There are no safe streets for cyclists

Yesterday, I received an email from a man who had moved with his wife from Portland to South Pasadena.

They had chosen South Pas, at least in part, because it appeared to offer the most rideable streets in the area. Yet in less than a year, he’d suffered two minor right hook collisions.

His point was that riding in the L.A. area is a completely different experience than riding in Portland. And that local communities need to do more to make other forms of transportation besides motor vehicles a priority.

He’s right.

While South Pasadena has recognized the problem, and is actually doing something about it, a lot more has to be done throughout the county to make cycling safer for every rider.

Though not everyone seems to be getting that message.

The LACBC affiliate chapter BikeSGV reports that the Arcadia City Council decided this week not to develop a bike plan — in part because the city’s Mayor Pro Tem doesn’t think bikes are a legitimate form of transportation.

Vincent Chang

Just got back from a disappointing Arcadia City council meeting where Mayor Pro Tem Robert C. Harbicht took the lead to nix a contract with a bike plan consultant to prepare a bike plan for the city. Unfortunately, the rest of the council, including the Mayor (who established a city “mayors bike ride”) went along. Harbict stated he had concerns about federal funding for bike access in general as he didn’t believe cycling can be a legitimate form of alternate transportation. Ironically, both Harbicht and the Mayor claims to be avid cyclists.

I don’t know whether that reflects ignorance of the potential utility of their preferred form of recreation, or the dangers of riding in their own city.

Either way, they’ve failed the residents of their city by denying them the opportunity to ride in greater convenience and safety, whether for recreation or safety.

Then again, the problem could be that they’re “avid” cyclists, as some — though not all — Vehicular Cyclists actively oppose the sort of infrastructure preferred by the overwhelming majority of riders.

They believe that every rider — even the most unskilled, slow or risk-conscious cyclist — is safer riding in the traffic lane ahead of oncoming, often high speed, vehicles than in a separate lane devoted to bikes.

In fact, John Forester, the father of the VC movement, recently commented on the New York Times website that “nobody has yet “create[d] safe bike lanes”; we don’t know how to do it.”

I think many riders in the Netherlands — and even in New York — would beg to differ.

It’s a battle that rages on in cities and states throughout the country. Like in San Diego, where Forester himself helps lead the fight against more and better bike lanes, much to the chagrin of more mainstream riders.

Despite denials from VC adherents, there have been numerous studies that show well-designed bike lanes can improve safety for everyone. Not just cyclists.

Meanwhile, I have yet to see a single credible study that supports the oft-repeated argument that cyclists are safer riding in traffic than in a good bike lane.

Which is not to say there aren’t a lot of bad ones out there.

Maybe that’s because, like Forester, they refuse to believe such things exist. Sort of like another group that denies compelling scientific evidence.

But it does raise a question another rider brought up awhile back, when he asked for my advice on whether it was better to ride a busy street with a bike lane or a quieter backstreet route with no bike infrastructure.

And the sad answer I gave him was that there is no such thing as a safe street for cyclists.

Depending on your perspective, both present their own unique set of dangers.

On a busy street, you have the risk of high speed traffic and an unacceptably high rate of careless and/or distracted drivers. Along with the near-constant risk of doorings, right hooks and left crosses, as well as drivers who consider the bike lane another motor vehicle through lane, or maybe a parking lane.

Meanwhile, riders on backstreets risk drivers backing out of driveways without looking, children and dogs running out into the roadway without warning, and drivers who don’t even consider the possibility of bikes on their bucolic byways.

Even on country roads, where I did some of my most enjoyable riding in my pre-L.A. days, you might not see a car for hours. But there are still dangers posed by truck drivers and farm equipment operators who assume there’s no one else there, and speeding teenagers out for a joyride — sometimes tossing their empties at any unfortunate victim they happen to pass.

And yes, I speak from experience.

And don’t get me started on the ubiquitous risk of potholes and otherwise dangerous road surfaces and designs. Or the unique thrill presented by riding past bears or gators.

Or bees.

That’s not to say bicycling is dangerous.

It’s not.

But it does demand a constant awareness of your surroundings, as well as a focus on defensive riding by anticipating the dangerous presented by your current environment, wherever you happen to be. And being prepared to respond to risks before they arise.

That doesn’t mean that drivers and other in the road aren’t responsible for using it safely. But it’s your life that’s on the line, and you can’t count on them to focus on your safety. Or even know you’re there.

Or care, for that matter.

That point that was driven home the other day on the quiet residential streets of my own neighborhood, as I made my way through the last few blocks at the end of an otherwise enjoyable ride.

I’d just stopped for a stop sign, and was beginning to resume my route across the intersection when an SUV came up on the cross street. The woman behind the wheel looked directly at me, then gunned her engine just as I was about to pass in front of her, cutting right onto the road I was riding on.

Fortunately, I was prepared, anticipating that the driver might run the stop sign — though not that she would attempt to hit me in the process. I was able to swing out onto the wrong side of the road, allowing her to screech past me and race off into the distance.

Yet as so often happens, I caught up to her at the next red light.

So I asked, as politely as I could under the circumstances, with fear and anger and adrenalin coursing through my body, why she’d just tried to run me over.

Her response?

“Cyclists have to stop at stop signs too!”

Never mind that I had already stopped before she ever got to the corner, while I was still the only one at the intersection. Or the irony that she ran a stop sign in her attempt to run me down.

In her mind, she was entitled to enforce traffic laws with the bumper of her car. Just another driveway vigilante using brute force to intimidate, if not injure, another human being.

Fortunately, I’m not so easily intimidated.

I would have loved to continue the conversation, but she quickly cut from the left turn lane she was in to make a quick right in front of high-speed traffic in order to get away from me.

Evidently, I scared her, even though she was the one wrapped in several tons of steel and glass. And I wasn’t the one who’d just tried to attack someone.

Though I did break my Lenten vow to not swear at drivers, however much they might deserve it; risking eternal damnation for the momentary relief of releasing my anger verbally before I exploded into a thousand spandex-clad pieces.

As usually happens in such cases, I didn’t have time to get her license or a good description of her car. And even if I had, there were no witnesses, so there’s nothing the police could have done anyway.

The really scary thing, though, is that the residential nature of the street she was on means that she’s likely to live here herself. Which means that she’s probably one of my neighbors, and there’s a high probability I could run into her again.

Whether either of us will recognize the other is a good question. As is what would happen if one of us does.

Where you prefer to ride is a matter of your own comfort level. Whether that leads you to ride vehicularly in a busy traffic lane, in various bikeways or on quieter bike streets that seldom see another road user, on two wheels or four.

But it’s a good reminder that no matter how peaceful they may look, there are no safe streets.

Even the ones in your own neighborhood.

Thanks to everyone who forwarded me the link to the San Diego KPBS story.

Update: Oddly — or maybe not so oddly, given the KPBS story — Bike Snob wrote Vehicular Cycling today, as well. And as usual, he’s much funnier than I am.

28 comments

  1. Spidra Webster says:

    Interesting. I grew up in South Pasadena, lived most of my adult life away, then moved back in 2010. In the meantime I’ve biked in Westwood, Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and many places in between while on long-distance bike rides. I’m wondering what it is that’s different about Portland?

    I ride as far to the right as is practicable for me. I rarely take the lane. I ride defensively, assuming that many car drivers are distracted, not likely to obey the laws on signaling, etc. I’ve never had an accident in South Pasadena although there have been as many close calls as I’ve had in other cities.

    By LA standards, I think South Pasadena is safer for cyclists. I’d much rather be biking here than in some of the adjacent parts of LA. Of course it could be better. It could *all* be better, even towns that are thought of as super bike-friendly like Davis. That’s why it’s important to join and be active in your local bike coalition so you can lobby for infrastructure changes.

  2. Alan Thompson says:

    I live in Pasadena and regularly ride thru South Pasadena to downtown LA with few problems. I also have family in Portland and visit there often and can attest to the diffference..

    Portland has slower traffic than here in LA. Even in South Pas which has similar roads (built about the same time as Portland) people just drive slower in Portland than here.

    Because of the higher number of bicyclists in Portland, car drivers are more aware of them and considerate. Bike lanes do help as they provide a visual indication for both motorists and cyclists to stay on certain sides of the line. But the bottom line is that cyclists have be more aware of motorists here than they would normally be in Portland, because drivers here aren’t as aware as Portlanders might expect. Just as I am more concerned/aware of traffic on Broadway downtown than I would be on El Molino in South Pasadena.

    But I have noticed the public outcry about all the cyclists has died down somewhat over the past two years as drivers have slowly become more accustomed to bycyclists on the road. Hopefully, this trend will continue and our transplant from Portland will be riding happily once again.

  3. billdsd says:

    Numerous studies? I went to that site. A couple of the claims there are debatable but some are downright silly.

    “encourage bicyclists to ride in the correct direction, with the flow of traffic;” – I have seen no evidence of this. I see salmons in bike lanes every bit as much if not more than on roads without bike lanes.

    “remind motorists to look for cyclists when turning or opening car doors;” – That seems very unlikely to me. In fact, many bike lanes force bicyclists to ride close to parked cars, increasing their risk of dooring.

    “signal motorists that cyclists have a right to the road;” – Bike lanes do the opposite of that. They create a ghetto and bicyclists are supposed to “know their place”. One of the most frequent complaints I hear from anti-cyclists is that bicyclists don’t stay in the bike lane or that they should only be allowed on roads with bike lanes. Bike lanes validate the territorialism in anti-cyclists.

    “reduce the chance that motorists will stray into cyclists’ path of travel;” – Not in my experience. I have motorists pull in front of me at the last second while in bike lanes far more often than when I am controlling a traffic lane.

    The biggest problem with vehicular cycling is that most bicyclists don’t understand it because they have not received the training.

    • DG says:

      “They create a ghetto and bicyclists are supposed to know their place”.”
      It’s hard to parody this stuff, but Bike Snob does a pretty good job:

      Actually, I think we should also extend the “vehicular cycling” concept to pedestrians. I mean, why do we even need sidewalks? Sure, it’s totally non-intuitive, but once you “take the lane” and run alongside a Honda Civic at 30mph a few times it’s like, “Wow, why don’t I do this all the time?”

      • billdsd says:

        It’s a completely different thing. If slow traffic in the lanes is such a big safety risk then why aren’t buses and garbage trucks rear ended with great regularity?

        • bikinginla says:

          Because they’re very, very big.

          • DG says:

            Stay tuned for another exciting chapter of “Simple Answers to Simple Questions.”

          • billdsd says:

            Irrelevant.

            If they can see the bicycle in the middle of the lane then they can and will react to it just as they would the bus.

            In broad daylight, bicyclists are highly visible in the middle of the lane.

            At night, a vehicular cyclist makes sure that they are well lit and so still highly visible in the middle of the lane.

            • b says:

              Right. That’s why this is a fabrication:

            • billdsd says:

              What does that video have to do with anything?

              People run red lights because they are not paying attention or they are willfully disregarding them.

              It’s a lot easier to not notice a red light than it is to not notice a bicyclist riding in the middle of a traffic lane.

            • If they see a bicycle in the middle of the lane then they can and sometimes will intimidate, make threats, and honk wildly. Much different from how a bus is treated, people tolerate buses much more and don’t attempt to run the bus off the street.

            • billdsd says:

              Intimidation and threats are quite rare in my experience and I ride in the middle of the lane on major roads in San Diego every day.

              Honking is more common, but I really don’t care.

              Bullies never pick on anyone who they think can defend themselves successfully, so they will never attempt to run a bus off the road.

              Education would fix that problem as well.

            • But education can only go so far, either the street will have to be tamed or cyclists will need separation to be protected from the safety hazard posed by motor vehicles.

              I cycle in Los Angeles County and East Bay regularly throughout the year. intimidation and threats are infrequent but happen often enough to discourage anyone from ever cycling again. As for honking, I don’t care but my senses sure do, I get frightened and my heart rate jumps and I cannot think straight.

              I realize the everyday conditions don’t worry you, (and to a lesser extent myself) you (and I) cycle despite such unpleasant conditions but the vast majority in San Diego (and the rest of California) don’t precisely because the conditions aren’t very nice. Even if you assured them no motorists would honk or yell at them, people do not like mixing with high speed motorized traffic.

            • billdsd says:

              Education needs to be universal. That’s the real problem. We need to get bicycle safety education into the public schools. We need to get sharing the road with bicyclists into mandatory driver training and on the driver’s test. If we do that then motorists will learn that bicyclists have a right to be in the road and the harassment will be dramatically reduced. It probably won’t be eliminated because some idiots will never accept it but most of the current harassers genuinely believe that bicyclists don’t have a right to be in the road. They need to learn the rules of the road.

  4. bikinginla says:

    Uh, Bill, I said I’d seen numerous studies. I never said I linked to all of them.

    My personal experience using bike lanes is that they are far preferable to riding in the flow of traffic. I find that riding defensively minimizes the risk of dooring; in 30+ years of riding, I’ve had a couple of close calls with car doors, but have never found them to be the overwhelming danger that VCs claim.

    And I don’t know about where you ride, but I can’t recall the last time I saw a salmon cyclist in a bike lane, while I frequently see that on streets with no infrastructure.

    • billdsd says:

      I ride in San Diego. I regularly see salmons on Genesee, Linda Vista Road and Pacific Highway which are all on my daily commute route and all of which have bike lanes. Genesee goes past Mesa College and Linda Vista Road goes past University of San Diego and areas near the colleges are where I see the largest number of bike lane salmons.

      I’ve had several close calls with doors myself. Back in the 80’s I collided with the side of a car that pulled out of a parallel parking space quickly as I was going past. He didn’t signal or look and I couldn’t hear the engine or see the driver in the car until it was too late.

      I never feel unsafe while controlling the lane. I always feel unsafe riding close to parked cars. I always feel unsafe riding far right in narrow lanes.

      • bikinginla says:

        So, between us, we make a very good argument for why cyclists should have a choice of where and how to ride.

        While I prefer them, I don’t need bike lanes; I’m very comfortable taking the lane on all but the busiest and fastest streets. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of riders aren’t; we need well-designed infrastructure to encourage hesitant riders and make our roads safe for everyone from 8 to 80.

        As I’ve said before, I have no objection to Vehicular Cyclists or Vehicular Cycling. My only complaint is when they stand in the way of good bike plans and infrastructure projects that will help put more riders on the roads.

        • billdsd says:

          Who says that those bike plans are good?

          John Forester is 82.

          The notion that vehicular cyclists are fast fearless young men is a result of people not understanding vehicular cycling. Nothing could be further from the truth.

          http://cyclingsavvy.org/2011/05/i-am-no-road-warrior/

          Getting education for everyone could get a lot more people out riding as well; and it could be done a lot more quickly and cheaply.

  5. [...] Arcadia City Council Decides That Bike Plans Are for Other Cities (Biking In L.A.) [...]

  6. Forester wrote in his comment “Yes it is, and the problem with bike lanes, and other types of bikeway near the roadway, is that they encourage, even require, behavior that is contrary to the operation of the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles” Having been flipping through the AASHTO bike design guide I can’t help but to feel he was extremely influential in its designs, “rules of the road” is used several times to justify the designs presented in that design guide. And If I recall correctly from Pedaling Revolution, the book by Jeff Mapes Forester DID have a considerable influence on the design standards we use today.

    The bottom line is that while the Dutch still have undesired collisions, their methods of keeping cyclists comfortable, safe, and numerous across all ages, abilities, income and sexes. I don’t understand how VC’s totally ignore the fact that US cyclists aren’t safe today with zero infrastructure and that conditions actually get safer with increased infrastructure (even when design isn’t completely perfect in most cases).

    I understand that VC’s dont want to be ‘banished to dangerous crap facilities’, nobody does, but that doesn’t mean we don’t push for facilities. It means we push for facilities that make bicycling more attractive and safe than riding in traffic and taking that damn lane (by the way, we can ‘take the lane’ and convert it to a cycle track so we don’t have to be turned into second class citizens forced to breathe smog from cars).

    • Corrections: “And If I recall correctly from Pedaling Revolution, the book by Jeff Mapes Forester DID have a considerable influence on the design standards we use today.” add a comma after Mapes. so it reads “And If I recall correctly from Pedaling Revolution, the book by Jeff Mapes, Forester DID have a considerable influence on the design standards we use today.'”

      “The bottom line is that while the Dutch still have undesired collisions, their methods of keeping cyclists comfortable, safe, and numerous across all ages, abilities, income and sexes.” add to that “is better than what the US has done”

      • billdsd says:

        Most of the rules for cars existed before Forester got involved.

        Most of the special rules for bikes didn’t exist before the 1950’s and 60’s. If I recall correctly, California didn’t have a bicycle specific keep right rule until 1963.

  7. John L. says:

    Many thanks to Vincent Chang for keeping us posted on the anti-bike plan attitude of the allegedly “avid” cyclists on the Arcadia City Council. I’ve ridden in Arcadia many times and it’s got a long way to go before it is a bike-friendly place to ride. Bottom line: cycling for transportation will remain marginal until there are enough bike lanes in our cities so that people of all ages and abilities will feel more comfortable using bikes for transportation.

  8. [...] that recently produced the Living Streets Manual) for $82,178, but the council did not oblige. BikingInLA quotes a dispatch from Vincent Chang of the LA County Bicycle Coalition’s San Gabriel Valley affiliate [...]

  9. [...] more: There are no safe streets for cyclists « BikingInLA This entry was posted in Blog Search and tagged council, cycling, didn, federal, funding, [...]

  10. yjdraiman says:

    Los Angeles Economic Development

    It is time to remake Los Angeles in the image of our boldest vision – a city of healthy communities with good schools and quality education, innovative companies in new and emerging sectors, quality open space, improved public transportation, a range of mobility and housing options; and above all, a prosperous and productive middle class equipped with the skills and education to create a better future.

    It is time to get serious about designing a real economic development program linked to investments in healthy communities. I recently proposed to make Los Angeles the World Capital of Renewable Energy, Energy and Water Efficiency. We have the climate, the manpower, the resources and technology. We must promote energy and water efficiency in all sectors of LA’s economy. This by itself can save the city billions and bring many jobs and economic growth into Los Angeles. We should promote real estate gentrification, affordable housing, urban infill building, economic development and clean tech sorted through the parts of redevelopment worth retaining and retooling combined with some newer elements of economic development necessary to realize this vision of healthy communities.

    In the past five years many businesses in LA have closed down or moved out. There are many vacant properties (commercial and residential). Many people have moved out of LA. They can not afford the cost of living, the high taxation, the stifling bureaucracy and varied rules and regulations that choke business development.

    We have a dysfunctional leadership in Los Angeles, an inefficient workforce, a demand for entitlement, and crippling budget deficits that are creating an environment of uncertainty for many companies who want to hire people, but are afraid to do so. Capital is stagnant and unattainable, frozen by an over swing of regulation and bureaucracy. We want to get Los Angeles working again, yet many of our wounds are self inflicted, as LA bureaucrats go to work every day piling more regulations and taxes onto the very businesses we ask to grow and create more jobs. This situation must change, or we are doomed.

    It is imperative that we reverse this trend.

    YJ Draiman

    http://www.yjdraimanformayor.com

  11. yjdraiman says:

    Los Angeles Mayoral Race Status

    Some people will disagree, but we think that the current field holds several individuals who have the potential to be if not visionary, then effective, thoughtful leaders for this city of 4 million people (let someone accomplish things in a first term, and prove they are visionary in a second). In City Controller Wendy Greuel, Council members Jan Perry and Eric Garcetti, businessman Austin Beutner, attorney Kevin James and businessman YJ Draiman, there is a wide variety of experience, backgrounds and personalities.

    So far we’ve only been given hints of what each would bring to the table if elected. That’s not surprising — as mentioned above, most voters aren’t ready to digest the municipal minutiae, and few would remember the main points a year from now. However, we appreciate the fact that each candidate seems to care a lot about Los Angeles, and that their runs appear inspired by a desire to make life better for Angelenos. Sure, personal power and aspirations are part of the mix — unambitious people and those with small egos don’t run for office — but at least they seem to want to do this for the right reasons.

    Going forward we hope to see a focus on specifics, with less attention paid to slogans and platitudes. The candidates have proclaimed time and again that they want to make Los Angeles work — we get it, and everyone wants the same thing. We need to hear exactly what will happen once someone takes office.

    In the coming year we’ll want to hear plans regarding a number of matters that impact Angelenos. What would the candidates do regarding the gross receipts tax, and if they propose eliminating it, then how quickly, and what will happen to make up for a short-term revenue shortfall? How will they encourage development and can the city spur the creation of new business and not just swipe companies that have a headquarters a couple miles outside city limits?

    What should happen regarding the pensions of members of public employee unions at a time when the city still faces a hefty annual budget deficit? Does the city need to focus on core services, and if so, what exactly are those, and what should get exported? Does L.A. need a public-private partnership for the zoo, the Convention Center or other holdings? How exactly would this improve life for the citizenry?

    We’ll want the candidates to get beyond clichés when it comes to public safety, education, traffic and transportation. Those issues can make or break a campaign, so before we hear that buzzword “change,” let’s get an honest assessment of what works and where change should occur. Then explain how that change will be effected.

    What specifically can be done to nurture green technologies and where should Los Angeles focus in terms of sustainable matters? What should happen regarding the Los Angeles River? How will a mayor reduce homelessness and help the city’s most vulnerable individuals?

    We want the campaigns to stay civil, and we expect the candidates to insure that the people working for them adhere to the highest standards. Being aggressive and questioning someone’s record is one thing, but personal attacks and mudslinging are something else. All the candidates have campaign staff who can do it clean or dirty — it’s up to them to set the tone. The people whose names are on the ballot will be held accountable for the behavior of their underlings.

    We look forward to the next year, and to hearing what these six individuals will do to lead Los Angeles.

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