Thursday 19 September 2013

Sorry about that, I was supposed to get right back to my safe riding post but I got inspired and posted about things that could be done to improve safety outside of changing the way you ride.

You have to chase the muse when it appears.

Ok, back to our regularly scheduled program.

Road Safety PART II

Sidewalk and Parking Lot Riding
Sidewalk riding is a touchy topic, hardcore cyclists dislike it as they see it as an admission of inferiority, giving up the road to the cars. Pedestrian’s hate it as fast moving cyclists are terrifying and extremely dangerous to them. Municipalities don’t like it and many have made it illegal in some way or another. I think most municipal planners would prefer if cyclists were either in bike lanes or nowhere at all, putting them on sidewalks just makes things more complicated.

Still, every urban cyclist rides on the sidewalk at some point or another. Even hardened road cyclists have found themselves on the sidewalk at some point. Sidewalks provide important connecting options for the urban cyclist, for example when construction blocks the lane entirely a cyclist can get around the obstruction in a way a car cannot. Urban cycling laws have interpreted sidewalk riding restrictions differently. In the city of Toronto for example, the size of your wheel decides whether or not you are allowed on the sidewalk. Essentially the bylaw restricts sidewalk riding to young people (with smaller bikes and thus wheel sizes) to allow them to learn to ride off road. In principle, sidewalk riding is illegal, in practice, things are different.

I think that sidewalk riding should be a part of the urban cyclists’ arsenal, but only with certain important caveats in mind, as riding on the sidewalk reverses the standard relationship between a bicycle and the surrounding traffic. Rather than being a slow moving vehicle, when you are on the sidewalk you are essentially a fast moving pedestrian. There is no reason why a cyclist on the sidewalk can’t ride in such a way that is perfectly safe for both the cyclist and the pedestrian, after all cars regularly drive safely alongside much slower moving cyclists, but to do so requires the cyclist to be attentive to certain things.

First and foremost, pedestrians always have the right of way on the sidewalk. If I find myself on the sidewalk and a pedestrian approaches me, I slow down, move over, and when I get closer to the pedestrian I put one foot down on the sidewalk and coast by them or hop off and walk by them rather than riding. The point here is to let the pedestrian know that you have seen them and that you are deferring to them. In essence you are doing exactly what responsible car drivers do when they see a cyclist on the road ahead of them; you are acknowledging their presence by giving them a reasonable amount of space.

If you are approaching a pedestrian from behind you have two options, slow down and wait until you have the space to go around them or ring your bell to announce your presence. Sidewalks vary in width, and sometimes have concrete strips beside them that allow you to circumvent pedestrians without hitting the road. A stretch of my regular commute up Keele Street has a strip of ashphalt, about 5 feet wide, beside the sidewalk for quite a distance, it is a convenient option to circumvent pedestrians entirely. Where that is not an option, if you do ring your bell keep in mind that you still have to go slowly around pedestrians, people with headphones in for example may not hear your bell and if they move from one side of the sidewalk to the other you could be in for a painful meeting. The general rule here is that pedestrians have to know you are there if you choose to ride the sidewalk, and the responsibility for doing these things lies with the cyclist, not the pedestrian.

What I generally do is look for a sign that I have been noticed. For example, most people turn around and look when I ring my bell, when I have been seen then they can react to me and I can steer around them. Runners will generally keep far right in the lane, those who run down the middle will often move over as soon as they hear my bell. Use common sense and don’t be going so fast you couldn’t stop very short. When the path clears up you can hotdog around.

It is interesting that one of the arguments Forest offers for cyclists staying off of sidewalks is that pedestrians are unpredictable, he makes a similar argument about bike paths. This seems strange, as he also argues that motorists for the most part behave predictably (they agreeably drive just to the left of you on the road for example), and bases his safe cycling method on this predictability. I agree with him about motorists, but I would extend this to pedestrians as well. Put in another way, given what I have seen on the road with drivers, I would say that pedestrians are about equally as predictable as motorists in terms of how they move around.

Given that Forest argues for riding on the road with cars, I can’t see the reason for avoiding the sidewalk due to pedestrians. I think the problem here is that Forest thinks of predictability in terms of how the motorist acts (e.g. how he or she drives), but I am thinking of predictability in terms of how the pedestrian reacts to my actions (does he or she acknowledge my presence, do they see me slowing down or  stopping). If I don’t get a reaction I slow down or stop, if I do I slow down a bit less and steer around.

Another good example of this (that applies to bike paths more than sidewalks, but is nonetheless of interest) is dogs. When you are on a bike path or sidewalk and someone with a dog is ahead of you it is important to ring your bell and see if the dog owner either brings the dog to heel, moves it over, speaks to it, etc. In some cases the dog owner won’t do anything with the dog at all, but if they turn and see you then do nothing it is likely their dog won’t bother you, the owner knows it, and you should just go past. A lot of what happens between pedestrians and cyclists comes down to interpretation, and interpretation can vary, but I have found it very simple to solve this problem by relying on common sense and going a bit slower. If I ring my bell and someone who was previously moving in a straight line swerves over to the right I am in good shape to assume they are letting me by. If they wave or signal, or if they turn, see me and move over, I think I’m good. Still, I will go wide around them, and I slow down for good measure. The primary cost to this method is time, you will be slowing down, but I think that’s a fair price to pay for the use of a sidewalk when the road is not a preferred option.

Second, sidewalks are interrupted regularly by driveways, intersections, etc. Sidewalks are not lanes like the road, they are intended for slow moving traffic that can stop easily to allow vehicles to cross and enter the traffic flow. As a result any cycling done on sidewalks should be done at a reduced speed, giving the cyclist ample time to react to any cars crossing their paths. Also, particular attention needs to be paid to intersections. When riding along the sidewalk it is tempting to continue at full speed through intersections, but this is a serious safety risk. When motorists see you on the road they are forced to react to you, but when you ride on the sidewalk motorists generally ignore you as you are no longer on the road. Thus when you blow through an intersection from the sidewalk motorists generally don’t see you coming, and as you are much faster than a pedestrian the combination can be deadly. A motorist may check the sidewalk for pedestrians, then make a turn a few seconds later, in that time another pedestrian couldn't appear, but a fast moving bike on the sidewalk could. So the rule here is that you need to go slowly and treat intersections as if you were a pedestrian, not a cyclist on the sidewalk.

Visibility is a key issue here as well. In certain areas fences, trucks parked in driveways, trees, etc. can block your view of the sidewalk ahead. This puts you at risk for not seeing a car coming out of a driveway for example. There may also be pedestrian entrances that can introduce newcomers to the sidewalk whenever the building facades come close to the sidewalks. Visibility can mitigate many of these problems, but you have to think it through. When the sidewalk is close to the building facades then you might not have time to stop if a pedestrian walks out of a business into the sidewalk, so you have to go slow. However, on wider avenues with buildings set back and a lack of fences and hedges, etc., you can clearly see any new traffic well in advance. You still have to check your rearview for traffic approaching from behind that might want to make a right into an upcoming driveway, you are never completely insulated from cars on the sidewalk.

Third, re-entering the flow of traffic from sidewalks is tricky and should be done very cautiously. Again, motorists don’t pay attention to people on the sidewalk except at intersections when they have to check for pedestrians before turning or going straight through. If you are flying down the sidewalk then decide to re-enter traffic motorists are not expecting you and will not necessarily compensate for you when you re-enter the traffic flow. As a rule I only re-enter traffic from the sidewalk when there are no cars on the road, or if there are cars I re-enter at an intersection when the cars are stopped at the sign or light.

Because of the need to cycle more slowly sidewalk riding is not generally a viable option for the whole commute. As a practical matter, I generally only ride on the sidewalk when I’m “ditching” (e.g. leaving the main road due to safety concerns, then re-entering). This means that I tend to use the sidewalk along main arteries or busy roads for safety reasons, or along any road if there is an obstruction (e.g. construction), but otherwise I stay on the road.

So why recommend sidewalk riding at all? From a legal perspective the police seem to be fine with it as long as it is done responsibly, I’ve been riding on sidewalks for about 35 years and I have never been given a ticket or a fine. Having said that, I never ride the sidewalk in the downtown core as there are too many pedestrians on it and the traffic is generally so slow (due to congestion) that the road is a preferable option. Riding through slow moving downtown traffic is one of the joys of cycling in the city. However, the downtown core is only one part (and a comparatively small part) of the urban landscape, and it is a mistake to treat the whole urban cycling environment like it was in some undifferentiated, uniformly busy area. There are significant segments of urban space where pedestrian traffic on sidewalks is virtually non-existent, and these areas should be available to the cyclist. You still need to be aware, for example, while riding the sidewalk cars on the road might make a right in front of you to get into a driveway, so check your mirror regularly even though you are not on the road.

My regular commute takes me up Keele Street. Keele is a very busy street, with posted speed limits from a low of 40 km/hr to a high of 80 km/hr, and in rush hour it can be intimidating. I believe you can ride on busy roads safely, even during rush hour, and I have found myself on Keele at all different times. It is important for every cyclist to be able to handle busy traffic roads on a regular basis, as it is almost impossible to knit together a full route without some time on major arteries. Still, on occasion Keele gets too hairy even for me. The mile and a half or so segment of Keele from Lawrence boulevard north to the 401 (one of Toronto’s major highways) is particularly bad for a lot of heavy trucks, high a high posted speed limit, and until very recently, poor road conditions (cracked pavement, bumps in the road). For the longest time I soldiered on in the narrow 4 foot strip of badly broken pavement at the side of the road while the blowback from consecutive 18 wheeled trucks (why do they always travel in packs?) rattled my bike. Then one day I looked over and noticed that the sidewalk was empty for as far as the eye can see in both directions.

In circumstances like that I see absolutely nothing wrong with hopping on to the sidewalk and letting the traffic pass you by for a while. Once I started paying attention I realized that the sidewalks were for all practical purposes empty for the majority of my commute, it was only in the downtown core where pedestrians were present in any large number. Given that this is often the case, I think sidewalk riding is an important tool in the urban cyclist’s tool kit, and as long as it is done responsibly there is no reason why it shouldn’t be an option.

Not only that, but there may even be a legal argument for allowing some form of sidewalk riding in places like Toronto. Currently the bylaw restricts sidewalk use to bikes with small wheel sizes. The purpose of this bylaw is to allow new cyclists, in this case young riders with smaller bikes, to learn how to ride away from traffic. Well, adults can also be new drivers, so clearly the wheel size restriction is just a convenience. In addition, new cyclists are for the most part much more of a hazard than experienced cyclists, so allowing them access to sidewalks suggests that the authorities are willing to accept some degree of risk to allow sidewalk riding. Last but not least, the presence of the bylaw implies that there is some awareness that the road can be a dangerous place, and thus there appears to be an argument to be made that, at least in certain cases, cyclists have a legitimate reason to be on the sidewalk. Arguments like this, combined with the often thin pedestrian presence on sidewalks and the general lack of police enforcement suggest to me that some degree of cyclist presence on sidewalks is acceptable.

It is always good to know the law. It is illegal to ride on the sidewalk unless you have a small wheeled bike, so you can be ticketed for doing so. For the most part, I use sidewalks for very short hops when the traffic is not giving me "respect" (read space) and I don't feel safe. Sidewalks are like my safety valve, I don't use them for regular riding, but if I need to get off the road and there are no pedestrians around, I can get my bearings and go.

Parking Lots
Parking lots are a special case, it may seem mad to suggest them as a regular riding surface, but again, it’s all about context. In the busy downtown core parking lots are often full and there is a slow but regular flow of traffic inside of them. In less central urban areas, along strip malls and at shopping centres, community centres, etc. the parking lots are often quite a bit bigger, traffic is slower as the drivers have less room, and they can be empty enough to produce an amply large pocket. They also frequently ‘string together’ along major thoroughfares, allowing you to weave your way through them easily for long sections. They often have speed bumps and the like, and of course there are always cars, but taking it slowly deals with those issues well enough.

I find I tend to use them as "junctures" to get between two roads that I want to use. There is a large parking lot at the Rona at Castlefield and Caledonia that I go through every day, it has a road that skirts the lot going West then turns North and empties you just below the Tim Horton's. I like this route as it avoids the light at the corner where I often have to wait, and it is generally free of cars when I go through.

Knitting Together the Fabric
These six options, trails, bike lanes, wide and shared roads, secondary roads, off peak use and sidewalks and parking lots all provide alternatives to cycling on main roads during peak hours. One of the key challenges of urban cycling is that main roads at peak times are appealing as they often offer the most direct route to your destination, and by definition most people travel at peak times. However, I believe that for most people, the desire to travel a main route at peak times turns them away from cycling, as main routes during peak hours have many cars and are thus intimidating. To be clear, I believe it is possible to cycle safely on main arteries at peak times as well, I regularly use main roads as a part of an overall cycling route, so I am not advocating the complete avoidance of main roads. However, for many different reasons cyclists may prefer to minimize their exposure to heavy traffic, and the choices I have outlined allow for that.

The solution here is to connect together a patchwork of these options to make up an entire route. This “patchwork” approach is not a novel idea, cycling advocates have made this point about bike lanes for years, my suggestion is that it should be extended to include all of the options I have discussed above, not just bike lanes. I have spoken to many of my friends and colleagues who don't ride a bike to commute and the most commonly cited reason is safety, and many times they have also said that they couldn't find a continuous bike lane route, e.g. a route that was mostly bike lanes, to get to their destination. Extending your possibilities to other options besides bike lanes and main roads is thus a crucial part of making cycling more appealing to novices.

Let me give an anecdote.

Several years ago the City of Toronto installed a new bike lane along a busy North/South road in the West end of the city. This area was primarily residential with some small businesses at various clusters along the road. A local TV station sent a reporter out on the first day to interview cyclists trying out the new route. He was sent out some time in the late afternoon. The “joke” was that no one came by while he was there, and there ensued a discussion by the reporter concerning the waste of resources the project represented, and a questioning of the value of bike lanes at all. This is a common occurrence, you open up new bike infrastructure and it is underused in the beginning.

Local cycling advocates were correct to point out at the time that bike lanes are initially underused as it takes some time for new lanes to be incorporated into cycling routes by regular riders, as riders may not be aware of them, and they have to knit together options that aren’t always convenient to each other. I think that these advocates are right, but are doing themselves a disservice by thinking about this issue primarily in terms of bike lanes. Bike lanes are popular with the public as well, at least the cycling public. But for the reasons mentioned above I think that bike lanes are both not as safe as they are perceived to be, and far and away not the only option for safe cycling. Properly executed (e.g. on the inside of parked cars, separated) they are certainly useful, but this is by no means the universal approach to bike lanes being used by municipalities.

I think things get distorted as this is in part a political issue, bike lanes represent a formal recognition that bikes need space on the road, and that they belong there. This is part of the reason why they frequently raise such ire amongst drivers, but also why they are a preferred choice of many cyclists and cycling advocates. Here is your line in the sand, which is in this case a line of paint on the pavement. However, by focusing on bike lanes cyclists forget a host of other options that are as good or better in terms of safety. For many the issue of cycling safety in the city has been reduced to “should we have more or less bike lanes”, I think this is a profound mistake. It is a mistake as it overestimates the safety value of bike lanes, it places too much reliance on lanes and not enough emphasis on safe cycling practices, and it distracts cyclists from the real range of options available to them. And paradoxically it also contributes to the overall underuse of bike lanes as it is almost impossible to construct an entire commuting route, or even the majority of a commuting route out of bike lanes. This is one of the reasons you get reporters standing beside more or less empty new bike lanes.

Whenever I am asked about bike lanes (and as a regular cycle commuter many people have asked me about them) I point out that I only include bike lanes in my route if they are on roads that are already preferred for other reasons (e.g. lower traffic, wider roads) so I could do without them entirely. Forrest has convincingly argued that bike lanes appeal to bureaucrats as they are low cost options (just some paint and you’re good) and they separate cars and bikes, something that city planners and road authorities want. More specifically, he argues that city planners and road authorities want bikes off the road entirely, and if this isn’t possible they want them restricted to separate lanes. Bike lanes appeal to cyclists due to their perceived safety advantages, but in actuality they only formalize what was already there. My concern is that the undue focus on bike lanes obscures the full range of safer options available to the urban cyclist, and keeps new cyclists from knitting together a route that would give them the confidence to commute on a regular basis.

In addition, once you allow for the use of a wider range of routes you increase the value of each individual component, as there is more likelihood you can knit together a complete route out of “safer” options. For example, there is a particular bike path in Toronto, part of the Belt Line Trail that follows power lines for about a mile or so. It is unremarkable as a path on its own, but as a part of an overall route is in an invaluable connection, and I use it on my regular commute every day. I can link up about three of these bike path routes in my regular commute that won’t take me too far off course, but that’s about it. If you want to do the majority of your commute using bike lanes you will be disappointed, as they are not always concentrated enough to make that possible. In this scenario individual bike lanes are useful for short hop trips, but not useful for long commutes. However, if you are willing to use the full range of options outlined above, then bike lanes are just another tool in your box.

Having said all of this, bike lanes make up a comparatively small percentage of my regular riding routes (less than 15% of most of them), I vastly prefer secondary roads and wide roads to roads with bike lanes, and in the cases where I do use them the roads they are upon were already preferred options as they are wider or lower traffic volume. From a safety perspective the presence or absence of bike lanes in the urban cycling mix is thus much less important than it is presented to be, and I believe their omnipresence in the cycling safety dialogue has been a detriment to overall cycling safety.

Another advantage of using this wider range of cycling route options is that it opens up the entire city to your use. Sticking to designated bike lanes can be tiresome, and frankly a bit dangerous, as the more popular routes tend to be densely populated by bikes and thus (perhaps ironically) a hazard. A case in point of this is bike lanes on College Street in Toronto. On any given morning there is a horde of cyclists on College using the bike lanes, and it is usually quite chaotic. I tried the route a few times and found I preferred the road to the bike lane, a fitting testament to their value in certain contexts.

Over the last few years I have been trying an extended experiment, to see if there was any part of the city that was “inaccessible” to me by bike. Whenever I have to go somewhere new I try to do it on the bike, and see if I can stitch together a safer route from my preferred options. For example, I work in the North West corner of the city, and one sunny summer day I decided to cycle to the South East corner of the city to a bike shop that carried a product I wanted. Essentially I was going both the length and breadth of the city, the worst possible combination for the urban commuter. I was riding mid-to-late afternoon, so traffic was lighter than rush hour, but there were still a lot of cars on the road. If I had stuck to bike lanes and parks the trip would have taken a long time, as I would have had to go West to the Humber River trail first, then winding South on the trail, then cross the city back and forth to get there. Instead I used shorter bike trails, park trails, secondary roads, a shared road and at least one main road during off peak hours, and I made it across the city in an hour. By car the trip would have been about 45 minutes minimum. I’m firmly convinced that there is no place in the city that cannot be reached in a reasonable amount of time by some combination of the above safer cycling options.

Another advantage of embracing this wider selection of options is that it allows you to both adapt to traffic complications and to customize your route to your particular needs. With respect to the former concern, if traffic is bad or construction has cut off a regular route, these 6 options give you plenty of choice in picking an alternate route. One of the most significant advantages of cycling is that you can skirt traffic problems, by example pulling up on the sidewalk and connecting to a nearby secondary road. Cars have to wait until the traffic moves forward; you can always ride up the side of the traffic line or exit the road at any point, not just a designated intersection. Route customization is also easier with a wide range of options. If you are interested in trail riding you can maximize that component of your route, if you prefer low grade riding (say you have knee problems) it is much easier to stitch together a route when you have more options available. 

This method of riding requires some patience, and the willingness to get “lost” on occasion in order to find a good route. Still, if you are willing to put in the effort it becomes possible to go pretty much anywhere you want in a comparatively safer way.



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