Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Thinking about bicycles (part 2)

After writing my last post about bicycling, which mainly was about the role of bicycles in our evolving transportation matrix, and how we might cope successfully with the transition. I was thinking about what I wrote as I rode my bike to work on a mostly-empty street. I began to wonder about how much of what I preached was unwittingly located in the context of a small city with not very much traffic (except for certain times of the day on certain streets, which I can and do avoid). If I could rethink that piece I would try to sound a little less sure of myself.

My friend Bob thinks and rides in a quite different context from me. He lives in a city that has a much larger population than Cedar Rapids, and is more compact and so the streets are more crowded. Bob indeed comes to conclusions quite different from mine. He writes:

Many bicyclists fought hard to get bicyclists the right to be on our roads. Along the way, they looked very hard at all the safety issues and concluded that bicyclists are almost always safer riding as vehicles. I am not knowledgeable to give you all the details, or even good references. But I can say that some major points are (not in order of importance):
     1) dooring. You know about this. Sticking to the side of a road where cars are parked makes dooring much more likely. Partly because it means doors are more likely to open in a bicyclist's path, and bicyclists are less able to avoid. But also because it means drivers who are about to open a door are less likely to see bicyclists.

     2) visibility. Drivers often fail to see bicycles. The problem is worse when bicyclists hug the side of a road. And even worse around right turns. Riding in the middle, or even left side, of a lane increases visibility.

     3) simplicity, memory, and predictability. Drivers and bicyclists have enough trouble remembering one set of laws. Having a separate set for each type of vehicle would tax memories even more. Yes, laws aren't quite the same for bicycles as for other vehicles. But they aren't the same for all cars, trucks, buses, etc.

     4) passing room. Travel lanes are rarely wide enough for a car to pass a bicycle safely. If the bicyclists knows a car can't pass safely, the bicyclist is safer making sure drivers know also.

Good bike lanes can help. Bad bike lanes are worse than none. Unfortunately, bike lanes are too often designed by folks who don't understand the issues well enough and/or not maintained.

In my city, all modes of transit (cars, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians) tend toward anarchy. Bad for all.
Stay well.


Meanwhile, things are reportedly not as rosy in Amsterdam as I was reading in Speck's book. The New York Times carried a report Sunday, June 21 (which I didn't read) that bicycle-friendly Amsterdam is becoming overwhelmed with bicycles. Since New York, like Chicago (and Cedar Rapids), is striving to become more bicycle-friendly, it augurs alarmingly, at least for the writer of this letter-to-the-editor which appeared yesterday:

The horrendous bicycle congestion in Amsterdam portends my worst fears for New York City if Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's crusade to promote cycling at any cost is not scaled back by his successor. In addition to the ubiquitous tombstone-like parking stands for the new bike-sharing program, Citi Bike, more and more bikes are appearing on our sidewalks, clumsily chained in bunches to anything stationary, cluttering pedestrian areas and complicating emergency services, trash collection and sanitation....

From reading all this city design stuff I've started to see that a variety of problems are surprisingly, at least in part, problems of design. A lot of transportation in Cedar Rapids is anarchic, too, but it's easily overlooked because at most times in most places traffic is so light. That would not be the case in a compact city, which is what I'm sort of driving at (pardon the pun) here. Could better design overcome that? I don't know, whether or how much.

The New York writer concerned about bicycle congestion is another matter. We have for decades designed transportation around moving cars more quickly through space, and accommodating cars wherever the drivers' destinations are. In other words, lots of roads, lots of parking spaces, all designed for cars. Bicycles and pedestrians are uninvited guests, and they tend to fit in about as well as me at a party. Thinking about the space between Coe and downtown, about 1.5 miles long and maybe 2.5 miles square... what would you say is the ratio of parking spaces for cars to parking spaces for bikes? I'd say, off the top of my head, about 200-to-1. The ratio of road space for cars to bike lanes has to be at least 100-to-1, with a bike lane on 3rd Av and the Cedar River Trail cutting through downtown at 4th St. That's not too far off from what current transportation usage would indicate, although I often find myself locking my bike "to anything stationary" downtown because it's blocks to the nearest bike rack. Doubling and spacing out the bike racks would probably do for now, but let's say Cedar Rapids gets bike crazy. If I ride to Coffee Emporium or Brewed Awakenings, I can lock to a tree. If six other bikers follow me, it's an instant mess!

Cities all over America need to prepare to be flexible, in order to respond to shifts in transportation usage. The societal benefits of shifting away from motor vehicles are manifest. And if burgeoning numbers of bikes are suddenly "clumsily chained in bunches to anything stationary," the city is behind the curve and needs to catch up. Easier said than done, of course. And, of course, local governments are starved for resources.

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