversity. You have a right to the road only if you can maintain the speed limit. If your finances or beliefs or preferences compel you to travel somehow other than by private motor vehicle, you need to stay out of the way of the cars - the legitimate road users. Even when a bicyclist keeps up with traffic and takes pains not to delay motorists, the notion holds. People tend to reject information that challenges their preconceived ideas.

Roads and intersections and traffic signals designed to accommodate bicyclists make our lives easier and safer. I celebrate any improvements in these facilities. Still, if we really want to make bicycling a viable option for a broad swath of our society, we need to overturn this prejudice that makes even some pedestrians look askance at bicyclists on the streets.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Seeing red, part 4: trying but not succeeding

Louisville Metro government has had bicyclists serving in some key bicycle-related planning and engineering jobs since 2000. They have understood most or all of the problems discussed in the past 3 posts about traffic signals. They have tried at least three solutions thus far. Why, then, do we still have problems with red lights here?

Some of the newer inductive loop detectors at Louisville traffic signals use the quadrupole loops recommended in the website on bicycle-sensitive traffic detectors. You can tell the quadrupole loops by the three parallel black lines in the pavement along the direction of travel (photos of traditional dipole and new quadrupole designs, called "figure 8 loops" on that page). You can see them, for example at the intersections of Pee Wee Reece Road and Taylorsville Road (near Bowman Field - map), E. Liberty Street and Baxter Avenue (map), and Spring Street and Payne Street (map).  Unfortunately, the design details of the quadrupole loops in Louisville result in at least half of them (including two of these three) failing to trigger for bicycles. Some that will detect bicycles (such as the one at Liberty and Baxter) require a bicyclist to place one wheel at exactly the right location, often beyond the stop bar. Merely switching from dipole to quadrupole loops does not solve the problem - the physical and electrical details of the loops need to be right.

A couple of years ago, Metro installed experimental bicycle-sensitive loop detectors on Spring Street on both sides of the intersection with Mellwood Avenue (map). Spring Street, a marked Bicycle Route, has bike lanes on each side. Metro installed the bicycle-sensitive loops in the bike lane, which makes sense only until you recognize that a bicyclist heading northwest (toward downtown) on Spring Street needs to merge left into the main travel lane to keep from getting hit by motorists turning right from Spring Street onto Mellwood Avenue. I don't like a design that forces bicyclists to choose between triggering the light and risking getting right-hooked. In addition, Metro never marked the pavement or in any other way informed bicyclists of the purpose or location of the bicycle sensors. Most local bicyclists I know have no idea the sensors exist until I mention them.

This year, a block away and with equally little fanfare, Metro installed pushbuttons on Spring Street/Adams Street at its intersection with Story Avenue (map). A bicyclist facing a red light on Spring/Adams can pull over to the curb, hit the button, and wait only a few seconds for the light to change. (The buttons work.) Alas, this again requires the bicyclist to ride to the right-hand edge of the street. For a bicyclist riding NW on Spring Street, this causes no problem because traffic on the intersecting street (Story Avenue) goes one-way to the left. For a bicyclist riding SE on Adams Street, though, motorists coming from behind may turn right and hit the bicyclist who has just ridden from the curb after pushing the button. To use the button, the bicyclist must take an unsafe position on the road. As with the bicycle-sensitive loop detectors a block away, no signs or pavement markings alert bicyclists to the existence or function of the button.

In all of these cases, I suspect that it would have cost Metro no additional money to install a bicycle-sensitive loop detector as the traffic detector in the middle of the right lane. It would have cost a bit more to add the necessary bicycle logo (scroll to the bottom of the page) to mark where bicyclists should stop to trigger the light. The problem: some traffic engineers don't believe that bicyclists and motorists can ever be trained to accept the validity of a bicyclist riding in the middle of a vehicular traffic lane, even if only at an intersection. It's time to try a well-designed, adequately funded educational campaign to raise public awareness and change behavior of motorists and bicyclists. Sometimes, education can accomplish goals that engineering cannot. 

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Seeing red, part 3: Sensor-actuated signals

Take a look at the road surface when you approach a traffic signal. If you see a tar outline of a rectangle with cut-off corners, the road holds a coil of wire that acts as a metal detector to trigger the traffic signal. If a car stops on top of that metal detector (a.k.a. inductive loop sensor), the car will trigger the light to turn from red to green. But what if a bike stops on top of the sensor? Usually, nothing at all.

When an electrical engineer's explanation of bicycles and sensor-actuated traffic signals first appeared online in 2003, I brought it to the attention of Metro traffic officials. The article explains how to make the loops sensitive enough to detect bicycles without getting triggered by larger vehicles in adjacent lanes. It also tells how to mark streets to show bicyclists the "sweet spot" of the sensor. Several cities have made bicycle-sensitive loop detectors their standard. The Louisville Metro Complete Streets manual approved in 2007 mentions bicycle-sensitive signals once, but does not require or recommend making all sensor-actuated signals sensitive to bicycles.

How much of a problem is this? If you don't care about whether bicyclists stop at red lights, then you probably won't rank it high on your list of necessary improvements to our bicycling environment. I make a point of riding according to traffic law, and these bicycle-ignoring signals drive me crazy. Here's a short top-of-the-head list of signals that I can't trigger, no matter where I place my bicycle on the sensors: Spring Street at Payne Street; Payne Street at Baxter AvenueCountry Lane and Brownboro Road (in front of Doll's Market); North Bellaire Avenue at Frankfort Avenue; and Hillcrest Avenue at Frankfort Avenue. The light at Hillcrest and Frankfort is even more crazy-making, because it flips back from green to red 2 or 3 seconds after a motor vehicle gets off the sensor. A bicyclist waiting behind a motorist at this red light can make it through on green only by tailgating the motorist and sprinting.

I expect that Louisville Metro and the surrounding counties have hundreds of intersections controlled by sensor-actuated signals. Maybe half of these signals will trigger for a bicycle placed at exactly the right spot; the others won't trip for an individual bicycle, ever. These sensors usually get replaced whenever the road is repaved. It costs little to make the new detectors bicycle-sensitive. City, county, and state traffic engineers: Please build signalized intersections that work properly for bicyclists. How can you expect us to obey red lights that don't recognize our existence?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Seeing red, part 2: timed lights

On several one-way streets in downtown Louisville, traffic signals are timed to allow vehicles to proceed at a steady speed through a string of intersections without needing to stop for any red lights. These synchronized traffic signals work well as long as the vehicles can maintain that set speed within a few mph.

In my experience, I can ride through 6 or 7 green lights in a row on some of these streets if I ride fast: at least 23 mph. On my commuting bicycle, I simply can't ride that fast. Yesterday, I did some measurements and calculations to learn how fast a bicyclist needs to ride to keep up with the traffic signals, and if any slower-than-car speed could allow a bicyclist to cruise through all green lights.

For the test case I used East Main Street, a common commuting route with a bike lane. The signals are timed to allow a driver going at 34 mph to go from a green light at one intersection to green lights at all of the following intersections. Riding at 24 mph, one would fall behind the signals by about 5 seconds each block plus another 5-10 seconds delay if you need to start from a full stop or a low speed. This fast rider would get through about 7 intersections before getting stopped by a red light. At 20 mph, a rider would get through about 5 intersections before encountering a red light; at 15 mph, 3 intersections; at 12 mph, only 2 intersections before needing to stop again. How slowly would you need to ride to encounter all green lights? You would need to poke along at less than 10 mph.

Someone riding from the east end of Market Street to 3rd Street, for example, would have red lights add 1 minute to the trip if she or he rode at 20 mph. Red lights would add 2-1/2 minutes to the travel time for a 12-mph bicyclist. That comes to a 30% time penalty for the 20-mph rider, and a 40% time penalty for the 12-mph rider.

If Metro re-synchronized the signals for a 25 mph speed limit (instead of 35 mph), the 20 mph bicyclist could get to 3rd Street or beyond without stopping, and the 12 mph bicyclist would arrive one minute sooner. But what about the motorists who could drive at only 24 (instead of 34) mph? The travel time difference for this 10-block trip would be 51 seconds.

Bottom line: If Louisville (or another city with synchronized downtown traffic signals) wants to make its downtown safer and more accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians, they need only re-time the traffic signals for a lower speed. This will decrease the number and severity of car crashes (including crashes with bicyclists and pedestrians), make it much easier for pedestrians to cross the street, and allow bicyclists much less delay due to red lights. The cost - a minor inconvenience to motorists.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Seeing red

Most major streets in greater Louisville meet at intersections controlled by traffic signals  ("signalized intersections" in traffic engineering lingo). In spite of the number and severity of crashes at signalized intersections, the inconvenience of stopping at red lights regardless of traffic volumes, and the high cost of building and maintaining these intersections, I took them for granted until recently. It seemed as though they must improve traffic flow and safety compared to other options (stop signs, for example) or else the traffic engineers would stop using them. I certainly don't want a more chaotic traffic environment than we have now.

As regular readers know, I prefer modern roundabouts (not traffic circles) to signalized intersections in many situations. I believe that one-lane roundabouts could replace many of the traffic signals in our area with benefits for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. Of course, a transition from signalized intersections to roundabouts would cost money and involve controversy. Even in the best-case scenario, we will have lots of traffic signals for years to come.

As long as we use traffic signals, we need to make them functional for all legal road users. In Louisville, we have two basic types of traffic signals: signals timed to turn from red to green on a fixed schedule, which might differ for different times of day (for example, morning rush hour versus evening rush hour); and signals that stay green for traffic along the more major street until a sensor detects vehicles waiting on the smaller street. I'll call the first type "timed signals" and the second type "sensor signals." Locally, very few signals of either type work well for bicyclists. Tomorrow, I'll explain the problems and explore solutions. 

Friday, October 10, 2008

Getting the facts straight

The tragic car-bike crash that ended Jen Futrell's life gave a glimpse into some of the factors that impede progress in improving bicycle safety and traffic safety in general. The hackneyed and defeatist "tragic accident" language came up repeatedly, even among some people grieving Jen's death. Of course, the motorist didn't mean to hit and kill someone. Nonetheless, he chose to pass a bus on a busy road without being able to see whatever was on the other side of that bus - in this case, a law-abiding bicyclist. That was a foolish, reckless choice, not an accident.

Another impediment that arose predictably after the crash is the familiar blame-the-victim mentality: "Everybody knows it is too dangerous to ride bicycle on Bardstown Road" so we bicyclists should stay off it for our own good. The drivers whose incautious, impatient decisions make it dangerous don't need to drive differently, because "everybody knows" that they never will. Instead, bicyclists need to stay away from their chosen destinations on Bardstown Road or find a less direct route to them in order to leave Bardstown Road to the motorists. This infuriating argument also came up after the death of Chips Cronin on the Clark Memorial (2nd Street) Bridge last year and the death of Vance Kokojan on Outer Look in July. In all three cases, the motorist undoubtedly caused the crash - yet people blame the bicyclist simply for being there.

A more subtle obstacle to improving safety also appeared in these three car-bike crashes, and many more: the near-impossibility of getting good information about what happened. If the public would receive clear, validated information about the circumstances and causes of a crash, people could learn from the experience and change their behavior. Even if very few people in the general public would take advantage of this information, those of us who work to improve traffic safety could use it to focus our efforts and develop effective campaigns to curb the most dangerous driving and bicycling behaviors.

The crash that killed Jen offers a better than usual example of how hard, and how important, it is to do this. Media reports and e-mail messages circulated by friends at various points gave incorrect information on her age, which vehicle struck her, and even when she died. (The memorial demonstration and placement of a ghost bike took place two days before her death.) Retellings of eyewitness accounts and descriptions of a security-camera video of the crash disagree on whether the motorist passed the bus on the right or on the left. I have yet to hear an explanation of the lanes in which the three involved vehicles were traveling, and the presence or absence of on-street parking nearby. One story makes the motorist's driving sound wildly reckless; another makes it sound ordinary, though ending with a tragic bit of bad luck.

LMPD apparently awaits toxicology results to determine if the driver was under the influence of any drugs at the time of the crash. Even when they complete their investigation, though, they do not ordinarily release any details about a crash. News outlets might report any charges filed (say, DUI), but they rarely learn or publish details that could help us understand what actions could make a similar crash less likely in the future. We need clear information from the law enforcement agency conducting the crash investigation. Only with such information can we make good choices on how to invest public resources to reduce crashes.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jen's funeral

Twelve bicycles parked
Singing, prayers, memories
Drought yields to good rain.

Friday, October 3, 2008

One cyclist dying, another injured

Jennifer Futrell, the 27-year-old woman struck by a minivan on Bardstown Road on Tuesday is close to death of her injuries. An e-mail message circulated this morning prematurely announced her death. I was with her and her father in her hospital room a few minutes ago. She never regained consciousness after the crash. Her family and the medical staff expect her to die within hours due to brain injuries sustained in the crash. She would be the third bicyclist killed by a crash with a motor vehicle in Louisville thus far in 2008. This would match Louisville's worst recent one-year bicyclist death toll. At least two of these bicyclists were killed while doing nothing wrong. I feel terribly sad, but anger will rise to the top soon.

Yesterday at about 6 PM, another driver struck another cyclist from behind, this time on East Broadway. To the extent that one can find good news in such a story, this latest incident has some. According to the Courier-Journal report, the bicyclist's injuries appear not to be life-threatening. In spite of fleeing the scene, the motorist was apprehended by police and charged with DUI, leaving the scene, and drug-related and other offenses. The involvement of alcohol, drugs, and hit-and-run make this driver easy to arrest and prosecute. Kentucky law specifically allows police officers to arrest people for DUI or hit-and-run without having witnessed the incident. This driver will not likely escape punishment.

Jennifer's family has had good legal help since immediately after the crash. They will choose whether to file charges against the driver who hit their daughter. A security camera video and numerous eyewitness accounts provided enormously more information than usually available about a traffic crash. While respecting their choice and the choices of other grieving families of crash victims, we need to reform the attitudes and legal structures that fail to hold impatient, distracted, incautious drivers accountable for their deadly actions as long as they commit them while sober. Lives are on the line, every day.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Crash update

The woman struck from behind by a car on Bardstown Road on Tuesday remains in the ICU with multiple skull fractures. I have not heard her prognosis. Close friends are visiting her room, though she remains unconscious. My heart goes out to her family.

I heard today that alcohol was not involved in the crash. Instead, the cause appears to have been impatience: a motorist who refused to believe that the TARC bus ahead of him or her had a good reason not to drive in the right lane and not to drive faster. A colleague pointed out that a driver following the bus at a safe distance could have seen the bicyclist in the right lane in time to avoid hitting her. The creepy raw video footage from the TV traffic helicopter showed the van stopped perhaps a hundred feet beyond where the smashed bicycle was propped against a tree. This gives me the impression that the driver went a significant distance after hitting the bicyclist before bothering to stop. This suggests that she or he was going faster than 35 mph (52 feet per second) or wasn't paying attention to driving, or both.

This crash and two of the four most recent fatal car-bike collisions in Louisville have involved motorists hitting appropriately visible bicyclists from behind. Though statistics show that most car-bike crashes involve motorists turning across the path of cyclists, the relatively infrequent car-hits-bike-from-behind crash is more deadly because the motor vehicle is more likely to be moving fast. This gives an explanation for the observed effectiveness of on-street bike lanes at reducing bicycle crash deaths.

I wish I could think about crash probabilities and driver education and street design in abstract terms, but I can't. There is innocent blood on the street. It makes me sick to see the inevitable come to pass. Impatient drivers taking unnecessary risks every day in often-futile efforts to save a few seconds. We now have a young bicyclist clinging to life because one of those drivers didn't get away with the impatient maneuver. The wrong person is suffering for it.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Creepy crashes

Halloween is 30 days away, but yesterday was the creepiest day of the year for me in terms of traffic crashes. On my regular route to work, I pass through the intersection of Liberty Street and Baxter Avenue, just after passing under the railroad overpass. Yesterday morning, at the exact location where I would typically stand at the traffic signal waiting to turn right onto Baxter Avenue (heading toward downtown), I needed to change lanes to avoid a minivan stopped across the median and sideways into my normal lane amidst crash debris. Another involved car was stopped nearby, along with a police cruiser. I have no idea how the northbound van ended up sitting in the westbound lane, but I was mighty glad that I hadn't been standing there astride my bicycle when it arrived.

In the afternoon, a friend informed me of a crash that had critically injured a bicyclist on Bardstown Road near Grinstead Drive. I had ridden there just a few days ago. A bicyclist traveling southbound on Bardstown Road had been hit by a minivan also heading southbound. News reports have thus far given no clues about the cause of the crash. Epitomizing the rush to release sensational news, a television news report of the crash and the accompanying photos and video alternately report the victim as a teenager and a 27-year-old woman, and the striking vehicle as a minivan and a TARC bus. It turns out that the TARC bus on the scene was not involved in the crash, and the victim was indeed 27 and not a teenager. I got the creeps from the photos and video (filmed from a helicopter), though they do not show the victim or any obvious gore. Just the tell-tale bicycle with a crushed rear wheel, leaning against a tree behind yellow police tape...

The crash happened at about 3:40 PM on a day with good visibility and no precipitation, on a street with quite a bit of bicycle traffic. An eyewitness account, which I received second-hand, said that the bicyclist was riding in the middle of the right southbound lane, being passed by a TARC bus in the left southbound lane. The minivan had been following the bus and swerved to pass it on the right. While doing so, it hit the bicyclist. This sounds eerily similar to the crash that killed bicycle commuter Vance Kokojan in July.

If you know any of the eyewitnesses to yesterday's crash, please ask them to contact Bicycling for Louisville if and when they are willing to talk about what they saw. Learning what actually happened in injury crashes is critical to our ability to change the factors that cause these crashes. It also helps us learn the strengths and weaknesses of the justice system in protecting the rights of bicyclists.

A fellow cyclist informed me this morning that the crash victim is in the ICU, unconscious. He had spoken with her father. Please hold the injured cyclist and her family and friends in your prayers or positive thoughts.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Why do people ride the (bad) way that they do?

Thanks for the great comments on my most recent post! John asked the $64,000 question - or the $2 billion to $6 billion question, considering the staggering annual cost of traffic crashes in Kentucky: why do people bike (and drive) in disregard to traffics law and safety statistics? Do they not know the law? Do they find it inconvenient to obey traffic laws? Do the violate the laws out of rebelliousness?

People do what we believe will benefit us, as long as we do not fear some risk that would outweigh the benefit. If I believe that riding on the sidewalk is safer than riding on the street, and I do not fear getting punished for riding on the sidewalk, I will ride on the sidewalk. I say "believe" and not "think" because we make many (most?) of our decisions with little or no rational basis. Everyone who rides a bicycle in the city decides whether to ride on the sidewalk or on the street, but darned few of us have read anything about relative crash probabilities for sidewalk riding versus on-street riding.

One can make similar observations about a great many decisions that people make: in which neighborhood to live, what career to pursue, what car or bike to buy... We almost never even attempt a life-cycle cost-benefit analysis of the decision. If we do, we inevitably hit a brick wall when we encounter a variable for which we have no information, for example, the likelihood that the economy will change in ways that make my chosen career obsolete or unsatisfying. Even if we are inclined to think carefully about the safest way from point A to point B by bicycle, most of us do not have the information or skill to compute the objective best answer.

If the choices facing us so often overwhelm our capacity (or stomach) for rationality, how do we make these decisions? A key part of the answer is our tendency to follow social norms: what we see other people doing and, in particular, the behavior that we see modeled by people we respect or admire. Our parents and teachers and religious leaders set social norms for us early in life. For example, the religion and political leanings of our parents are the most potent predictors of our own religion and politics.

Most of us were taught as small children to play on the sidewalk and not in the street. We learned that streets and cars are dangerous. We have "learned" from advertising that the best way to improve traffic safety is to get into a car with more safety features: roll cages, crumple zones, seat belts, front and side air bags. This emphasis on crash safety encourages us to rely on the vehicle, rather than on our own driving behavior, to keep us safe. In other words: crashes are inevitable, and there's nothing you can do to change that except to stay as far from moving cars as you can, unless you are inside one. Facing intelligent people with statistics from reputable sources showing the increased risk of sidewalk bicycling versus on-street bicycling often results in puzzled expressions and convoluted explanations as people defend their lifelong training to stay away from cars.

In another post, I will address the suggestion that we distribute a pocket card explaining the reasons to follow some key bicycle safety practices. The short answer: such a card might help, but only in the context of a well-designed and thoughtfully executed social marketing campaign. Indeed, social marketing may prove the way out of the wilderness in terms of improving bicycling behavior significantly in less than a generation.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Low average, high variability

During the past few days, I've seen lots of bicyclists out at night without lights. Last night, a couple demonstrated a trifecta of unsafe bicycling: riding on the sidewalk, against traffic, without lights after dark. Sadly, many bicyclists appear to feel that riding on sidewalks renders it unnecessary to ride on the right side and to ride with lights after dark. Quite the contrary: Sidewalk bicyclists traveling against traffic are more than twice as likely to get hit as sidewalk bicyclists going with traffic. Likewise, the difficulty that motorists have seeing bicyclists at night without lights is compounded by riding on sidewalks, outside of many drivers' range of visual scanning. This morning, I shouted at yet another bicyclist riding toward me and other traffic on Muhammad Ali Boulevard (a one-way street). He seemed both puzzled and annoyed that I would tell him not to ride against traffic.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have encountered bicyclists the past two mornings riding with flashing LED headlights during daylight. One also wore a very conspicuous reflective vest. Of course, they both wore helmets. Not incidentally, I know both of these riders. Safety-conscious riders in Louisville go to extremes to make ourselves visible in mixed traffic.

In Louisville as of 2008, we seem to have a small, tight-knit group of bicycle safety paragons amidst a sea of bicyclists showing no awareness of basic cycling safety principles. (Of course, there are people in the middle of the spectrum, too.) This is our baseline against which to measure progress in our efforts at public education on bicycle safety. Bicycling for Louisville will offer three sets of Confident Cycling classes for adults over the next several weeks, funded by Louisville Metro government. Metro is working on a series of bicycle safety Public Service Announcements for television, to release next month. We hope to work with Metro government over the next several months to offer a wider variety of bicycling and driving safety programs to reach various audiences. How much will these programs raise the standard of bicycling behavior in our city? Watch, and let us know what you see.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

In the dark and out of gas

Two days ago, the remnants of Hurricane Ike passed through greater Louisville. We received essentially no rain, but for two hours had winds gusting to 70 mph. In the grand scheme of things, this would rate as a minimal encounter with a hurricane. As fate would have it, though, the two hours of wind shattered thousands of trees and hurled large tree limbs dozens of feet, bringing down over 6,000 power lines and leaving over 300,000 people without electricity. Our power company, LG&E, had already sent many workers to the Houston region to help with hurricane relief prior to having an unprecedented demand for their services back home in Louisville. Today, major streets are still blocked by downed trees and utility poles and many neighborhoods remain without electricity.

Transportation here is suffering not only from the trees, poles, and lines stretching across major and minor streets, but also from the lack of electricity to power traffic signals and street lights. One can drive for a mile along a street with functioning traffic signals and suddenly face a string of dead signals requiring all-way stops. I need a special effort to remember to stop at dark signals, because I am so conditioned to responding to the illuminated signals. Riding last night through darkened sections of Cherokee Triangle and Crescent Hill required constant vigilance to avoid downed trees, storm debris, broken guy wires, and ordinary road hazards that would ordinarily show up in the light of street lamps. Confused drivers at dark, unsignalized intersections add to the danger.

We probably still have over 150,000 people without electricity. Many gas stations have stopped operating, either because of lack of electricity to pump the gasoline or because of disruption of their gasoline supply. Grocery stores without backup power supplies are losing perishable goods for lack of refrigeration. Gradually, people without electricity are losing not only the food in their own refrigerators and the electricity in their own homes but also the ability to go elsewhere to get food, wash clothes, or otherwise take care of business. LG&E says that it could take another 10-14 days to restore power to all of its local customers.

Enough of Louisville is back in operation now (including, thankfully, the office of Bicycling for Louisville) that most people can probably walk or take a bus to meet their immediate needs. Our transit system, TARC, is still working - though with much stress on their staffers working under difficult conditions to keep the buses going. Most Louisvillians will probably remember the aftermath of this wind storm as a major inconvenience but not a tragedy.

Nonetheless, it leads me to consider how little it takes to turn modern life upside-down. Loss of electricity affects our homes, our livelihoods, our food supply, and our transportation. Interruption of our gasoline and diesel supplies would have similarly far-reaching effects. Obviously, relying more heavily on bicycling for transportation would not eliminate all of these vulnerabilities. It would, though, improve our resilience to deal with extreme weather events and other disasters.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Understanding road rage; River Road (Louisville)

This morning, a friend wrote and referred me to Bob Mionske's latest "Legally Speaking" column in VeloNews. The current column, "More rage," is the best piece I've read about road rage involving cyclists. In addition to describing the causes of road rage, it gives excellent advice on dealing with hostile gestures or actions by other road users. I urge you to read the entire article.

Coincidentally, this morning's e-mail also included a note from a driver who expressed that cyclists endanger their own safety by slowing motor vehicle traffic, especially on River Road. I could easily have dismissed the comments, because they displayed significant ignorance of the traffic law. The tendency to blame cyclists for obstructing motor vehicle traffic and ignorance of traffic law are both widespread, though. We can only progress so far without addressing those attitudes and misconceptions, so I chose to write a respectful and detailed reply.

River Road is the only Kentucky Scenic Byway in Louisville Metro, and by far the most pleasant way to ride northeast from the city center. In my letter to the disgruntled driver, I identified a unique combination of attributes making River Road a perfect storm for tensions between motorists and bicyclists:
  • one narrow lane in each direction, with no paved shoulders
  • heavy motor vehicle traffic
  • heavy bicycle traffic, including many large group rides
  • long distances between intersections
  • lack of alternate routes
  • many blind curves and blind hill crests
My reply clarified motorists' and cyclists' legal responsibilities and asked for cooperation in making River Road better for all of us. I agreed with the driver that River Road does present real challenges to all of us. I'll share more of my reply in another post. 

In the meantime, I ask that you consider how to make River Road safer and more functional for bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorists. This is a timely question, because Louisville Metro has just begun a $100,000 grant-funded project to create a River Road Corridor Management Plan, which will include recommendations for accommodating bicyclists and pedestrians. If bicyclists vilify or refuse to work with motorists, land owners, or other non-bicycling interest groups, we will not get what we need. I hope we will get ourselves into a cooperative, open-minded frame of mind before the first public meeting is announced. Of course, we have some core principles that we cannot compromise, including our right to use the road. We need to be ready to hear and respect other groups' core principles, too, in order to succeed in crafting solutions that work for all of us.

Friday, September 12, 2008

My impatience, your impatience

On the ride to work this morning, I let my impatience overwhelm my better judgment and get me into a tight spot. This time, it had no bad consequences. I decided, though, that I need to do better.

My route to work includes Muhammad Ali Boulevard, which travels one-way westbound. East of Preston Street, it has parallel parking on the right-hand side. At Preston Street, the parking lane ends and the right-hand lane becomes a freeway entrance ramp. I ride in the right-hand through lane, avoiding the parking/right turn lane. 

This morning, a queue of cars waited in front of me as I approached Preston Street. From experience, I know that most of the cars in that lane will cross the intersection and merge right onto the highway ramp. I saw the first few cars in my lane move toward the right once the light turned green and they started forward. The cars were moving at perhaps 10 mph due to traffic congestion. I made the poor choice of moving left to go around the car in front of me, assuming that it would merge right. When the car continued straight, I was stuck between two lanes of traffic. I slowed and dropped back behind the car, getting back into proper lane position. We both got stopped at the next traffic signal. Even if the car had merged right, I would not have saved any time by passing it as I tried to do.

I should have accepted the minor delay that often goes with riding in congested traffic and not tried to cheat the Devil to save a few seconds. My impatient behavior is exactly like the motorist behavior that I encounter most every day and that drives me crazy. This afternoon, a driver passed me too closely only to stop immediately in front of me at the next light. His destination was two blocks away, and he would have lost no more than 2 seconds by waiting behind me. As with my impatient maneuver a few hours earlier, his unsafe passing did not cause a crash. We both got away with it, this time. We also both made the roads a bit more tense and dangerous in exchange for an imaginary gain.

Traffic laws and law enforcement will never cause patience and courtesy. We need to cultivate those voluntarily. Now that I have seen my own impatience in action, I choose to do better.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

One way, not necessarily the right way

A welcome comment on my most recent post asked why I consider one-way street grids problematic, and whether I consider them bad for cyclists only or for all road users. I'll try to give one-way streets their due, and then explain why, on balance, I think that Louisville and Seattle downtowns would work better with most or all streets 2-way.

For confident, street-savvy bicyclists in places with narrow traffic lanes, multi-lane one-way streets provide a fairly attractive option. We can ride in the middle of the right lane, knowing that motorists can safely pass us in the lanes to our left. This is why I find it more comfortable riding on Chestnut Street downtown (one way, 2 travel lanes + on-street parking) than riding on Frankfort Avenue in Crescent Hill (2-way, one travel lane in each direction + on-street parking). On Frankfort Avenue, using the full right lane means forcing motorists into the oncoming traffic lane to pass me. (That still beats riding in the door zone of parked cars.) Two-way streets need one of three things in order to make it safe for cars to pass bicyclists: three or more travel lanes; striped bike lanes; or wide curb lanes.

One-way streets also make it easier to synchronize traffic signals so that people driving at a set speed (say, 3 mph below the speed limit) can proceed uninterrupted through several green lights in a row. Until much of downtown Louisville became a semi-permanent construction zone, traffic signals on the one-way streets going east and west were set up to operate in this way.

In a relatively congested downtown area, though, one-way streets cause numerous problems. 
  1. For bicyclists and motorists, they frequently require extra driving. A few blocks may not sound like much until you multiply it by thousands of vehicles per day on already-crowded streets.
  2. They encourage wrong-way bicycling by local bicyclists wanting to save those few extra blocks.
  3. They confuse people not familiar with the area. If I want to travel from the east to, say, 605 S 6th Street, I might logically head west on Broadway to 6th Street, at which point I realize that 6th Street goes the wrong way to get to my destination. If I'm not paying close attention, I might turn north onto 6th Street before realizing that it's one-way southbound... ouch.
  4. In places such as downtown Louisville with a mixture of one- and two-way streets, the confusion is multiplied. Quick - in which direction do the following consecutive streets in downtown Louisville go: Hancock, Jackson, Preston, Floyd, Brook?
  5. They prevent the use of pedestrian refuge islands to make long crossings safer, because vehicular traffic needs the freedom to move across all of the lanes.
I believe that our downtown would be safer and more convenient for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians if we switched to a two-way street grid.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Home again

Returning to my regular Louisville commute for the past couple of days has given me a chance to check some of the things I wrote last week about the contrasts between Seattle and Louisville. I have not had any feeling of returning to earth after a visit to paradise. Indeed, the bicycling conditions are remarkably similar along the commuting routes that I took in the two cities: few places with space set aside for cyclists; stretches with lots of car traffic; a downtown street grid over-reliant on one-way streets; fair pavement conditions; numerous obstructions and hazards due to construction activities.

I have not noticed a big difference in behavior between Louisville and Seattle urban drivers, either, with the exception of much greater respect in Seattle for pedestrians in crosswalks. The big difference lies in bicyclist behavior. In Seattle, the great majority of bicycle commuters appeared adept at commuting by bicycle. Regardless of their riding speed, they predominantly rode bicycles that fit them properly, wore helmets, and carried their belongings in sophisticated waterproof panniers. Most rode in work clothes rather than bicycling clothes, and few rode on fancy road bikes, though I saw plenty of high-quality commuting bikes. 

Yesterday, I saw a downtown Louisville bicyclist riding with his seat much too low, crossing the street at a walking pace in the crosswalk, riding from one sidewalk to another, without a helmet. He would have stuck out like a sore thumb in downtown Seattle. In a 5-minute span well after dark last night, I saw two riders without lights, both on major streets (Brownsboro Road and Frankfort Avenue). Even with vastly more bicycle traffic, I never saw bicyclists in Seattle riding after dark without lights.

Somehow, the bicycling community in Seattle has learned from experience or taught one another how to ride safely and efficiently. I believe that this happens much more quickly as the proportion of serious cyclists in a community grows. As a city develops a discernible bicycling community, that bicycling community establishes social norms for its members. Social norms affect behavior more powerfully than any formal education or law enforcement programs.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Seattle wrap-up

On Friday morning, I had another unique bicycling experience. I had arrived in Seattle with my Bike Friday folding bike in its travel case and the rest of my traveling possessions in a large backpack. (I don't have the accessories to convert the travel case into a trailer.) If I rode my bicycle back downtown from Nancy's house, I could probably manage to carry the backpack but not the travel case. Repacking the Bike Friday into the travel case would require taking the bus downtown with two large pieces of luggage, during the peak of morning rush hour.

Nancy offered me another option: she could haul my luggage behind her commuting bike in her Burley trailer with me riding behind her. I packed my backpack into the Bike Friday travel case and loaded it into her trailer, and we rode together the five miles downtown. It was the first time I have ever bicycled with a baggage porter! Our route included one climb, perhaps 4% grade for about a half mile. We geared down and rode up at about 8 mph. Nancy was pulling probably 65 pounds of luggage and trailer up that grade!

Downtown Seattle has numerous hills much steeper than that. The steepest that I rode during my stay must have been 12% for a block. Anyone riding much around Seattle needs to learn to handle hills, unless they stay on the Burke-Gilman trail. As a result of building strength by riding the hills, many of the commuters I encountered kept a fast pace.

On the way to the conference on Friday, I counted 33 bicyclists - the highest of any of my 5-mile commuting rides. We had glorious weather all week, with low temperatures in the 50s and high temperatures in the 70s, with sunshine and no rain. I rode in business clothes all week without getting sweaty on the way to work.

What do bicycle advocates in Seattle think of the state of affairs there? After all, they have Cascade Bicycle Club with 10,000 members and 16 full-time paid employees, the famous and fantastically well-used Burke-Gilman Trail, and between 20 and 100 times Louisville's bicycle commuting "mode share" (the fraction of commuters who commute by bicycle). They have a downtown BikeStation and get priority treatment on ferries and other transit vehicles. Short answer: They are not resting on their laurels. With strong participation from Cascade Bicycle Club, the city in 2007 adopted an ambitious new bicycling master plan calling for major expansion and improvement of on- and off-street bicycling facilities. They have started a program based on the SmartTrips program used successfully in Portland, OR to encourage people to switch from single-occupancy motor vehicle trips to transit, bicycling, and walking. They have active bicycle safety education and traffic enforcement programs. Cascade has increased its membership by over 10% in the past year.

Bicycle advocates in Seattle have long since reached the goal of making bicycling a respected mode of transportation that handles a small but significant proportion of trips. Now, they work to make bicycling a mainstream mode, equal in importance and public consideration to driving and public transit. It looks as though they will get there within the next 10 years.

The ProWalk/ProBike Conference aims to make insight and experience from successful programs and policies available for widespread application. The people from Seattle gleefully acknowledged the ideas that they had "stolen" from Portland and other cities. The leaders in our field repeatedly invited the rest of us to use their materials and methods. We in Louisville will not need 30 years to catch up with Seattle and Portland if we accept this invitation.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

It all counts

Today was a big day for counts. On the 5-mile bicycle commute to the ProWalk/ProBike conference, I counted 21 bicyclists, all apparently fellow commuters. This roughly equals the number of bicycle commuters that I see during a typical week of morning commutes in Louisville. At the conference, I attended a morning session that included three presentations involving bicycle traffic counts and counting methods. It gave me ideas for where, when, and how to do more bicycle traffic counts in Louisville. (Bicycling for Louisville conducted morning and afternoon peak hour bicycle counts of 20 intersections in the spring of 2007.)

I joined an afternoon "mobile workshop" to see the ways in which University of Washington is encouraging its students, faculty, and staff to avoid driving alone to the campus. We stood on University Way one block off campus learning about measures taken to make the street safer and more inviting to pedestrian and bicyclists. During a 10-minute stretch at that intersection at about 4:30 PM, I counted 15 bicyclists - a pace of 90 bicyclists per hour, more than we counted at any of the intersections in Louisville. Remarkably, this happened during a "slow" time when the University is not in session. An hour later, we stood at the south edge of the campus alongside the Burke-Gilman Trail, a paved multi-use path over 30 years old. In six minutes, I counted 54 bicycles passing on the trail - a rate of 540 bicycles per hour! Although this was during rush hour peak (about 5:45 PM), it was again during a slow time of year for traffic in the University.

With or without bike lanes or paths, with or without school in session, Seattle has enormously higher bicycle traffic than Louisville does. During my glimpse of it, the Burke-Gilman Trail carried even more bicycle traffic than any of the Seattle streets I've seen. Over the past few years, Seattle has averaged about half of our number of bicycle fatalities (about 1 per year rather than about 2/year in Louisville). Even so, riding around Seattle has not given this Louisvillian a sense that the bicycling facilities here are all that much better than those in Louisville. Cascade Bicycle Club (with 10,000 dues-paying members and 20 paid staffers!) and the City of Seattle appear to agree. Last year, the City approved a new bicycling master plan with commitments to invest roughly $3 million per year for 9 years ($27 million total) on new and improved bicycle facilities. The plan calls for much more, as funds become available. The $27 million will go to carefully selected, high-benefit projects, not just some vague concepts or one or two glamorous big-ticket trails or bridges. The plan also has specific goals for these new facilities and programs: tripling the number of bicycle commuters from 4% of Seattle commuters to 12%. (I believe that fewer than 0.2% of non-home-based workers in Louisville commute by bicycle.)

Seattle appreciates what bicycling already does for the city and its people, and wants more of the same. Its tremendous bicycling advantage over Louisville has relatively little to do with more or better bicycling facilities (notwithstanding the phenomenal difference between bicycling conditions on University Bridge in Seattle compared with Clark Memorial (a.k.a. 2nd Street) Bridge in Louisville). Over the next ten years, we'll get to see how much bicycling increases and bicycle crashes decrease in Seattle as they build more and better bicycle lanes, multi-use paths, and bicycle boulevards.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

My first day as a Seattle bike commuter

During the ProWalk/ProBike Conference in Seattle, I am staying with friends 5 miles north of the conference site. My friend Nancy, a long-time bicycle commuter, led me on the bicycle ride into downtown this morning during rush hour. The experience contrasted in some interesting ways with my commuting experience in Louisville.

Seattle has the fastest growth rate of any major US city and suffers from severe automotive traffic congestion. As you picture my bicycle commute here, keep in mind that I passed and was passed by many more cars this morning than I encounter on my commute in Louisville. No part of our trip was on the famous Burke-Gilman Trail or any other off-road path; we rode on streets with lots of cars, trucks, and buses. We had the use of bike lanes for perhaps a quarter of our route, and it was generally clean. The streets were in about the same state of maintenance as Louisville city streets, with occasional holes or cracks requiring dodging but no really bad stretches.

Immediately, I noticed the omnipresence of other bicyclists. During a 5-mile commute at about 7:30 AM, we were never out of sight of other bicyclists. For about a mile and a half, we rode amidst an accidental assembly of 7 bicycle commuters. I don't think I've ever seen 6 other bicyclists during an entire 5-mile commute in Louisville, let alone 6 others at one time. On the return trip at about 6 PM, I only briefly rode without another bicyclist nearby. During the round trip, I saw at least 20 other bicyclists. They all appeared to be riding to or from work or on another trip for transportation - no racing bikes or team jerseys or groups of riders socializing or riding in a pace line.

I don't recall seeing even one bicyclist blow through a red light. For about three miles, I stayed within a block of another rider who did a track stand at every red light, sometimes for nearly a minute. I saw no wrong-way riders and very little sidewalk riding. The Seattle bicyclists, like Seattle motorists, universally yielded to pedestrians in crosswalks. I see this only rarely in Louisville. Most of the pedestrians crossed in crosswalks after waiting for the "walk" signal, another rarity in Louisville. On streets with two or three lanes in my direction, motorists accepted my staying in the middle of the narrow right lane. In general, I found the motorists patient and accepting of my presence.

Some bicyclists made some iffy choices, swerving around buses or cutting around slow-moving cars. For the first and second times in my many years of urban riding, I had bicyclists pass on my right - bizarre and dangerous behavior. On the whole, though, I found the behavior of Seattle's rush-hour on-street bicyclists better by far than run-of-the-mill bicycling practice in Louisville.

The high number of bicyclists on Seattle streets appears to have had an unfortunate side effect: none of the other bicyclists waved, nodded, or acknowledged me at all, even when I greeted them. The relative rarity of bicycle commuting in Louisville seems to support a camaraderie that I enjoy. I hope that we keep that friendliness even as numbers of bicycle commuters increase.

At the ProWalk/ProBike Conference, I continue to learn about ways to make bicycling safer and more enjoyable and convenient. Still, it's fascinating and heartening to see how much better bicycling can be even in the absence of visibly improved streets and intersections. Better attitudes and practices by motorists and bicyclists make an enormous difference.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Learning to improve bicycling, part 1

Later this morning, my bicycle advocacy colleagues and I will close the Thunderhead Alliance Leadership Retreat and head to Seattle for the ProWalk/ProBike Conference of National Center for Bicycling and Walking. Sitting at home with fellow bicyclists, I can generate loads of ideas about how to raise money to fund bicycle advocacy, how to engage diverse voices in the bicycling community, how to build partnerships to advance bicycling, etc. Here at the Retreat, we can go beyond ideas to talk about the experiences of our organizations - programs that have actually worked to achieve those goals. The wealth of collective experience is amazing.

I will come home with specific advice for making our website more useful and engaging for our members and the wider community, for delivering good advice on safe bicycling and driving to more people in our region, for winning good legislation at the state level, and for developing local support for crucial federal legislation. As importantly, I will return with recharged enthusiasm and optimism for our success in that work.

Beginning this afternoon at ProWalk/ProBike, I will immerse myself in the best examples of planning and design of bike boulevards, bicycle lanes and paths, bicycle-friendly businesses and neighborhoods, bicycle safety education campaigns, ways to measure bicycling, and other technical topics that affect our cycling environment.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Learning from the best and brightest

Some of my recent posts have suggested ways that officials in greater Louisville and elsewhere in Kentucky and Indiana could improve bicycling conditions and traffic safety by adopting innovations proven elsewhere. I am following my own advice. From last night through Tuesday morning, I am attending the Leadership Retreat of the Thunderhead Alliance for Bicycling and Walking, the North American network of bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organizations. The organizations represented here range from embryonic (not yet incorporated, with no staff or membership) to established and powerful (up to 30 years old, with staff of up to 40 people and annual budgets of up to $3 million). Each person here is passionate about expanding and enhancing walking, bicycling, or both, and all of us have experiences and wisdom to share with each other.

At the Thunderhead retreat, I learn what our peers throughout North America have done to develop good relationships with partners in government, industry, and the media, to pass legislation strengthening the rights of bicyclists and increase funding for bicycle-related projects, and to serve the needs of cyclists in a wide range of communities. We inspire and educate each other, sharing what has worked well and what has fallen flat. We also give each other moral support to face challenges and stay true to our visions of our states and cities taking full advantage of the transformational possibilities of bicycling and walking. The retreat is taking place at a beautiful retreat center on Bainbridge Island, WA.

On Tuesday, most of us (including myself) will take the ferry to Seattle for the ProWalk/ProBike Conference of the National Center for Bicycling and Walking. This conference will have a more technical tone, with presentations describing leading research and practice in areas of urban planning, design of bicycing and walking facilities including roadways, and public education and other programs to encourage safer walking, bicycling, and driving. People who have led the development and use of street designs that I have recommended in this blog will be on hand for informal discussions as well as formal presentations.

Both of these events give me a chance to learn about the state of the practice and bounce ideas around with some of the most experienced practitioners in North America. They energize me for my work back home, and send me home with ideas, information, and contacts to make that work more effective in making bicycling safe, enjoyable, and convenient. As the week progresses, I'll share high points with you.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Patience lacking; patience rewarded

On Saturday, I took my first long recreational ride in several months - to and from Corydon from a few miles east of downtown Louisville. After bouncing around on city streets through Louisville, Clarksville, and New Albany, the ride gets more rural as it climbs Edwardsville Hill on Corydon Pike. The last 13 miles or so follows Corydon Ridge Road, winding around and over roller-coaster hills into Corydon. Household tasks kept me home until midday, so I rode through the heat of the day. The temperature hit 97 F, making the hilly ride especially challenging.

Nonetheless, I was thrilled to be riding on country roads again. Even with the march of suburbia out Corydon Ridge Road over the past 6 or 8 years, it still feels a whole lot different than riding around town. All of those new housing developments mean more automotive traffic, though. Most of the drivers waited patiently behind me when blind curves or hill crests made it impossible for them to judge the safety of passing. A few drivers suffered from what I call impatience-induced psychosis. They risked head-on collisions to pass when they could not possibly see whether the left lane had oncoming traffic. Who in their right mind would risk their life and the lives of at least two other people in order to save no more than 30 seconds?

This morning, a friend shared a very different experience. He is an elite road racer who rides many thousands of miles each year. He was riding downtown alternately falling behind and catching up with a police car. When they both stopped at a traffic signal, the young officer rolled down his window and said, "It's nice to see a bicyclist obeying the laws." My friend was pleased that the officer would make a point to notice and thank him for his patience - stopping at stop lights. When we drive, let's thank bicyclists who do the right thing. When we ride, let's thank motorists who treat us with respect. It may not take anything more than common courtesy for us to stem the much-ballyhooed (but still unproven) rise of road rage between bicyclists and motorists.

Monday, August 25, 2008

How cool is that!

On my way home from work on Friday, I saw another rider getting onto his bicycle. Far from the norm for downtown bicyclists, he was wearing an aerodynamic helmet and riding a time trial bicycle with bladed carbon wheels. He caught me at a red light and asked, in a European accent, "Is there a bicycle shop near here?" It turns out that he came from Denmark for the Ironman Triathlon in Louisville this weekend. This is his first visit to the continental US. He went to Hawai'i last year - I would guess for the Ironman, as well. We taught each other the hand signals for stopping in our respective countries: left arm bent at the elbow, hand pointing down, palm back in the US; left arm extended upward, palm forward in Denmark.

We rode together to a nearby bicycle shop where he borrowed a wrench to tighten his pedals. I gave him the phone number of some friends who frequently host Danish exchange students, as well as my own phone numbers. He politely declined my offer to ride with him on Saturday, saying that he needed to train on the triathlon route. I was astonished to have encountered a European triathlete on my bike ride home from work in downtown Louisville!

During the 2005 Louisville Bicycle Summit I could not have imagined that Louisville would in 2008 host an Ironman Triathlon with thousands of competitors from as far away as Europe. In the past three years, our city has hosted the Master's National championship series for two years, a major national cyclocross race, and many other races, and our region now has over 30 sponsored bicycle racing teams. Several community leaders avidly race bicycles. This marks amazing local growth in bicycle racing over the past 10 years.

This explosion of bicycle racing happened because some people convinced themselves it was possible and worked hard to make it happen. I take their example as an inspirational reminder that a similar explosion in transportation cycling and other types of bicycling can happen here if a few of us show similar hope and diligence. Let's make it happen!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Maintaining progress

As I have written before, Mayor Abramson's commitment to improve bicycling conditions in Louisville has had a tremendous and generally positive effect. Significant changes in attitude over the past several years at local and state transportation and land use planning agencies, strengthened by good continuing education for their staffers, have also paid off in better designs for some new and rebuilt roads and intersections. Nonetheless, no bicyclist could mistake greater Louisville for Shangri-La. We still face many challenges with "the built environment" ranging from unnecessary inconveniences to life-threatening hazards. Here are a few thoughts for continuing to improve roads and paths to make bicycling safer, more convenient, and more popular.

First, enforce the bicycle-related standards that we have. About four years ago, the Land Development Code incorporated a provision requiring bicycle parking at new or expanded commercial and institutional developments. I haven't noticed a significant increase in bicycle parking at new buildings in Louisville since then. Louisville Metro has used grant funding to install spiral stainless steel racks on public sidewalks upon request by neighboring businesses, but that program is not intended to satisfy the Land Development Code bicycle parking requirement that private developers provide bicycle parking, just as they provide automotive parking, at their own expense. It appears that someone is failing to enforce a good new standard. Other local standards not consistently applied include where and how to stripe bike lanes (per the Metro Complete Streets Manual Chapter 4 - Market Street has several examples of inappropriate and nonstandard bike lane striping) and cleaning broken glass from automotive crash sites.

Second, develop new local design standards according to best practices proven elsewhere. The Metro Complete Streets Manual describes how to route bike lanes or multi-use paths through various types of intersections, but says nothing about how to design the intersections themselves. Two intersection designs, mini traffic circles and modern one-lane roundabouts, have proved excellent elsewhere and deserve application here. Both eliminate stop signs, dramatically reduce the number and severity of crashes, slow motor vehicles without requiring a full stop, and allow bicyclists to proceed safely through intersections without stopping in most cases. Another missing standard here is a safe street-path intersection design to keep cars off paths without using steel bollards (posts) that can cause injuries to bicyclists and runners. Even if bollards are deemed necessary, they should be painted a bright color and festooned with reflectors to minimize chances of crashes, especially at night.

Third, develop and apply detailed construction standards. Bicycles are much more sensitive than cars are to uneven or damaged surfaces. A vertical mismatch between a concrete driveway and the asphalt road surface, a pavement crack running parallel to the travel direction, or a utility grate or cap sunk an inch below the pavement can cause a catastrophic crash for a bicyclist. Public agencies in our region, as far as I know, have no construction standards to address these and other issues that may seem trivial to motorists but can have life-or-death significance for bicyclists. We need to assign to the appropriate agencies the responsibility to attend to these details.

Fourth, maintain what we have. Gravel, sand, crash debris, fallen leaves, etc. can make a shoulder, bike lane, or intersection dangerous for bicyclists. Standard twice-yearly street sweeping schedules cannot keep streets acceptably clean. We should increase the frequency of regular cleaning and maintenance for any street in the bike route network, whether or not it includes a striped bike lane. We should use truck-mounted pavement roughness detectors (already used in some places by Kentucky Dept. of Highways) to identify streets in need of patching or repaving. This would help apply our paving funds more efficiently than repaving on the basis of a fixed schedule. We need to set aside the money necessary to clean our paths immediately after storms that leave them covered with dangerous mud and debris. It should not take citizen complaints to get paths cleaned - the responsible agencies should have path maintenance included in their standard protocol for dealing with significant storms. 

None of this work is glamorous, but all of it would contribute to major improvements in the bicycling environment. The bicycling community would do well to let our elected officials know that we appreciate the high-profile special events and announcements of new paths, but that the success of the mayor's initiative to make Louisville a bicycle-friendly city depends on taking care of the details in a systematic and continuing way.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Bike commuter down!

I always find it painful to read or hear about a fellow bicyclist having been hit by a car. Lately, it has gotten increasingly personal. In the past 5 weeks, at least three commuting cyclists in Louisville have been hit by cars, and a fourth (Dan Cooley) was assaulted by a motorist. One death (Vance Kokojan), three sets of painful (though not life-threatening) injuries. In the past three days, at least two bicycle commuters have been hit locally. One is a friend and Bicycling for Louisville volunteer.

Each time I hear of a bike-car crash, I try to get in touch with the bicyclist or any witnesses to learn as much as possible about what happened. Thus far, I know next to nothing about the crash that happened yesterday. My friend who got hit on Wednesday has told me part of his story, and we'll meet on Monday to talk further. Everything that we can learn about these crashes can help us determine what can prevent future crashes. Sometimes, surviving bicyclists can learn something that they can do to protect themselves better. If a similar set of motorist or bicyclist errors shows up repeatedly, we can educate the public about them and urge the police to enforce the pertinent laws more strictly.

Bicycling for Louisville also wants to learn how well the legal system works for bicyclists. When do injured bicyclists receive a fair shake from the legal system and drivers' insurers? When do the bicyclists get a bum deal, even when the motorist bears most or all of the fault for the crash? This information is helping us to craft our vulnerable roadway users bill, and will help us get it passed in the Kentucky legislature.

If you or anyone you know in greater Louisville gets in a car-bike crash in which you believe that the motorist is (at least mostly) at fault, please contact us as soon as possible after the crash. We can put you in touch with lawyers recommended by other bicyclists and by fellow lawyers. We can tell you simple things that you can do to protect your rights and give yourself the best chances of a just settlement. If and when you are ready to talk about your crash, we will interview you respectfully to help the cycling community capture as much knowledge from your unfortunate experience as possible.

Through the sadness and anger, we continue to work diligently toward solutions that make bike-car crashes increasingly rare.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Returning to the scene

After my near-crash yesterday at Payne Street and Charlton Street in Louisville, I thought more about what happened. One experienced urban cyclist told me that he had recently ridden through the intersection from Charlton Street. He noted that a driver stopped at the stop sign on Charlton could have difficulty seeing up the hill on Payne Street, the direction from which I approached. Dirk Gowin, Metro Louisville's chief transportation engineer and a commuting cyclist, disagreed. In his memory, a driver at that stop sign should have a clear view east on Payne Street.

This morning I rode through that intersection as usual, and then I looped back to see it from the perspective of the driver who almost hit me. Stopped at the stop sign on Charlton Street, I looked left and right to find how well I could see traffic along Payne Street. The view southwest toward Spring Street and Lexington Road was clear. To the east, I could see clearly for at least 200 feet. As I approached the intersection yesterday at 24 mph (or 35 feet per second), the driver at the stop sign should have had roughly 200/35 or about 6 seconds to notice me before I rode into her path. Six seconds sounds like a short time, but it's much longer than the 1 or 2 seconds needed to see and respond to an oncoming vehicle.

In other words, a careful driver at that stop sign at Charlton Street would have easily avoided any conflict with an oncoming bicyclist on Payne Street. The intersection can certainly be reconfigured to improve safety, but my first reaction was probably correct: the driver who nearly hit me had no excuse for causing this close call.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Heaven and hell

How can anyone not ride bicycle in weather like this? During the morning commute today, greater Louisville had temperatures in the upper 60s and we expect a fifth day in a row (National Weather Service) with sunny skies and temperatures reaching no higher than the mid 80s. When I left work yesterday afternoon, the temperature was 81 degrees with a light breeze, sunny sky, and low humidity. It feels like paradise. This idyllic weather makes it easy to ignore hazards and challenges that otherwise might dim a cyclist's mood.

Alas, I'm glad that I didn't ignore too much on the ride to work this morning, because I almost got hit by a car. Riding down the hill on Payne Street westbound toward the corner of Payne and Charlton Streets (Google map), I narrowly avoided getting hit by a driver pulling out from the stop sign from Charlton onto eastbound Payne Street. I was heading downhill at about 24 mph (in a 25 mph zone) with another car following me at a respectful distance. I was bearing left to follow Payne Street as it bends at Charlton. The driver coming from Charlton was bearing left to get onto Payne Street eastbound. Vehicles on Charlton face a stop sign; vehicles on Payne Street do not. Traffic on Charlton Street should yield to traffic on Payne Street.

When the driver at the stop sign on Charlton failed to yield to me, we were on a head-on collision course. I yelled "Hey!" at the top of my lungs. Having already started to bear left, I was leaning the wrong way to make an emergency turn to the right (otherwise the ideal evasive maneuver). Instead, I turned harder to the left to clear her car more quickly. Had she not hit the brakes, she would have hit me broadside. She stopped in the middle of the intersection. I yelled some choice words into her open passenger-side window and continued riding. The driver following me pulled alongside me when the lane widened and asked, "Are you all right?" I said, "I'm fine." At the stop light a few feet later, I asked her, "Did that look as crazy to you as it did to me?" She nodded and said, "My heart was pounding!"

My coworker, another devoted bicycle commuter, observed that the strange geometry of the Payne/Charlton intersection frequently causes problems for both motorists and cyclists. For many years, Payne Street has been signed as a Bike Route, based on the low speed and volume of motor vehicle traffic compared to Frankfort Avenue and Lexington Road. When Louisville Metro designates a street as a Bike Route, shouldn't the Department of Public Works and Assets evaluate the street and its intersections for any necessary safety improvements? Budget constraints might not allow costly changes immediately, but the Bike Route designation should be accompanied by a plan, including time line, for any appropriate improvements. In the case of Payne Street, four such improvements stand out:
  1. Replace the stop sign intersection at Charlton Street and Payne Street with a modern one-lane  roundabout. This is much different than a traffic circle and has no stop signs. It would help to keep traffic on Payne Street to the 25 mph speed limit, reduce crashes at the intersection, and reduce confusion and inconvenience for drivers approaching from Charlton Street.
  2. Repave Payne Street from Baxter Avenue to Lexington Road, where pavement cracks parallel to the travel direction threaten bicyclists with disastrous crashes. This section of Payne Street has had unacceptable pavement cracks for over 4 years, as detailed in a letter to Metro government in May 2004. (To their credit, Metro has fixed many of the maintenance issues raised in that letter.)
  3. Make safety improvements at the traffic signal at Payne Street and Lexington Road. Consider replacing this signal with a modern roundabout, which would reduce traffic delays for motorists and end dangerous confusion about which lane to use. Each leg of the intersection has two lanes to serve three destinations, with each lane open to straight traffic and turning traffic. If a roundabout is deemed too expensive or otherwise inappropriate, use pavement markings to designate turn lanes.
  4. Per #3, consider replacing the traffic signal at Payne Street and Spring Street with a 1-lane roundabout. The consideration of traffic signal versus roundabout will be quite different for these two intersections because of the difference in traffic volumes, numbers of lanes, and frequency of turning movements. If a roundabout is deemed inappropriate, mark turning lanes and install bicycle-sensitive traffic detectors to trigger the lights on both Spring Street and Payne Street. The existing detectors on eastbound Spring Street will not trip for bicycles.
If the vast majority of drivers (including bicyclists) paid close attention, showed patience and caution, and followed the traffic laws, we could get by with the streets and intersections that we already have. Good design of roads and intersections takes into account the common mistakes that drivers make and makes those mistakes less likely, less dangerous, or both. It will cost money to retrofit existing roads and intersections to improve safety for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. In the meantime, we need to push private developers and government officials to use the best available cost-effective designs each time a new road or subdivision street network is designed and built. "The way we've always done it" doesn't cut it anymore. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

How much is youth bicycle education worth?

Last week, Bicycling for Louisville had to vacate the old church building that had housed our youth bicycle repair and safety education program. The owner of the building, Presbyterian Community Center in Smoketown, had given us free use of part of the building for the past three years. (Thank you, PCC!) Now, they have demolished the old church to make room for a new child development center.

While packing our belongings and moving them into storage, I reflected on the triumphs and challenges of the youth programs that we operated there. In 2005, as part of the grant-funded ACTIVE Louisville project, we launched a youth earn-a-bike program. In the program, kids 10-14 years old learned bicycle repair skills and could earn a bicycle to keep by helping to refurbish other bicycles. We also taught them bicycle handling skills and traffic safety.

Alas, earn-a-bike programs are difficult to operate at low cost without many dedicated and skilled volunteers. Teaching a 12-year-old how to repair a bicycle takes enormously longer than having a competent mechanic repair the bike. The instructors need excellent bike repair skills, teaching skills, and ability to maintain order among pre-teens in an environment rich with accident potential. Letting a repaired bicycle leave the shop without a thorough inspection (and possibly re-repair) by a competent mechanic opens the risk of injury to someone riding the bicycle, and consequently the risk of lawsuits. Ours was among many youth earn-a-bike programs that closed after a couple of years because we couldn't afford to provide enough qualified adult help for each student.

Packing up the shop gave me a chance to see again many of our experiments at making the program more effective and interesting for the young people. We had lots of good ideas, and some of them worked. Even our most successful summers or semesters, though, ended with only three or four students earning bicycles. Most of the students who started the program dropped out after a week or two, once they realized that they needed to work to earn a bicycle. A pre-teen ready to attack any bicycle problem with Vise Grips and a can of WD-40 often does not believe that some old person has something valuable to teach him or her about bike repair! God bless those gifted teachers and youth leaders who can lead young people to learn without making them feel like students in a class. I haven't developed that gift.

What about the triumphs? Taking three 11- and 12-year olds on an 18-mile bike trip and then on the Tour de Spirit rank as high points. We taught one 12-year-old to ride a 2-wheeler without training wheels. Three months later, he joined me on a 23-mile ride! Some of our students got pretty good at overhauling and adjusting the bearings on hubs, bottom brackets, and headsets. They developed skills needed to ride safely in traffic. We had fun together. I prize the memory of watching "our" kids riding through the neighborhood on bikes that they had refurbished and earned.

Were these high points worth the disappointments - the break-ins and thefts, dwindling enrollments, scrambling for funding, shutting down the shop? From a funder's standpoint, probably not. We have no way to show that the benefits justified the cost per participant. Perhaps a student who did not complete the program learned something that kept her or him out of a crash. Maybe the program built enthusiasm for biking among kids who participated only briefly or not at all. Maybe one of our graduates had a life-changing experience that would justify the entire cost of three years of running the program. We'll probably never know.

I know one thing, though. When I see a group of our young bicycling students start to "get it" - using proper lane positioning, scanning and signaling before turning, paying attention before entering or crossing a road - I know that our work is paying off. Every day, I ponder how to bring this experience to more youngsters in ways they can enjoy and absorb. Maybe we'll find the perfect formula and someday this blog will tell about the thousands of youth we have reached and how they have made bicycling safer and more widespread throughout greater Louisville. In the meantime, I will feel grateful for the opportunity to help a few youths learn to enjoy bicycling safely.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pure Joy

On Bike-To-Work Day in 2003, I conducted a 2-minute poll of people stopping at a booth at the downtown Louisville Bike-To-Work Celebration. Participants answered a handful of questions about whether and how often they commuted by bicycle, and reasons in favor of or against biking to work. People who rode to work rarely or not at all gave a variety of reasons in favor of bike commuting - getting exercise, saving money, etc. People who rode to work frequently almost uniformly gave high scores to a reason ignored by non-bike-commuters: biking to work is fun!

Even in dense urban traffic, most of us bicycle commuters enjoy our rides. Bicyclists who ride strenuous training rides or push themselves hard on recreational rides experience the equivalent of a runner's high, another form of joy. Riding a long touring day through unfamiliar terrain brings the joy of discovery and all of the sensory pleasures of the route, perhaps heightened by the pride of hauling ourselves and our bicycles over some scenic peak or mountain pass. Those of us who poke around neighborhoods and parks at a leisurely pace avoiding hills have the joy of moving slowly through a rich sensory environment observing the animals, plants, people, topography, and buildings that we so often miss when racing from Point A to Point B. Riding on a quiet country road or neighborhood street carrying on a conversation with a riding buddy provides a joyful camaraderie difficult to find in a stationery venue.

Fast, slow, strenuous, easy, distant, local, urban, rural... all of these rides have in common the joy that we encountered when we first learned to ride a bicycle. I have the pleasure and privilege of having all of these riding experiences at least occasionally, and of sharing them with other bicyclists. If you ride in any of these ways, you are part of my bicycling fellowship and community. I am grateful that thousands of people in Southern Indiana and north-central Kentucky take part in the bicycling community, and that our bicycling community continues to grow.