Friday, September 25, 2009

Boulder, Louisville, and press coverage of crashes

Thanks very much to the readers from Boulder and San Francisco who commented on my most recent post. I haven't passed through Boulder in many years, so I can't comment from personal experience about bicycling conditions there. I find it easy to accept their assessment that Boulder has not reached perfection, either in its bicycling environment or in public attitudes toward bicycling. We all agree, too, that Boulder has a leg up on Louisville on both counts. This shouldn't surprise anyone, given that the League of American Bicyclists has awarded Boulder a rare Platinum Bicycle-Friendly Community award while honoring Louisville at the Bronze level.

Getting away from the inter-city comparison, I have a wish list for reporters who cover traffic crashes. I will focus on crashes involving bicyclists, but this list probably applies to other crashes as well.

First, get the details right and show as complete a picture as available information allows. For example, the August 5 Hardin County newspaper report of the horrifying car-bike crash in Radcliff, KY that killed one bicyclist and injured three others said that the bicyclists were "sharing" the left of two eastbound lanes with the car that hit them, and that at least one of the bicyclists was thrown onto a concrete median by the crash. A later report in the same paper, based on interviews with family members who came to the scene, said that the riders were "pedaling along the median..." Did the car climb a concrete curb to hit the bicyclists? The Google Street View of the scene (Lincoln Trail Boulevard between Lorraine Street and Congress Drive) shows a grassy median at street level, with no curb or elevation above the road. A motorist straying onto the grassy median to hit three bicycles in a row sounds to me like gross negligence, though not so egregious as if he had driven over a concrete curb to do it! If the bicyclists were on the pavement, at twilight, on the left edge of the left lane without lights or reflectors, the driver might have little fault in the crash. Someone on the scene shortly after the crash should have been able to determine whether the bikes were on the pavement or on the grass median when hit by the car.

The early article noted that the crash took place at about 9 PM, and speaks of the need for bicyclists to use lights and reflective gear when riding at night. On August 1, sunset was 8:51 PM. Kentucky law (KRS 189.030) requires bicycles and motor vehicles to use lights beginning 30 minutes after sunset. I find this law much too lenient and advise bicyclists to use headlights and taillights starting well before sunset. Nonetheless, the law stands. If the crash took place before 9:21 PM, the bicyclists were within their rights (though foolish) to ride without lights or reflective gear aside from the mandated white front reflector and red rear reflector.

Acknowledge that both parties may have contributed to the crash. The Hardin County reporter eventually did a good job of this, though over the course of the two articles six weeks apart. The first noted that the bicyclists had not made themselves visible with lights and reflectors and the second noted that police said that "driver inattention was likely the cause of the wreck." I realize that the reporter might not have had all of that information at the time of the first article.

Sometimes, though, important information about the causes of a crash never make it into the media. In the case of a Wisconsin state legislator running a red light and hitting a bicyclist in Madison, WI, a video recording made from a transit bus clearly shows the legislator's SUV running the red light and striking the bicyclist. (Don't watch this news clip if you don't want to watch this crash video repeatedly!) Madison TV news coverage shockingly ended with a statement that an eyewitness told police that the crash had been the bicyclist's fault. I was outraged, until I heard from a bicycle advocate in Madison who made that statement understandable. The bicyclist evidently had come down a hill toward the intersection and passed to the right of the transit bus using a right-turn-only lane. Legally, the motorist still bears fault for having run the red light. The cyclist, though, could have avoided the crash by slowing to stay behind the bus in the through lane once the light turned green. The eyewitness might not have understood liability law, but did notice something important. Unfortunately, news viewers never got that information.

Third, interview a bicycle safety expert familiar with the crash. This is the person who can interpret the evidence and help the public learn what to do to prevent crashes like the one that just made the news. Usually, both the motorist and the bicyclist(s) could have taken steps to make the crash much less likely. I'm an idealist, and I believe that the news should help us learn from other people's experience rather than merely satisfying a desire for gore and scandal. Giving a thoughtful, well-informed person a few seconds to comment on a crash can help the news serve an educational role.

Not everybody who plays football in a rec league is a football expert, and not every avid bicyclist is a bicycle safety expert. Most cities and every state have some legitimate authorities on bicycle safety. To find them, one can search for League Cycling Instructors or the leaders of bicycle advocacy organizations that belong to the Alliance for Biking and Walking. Unfortunately, any media market in the US will have many injury bike crashes and occasional bike fatalities, so the bike crash story of the moment will certainly not be the last. Establish a credible source for bicycle safety information and give them a chance to share their knowledge with your readers or viewers or listeners when crashes happen.

Finally, routinely address common misconceptions. A reader commenting on the online edition of the first Radcliff story noted his shock that the police officer said that bicyclists are not allowed on sidewalks and are allowed on roads. This comment is utterly predictable, and the reporter should have a quotation or source available to address why this law is appropriate. Articles on bike crashes should routinely deal with the frequency of fatal or injury bike crashes, to blunt the common argument that bicycling is soooo dangerous (which it is not). They should address the limits on police power to charge a person in a crash not witnessed by the officer, and the legal rights of bicyclists relevant to the given case. A single sentence can usually take care of each of these concerns. Lacking those sentences, articles about bike crashes tend to stir up lots of ill-founded anti-bike and anti-law sentiment that does nothing to improve conditions on the street.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How we deal with crashes

A newspaper story of a tragic, fatal bike-car crash in Boulder, CO raised some painful contrasts between Boulder and Louisville (Kentucky, not the Louisville in Colorado). The bicyclist, Casey Najera, was riding southbound through an intersection, with the right of way, when a motorist traveling northbound turned left across Najera's path. Najera hit the car and was killed. The motorist said that she did not see the bicyclist and "was terribly upset about the accident," according to her mother.

One could remove all town names and geographic references from the article and know that the crash had not happened in greater Louisville, KY. First of all, the driver was cited with careless driving resulting in death. Colorado Revised Statutes 42-4-1402 defines this as a class 1 misdemeanor. This carries a penalty of 6-18 months in prison, a fine of $500 - $5000, or both. Kentucky law, as best I can tell, has no similar charge. Besides, Kentucky law requires the police to witness the crash before issuing a citation or making an arrest for anything short of a felony. Any media report of a bike-car fatality in greater Louisville hedges about whether charges will be filed, because the only hope for filing charges rests on results of toxicology tests. The Colorado newspaper story gave a different picture: "[The motorist] was cited by police for careless driving resulting in death." The driver did something unacceptable and stands to get punished for it.

I found even more startling the reader responses to the online story. All of them spoke of the tragedy of the bicyclist's death. None ranted against the driver or "the system." None attempted to blame the bicyclist or suggested that bicyclists should stay off the roads for our own good. These reader comments contrast shockingly with those that swarm like flies at the end of any Louisville KY online news story of a bike-car crash.

The news story ended with mention of a recent bike-car crash resulting in a bicyclist's injury, and two fatal car-bike crashes earlier in the year. Yet neither the reporter nor any of the comment writers felt a need to declare an epidemic of bicyclist injuries and deaths or make any sweeping statements about the dangers of bicycling. I guess that the newspaper readers of Boulder, Colorado see bicycling as a good and ordinary activity that sometimes results in crashes, injuries, and deaths. Folks here in Louisville, KY seem to feel that way about driving cars, but not about riding bicycles.

Health and crash data paint a clear picture: the benefits of bicycling vastly outweigh the risks. Here in greater Louisville, we continue to read and hear opinions that bicyclists should, "for their own good," stop riding on streets and rural roads. I hope to live to see the day when anyone stating that opinion will be viewed as a crackpot. In other words, I want the public at large to view bicycling on streets as normal and appropriate. Then, we might have a bicycle-friendly community.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Indy and Louisville: interesting contrasts

I spent the weekend in downtown Indianapolis attending a conference. Indy seemed halfway between Louisville and Chicago in architecture, sports, and urban liveliness, but not in transportation. Here are some of the differences between Louisville and Indianapolis that made an impression on me and my wife. We didn't ride bicycles in Indianapolis, but walked quite a bit.
  • Urban bicyclists in Indy ride almost exclusively on the sidewalks, even in traffic and road conditions that would allow a reasonably skilled rider to ride easily on the streets. "Vehicular cycling" seemed a virtually unknown concept.
  • Only about 10% of the bicyclists that we saw wore helmets. We saw more helmet-wearing bicyclists within 5 minutes of returning to Louisville than we saw in 2 days in Indy.
  • What little bicycle parking that we saw was sub-standard, not capable of holding a bicycle upright while allowing a U-lock to secure both the frame and front wheel. Most blocks had no bicycle parking at all, though one commercial parking garage had signs noting the availability of bike parking inside.
  • Motorists actually obey crosswalks in Indianapolis. In three days, I don't remember one motor vehicle cutting off or threatening pedestrians or bicyclists in a crosswalk. This morning, on my bike ride to work in Louisville, I saw a construction truck with trailer roll through a red light rather than waiting for two pedestrians waiting to cross legally in a crosswalk. We never saw anything remotely like that in Indianapolis.
  • Pedestrians in Indy respect the crossing signals, for the most part. Even when crossing against a "don't walk" signal, they waited until no moving traffic was within a block.
  • Though we noticed some urban chic single-speed/fixed gear bikes, we saw no devil-may-care high-speed lawless bicyclists. Even the pair of young men riding single-speeds delivering sandwiches for a local shop rode in a pretty mellow way, slowing respectfully for pedestrians.
  • We saw zero bike lanes, bike route signs, or multi-use paths. The Monon Trail ends several blocks from downtown, and there was no visible indication that anyone was working to make bicycling safer or easier than ordinary downtown streets would allow.
I didn't go to Indianapolis expecting or looking for contrasts with Louisville in terms of bicycling and walking. All of this surprised me. To summarize, Louisville seems to have better bicycling infrastructure and Indianapolis seems to have better pedestrian and motorist behavior. A large fraction of bicyclists in both cities appears to feel safer riding on sidewalks than on streets, though the proportions of vehicular cyclists and avid-but-lawless bicyclists seem much higher in Louisville.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"You play by the rules!"

On my regular commuting ride this morning, I turned right from the western end of Lexington Road onto Baxter Avenue which, after a block, merges into E. Jefferson Street. Approaching this intersection from the southeast, I merged into the left lane to turn south. As I signaled a left turn and coasted slowly waiting for a green light, a motorist in the lane to my right turned to me and said, "You play by the rules! You're using your turn signal - that's great!" We shared friendly greetings and went on our respective ways when the light turned green.

Many (most?) motorists notice bicyclists and our behavior. They appreciate when we do the right thing. Motorists give me more friendly waves and "thank you" comments than horn blasts and angry gestures. I might arrive at work a minute later some mornings because I came to a complete stop rather than rolling a stop sign, or because I yielded to another driver or two rather than squeezing into the smallest possible opening when making a left turn or a right turn on red. Experiencing appreciation instead of hostility from fellow road users more than repays that minimal delay. If enough of us ride this way, we'll start to turn around the scofflaw image that besets bicyclists. A better image with motorists will remove big barriers in our work toward making our region a great place for bicycling.

Monday, August 3, 2009

New thoughts about "Chips" Cronen's death

Experienced commuting cyclist George "Chips" Cronen died just over 2 years ago, struck from behind in broad daylight by a spaced-out motorist on the Clark Memorial (2nd Street) Bridge. Two recent events made me aware of something that might at least partly account for the deadly motorist's failure to see and yield to Chips on the bridge.

Riding back to Louisville from a meeting in Jeffersonville, I rode across the Clark Memorial Bridge a couple of weeks ago. I crossed the bridge on a Friday at about 6:15 PM, when the bridge carried very little traffic. As usual, I rode in the middle of the right lane in order to make myself obvious to overtaking drivers. With a passing lane in each direction, drivers can generally pass a bicyclist riding in the right lane without experiencing any delay.

Looking into my helmet mirror, I saw a driver closing on me at what seemed significantly above the 35 mph speed limit. ("Everybody speeds on that bridge," a non-cyclist friend recently observed.) Anyway, the car was approaching faster than most cars did. I watched the car get closer and closer, without changing lanes, until I feared for my life. I waved my left hand over my head to get the driver's attention, and yelled "Hey!" at the top of my lungs. The driver moved into the passing lane perhaps 50 feet before passing and seemed to glare at me as though I had somehow caused her some imposition. I said a prayer of thanks for not having joined the ranks of innocent bicyclists struck from behind in greater Louisville.

A few days later I read Larry Preble's horrifying account of watching a motorcyclist, stopped at an intersection, get struck from behind by a motorist traveling at high speed. The crash took place in broad daylight on a straight rural Indiana road. The motorcyclist was clearly visible, and people on the scene made no mention of the guilty driver appearing intoxicated. The guilty driver reportedly said, repeatedly, "I didn't see him!" How on earth do drivers in unchallenging driving situations fail to notice human beings clearly visible directly in front of them?

Perhaps "unchallenging driving situations" make these crashes more likely. On the Clark Memorial Bridge, as on that rural Indiana road, drivers face such easy driving conditions that they have little incentive to pay attention. They have essentially no traffic potentially crossing their path, few or no intersections or signs to obey, and low likelihood of encountering a person, animal, or inanimate obstacle. I suspect that many drivers treat these situations as a license to space out. That attitude might work for a few hours at a stretch, but it can't remain safe over the millions of vehicle-hours of driving that occur on lightly traveled roads in the US every day.

This weekend, two weeks after my experience on the bridge, triathlete John Carr became the latest cyclist in greater Louisville killed by an overtaking motorist - the C-J account is here. The motorist, driving on a suspended license while intoxicated, fleeing the scene, and resisting arrest, has been charged with murder and other crimes enough to keep him in prison for decades. Yet, when a sober motorist makes the same deadly mistake and stays on the scene to talk with the police, that motorist generally faces no punishment more severe than higher auto insurance rates. We need to change our legal system to punish deadly inattentive driving and make abundantly clear that operating a motor vehicle has weighty responsibilities. The myth of carefree driving may help to sell cars and trucks, but I do not accept its cost: thousands of preventable traffic deaths per year.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Just a few pieces of broken glass

... remain on the street at the site where a hit & run driver threw a commuting cyclist into a parked car early this morning. The cyclist's hand shattered the glass covering the left taillight of the parked car. This caused injuries severe enough to require hand surgery today. The cyclist's father says that he'll be fine... of course after weeks or months of pain and disability.

I don't know enough about the crash to begin to assess blame, except for the obvious part: the law (KRS 189.580) requires the operator of a vehicle involved in an injury crash to stop and render aid, and to report the crash to authorities. The driver can avoid some further legal consequences by reporting the crash within 10 days, but she or he has already failed to stop and render aid.

The crash took place on westbound Grinstead Drive at Bayly Avenue at about 6:30 AM today. The injured cyclist is not aware of any witnesses. The car hit him from behind and he was unable to provide any vehicle description beyond "a red car." At this point, it is probably a red car with some damage to the front bumper. If you know anyone who may have seen or heard the crash, please urge them to call the LMPD non-emergency number (574-7111) during business hours and file a report.

I recently found a huge repository of Kentucky traffic crash data and am working to mine as much useful information as possible regarding crashes in our area involving bicycles. I'll let you know what I find. To start, here's a thought-provoking statistic:

In Louisville Metro over the past 5 years (2004-2008), 11 bicyclists lost their lives in traffic crashes. Using conservative estimates of bicycle usage from a recent national study, I calculated that this equates to one fatal crash per 7.5 million miles of bicycling in Louisville Metro. Given the poor bicycling behavior seen around here every day, we could certainly improve this rate dramatically. If we also got help from motorists (less speeding, distracted driving, and DUI, and simply paying better attention), we could probably cut our fatal crash rate by a factor of 10.

Dropping our bicycling fatality rate deserves our concerted effort. Nonetheless, even at the current fatality rate, the extension-of-life benefits of bicycling vastly outweigh the risk of death while riding.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Bike-To-Work Day, Week, Year, Lifetime

Congratulations to Scott Render and the city's Bike Louisville team for their successful events for Bike-To-Work Day this past Friday. They got several hundred people, including many first-time bicycle commuters, to ride bicycle to work on Friday. A large crowd assembled at the Bike-to-Work Celebration at Fourth Street Live, and the combination of events garnered quite a bit of media attention including pieces in the Courier-Journal, WAVE-3 TV, WLKY TV, and Louisville Business First. Bicycling for Louisville was among several organizations staffing booths at the Bike-To-Work Celebration.

I appreciate the special events, such as the Mayor's Hike & Bike rides and Bike-To-Work events, that encourage participation by people who don't identify themselves as cyclists. Someone who has enjoyed a 15-mile group ride or who has ridden bicycle to work, even once, will have more sympathy for bicyclists on the road and a more open mind to community investments in better bicycling. To tap the full potential of these promotional events, though, we need to take the next step and help these new or occasional riders develop the skills and attitudes for riding regularly.

Bicycling for Louisville offers two resources toward this end: our How to Bike to Work website and our adult bicycling skills classes. The hands-on Confident Cycling course, in particular, teaches skills and knowledge of value to nearly anyone who rides on streets with automotive traffic. The course really does build confidence as well as competence. Both the course and the website include information gleaned from many years and hundreds of thousands of miles of bicycling experience. If you consider yourself a seasoned bicycle commuter with little need for additional training or information, I encourage you to check out the Benefits of Bicycle Commuting page on the website. It might help you bring new riders into the bike-to-work fold.

If this post sounds like blatant promotion of Bicycling for Louisville and our programs, I won't argue with that description. I hope that you take advantage of these resources. Give us suggestions on how to improve them, and tell us what else you need to support safer and more enjoyable bicycling, and what you think would get more people bicycling. I look forward to hearing from you.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ridiculous anti-bike rants

Every time the online edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal includes a story about bicycling or bicycle facilities, or even about a bicyclist injured or killed by an incautious or inept motorist, some online readers will post vitriolic anti-bicyclist comments. In addition to malice and ignorance of the law, these comments often make ridiculous assertions that violate all available evidence.

A good (?) example comes from the comments to today's 2-paragraph news bite in the C-J about the mayor's admonition to motorists to watch for bicyclists tomorrow during Bike-To-Work day. One person who frequently posts nasty comments about bicyclists wrote, "If you ride a bike to work then you are a loser. The only exception is a kid under 16 doing a paper route or if your name is Lance Armstrong...any other person is a loser. Put down your huffy and find a real job so that you might be able to actually afford a car."

A typical bicycle commuter in greater Louisville saves about $1000/year in commuting expenses and $1000/year in health care & insurance costs, while improving her or his quality of life. Many bicycle commuters enjoy the ride to & from work, and miss it if circumstances force them to take another mode of transportation for a day. How many motorists can say that? If saving money, feeling better, and having fun while commuting makes me a loser, than I'd rather be a loser than a winner.

Perhaps it makes more sense to ask, what game do I want to lose or win? It sounds as though the comment-writer seeks prestige above all else. If so, at least for a few more years, commuting by car will provide more prestige than commuting by bicycle. I would prefer to win the game of health, happiness, environmental stewardship, and household economics. For that, commuting by bicycle scores a big victory over commuting by car.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Thunderous progress

Every year, Thunder Over Louisville - the largest annual fireworks show in the US - attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators to the Louisville waterfront to kick off the final two weeks of revelry preceding the Kentucky Derby. This year, for the third in a row, free valet bicycle parking will be available to people who avoid the automotive gridlock by riding bicycles to the festivities. Bicycles won't be allowed at Waterfront Park, but people may ride on the streets to the valet bike parking location, probably at the corner of Witherspoon Street and Preston Street/River Road.

A cloud has hung over Thunder during the 17 years that I have lived in Louisville. Each year, the Clark Memorial (2nd Street) Bridge is closed not only during the fireworks show (which uses the bridge as its launch site) but also for roughly 3 days before the show. The Clark Memorial Bridge is the only legal crossing of the Ohio River for pedestrians and bicyclists within 39 road miles of Louisville. In other words, from Wednesday or Thursday until Sunday morning of Thunder week, you can't walk or ride bicycle across the Ohio River in greater Louisville. There is no alternate route, and until now no alternative besides catching a ride on a motor vehicle crossing on one of the interstate highway bridges.

In 2003, while I worked for Louisville Metro government, I listed 24/7/365 cross-river access as one of my top priorities for the City in its effort to promote bicycling. The people heading the city's bicycle program at the time did not act on that suggestion. In recent months, Jackie Green has threatened to sue state and local agencies over the closure of the Clark Memorial Bridge for Thunder. He points out that the bridge closure denies to non-motorized travelers the Constitutionally-protected right to cross state lines. His lawsuit threats and a barrage of e-mails resulted in meetings, in which I participated, with a representative of the Mayor along with top management of Kentucky Derby Festival, which runs Thunder.

At the first meeting, Thunder organizers stressed the safety and security threats posed by allowing unauthorized people on the bridge in the presence of tons of explosives. The elaborate fireworks show takes over 2 days to stage and a few hours to clean up afterwards. It quickly became clear that they could not possibly allow people walking, bicycling, and running across the bridge during that time. We considered and eliminated a wide range of ideas, including launching the fireworks from the abandoned Big Four Bridge. Eventually we settled on running a van with bike rack every 10 minutes or so to shuttle bicyclists and pedestrians across the bridge. It will operate from the beginning of the fireworks set-up on Thursday at 6:30 AM until Saturday at 11 AM when the fireworks equipment prohibits any traffic. Kentucky Derby Festival agreed to provide the van and driver. We agreed that the bridge would remain closed, with no shuttle, from Saturday at 11 AM until Sunday at about 2:30 AM when the safety inspector sounds the "all clear." This arrangement will reduce the cross-river transportation blockage from nearly four days to less than one day.

I see this as a huge improvement, even though it does not entirely eliminate the inconvenience to bicyclists and pedestrians. The eventual solution lies in the reopening of the Big Four Bridge as a pedestrian and bicycle bridge. It could remain open except perhaps during the air show and fireworks show, and could reopen immediately afterwards. With the prospect of federal money to refurbish the Big Four in the next year or two, we may not need to rely on a van shuttle for more than two or three Thunder weeks.

Jackie is not satisfied, because we have the agreement only in an e-mail and not in a formal, signed legal document. I have every reason to believe that Kentucky Derby Festival will live up to its promise, and I laud them for acting so quickly to solve a problem that came to their attention only a month or two ago.

We continue to make progress getting major institutions to consider bicyclists routinely in their planning. The highway engineers and transportation planners increasingly consider bicyclists in their plans, as their written policies now require. University of Louisville and Bellarmine University officials are showing interest in making their campuses better for bicycling. Development officials and, slowly, developers have begun to make room for bicyclists. Now, Kentucky Derby Festival and other event organizers (such as the promoter of last year's My Morning Jacket concert on the waterfront) are promoting bicycling as a way to get to and from major events. We still have lots of work to do, but the wheels are turning.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Tour de Frankfort, Stage 4: exhausted

Today marked another major learning experience. After over a year of trying to get meetings with legal experts regarding the problems of pedestrians and bicyclists struck by motorists, suddenly David Morse and I found ourselves in a room with two key legislators and six of the leading (and most influential) legal minds in Frankfort, to discuss House Bill 88. It quickly became apparent that House Bill 88 is dead for this session. We got new hope, though, of resolving some of the conflicting legal interpretations that have confounded us since the beginning of this campaign.

I still don't know who called the meeting or assembled the invitation list, but Rep. Jim Wayne and Pierce Whites were prominently involved. Pierce Whites serves as general counsel to House Speaker Greg Stumbo, and formerly served as Deputy Attorney General under Stumbo. Also present were House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Tilley, a lawyer from Kentucky State Police, the state's Public Defender, and two key staffers of the Legislative Research Commission (both lawyers, one a leading expert in Kentucky criminal law). Obviously, David and I knew less about the law and about the legislative process than the others present.

I'm too exhausted to give a fair accounting of this meeting now, but wanted to give you the capsule update. House Bill 88 is dead for now. The key sticking points are:
  1. the idea that existing laws already cover most or all of the cases of concern to us; and
  2. the belief that reckless driving resulting in collision with a pedestrian or bicyclist is not so grave as domestic violence or DUI, the only two exceptions in the Kentucky law that otherwise requires a law enforcement officer to witness a misdemeanor in order to issue a citation or make an arrest for it. Lacking this gravity, legislators and law enforcement officials do not want to allow police officers to cite crash-causing reckless drivers without witnessing the crash.
This first opinion marks a stark contrast with the repeated statements of Louisville Metro Police Department officials. The panel of lawyers assembled in Frankfort today seemed amazed that we had been told that police and prosecutors had no options to prosecute the drivers who hit Chips Cronen and Cynthia Flowers, for examples.

Rep. Wayne remains committed to our cause. Rep. Tilley agreed to hold a meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on the Judiciary this summer to address our concerns. Reps. Wayne and Tilley will invite to testify at least one prosecutor and at least one police official, to gain clarity on the lack of prosecutions of apparently reckless drivers to whom various existing criminal statutes would seem to apply. Perhaps we will decide that the answer lies in educating police officers and prosecutors rather than in changing the law. Perhaps we will decide to pursue a change in the law, but take a different approach than used in HB 88. Perhaps we will decide that HB 88 does exactly what we need, and that we merely need to build and apply a stronger citizen advocacy network to pass it. I'm open to any of these options. You can be sure, though, that Bicycling for Louisville will not abandon the cause: Everyone in Kentucky, especially pedestrians and bicyclists, will benefit from a drastic reduction in reckless and inattentive driving. We will not likely see this drastic reduction without serious real-world penalties for reckless drivers who hit people.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tour de Frankfort, Stage 3: stuck in the pack

The statistical brief from yesterday's visit to Frankfort for House Bill 88:
Number in Bicycling for Louisville delegation: 5 (a new record)
Number of conversations with legislators: 6
Number of new cosponsors for HB 88: 0

Yesterday, David Morse, Fred Crismon, Dennis Pastor, Ron Schneider, and I went to Frankfort in an effort to influence Rep. John Tilley, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to schedule a hearing and vote on HB 88 in the Judiciary Committee. Without this, the bill will die in committee, never going back to the House for a vote. Based on our conversation with Rep. Tilley a week ago, we knew that we faced an uphill climb.

We hoped to influence Rep. Tilley by getting other members of the Judiciary Committee and the House Democratic leaders to urge him to have the Committee act on HB 88. Three committee members told us yesterday that they would ask Rep. Tilley to do so. A fourth seemed so discouraging about the bill's chances that I chose not to ask her to speak with Rep. Tilley. House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark did not make themselves available to meet with us yesterday. I don't hold this against them - they both have many more powerful organizations and individuals seeking their time on behalf of other issues. We have no idea whether they support or oppose HB 88, if they have thought about it at all.

I left Frankfort yesterday wondering whether our window of opportunity for HB 88 had passed. With the Judiciary Committee not acting on the bill this week, I knew that we might not have enough time for the bill to make it through all of the necessary steps before the end of the short legislative session.

A phone call came a half-hour ago giving me new hope for passing the bill in the current session. Rep. Jim Wayne, the sponsor of the bill, just planned a meeting tomorrow with some key legislators, leading legal experts in the Legislative Research Commission, and outside interests with a stake in the bill. Bicycling for Louisville will have a seat at the table. He hopes that we can work out compromise language to resolve legal issues raised by some members of the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Wayne would not have added this meeting to a very busy schedule if he considered it hopeless to pass the bill in the current session.

I will prepare myself to represent clearly the aims of the bill and how we hope it will work with existing statutes. Even if we succeed tomorrow, our bill faces several other challenges before it can pass. After yesterday's disappointments, the meeting tomorrow is a cause for hope.

I thank David, Fred, Dennis, and Ron for spending several hours yesterday lobbying as citizens for HB 88. If we have success tomorrow, Bicycling for Louisville will put out a call for citizens to join us in Frankfort next week to show support for HB 88 at the crucial Judiciary Committee hearing. Stay tuned to our website for updates!

Monday, February 16, 2009

It was the best of ideas; it was the worst of ideas

On Thursday, the day of the Louisville Bicycle Summit II, the Courier-Journal reported on Metro government's application for federal funding to build a bicycle commuter service station in downtown Louisville. I don't use the term "bike station" because the nonprofit organization Bikestation in California owns the trademark to that term (whether written as one word or two). They have no involvement in Louisville's plans and have made clear that the city does not have their permission to use that term to describe its project.

Predictably, the C-J article gives glowing words from the mayor's spokesperson about the value of a bicycle commuter facility downtown. Almost as predictably, some folks who take issue with Mayor Abramson's budgetary priorities were immediately on the warpath, calling this an "idiotic, limited-appeal project" that will divert funding from projects of more benefit to the community. Predictably, the truth lies somewhere in between.

The Mayor's team sets forth the project as a way to encourage bicycle commuting by people who work downtown. Indeed, many avid cyclists work in downtown Louisville but do not commute by bicycle. On the fiscal front, they defend it as a federally-funded project that will cost the city nothing aside from the dedication of some land already owned by the city. Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) money, for which Metro has applied to fund this project, cannot fund fire stations or Otter Creek Park or libraries, but can fund projects to reduce motor vehicle use by increasing the attractiveness of bicycling.

Many will criticize any government expenditure to increase bicycling for transportation, believing that bicycling inherently appeals to many less people than driving does. They do not believe that bicycling will ever play the central transportation role in US cities that it plays in many European cities. They do not understand how an increase in transportation bicycling can reduce congestion faced by the remaining motor vehicle drivers, or grasp that bicycling can significantly reduce our fuel consumption and pollution emissions. For them, no bicycle-serving facility will ever have an acceptable cost-benefit ratio, because they believe the benefits will be nearly zero.

As a life-long transportation cyclist, I do not accept this anti-bicycling viewpoint. Unfortunately, though, the Mayor may be barking up the wrong tree with the proposal for a bicycle commuter facility downtown. In my view, we lack some necessary conditions to proceed with this project, as attractive as it appears.

Nearly all of the several successful facilities run by Bikestation, as well as the McDonald's Cycle Center in Millenium Park, Chicago (which inspired Mayor Abramson's enthusiasm for a cycle center here), are located close to a fixed-rail transit station used by thousands of people daily. The rail station makes a natural site for a major bicycle parking facility, which makes a bike + rail commute attractive and draws a large enough group of users to support the bicycle-related businesses located at the cycle center. The train serves people who may live quite a distance from downtown, and brings them within easy bicycling distance of nearly any downtown destination. The bicycle makes the train more attractive by replacing a long walk or a transfer to one or more local buses in order to reach one's destination. With no transit hub through which thousands of commuters travel each day, Louisville does not seem well situated to make heavy use of a bicycle commuting center.

People might also ride their bicycles downtown and then use the bicycle commuting center to lock their bicycles and shower before work. This leads to three questions: 1) Will the bicycle center be located close enough to their offices for them to want to walk between the two points? 2) Would the money and political capital to build a bicycle center be better invested providing good parking and shower facilities at workplaces? 3) Do the people who might use the bicycle center feel comfortable riding downtown in rush hour traffic? If most of the cyclists willing to ride downtown are already doing so, then the bicycle center won't do much to increase our bicycle commuting mode share.

When the Louisville cycle center idea first came up a couple of years ago, I had a conversation with the executive director of Bikestation. She agreed that the lack of a transit hub might make it difficult for a bicycle commuting center to succeed here. She stressed two elements of planning for a successful cycle center: a market study to assess demand, and a business plan to determine how user fees or other income could meet the operating expenses of the station. I urged Metro government in 2006 to take these steps; to the best of my knowledge, they have not. Even if money falls from heaven to build a state-of-the-art bicycle center downtown, it will cost money to run it. A bicycle retailer or repair shop, a cafe, a bike rental business, a tourist information kiosk, and any other supportive businesses will need enough customers to keep their doors open. No sane business owner would start a business, or lease space in a cycle center, without a business plan.

In about 2004, Jackie Green bought the building at 107 W. Market Street where he now operates the Bike Courier Bike Shop and CBD Courier service. He immediately called the location the Bike Depot. He searched for a restaurateur to open a cafe there, and repeatedly sought the interest of Metro officials to create a bicycle parking operation there. The location would have required much architectural creativity to serve all of those purposes well. Perhaps that dream was never achievable. But nobody in government or the private sector was willing to partner with Jackie to build the dream, even with Jackie having assumed the financial risk of owning the property.

Against all odds, Jackie and shop manager Russ Hisle have built a successful (or at least surviving) full-service bike shop at 107 W. Market Street. No matter whose money Metro plans to invest in its cycle center, I urge them to give careful thought to its current and potential market, its operating expenses, and the financial prospects of supportive businesses located in or near the center. Without such thought, Metro will likely find itself with a white elephant that anti-bike commentators and politicians will use to torpedo funding for bicycle-supporting projects for years to come.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Tour de Frankfort, Stage 2 - the progress continues

David Morse and I went back to Frankfort on Thursday night, a few hours after the end of the Louisville Bike Summit II. We stayed overnight with friends in Frankfort so we would have only a short trip to get to the Capitol Annex for meetings starting at 8 AM Friday. We met with five legislators and spoke with another by telephone. By the end of the day, our bill (HB 88) had eight cosponsors (up from four last week) including three members of the House Judiciary Committee. For the bill to pass, the Judiciary Committee must take action on the bill and send it to the floor of the House with a favorable report.

In addition to initial sponsor Jim Wayne (Louisville), cosponsors now include Mary Lou Marzian, Tom Burch, Reginald Meeks, and Tom Riner of Louisville Metro, along with Charles Siler (R-Whitley County), David Watkins (D-Henderson), and Kevin Sinnette (D-Ashland).

We met with Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. John Tilley of Hopkinsville. He seemed sympathetic to our aims and supportive of giving the bill a hearing, but cautioned us that the committee faces a tremendous workload for the remainder of this short session. He gave us no assurance that he would push HB 88 high enough on the committee's agenda to assure that it would receive a hearing and vote. He was not blowing smoke - over 20 bills face the committee, along with some important matters resulting from the unlawful extension of the 2008 legislative session beyond its deadline set in the Kentucky Constitution.

We are reaching out to HB 88 supporters who live in House District 8 (part of Hopkinsville and parts of Christian and Trigg Counties near the Tennessee border), asking that they contact Rep. Tilley (their Representative) to urge him to post the bill to the Judiciary Committee this week. If hearing from several of his own constituents does not do the trick, we will ask for a broader show of citizen support. Once the bill has a hearing date in the Judiciary Committee, we will ask supporters to write to all Judiciary Committee members who have not already cosponsored the bill.

Each visit to Frankfort includes surprises. As we waited for staffers of House Judiciary Committee members to call us into meetings (several of which never took place), David took advantage of wi-fi access to check the list of cosponsors on the LRC website. Two new cosponsors, whom we had not contacted, appeared on the list - Reginald Meeks of Louisville and Kevin Sinnette of Ashland. We called their offices to schedule meetings with each of them, to thank them for their support and ask their advice on how to move the bill forward. It was Friday afternoon and the House and Senate had adjourned. Most legislators had already headed homeward. Reps. Meeks and Sinnette were not only in their offices, but answered their own phones!

I thanked them both and asked for a few minutes to see them. Rep. Meeks had no time to spare, but told me how to reach him in Louisville on Monday. Rep. Sinnette said he could give us a few minutes. We rushed to his office, shook his hand, and asked how he had taken an interest in HB 88. He replied that he is a cyclist and rides with his hometown club! Developing relationships with individual legislators is a crucial part of lobbying. The work we do this year may not result in passing HB 88, but might lead to even more important lobbying victories in 2010 and beyond. Making a connection with a bicyclist in the House can serve us well in the future, as long as he keeps his seat!

To address a comment on my previous post, passing HB 88 will not automatically usher in a new era of peace and tranquility on the roads of Kentucky. It can, however, help in some important ways:
1) providing an understandable state law on which to base simple statements in driver's ed, traffic school, and public service announcements: driving recklessly and hitting a bicyclist or pedestrian can land you in jail - the law says so right here...

2) providing a basis for prosecution of reckless drivers specifically for hitting pedestrians and bicyclists - not because they were DUI or fled from the scene or had drugs in the car. The resulting news stories will convey that reckless driving is no longer acceptable and that we no longer look at reckless driving crashes as "accidents."

3) giving sincere, concerned police officers an easy way to press charges against reckless, crash-causing drivers in many cases in which they have no easy option now.

4) eliminating an excuse that less-concerned officers may use for not filing charges against reckless drivers for hitting pedestrians and bicyclists.

5) eliminating an excuse that some bicyclists use for their failure to abide by traffic laws - "the law doesn't protect me, so I can't be bothered obeying it."

6) beginning a public dialogue on the traffic laws and how to make them more effective in reducing the carnage on our roads.

7) demonstrating that bicyclists and pedestrians in Kentucky can work together effectively to win changes in state law.

The campaign to pass HB 88 is the beginning of the journey, not the end. It may be easy to dream of laws that will solve huge problems in one fell swoop, but difficult to write them and even more difficult to get them passed! We chose to bite off a small chunk with HB 88 in hopes of winning incremental progress.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tour de Frankfort, Stage 1 results

When in Frankfort with friends last week to lobby for House Bill 88, I realized that our legislative advocacy effort had much in common with a stage race. Many months of preparation took place before we made our first appointment to visit a legislator, just as a racer puts in months of training before entering a race. The effort to pass this bill will unfold over several weeks; each day's results contribute to the overall cause, but a single day's success or failure usually does not dictate the outcome. If we do not win this year, "there is always next year" as in racing. Those of you who follow bicycle racing might think of this post in the same light as blogs kept by racers between stages of stage races. I'll keep it short in order to get back to work on the campaign.

HB 88 defines a new criminal violation, "vehicular assault of a bicyclist or pedestrian," as a vehicle operator hitting a bicyclist or pedestrian while driving recklessly. It authorizes law enforcement officers to issue a citation or make an arrest for this violation on the basis of probable cause (in other words, good reason to believe that the violation has been committed). Current law prohibits officers from issuing citations or making arrests for non-felony traffic infractions unless they witness the infraction, except in cases of DUI. For this reason, police rarely file charges when bicyclists are hit, regardless of the severity of injury suffered by the cyclist. HB 88 would change that.

We visited several members of the House Judiciary Committee, which must report favorably on HB 88 in order for it to progress to the full House of Representatives. Three legislators decided to cosponsor the bill, and three others said they would consider supporting it, perhaps with some modification. It was clear to us that face-to-face conversations with the legislators helped us make the case for the bill and build support for it. We learned quite a bit by listening to them, too. I would say that we had a very good day for Stage 1.

Stage 2 takes place on Friday, when we return to Frankfort to meet Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. John Tilley (D-Hopkinsville) in hopes of winning swift committee action on the bill. The legislative session lasts only three more weeks, with the committee meeting probably three more times. We have a small window of time in which to get the committee to act on HB 88. For now, our full effort must go toward winning the support of Rep. Tilley and Judiciary Committee members. If that goes well, we will return to Frankfort to lobby the entire membership of the House. If our work with the Judiciary Committee does not bear fruit, our race is over... for this year.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Strong opinions, needlessly strong language

I'm thrilled that some folks find this blog helpful for starting discussions about important issues in cycling safety, the cycling environment, and behavior of road users. The burst of comments regarding my post about red lights and stop signs encourages me. A reader wrote that he found the language of some recent posts offensive, although he appreciates the blog. I agree with him that the foul language (whether in the post itself or in an avatar) adds nothing to the discussion and puts off people who might otherwise find it valuable.

Rather than moderating comments, I prefer to urge readers to post their comments using language that you would consider inoffensive in conversations with your children (or grandchildren) and your parents. I will moderate comments only if self-moderation by comment-posters does not do the trick. Please continue to bring your passion and your best thoughts to the discussion, but please leave the crude language to private venues.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Red means stop

I can't believe I need to write this, but I guess that the time had to come. Yes, bicyclists need to stop at stop signs (except in Idaho) and red lights. Yes, they need to stay stopped at traffic signals until the signals turn green or until conditions allow for a legal turn on red.

I write this in response to a comment posted by reader Freedom Bikes:
"I saw this on a bicycling forum. Any truth to this?
  'A lot of forward thinking bike communities (L'ville, KY for instance) totally advocate running reds/stops safely and have quantifiable data as to why it is safer to do so.' "

Nope, that's pure urban legend. One prominent bicycle advocate in Louisville (my friend Jackie Green) urges cyclists to ignore red lights and stop signs "when safe." All of the relevant local government officials, and all of the local bicycle safety instructors, and everyone on the board and staff of Bicycling for Louisville, disagree with him. Jackie sets forth his "as soon as safe" doctrine for leaving intersections, regardless of the presence of stop signs or the phase of traffic signals, here. He justifies it with a list of snippets from news articles about chain reaction car crashes that injured or killed innocent bystanders. Neither Jackie nor anyone else has performed any analysis of the relative safety of running red lights and stop signs "safely" versus obeying them. The anecdotes shared on his website merely show that cyclists and pedestrians sometimes get hurt by motor vehicles struck by other motor vehicles. They do not show any differential in danger between intersection and non-intersection locations or between whether or not the bicyclist or pedestrian was stopped at an intersection when hit.

Kentucky traffic law clearly requires bicyclists to obey stop signs and traffic signals in the same way as motorists must. Given the frequency with which motorists complain to me about bicyclists running stop signs and red lights, it seems to me quite likely that this behavior contributes strongly to the anti-bicyclist sentiment that leads to road rage assaults against bicyclists.

According to the League of American Bicyclists, 8% of car-bike crashes resulting in injuries are caused by the bicyclist running a stop sign or red light. Focusing on getting out of the intersection quickly will inevitably result in bicyclists spending less time evaluating the traffic conditions, more mistakes, and more crashes. At a stop sign or red light, I have much greater concern about getting hit by vehicles who have the legal right to go (that is, the cross traffic) than by the vehicles who have the legal obligation to stop (that is, the ones behind me).

Jackie bases his revisionist view on a Louisville ordinance stating that the traffic law applies to bicycles "... except those provisions of this traffic code which by their very nature can have no application." Even in the unlikely event that a bicyclist could get a judge to believe that the stop sign and red light laws by their very nature have no application to bicyclists, the Kentucky code contains no such provision and the local ordinance cannot supersede the state law. A bicyclist in Kentucky who crashes while running a stop sign or red light has thrown away most of her or his legal rights by having run the stop sign or red light.

If you've read this blog over the past several months, you know that I am no fan of stop signs and traffic signals. I consider other means of traffic control more appropriate in a majority of circumstances. With the well-informed and experienced bicycle advocates of Portland, Oregon seeking an Idaho-style yield-and-roll law for bicycles at stop signs and turning right on red, I am inclined favorably toward that option. Kentucky law clearly prohibits rolling through red lights and stop signs, though, and I believe in the benefits of everybody following the law.

When we make up our own rules, others on the road do not know what to expect of us. This results in confusion, chaos, and destruction - especially for us, the most vulnerable road users. When motorists feel compelled to abide by inconvenient traffic laws and bicyclists ignore those laws, motorists understandably resent our behavior. Angry, resentful motorists are not good for my health as a bicyclist! Even with their flaws, our traffic laws are worth following. We can't expect motorists to obey speed limits when we can't bother to obey stop signs and red lights. To borrow a slogan from San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, we need to "Give Respect to Get Respect." That starts by obeying the laws - as they are now, not as we wish they were. Cleaning up the scofflaw reputation of bicyclists will go a long way to strengthening our hand when we go to the state legislature to reform the traffic laws.

Friday, January 23, 2009

From ice to insects in 9 hours flat

Yesterday morning, I was pleased to ride on mostly dry roads at 28 F. Turning right at a stop sign from a side street onto Payne Street, I needed to swing wide to avoid a thick patch of ice that seemed to come from melted and refrozen snow in an on-street parking space. Other than that, nothing interrupted a pleasant ride to the office.

The temperature rose to 53 F during the sunny day, giving a welcome respite to the many folks here who suffer in cold weather. At 6 PM, unlocking my bicycle outdoors after a stop in St. Matthews, I saw something unexpected: a swarm of insects slightly bigger than gnats flying around a bush. These little critters were getting a jump on spring. With the temperature staying above freezing last night, perhaps they will survive until it drops back into the 20s tonight or tomorrow night. I was startled to leave home yesterday morning in the winter and return home last night in the spring!

We still have nearly 2 months of winter ahead of us, and inevitably many swings of weather. As the cyclists commenting on my preceding post noted, it takes trial and error to find clothing that allows comfortable riding in a given set of weather conditions. Each of us has different, and even changing, needs. My cold-weather commuting works in part because of the relatively short distance and time: 5 miles or under 25 minutes each way. Longer rides can pose greater challenges and dangers if you find yourself under-dressed before arriving. If you choose to try riding in colder weather, try it gradually on days off when you can head home or stop in a warm place if you find yourself getting uncomfortably cold. I see no point in arriving at work with frostbite!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Zero - isn't that something?

Friday's morning low of -1 F matched the lowest temperature in Louisville since 1996. By the time I got on my bicycle, the temperature had climbed to zero - nonetheless my lowest bicycling temperature in 13 years or more. We had dry roads, so ice wasn't a problem. I remembered having ridden at -5 F in the mid-1990s, but wondered whether I could still hack the cold.

Much as I remembered, I found fogging/frosting lenses to be the biggest challenge. I wear shades with a clear polycarbonate lens that wraps from temple to temple and covers the bridge of my nose. They have prescription inserts that ride inside of the outer lens. The wrap-around lens protects the bridge of my nose and keeps my eyes from watering due to the frigid wind. I used anti-fog eyeglass cleaner on both the inner and outer lenses before getting on the bike. With a silk balaclava rolled up at the bottom to avoid covering my mouth, I had a fighting chance of keeping my breath from fogging the lenses. Past experience had taught that fog condenses on lenses when I stop moving, and that it freezes onto the lenses quickly when riding in such cold weather.

The balaclava kept my nose and cheeks warm enough, but interfered with my breath enough to cause my right lens to fog at the first stop sign. From that point on, I exhaled by blowing forcefully away from my face. That, along with a crosswind, helped to keep my left lens clear.

As for keeping hands and feet warm, I offer this advice: Start Warm and Ride Hard. When core body temperature drops below a threshold (which differs from person to person), the body reduces circulation to the extremities in order to conserve blood flow to the brain and internal organs. This means cold hands and feet. My threshold temperature is pretty high. Even when I feel comfortable overall, my hands and feet get cold. To ride on cold days, I put on my head covering (balaclava or helmet liner) and my outer layers 15 or 20 minutes before heading out the door. This makes me toasty - perhaps even overly warm - and ensures that my hands are warm when I put them into the gloves. Even so, I need insulated mittens over my gloves for weather below about 28F. Mittens over gloves means I can't grip small objects. In other words, I need to pull off cleat covers, buckle helmet, tighten shoes, etc. before going outside. That's tough if the bicycle is outside in an unheated garage!

Riding hard keeps my core temperature high. Often, my hands will start warm, get cold within a mile or so, and then warm again after about 3 miles of fairly hard riding. I have had little difficulty keeping my feet warm on 5-mile commuting rides since I began using neoprene shoe covers over my riding shoes. I have not found an equally good solution for keeping my feet warm when riding in ordinary walking shoes, which are too wide to fit inside cycling shoe covers. With shoe covers and riding shoes, I wear a single pair of calf-length wool blend ski socks.

This morning, I rode into the office at 14 F. After riding at zero on Friday, it felt remarkably comfortable. With the snow over the past couple of days, though, I needed to walk my bicycle over icy spots on neighborhood streets before riding on the salted main roads.

I'll end by disagreeing with one common piece of winter commuting advice. Don't bother dressing in layers, except to get to your own personal comfort level in the given temperature. On a short ride at low temperature, you don't want to stop to remove a layer, especially if that requires taking off mittens to adjust or stow a piece of clothing. Instead, wear outer layers with zippers or velcro that allow you to adjust how much air gets inside. While stopped at a light, or while coasting on a low-traffic stretch of road, you can easily loosen a velcro-fastened cuff or open an underarm zipper or front zipper. This is much more practical than taking off your outer layer, let alone removing an inner layer. If you need to add warmth during a winter commute and you already have your zippers closed, pull a bandana or short scarf around your face or neck. Never ride while wearing a scarf long enough to get caught in your spokes!

Layering makes good sense on rides over 10 miles long in weather above freezing. You dress for the starting temperature and stop on the road to add or remove clothing to suit the changing conditions. During most commuting rides, you will get to work before the temperature changes by more than 2 degrees.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Classifying bicyclists: as easy as A B C?

If you attend the Louisville Bicycle Summit II on February 12, you will probably hear mention of A, B, and C bicyclists: A for advanced; B for basic, and C for child. (Click here to learn about and sign up for the free, all-day Bicycle Summit, about which I will write more later.) According to the engineers and planners who use this A-B-C scheme, A bicyclists are experienced, skilled riders willing to ride an almost any road open to bicyclists. B bicyclists are casual riders, willing to ride on low-traffic neighborhood streets, not-terribly-busy streets with bike lanes, and on paths. C riders, children, need low-speed, low-traffic neighborhood streets or paths to keep them safe from cars.

It seems like a reasonable scheme, and for several years I accepted it even though some national bicycle advocacy leaders disliked it. I've grown increasingly uncomfortable with it, though. Here are some arguments against separating bicyclists into groups for planning purposes, and some alternative approaches that make better sense to me.

Most of us know some drivers who avoid driving on expressways, or in heavy urban traffic. We know others who will go out of their way to drive on an expressway to avoid the inconvenience of stop signs and traffic lights. We also know inexperienced drivers, including teens and recent immigrants. Yet the traffic engineers and transportation planners don't divide motorists into categories and discuss which subset of drivers will use a particular new or redesigned road. They look at each road as part of a roadway network to serve the needs of the full range of motorists. Good transportation planners look at the various parts of the network (limited-access highways, major and minor surface roads, and neighborhood streets) and prioritize investments in the parts of the system that most need improvement.

I would like to see a similar approach for bicycling infrastructure. Rather than considering bicyclists as three groups, consider the variety of functions that a given road or path might serve for bicyclists - casual recreational riding, short-distance transportation, long-distance transportation, high-speed sport and fitness riding, riding in groups, and so on. Then, consider how this particular road or path fits into the bicycle facility network. Set the goal of providing appropriate roads or paths to serve each bicycling function in each part of the community, so people don't need to drive somewhere else in order to ride bicycle! In short: classify the bicycling function, not the bicyclists.

This acknowledges that the same bicyclist might have different needs and desires at different times. I choose very different routes for my solo commuting and errands than I choose for recreational rides with my wife, for riding with children, or for group rides. Pegging me as an A rider does not account for my variety of bicycling needs.

The A-B-C rider classification scheme also tends to fragment the bicycling community and undermine advocacy. The most well-informed bicycle advocates tend to be highly experienced bicyclists. Many public officials label us as A riders and then assume that we have lost any sense of what less-experienced bicyclists need or want. Of course, some avid riders choose to stay in the world of bicycle aficionados, with little concern or sympathy for the desires of less devoted bicyclists. It is unfair, inaccurate, and self-defeating to assume that all experienced riders have made this choice. Some of us stay in touch with the broader community of bicyclists and know first hand the desire to ride comfortably at low speed and with a minimum of threat from faster vehicles. My ability and willingness to ride on Shelbyville Road at rush hour does not reduce my appreciation for a quiet path far from motor vehicles, or my sympathy for people who can't imagine riding on a busy road without special bicycling facilities.

Instead of talking about "classes" of bicyclists, let's focus on developing a network of facilities to serve the broad spectrum of bicycling activities. Louisville has adopted an innovative Complete Streets manual and policy calling for each new or expanded roadway to provide for the needs of bicyclists and pedestrians. Let's get to know this manual and refer to it every time we consider a roadway project. As bicyclists, let's speak up for our own needs while recognizing the needs of others. Most of all, let's remember that it's all good: any bicycling that does not harm or threaten someone is worthy of our respect and support. The sooner fast, avid riders value and make common cause with slow, casual riders and vice versa, the sooner we will grow into a movement that will change the face and heart of our community.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Winter weather wagers

We have had a real winter this year in Louisville, though with very little snow thus far. In the first four days of winter, we experienced temperatures down to 5 degrees F, then rain falling at 34 F onto sub-freezing roads, then nearly two inches of rain with temperatures in the low 40s. Seven of the first 10 days of winter had significant winds, too, with average wind speeds of over 8 mph and maximum winds of at least 21 mph. January has been slightly warmer than normal; nonetheless, this morning had commute-hour temperatures of around 24 F. All of these conditions present different challenges to bicyclists.

The "wagers" in the title of this post refer to the weather-based decisions a bicyclist must make before venturing out in temperatures near or below freezing. A slight difference in road surface temperature or moisture can mean the difference between safe and unsafe riding. The weather report from the airport or downtown might not give an accurate picture of the conditions you will encounter on your ride, even just a few miles away. For example: It rains in the afternoon, with temperatures above freezing. Overnight, the forecast calls for temperatures dipping to the upper 20s to low 30s. If the temperature stays above freezing through the night, or if the roads dry before the temperature drops below freezing, you can have an ice-free ride to work the next morning. If the roads stay wet while freezing temperatures set in, you can encounter icy roads. You need to guess, based on the morning weather report and the conditions on your own street, whether it is safe to ride in the morning.

Also, you need to learn your own tolerance for cold temperatures. For temperatures from the low 40s down to the upper 20s F, I can ride comfortably wearing nothing over my face other than a headband under my helmet. Below about 28 F, I replace the headband with a fleece helmet liner, and I need to wear wrap-around eye shields rather than ordinary eyeglasses to keep the bridge of my nose from painful cold and to keep my eyes from watering. To ride in the low 20s and below, I need to cover my nose and cheeks with a folded bandana. If I fail to use these precautions, I will have a very uncomfortable ride. 

I guessed wrong on December 23 on the trip home from work. At 5 PM, the National Weather Service posted a temperature of 34 F with rain, so I thought I would merely have a wet, but not icy, ride home. I didn't account for the fact that the temperature had been well below freezing for 2 days. On the way home I hit a slick spot that nearly caused me to crash. I coasted the last few blocks at 5 mph, with my feet off the pedals. Regardless how much bicycling skill you have or what type of bicycle you ride, I urge you not to try riding in potentially icy conditions. One unlucky combination of ice and traffic could ruin your life.

Not to end on a dire note - I enjoy riding in the winter. The cold air makes me feel more alive, the roads often have less traffic, and everything looks clearer and brighter in the absence of the summer haze. Riding year-round means that I never need to talk myself into getting back on the bike in the spring, and starting a spring ride at a temperature of 45 F feels like a walk in the park!