Tag Archives: Germany

What color is your bike lane?

Should the pavement in a crosswalk, or special on-street bicycle facility, be painted a special color? Under what conditions? What color?

European countries use color. Let’s look at a few examples and see what they might teach us.

First let me say that my showing treatments here does not mean I endorse them. In the first couple of examples below, running a bike lane around the outside of a roundabout defeats the purpose of the roundabout in maintaining smooth traffic flow. Having cyclists and motorists merge into a single, slow flow of traffic has been shown safer for the cyclists too.

That said, this pink bike lane is in Thisted, Denmark — photo taken in 2006.

Roundabout with pink bike lane, Thisted, Denmark. Photo by Dan Carrigan

Roundabout with pink bike lane, Thisted, Denmark. Photo by Gordon Renkes.

This sea-blue bike lane in another roundabout is in Lyngby, Denmark.

Roundabout, Lyngby, Denmark, with blue-painted bike lane. Photo by Ryan Snyder from 2011 Association of Bicycle and Pedestrian Professionals calendar

Roundabout, Lyngby, Denmark, with blue-painted bike lane. Photo by Ryan Snyder from 2011 Association of Bicycle and Pedestrian Professionals calendar.

These bright blue-green lanes are in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Blue-green bike lanes in Copenhagen. Photo by Jon Kaplan

Blue-green bike lanes in Copenhagen. Photo by Jon Kaplan

This red bike lane is in Winterthur, Switzerland.

Bike lane in conflict zone, Winterthur, Switzerland. Photo by James Mackay

Bike lane in conflict zone, Winterthur, Switzerland. Photo by James Mackay

As these photos show, there is no consistent color for carpet painting of bike lanes in Europe. German-speaking countries do appear to have settled on red, but Denmark has used at least three different colors in recent years.

There are issues with the effectiveness of color too.  A couple of years ago, the US Federal Government sponsored a scan tour so traffic engineers and planners from around the country could examine bicycle and pedestrian facilities in Europe. According to one participant in the scan tour, Denmark uses paint only on one or two bicycle routes through an intersection, having found that using it on more routes negates any benefit. Clearly, it is important to address such issues.

What message does the color convey? A common use is to indicate conflict zones — where motorists must expect bicyclists and yield to them. At other times, color is used where no such conflict exists. Here is an example from Bristol, in England where the message is  probably “no cars here”:

Barrier-separated bikeway with colored pavement, Bristol, England. Photo by James Mackay

Barrier-separated bikeway with colored pavement, Bristol, England. Photo by James Mackay

Also according to the scan-tour participant, Switzerland uses red only where there is a history of crashes — leading to inconsistency in the message because crashes happen for different reasons. In the following example, colored pavement indicates a place of refuge from motor traffic — quite the opposite of the conflict zone in the previous Swiss example.

Who is the message of colored pavement supposed to be for? Bicyclists? Motorists? Both? Here it is apparently only for bicyclists.

Swiss use of colored pavement in non-conflict zone. Photo by Nicklaus Schranz.

Now let’s look at some US examples. The first common bike-lane color in the USA was blue, as used in Portland, Oregon. This bike lane in Cambridge, Massachusetts followed Portland’s example:

Cambridge, Massachusetts blue lane

Cambridge, Massachusetts blue lane

Blue led to objections, because it already had a designated use in the US vocabulary of colors: handicapped parking spaces.

Green was proposed instead, and it is on the way to become a standard. Unlike blue, it shows up under the monochromatic yellow-orange of sodium-vapor streetlamps as well as the blue-green of mercury-vapor lamps. Green markings are the subject of several experiments testing their use under various conditions.

Green bike lane in Seattle, Washington

Green bike lane in Seattle, Washington

Yes, experiments. To be included in the national reference, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, and to be approved for general use, a new treatment has to be tested to see whether it affects behavior in an intended and desirable way. This is reasonable in the light of safety issues and expense. Where does it make sense to use paint; what consistent and understandable message might the paint send? What about durability of the paint; should it be reflectorized…there’s a tradeoff: reflectorized paint is slipperier. And so on.

Any state, city or town may install a nonstandard treatment and is exempted from legal liability if it works with the Federal Government and the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, collects data and prepares a report on how the treatment worked.

Some communities don’t bother. Madison, Wisconsin has installed this crimson bike box. Crimson, even more than the European red, looks nearly black under both types of streetlights.

Red-painted bike box in Madison, Wisconsin. Madison Star-Intelligencer photo.

Crimson bike box in Madison, Wisconsin. Craig Schreiner/Wisconsin State Journal photo.

Madison, Wisconsin, of all places — a city with a long-standing and most knowledgeable bicycle program staff — one of the best in the nation. A city which has in the past known how to be innovative in ways that really work — see this example — and how to avoid costly and deadly mistakes.

Why the crimson bike box, then?

For many American bicycling advocates, trips to Europe take on the aura of a religious pilgrimage. Anything in Europe has to be better than what we do here, even if it isn’t.

As an aside: this reminds me of the American inferiority complex about European painting and music around the year 1900. American composers and artists who imitated European styles are largely forgotten today. We remember the American originals, who, certainly, adopted much from European styles, but who found their own voice. Scott Joplin. Charles Ives. George Gershwin. Duke Ellington. Aaron Copland. Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keeffe… but I digress.

It’s more than a question of an inferiority complex. It’s also about corporate lobbying. Bikes Belong, the bicycle industry’s political lobby, organizes its own scan tours. The goal of this lobby is to increase sales of bicycles — and why bother with troublesome, boring, nerdy details. Instead of sending professional program staff, Bikes Belong sends politicians. This is from the Bikes Belong Web site:

Zach [Vanderkooy] leads our project to make U.S. bicycling safer and more appealing by helping cities adapt the world’s best bike facility designs, policies, and programs inspired by leading bicycling cities in Europe.

And this is from a story on the Madison.com news blog:

The bike boxes are the first project from a European fact-finding tour of bicycle-friendly cities in Germany and the Netherlands that Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and 19 other civic and business [leaders] made last month.

If you work for the bicycle program staff of a city, the Mayor is your boss, and you do what the Mayor tells you to do, or you can very well lose your job.

I wrote that before I learned of the following:

Arthur Ross, Madison’s long-time, nationally-recognized bicycle and pedestrian program manager, is being demoted — see this story.  Whether it has to do directly with the crimson bike box or not, I don’t know yet.

I’ve said it before: in planning for bicycling, we need to do better than the Europeans. Certainly so on the issue of painted pavement, because, clearly, Europe doesn’t use it in any consistent or logical way. We need to do better with other, similar issues too, and because we face bigger and different challenges — and because it would be very unfortunate to lose the opportunity to do better.

In its turn, Europe may learn from us too.

About bicycle lighting and onions

A chance meeting can lead to unexpected discoveries.

I met and spoke with Kurt Cibulski following a reading from a new book by its author, a mutual friend. I had arrived at the reading by bicycle; Kurt and I were talking bicycling. Kurt explained that he has a seizure disorder. The bright, rapidly-flashing LED headlights that bicyclists are increasingly using can initiate a seizure for him. “Who’d ‘a’ thunk it.” thought I.

Who? A proper, national standards-setting body, because someone, somewhere, would have brought the issue to its attention. On second thought, it’s obvious. Flashing lights are well-known to trigger seizures.

It’s also a truism that flashing lights draw attention. Many bicyclists ride in urban areas with overhead lighting, and don’t need a steady headlight beam to guide their way. But on the other hand…there’s the seizure problem.

Without careful standards setting, issues like this slip through the cracks. Designs get based on whim, commercial appeal, economies of production and avoidance of liability risk.

In the USA, individual cyclists are held responsible under state laws for using lights at night, but law enforcement is near-nonexistent, and many cyclists don’t use lights. The USA does have a Consumer Product Safety Commission, which, under pressure from the bicycle industry, has set standards — weak standards — only for retroreflectors on bicycles, never for lights. Retroreflectors only work for drivers whose headlights are pointed at them, and do not light up for the pedestrian stepping off the curb, the motorist in the cross street ahead, two bicyclists on a path approaching each other head-on. Bicycle manufacturers can point to Federal regulations and say that they are doing something for nighttime safety, while not being held responsible for these deficiencies.

This situation holds some ironies and unintended consequences beyond the obvious one that cyclists are being injured and killed for want of lights. The lack of standardization in the USA has given lighting manufacturers free rein to innovate, and has led to the availability of some very fine bicycle lighting systems. In the USA, when you see a cyclist with a light, you will probably see that cyclist from a good, long distance, because the light is a very good light.

In Germany, by way of contrast, lights are required on new bicycles. Manufacturer pressure comes to bear in a different way. To keep expense down, most lights only meet the letter of the law and are are less bright, and much less reliable, than the good ones sold in the USA. Bureaucratic inertia has compounded the problem: Germany requires bicycle lights to be powered by a generator. That made sense 40 years ago when battery lights were weak and battery replacement was expensive. Today’s efficient light-emitting diodes and high-capacity rechargeable batteries make battery lights economical and practical.

Generator lights also have improved, thanks to advances in technology and to discerning European cyclists’ demand for better lights that also meet the requirements of their laws — but a good generator lighting system can cost half as much as the bicycle on which it is installed.

A restrictive legal climate leads to this kind of market distortion; contrast this with the wider scope of innovation and slip-through-the-cracks issues in the US market.

I can’t help noticing that kiosk “bike share” (actually rental) bicycles that are becoming popular in American cities all are equipped with LED headlights and taillights, powered by a generator in the front hub. It only makes sense. The rental agencies have a more direct liability exposure than bicycle manufacturers who sell to individuals. But — the lights on the rental bicycles flash, because the generators produce alternating current and the output is not smoothed. Possibly also because flashing lights are popular and nobody though of the seizure-disorder issue.

Where are we heading with all this? I think that we’re approaching a political tipping point where regulations requiring lights on at least some kinds of new bicycles might be possible in the USA: both because of an increase in interest in utility cycling, and because improving technology had made bicycle lights much less expensive, more reliable and more compact. I mean, if little children can have flashing LEDs in the soles of their shoes, just to look cool, it isn’t much of a leap to think that every new utility bicycle could be equipped with lights.

But we also need to be smart, and look forward as technology improves, so regulations don’t box us in with outdated technology and inferior products, as in Germany.

Now, about those onions:

To give Kurt proper credit in this article, I asked his name and came up with another unexpected discovery. He spelled his name, and then volunteered, “Cibulski means ‘onion man’ in Polish. It’s a pan-European word.” Yes! Again, who’d ‘a’ thunk it? German, Zwiebel. Spanish, cibolla. I looked it up, and found variants in languages as diverse as Basque, Czech, Gaelic, Norwegian, Romanian…

I suppose that there’s another parallel, besides the two unexpected discoveries. Bicycle lighting issues, with all the political and technological complications, peel apart in layers like an onion, too.

Thanks, Kurt!

German cycling organization’s comments on cycle tracks

Here are the comments in English.

The translation is posted with permission granted by Heinz Brockmann of the ADFC (German Cycling Federation) Bottrop chapter. Many thanks!

And here is the same document in the original German.

Please note that the ADFC is not a spandex and speed bike club; its membership of approximately 100,000 consists almost entirely of utility cyclists. The ADFC advocates for their concerns and interests.

German town’s traffic plan: retrenchment, not radicalism

Parts of European cities have a modern streetscape, — Paris, due to Baron Haussmann‘s urban-renewal projects in the mid-19th century; many other cities, due to bombing in World War II and subsequent reconstruction.

But ancient, narrow streets without sidewalks are very common in European cities and towns. As an example, in 1989 during a bicycle tour in France, my wife and I walked east from the central plaza of the provincial town of Loches along a main street to attend a historical lecture. We had to zigzag from one side of the street to the other to find narrow sidewalks on the way to the lecture at a public school in town.

In this light, let’s examine the removal of signs, signals and markings from part of the Bremer Straße, the main street of the German town of Bohmte, which has received heavy news coverage recently. North American news media generally express wonderment that such a radical and unusual plan could reduce the crash rate, as claimed. Consider the article by Craig Whitlock published in the Washington Post on Wednesday, December 26, 2007.

The headline reads:

“Europeans try to solve traffic woes by throwing out most road rules”

A quote from the article reads:

“Generally speaking, what we want is for people to be confused,” said Willi Ladner, a deputy mayor in Bohmte. “When they’re confused, they’ll be more alert and drive more carefully.”

The article also mentions an underlying, rather familiar reason for the town’s traffic problems: merchants didn’t want a bypass, because it would divert traffic away from their places of business.

But the headline, and the following quote, are off-base:

“Only two traffic rules remain. Drivers cannot go more than 30 mph, the German speed limit for city driving. And everyone has to yield to the right, regardless of whether it’s a car, a bike or a baby carriage.”

The reported speed limit is incorrect — it’s actually 30 km/h, about 19 mph, a common speed limit for low-traffic residential streets in Europe. And the posted speed limit is not the only speed limit, in Bohmte or anywhere. There’s also the fundamental speed limit rule — to drive no faster than is reasonable under the existing conditions.

The article’s statement about yielding to the right could mean either of two things, both of which apply: drive on the right, and yield to a vehicle entering from the right — the universal rule for uncontrolled intersections.

So, removing signs and signals emphatically does not remove road rules. It only imposes different rules.

Confusion may increase for readers of the article! But on the Bremer Straße, uncertainty, rather than confusion, has been increased by the removal of signs, signals and markings.

(I thank Don Cook of the City of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan for making this distinction!).

To get some perspective on the situation, you may view a Google map of Bohmte, though the section of the Bremer Straße with its special red-colored pavement doesn’t show up yet in the images posted in February, 2008. Some crosswalks are shown with red pavement — a usual color in Germany to identify zones where drivers pay special attention (another rule!).

Uncontrolled intersections are very common in European cities and towns, stop signs less common than in North America. European drivers understand that the vehicle on the right has priority when two vehicles arrive at an uncontrolled intersection at the same time — also, that an intersection with restricted sight lines requires slow, careful driving. And it is always necessary to look out for pedestrians and bicyclists.

So, the main street of Bohmte has merely been reduced to the status of many other streets. Without the signs, signals, markings and sidewalks, slow and careful driving is necessary, as on many other European urban streets.

This approach also increases safety as long as everyone travels slowly enough to avoid collisions. But if used to excess or inappropriately, this approach defeats the major advantage of bicycling or motorized travel. If a street is too narrow for motor vehicles to overtake bicycles, motor vehicles must go as slowly as bicycles. And if pedestrian space is not defined and available, bicycle traffic as well as motor traffic must slow to walking speed.

Then, fuel economy decreases, while travel time and pollution increase. On a street used mostly for local trips, a mode shift to bicycling and walking may follow as motoring becomes less convenient. On an unavoidable through route, there will be a a “bottleneck” — a reduction in speed but not in volume of the through traffic. — Bohmte being one example; another, in North America, is Burlington, Ontario before the high bridge was constructed –see Google map of Burlington.

European drivers generally understand uncontrolled intersections. Americans, not so much. The first intersection down the street from my house on a dead end in Waltham, Massachusetts, USA is an uncontrolled intersection. Most neighbors understand that they need to be prepared to yield, but some assume that if they don’t see signs or signals, drivers in the cross street will yield to them. There was a nasty collision a few years back when two vehicles entered this intersection at right angles, both traveling around 30 mph.

A common response to such an incident in the USA is to post stop signs or signalize the intersection, further increasing drivers’ expectation that they can rely on signs and signals. Old-school traffic engineers resist this trend, but politics often overrides their advice.

The real confusion in the Bohmte situation is in the minds of advocates of urban reform. The removal of signs, signals, markings and sidewalks is diametrically opposite the common approach which installs all of these — and bike lanes too — but advocates of urban reform get excited about both.

Why? Both approaches are seen as ways to reduce the dominance of motor vehicles in the urban landscape. While streets shared with congestion-free, slow motor traffic work well for bicyclists, shared streets all too often reflect a vision primarily from the point of view of pedestrian advocacy, which neglects the different needs of bicyclists. I have seen too many advocates for traffic calming assume that plazas and sidewalk-less streets crowded with pedestrians make good bicycle routes. They most certainly don’t, and so bicyclists deserve to take a good hard look at the unintended consequences when such measures are proposed!

Muenster road space poster — check the numbers!

Here’s a poster produced by the city of Muenster, Germany, which is rated as one of Germany’s most bicycle-friendly cities. Click on the image to see a larger version.

The Muenster traffic poster

The Muenster traffic poster

The poster appears in many postings on the Internet and in planning documents, for example this one.

In case the poster’s message isn’t clear enough, the sky is cloudy in the picture with the cars. The sun is peeking out in the picture with the bus and shines brightly in the one with the bicycles.

A document published by US Federal Highway Administration expands on the caption. I have copied the US document onto my Web site with a link directly to the quote, which reads as follows:

  • Bicycle: 72 people are transported on 72 bikes, which requires 90 square meters.
  • Car: Based on an average occupancy of 1.2 people per car, 60 cars are needed to transport 72 people, which takes 1,000 square meters.
  • Bus: 72 people can be transported on 1 bus, which only requires 30 square meters of space and no permanent parking space, since it can be parked elsewhere.

I have no question myself that overuse of private motor vehicles is a problem in cities. But good design requires a good understanding of the problem. Let’s check those numbers.

  • 72 bicycles in 90 square meters — that’s 1 1/4 square meter per bicycle. If we allow 2 meters (6 1/2 feet) of length for each bicycle — giving about 25 cm (10 inches) of following distance between each one and the next — then they have only 1/2 meter of width in which to ride — about 19 inches, less than the width of many bicycle handlebars.
  • 60 cars in 1000 square meters is one car in 16.7 square meters. Let’s assume that cars have 3 meter (10 foot)  lanes in which to drive. Then each car is allowed 5.6 meters of length. As a typical car is 4 meters long, the following distance here is about 1.5 meters, or 5 feet — safe only if the cars are stopped or creeping forward very slowly.
  • The space described for the bus is only the size of the bus itself, typically 2.5 meters from side mirror to side mirror, and 12 meters from front to rear bumper.

Someone in Germany generated these numbers, and the US authors swallowed them. The US document  has been quoted again and again. To be sure, the document includes a disclaimer — part of which is especially to the point:

The metric units reported are those used in common practice by the persons interviewed. They have not been converted to pure SI units since, in some cases, the level of precision implied would have been changed.

Level of precision, indeed. Metric and Standard International units differ only very slightly!

How much space do vehicles need? There are several important concerns, different for different vehicles.

  • Speed: this determines the number of different destinations accessible within a given travel time. The bicycle wins if streets are congested. The private car wins if they are not. The number of destinations reachable within a given time increases approximately as the square of speed, and so higher-speed travel modes are even more essential than it might seem when destinations are sparse — where population density is low, and for specialized services such as home repair and pickup/delivery of packages. That’s why urban couriers ride bicycles and suburban couriers use cars or vans.
  • Throughput — the number of people transported past a given point within a given time — depends on speed as well as efficiency of road use. It increases with speed up to a point, and then decreases as following distance becomes greater. If passenger cars travel twice as fast as bicycles, then only half as many passenger cars in the same length of street achieve the same throughput, even assuming only one person per car. A single bus may carry as many passengers as the cars in the picture, but it achieves less throughput with its repeated stops; also, buses run only once every few minutes at best. The throughput of a bus is impressive; the throughput of a bus line is meager.
  • Bicyclists generally take up three or four times as much space as the parked bicycles shown. If, as is common, bicyclists are riding to the right of other traffic in a single line, the ones shown would extend for more than the length of the block. There would be about half as many passenger cars as shown, for the same throughput as with the bicycles, as long as traffic isn’t congested; or the one bus.
  • Performance — throughput times speed — measures how many people a transportation mode can serve, times the number of destinations any one person can reach.
  • Street space may be used for special purposes. Buses need special reserved space for bus stops and sometimes for bus lanes. Cars take up street space when parked or stopped to load/unload, bicycles don’t but sometimes are given special bike lanes. The comparison doesn’t address these issues at all.
  • Waiting time and walking time affect speed and performance. Bicycles generally can be parked near trip endpoints; a private motor vehicle often requires a longer walk to/from a parking place, and a motorist may also spend time looking for a parking sapce. Bus passengers must walk to/from the bus stop; also wait there and possibly also at a transfer location.
  • The ability to travel with baggage or passengers is different for each mode. The private motor vehicle is most convenient (unless the driver has to make a two-way trip just to take a passenger or parcel somewhere); the bus is convenient for travel with other people but only with as much baggage as a passenger can carry; the bicycle is least convenient/flexible with passengers and baggage.
  • The cost of the space used by each mode is different and is borne in different ways.
  • The ability of people to use different modes is different. Young children must be accompanied by an adult no matter how they travel. Older children, elderly people or people with disabilities might not be able to ride a bicycle or drive a private motor vehicle, but could take the bus. Only adults can get driver’s licenses.

To summarize: The poster, and the caption “amount of space needed to transport the same number of people by bus, bicycle or car” are misleading, because the vehicles are parked, not moving. All in all, the Muenster poster and the US government publication that quotes it make an apples vs grapefruit vs. cranberries comparison – of dried fruit. Each mode — bus, bicycle or private motor vehicle, is preferable for some trips, but the comparison doesn’t get at why a person will choose one or another mode, and it seriously misrepresents the space requirements it purports to illustrate.

Better luck next time…