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!