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.