Friday, August 17, 2012

Bike Lanes, Traffic and Where We Belong

I'm writing this post in response to a discussion happening on Twitter regarding bike lanes in The City of Red Deer and where bikes belong.

Full disclosure: I am a daily, year-round bike commuter who strongly believes that bikes belong on the road and that there is an incredible lack of understanding and empathy on both the part of drivers and cyclists. These views are my own.

It has been argued by many drivers that bikes belong on sidewalks and trails; that having bikes on the road is  unfairly impeding traffic. Let me break this down and address the issues separately and completely.

"Bikes belong on sidewalks" - This one is a yes and no.

Yes: Little kids riding, or people meandering to the corner store, a friend's house or the park, or some similar activity are all biking trips that can happen on a sidewalk. They are generally slow, recreational-style rides. People have time to react to pedestrians and pedestrians won't be surprised by a fast moving bike.

No: Commuting is not recreational riding. Commuting on a bike fulfils the same functions as commuting in a car; get to work in the shortest amount of time possible. When a cyclist is commuting to work, they are generally travelling upwards of 25-30 km/h. At those speeds the sidewalk is the last place a bike should be. The chance for a pedestrian to get injured or for a cyclist to be hit by a car coming out of a driveway is greatly increased. Cycle commuters are focussed on getting to work and school. They are not stopping for ice cream, or lolly-gagging along attempting to waste drivers' time. For everyone concerned, given the speed of the cyclist and the relatively short times to react to challenges on the sidewalk, the road is the best place for cycle commuters.

"We have a trail system for bikes" - Again, this is a yes and no.

Yes: Red Deer has an amazing trail system. You can ride, walk, ski, rollerblade and skateboard from one end of the park system to the other, without having to cross a major road. You get to travel in the shade of Spruce, poplar and Elm trees and experience all that urban nature has to offer. The trail is a great recreational asset and a good commuting option - for some.

No: Most of the people in Red Deer do not live along the trail system. My commute to work for example, takes 13 minutes (17 in the winter) via surface streets. If I detour over to the trail system my commute becomes a 25 - 30 ride (40 in the winter). It's just not feasible to ask a cyclist to spend the extra time in a busy day, to detour through the park - and I work on the park system as the trail leads right up to the Nature Centre. Asking someone who lives on the East hill and works downtown to find their way over to the trail in order to get to work, is patently ridiculous.

There is a misconception that cycle commuters are eco-guerilla, anti-car, anti-social freaks; and maybe some of them are. However, most of us are simply trying to get to and from work and school in as economical, low-impact, and healthy manner as possible. In my case, we are a one-car family. The economics of owning, insuring and driving two cars every day didn't make sense to us. Neither did the tonnes of greenhouse gas that we'd be responsible for by having a second car. While I like riding to work everyday, take my word for it, there is sacrifice involved.

Last winter I wrote and filmed a series about winter cycle commuting - you can see it further down the blogroll. Here is an excerpt about what it's like to ride on Red Deer's roads, and what I feel are the best strategies for staying alive while bike commuting. Also, keep in mind this is written from a winter-centric and bike-centric point of view:

" my careful, scientific estimation there are like a zillion more cars on the road in the winter, effectively creating one long line of moving iron. There are no spaces to dodge into, to get around the hole. To make matters worse, this snake-like iron and plastic leviathan is controlled by humans who - let me be delicate here - turn into cold-lulled, meat sacks unable to see anything beyond the dvd infotainment system in the dash, once the temperature dips down below "chilly".

This brings us nicely to "Strategies and tactics to make sure you don't die".

First, base all your decisions on the following assumptions:

  • Nobody can see you. It doesn't matter how bright the jacket, how loud the bell, how good the lights; in winter you are beyond invisible. note - this applies year-round
  • Nobody is stopping for you. They're cold, the light is yellow, they're going through. Likely, this is because it's probably safer for them, than stopping would be. Do not be tempted to jump the light or snake a lane in the winter. Nobody is going to hit the brakes in the middle of an intersection and risk sliding into the guy in front of them.  note - this applies year-round
  • All cars are broken-down, barely maintained heaps of junk. It's patently not true. But if you assume that the cars around you have no brakes, bad tires and poorly maintained steering systems, then you'll be mentally ready for things to head south.  note - this applies year-round
  • The winter road will never be as good as you imagine/hope. You will always find glare ice, drifted snow, new potholes, broken car parts, dead kitties, sand piles etc... littering the curb lane and the intersections. Be ready for these obstacles.
  • Eventually, somewhere, somehow you will get hit by a car. It probably won't be serious. But it will happen. More on this, below.  note - this applies year-round

Given these assumptions here then, is how you survive as a winter cyclist.

Plan your route. Red Deer is an easy city to ride in, largely because you can route-plan on the fly. Lots of side streets will take you to the places you want to go, almost as fast as the main arterials. When you leave the house in the morning, make sure you have a couple of optional routes in your mental map so that you can bail out of your main route, if things are getting dicey.

Keep your head on a swivel. More than anything else, you have to be hyper-aware of what's happening around you. You should know roughly how many cars in the in lane behind you (I count them at stop lights), if anybody behind you is planning a right turn at the upcoming intersection - this is a great place and situation in which you can get hit by a car, and what the traffic lights are about to do. You should be aware of the roads and traffic up to a block ahead of you, and you should be scanning the sidewalks for pedestrians who may be feeling adventurous. Are there yards with potentially open gates on your route? Dogs and cats aren't afraid of you and will run out into traffic. Cats will do it just to try and make you swerve into a bus - sadistic little bastards. The more information you can track in your surroundings, the better you can avoid protential problems and the more options you can find for escaping trouble.

Here's the uncomfortable reality I mentioned at the top of this article: Some day, you will eventually have a negative interaction with a car. It doesn't matter how much you've perfected your situational-awareness, how great your studded tires are, how well you've planned... eventually things are going to go bad and you will either hit or get hit by something outweighs you by 2800 lbs or more. It will hurt.

Practice falling off your bike. Go to a frozen school-yard and fall down. Do it at fast speeds and slow speeds. Get someone to push you over as you ride by or simply throw yourself off the bike. You need to know how to hit the ground effectively. Hit with the biggest amount of  body real-estate. It's instinctual to put your hands out to try and catch yourself. This is a great way to break your wrists. Try to land on your shoulders, side, or hips. Let the force of the landing get dispersed across as much of your body as possible.

Once you're on the ground. Roll. If you've broken something (on you, not your bike) your body will instinctively try to protect that part. Rolling does two things. One, it helps to protect the injured part by moving it out of harms way and two, it further dissipates energy. It redirects the energy of the impact over space and distance.

By practicing falling, you're developing muscle memory. If you get hit, your body will just "know" what do. This is important because when bad things happen, they happen with little warning and you simply can't remember fast enough, what you should do to protect yourself in a fall.

In the event that you do have to fall:

  • Once you're down, stay down. Do a self-systems test. Does your neck hurt? Does your back or head hurt? Did you black out? Can you wiggle your fingers and toes? Once you've established that you've not compromised anything critical - and if nobody has stopped to help - you can try to move. Be slow, be deliberate and double check those fingers, toes and neck for sensation, mobility and pain. If there's a negative change, stop what you're doing and wait for help.
  • Do. Not. Let. Anybody. Help. You. Up. If you've hit hard enough that you require assistance, just ask someone to call an ambulance and let the EMTs take care of how and when you move. Don't let passersby remove your backpack or helmet. At this point, those things are stabilizing any injuries and removing them could cause more harm than good.
  • Don't get up fighting. Remain calm, ask for the driver's insurance and registration and leave the scene as calmly as possible. The police and insurance companies will figure out who was wrong and who pays what. Don't assume that just because you're the cyclist that you're in the right. Your own stupidity or bad decision could be to blame. 

Drivers and cyclists, re-read those last two sentences carefully. Here, I'll re-paste them: Don't assume that just because you're the cyclist that you're in the right. Your own stupidity or bad decision could be to blame.

Cyclists are not infallible. Most of us ride by the rules of the road, wear bright clothing and do our damndest to stay out of the way. However, there are some realities that drivers are going to have to accept.

1. We are forced to ride on the worst part of the road. The edges of any road bed are the first to degrade. This is the place where the potholes show up, where the road heaves and dips around man-holes and where debris collects. We have to either risk damaging our bikes or move over a little to avoid these obstacles. This isn't being done to piss off drivers, it's self-preservation

2. We might move up to the front of the line of traffic. This is the safest place for us at a stop light. By being at the front of the line we reduce the risk of being run over by someone turning right at the intersection. By the same token, moving to the front of the left turn lane lets us get out in front of traffic and out of the way so we don't get killed. This is especially true in the winter. The last place a cyclist should be is at the end of the line of traffic. One rear-end collision would result in a cyclist sandwich. There is some data to suggest that cyclists have fewer negative interactions with cars in jurisdictions that allow lane-splitting.

Will Red Deer be safer with bike lanes? I certainly hope so. There are none along my commute right now (and honestly I don't want one on 40th Avenue - see my previous post). What well-designed bike lanes do is  blend bike traffic with car traffic, while keeping the cyclists separate enough to be safe.

Drivers need to remember that they are piloting a vehicle that has a mass several hundred times that of a bike and rider. If a car hits a bike, it's never good for the cyclist. Drivers.are going to have to learn how to deal with an increased number of bikes on the road. Cyclists likewise, are going to have to learn to ride by the rules of the road and to ride predictably. If bike lanes facilitate a new understanding between drivers and cyclists I'm all for them. However, if drivers see the lanes as "taking away" from their right to own the road, then it's the cyclists who will pay for that resentment. We'll pay through damage to our bikes and through hospital stays - or worse.

1 comment:

Red said...

I've looked at the new bike lanes that go downtown. I don't like them. I wouldn't ride on them. They start and stop at weird places. The one going down 49 th Ave squashed between parked cars and a traffic lane is insane. somebody is going to be killed on that one.

A good post was needed about bike lanes. Thanks.