Tag Archives: pedestrian

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

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…

On the Dangerous by Design report

I’m commenting briefly on a report about walking conditions in the USA at

http://t4america.org/docs/dbd2011/Dangerous-by-Design-2011.pdf

which has been cited in a New York Times article today.

I regard this report as generally good in its description of walking conditions. It is not intended to be about bicycling,

However, several of the partner organizations listed at its start — among them, America Bikes, the National Complete Streets Coalition, the Rails to Trails Conservancy — concern themselves with bicycling, and bicycling appears here and there in the report as an aside. I’ll make the following points:

  • The report repeatedly refers to “streets designed for traffic, not for pedestrians”. This is a wording problem and a conceptual problem too. Pedestrians are traffic. It would be appropriate to say “streets designed for motor traffic, not for pedestrians”.
  • Page 13 includes the wording “Metros such as Boston, New York and Minneapolis-St. Paul are investing to build a well-developed network of sidewalks and crosswalks and already have many people walking and bicycling.” Pages 7, 29 and 36 all include the wording that “we need to create complete networks of sidewalks, bicycle paths and trails so that residents can travel safely throughout an area.” A complete network for bicycling will be mostly on streets, and partly on trails, but should generally avoid sidewalks.
  • Page 30 gives a before-and-after comparison, describing a street as having “no safe space for bikes” though the street had wide lanes where motorists and bicyclists easily could coexist. Then, narrowing the lanes and adding bike lane stripes is supposed to have created safe space, when it actually removed space and encouraged unsafe maneuvers (motorist turning right from the left of bicyclists, bicyclists overtaking on the right). The street needed repaving, and better sidewalks and crosswalks, to be sure.
  • Bicycling issues are very different from walking issues. An area that is poor for walking due to the lack of sidewalks and crosswalks can be good for bicycling. Confusing the two modes and the ways to accommodate them leads to poor planning and design decisions.
  • I am pleased to see the Boston area, where I live, described as having the very best record of pedestrian safety of any city rated in the report. Strange, isn’t it — the Boston area has repeatedly been derogated as supposedly having the nation’s craziest drivers. Also, Boston has been on Bicycling Magazine’s “10 worst cities” list until recently, when its city government finally got interested in bicycling. Boston is by no means a bad place to ride a bicycle compared with many other American cities, and the city’s efforts may be described as having mixed success, but that’s another story.

Equal rights = equity?

Equity, or sometimes equality, is the 6th “E” most recently added to the original three in traffic safety programs which were used as far back as the 1930s: engineering, education and enforcement, and two other E’s which were applied to bicycle and pedestrian programs, in the 1990s or thereabouts: encouragement and then later, evaluation.

Equity and equal rights are not the same, and neither is equality.

This distinction has surfaced repeatedly in struggles over civil rights of minority groups, with some people (generally more conservative) demanding only equal rights, and others (generally more left-leaning) demanding what they see as equity, including set-asides and restitution awards.

This distinction is similar to the one between bicyclists’ demands for the right to use the roads on the one hand, and demands for special bicycle facilities, on the other.

It can be argued that equity requires more than only equal treatment when the group in question is inherently different (for example, disabled people) or has been placed at a disadvantage, but it also can be argued that providing more than equal treatment is to acknowledge inherent inequality where it doesn’t exist or is irrelevant, invites backlash and is likely to lead to abuses.

There has to be a reasonable solution somewhere along this continuum, but opinions differ.

Confusion at crosswalks on multi-use paths

The crosswalk on a multi-use path has a mixed identity, unless the crossing is signalized. Motorists must yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk, but on the other hand, a stop sign facing the path normally means that cyclists yield to traffic on the road. It is certainly crucial for cyclists to slow, sometimes even stop, to check for cross traffic, and for motorists to yield to cyclists already in the crosswalk, but, again, the stop sign would normally indicate that the cyclists must yield. Confusion arises when a cyclist stops and intends to yield, then a motorist also stops — “you go first.” “No, you go first.” This causes unnecessary delay for both when the cyclist intended to cross behind the motorist, but now must wait until the motorist stops. Danger arises in addition when a motorist in a more distant lane does not stop. That motorist’s vehicle may be concealed from the cyclist by the one stopped in the closer lane — leading to the classic and ineptly-named “multiple-threat” collision. (Two crossing vehicles are involved, but the one in the nearer lane is stopped and does not pose a threat.) There would potentially be legal confusion as well in case of a collision, as both the motorist and the cyclist might claim that the other should have yielded!

Six categories of bicyclist/motorist interaction

Let me propose six different categories of cyclist and motorist interaction. This is a first try, so it’s open to modification.

1) Vehicular — to quote John Forester, who developed the concept of vehicular cycling, “bicyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.” In vehicular interactions, bicyclists and motorists alike use lane positions as described in the traffic law for vehicles, and reach those positions by merging. Purely vehicular operation  is, however,  to an extent a red herring category, because nobody, Forester included, has ever claimed that bicyclists can merge across heavy, high speed motor traffic.

2) Mostly vehicular, but with greater recognition that high-speed motoring is more compatible with bicycling if there is width for motorists to overtake without having to merge, and that bicyclists (including operators of motorized bicycles and mopeds) can’t manage to merge on roadways with high speeds and heavy traffic, making special treatments appropriate in some cases.

3) Motorists may merge across designated bike lanes. Bicyclists travel these lanes, stop for traffic lights and stop signs, but are  are (in theory) not required to merge into or across motor traffic.  In theory, because double-parked vehicles, people getting out of parked cars, slower bicyclists etc. often require bicyclists to merge out of a bike lane anyway.

4)  Neither bicyclists nor motorists merge. They only cross each other’s paths by making crossing and turning movements at designated locations. Essentially, bicyclists are treated as pedestrians. Motorists must yield to bicyclists as they do to pedestrians, and bicyclists must slow and stop as needed so motorists have time to yield. This is the typical treatment where a designated multi-use path crosses a road.

5)  Motorists must drive at pedestrian speed or come to a complete stop to avoid collisions with bicyclists they can not see, but there are special signs or markings to make motorists “aware of bicyclists”. — meaning, “aware that there might be a bicyclist.” Examples: bike lanes to the right of right turn lanes, bike boxes, blind entrances from driveways where conflict zones are indicated by colored paint, signs etc.

6) ) Motorists are required to drive at pedestrian speed or come to a complete stop to avoid collisions with bicyclists they can not see, but there are no special signs or markings to make motorists “aware of bicyclists”. Example: “shared space” plazas where direction of travel is not defined by curbs or lane lines, and traffic may travel in any direction.

These categories are in order of decreasing demands placed on bicyclists until we get to the last two, where the demands placed on motorists become excessive and so bicyclists must anticipate more motorist mistakes.

These categories also are in order of decreased efficiency of use of roadway space and of increased travel time.

As to safety, that depends on behavior, but  there is a tradeoff of safety against efficiency with all of these.

Report from Seville

A Spanish advocate of integrated cycling about conditions in Seville:

Disastrous: officially (according to the Seville City Council), some 120 km of segregated cycle lanes (most of them bidirectional) have been built at an official cost of 30 million Euros. (I say “officially” and “official” because I wouldn’t trust the Seville City Council to tell me the time of the day); there is also a bit of gossiping around (plausible enough, although there is no way to verify it) saying that a sizable part of that sum has been put not into the actual building of the structures, but into the political and social marketing campaign to sell the “Seville model of bicycle promotion”; one of the most visible elements of this marketing campaign has been this year’s Velo-City conference, held recently in Seville (http://www.velo-city2011.com/), conveniently, just a few weeks before the upcoming local elections.

The mantra of the Seville City Council’s campaign is something to the effect that “the cycling mode share in Seville has risen from 0.2% to 7% as a result of our commitment to segregated structures”. The numbers used change from time to time (essentially, they say different things to different publics at different moments: a couple years ago it got as high as 8%; now the most-repeated mark is 6.6%), with another often repeated line being that “Cycling in Seville has increased ten-fold in five years (as a result of our commitment blah blah blah…)”.

If you read Spanish, you can read an analysis debunking some aspects of the Seville City Council’s bull**** in this blog post by a member of the growing community of Spanish vehicular (or integrated, as we often like to call ourselves) cyclists:
http://bicicletasciudadesviajes.blogspot.com/2011/02/cambio-modal-realidad-o-ficcion.html [Translation of blog name is "urban bicycle trips" and of the title of the post is "mode shift, reality or fiction"]

I commented on this issue in this comments thread in an English-language blog you may know, when the blog’s author repeated a bit mindlessly the official crap:

http://quickrelease.tv/?p=1476#disqus_thread

The outcome is thoroughly disastrous at several levels: not only are the segregated structures senseless and completely substandard (I am using “substandard” in the British sense here, not implying that I accept any standard at all); the city is a showcase of lost opportunities to improve real cycling conditions placed right next to the segregated crap; the local dominant cycling culture has become one of passive-aggressive cyclestrians riding on sidewalks even in trivial streets; the social status of the cyclists AND PEDESTRIANS has deteriorated (the level of conflict between pedestrians and cyclists is appalling; you can feel the increased hostility of car drivers if you ride on the roadway in a street with a cycle lane, although I have to admit, much less so than I expected); the number of cars has not decreased at all; Seville is indeed becoming an example for other clueless cities to imitate; the segregated chaos is prompting a host of Kafkaeske local ordinances to regulate the behavior of the cyclestrians… but on the other hand, the number of cyclists who don’t buy into the crap any longer is growing (http://ciudadciclista.org), and even the fact that Seville has been so extreme and reckless in following the segregationist madness is in some ways acting to our advantage: Seville has wanted to become an amazing example: some of our efforts are now directed at turning it into a horrible warning.

I also asked about crash statistics:

Regarding your question about crash stats: the situation in Seville is that of a complete information blackout. As far as I know, there is just no data publicly available. Just to give you an idea of how things are around here: over one year ago there was an article in the local press stating that “according to the conclusions of a study soon to be made public, the cycle lanes are safe for cyclists”. As you can guess, no study has been published since. Fun, uh?

The article, and the parody of it I wrote are here:

http://www.diariodesevilla.es/article/sevilla/595289/los/accidentes/mortales/ciclistas/crecen/carretera.html

http://bicilibre.wordpress.com/2010/01/01/accidentes-mortales-de-ciclistas-sevilla/

The contrast with Barcelona (one of the other, if less maddened, bikelaneist black holes in Spain) is stark: In Barcelona, a report is published yearly, and the news was for two years straight that the bicycle accidents were rising significantly, although it appears that they are lately down again (haven’t paid much attention to the issue).

http://www.adn.es/local/barcelona/20080110/NWS-1167-aumentaron-accidentes-bicicleta-barcelona.html [NWS-1167 -- increas in bicycle crashes in Barcelona]
http://www.lavanguardia.es/vida/20090430/53693094057/los-accidentes-de-bici-son-los-unicos-que-aumentan-en-barcelona-en-2008.html [Bicycle crashes are the only kind that increase in numbers in Barcelona in 2008]

http://www.lavanguardia.es/ciudadanos/noticias/20090116/53619840434/los-ciclistas-sufrieron-492-accidentes-en-barcelona-en-2008-un-113-mas.html

http://www.elpais.com/articulo/espana/Bajan/accidentes/bicicleta/Barcelona/elpepuesp/20110112elpepunac_13/Tes

http://www.elperiodico.com/es/noticias/agenda/20110112/bajan-los-accidentes-bicicleta-mantiene-mortalidad-motoristas-barcelona/661506.shtml

Traffic theory: improving traffic signals to reduce pointless delay

A real-world time-space diagram, from Wikimedia commons.

A real-world time-space diagram

In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but it practice, there is.

attributed to:
Yogi Berra
Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut
Albert Einstein

An optimal traffic-signal system would never present anyone with a red light or a don’t walk signal unless there actually is interfering traffic. In theory.

In practice, though, it may be desirable to introduce some delay in order to smooth the flow of traffic — to get vehicles on board a “green wave.” Traffic engineers think in sophisticated ways about this issue, but do not have the real-world tools to resolve it. While synchronized traffic-signal systems and sensor-actuated signals already improve the situation over uncoordinated timed signals, better sensing and more sophisticated software could, at least in theory, achieve much more.

Probably the most difficult part of the problem is in sensing approaching vehicles and pedestrians far enough ahead of an intersection so signals will change as they reach the intersection. Sensors are expensive, and many more would be needed. On the other hand, in a city dotted with security cameras, the sensor data may be easier to obtain, especially if traffic control is a goal when installing the equipment.

I am emphatically not describing so-called intelligent highway systems, intended to automate driving by taking control of vehicles. The driver then supposedly becomes a passenger, free to dial the cell phone, read the newspaper, watch TV or apply makeup without concern. For automated control to work, the system must exert at least as reliable control over vehicles as attentive drivers do. More yet: car makers have huge legal problems resulting from defects that injure only a small number of customers.

Automated control presently is applied only under very restricted conditions, on airport shuttle trains and the like. Even with a great increase in sophistication, it’s hard to conceive of how automated control (other than in collision-avoidance systems) would work on any roads except limited-access highways restricted to vehicles equipped for it.

Even under these conditions, there are difficult technical problems. Collision-avoidance systems to prevent collision with large objects ahead are just beginning to be common. Avoiding debris in the road, potholes and other smaller obstacles requires sophisticated sensing which a driver routinely performs — but well beyond the abilities of automated systems.

So, I am describing not a system to take over control of vehicles, but one to improve control of traffic signals. Humans would retain the ability to prevent collisions, and malfunctioning of the system would lead only to delay, not to crashes. The system would make little difference to anyone — motorist, bicyclist or pedestrian — except to reduce pointless delay.

Will this happen? If so, when and where? One promising thought is that it can happen bit by bit, at one intersection and another, rather than all at once along an entire highway.

Street Traffic Regulations: classic book online

My friend Bob Shanteau writes:

Another reason scofflaws give [to justify their behavior] is that traffic laws are intended only for motorists, reflecting a total ignorance of the origins of those laws.

Google has made the 1909 book “Street Traffic Regulation” by William Phelps Eno available online.

This book makes it clear that the first rules of the road preceded the dominance of the streets by motor vehicles. The behavior of … scofflaw cyclists now closely mirrors the behavior by all road users that Eno observed in the early 1900′s, leading to the need for street traffic regulation in the first place. He focused his efforts on education about his proposed rules of the road. That education is what the bicycle scofflaws of today sorely lack.

Alleycat racers

A British cyclist who goes by the online name gaz545 on YouTube has posted a version of one of Lucas Brunelle’s “alleycat race” videos, with voice-over commentary. Bravo gaz545!

Lucas Brunelle is, or was, a bicycle courier, but he distinguishes himself by shooting videos of the alleycat races — anything-goes races through cities, in urban traffic. The racers are mostly from the bicycle courier community. A Brunelle video is now making the rounds of 40 cities in a bicycle film festival.

Brunelle’s colleague Kevin Porter, who appears in some of his videos, served with me on the massbiek Board for a ocuple of years, something of an attempt to draw the courier community into mainstream advocacy.

Allow me to describe the fundamental difference between alleycat racing and responsible, sane cycling (or responsible, sane driving a car, for that matter — it’s the same idea).

The rules of the road establish who may go and who must yield right of way, so road users know what to expect of each other — but also, beyond that, in every situation where it is possible, both the road user who may go and the one who must yield are in full view of each other and able to avoid a collision if the other makes a mistake. Where sight lines are obstructed, traffic signs and signals direct road users to slow or stop, and allow them to take turns where flows of traffic cross.

Alleycat racers flout all this. They rely on their wits, and on guessing what other road users will do. They ride as if they were invisible. Much of the time, they are invisible, hidden behind sight obstructions where they can only guess what is around the corner. They ride opposite the direction of traffic, between lanes, where one driver’s slight change of direction will result in a head-on collision. They ride in extremely close quarters with vehicles which, if the driver doesn’t do as the alleycat has guessed, will sideswipe them, collide with them or run them over.

Alleycat racing is an extreme sport: a sport that involves a serious risk of severe injury or death — but more than that. Most so-called extreme sports, for example motorcycle jumping, involve only self-imposed risks. Participants in extreme fighting sports impose serious risks on their opponents, but by consent. Alleycat racers, on the other hand, impose serious risks on other people without obtaining consent and without warning. There’s an expression to describe this: breaking the social contract.

Brunelle’s videos are of high technical quality. Also, I’ll admit to some admiration for the skill of the alleycat racers. It is a level and type of skill normally required of a soldier in combat, a police officer confronted with an armed and violent offender, a cyclist or motorist facing an imminent threat of a collision. Skill is good. Any cyclist, any driver will face emergency situations occasionally. I’d think that perhaps the most skillful cyclist imaginable would be a reformed alleycat racer, if such a character exists.

Tamer motorists and cyclists can learn anticipation of hazards, braking, swerving — through training, and practice in the controlled environment of the skid pad or empty parking lot. My Bicycling Street Smarts turorial is one of a number of resources that teach these skills. But to put these skills intentionally to the test in the public streets is to court unnecessary risks, and to put other people at risk as well. The crash types and crash rate described in the Dennerlein-Meeker study of Boston bicycle couriers reveal the risks that couriers take — and the couriers aren’t even riding at nearly the extreme level seen in alleycat races.

Gaz545 doesn’t know of any injury that occurred during the London alleycat race, though I saw a number of very close calls in his video. However, in an alleycat race in Philadelphia which passed through the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, a participant came racing down off an overpass on a campus walkway — going from right to left here –


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(The break in the image of the overpass is due to the boundary between photos used in the satellite view)

The alleycat racer collided with a pedestrian — a student’s mother who was visiting the campus — knocked her down, injuring her seriously, and raced off. Other racers witnessed the incident. Police interrogated several but were unable to obtain identification of the hit-and-run racer from any of them.

Let’s describe the alleycat racers for what they are: outlaws who pump each other up to ever more extreme conduct in traffic, endangering others, not only themselves, and then when that danger results in injury to an innocent bystander, they adhere to a code of silence.

The pedestrian in the Philadelphia incident filed a lawsuit against the University for allowing the race to take place on its property, though the University had no idea that there would be a race. Suing the University was the only way that she could hope for any recourse.

It isn’t too far-fetched also to ask whether police might infiltrate the alleycat community to find out where a race is scheduled and perform an effective sweep-up. Alleycat racers are not “silly cyclists” (gaz545′s term, describing the cyclists in his other videos) making dumb mistakes in traffic because they don’t know any better. Alleycat racers act in wanton disregard for public safety. They do serious damage to the reputation of other cyclists as well, and I have very little sympathy for them.

(And here’s a link to Lucas Brunelle’s Web site, now that you have read what I have to say about it. There is no mention on it of the Philadelphia race, for whatever reason.)