Tag Archives: Bicycling

Monsere, Dill et al. — Not Yet a Review, But…

M. Kary, who prepared a review of the Lusk et al Montreal study, has had a preliminary look at the Monsere, Dill et al. study of barrier-separated on-street bikeways (“cycle tracks”) which the bicycle industry lobby PeopleforBikes is promoting as demonstrating their safety. Dr. Kary has given me permission to publish his comments here.

An Introduction To and Overview Of:
Monsere C, Dill J, et al. (2014) Lessons From The Green Lanes: Evaluating Protected Bike Lanes In The U.S. Final Report, NITC-RR-583

To begin with a platitude: traffic accidents are rare events. The totals are large only because the overall volumes of exposure are huge. Therefore, if considering safety in terms of outcomes rather than the underlying mechanisms of operation, any facility, no matter how poorly designed, will appear safe if examined over a short period of time.

But collecting data over a long period of time has its disadvantages too: not just cost and delay, but also the averaging, and therefore blurring, of the effects of various changing causes and circumstances. Nor does it work at all for facilities that are yet to be built. In response to these problems, engineers developed the methods of traffic conflict analysis. They can be seen as based on the following logical and kinematic necessities. First, in order for a collision to occur, the vehicles involved must eventually get on a collision course. Second, in order to get on a collision course, they must first get on a near-collision course. On the other hand, not all vehicles once on collision or near-collision course do end up colliding: their operators make course corrections and avoid that outcome. Such potentially dangerous but often ultimately safe trajectories, i.e. traffic conflicts, occur much more frequently than actual collisions, deaths, or injuries. If there exists a suitable relationship between the former and the latter, then conflict analysis can be used to study road safety at reduced cost, with better timing, and even via simulation modelling of facilities that have been designed but not yet built.

The theory and practice of conflict analysis for motor vehicles has been developed over something like a half a century of research. This has evolved to quantitative methods using not just traffic cameras, but also instrumented vehicles, automated data extraction, and theoretical concepts such as time to collision, gap time, gap acceptance, post-encroachment time, and many others. There is no such corresponding body of research for bicycles. Even if there were, it could never be as important to bicycle or pedestrian deaths and injuries as it is for the occupants of cars and trucks: for example, the latter vehicles never topple over at stops or just slip and fall, so that their occupants fracture an arm or strike their heads on a curb. In fact the majority of bicyclist injuries, even those requiring hospitalization, apparently involve only the bicyclist, making conflict analysis entirely or at least largely irrelevant to them.

On the other hand collisions with motor vehicles are major factors in cyclist deaths and injuries, and they are what cyclists worry most about. And even apparently bicycle-only crashes can be provoked by e.g. general fears or specific intimidations, or avoidance manoeuvres leading to loss of control. Thus there are also dimensions of traffic conflicts applicable to bicycling, but either inapplicable or less so to motor vehicle-only conflicts. Nor is every conflict visible or strictly kinematic: consider for example the effects of sudden and loud horn honking or engine revving.

With these fundamental limitations in mind, obviously traffic conflict analysis is a promising method for investigating important aspects of bicycling safety. The theory needs to be developed, so we can figure out what constitutes a high or low rate of conflicts, what types of conflicts figure what way into which accident types, and how vehicle operators and pedestrians cope with them, such as through hypervigilance, or avoidance of the area and thus diversion of problems to a different one.

Not only does the theory need to be developed, but also the methods of data extraction and analysis: the subjective review of traffic camera recordings, typically of low quality, is a mind-numbingly tedious, labour-intensive and error-prone task, that does not scale well.

The work of Monsere et al. (2014), Lessons From The Green Lanes: Evaluating Protected Bike Lanes In The U.S., should be considered a pilot project in this effort, although the authors themselves do not describe it as such.

Monsere et al. aimed to address six questions:

  1. Do the facilities attract more cyclists?
  2. How well do the design features of the facilities work? In particular, do both the users of the protected bicycle facility and adjacent travel lanes understand the design intents of the facility, especially unique or experimental treatments at intersections?
  3. Do the protected lanes improve users’ perceptions of safety?
  4. What are the perceptions of nearby residents?
  5. How attractive are the protected lanes to different groups of people?
  6. Is the installation of the lanes associated with measureable increases in economic activity?

Apart from noting that, as with most sociological research, their survey response rates were dismally low (23-33% overall, counting even only partially completed surveys as full responses), to produce a socioeconomically skewed sample (e.g. the bicyclists being 89% white, 68% male, 82% having at least a four-year college degree, and 48% with annual incomes over $100,000)— this overview of their work considers only the first part of their question No. 2.

Monsere et al. installed video cameras along short bicycle sidepaths (“protected lanes”, “cycle tracks”) constructed between approximately the summer of 2012 and the early summer of 2013 as part of the Green Lanes Project. These were in four U.S. cities, San Francisco (two 0.3 mile paths), Portland (one 0.8 mile path), Chicago (0.8 and 1.2 mile paths) and Washington (a 1.12 mile path; no cameras were installed in Austin, although sociological surveys were conducted there). They did their video recording chiefly at intersections, six in these four cities in the summer and fall of 2013. This was then presumably while the users were still in a cautious or exploratory state, as they got used to the new facilities.

Only 12-18, or in one case 20, independent hours of video were analyzed from each intersection. As each intersection examined was given a unique treatment, results cannot easily be pooled. These are very small numbers.

(This makes for substantially less than 120 hours total. The authors seem to say they analyzed 144 hours of video at intersections. This would mean that some of this total came from multiple cameras examining the same intersection at the same time. The authors do show frame captures from some of their cameras. This observer would find it difficult to correctly identify the conflicts from the views on display.)

As noted following the opening platitude, any facility, no matter how poorly designed, will appear safe if examined over a short enough period of time.

The six facilities examined were all so new (less than or little more than a calendar year old) that there were no injury or death data available for them. (For comparison, the entire city and island of Montreal, with all its thousands of intersections, averages of late about five cyclist deaths and 25-50 police-recorded serious cycling injuries per year.) Thus, there would not have been a way to use even many more hours of recording to examine for any relationship between the surrogate outcomes (conflicts, violations or errant behaviours) and the outcomes of most interest, deaths and injuries.

Further, as this was neither a before-after study nor a comparison with standard intersections, there is no way to know whether the numbers of observed conflicts, violations, or errant behaviours, were themselves high or low.

As to the actual results from this pilot project, the much touted headline was that there were only six minor conflicts found, out of nearly 12,900 bicycle movements through intersections. The most basic problems with this headline are:

1. It is the wrong comparison. The conflict rate has to be the number of conflicts divided by the number of occasions where at least two users capable of conflicting are present, e.g. a bicycle and at least one other bicycle, pedestrian, or motor vehicle. Thus the authors give figures of 7574 turning motor vehicles, but only 1997 turning motor vehicles with bicycles present. The corresponding conflict rates (which they normalize by the products of bicycle and motor vehicle movements, not by the numbers of bicycle movements alone) they give for the individual intersections therefore vary by factors of approximately 3 to 10, depending on which figures are used.

2. Six is the total of observed “minor” conflicts, not the total number of observed conflicts. There were also 379 “precautionary” conflicts with motor vehicles, 216 with pedestrians, and 70 with other bicycles.

3. Besides conflicts, there were numerous violations or other errant behaviours: e.g. 9-70% of bicycles and 7-52% of turning motor vehicles in the various intersection designs used the lanes incorrectly, 1-18% of turning motor vehicles in the various mixing zone designs turned from the wrong lane, 5-10% of motorists turned illegally on red arrows at intersections with bicycle-specific signals, and 7-23% of bicyclists disobeyed their signals.

4. Without any theory or model of how any of these occurrences or their frequencies relate to death, injury, or property damage, and without any before-after or non-sidepath comparison data— not to mention, with the very small numbers of observation hours— there are almost no safety implications, positive or negative. The only concrete result is that one of the local authorities apparently deemed the problem of motor vehicles turning from the wrong lane (18%), straddling lanes (another 17%), or entering the turn lane early (15%) to be so severe that they later removed the intersection treatment and replaced it with another design (at Fell and Baker in San Francisco).

5. The sociological surveys tell another story: one-third of all bicyclists surveyed said they had been involved in at least one near collision on the paths, while 2% experienced an actual collision. 23% had a near collision with turning cars, 1.8% an actual collision with turning cars; 19% a near collision with a pedestrian, and 0.4% an actual collision with a pedestrian.

In short: this is an interesting pilot project, whose methods are impractical for the amount of data collection needed for meaningful safety results. Even with better methods, conflicts are only one facet of the bicycling, and overall safety picture; while road designers and road users, whether bicyclists or motorists, have to consider more than just safety. Convenience, transit time, cost, and greenhouse gas emissions also matter. A cycle track that, like the downtown de Maisonneuve track in Montreal, lies largely dormant in the winter, but delays motor vehicle traffic in the winter and ties it up spring, summer and fall, will be of no help in reducing CO2 emissions. The much touted headline results from this study are selective, overblown, and misleading. Any facility will appear safe if examined over a short enough period of time, and surely 12 to 20 hours each is short enough

Fixie or track bicycle?

Track racing bicycle,from Bicycling Magazine

Track racing bicycle, from Bicycling Magazine. The caption in the picture reads “On a fixie, there are no gears or brakes. Only your legs control the drivetrain.”

From Bicycling Magazine, June 2014, page 28:

“A fixie (or fixed gear) is a singlespeed without brakes and without the mechanism that allows the bike to coast when you’re not pedaling.”

That is a description of a track racing bicycle, which is only one kind of bicycle with a fixed gear. The caption in the picture with the article repeats this description.

Let’s get definitions straight:

  • A fixed gear is a connection between the pedals and the driving wheel without a mechanism which allows coasting.
  • Antique high-wheeler bicycles have a fixed gear;
  • Children’s tricycles have a fixed gear;
  • Sturmey-Archer sells a three-speed fixed-gear hub, and so, some fixed-gear bicycles are not singlespeeds;
  • “Fixie” is not synonymous with “fixed gear”. Rather, “fixie” is slang for a bicycle with a fixed gear.
  • Fixed-gear bicycles for the road,  as a matter of common sense, safety and traffic law in many jurisdictions, must have a brake.

Though it is possible to slow a brakeless fixie by resisting the rotation of the pedals, this braking is not as effective as with a front handbrake, and can be lost due to the cranks’ outrunning the feet, or the chain’s coming off.

The photo with the Bicycling Magazine article shows a brakeless fixie on a street — illegal in many places, and with impaired safety due to the longer stopping distance and unreliability of braking. Also, the cyclist is using toe clips and tightly-adjusted straps with the end of each strap passed through the slot at the bottom of the buckle. The straps cannot, then, be adjusted while riding — OK on the track where a starter holds the bicycle upright, but not on the road. I have to wonder whether the cyclist in the photo was assisted in starting, or is being held upright for the photo by someone outside the picture.

Why am I taking the trouble to write this? Primarily, because the Bicycling Magazine article may induce people to take up riding fixed-gear bicycles without brakes on the road, and fumble with toeclips and straps, and crash, and be held at fault for crashing for lack of a brake. I am distressed that editors at Bicycling Magazine would pass on an incorrect description which generates confusion and might promote such behavior.

A thorough and accurate discussion of fixed-gear bicycles for use on the road may be found in Sheldon Brown’s article.

For the record, I own a fixie, shown in the photo below, and it is street-legal, equipped with dual handbrakes. If I had only one brake on this bicycle, it would be the front brake — but for riding with a freewheel, or on steep descents, I have installed a rear brake as well.

John Allen's fixie

John Allen’s fixie

Godzilla’s toothpaste decorates Seattle bikeway

A new bikeway has recently opened on Broadway in Seattle, Washington state, USA.

Someone has posted a video of a ride on the newly-opened bikeway.

(To get a better view of the video, click on “YouTube” and open it up full-screen.)

This is an uphill ride, very slow in most places. Traffic was light on the street, and even lighter on the bikeway. It will be interesting to see how the situation develops when traffic is heavier.

The bicyclist who made the video is clearly aware of the hazards, as he or she repeatedly checks for turning traffic before crossing intersections. Others might be more naive.

What most catches the eye though about this installation is the “Godzilla’s Toothpaste” barriers between the bikeway and parking spaces — an artistic touch, to be sure, though also a collision hazard, and sure to be pummeled by cars pulling into parking spaces. The toothpaste is visible a few seconds from the start of the video and also later.

As described by Seattle cyclist Joshua Putnam, the installation of the bikeway followed from a series of events, like a chain of dominoes falling over, except that some the dominoes were bicyclists. The first of these events was installation of a light rail line in the street. Then, bicycle crashes became much more frequent.

Light rail lines in streets are a serious hazard for bicyclists, from wheels’ getting caught in the flangeway, and from bicyclists’ having to choose their line of travel to avoid that risk. The problem is worsened by the tracks’ curving over to the edge of the street at stops — necessary so there can be a raised platform and wheelchair access.

To address the hazard it created with the trolley tracks, Seattle installed a two-way, one-side-of-the-street bikeway, on this two-way street. Such bikeways pose problems anywhere, due to the increased number of conflicts and unusual movements at intersections — but also much of Broadway is steep, and bicyclists traveling opposite the usual flow of traffic on the bikeway are going downhill. Crossing an intersection or driveway from right to left on the near side has been well-established as highly hazardous.

Before the trolley tracks, before the bikeway, bicyclists could travel downhill as fast as the motor traffic. Now, the safe speed is hardly more than walking speed, and with repeated checks for crossing and turning conflicts. As is the usual practice, large swatches of green paint have been spread on the street to demarcate zones where bicyclists and motorists operating according to their usual expectations are concealed from each other until too late to avoid collisions.

Motorcyclists also are at risk from the trolley tracks, but they are excluded by law from the bikeway.

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.

Support for the Allies in WWII, wrapped around a bicycle sprocket

I wrote to Sturmey-Archer’s European office a few months ago concerning the Swiss-made Vibo three-speed hub described on the Sturmey-Archer Heritage Web site. The Web page about this hub indicates that a scrap of paper which enclosed the sprocket in the shipping box shows German troops marching into Paris. It doesn’t. The page hasn’t been corrected, so I’ll make a correction here.

Here’s the scrap of paper. You can click on the image to enlarge it, and read the caption if you happen to read French.

The scrap of paper which wrapped the Vibo hub

The scrap of paper which wrapped the Vibo hub

Here’s translation from the French on the scrap of paper.

Underground mobilization
in the Paris sewers and catacombs

(continued from no. 29)

A city full of passion and hope

Since the start of the invasion, German illustrated newspapers have ostentatiously been publishing images of Paris which the propaganda agencies accompany with strange commentaries. Here is an example: it is supposed to prove that Paris is hostile to the Anglo-Saxon invaders and that it openly supports the acts and cause of its oppressors. While the tank battle rages in Normandy, German power is being asserted in the French capital through the organization of large demonstrations by reserve troops along the avenues and boulevards. The Germans do not seem to be troubled by the developments alongside and below them, appearing to be content to drown out the muffled rumblings of the partisan army in the underground city with the sound of boots on the Champs Elysées. The Germans are surrounded by large crowds which “applaud spontaneously, clap their hands and throw flowers.” But who, then, has checked whether these are Parisians? There are two hundred thousand German civilians in Paris, to whom might be added, as in any large city, a certain number of women of easy virtue. Let us recall 1870 and the well-known heroines of Maupassant’s stories. There is nothing mysterious about this image. The Champs-Elysées? Yes. But Paris? No!

This establishes a few things:

  • The hub was shipped no earlier than the weeks in 1944 after the D-Day invasion but before the liberation of Paris — not when “German troops were marching into Paris,” as indicated on the Sturmey-Archer Web page.
  • Therefore, any lawsuit to stop production of this apparently unauthroized copy of the Sturmey-Archer AW hub did not succeed till after that time (and I suspect, wouldn’t get much attention while the war was raging).
  • As Switzerland was neutral, the hub could have been exported to Germany or a German-dominated country — including French-speaking countries — and so the message might have been chosen intentionally as an indication of support for the Allies against Nazi Germany. Note how neatly the paper is torn to preserve the image and caption!

It is also understandable that a Swiss company would take up manufacture of a copy of a Sturmey-Archer hub during the war. There was no way to get the real thing in Switzerland, which was surrounded by Axis and Axis-dominated countries. Also, production of bicycle components — especially for export — in both Allied and Axis nations was limited by the war. The threat of a lawsuit from England would be much less of a concern than action — legal and diplomatic — by the neighboring Germans; the Swiss manufacturer and/or employees clearly were more sympathetic to the Allied cause, and might also expect customers to be. Therefore, a copy of a British hub would probably be better received than a copy of a German one, even though illegal.

Danish story, video and comments on the Albertslund-Copenhagen “bicycle superhighway”

A reader pointed me to a news story on the politiken.dk blog about the Copenhagen/Albertslund “bicycle superhighway” which is getting attention and publicity. The reader’s comments on my previous post read:

Yeah, its kind of joke, but to be fair they are not called superhighways in Danish but Super bicycle tracks, and even then most agree that they are not really that super. There is a video of the entire route here if you scroll down a bit:

http://politiken.dk/debat/skrivdebat/ECE1615543/er-koebenhavns-nye-cykelsti-virkeligsuper/

The two next ones which will open are another story though, as they mostly have their own right of way, and use viaducts or bridges to cross streets.

So, better things may be on their way, but…I ran the article through the Google translator, and it appears in the link below in (sort of) English. The page includes the sped-up video of the entire route.

http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=auto&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&layout=2&eotf=1&u=http%3A%2F%2Fpolitiken.dk%2Fdebat%2Fskrivdebat%2FECE1615543%2Fer-koebenhavns-nye-cykelsti-virkelig-super%2F&act=url

Here’s the video — warning, Shell diesel fuel ad at start, and you can only stop the video when you click on it, see the ad again and click on it to open a bigger ad! This workaround was needed to make the video visible on this page.

The one unifying factor of this route is an orange line painted lengthwise to identify it. The first part of the route is relatively tame. Barriers, unprotected intersections and other hazards pile up near the end.

Some representative quotes (I’ve translated from Googlish to English, thanks to an online dictionary and my knowledge of the neighbor language, German.):

From the article:

“I did not expect that I just had to detour on ordinary roads in residential neighborhoods. I did not see much of the green wave that is supposed to be in town. I do not think you can call it a super bike path,” the [politiken dk test rider] concluded.

From comments on the article:

- The section of tunnel under Motorring 3 is dark and miserably lighted. There are many riding schools (which, incidentally, should be forced to close and move out into a rural area!). The tunnel is usually filled with horse s***, and because you can not see in these tunnels due to poor lighting, you can only hope that you do not ride through any of it.

*****

- In the westbound direction, at the pitch-dark tunnels, you have to negotiate two sets of barriers. The point of these, other than to impede traffic, I do not know. But when you have to use all your mental energy to get through these, they constitute more of a hazard than a safety precaution.

*****

I have commuted between Roskilde and the northwest part of Copenhagen 2-3 times a week on a recumbent trike with an electric assist motor for 6 months (http://ing.dk/blogs/pedalbilen). When I used the “super path” the trip was about 3 km and 15 minutes longer. Especially the part of the route in Albertslund is very indirect and inconvenient. There are detours, barriers and ramps in most places, and it will for example not be possible to ride in a velomobile, as far as I can judge. The new route is comfortable and free of exhaust, but as commuter route it gets a failing grade compared with Roskildevej [a parallel, 4-lane divided but not limited-access highway with one-way sidepaths].

*****

- I didn’t see anything which shows that cyclists have priority over the other traffic. Unfortunately, the only thing new that I see is approximately 100 meters of new asphalt in two places near Rødovre, so that it is easy going. There are simply no real improvements for cyclists in relation to other road users! You can still find barriers, sharp turns, bumps and traffic lights. Why is there no new cycle path, e.g. along the western forest road, so you do not have to drive through neighborhoods with pedestrians and children playing? Why are barriers not turned 90 degrees, so users of the route have right of way?

Even if there were brand new asphalt on the entire route it would never merit the title “super”. Only when a route enables more or less continuous travel at high average speed (which motorists know from motorways) does it, in my opinion, deserve the massive marketing it is currently getting.

*****

…Bus passengers cross the bikeway. It seems quite unreasonable that there are no islands at bus stops where passengers have to wait when they get on and off. Thus cyclists must stop, and so, so much for the “super bike path”.

Some observations about bike-share bikes

I recently spent several hours riding in Montreal with a companion who was using the Bixi bike-share bicycles. These are similar if not identical to others being deployed in North American cities. I have some experience riding a Hubway bicycle in Boston, too.

These bicycles are designed to meet different requirements, compared with a rider-owned bicycle. A few observations:

  • The user is relieved of the burden of servicing the bicycles. That is advantageous– there are no worries about flat tires or other mechanical problems. If a bicycle becomes unrideable, you walk it to the nearest rental stand and trade it for another. A related advantage, especially for city dwellers, is that there is no need to store or secure one’s own bicycle.
  • The bicycles are rugged, and so they are heavy.
  • The three-speed hubs are not overgeared, like those on classic three-speed bicycles. The top gear is about right for level-ground cruising. These bicycles climb better than the classic three-speed in the lower gears, but still, the limited gear range and weight of the bicycle make it unsuitable for steep climbs except when using the “two-foot gear” (that is: get off and walk). My companion found one Bixi bicycle with a Shimano 7-speed hub, which he used for part of our ride, but never found another despite looking for one among several dozens waiting at rental stands.
  • The bicycles have fenders, integral lights powered by a generator in the front hub, and a (front) baggage rack, all features necessary for practical transportation use. Additional baggage capacity would be nice but would require a rear rack.
  • The very low step-through frames and skirt guards either side of the rear wheel allow a person to straddle one of these bicycles even if hardly able to left a foot off the ground, and to ride in an ankle-length skirt.
  • The skirt guards carry advertising logos — a reminder that the bike-share (actually, bike-rental) program doesn’t pay for itself.
  • Many features of the bicycles are designed specifically to prevent vandalism and theft. Wheels are not removable using conventional tools, tire valves are not accessible, the seatpost cannot be pulled all the way out etc. Some of the anti-theft features come at the expense of performance…
  • My companion found that the seatposts on most of these bicycles could not be extended far enough for full leg extension, though he is a full 5’7″ (170
    cm) tall.
  • All the bicycles have flat pedals. If you prefer clip-in pedals or toe clips and straps, you’ll have to ride your own bicycle.
  • The street-tread MTB tires are inflated rock-hard. Evidently, protecting the rims rates higher than rider comfort.
  • Hub brakes — Shimano Rollerbrakes front and rear — allow rims to be out of alignment without affecting braking, but these brakes are weak. The front brake appears to have a power limiter, or else it is mismatched to the brake lever. Braking appears to reach a limit which does not increase, no matter how hard the lever is pulled. (I hope to do a braking distance test soon).
  • The black, padded saddles get uncomfortably hot sitting in the sun on a summer day.
  • The system recommends helmet use but doesn’t supply helmets. Boston is, as I understand, working on an automated helmet dispenser.
  • In both Boston and Montreal, rental stands are consistently placed in the street with the rear of the bicycle facing out into the street. Some are on busy streets. You must walk in the street and back the bicycle out into the street to disengage it from its dock. In many cases, the rental stand is on a one-way street or a street with a median, so the user must walk in the street or ride opposite the legal direction of traffic to get to the through street or bikeway which it services. Usually, one-way streets lead away from the serviced street, and so the travel opposite traffic is almost always at the start of the trip.
  • A user has to to walk to and from rental stands, same as bus stops. The bicycles don’t come with locks except to lock them to the rental stands. If you stop in mid-trip to have lunch or so shopping, you must bring your own lock, and the rental clock keeps running.
  • The Montreal system offers a 24-hour pass, but extra charges accrue for any bicycle that is kept in use for more than 1/2 hour. At cycle-track speeds while obeying traffic signals, that was good for 4 miles (6 km) or less. My companion would note where a rental stand was at the right distance to switch bicycles just short of the half-hour limit. The system made him wait two minutes before he could release another bicycle at the same rental stand. Even one minute over the 1/2 hour adds a charge of $1.75 for the next half-hour. The payment plan, then, provides a strong economic disincentive against longer trips.
  • Walk time seriously increases trip time beyond what it would be with the user’s own bicycle. On average, depending on distance of the start and end of the trip from the rental stand, the time overhead for a ride on one’s own bicycle is less even if it involves donning/removing special bicycling shoes, bicycle gloves and a helmet. There also is some uncertainty whether a bicycle will be available to start a trip, and whether there will be an empty space for docking at the end of a trip. Nonetheless, the program is popular.

I note that the on-street separated bikeways in Montreal have a speed limit of 20 km/h (12 mph). That is more or less what these bicycles are designed for. People riding their own bicycles commonly go faster. The design of the bike-share bicycles goes very much in the opposite direction from the racing spec hype that dominates the recreational cycling market.

All in all: when you ride one of these bicycles, you have been recruited into the bike mode share increase army. It’s like eating army food, which will fill your stomach but which is missing some of the nicer qualities of fancy cuisine or good home cooking. Or like sleeping in an army cot, which doesn’t quite compare with a bed in a fancy hotel, or your own bed at home. But then, an army provides for its soldiers, with a couple of tradeoffs, to be sure — the cost borne by the public at large, and the risk factor for soldiers.

Bike-share programs are structured as a public utility, as a form of public transit. The bicycles are requisitioned outside the usual stream of commerce of the bicycle retail industry. Whether the general sentiment in that industry is “a riding tide lifts all bikes” or that the competition is unfair, I don’t know. I did address that issue in an article I wrote for the sheldonbrown.com Web site on April 1, 2012 — please take note of that date when evaluating my article.

The Photoshop School of Traffic Engineering strikes again!

The Photoshop School of Traffic Engineering strikes again, this time in Minneapolis.

For background, please read the Minneapolis blog post: http://www.ouruptown.com/2012/08/potential-cycle-track-coming-to-36th-street

Also please read John Schubert’s comment on that post.

I’ve added a comment too — still in moderation as I write this, and I repeat the comment here, slightly edited and with this introduction.

The location described in the blog post, 36th Street at Dupont Avenue, is shown in the Google map below. If the full image doesn’t appear, clicking to refresh the page will probably fix that. The image is zoomable and draggable, but by clicking on “View Larger Map”, you may enlarge it, look down from different overhead angles, and switch in and out of Google Street View.


View Larger Map

36th Street is part of a grid system. Smaller, lightly-traveled 35th Street is one of several that could instead be configured as a bicycle boulevard (also called neighborhood greenway) like those in Berkeley, Eugene, Portland and Seattle, so bicyclists use the street as a through route while only slow, local motor traffic uses it. That is popular with residents and avoids the problems with sight lines which John Schubert has described.

Now for some comments on the pictures in the Minneapolis blog post. They are examples of of what I call the “Photoshop School of Traffic Engineering”, Or the “Anything Goes” school. Well, anything goes in a Photoshopped picture but not necessarily in reality.

Here’s the first picture from the blog post:

Photoshopped illustration of proposed "cycle track" on 36th Street in Minneapolis

Photoshopped illustration of proposed “cycle track” on 36th Street in Minneapolis

The caption for this photo in the blog post reads “[a] possible cycle track is being considered for 36th Street in Minneapolis.” As we’ll see though, the rendering in the picture is hardly possible.

In the picture, there’s already a sidewalk on both sides but now also a special lane so pedestrians can walk in the street. To make room for this and the bikeway, the blue car in the right-hand travel lane is squished to about 3 feet wide and that lane is about 8 feet wide. The text describes the bikeway as 10 feet wide, but it measures as about 12 feet wide based on the size of the bicycle wheels. 36th Street has a cross street every 300 feet, also entrances to back alleys and driveways in almost every block, but the picture shows maybe one intersection (note crosswalk lines) in the distant background. That is unreal. There’s some need for people to get in and out of all those cross streets, alleys and driveways.

Now, the other picture:

Another Photoshopped illustration of the proposed bikeway

Another Photoshopped illustration of the proposed bikeway

The caption in the blog post reads “[a] rendering of how a cycle track on 36th Street could look east of Dupont Avenue in Minneapolis.” Again, no, it couldn’t.

The bikeway is shown at a more realistic width. I’m not sure though how three travel lanes, a parking lane, 3-foot buffer and 10-foot-wide bikeway fit into a street which now has only two travel lanes and two parking lanes. Also note the car about to turn right across a lane of traffic and then across the bikeway at the one intersection shown. The lane with the closest car in it is shown as a lane of traffic, not a parking lane, or there would be signs and markings to indicate that. Assuming though that it is a parking lane and the turning car isn’t cutting off the closer one, then the closer one is still hiding approaching bicyclists from the turning one, whose driver must look to the right rear to see them as they get closer — remember, they may be traveling at speeds up to 25 miles per hour. The bikeway is outside the field of view of the turning driver’s right-hand rear view mirror. Some vehicles have no windows behind the front seat, and so the bikeway would be in a complete blind spot. I just got back from Montreal where I rode bikeways like this and it’s hair-raising with heavy two-way bicycle traffic in such a narrow space. I also had repeated conflicts with motorists turning across my path, using intimidation to try to make a gap for themselves in the stream of bicyclists. It’s safer to ride on 36th street just as it is now, and a bicycle boulevard would be better choice yet, especially for slower and more timid bicyclists. As John Schubert says in his comment on the blog post, there are better ways to make bicycling inviting.

The proposed design isn’t about improving traffic conditions, for bicyclists or anyone else. It’s about a social agenda: creating the appearance of safety for naive bicyclists to increase bicycle mode share, and making motoring more difficult. Actually, motorists would instead use the smaller parallel streets. Elimination of parking on one side of the street to create the bikeway is unlikely to be popular with residents. Snow clearance also is difficult with barrier posts and parked cars in the middle of the street.

The Montreal bikeways are the subject of a widely-publicized research study claiming a safety advantage, but the study has been demolished, see http://john-s-allen.com/reports/montreal-kary.htm

About Grant Petersen’s book, Just Ride

Just Ride, by Grant Petersen

This post is a review of Grant Petersen’s book Just Ride, partly in response to a New York Times review.

The basic premise of Petersen’s book is that racing culture is bad for bicycling.

My main goal with this book is to point out what I see as bike racing’s bad influence on bicycles, equipment and attitudes, and then undo it.

I agree in large part, but by no means completely.

I rode a bicycle in street clothes for transportation years before I took up bicycle touring and joined a recreational bicycle club. It was several more years before I first wore the much-derided spandex outfit for my tours and club rides.

So, I live in both worlds. I do think that some elements of racing technique and equipment are useful to everyday cyclists — especially concerning nutrition, how to propel the bicycle efficiently, and how to maintain it. On the other hand, faddish imitation of racers leads to some very poor choices. A fiendishly expensive, fragile racing bicycle buys the typical club rider a couple percent greater speed on a ride with no prize at the finish line. Hello, hello, you’re being taken for a ride! The bicycle industry has discovered how to churn the market with yearly model changes and planned obsolescence! It’s like choosing a Ferrari when a Toyota Corolla would be much more practical — except that a more powerful engine isn’t part of the package.

When rain starts during a bike club ride, why must I be only among the 5% of participants who have a bicycle with fenders — or that even will accept fenders?

I have a few points of disagreement with Petersen, and the Times reviewer. About only wearing a helmet at night: it’s your choice to make, I hope. I’m not in favor of mandatory helmet laws. Examples should be sufficient to make the case for helmet use. (A longer discussion is here.) But — I’ve had to replace three helmets so far in my bicycling career. All of the crashes were during daylight hours. Bicycle gloves, too, are very nice if you are going to have to put a hand out to break a fall. And a rear-view mirror? I don’t think it should be required by law, but I find mine highly useful when interacting with motorists, and with other cyclists on group rides. Actually, the Times reviewer gets this wrong — Petersen recommends mirrors. But the ones I like best attach to a helmet! (My take on mirrors). I use walkable cleated shoes, too. Disparaging simple and effective equipment doesn’t play in my book.

Petersen states that a bicyclist needs only 8 gears — somewhat in jest, giving vague (and charming and humorous) descriptions of the gears: “high”, “low”, “lower”, “super low”. Here, as elsewhere in his book, Petersen gives simple and direct advice, poking a finger at silly fads, while avoiding details that would bog down his presentation. That’s good as far as it goes, but gearing requirements depend on the cyclist, ride purpose and location. I know that Petersen knows this, based on the way he equips the (practical, sensible, expensive but worth the price) bicycles he manufactures. Most have more than 8 gears.

Petersen gives no coherent or comprehensive advice on how to ride in mixed traffic, though he describes something which is a little bit like “control and release” lane usage. Going into detail would, again, bog him down, though in this case, I get the impression that he may not be an expert on the topic.

All in all though, I really like this book. It’s refreshing. Its common-sense perspective is all too rare. And it’s a lot of fun to read, too.

A ride on Comm Ave., Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Comm Ave. Boston: Kenmore Square, Mass Ave. underpass from John Allen on Vimeo.

This is a 4-minute continuous video of a bicycle ride in Boston, eastbound on Commonwealth Avenue through Kenmore Square, to and through the underpass at Massachusetts Avenue. I recommend that you view it on Vimeo site, in full-screen high definition.

Gordon Renkes and I each had a camera, so you can see both a forward and rearward view. We rode safely, and mostly by not using the special bicycle facilities.

Some highlights:

  • The block pavers, bricks and the granite curbstones used as borders for crosswalks made for a very bumpy ride across Kenmore Square and the next intersection.
  • The bike lane for the first block after Kenmore Square was unusable, due to double-parked vehicles. In the next block, it was unsafe, due to the risk of opening car doors and walkouts. One trucker was accomodating enough to park entirely outside the bike lane, inviting bicyclists to run the gauntlet between the truck and parked cars Gridlock Sam-style. We didn’t take the invitation.
  • As we waited for a traffic light, a cyclist raced past us on the right, entering the narrow channel between a row of stopped motor vehicles and one of parked cars. If anyone had walked out, or a car door had opened, the cyclist would likely have had too little time to react, and he would have had no escape route. At least he (and the pedestrian he could have struck) would have been fortunate in that one of the waiting vehicles was an ambulance.
  • There is a bike box along the route, and revealed an issue that I hadn’t noticed before. If the traffic light is red, you’re supposed to filter forward in the bike lane on the right, then swerve across two lanes of traffic to the middle of the 4-lane wide bike box, to be in line with the bike lane which is to the left of 2 lanes — see Google satellite view — note that this is an angle shot from the west. If the light is green, you could merge either before or after the intersection, but there is an advantage in merging before the intersection, as the counterexample of the video shows. You also don’t know when the light is going to change — so in either case, you make a widely divergent choice — merge left, or head for the bike lane at the right — based on insufficient information, and if the light is red, you also could be swerving abruptly across two lanes of traffic just as the light turns green.
  • The buffered bike lane in the underpass makes for an easier ride through the underpass, but where it connects to a narrow left-side bike lane outside the underpass, there is little clearance for motor traffic in the next lane, which is the faster of two travel lanes. There also is a risk of left-hook collisions. I used to ride in the right lane, claiming the lane, and that was simpler and less stressful.

More general comments:

  • The block pavers, bricks and curbstones buried in the street are not bicycle-specific, but certainly not bicycle-friendly. I predict that they will be paved over within a few years as they deteriorate.
  • The attempt to engineer a “bicycle friendly” or “low-stress” solution on busy, crowded Commonwealth Avenue is like ornamenting a pig with lipstick, costume jewelry and a party dress. The bicycle-specific measures, except the bike lane in the underpass, fly in the face of the way traffic works, and the way it uses this street. Experienced, competent cyclists like Gordon and me know how to avoid the hazards, but they worsen our experience anyway — it is in Kenmore Square (during another ride) that I first heard the call “get in the bike lane” in Boston. Less knowledgeable bicyclists garner a false sense of security, following the painted lines, and expose themselves unnecessarily to risk.
  • Meanwhile, other, better solutions beckon. I have long advocated that Boston designate and improve alternative routes on lightly-traveled streets for through bicycle travel. That would be especially easy in Back Bay, with its grid layout. My candidate for an alternative to Commonwealth Avenue would be Newbury Street, the next one to the south, a shopping street which could make a very nice bicycle boulevard, and which, with a little bridge across the Muddy River, would also connect under the Bowker Overpass into the Fenway area. A worse solution also has been proposed: the City is considering a so-called “cycle track” — a bikeway behind a row of parked cars — on the next Street after Newbury Street, Boylston Street. More about these topics later…