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.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The American Love Affair with the Bicycle

The "bikes versus cars" talk that peeks its ugly head from the C-J story chat in the aftermath of a car-bike crash and that occasionally oozes forth in other media is just the dark underside of a much more positive general view of bicycling in the US. The US public has a vast reservoir of good feelings toward bicycling.

The people who probably know the US psyche best work in the advertising industry. Pop quiz: In what advertisement did you most recently see a person bicycling? I'll bet that it wasn't a bicycle advertisement. Bicycles and bicycling are used to advertise cars, trucks, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, snack foods, health care,  financial services, banks, insurance, travel... Advertisers use images of bicyclists and bicycles because the general public has good associations with bicycling. Bicycling means freedom, fun, health, independence. If only avid bicyclists felt this way, insurance companies and beer companies would not rely on the allure of bicycling to sell their products.

Closer to home, my wife and I encounter lots of happy responses when we ride our tandem bicycle through Louisville neighborhoods and parks. Strangers wave, greet us, and smile. We have the advantage of riding an unusual bicycle - a tandem recumbent - that plain and simple looks like fun to ride. (It is fun to ride!) We aren't going fast, or dripping sweat, or looking absorbed in athletic effort. Our favorite response came one day when we rode around the loop inside the Masonic Home property on Frankfort Avenue, and a man probably 70 years old sang to us, "For you'll look sweet, upon the seat of my bicycle built for two!"

It's time for us bicyclists to take advantage of the good feelings that current non-bicyclists have for bicycling. Assuming that everyone hates us is both self-defeating and inaccurate. Let's take the risk of inviting others to share our joy of bicycling - because most of them remember that joy from sometime in their lives.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Bikes Abound at Forecastle Festival

This weekend's Forecastle Festival at the Belvedere in Louisville gave a glimpse of what "bike culture" could look like in Louisville. Dozens of bikes were locked along both sides of the entrance walkway, and another couple of dozen bikes were parked in the new valet bike parking racks set up by Bike Couriers Bike Shop just inside the gate. Some people walked their bikes or rode them (not a good idea in a crowded pedestrian environment) within the festival.

I saw more people wearing courier bags, bicycling hats, and bicycle-logo shirts than at any recent local event that did not have a bicycling theme. Many of the folks who came to the Bicycling for Louisville booth in the Activism area told us that they rode to work, rode everywhere, loved various types of riding... We didn't need to convince them that bicycling was a good idea!

We got a surprise bonus for participating in Forecastle this year. Visitors to the Activism area voted for their favorites among the 50 advocacy groups represented, with the top vote-getter receiving a $500 donation from Finlandia Vodka. They chose Bicycling for Louisville! Thanks to Brown-Forman (owner of Finlandia) for this generous donation and to all of the Forecastle Festival attenders who voted for Bicycling for Louisville. This donation will help us carry on the advocacy and education work that you have read about in this blog. If you would like to support our work or to volunteer, please visit our website.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Don't try this at home, or anyplace else

What's up lately with wrong-way bicycling in Louisville? Yesterday, I saw at least five bicyclists riding against traffic on one-way streets or riding on the left side of 2-way streets. This morning, I saw two others. I see bicyclists of different races, ages, and apparent economic status levels riding against traffic everywhere from Northwestern Parkway in Portland to Frankfort Avenue in Crescent Hill.

Wrong-way bicycling is one of the top three ways that bicyclists get themselves killed by cars. The others are bicycling while intoxicated (no joke!) and riding at night without adequate lights. I consider all three suicidal. There is never a good excuse for doing any of them.

Most readers of this blog probably already religiously avoid wrong-way riding. You can use the following list to help educate others. If you even occasionally ride against traffic, please read on to see if this will help you change your mind and your bicycling practice.

Top 7 reasons NEVER to ride against traffic:
7) If you crash into someone else, you will most likely be held at fault. In other words, wrong-way riders give away their legal rights. If you like the idea of crashing with a car and then having to pay to get the car fixed, then wrong-way riding is for you.

6) Many traffic signs and signals will be difficult or impossible for you to see. If you ride the wrong way on a 1-way street, you will see only the back side of the traffic signals, so you won't know when traffic on the side street has the green light. Most Stop, Yield, and other traffic signs are posted on the right side of the street, so it will be easy for you to miss them and get into a crash with someone who is abiding by the laws.

5) You might collide with a bicyclist riding the correct way. If a right-way rider comes toward you and you avoid colliding, you might force one another into a curb, parked car, or moving car. If you cause a law-abiding cyclist to crash by riding on the wrong side of the street, you also risk the wrath of said law-abiding cyclist. For heaven's sake, NEVER ride against traffic in a bike lane! This is a real recipe for crashing with another cyclist.

4) Being able to see cars coming toward you doesn't help! Most urban and suburban streets have concrete curbs that will keep you from getting out of the way of an oncoming car. You see the car coming, and then you are trapped.

3) If you get hit, you will probably suffer more severe injuries because your speed and the motor vehicle's speed add up. A 35-mph car strikes a 12-mph bicyclist from behind at 35-12= 23 mph. A 35-mph car strikes an oncoming 12-mph bicyclist at 35+12=47 mph - twice as fast, with dramatically higher chances of severe or fatal injury.

2) The speed argument in #3 also means that drivers will have only one-third to one-half the time to see you and react to your presence as they would if you were riding in the same direction as the motor vehicles in your lane. If you think that too many drivers fail to notice you when you ride with traffic, just imagine what will happen when you give them only half the time to notice you.

1) A wrong-way cyclist crosses every driveway and street from the opposite direction that drivers on that driveway or street normally look to see crossing traffic. Wrong-way cyclists make themselves difficult or impossible for crossing drivers to see, because the roads are set up with the assumption that everyone drives or rides on the right-hand side. Coming toward a crossing driver from the wrong direction drastically increases chances of a crash.

Spread the word: Don't ride against traffic! Riding against traffic triples your chances of a crash, increases the likelihood of serious injuries, and makes you at least partially liable in case of a crash. If we could rid our region of this one common bicyclist mistake, our bicycle crashes, injuries, and deaths would probably drop by 30-50%.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Making Real Improvements

In the wake of Vance Kokojan's tragic death, Mayor Abramson, Police Chief White, and citizens around the region have stated their opinions of what it will take to make bicycling safer in our region. Several priorities stand out, based on the experience of many cities around the world.

First, keep encouraging bicycling. Mayor Abramson and other Metro officials continue to tell the community that bicycling, for both transportation and recreation, is good for bicyclists and for the community at large. The Mayor continues to remind motorists that bicyclists belong on the roads. Thank you, Jerry. This message needs to stay front and center, because experience worldwide shows that more bicycling correlates with lower crash, injury, and death rates. (My July 17 post, "Good Times, Bad Times" explains this "safety in numbers" phenomenon.) We need to make sure that the frustration and fear that follow a bicyclist's death do not result in people riding less.

Second, address any factors that contributed to the specific crash. An avid bicyclist and fellow UPS employee of Mr. Kokojan has contacted the City's head transportation engineer suggesting two fairly simple steps to make Outer Loop survivable for other bicyclists who need to use it. First, keep the shoulders clean. Having a ridable shoulder would help bicyclists stay out of the path of high-speed motorists. Second, drop the speed limit from 55 mph to 45 mph. That stretch of Outer Loop already includes two traffic signals at UPS, so a lower speed limit will not significantly interfere with its function for motorists. Lower speed dramatically reduces the chances of death for a cyclist or pedestrian hit by a motor vehicle, and also makes it easier for motorists to avoid crashing. I spoke yesterday to the same Metro official and supported those two changes. Because Outer Loop is a state road, Kentucky Department of Highways will need to decide about changing the speed limit. Metro government can lobby for the change, but can't make the decision.

Third, learn from the crash. Comparing this crash with others helps to identify patterns that point to actions we can take to reduce risks. I'm thinking of four fatal car-hit-bike crashes in Louisville duringthe past 2 years: this most recent crash on Outer Loop, the May 4 pre-dawn death of a bicyclist struck by a police cruiser on Dixie Highway, the infamous death of Chips Cronen last July on the Clark Memorial Bridge, and the cyclist on Grinstead Drive killed by a motorist turning left onto Cherokee Parkway in 2006. Three of these four fatal car-bike crashes took place in dim light at or before dawn, one on a misty day. Motorists need reminders to stay alert to bicyclists in less-than-ideal light, and bicyclists would do well to invest in better-than-minimalist taillights and headlights for riding in poor light. We need to keep fresh batteries in our lights, too, and consider using reflective vests or other reflective gear when riding in dim conditions. At least three of the four crashes involved motorists simply not paying adequate attention, or hurrying without concern for others nearby. There is no excuse for hitting a clearly visible bicyclist from behind - this happened twice among these four crashes. We need laws and public education to make this obvious and to penalize guilty drivers in a way that makes a real impression on them and on others.

Do these four crashes indicate a need for new facilities? Chips Cronen and Vance Kokojan were killed by motorists who could have passed them safely by moving into or staying in the left lane. It would have been wonderful if those roads had shoulders or bike lanes that would have allowed the bicyclists to stay out of the paths of these inattentive drivers, but its is clear than any driver with his or her head on straight could have avoided them just fine on the roads as they exist today. No new facilities could have prevented the other two fatal crashes. Bicycling for Louisville will continue to invest time in the slow process of improving the roads, while also putting an emphasis on improving the behavior of drivers and bicyclists through education combined with better laws and stronger law enforcement.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Good Miles

This past week, I rode bicycle 157 miles - my highest 1-week mileage total thus far this year. Probably all of the active bicycle racers in Louisville and more than a few recreational cyclists, along with some bike couriers and long-distance commuters, rode at least that far during the week. My 157-mile week stood out for one reason: the longest single ride during the week was only 12 miles.

Each day, I ride 5 miles to work - perhaps a few miles longer if I take a detour. Then, I will ride to appointments, ride home, maybe take a tandem ride with my wife (including that 12-mile ride last Sunday) or ride with a group of students. My rides totaled between 10 and 36 miles each day last week. Sometimes, I was poking around the neighborhood at a leisurely pace, and sometimes sprinting to keep up with traffic signals downtown. I rode 25 miles on the day that I donated a unit of blood.

None of this makes me remarkable. Instead, it points out part of what makes bicycling remarkable. Those short rides add up to the same health benefits and mood lift that come from a long ride. We can fit short rides into a busy schedule and still keep ourselves in good shape without needing to set aside large blocks of training time. We can enjoy riding nearly anyplace, and have great fun on a 20-minute ride a few minutes from home. Short rides for work and errands and visits give us the opportunity to replace the costs and problems of car use with the benefits and pleasures of bicycling.

Never let anyone convince you that you need a special place or special excuse to enjoy a bike ride!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Doing Something About It

This morning's online edition of the Courier-Journal includes more details about yesterday morning's death of bicycle commuter Vance Kokojan, along with heart-rending notes from friends and a family member. The WAVE-3 TV story concluded that "(i)t just turns out to be a tragic accident," evidently because Metro Police have thus far chosen not to press charges. The Courier-Journal story gives a more accurate description, citing LMPD Officer Phil Russell: "Under state law police are limited in the traffic and misdemeanor charges they can file in the case of an accident they don't witness... If, however, an investigation determines a driver's actions are wanton or indifferent to others, the findings could be presented to the commonwealth attorney's office for possible action..."

Kentucky law places traffic infractions into three categories: traffic violations, punishable by fines and points against one's license; misdemeanors, also punishable by jail time; and felonies, punishable by extended sentences in a penitentiary. Most speeding violations, right-of-way violations, running red lights, and other common infractions fall into the first category. Traveling the wrong way on a limited-access highway or operating a motor vehicle using an expired license, for example, classify as misdemeanors. Felonies include vehicular assault, manslaughter, homicide, and DUI on a suspended license. A police officer can cite or arrest a person whom the officer has reason to believe has committed a felony, regardless of whether the officer witnessed the incident. For misdemeanors and traffic violations, though, the law does not allow officers to cite people for infractions not witnessed by the officer.

In the vast majority of traffic crashes, no officer witnesses the crash and no charges can be filed unless the police and prosecutor decide to pursue a felony charge. A felony charge requires that the prosecutor prove that the defendant's action was wanton, reckless, knowing, or intentional. Each of these "states of mind" has its own legal definition, and each felony charge rests on a particular state of mind. Murder, by definition, is an intentional act. Wanton endangerment, by definition, requires "extreme indifference to the value of human life" but not an intention to harm the victim.

Bottom line: Police and prosecutors need to decide whether to charge an errant driver with a felony that would land the driver in the penitentiary, or not to file any charges at all. As we see time after time when bicyclists and pedestrians are killed by drivers, they usually choose the latter option, except in cases of DUI or hit-and-run. The law currently offers no middle ground.

Bicycling for Louisville has launched a campaign, Focus On The Road, to change this. Our proposed law, now being drafted by a legislative staffer, would do two things to plug this loophole and hold bad drivers accountable for injuring or killing vulnerable roadway users - bicyclists, pedestrians, equestrians, and road workers. First, it would more clearly define the driving behaviors that constitute felony recklessness. This would allow prosecutors to win felony cases more easily when drivers injure or kill a vulnerable roadway user while driving recklessly. Second, it would specifically allow law enforcement officers to cite motorists for non-felony infractions that the officer did not witness if those infractions resulted in injury or death to a vulnerable roadway user. The officer would issue the citation based on other acceptable forms of evidence such as physical evidence and eyewitness testimony.

Check our website for more information on the Focus On The Road campaign. Check back for updates, including why we chose this approach and how you can help us get the bill passed. When we have a complete draft of the bill, revised with advice from our legal team, we will post it on our website.

Holding drivers accountable for deadly driving will help us make the roads safer for all users.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Good Times, Bad Times

Before seeing the morning's news, I planned to name this post "In the Cool of the Morning." Taking a detour through Seneca and Cherokee Parks and the Beargrass Creek Trail on my bicycle commute this morning, I saw 7 other bicyclists out enjoying the beautiful morning before the heat of the day set in. Watching those recreational bicyclists along with probably 20 runners and 10 walkers out on the park roads and trail got me thinking that Mayor Abramson and Health Department Director Dr. Troutman must feel great to see what seems to me a boom in physical activity in Louisville. They have worked hard to promote it and bring it about.

Alas, the morning news shows a different side of the story: a man bicycling in the right lane westbound on Outer Loop struck and killed by a car swerving from the left lane to pass a tractor trailer. The story chat to the online Courier-Journal story shows common threads:
  • the Mayor should stop promoting bicycling until the city improves the streets
  • the streets are too dangerous, so bicyclists should ride on the sidewalks instead
  • bike lanes won't fix the problem - we need better driving attitudes
  • changing attitudes can't or won't solve the problem - we need bike lanes & paths
It's a tragedy whenever a bicyclist dies in a crash, and my anger and sadness grows when the bicyclist was killed by an impatient and incautious driver. I understand the impulse to make pronouncements and point fingers when a fatal crash like this happens. We need to make sure that we are solving the right problem, though, rather than doing something just to do something.

As best I know, the victim in this crash was the second bicyclist to die in a crash in Louisville Metro in the year since Chips Cronin was struck and killed on the Clark Memorial (2nd Street) Bridge. The other was a man struck and killed by a police car while riding before dawn on Dixie Highway on May 4. What does this mean about the safety of bicycling on streets of Louisville?
  1. Two bicycling deaths in a year falls within the range of bicycling deaths in recent years in Louisville. Of course, we want to see bicycling crashes, injuries, and deaths decline. Every death is one too many. Even so, today's tragic crash does not indicate a trend toward more crashes.
  2. By all observations, many more bicycles are on the roads in Louisville this year than anytime in recent memory. If crash deaths stay roughly constant, that means that the rate of deaths per million bicyclists or per million miles of bicycling has gone down.
  3. Research (download: 140 KB PDF) has shown that bicycling crash, injury, and death rates go down as more people ride bicycle in a given country or city. This makes sense for two reasons. First, motorists grow to expect bicyclists on the road and learn to drive safely around them. Secondly, the bicyclists grow in collective experience and help one another learn to ride more safely.  
  4. Both of these fatal crashes occurred in early morning. We do not know the lighting conditions during this morning's crash, but the May 4 crash happened before sunrise. We do not know whether the bicyclists in either case used lights or reflective accessories. Riding during dark without lights increases crash risks by a factor of 10 over riding in daylight.
  5. These fatal crashes took place on Outer Loop and Dixie Highway, notoriously bad roads for bicycling. Yes, every surface road in Louisville Metro should accommodate bicyclists safely. While we work toward that ideal situation, we need to acknowledge that some roads clearly pose greater hazards than others. The great majority of bicyclists in our region avoid riding on Outer Loop and Dixie Highway, especially at night or during rush hour. To use crashes there and then as an excuse not to ride on other streets during daylight misses the point: on the whole, the health benefits of bicycling vastly outweigh the risks of injury or death from bicycling.
I mourn the death this morning of someone who was probably doing something that we celebrate and support - riding bicycle to work. He had every right to ride where he was riding, and did not deserve to be hit and killed. His family and friends did not deserve to lose him. Let us work to make bicycling safer for everyone, by changing BOTH behavior and road conditions. Let us continue to promote bicycling, because more bicycling means safer bicycling. Let us not let his death scare us away from doing something that gives us joy, saves us money, improves our health, and makes our community better in many ways.

Monday, July 14, 2008

How many people commute by bike in Louisville?

Lots of folks have been asking lately, "Are more people biking to work now in Louisville?" Nobody has the data to know. Bicycling for Louisville did a bicycle traffic study for Louisville Metro government last year, but we don't have follow-up data to see how things have changed. KIPDA, which oversees transportation planning in our region, conducts a household travel survey every ten years. The most recent data, from 2000, showed that literally nobody rode bicycles to work! Obviously, they missed a few of us... Again, we lack follow-up data to identify trends.

My eyeballs tell me that both recreational and transportation bicycling are increasing rapidly. This morning on my 5-mile commute to work, I counted five other bicyclists. At least four of them looked to be commuting to work. Even two years ago, I rarely saw as many as two other bicyclists on the same route that I rode today. Nowadays, I usually see two or three other bicyclists as I ride to work.

Yesterday (Sunday) evening, my wife and I took a tandem ride through Seneca and Cherokee Parks and then along Beargrass Creek Trail before turning back for a slightly longer route home. Along the way, we saw dozens of bicyclists and only a few motorists. I think this was the first time in my 17 years in Louisville of seeing more bicyclists on the roads than motor vehicles, in the absence of a group bike ride. A summer Sunday evening with perfect weather brings out bicyclists, but I had never before experienced this in Louisville - probably twice as many bikes as cars and trucks on the roads!