Children’s abilities — focusing on peripheral vision

My previous post addressed children’s cycling abilities. I’d like to take the discussion a bit further here.

A conventional statement about children’s cycling abilities, as expressed on an e-mail list, is:

Children also have less than fully developed peripheral vision and are very poor judges of the speed of automobiles.

Pioneering cycling educator John Forester replied:

Presumably, it depends on the age of the child. Many of us have known children aged seven, who have grown up in cycling families, who cycle in accordance with the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles. The ability is there; it just has to be trained. I have taught classes of eight-year-olds who learned to cycle properly in the traffic of two-lane streets in residential areas. I fail to see much point in the peripheral vision worry, because all cyclists have to learn to look at whatever is going to be important; what’s out at the side has little relevance. As for judging the speed and distance (you need to know both) of other traffic, say automobiles, any person has to learn to judge whether or not there is time to make a movement or it will be necessary to wait. I’ve watched the judging skills of eight-year-olds improve as they practice various traffic movements. In my opinion, the people who express the concerns about such mental matters have not had experience in training cyclists; they just measure (or try to measure, or make assumptions based on irrelevant measurements, or …) children without any knowledge of what is actually required for cycling in traffic, and are therefore completely ignorant of how to learn the skills.

I wouldn’t have been as harsh as Forester, but I agree that reliance on data from research into mental or perceptual abilities, without actually measuring cycling performance, misses the mark. Abilities do appear sequentially, as shown for example in this paper. There are studies which show that the acquisition of skills in childhood can be advanced by a couple of years through training. The minimum age to obtain a driver’s license reflects a societal judgment of the maturity necessary to drive safely.

I think, however, that the claim that children of elementary-school age have limited peripheral vision is commonly misstated and misinterpreted. It isn’t that the range of angles of peripheral vision increases — as if a child’s retinas have only a small patch of sensory receptors at the center — “tunnel vision” — which expands over the years. I say this from my own experience.

What is importantly less developed in children is the conscious awareness of the peripheral visual field. It sends too much and too complicated information for the immature or untrained brain to process fully.

I recall a peripheral-vision experiment at school when I was 8 or 9 years old, checking how far to the side I could place my hand before I could no longer perceive the wiggling of my fingers. The angle was the same approximately 90 degrees as it still is 60 years later — except that I could perceive the wiggle but not yet the shape of the hand. From age 3, I rode a tricycle, from age 7, I rode a bicycle and from age 17 I drove a car, and did not fail to notice hazards in the peripheral visual field. Peripheral vision short of full, conscious perception, and like the spatial sense of hearing, serves to draw attention, so the eyes and head turn to focus central vision.

I learned to perceive my peripheral visual field consciously in my twenties. I trained myself by focusing my attention on objects in the peripheral field instead of turning my eyes to look at them. This can look weird in social situations! I undertook most of my training while riding my bicycle. Over a period of a couple of years, I got to where I am as conscious of my peripheral field as my central field, except that the peripheral field is blurrier. I see the entire panorama in front of me at once.

Moreover, the rod cells, sensitive enough even to form an image under starlight, are only in the peripheral visual field. The fovea, at the center of the visual field, has only the color-discerning and sharp-imaging cone cells, which are far less sensitive,. In very dim light, the center of the visual field becomes a blind spot and, to fill it in, the eyes must dart around like those of a person born without cone cells — as described in Dr. Oliver Sacks’s book The Island of the Colorblind. Walking outdoors on a starlit night in an area with dark sky offers a good lesson about visual abilities.

All ages?

Bicycle industry lobbyists and populist cycling advocates are marketing an “all ages” vision of cycling to the American public. Consider this photo, which appeared in a Streetsblog post promoting “equity”.

Prospect Park West with child on tricycle

Prospect Park West bikeway. Photo copyright Dmitry Gudkov, appears here under fair use rights.

The facility shown is a two-way sidepath alongside Prospect Park, in Brooklyn, New York.

Does “equity” consist of adult bicyclists’ having to take care and slow way down for children on small bicycles with training wheels? We love our children, but on the other hand, the path was not crowded in the photos, and so it doesn’t draw attention to that problem. This is a two-way path, too narrow for safe overtaking in both directions at once.

It could be asked whether it’s fair to ask motorists to slow down because bicyclists are using streets…but then bicyclists using the street may have chosen it to avoid a path crowded with little children, or otherwise not safe at the speed they travel, indirect, doesn’t go where they want to go — not suitable. The right of bicyclists to use the streets is fairly well established in the USA, though with some disturbing limitations, and is of of crucial importance in a this very large country which, unlike the Netherlands, is not table flat over much of its extent, with raised flood barriers between farmers’ fields, ideal for siting pathways.

Here’s another example, from a presentation by Cambridge, Massachusetts bicycle coordinator Cara Seiderman:

Design users, from Cara Seiderman's February, 2009 presentation on cycle tracks

Design users, from Cara Seiderman’s February, 2009 presentation on cycle tracks

Seiderman’s PowerPoint slide conflates several issues. Little children are unpredictable and unsafe, whether on streets or on paths. The elderly woman is likely to be predictable and cautious — she isn’t going to dart out as another cyclist is overtaking. But nobody is wearing a helmet. One of the little girls has a front basket that looks as though it is about to fall off. The elderly lady is wearing black ninja clothing, riding a black bicycle with a black basket.

What does cycling look like when children set the pace? Here is a video showing a school run in a new housing development in Assen, in the Netherlands:

and an older video of the same run:

I suspect that in Dutch cities, as in big cities anywhere, parents are concerned about allowing their children to travel independently. There are other hazards besides traffic hazards: fixed-object hazards, crime, just getting lost. I don’t see children riding on the Amsterdam streets in Andy Cline’s video, linked from his blog here.

The cycling I see in the Assen videos, shot in a new housing development, is similar to how casual and child cyclists ride on crowded shared-use paths in the USA. Small children, and the frequent risk of collision, set the pace at times. The cycling shown is faster than walking but provides not only less exercise per mile, also less exercise per minute!

It would be nice if suburbs in the USA were designed from the ground up so bicyclists and pedestrians had pleasant, direct routes, and children could get around without traveling on busy streets. Some suburbs are: but in most cases we have to build on what we have. I’ve discussed this issue before and made what I think are some practical suggestions.

Is the NACTO Guide a Design Manual?

In cities around the USA, politicians, under pressure from populist bicycling advocates, have pointed to the NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Officials) Urban Street Design Guide and directed their engineering staff to install treatments which it describes.

I’ll say right here that some of the treatments which the NACTO guide describes deserve attention and inclusion in national design standards — though their presentation in the NACTO Guide typically is flawed, inconsistent and incomplete. Why some deserving treatments are not included in the national design standards is a story for another time.

Other NACTO treatments are so troublesome that they are not widely applicable.

Engineers unfamiliar with bicycling issues may take NACTO designs at face value; other engineers may throw up their hands and comply, faced with the threat of losing their employment. Several engineers who have extensive background and expertise in design for bicycling have resigned, been fired or been demoted when they would not accept the NACTO designs.

What leads to these problems? To put it simply, the NACTO guide isn’t a design manual. It is a smorgasbord of design treatments formatted — right down to digitally-generated loose-leaf binder holes on what are, after all, Web pages — to look like a design manual to politicians and the general public. Bicycle manufacturers funded it to promote street designs which they expect will lead to greater bicycle sales. It lacks the vetting necessary for consistency and accuracy. Its purpose is to generate political pressure to apply the treatments it describes. It is weak on specifics: rife with errors, and with omissions even in describing the treatments it covers.

If I described all of my specific  concerns with the NACTO Guide, I’d be writing a book, so for now let’s just look at a two-page spread of the NACTO Guide, the pages about two-stage turn queuing boxes (2STQBs, for short).

Maybe by now you are inclined to think of me  as a naysayer, so, let me get down to some specifics to dispel that impression. I have had information about two-stage turn queuing boxes online for years, I think that they are a useful treatment, and I use two-stage turns: when I realize that I have reached the street where I need to turn left, but hadn’t merged to turn; when traffic is heavy and fast and I haven’t found an opportunity to merge; when ordinary left turns are prohibited. My favorite example is the left turn from Commonwealth Avenue onto the Boston University Bridge in Boston, Massachusetts, where a no-left-turn sign is posted: motorists have to go around a large loop.

Ok, now let’s consider the spread from the NACTO guide, below.

NACTO pages about two-stage turn box

NACTO pages about two-stage turn queuing box

I have placed that spread online as a PDF file, zoomable to any size you might like. You may click on the link or the image above to get a larger view while reading this text. The PDF will open in a separate browser window or tab. I’ve also posted parts of the NACTO pages in connection with the text below.

Issues of organization and use of technical language

The NACTO treatment of the two-stage turn queuing box presents issues of organization and of use of technical language.

Problems start with the title of the section. A proper title is not “Design Guidance”, otherwise, every section would be named “Design Guidance”. A proper title is the name of the device, here “Two-Stage Turn Queuing Box”. [And not "Queue" but" Queuing."]

In a proper design manual, the terms “shall”, “should”, “guidance” and “option” go from strong to weak. “Shall” is imperative: for example, a stop sign shall be octagonal. Should, guidance and option statements are increasingly weaker, leaving more room for engineering judgment.

The terms “Required Features” and “Recommended Features” correspond roughly to “shall and “should” but do not have the explicit, legally-defined meanings of “shall” and “should”.

None of the drawings on the two pages are dimensioned, and no dimensions are given in the text. That is to say, these are not engineering drawings, they are only conceptual drawings. How big are the turn boxes supposed to be? Who knows? The width of travel lanes differs from one drawing to the next, but no explanation is given for that. When politicians start beating on the door for NACTO treatments, standards-setting bodies and traffic engineers have to try to fill in the missing information. For specific projects, that task often is passed along to hired consultants who make their living by promoting and designing special bicycle facilities. Yes, there is a conflict of interest.

Specific comments

Now, either click on the image of each section of the page below to open it in a separate browser tab, or zoom the PDF to at least 50% size so you can read the text in connection with my specific comments .(You may open it now if you didn’t already.)

Comments on the left-hand page

The left-hand page includes text which may look like design specifications, and drawings which may look like design drawings — to a layperson.

Left half of left-hand page


Point 1: “An area shall be designated to hold queuing bicyclists and formalize two-stage turn maneuvers.” This is under the heading “Required Features.”  A 2STQB is only one way to turn left among others, an option, subject to engineering judgment or specific design warrants. There is neither the room nor the need for a 2STQB at most intersections. Lacking here is any statement as to where a 2STQB is appropriate, but the “shall” statement here is inappropriate: appropriate shall statements would describe what features are required if a 2STQB is installed. As of May 2014, the 2STQB is still in experimental status with the Federal Highway Administration — as are all details of its design, and so no “shall” statement at all is appropriate.

A proper design manual would include guidance about speed and volume of traffic; the additional delay usually required for a two-stage turn; whether bicyclists might take an alternate route entirely; whether use of the box is  mandatory, placing bicyclists who make other types of turns in violation of the law.

Point 4: “In cities that permit right turns on red, a no-turn-on-red sign shall be installed.”

According to the wording here, if the installation is not in a city, the sign is not required.

But also, the shall statement is overly broad, and incomplete. The sign is needed only if right-turning traffic would be in conflict with the bicyclists waiting in the 2STQB: unnecessary in the cross street if traffic turns right before reaching the box or cannot turn right, and unnecessary on the entry street if the cross street is one-way right-to-left. Does the sign belong on the entry street or the cross street, or both? That is not stated. Details, details…

Point 6: The comma makes nonsense of this sentence. Where is the box to be positioned?

The other, subsidiary “should” and “may” statements on this page also are contingent on official approval of the underlying design, and are lacking in detail.

Right half of left-hand page


Something really leaps out at me here: take a look and see whether it leaps out at you too.

OK, ready? Three of the six illustrations show a line of travel (in blue) for bicyclists straight across an intersection and then illegally and hazardously turning right, directly into the face of approaching traffic in a cross street.

In showing this bizarre routing, the NACTO Guide also fails to address issues with the actual route which bicyclists might take.

Five of the six illustrations show that bicyclists would somehow turn 180 degrees in place. That requires dismounting and is slow and awkward. How would a bicyclist turn when the traffic light is about to change? When other bicyclists are already in the box? What about tandems? Bicycles pulling trailers? Bicycles carrying heavy baggage?

The drawings show a subtly implied but selectively addressed-threat: lanes where motorists travel are shown in a threatening shade of pink — whoops: except in the cross street where bicyclists ride head-on at motorists.

Four of the six illustrations show motor vehicles in right-hook conflict with bicyclists headed for the queuing box. The motor vehicles are turning out of the threatening pink area into what is portrayed as the safe zone– the right-hook zone. In two of the pictures,  vehicles have already impinged on the blue line which represents the path of bicyclists crossing the intersection. Green paint, which has become a catch-all warning of traffic conflicts in bicycle facilities, is shown in the queuing box, it is not shown in the conflict zone. (By way of comparison, Dutch practice in such conflict situations is that the motorist must always yield, and to use “shark teeth” markings to indicate a yield line.)

Two of the drawings show bike lanes in the door zone of parked cars.

The middle left illustration shows a receiving bike lane at the top, out of line with dashed markings in the intersection, so bicyclists bear right just before they cross a crosswalk, potentially colliding with pedestrians who would expect them to continue straight.

All of the illustrations show two-stage turns across two-lane one-way streets, though the two-stage turn queuing box is most useful where a conventional left turn is illegal, unusually difficult or hazardous — for example, when turning from a major, wide arterial street with heavy traffic, or one with trolley tracks in the median.

As already indicated, none of the drawings are dimensioned and no dimensions are given in the text.

Comments on the right-hand page

The right-hand page gives annotated pictures of conceptual installations, with angled views from overhead.

Left half of right-hand page


The street going from bottom to top in the picture is one-way, as can be inferred by the direction in which vehicles are traveling. That the cross street is two-way may be inferred from the locations of traffic signals and the existence of the queuing box. A real design manual would be explicit about how a treatment would apply, depending on the directions of traffic in the streets.

The end of the traffic island next to the queuing box protrudes so far and is so sharply as to make right turns awkward. No explanation or guidance is given on this issue.

Traffic signals are shown for motor traffic on both streets, but no traffic signal is shown facing the separate bikeway in the street!

Point 3: “Shall” — mandatory — wording differs from that in the same point as made on the opposite page. A real design manual would have a single, consistent statement. “Queue box shall be placed in a protected area.” The queuing box shown here is not protected from right-turning traffic in the cross street. How would that right-turning traffic be managed, or is it permitted at all? Such issues are addressed in a real design manual.

Point 6: “Optional queue box location in line with cross traffic.” The preferred queuing box, then, is not in line with cross traffic. On getting a green light, bicyclists in the queuing box would have to merge left inside the intersection unless there is a receiving bike lane after the intersection, but none is shown. Merging inside an intersection results in hazardous conflicts and is generally illegal. What warrants the choice of one or the other option? It isn’t stated.

Point 8: The illustration shows motorists and a bicyclist inside the intersection, and so they must have a concurrent green light — or, they would if any signal were shown facing the bikeway. Markings guide bicyclists across the intersection, but also into the path of right-turning traffic. The bicyclist and the motorist in the right-hand lane at the bottom of the picture are on a collision course if the motorist turns right.

What is the meaning of the curved markings adjacent to the bicycle parking in the middle of the street? Does the lane with bicycle parking start as a lane with car parking, additionally hiding bicyclists from turning motorists? Or is this an additional lane for motor traffic, discontinued at the intersection, precisely where more lanes are needed to store waiting traffic? Not shown.

Right half of right-hand page


There is a right-hook threat at both bike lane entries to the intersection.

Bicyclists headed from bottom to top in the bike lane are riding in the door zone of parked cars, and closer to the cars after crossing the intersection.

Point 9: As in the left half of the page, placing the queuing box to the right of the travel lane when there is no receiving lane ahead assures that motorists will overtake bicyclists in the intersection and that bicyclists will have to wait for motor traffic to clear before they can proceed. Motorists waiting to turn right will be stuck behind the bicyclists. Placement out of line with motor traffic is described as the option here, rather than as the preferred treatment as on the left side of the page, and the problem is acknowledged in the caption to this drawing, though no explanation for the different choices is given.

Point 10: A jughandle may be useful if traffic is so heavy or fast that bicyclists have difficulty merging to the normal left-turn position near the center of the street, but then traffic is also so heavy and fast that a signal is usually necessary, not merely to be considered — unless there is already one upstream.

Point 11: Yes, signage may be used, but what signage? A real design manual would show the signs and where they are to be placed.

Point 12: A bicycle signal might be installed, but where? for the entry? For the exit? Its timing?

Point 13: Guide lines, pavement symbols and/or colored pavement. Which? Where? Why?

Had enough?

PeopleforBikes Praises Flawed Figueroa Bikeway Design

The bicycle industry lobby Peopleforbikes has posted the image below, identified as an official rendering, of the proposed bikeway on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles.

PeopleforBikes praises the political developments which led to this project and describes it as a “win.” My response is “what were the designers thinking, if it can be called thinking?” And “does PeopleforBikes expect to gain any credibility by supporting this?

Even putting aside general debates about “cycle tracks”… let’s just look at some specifics of the design here.

This is much less and also much more than a “protected bike lane”, PeopleforBikes’s description. Being separated from the other lanes by a barrier, it is not a bike lane but a bike path — one of substandard width. Most of the installation as shown is intended to serve bus passengers. Bicyclists get the narrow strip which is left over.

The roadway has been narrowed by one lane’s width, but more than half of it has been given over to a traffic island for a bus stop, and less than half, to the bikeway. The bikeway is not as wide as either the bicyclist or the pedestrians in the foreground are tall: only about five feet wide, between vertical curbs.  Because bicyclists need to track two feet from a curb to avoid the risk of a pedal strike, the bikeway is only wide enough for a single line of bicyclists.

Figueroa bikeway official rendering

Bicyclists’ speeds on level roads range from approximately 8 to 25 miles per hour.  One bicyclist overtaking another on this bikeway risks handlebars’ tangling, or a pedal strike. Overtaking a cargo tricycle is clearly impossible. Expect crashes, and parades of bicyclists limited to the speed of the slowest.

There is only that one bicyclist shown…if bicycle traffic were as heavy as PeopleforBikes would like, the bikeway would be clogged.

The bikeway is adjacent to a sidewalk. Expect pedestrians in the bikeway, and bicyclists riding on the sidewalk, or the bus lane, because the bikeway is slower.

The fence shown to the left of the bikeway (apparently to prevent pedestrians from crossing at an undesignated location) is nonstandard for either a pedestrian or bicycle barrier — bicyclists and pedestrians alike would topple over it. The fence is immediately adjacent to the bikeway, and that also is nonstandard.

The intersection in the foreground is signal-controlled, but the special crosswalk to the bus stop beyond the bicyclist is not. Now, imagine a crowd of pedestrians who just got off a bus, crossing in that crosswalk. If more than a few bicyclists have to wait, they will back up into the signalized crosswalk in the foreground, and into the intersection. Green paint in the crosswalk indicates, as it so often does, “we broke the rules when we designed this.”

With pedestrians in the locations shown, the bicyclist shown has to have crossed the walkway against the light. That doesn’t reflect on the design itself, but it does reflect on the people who approved the rendering, and the the designers.

The striped, angled cutaway in the traffic island serves to allow large trucks and buses to turn right without dragging their wheels over the curb. But it is delimited by raised rubber barriers which might survive one or two days of wear and tear by trucks. The stripes also define the cutaway as a no-drive zone.

A truck apron is usually made of durable, slightly raised, distinctive paving. What were the designers thinking?

The tree overhanging the bikeway would drop leaves into it, an issue I brought up in an earlier post on this blog. The bikeway is shown as impeccably clean in the illustration, but it is too narrow for a standard street-cleaning machine.

I have read elsewhere that this bikeway would cross 26 intersections and 49 driveways.

The right one-foot width of the bikeway is the gutter pan, and there is a seam between it and the asphalt pavement. These seams break up, and can trap bicycle wheels. Water collects in the gutter, as also shown in videos which  my friend Gary Cziko has taken from his bicycle. He describes them as follows:

1. The first video at is a combined front and rear view while cycling on Figueroa northbound from Exposition to 7th Street, where the cycle track is planned. It was made at mid-day on a weekday with fairly light-to-moderate traffic.

2. The second video at is rearview also northbound at evening rush hour starting a bit further south than the first video.

Gary has more to say about his videos but I’ll leave it to him to comment.

A Close Encounter on Washington Street

It seems appropriate for me to post this as the City of Boston bicycle program gears up for its annual update presentation Monday night. You do best to click on the “vimeo” icon (lower right in frame below) and run the video full-screen.

A Close Encounter on Washington Street from John Allen on Vimeo.

Report from a bike-share conference

In September, 2012, the French-language Montreal newspaper Le Devoir published an article, also distributed as a blog post, reporting on a conference in France about bike share systems, and extensively quoting economist Frédéric Héran.

The headline, translated in to English, is more or less “what is bike share good for?” or “What does bike share accomplish?”

Héran’s conclusions are somewhat out of step with the usual promotional buzz: bike share costs some $4000-$5000 per year per bicycle, and operators keep quiet about this to avoid upsetting taxpayers. Bike share is only practical in dense urban centers; it may follow from increased bicycle use, rather than lead to it. Fewer than 10% of bike-share trips substitute for car trips, according to the few studies available, but bike share does cut into use of public transportation. Widespread traffic calming — avoiding ghettoizing bicyclists — and bicycle parking may be better investments. Héran thinks that bike share may, in the end, have more of an effect as a promotional tool, mainstreaming bicycling, than directly as a means of transportation.

Recent developments — the spread of bike sharing to more cities, notably New York; labor issues; bankruptcy of the Montreal system — lend more interest to Héran’s observations.

The Google translation of the article into English leaves a tolerably accurate overall impression, though there are a number of awkward phrasings, and translations of several sentences are incorrect enough to be misleading.

I’ve prepared my own complete translation. Le Devoir did not respond to my request for permission to post it. If you would like me to send you the translation privately by e-mail, please let me know. Following up on my summary of the article, here are summaries of readers’ comments:

The Montreal program is only replacing bicycle dealers with subsidization by the public, and that problem will rebound at us.

Denis Paquette

The program does not pay for itself in cities which have redesigned themselves to be bicycle and pedestrian friendly. Thanks for a good article. Montreal needs an overall plan worthy of the name.

Laurent Pradiès

I’m an experienced urban cyclist; the Montreal program is a political smokescreen. Montreal is like Los Angeles in having such a poor public transportation system. [Not so bad in my opinion -- John Allen]

Jean Richard

Bixi could be very beneficial if it doesn’t fishtail, and instead leads to Bixi 2.0.

Bixi is suffocating because it has been taken up by commuters and is emptying the subways. At night, all the bicycles are in the residential areas. A lot of effort goes into redistributing the bicycles, in vain. Bicyclists have always asked for secure parking for their own bicycles.

The space occupied by a 23-bicycle Bixi station could park over twice as many conventional bicycles at a lower cost.
A bus transporting 120 passengers uses less fuel and has much less impact on traffic than 3 or 4 trucks redistributing Bixis.

Bixi 2.0 would simply put money into infrastructure and bicycle accommodation.

France Marcotte

(Quotes Héran’s comments about traffic calming). I can already dream of it. I leave my courtyard on my bicycle, and the cars are not menacing mastodons which lay down the law and occupy the territory. We interact in a certain harmony.
If my attitude as a city-dweller only results from propaganda and conditioning, then I’ll choose the propaganda which comes closest to what I sense for myself.

Catherine Caron

My bicycle is my daily transportation but when I drive my little car, there are lots of other people driving way too fast in high-powered cars. It’s take a lot of effort to correct this.

Simon Bouchard

Bike share has to continue, no matter what it costs, for reasons of health, urban education, reduction of pollution, quality of life.

Daniel Beaupré

I have my own bicycle but I subscribed to Bixi. It has its hitches, but I like it. Mostly it has helped when there public transportation didn’t work out. One day when the subway broke down, I got home easily by Bixi. I’m also relieved to the hassle of parking a bicycle and the risk of theft. The lights also are good — too many bicyclists ride without even reflectors.

Richard Larouche

There has been a study of the Barcelona system, published in the British Medical Journal and reporting hat health benefits outweigh risk, and carbon dioxide emissions reduced.

A Closer Look at the Momentum Photo

The cyclists in the photo below are riding through piles of leaves where they can’t see the road surface. The man has a shopping bag hanging from the handlebar where it can swing into the spokes of the front wheel. The shopping bag and possible hazards under the leaves carry the risk of a front-wheel-stopping crash, with the cyclist pivoting forward and landing on his head.

Momentum Magazine posted this photo provided by the Green Lane Project. Warm and fuzzy?

Momentum Magazine posted this photo provided by the Green Lane Project. Warm and fuzzy?

The photo appeared in Momentum Magazine, and was provided by the Green Lane Project, an organization funded by bicycle manufacturers and which promotes the construction of barrier-separated on-street bikeways. I commented on the photo in an earlier post, and said that I’d return to the topic, because I recognized the location. So, here I am.

It is 15th Street and T street in Washington, DC, USA. Here’s a Google Street View from a couple of years ago. Some different traffic signs have been installed since then, and yellow flex posts have replaced white ones, but the tree with white bark is unmistakable. The pinkish building in the background of both images is three blocks away, at W street.

Street furniture and trees identify the intersection as 15th and T Streets, Washington, DC.

Street furniture and trees identify the intersection as 15th and T Streets, Washington, DC.

The cyclists’ riding side by side gives the impression that the bikeway is one-way, but actually it is two-way, as the Street View photo shows. Leaves and trash cover the lane lines in the Green Lane photo.

What is it really like to ride this bikeway? In the video embedded below, my friend Keri Caffrey rides in the same direction as the cyclists in the Green Lane photo, also at a time of light traffic. Keri reaches T street at 1:11 in the video. She rides all the way down to H street, and obeys the traffic signals.

About half the time, she is waiting for the signals, and so her average travel speed is 4.5 miles per hour. Most of this street is one-way, the traffic lights are timed for traffic in the other direction, and cyclists have only a short interval to cross legally, because turning traffic has a dedicated signal phase. Nonetheless, Keri encounters some turning and crossing conflicts. Other cyclists in the video can’t be bothered to wait for the signals.

15th street southbound from Keri Caffrey on Vimeo.

Why are the leaves in the street? Washington, DC has information on leaf collection, instructing residents to place leaves in treeboxes (between sidewalk and curb) rather than in the street, and acknowledging problems with leaf pickup due to weather conditions. As the trees are at the curb, nearly half the leaves fall directly into the street. The sidewalk extends all the way to the curb and there is very little space around trees to store the leaves they drop. Without a barrier-separated bikeway, nobody would have to use space next to the curb as travel space.

The message of the Momentum Magazine article is “better biking,” and by implication, safe cycling even for children and novice cyclists, thanks to barrier-separated bikeways. One of the cyclists in the Green Lane Project photo is a young child, who, to be sure, wouldn’t be safe riding on streets with fast or heavy motor traffic. The other cyclist is an adult, but his choice to hang a bag over the handlebar speaks volumes about his skill level.

Or was that his own choice? Did the cyclists show up by chance — at such a low-traffic time, and near the end of the bikeway where traffic is lightest? Did the photographer lurk, waiting and waiting, holding a camera with a long telephoto lens, standing in the middle of the bikeway? A photographer could wait for hours before suitable subjects showed up.

I suspect strongly that the photo was staged, and the cyclists were recruited for the photo shoot. The Green Lane Project would then carry some responsibility for their actions, and not only for the choice of the photo.

As is typical of Green Lane Project work, the photo is carefully framed to, well, create an impression. It is said that the camera doesn’t lie, but on the other hand, perspective can play tricks. What looks like a continuous wall at the right side of the photo is actually a line of widely spaced flexible barrier posts, as is clear in the Street View image below, which also shows a treebox on the sidewalk. It is filled to the brim, though the photo was taken in midsummer.

15th and Swann Street, one block south of T Street.

15th and Swann Street, one block south of T Street.

The video of one of my own rides on this street is posted below. I am riding northbound — in the opposite direction of Keri’s ride in the earlier video — and Keri is behind me, shooting video with her helmet camera. At 3:37, a pedestrian walks out between flex posts into my path.  At 4:40, there’s a conflict with oncoming bicycle traffic. Both these situations required me to slow abruptly. There are several left-hook conflicts and a couple of oncoming right-cross threats.

We cross T street at 11:37 in the video. Total time from H street to V street was 14 minutes, 31 seconds for an average speed of 5.1 miles per hour. Waiting time was 5 minutes 21 seconds. The traffic light timing was more favorable, but this direction is slightly uphill. 15th Street Cycletrack at Rush Hour from Keri Caffrey on Vimeo.

While young children and novice cyclists aren’t safe on a busy street, it’s certainly fair to ask whether they are safe on this bikeway, considering that it wasn’t safe for me.

During rush hour, major intersections on the bikeway descend into chaos, as shown in another of Keri Caffrey’s videos.

Are there better alternatives? Yes, in education and in infrastructure choices, among other things, but they require a bolder, broader, more knowledgeable and more flexible approach than we see here.

One more comment about the cyclists in the video: as I’ve made clear elsewhere, I strongly advocate helmet use, but I don’t promote mandatory helmet laws. Lacking near-universal acceptance of helmet use, such laws can do more harm than good, in my opinion. I give my reasons for that in another article.

On the other hand, as my good friend Sheldon Brown liked to say, a parent who puts a helmet on his child but doesn’t wear one himself is offering the example “do as I say, not as I do,” and unnecessarily risks leaving the child an orphan.

Finally: As I noted in my previous post, someone at Momentum Magazine deleted comments I left on its blog. The comments were as polite as these, but much shorter. The author of the Momentum Magazine article, Managing Editor Duncan Hurd, commented on my previous post, suggesting a dialog by e-mail. I  responded saying that I welcomed a dialog. The only more recent communication I have had from him is a second comment describing my observations as “concern trolling.”

My friend Khalil Spencer posted comments on the Momentum Magazine article later, and those too were deleted.  Khalil has posted on his own blog about that. His post makes good reading.

Momentum Magazine, Green Lane Project: Hello?

The online blog of Momentum Magazine posted the photo below to illustrate an article titled “Support for Better Biking is Strong.

Warm and fuzzy is clearly the intention — father and young child riding on a magic carpet, car-free and carefree. We should all transport ourselves to better biking and a better future, on such magic carpets.

Momentum Magazine posted this photo provided by the Green Lane Project. Warm and fuzzy?

Momentum Magazine posted this photo provided by the Green Lane Project. Warm and fuzzy?

Hello, hello, reality check: the carpet  is of leaves — much of it deep enough to hide a pothole or debris which would launch a cyclist over the handlebars.

Sorry to have to say this about this but a few years ago, a well-liked, recently retired colleague of my wife’s put his front wheel into a hole hidden under leaves and landed on his head. He died.

Nobody can tell us why he was riding there, but most people who have spent much time on a bicycle have learned one way or another to avoid riding through a carpet of leaves — or anywhere they can’t see what is about to be supporting the bicycle’s tires.

Doesn’t anybody at Momentum Magazine have the good sense, or experience, or authority, to nix a photo like this, or do they just not care?

Actually, I know that they don’t care. I submitted comments — much more gentle than these — on the magazine’s blog post. My comments were quickly removed.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into this situation.  The article is a puff piece reflecting the bicycle industry’s astroturf polling campaign. The magazine credits the Green Lane Project with the photo. The bicycle industry funds the Green Lane project to promote bikeways separate from motor traffic, with the goal of getting more people to buy bicycles.

How could this photo advance that agenda? Or, scarier to think, what if it actually does? What if  most readers of Momentum Magazine  don’t know any better? What if they are so caught up in a magic carpet agenda that they can mentally sweep the carpet of leaves aside?

Does the Green Lane crew think that leaves add a nice homey touch — and look, people also ride outside the peak summer season! Or maybe Green Lane doesn’t care either, in which case, just how low can these people stoop to portray bicycling as completely mindless and carefree,  as long as it is also car-free?

The shopping bag next to the spokes of the man’s front wheel doesn’t make me feel any better. I could say something about a parent’s setting an example, but then I don’t want to start a helmet war.

Enough for now. I’m going to deconstruct the photo shoot,  in a separate blog post. I know where that photo was taken. I’ve been there.

I’m also going to look into just why anyone thought that the USA needs another bicycle magazine, especially one which publishes material like this. Stay tuned.

Forbes Magazine and “protected bike lanes”

I have submitted the comments below to Forbes Magazine, whose blog posted an article titled “Spotted Those New Protected Bike Lanes? Get Ready for More.”

I expected better of Forbes, a generally conservative publication. The term “protected bike lane” is used only to describe an on-street bikeway behind a barrier, but Forbes illustrated the article with a photo of a buffered bike lane. There is no barrier in the photo, only paint.

Forbes thinks this is a "protected bike lane". It is a buffered bike lane.

Forbes thinks this is a “protected bike lane”. It is a buffered bike lane.

My comments follow.


A few clarifications:

* The bike lane shown in the photo is not a “protected bike lane”. A “protected bike lane” (see below for why I use the quotes) is separated from the rest of the travelway by a barrier, which could be a curbed median island, a row of parked cars, or a row of delineator posts. What is shown is a buffered bike lane, separated from another lane by a painted strip which is wider than the standard lane stripe.

* This buffered bike lane is separated from the adjacent travel lane, but adjacent to a parking lane, and directs bicyclists to ride within the range of opening car doors. A bicyclist who strikes an opening car door is flung to the left, potentially going under the wheels of an overtaking motor vehicle.

* A buffer may on the other hand separate the bike lane from the parking lane. This is safer.

* The inaccurate term “protected bike lane” is used with the goal of promoting increased bicycle use, pandering to widespread misconceptions about safety, and in particular, the belief that the most important type of bicycle crash is for a bicyclist to be rear-ended by a motor vehicle. This type of crash is rare in urban areas.

* The term “protected bike lane” is incorrect and misleading. Being separated by a barrier, this is not a lane, it is a bicycle path. Also, it is protected everywhere except where that matters most: at intersections and driveways, where most motor-vehicle-bicycle collisions occur, and conflicting movements forced by the barrier (car turning right from left lane, bicyclist in right rear blindspot of motor vehicle, or concealed by parked vehicles) increase the risk.

* Typical safe average speeds on “protected bike lanes” are 5 miles per hour, increasing the temptation to take risks and disobey the law.

* In some cases it is possible to have a separate bikeway in a street corridor which avoids the problems, but this is unusual and requires careful designs. One example is with 9th Avenue in New York City; please see comments linked at (and for a counterexample, see the comments on the Grand Street bikeway linked from the same page.)

* Other options such as conventional bike lanes of adequate design, paths separate from roads, bicycle routes on lightly-traveled streets paralleling main streets, traffic speed reduction measures, enforcement and education avoid the problems with barrier-separated bikeways. However, barrier-separated bikeways are being heavily promoted and widely installed, because of the public misconceptions about safety and the clamor of bicycle mode share advocacy.

I am a long-time bicycling advocate and it pains me to see the state of bicycling advocacy today; also, the shallowness of media coverage, and yes, this article is an example. If Forbes can’t even get terminology right and call out inaccuracies and distortions, it is only contributing to the problem.

M. Kary’s comment letters to Injury Prevention, unedited

The journal Injury Prevention published two responses (eLetters) by M. Kary, Montreal mathematician and cyclist, to the Harris et al. study of Vancouver and Toronto bicycle facilities. These letters promised an eventual third letter. Instead, following discussion with the Editor, the third was transformed into a longer Commentary now under consideration at the journal, while the original two letters were consolidated into a single shorter one, intended to replace them. These steps are still underway, but were done under the understanding that once removed, the original first two letters would be published in full elsewhere. They are here:

M.Kary’s first letter to Injury Prevention, unedited

M. Kary’s second letter to Injury Prevention, unedited

The edited version of these replies is available online.

Kary is also the author of a comprehensive review of the Lusk et al. study of Montreal cycle tracks — or as he says, what the authors describe as cycle tracks, because some are, in fact, paths through parks.

A related post on this blog examines a PDF presentation about the Vancouver/Toronto research.