Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ya' May Like the Pictures, but the Debate Rages On

I can only guess that since noone commented on the last article, each word--as intended--must have been deeply moving genius that warrants little discussion and no debate.  Instead, simple awe must have washed over each of my readers.

Or nobody read it, a much more likely answer to the number 0 beside the comment line.   

Regardless, I want to contextualize the thoughts in that article using a story by Gretchen Reynolds that ran this week in The New York Times

This debate about whether to increase the amount of bicycle infrastructure in America, that is, whether to lobby political institutions for increased spending on bicycle facilities, is not a new debate; and it is not a debate that appears to be coming to a close.  

The Times article, in it's full glory, is entitled:

Reynolds actually answers "no" to this question when looking at the empirical evidence from European nations.  The simple conclusion?  More riders mean less accidents.  This is the widely accepted view amongst transportation experts and advocates, and it is a conclusion affirmed by loads of studies, some of which are cited by Reynolds.  

Still, why does she toss out this rhetorical question a bit later, a question essentially refuted by evidence presented earlier?  

Reynolds writes:  
“Transportation experts cannot agree, for instance, about whether to segregate bicycle and automobile traffic, using concrete barriers along bike paths or creating separate bikeways.”

This much is true, sure. Advocates do disagree about this, and I would argue that the debate has hindered the efforts at increasing safety for cyclists over the years as it has split the advocacy community into seemingly un-agreeable halves.

But then comes the moot question:
“In the short term, (the segregated bike path) approach should protect cyclists. But if if drivers are not given the opportunity to acclimate to riders, will it actually make it more dangerous for bikers in the long run? No one knows. ‘We need studies; we need data,’ Dr. Willett said.”

Of course we know--Reynolds made the point (if not explicitly) earlier in the article.  This is not an issue we need to study or debate to death. The results are in.  

As she wrote earlier, in places where people cycle often (one third to one half of the mode share), we find segregated bicycle infrastructure as a dominant planning pattern.   In those same places, the number of injuries are far fewer per kilometer cycled.  

What, then, is the debate?  Bike lanes in Denver may be contributing to more injuries, but bike lanes are not the same things as the raised and separated cycle tracks we find in Europe.  

There is a direct link between great numbers of bicyclists, separated bicycle infrastructure, and bicycle safety.  This combination, I think, is the ideal.  

Reynolds is clear towards the conclusion of the article about a city's  inability to control the unpredictable nature of cars.  We can, however, create more places for bicyclists to ride safely out of the way of car traffic. 

Cars and bikes will, of course, still interact at intersections.  But by increasing the number of bicycles on the road through protected bike infrastructure, we can increase the awareness among motorists of bicycles passing through those intersections.

Am I simply building a straw man to burn in this and the previous article?  

I wish...The people forwarding the debate about the potential "problem" with increasing protected bike infrastructure have a deceitful name: "vehicular cyclists."   They even have their own wiki page.  

I call the name deceitful because by arguing against this camp of advocates, one might assume I am arguing against vehicular cycling.  But that would be absurd: I rode my bicycle as a commuter nearly every day for 10 years in Memphis, Tennessee, where nary a piece of "European" bicycle infrastructure exists.  Heck, we got our less than 3 miles of bike lane just this past year!  Lets be clear: vehicular cycling is a necessity in Memphis and countless cities across the United States.  

What I am arguing is this: bicycle advocates should advocate for separated bicycle infrastructure.  Otherwise, what are we saying?  That car signals and streets created for automobiles work well for bicycles too?  

Maybe the true vehicular cyclists among us believe this, but it is clear that few Americans think this way.  Otherwise, why aren't more Americans braving city streets with wide outside lanes? 

Of course, as the vehicular cyclists maintain, we must train cyclists to ride well and predictably (note: in the Netherlands and Denmark children received required bicycle lessons in elementary school), but this is not going to help America get over the seemingly insurmountable "safety barrier;" the barrier of insecurity and discomfort with traffic that keeps Americans from taking the bike.  

A raised bike lane or a concrete wall, however, might do the trick.


  1. "What I am arguing is this: bicycle advocates should advocate for separated bicycle infrastructure."

    Then we need to be prepared to propose a tax structure to pay for it. While I know that cyclists also pay for the roads (because auto license, gas and title taxes don't exclusively pay for transportation) I also know that segregated infrastructure is expensive and most cities are facing profound budget deficits. The changes required for segregated bicycle infrastructure are immense. Planners are right to increase a project's cost by %20 for a path that relatively few people will use.

    Instead, shouldn't we be asking how great (and expensive) are the changes to "car signals and streets created for automobiles" necessary to make them "work well for bicycles, too?" I contend that, if planners adjusted signals, parking patterns, lane designations, and maximum speeds, integrated streets would not be radically unsafe for cyclists. It seems to me that everything is in place to create safer streets for cyclists and pedestrians without billion-dollar expenditures.

    Sure, segregated infrastructure would be safer, but the safest course of action would be to ban cars completely. We don't consider that for the same reason planners don't consider completely separate bike paths: the cost and inconvenience to the majority of a city's citizens.

    But you know me. I prefer the street because I can keep up with traffic and don't have to deal with strollers and runners on the MUP.

  2. First, I enjoyed your previous post...

    Secondly, I think I may be considered a vehicularist. I prefer to ride on the roads with cars rather than having a bike lane because I can ride faster and not have to compete with slower traffic that would be on a MUP like Josh stated.

    I also think the separated path would be to cost prohibitive to actually happen (to echo what Josh said again). I do think however it may work in SOME situations, one plan of attack can't work everywhere all the time. A different solution may be needed for different situations.

    I do feel though separated bike lanes would allow more people that don't currently ride to start riding and feel safe about riding, which is really what we are aiming for. But would non-separated bike lanes do the same thing? What about sharrows? What about just educating other road users?

    I think a separated lane could easily be made out of many of the roads that have more lanes than they need, this would cause more car traffic congestion, but would also make people in the cars think about alternative modes of transportation, or at least a different route to take home, which could make some streets safer to ride on by reducing the speed or the number of cars on it.

    Off-topic but did you see Dallas passed a helmet law? Hopefully they won't go the way of Australia and see a big drop in cyclists.

  3. I think we have strategic and shorter term goals. Strategic is the dedicated bicycle facility. This is a tough sell in communities dominated by the sedentary. The proactive goal is to mandate road design for the vehicular cyclist, and train road designers to properly design roads for all mode shares.
    Every advocate has read John Forester. And they should. I think the solution for our lifetime is somewhere inbetween Forester and the "special facilities" folks. More bicyclists will learn to bicycle again, get strong, and want to go places facilities won't take them. That's when they become vehicular cyclists.
    My route home from work tonight was a mixed route. I used some bike lanes, but mostly it is shoulders or sharing the road with cars.
    I've been riding for years, and sometimes I feel afraid. Very afraid. I wonder what my wife will think if I get run over. I wonder if it would motivate dozens of my bicycling friends to become active passionate advocates if I were run over?
    I sometimes feel like I'm the lone odd bicyclist, taking a risk to train cars to look for bicyclists, to normalize them. I believe it's worth the risk to blaze the way - make it safer for future bicyclists.
    Keep riding folks, keep riding.

  4. Thanks for your comments, guys! To Josh's point about cost and taxes: you're really raising a much bigger issue than whether bike facilities cost a lot of money. But to speak to the point, if you do a cost benefit analysis on how much money is saved by creating more opportunities to bicycle in urban areas, the issue of "it costs too much" quickly dissolves. Lower public health costs, a lower road maintenance cost, and a lower bus or subway maintenance cost quickly eats away at the expense. Cities also experience an increase in wealth as a result of bike infrastrucutre. Richard Florida's research regarding the influx of the "creative class," or rather the corellation between the creative class and bike friendly cities, is by now well known. On top of that, cities that are walkable and bikeable attract loads more tourists (and their dollars) than cities that require you to take the subway, or sit on a cramped and often irregularly stopping bus. Finally, when usability and practicality is seen alongside cost, the investment required to create quick connections in city by bike is pittance compared to the cost of creating and maintaing car infrastructure. The "it costs too much" argument is not a sound argument, and it is not an argument which we can swallow any longer. Literally, the health of our cities depends on this.

    Finally, Josh, the reason you're point is about more than cost...Municipalities, and particularly the federal government, are much more suspect in the mind's of the average American than they are in the mind of the average Dane. There is a suscpicion in both the Republican and the Anarchist mind about the efficacy of the government, and for that reason officials struggle to generate the wealth needed to administer large scale projects (like a sophisticated system of bike infrastructure). This belief leads to a remarkably lower tax structure in the U.S. (the average Dane pays around 42% of their income in taxes, while the average American pays around 29%), which means that per capita, the government has less money to spend. This isn't just about bikes...See the recent health care debates.

  5. To Kermit and Josh's point about riding in traffic for fun: I, like each of you, enjoy the thrill of narrowly passing between idling or slow moving traffic on a fixie (actually Kermit, I don't think you have a fixie!). I don't like being consigned to well-ordered bike tracks filled with people doing 20k (12 MPH). But, such paths are the way to increase the mode share. They feel safe precisely because they are not exciting. Plus, the streets will always be there for our amusement. The messengers almost always use the streets in Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

    Finally, to Pat's point about Forrester, educating motorists by riding predictably, and getting "places facilities won't take them": I used to think that I was teaching motorists better car-handling around cyclists by asserting myself in the right lane, or signaling all the time. In truth, however, in a place like Memphis such behavior usually just perplexes the motorist, or worse, it makes them mad. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, but I think we should be real about how many lightbulbs go off when a motorist encounters a cyclist riding in a wide outside lan. I'm not convinced this is trail-blazing: this assumes people will at some point follow you out into traffic. The average American, I'm afraid, will not follow you out into traffic if there is not bike lane or bike track. And honestly, who can blame them.

    Vehicular Cycling is important, but it is not the goal. It is not even a means to an end. Rather, it's an unfortunate reality for would-be cyclists in America.

    Vehicular cycling will not catalyze into some utopian dream of a bikeable society--like Marx's supposed socialist paradise heralded by centuries of communism. Vehicular cycling will probably just lead to more preventable deaths--like that of David Meeks this past year, hit from behind by a truck that caught his pannier and pulled him underneath the wheels. That would not have happened in a European style bike track. Am I dreaming big? You betcha. But I'm also prepared to work hard. To make a 25% mode share for bikes in American cities a not-so distant reality.

  6. Articles like that in the NY Times, Today's LA Times and the recent Slate story are helping perpetuate the myth that there really is division. There's not. Go stand in a room full of bike advocates and ask the question and you'll be lucky if you get one person to raise their hand and say they are a 'vehicular cyclist.' To spread the notion that there is an even-handed sharp divide is as false as saying there is division amongst the scientific community on climate change. For the sake of progress, let's all stop feeding this myth.

    'Vehicular cycling' principles are indeed need-to-know skills for anyone riding their bikes in this country. Knowing the rules of the road and knowing how to navigate traffic safely and predictably is essential knowledge to keep yourself safe while riding. Knowing and promoting this is not the the exclusive intellectual property of Forrester or the VC cult. Its a simple reality of transporting yourself on wheels (either 2 or 4) along our shared roadways. I use these skills everytime I ride and they have given me the confidence to ride in some of the least bike-friendly cities in the country including Memphis. The thing is I don't like being the only one out there. I want to create safer streets so that my roommate, my grandmother and the kids in my neighborhood can ride too. For them to feel comfortable to requires more than just education, but infrastructure that is accommodating, be it traffic reducing/slowing road diets to fully separated shared use paths and everything in between.

    Again, bicycle facilities being expensive is another false notion that we need to move away from. They are not cheap, but compared to roadway facilities they last much longer, promote healthier lifestyles that reduce other costs and are labor not material intensive creating more jobs. Let's take a look at Portland, the US bike mecca. They've invested $60 million in the past 25 or so years. Sounds like a lot, but that's the cost of 1 mile of urban highway. That will pay for about 800 feet of the planned Columbia River Crossing bridge there. Imagine taking that money out of 55 or 240 and investing it in biking and walking infrastructure in Memphis and the impact that could have. Its not that its cost prohibitive, its about having safe bicycling as a political priority and a vision of what you want your community to be.

  7. Jeff: Thanks for the numbers you provided from Portland. I think the whole of the U.S has a lot to learn from that fair city, which hopes to make the mode share for bicycles near 25% by 2025.