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.