Monday, September 23, 2013

The Problem(s) with Bike Lanes

When I am feeling at loose ends and up for some cantankerous reading, I occasionally go to the comments section of the local newspaper, especially when the story involves bicycles. I do this for a combination of amusement and education. The amusement comes from the almost rigidly predictable insights from autoists and cyclists alike…the Greek Drama-like inevitability of comments about bad cycling, bad driving, the environment, moral purity, and whole-group condemnation.

Once in a while, however, I get some education. I learn something new about what folks are thinking and doing out on the asphalt, and what might be done to make auto-bike interaction better (other than banning a large part of the population from driving/biking—or writing comments on web sites). One such educational moment occurred recently.

The author of a comment remarked that what made him so angry with cyclists was their practice of not staying in the center or the curb-side of bike lanes. He found it really frustrating that so many cyclists rode on the traffic-lane side (or even outside) of the bike lane. This seems pretty reasonable—a kind of “stay in the lines” argument. If there are bike lanes, USE THEM. I would generally agree (and try to do so).

However, as someone who both drives and rides, I saw the problem with this argument immediately. The commenter—presumably a person who hasn’t cycled since about age 10—was unfamiliar with what it often means to ride in a bike lane. His comment was educational, so I am returning the favor.

Bike lanes are a great concept—if you believe that bikes and motorized traffic mix naturally and safely (I don’t). However, in practice they have many drawbacks that a habitual driver may not realize. Below are some illustrations.

Dooring zone

Most non-cyclists would see little problem with this situation. Just ride in the bike lane. However, what if a street-side door on the van just ahead suddenly opens when I’m passing by? That’s called “getting doored,” and is one of the more frequent causes of serious injury while cycling. Note, too, the darkened window at the back of the van (an increasingly common auto trend), making it very hard for a cyclist to see if anyone is in the car--a predictor of the door being opened.

What to do? The usual answer is to ride on the traffic-edge of the bike lane in order to avoid getting doored.


This drainage grate is a “great” example of one of the biggest problems with bike lanes. The grate was once flush with the street surface. Successive re-pavings (and in some examples, the settling of the grate’s supporting structure) have made it a pit trap well below grade. If I were to go over this at anything like normal traveling speed, I would likely be thrown from my bike and/or break a wheel.

Or, for another example, here is a kind of storm water grate that is perfectly designed to catch a bike’s tire and hold it, throwing the rider over the handlebars (this antique example was found on a newly paved street, no less; it combines a totally unsafe design for bikes with the below-grade result of hasty paving). Wow! How does this stuff happen? Couldn’t anyone see the potential for danger here?

Solution: slow down and ride on the traffic side of the lane, or (if the obstacle is big enough) ride in the traffic lane to avoid this hazard or mess.

Debris minefield

This problem is pretty obvious, I should hope. The bike lane is often the place where various nasty and dangerous debris from auto traffic end up. This is especially problematic when it comes to glass shards and sharp metal scraps.

Then there are the dead and/or pulpified animals, or the piles of leaves that hide more serious objects (like a large fallen branch), becoming slick bogs of soggy Wheaties-like slime. Ugh. I don't envy those with the task of keeping up with this problem on the city staff. Generally, they do a good job. Some routes get swept by the city every week, others less often…but such debris get into the bike lane constantly and cannot be predicted.

Evasive action required: move out of lane so as not to puncture a tire, slip and fall, or hit something hidden.

Game Over: sudden endings

This is one of the more bizarre problems with some bike lanes. Occasionally, they end with no clear plan in sight that makes sense. What does this picture of the Mission and Winter intersection even suggest? Is this an “Immediate Rapture Lane" for cyclists?

In practical terms, it means that bikes are not being encouraged to turn right or left (which is sane, considering what Mission Street is like, but then again, the Mission Street viaduct has all sorts of bike and pedestrian infrastructure on it, so why can’t bikes be directed there on Mission?). Yet, following the bike lane and going straight puts one smack into a curb—even though the access to the multi-user path through Bush Park is in fact almost straight across the intersection. (The really galling thing about this intersection and its disappearing bike lane is that the city had a chance to do something about it recently when the curb-cuts for ADA-related pedestrian updates were put in. But, the project instead only reaffirmed the oddity of this much-used bikeway choke-point.)

The required course of action is to veer crazily across the intersection and take the little curb-cut at the end of the pedestrian crosswalk on the right, then make an immediate and tight zig-zag to go up into the parking lot and the multi-user path through the park. Argh.

However, if there are any pedestrians using this crossing (and there very frequently are), this puts everyone at added risk of an accident (at a very short light). Also, this curb cut is often full of debris that makes it very slick.

Finally, there are times in the later evening when this light doesn’t seem to be actuated by a cyclist in the bicycle lane (believe me, I know; it was a highly meditative experience until I walked over and pushed the pedestrian signal button). So, the lane becomes a sort of object lesson in frustration and confusion. Not helpful.
. . .

These are just a few thoughts about the problems regularly encountered by a utility cyclist in bike lanes. I hope it will prove helpful to those drivers who have not had to use this low-budget form of cycling infrastructure. Those white lines don’t make for a magical land without dangers to the cyclist. They don’t require a cyclist to commit suicide by staying in them, and they don’t free drivers from the responsibility of being careful around cyclists. They are just paint that indicates…but neither protects nor assures.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Good News/Bad News

I took this photo while biking to the office recently. It contains what I consider to be both good news and bad.

First, for the good news.

I continue to see more and more people cycling to and from their workplaces around town, and more and more of the bikes being used are upright bikes—often revealing a certain sense of style. This retro-cruiser bike has been parked at the Oregon State Hospital quite often as of late, and I had the good fortune to be able to have a chat with its owner recently. I think this is the first time I have seen a bike parked at OSH.

I like to see more folks use their bikes around town, riding in their normal work clothes and not turning cycling into some sort of specialized hybrid of esoteric sport and a HAZMAT operation. I also like to see bikes that encourage a more leisurely, fun approach to the practical task of getting there and back. This sort of bike reflects the fact that much of the inner core of Salem is quite flat and relatively easy to bike. Bravo (or, Brava, in this case)!

Now, the bad news:

This is the only feasible place to park and lock a bike anywhere in sight on this side of the newly-renovated (at considerable expense) state facility. I have looked for any bike racks nearby—even a simple “staple” style, the most frequent form—but haven’t found anything. It seems a bit odd, given the amount of care to provide for all sorts of access issues at this facility. There may be racks elsewhere on the site, but one looks in vain on this frontage. Perhaps I’ve just missed the rack…but should it be that hard to find?

I applaud the cyclist who uses this bike and this location for parking. I am only sorry that here, as elsewhere, the State Government wouldn’t make the effort to encourage multi-modal access.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Why the Upright Cyclist is grateful for all those crosswalks

The crossing at Mission and Church...a regular part of my life,
and something making Mission Street palatable.

In the last few years, the City of Salem has installed a significant number of upgraded pedestrian crossings to aid in navigating the busy streets around town. These are almost all expressly for pedestrians (a point I’ll return to later), but I find them quite useful for cyclists as well.

Like other cities in the USA, though perhaps more so than many our size, Salem has a number of large, fast streets penetrating its inner core. These streets (which I style “speedways”) have many visual cues encouraging travel at higher than posted speeds: they are often quite straight or have fairly easy curves, they tend to be quite wide, lack parking on one or both sides, and/or have a “finish” that gives a subtle likeness to higher-speed roads. This often puts the visual character of these streets at odds with their posted speed limits.

Until recently, pedestrians have had a difficult and dangerous time journeying through parts of the primary region of town. Crosswalks at major intersections with stoplights tend to be fairly widely spaced outside of the innermost core (another cue to drivers that above-average speed is reasonable), and there are very few options of going under or over these roads. Painted crosswalks with dull yellow signs have long existed in many places. These often mark nearby school access routes. These crossings, however, are pretty much legal fictions in day-to-day terms, as very few drivers pay much attention to them and it takes a fairly gutsy person to edge out and essentially dare the steady steam of traffic to stop.

The new crosswalks are a different critter. 

First of all, they include traffic calming features (curb bump-outs and islands, &c.) cueing a driver that speed could be disadvantageous. This is a wonderful and far more effective tool than the usual resort to enforcement that people clamor for, as it appeals to that very human sense of self-interest. If most drivers sense their car could easily be damaged on a given stretch of road, they are going to slow down. Pretty simple. Narrowing the road near a pedestrian crossing (or a school, or major community gathering spot) communicates to most people—more effectively than any sign ever could—that it time to “choke your motor,” so to speak.

More effective, bright optic yellow signs also mark these crossings. They can be seen on sunny and rainy days, when the old “warning yellow” of days gone by seems to get washed out by all the other colors out there today, or by sunlight in summer/grey rainy skies in winter. This new yellow doesn't get washed out nearly as easily.

When more than two lanes of traffic are being crossed, pedestrian-actuated and solar-powered flashing LED warning lights provide a highly effective indication that the crosswalk is in use. This feature in particular has made an astonishing difference not only in visibility to drivers but in emboldening pedestrians to use these accommodations. Where the LED flashers have been installed, I have seen people of all ages adopt a much more confident attitude in the face of what was once a streaming onslaught of Autoist Entitlement. Indeed, some crossings (such as the one at Mill and Twelfth) are amazingly busy now, effectively slowing down what has often been a "wild west" stretch of road rather nicely.

Court Street and the Capitol Mall; an LED-enhanced pedestrian crossing
getting a lot of use

As someone who drives a good deal, I am well aware of how easily such Autoism seduces the mind. Once you get going at a certain rate of speed, every encumbrance to that inertial state starts to seem like a personal insult. It just comes with the territory in American motoring, and such an attitude is neither helpful or healthy. Ways to break that sense of entitlement are quite beneficial, all around.

To the cyclist, it is pretty clear that these accommodations were not really meant for bikes. The approaches to the crossings are often narrow and involve sharp turns and curbs. The assumption seems to be that only people on foot—or walking their bikes—should be using them. This is, I believe, actually the law, so it is entirely appropriate. I can’t really complain about this. However, the fact is that many cyclists, like motorists, tend to forget the law when it comes to such things and try to keep that inertial state going whenever possible.

Salem has very few places clearly prioritizing cycling over other means of transport (the Chemeketa Street railway grade crossing at Twelfth is probably the best example). Putting in that much infrastructure is fairly expensive, and since much of the way such planning is done seems based more on current usage rather than encouraging usage, I don’t expect this to change anytime soon. This makes these new crossings quite valuable.

I cautiously use these crosswalks as primary conduits through town—cautiously, but use them I do. Because of the traffic-calming features, it is much easier to get the eye of motorists. While some folks doggedly continue the old charade of not seeing those trying to cross the road, many more pay attention because of the curbs jutting out and (especially) the flashing LED warning indicators.

These crossings often feel much safer than intersections with bike lanes and traffic lights, partly because of the ability to confirm visually that people see you, and partly because there is less going on at such locations—many intersections are too busy both in terms of traffic movement and in terms of visual clutter.
Center & OSH crossing...a much better way to cross Center Street on a bike.

One final aspect of these crosswalks I appreciate is that they often connect quieter streets or areas of town across major thoroughfares. I like this because it allows me to move about town on the terms of what I like to call “upright cycling.” Namely: at a leisurely pace, in relative peace, taking in the neighborhood while moving through it, and being away from auto-dominated environments.

So, while Salem isn’t exactly Amsterdam or Portland (or Corvallis, for that matter), these pedestrian crossings—meant for people on foot—have helped make this city a bit more cycle-friendly. I hope you have found it so, as well.

The Chemeketa crossing project when it was under
construction; probably the most complete piece of
cycling infrastructure downtown.

Friday, September 6, 2013

It depends on how you measure cost...

A morning accident at Mill and 12th Street

Over the last year here in Oregon, we have heard various voices call for a special bicycle tax or license fee to be imposed, statewide. The rationale for this seems to come from the belief that government-funded bicycle infrastructure is an enormously expensive luxury that those who use it should pay for. It has a beautifully straightforward logic to it, admittedly: Pay as You Go.

Once the details begin to come into focus, however, its luster fades.

Aside from the well-known fact that such taxes/fees are largely unenforceable and thus hopelessly idealistic (they have been tried before and didn’t work very well, and I don’t see that many more enforcement dollars going to such an effort today), there is the reality that bicycle infrastructure is a tiny, tiny percentage of the outlay we make for road funding, and that if autoists had to pay for what it truly cost to build and maintain their infrastructure, we wouldn’t be able to take our cars out of the driveway or garage

Similarly, the wear-and-tear on roads or other surfaces from bikes is nominal, and many of the bike lanes and other infrastructure put in by municipalities are so poorly-sited that they go largely unused, anyway, so those costs could be done away with by not putting them in the first place. 

In other words, the argument collapses after a while, turning into generalized frustration with taxes, traffic, a supposed "free lunch" enjoyed by others, and the corner into which we have painted ourselves in Salem and many other cities.

However, once we start talking about such revolutionary ideas, the conversation usually devolves into name-calling and belittling. I’m sensitive to this, because I am a cyclist, pedestrian, and also a motorist at various times. I try to remind myself that it doesn’t pay much to get into such childish screaming matches with one’s self, let alone others.

What makes the issue more focused for me is something like what I came upon a few days ago as I was cycling to church. An accident had occurred involving a minivan and a pedestrian crossing traffic island (this isn't about blame; I don’t know how it happened, and I don’t know if anyone was seriously hurt—my prayers were and are with those involved).

The vehicle's front end was pretty badly mauled, but the island’s warning light/solar power generating station didn’t come out of it too well, either. A lot of people were working on the aftermath just then. After I ascertained that there wasn’t anything I could do about this situation, I got to thinking….

When a vehicle hits such public infrastructure, someone has to pay for the said-infrastructure’s repair. When a motorized vehicle does the hitting, those costs are likely much higher than when a pedestrian or a cyclist smacks into something. While I don’t know exactly who does the paying in such situations (whosever “fault” it may be), do cyclists or pedestrians passing by such things ever say to themselves: “I bet that driver isn’t going to have to pay for that damage and those people’s time to fix things up again, but I'll have to pay for it in my taxes, even though I'm not responsible at all!”

Perhaps such people do exist, but they can’t be many. 

We have been trained to think about such expenses as part of the cost of having roads, cars, and public access. But it doesn't have to be so. This accident and its aftermath were hardly free, to anyone. If we are going to have a pay-your-way society, we need to wake up to what that would really be like: the many “free lunches” enjoyed by privileged groups would disappear, much to their chagrin. They might even be surprised who they are.

The true costs of transportation infrastructure are enormous, and we are all on the dole to one degree or another in this arena. The deeper issue here, to my way of thinking, is exactly what sort of community or society our transportation policies encourage.

The location of this accident brought this up in another way. The recent construction of several serious pedestrian crossings in Salem (and this was one) has significantly helped rein-in autoist entitlement here. I use them often when cycling, and they have really helped, what with all the traffic-calming and warning sign/light features on many of them. This is a good thing: drivers are, after all, in possession of what amounts to a weapon in a collision. But, there’s more to these crossings than just safety.

Such amenities also encourage more foot-traffic and a more human-centric experience of downtown. Many of these crossings are certainly very well used, revealing pent-up demand (often by younger people, seniors, and folks with special needs). They are helping to bring Salem—gradually—in line with the kind of community the rising generations desire—and to which they will move. It would be very costly to ignore such trends in our nation, simply repeating old slogans and re-living childhood memories of auto-centric suburban nirvanas that were never quite what they appeared, anyway.

Too often, the simple bottom-line cost (whether truly represented, or not) is used as the clincher in transportation and urban planning arguments. But, there are many ways to measure cost, and only when we learn to factor in more of the total picture will we be able to assess what is going on in a given situation correctly, or in a way that leads to progress rather than stubborn denial.