Tag Archives: traffic

A review of the film Bikes vs. Cars

I knew I’d have a problem with the film just based on the the title.

There can be animosity between people on bikes and in cars, but bikes and cars are machines, which have no feelings and generally don’t get into trouble unless there a person is behind the steering wheel or the handlebars. The title “Bikes vs. Cars” reminds me of a frequent complaint of bicyclists who have had incidents in traffic, “the car didn’t see me.”   The title and that statement both reflect a fear-based mental block which has led to the inability to conceive of the car as a machine under control of a human, with whom it is possible to interact, and so, much more often, to avoid incidents…

Enough. There’s more to say. My facebook friend Kelley Howell has posted a detailed review, which follows here:


Why I think the film, Bikes Vs. Cars, is a waste of money:

by Kelley Howell

It was a scattered, gawky film filled with untenable contradictions. Some thoughts:

The film switched back and forth between a desire to own the streets and use them as if they belonged to bicyclists who have a right to drive on them, free of cars, but then it dropped its pretense to militancy asking for small slivers of space on the edge, as if if that edge were some Magic Kingdom of safety. On one hand, the people in the film seem to be demanding a right to take the entire road and get the hated cars off it. On the other hand, it’s all about scampering out of the way, deferring to a dominant majority no one knows how to handle, let alone challenge.

As an example, there was a line in the film which went something like this: “At 1 AM, during the quiet of Carmeggedon in LA. I sneaked on to the 405 and rode my bike on this massive highway. It was beautiful. I owned that feat of human engineering. For the first time, I felt it was a marvel of human engineering that was made for me.”

Then they switch to Sao Paulo in Brazil, to capture the happy reactions of bicyclists who learned that the city is laying down 100s of kilometer of too narrow bike lanes in an very congested city where few people appear to follow traffic law to begin with. I was hard pressed to imagine all these scrappy motorists would respect the painted lines of a 4 foot wide gutter bike lane.

Which is it: do you want to drive a bike on that feat of human engineering, the 405, or a 4 foot bike lane with cars passing too close, driving out into your path, and right- and left-hooking you constantly? How is that demanding your rights? How is it safe? Accepting a scrap of asphalt, some of it carved out of a gutter built for sewer water? After all that rhetoric of wanting access to feats of human engineering, how is that you want to operate in a gutter bike lane?

The film trades in the imagery of the bicyclist, rolling free, free of motorists, free of the burden of a body on pavement, free because it can dodge the confines of hated “traffic”. The magic of the bicycle is its thrift, its speed, and its nimble ability to slip through crevices of urban congestion. It is at once traffic and the supposed escape from it.

But this is reminiscent of the propaganda that dominates the most pedestrian – har! – of auto advertisements where cars mean freedom, an open road, an endless horizon. This imagery in commercials is a stark counterpoint to the reality of miles of congested freeway, gridlock, and, well, to borrow a phrase, the hell that is other motorists at rush hour.

This trope — the bicycle as freedom, magically evading being captured in traffic — is present in an amusing fantasy entertained in the film: pulling 20% of all motorists off the Los Angeles roads and reinserting them with their derrieres planted in bike saddles. Apparently they will accomplish their 14.7 mile commute on their Dutchie or Cruiser, pedaling along at 10 mph?

Going by LA county numbers, 20% of the ~4.5 million motoring commuters is 900,000 bicyclists. Even if their commute where far shorter – say a manageable 5 miles at 10 mph — that’s a lot of bicyclists who get to share those four foot wide gutter bike lanes. Good luck with that!

Then, there was a main protagonist, name escapes, in Brazil. She says, to paraphrase, “What I want is some respect and for human cooperation.” And then the film plugs away about the lack of bike lanes. Having apparently conceded that motorists will NOT actually give bicyclists that respect or cooperatively share the roads, they ask for a sliver of space in the gutter.

Which is fine. Really. If that’s what you want. But don’t imagine segregating modes is about cooperating. It’s rather about demanding public resources be spent on gutter-based infrastructure in Brazil precisely because motorists WILL NOT share the road. No one has actually changed the domination of motorists. In this “victory,” existing configurations of power remain the same, leaving bicyclists just as powerless as they always were, only now they are marginalia set off by 6 inch stripes of paint.

The incident with the Dutch cab driver was high camp and deserves its own post. It was my impression that the cabbie staged the whole thing, a real drama queen pining for his 5 minutes on camera. Basically, it was exemplary of what Nietzsche called a transvaluation of values[1]: an opportunity for bicyclists everywhere to make the motorist suffer for a change.[2]

The problem is that this is an exercise in punishing schadenfreude. We are all supposed to love it that the roles have reversed in the Netherlands. The taxi driver has to be troubled, delayed, and dominated by the majority, bicyclists. We get to engage in gleeful enjoyment to see him upset, angry, cowed by the throngs of bicyclists blocking his every move. There! Take That, you bad, bad motorists. How do you think it FEELS to be marginalized like we were?

This is a stupid and shameful sentiment that shouldn’t be tolerated by anyone doing bicycling advocacy. But it is, unfortunately, celebrated by too many participation advocates – including this film, which trades in cheap theatrics and, well, quite frankly, trashy propaganda. At least have the decency to be sophisticated about it if you are going to trade in such infantilizing sentiments.

[1] I am unhappy with the choice of ‘transvaluation of values’ to express what I mean here. But it’s been a longass day. Tant pis!

[2] As for the transvaluation of values thing, for more detail on the problems with this position, see Wendy Brown’s work States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Here, Brown captures the problem as one where, basically, an oppressed or marginalized group rises in power and status, promoting a compulsion to repetition rather than liberation:

“Initial figurations of freedom are inevitably reactionary in the sense of emerging in reaction to perceived injuries or constraints of a regime from within its own terms. . Ideals of freedom ordinarily emerge to vanquish their Imagined immediate enemies, but in this move they frequently recycle and reinstate rather than transform the terms of domination that generated them. Consider exploited workers who dream of a world in which work has been abolished, blacks who imagine a world without whites, feminists who conjure a world either without men or without sex, or teenagers who fantasize a world without parents. Such images of freedom perform mirror reversals of without transforming the organization of the activity through which the suffering is produced and without addressing the subject constitution that domination effects, that is, the constitution of the social categories, “workers,” “blacks,” “women,” or “teenagers.”

It would thus appear that it is freedom’s relationship to identity-its promise to address a social injury or marking that is itself constitutive of an identity that yields the paradox in which the first imaginings of freedom are always constrained by and potentially even require the very structure of oppression that freedom emerges to oppose.”

Another crosswalk confusion, and a fatality

In response to my post about confused yielding requirements where shared-use paths cross streets, Ryan Reasons has published comments on a recent fatal truck-bicycle crash in the Seattle, Washington area.

The photo below is from the KOMO TV/radio station news photo gallery.

view of crash scene

View of crash scene

My response to Ryan’s comments went into enough detail that I have decided to make a post of it. My response follows his comments below.

Ryan’s comments

@John S. Allen
The sort of confusion you describe may have cost Gordon Gray his life last Wednesday after he collided with a cement truck. The sheriff’s department says that Gray, a 70-year-old bicyclist from Washington state, was cycling on a MUP when he ran a stop sign, entered a street running parallel to the MUP and was struck.

King County Sheriff’s Sgt. Stan Seo says the Kenmore man was biking southbound on 65th Avenue Northeast Wednesday morning when he was hit by a cement truck heading west on Northeast 175th Street. Seo said Friday that according to investigators, it appears the cyclist did not stop at a stop sign and was hit in the intersection. He says the cyclist had turned off the Burke-Gilman Trail shortly before the accident.
The Associated Press, Komonews.com

If one accepts Sgt. Seo’s account of the events leading to the collision, then Gray was cycling on the MUP when he turned onto 65th Avenue to enter Northeast 175th street. (See this Google street map.) [You may  click on the link to open the view in Google maps, or click on the image below  to enlarge it — John Allen]

Location of Gordon Cray crash

Location of Gordon Gray crash

Note that the Google map shows three stop signs of possible relevance. The stop sign on 65th Avenue is located just north of the MUP and crosswalk. The other two stop signs are located on the MUP at opposite ends of the crosswalk.

Once Gray entered 65th Avenue from the MUP and headed south, did Gray have a legal obligation to stop at the stop sign on 65th Avenue? I don’t think so, because after turning south onto 65th Avenue the stop sign was behind Gray and facing north.

Let’s assume Gray committed a traffic violation (running a stop sign) when he turned from the MUP onto 65th Avenue. Does that mean Gray is legally at fault for a collision which occurred on his subsequent turn from 65th Avenue onto Northeast 175th Street?

The account given by local law enforcement suggests Gordon Gray will be blamed for his own death, even if Gray is not fully at fault. That seems like an injustice for Gray, an undeserved vindication for confusing cycling infrastructure, and fuel for more of the ugly jeers that accompany the deaths of cyclists who truly are at fault.

My response:

This is an interesting situation, and especially so as cyclists’ exiting from bikeways into parallel streets becomes more common with the increasing number of sidepaths (or “cycle tracks”, or so-called “protected bike lanes”). The path in question runs parallel to and just north of an east-west street (Northeast 175th Street) and crosses another street (65th Avenue) which Ts into it from the north, with a marked crosswalk. There are stop signs for the path at either end of the crosswalk, and there is a stop sign on 65th Avenue Northeast before the crosswalk, as is usual. So, once Gordon Gray was in the crosswalk, there was no stop sign directing him to stop at Northeast 175th Street.

This is not the same situation I described in the earlier blog post. What I described is the confusion from having stop signs at the ends of a crosswalk. Traffic in the street is supposed to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk but confusion arises because the stop signs indicate that cyclists in the crosswalk must yield to traffic in the street it crosses. These two requirements contradict one another. The confusion manifests itself in drivers on the street stopping and yielding to cyclists, whom the stop signs direct to stop and yield to the drivers in the street. It is unclear who may proceed. In practice, the cyclists usually proceed, and often without coming to a complete stop, but also cyclists are faster than pedestrians, and a motorist’s stopping often requires a cyclist to stop when they would otherwise not have to, because the motor vehicle would have passed before the cyclist reached the crosswalk. There are also the issues which occur at other crosswalks, that the first motorist in one lane may stop, but a motorist in another lane may not, requiring extra caution of cyclists due to their higher speed and longer stopping distance than those of pedestrians.

What you describe appears to be that cyclist Gordon Gray entered the crosswalk, and then entered the parallel street. Indeed, there was no stop sign facing him once he had entered the crosswalk, as he did not pass the stop sign for traffic on 65th Avenue Northeast. The legalities here are somewhat confusing. Probably the stop sign before the crosswalk did not apply to entry onto the parallel street. Was Gray required nonetheless to yield before entering the parallel street? He would have been, if he had passed the stop sign on 65th Avenue Northeast. A T intersection without a stop sign is an uncontrolled intersection, and so he would still be required to prepare to yield, perhaps also to yield: in some states, at least Massachusetts, where I live, stop signs are not posted where one street Ts into another, but yielding is required. A concern for self-preservation would also require being prepared to yield, whatever the legalities.

There are a few things which the news report does not indicate:

  • Which way was Gray going? Was he originally westbound on the path? Then he would have had to look behind himself for the truck.
  • Was he attempting to head eastbound on Northeast 175th Street (or westbound on the wrong side), and so he was attempting to cross in front of the truck?
  • Just what was the truck driver doing, or about to do? There is a large concrete plant with two driveways, across Northeast 175th street from 65th Avenue. Concrete mixer trucks in the same colors as those in the news photo are visible parked there in the Google Maps overhead view. It is possible, for example, that the truck driver was signaling a turn, suggesting to Gray that he would turn left into the driveway east of 65th Street Avenue Northeast, but instead was continuing into the next driveway when his truck struck Gray. The location of the truck in the photo at the top of this post suggests that.

Ogden, Utah skateboarder stop

There’s plenty of confusion to go around here.


Deputy: “I don’t care, you’re right in the middle of the road.” No, the boarder was on the shoulder, at least in the part of the video the TV station broadcast.

Was that legal? Bicycling is allowed on shoulders in many states. I couldn’t find anything on that on the Utah legislative site section on bicycles, http://le.utah.gov/xcode/Title41/Chapter6A/41-6a-P11.html.

But the man was on a skateboard, not a bicycle. Under Utah law, the skateboard is defined as a vehicle, last definition here: http://le.utah.gov/xcode/Title41/Chapter6a/41-6a-S1105.html and so, under the law, the skateboarder should have been in the travel lane, not on the shoulder or a sidewalk, if any, as little sense as that may make.

So, the officer’s charge was false. If the boarder were defined as a pedestrian, then shoulder use in the absence of a sidewalk would be legal if the boarder was traveling opposite the direction of traffic (he wasn’t), — not that this is sensible when it would have required crossing to the far side of a multi-lane road. http://le.utah.gov/…/Title41/Chapter6A/41-6a-S1009.html.

There is a sidewalk, as shown in Google Earth and Street View images.

The TV station video is edited at 00:25. It doesn’t show the entire conversation between the deputy and the boarder before the boarder attempted to flee — so we don’t know about an opportunity to comply. Other question is how the boarder could comply if there was nowhere to go except up and down a road bordered by vegetation. The deputy ran after the boarder and attempted to stop him. Probably better to let him go. The boarder fought the deputy, violently. Not smart at all.

Change lanes in a roundabout?

Ohio cyclist Patricia Kovacs posted an e-mail asking some questions about roundabouts:

Ohio engineers are telling us to use the inner lane for left turns and U turns. Both the FHWA [Federal Highway Administration] and videos available on our local MPO [metropolitan planning organization] website say this. I shared this when we asked for updates to Ohio Street Smarts. If the FHWA and MORPC [Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission] are wrong, then we need to fix it.

Would you review the 8 minute video on the MORPC website and let me know what I should do? If it’s wrong, I need to ask them to update it. This video was made in Washington and Ohio reused it.

Looking further into the problem, I see a related practical issue with two-lane roundabouts, that the distance between an entrance and the next exit may be inadequate for a lane change. The larger the roundabout, the longer the distance in which to change lanes, but also the higher the speed which vehicles can maintain and so, the longer distance required. I’m not sure how this all works out as a practical matter. Certainly, turning right from the left-hand lane when through traffic is permitted in the right-hand lane is incorrect under the UVC [Uniform Vehicle Code], and results in an obvious conflict and collision potential, but I can also envision a conflict where a driver entering the roundabout does not expect a driver approaching in the inside lane of the roundabout to be merging into the outside lane.

All in all, the safety record of roundabouts is reported as good (though not as good for bicyclists and pedestrians), but I’m wondering to what extent the issues have been subjected to analysis and research. When I look online, I see a lot of roundabout *promotion* as opposed to roundabout *study*. Perhaps we might take off our UVC hats, put on our NCUTCD [National Committee on Uniform Traffic-Control devices] hats, and propose research?

Thanks, Patricia.

This post was getting long, so I’ve placed detailed comments on the Ohio video, and embedded the video, in another post. I’m also working on an additional post giving more examples, and I’ll announce it here when it is ready.

Here are some stills from the video showing the conflict between through traffic in the outer lane and exiting traffic in the inner lane.

First, the path for through traffic:

Path for through traffic in a roundabout

Path for through traffic in a roundabout

Next, the path for left-turning traffic:

Path for left-turning traffic in a roundabout

Path for left-turning traffic in a roundabout

Now, let’s give that picture a half-turn so the left-turning traffic is entering from the top and exiting from the right:

traffic in a roundabout, image rotated 180 degrees

Path for left-turning traffic in a roundabout, image rotated 180 degrees

And combining the two images, here is what we get:

Conflict between through traffic and exiting left-turn traffic

Conflict between through traffic and exiting left-turn traffic

The image below is from the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, and shows similar but not identical lane use. The arrows in the entry roadways direct through traffic to use either lane.

FHWA diagram of a roundabout with lane-use arrows.

FHWA diagram of a roundabout with lane-use arrows.

Drivers are supposed to use their turn signals to indicate that they are to exit from the inner lane — but drivers often forget to use their signals. Safe practice for a driver entering a roundabout, then, is to wait until no traffic is approaching in either lane, even if only entering the outer lane.

A fundamental conceptual issue here is whether the roundabout is to be regarded as a single intersection, or as a series of T intersections wrapped into a circle. To my way of thinking, any circular intersection functions as a series of T intersections, though it functions as a single intersection in relation to the streets which connect to it. Changing lanes inside an intersection is generally prohibited under the traffic law, and so, if a roundabout is regarded as a single intersection, we get the conflicts I’ve described.

Sometimes, dashed lines are used to indicate paths in an intersection, when vehicles coming from a different direction may cross the dashed lines after yielding right of way or on a different signal phase. More commonly, a dashed line  indicates that a driver may change lanes starting from either side. The dashed lines in a two-lane roundabout look as though they serve the second of these purposes, though they in fact serve the first. These are shorter dashed lines than generally are used to indicate that lane changes are legal, but most drivers don’t understand the difference.

That leads to confusion. If you think of the roundabout as a single intersection, changing from the inside to the outside lane is illegal anywhere. If you think of the roundabout as a series of T intersections, changing lanes should occur between the entries and exits, not opposite them –though there is also the problem which Patricia mentioned, that a small two-lane roundabout may not have much length between an entry roadway and the next exit roadway to allow for a lane change. That is, however, much less of a problem for bicyclists than for operators of wider and longer vehicles. It would be hard to construct a two-lane roundabout small enough to prevent bicyclists from changing lanes.

My practice when cycling in conventional two-lane traffic circles — and there are many in the Boston, Massachusetts area where I live — is to

  • enter from the lane which best leads to my position on the circular roadway — either the right or left lane of a two-lane entry;
  • stay in the outer lane if leaving at the first exit;
  • control the inner lane if continuing past the first exit;
  • change back to the left tire track in the outer lane to prepare to exit.

That way, I avoid conflict with entering and exiting traffic in the outer lane, and I am making my lane change to the right in the slow traffic of the circular roadway rather than on the straightaway following it. This is what I have found to make my interactions with motorists work most smoothly. Why should a bicyclist’s conduct in a roundabout be different?

It is usual to be able to turn right into the rightmost lane of a multi-lane rodway while raffic is approaching in the next lane. I don’t know of any other examples in road design or traffic law in the USA where a motor vehicle is supposed to turn right across the lane where another motor vehicle is entering it. Bike lanes are sometimes brought up to intersections, though the laws of every state except Oregon require motorists to merge into the bike lane before turning. The illustration below, from Dan Gutierrez, depicts the problem.

Right hook conflicts, from Dan Gutierrez's Understanding Bicycle Transportation

Right hook conflicts, from Dan Gutierrez’s Understanding Bicycle Transportation video and course.

Applicable sections or the Uniform Vehicle Code are:

  • 11:304 (b) — passing on the right is permitted only when the movement can be made in safety.
  • 11:308 (c) — a vehicle shall be driven only to the right of a rotary traffic island.
  • 11:309 (a) — no changing lanes unless it can be done in safety
  • 11:309 (d) — official traffic control devices may prohibit lane changes
  • 11:601 (a) Right turns – Both the approach for a right turn and a right turn shall be made as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.


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.

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.

Is the NACTO Guide a Design Manual?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NACTO pages about two-stage turn box

NACTO pages about two-stage turn queuing box

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

Issues of organization and use of technical language

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

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

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

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

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

Specific comments

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

Comments on the left-hand page

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

Left half of left-hand page


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right half of left-hand page


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments on the right-hand page

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

Left half of right-hand page


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right half of right-hand page


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had enough?

Truck side skirts: reliable way to prevent cyclist fatalities?

No, not reliable. And they are also supposed to confer an aerodynamic advantage. Some do, some don’t.

Some have a smooth surface which can deflect a cyclist. That is still no guarantee that the cyclist will escape serious injury or death. Other side guards are only open frameworks which can catch and drag a bicycle. A lot of what I have seen is little more than window dressing.

The side guard in the image below from a post on the Treehugger blog has no aerodynamic advantage and could easily guide a cyclist into the rear wheel of the truck.

Photo of truck side with guard from Treehugger blog.

Photo of truck side with guard from Treehugger blog.

A cyclist can easily go under the side guard shown in the image below, from a Portland, Oregon blog post. A cyclist who is leaning against the side guard is guided into the sharp edge of the fender bracket and fender, and the front of the turning wheel, which can pull the cyclist down. There is another wheel behind the one in the photo.

Side guard on City of Portland, Oregon water transport truck

Side guard on City of Portland, Oregon water transport truck

The side guard on a Boston garbage truck in the photo below — my own screen shot from the 2013 Boston Bikes annual update presentation — is only an open framework which could easily catch and drag a bicycle.

Side skirt on City of Boston garbage truck

Side skirt on City of Boston garbage truck

A truck which is turning right off-tracks to the right. A cyclist can be pushed onto his/her right side, and goes under, feet to the left, head to the right. On the other hand, if an overtaking truck contacts the left handlebar end, or if the right handlebar end contacts a slower or stopped vehicle or other obstruction, the handlebar turns to the right and the cyclist slumps to the left, headfirst.

To be as effective as possible for either aerodynamics or injury prevention, side guards must cover the wheels. Though that is practical, none of the ones shown do.

But no practical side guard can go low enough to prevent a cyclist from going underneath. The side guard would drag  at raised railroad crossings, driveway aprons, speed tables etc. Even if the side guard did go low enough, it would sweep the fallen cyclist across the road surface, possibly to be crushed against a parked car or a curb.

Fatalities have occurred when cyclists went under buses, which have low side panels — but the wheels are uncovered. The Dana Laird fatality in Cambridge, Massachusetts is one example. Ms. Laird’s right handlebar end is reported to have struck the opening door of a parked vehicle, steering her front wheel to the right and toppling her to the left.

Dana Laird fatality, Cambridge, Massacchusetts, 2002

Dana Laird fatality, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2002

The bicycling advocacy community, as shown in the blog posts I’ve cited, mostly offers praise and promotion of sub-optimal versions of side guards, a measure which, even if executed as well as possible, offers only a weak, last-resort solution to the problem of bus and truck underruns.

Most of the comments I see on the blogs I linked to consider it perfectly normal for motor traffic to turn right from the left side of cyclists, and to design infrastructure — bike lanes in particular — to formalize this conflict. The commenters also would like to give cyclists carte blanche to overtake close to the right side of large trucks, and place all the responsibility on truck drivers to avoid off-tracking over the cyclists.

Cyclists are vulnerable road users, but vulnerability is not the same as defenselessness. It is rarely heard from today’s crop of bicycling advocates, but a cyclist can prevent collisions with trucks and buses by not riding close to the side of them. There’s a wild contradiction in playing on the vulnerability, naiveté and defenselessness of novice cyclists to promote bicycle use with measures — particularly, bike lanes striped up to intersections — which lure cyclists into a deathtrap. Regardless of whoever may be held legally at fault in underrun collisions, cyclists have the ability to prevent them, and preventing them is the first order of business.

Want to learn how to defend yourself against going under a truck? Detailed advice on avoiding bicycle/truck conflicts may be found on the Commute Orlando Web site.

Additional comments about the political situation which promotes underrun collisions may also be found on that site.

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…

Bikes, Cars, Light Rail, E. Jefferson St., Phoenix, Arizona

Build it and they will…wait. Well, at least they’re supposed to wait.

If you click on the title in the image or caption, you can view this at a higher resolution.

Bikes, Cars, Light Rail, E. Jefferson St., Phoenix, Arizona from John Allen on Vimeo.

An intersection with light rail, motor vehicles and bike lanes requires bicyclists to cross from one side to the other of a multi-lane street, resulting in delays of 2 to 3 minutes. Alternative solutions are described.