Thursday, August 7, 2014

Pavement Alters You Mind

Robert Schneider, a professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin, and Rebecca Sanders, a post-doctoral researcher at UC Berkeley's Safe TREC interviewed hundreds of professionals in public health, planning and engineering, and safe streets advocacy around the country and uncovered three main factors that seem to determine if a driver will yield to a pedestrian at an intersection without a traffic signal: Street width, pedestrian volume, and the part of the US where you happen to be. All three of these factors are interesting, but the one most directly related to bike and pedestrian safety is street width. The design of traffic infrastructure directly affects both our perceptions and the behavior we expect from others and from ourselves: In short, pavement alters your mind.

Take a look at the walkability map for our old hometown, Berkeley, and you'll notice a lot of green. This is where the city is walkable: Good sidewalks, crosswalks, housing and density of neighborhood shops all contribute to walkability. If you live in the green areas you probably take the ease of walking for granted and might not even know that Berkeley has a walkability score of 79 out of 100. Those areas of red are less walkable mainly due to the steep terrain of the Berkeley Hills.

There's a lot to like about our new neighborhood in San Luis Obispo (SLO), an area referred to as Downtown South. Many errands can be accomplished on foot or by bike, there is a mix of single-family homes and apartments, most of the housing is modest. Our neighbors seem to have low-stress lives, there's seldom aggressive driving behavior. SLO has a reputation for valuing a SLOw way of life, but it has an unremarkable walkability score of 51 out of 100. That very small area of green just happens to be the part of town to which we gravitated. Unfortunately, there are parts of SLO where the speed of traffic and the lack of infrastructure are make things unfriendly to pedestrians.

We think we're lucky to be living in a walkable area, but it seems some folks do not like densely populated areas at all. A Pew Research study uncovered a strong correlation between liberal or conservative values and the type of neighborhood you in which want or choose to live. Quoting from the study:

"It is an enduring stereotype – conservatives prefer suburban McMansions while liberals like urban enclaves – but one that is grounded in reality."

The older part of town is the green area while the newer parts of SLO is mostly optimized for cars. We've tried biking through the non-green areas shown on that map of SLO. It ain't pretty. The city prides itself on being "bike friendly" and there are bike lanes in most parts of town, but my wife finds many of the shopping areas just too dangerous to cycle: Multi-lane roads, speed limits of 40 to 50 miles per hour, numerous opportunities for vehicles to turn right, bike lanes that end unexpectedly, and nothing but a stripe of white paint on the pavement to separate a cyclist from a fast moving car. I feel safer cycling through most parts of Berkeley and gritty downtown Oakland. My wife is right, the commercial shopping areas of SLO are dangerous.

For pedestrians, SLO has plenty of crosswalks near schools and most city parks. In other areas of the city, crosswalks are strangely absent. One intersection where the lack of a crosswalk is particularly striking is where King Street intersects with South Street (which also happens to be California State Highway 227).
  • Neighborhood residents need to cross South Street to access Meadow Park
  • The speed limit on South Street is 40 MPH
  • The road has a median, parking on each side, and a designated bike lane
  • There are no crosswalks painted where three neighborhood streets intersect this state highway
  • Several years ago, a child was killed on halloween night while crossing this intersection

In short, South Street looks like a highway and so it's natural for drivers use it as a freeway: They seldom yield to pedestrians trying to cross or in the process of crossing the street, even though they are required to yield by the California Vehicle Code. No one expects to see pedestrians on a freeway because that is where we've all be trained to think "Cars are King."

CalTrans and the City of SLO arranged to do a traffic study of these intersections and concluded they didn't meet the necessary thresholds required to justify crosswalk paint on the pavement or signs to alert drivers to the possible presence of pedestrians at each intersection. There are just two signs at each end of South Street that warn drivers of pedestrians crossing in the next 3/4 miles. These traffic studies were done over eight years ago.

Another problem area for pedestrians is Broad Street from South Street eastward to the entrance to the San Luis Obispo county airport. This part of Broad Street has four lanes, a painted medial/turn lane, and bike lanes. It also has a speed limit of 45 to 40 MPH and looks like a highway. Woe unto him or her who tries to cross this four-lane street. I've witnessed pedestrians literally trapped in the median, trying to cross, and virtually no drivers yielding right-of-way. 

The problem at work here is that if a road looks like a highway, has near-highway speeds, and no crosswalks, then pedestrians must not matter. And the lack of protected bike lanes in heavily trafficked commercial shopping areas sends a similar message: Leave you bike at home, get in your car and drive. The SLO life is a great ideal, but the city's traffic engineers have some work to do if that ideal is to survive and grow. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Mind Yer Topknot

People are talking lately about bike share programs, helmets (or lack there of) and bike safety. Folks who don't like bikes clogging up their streets and who believe that cars are king may side with folks like Wall Street Journal board member Dorothy Rabinowitz, who last year blasted NYC's CitiBike program with some pretty bizarre rhetoric. More recently, a Washington Post article erroneously claimed that cyclist head injuries have increased in cities that implement bike share programs when the study they cited actually found something different: Bike share programs lead to an overall reduction in bicycling injuries, but the proportion of injuries involving head trauma increased slightly. So let's get this out of the way: Bike share programs reduce bike accidents overall. The Washington Post recently edited the title of that article to be more accurate, but the debate on helmet-less cyclists continues to simmer.

When my wife and I used a bike share in Boston two summers ago, we solved the helmet issue by visiting a local bike shop and purchasing two low-cost helmets. At the end of our trip, we shipped the helmets back home to keep as spares. We were very much aware that the lack of helmets in a bike share rental leads to a subtle pressure to simply ride without a helmet. If you're a tourist, all sorts of rationalizations spring easily to mind: "I'm on vacation, lighten up!" "What are the odds that I'll be in an accident?" "I'll be extra careful." "People in Europe ride without a helmet all the time."

I'd like to think the main reason we chose to buy helmets is that I'm good at recognizing and managing risk. As a pilot and flight instructor, god knows I've had plenty of opportunities to learn about risk management and one trait I see in a lot of pilots is the inability, the lack of imagination if you will, to recognize hazards and risks. Another trait I see is people who recognize a hazard or risk, but rationalize it away with optimistic, magical thinking: Keep yourself from thinking about potential bad consequences, think good thoughts, and nothing bad will happen.

If you ride a bike in the US, your odds of having a collision with a car or truck are an order of magnitude greater than if you ride a bike in Europe. There are many possible explanations for the greater risk in the US, but the main reasons seem to be that there are fewer people riding bikes in the US, traffic laws often do not adequately protect cyclists, and when cyclist are injured in a collision the driver of the motor vehicle is often not held accountable.

Based on a sampling of other Washington Post articles, it would seem they have a bias against riding a bike without a helmet. I tend to agree with that position, but that doesn't justify skewing an article so much that it ends up misrepresenting the facts.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Car, Bike & Pedestrian Safety: The Common Denominator

I asked a neighbor who works in bio-tech if he knew Susan Watson, the 62 year-old researcher who was recently struck and killed by a big rig truck at 5th and Market in Oakland while riding her bike home from work. He works in the industry, but didn't know her. But mentioning her death sparked a discussion about the responsibilities of cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians. Standing on the sidewalk in front of his house, my neighbor made two interesting assertions: Bicyclists never obey traffic regulations and if cyclists want safer roads, they should be taxed. Two fascinating ideas that indicate just how far market values have penetrated our everyday view of life, ethics and morality (a topic explored in depth by Michael Sandel).

I was about to respond with "No one obeys the rules of the road any more ..." when it occurred to me: The unifying element in this discussion about car, pedestrian, and bike safety is obvious. It doesn't really matter what sort of vehicle a person is operating, more and more of us are doing whatever we please: California stop, Idaho stop, texting, talking on their cellphone without a hands-free device, applying make-up, eating, reading, and so on. Pedestrians make risky choices, too: Walking against the light, jay walking, blundering into the street while texting, talking on their cellphone, reading and so on. The unifying element is us, We the People, aka human beings.

If dividing the world into equal parts crazy drivers, crazy cyclists, and crazy pedestrians doesn't move the debate forward, perhaps asking why people engage in risky behavior will add some clarity. One factor in risky behavior is what those in aviation refer to as external pressures and most of us have plenty of pressure in our lives. One good example? Step outside my front door between 7:45am and 8:05am on a school day: Stressed out parents driving their kids to the school down the block doing all the things they know they shouldn't do: They speed, cut off other drivers, fail to give pedestrians in a crosswalk right-of-way, and they put those few parents and kids who cycle to school at significant risk. Hell may have no fury like an angry parent, but it's not just parents who are stressed out.

All of us are going too fast and it's clear we are pushing the limits of our primitive neurological abilities. Most of us are in denial about this. We try to squeeze too much into the available time, we work long hours, and we don't sleep enough. These factors leave us cognitively impaired. And consider that research indicates chronic stress can cause mental illness and you have an even more complete, albeit sobering picture. So we think we're smart, but we make poor decisions. We think we have lightning fast reaction time, but we miss important events due to distractions. And we fail to recognize the hazards that our impairment brings to something as simple as trying to parallel park or crossing the street to a catch the bus.

We know that trying to reason with a stressed out driver, cyclist, or pedestrian doesn't work. You have to wait until they've calmed down, the adrenaline has subsided, and they have collected their wits. Even then, it's difficult to get most Americans to do something we should all be better at, given the number of errors we make every day: Admit our mistakes and apologize. We could also do a better job of respecting the lives of those around us, whether they were in a car, on a bike, or traveling on foot.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Carrying things on a Bike, on a Bridge

If you want proof that engineers and designers who come up with bike routes are often not bike savvy, consider that 2nd Street is a designated bike route through Oakland's Jack London Square: It cuts right through the wholesale produce market, there are stop signs at virtually every intersection, and the street is lined or blocked with forklifts and delivery trucks. Even when a bike route is through a quiet residential neighborhood, what's with all the stop signs? The idea behind biking is to keep your momentum going, not to be forced to stop and start dozens of times. That's why I avoid designated bike routes and boulevards due to the greater amount of traffic and the preponderance of stop signs that seem to crop up at every intersection.

With the early part of today free, I spent time running errands and doing laundry before cycling to Sweet Maria's to pick up some green coffee. I threw one pannier on the rack and began winding my way through the back streets of Berkeley and Oakland. I won't tell you the route I took since, frankly, doing so might increase the number of bikes on my little bit of asphalt heaven. So stick to the bike lanes and the main thoroughfares or stay in your car and drive on the freeways, nothing to see here, move along ...

With three pounds of green beans loaded, I lamented the fact I'd be driving to the airport later. Since I'd be sitting in a car (undoubtedly in traffic), why not take the long way home on this bike ride? So I rode 7th Street to Maritime and cycled the eastern span of the Bay Bridge. I've cycled the bridge a half dozen times or so, but each time there seems to be something interesting going on with the deconstruction of the old cantilever section. This day was near perfect as the path was mostly empty. If you haven't cycled the bridge and gotten a close look at the old span, I suggest you do so before it's gone. At the rate they are going, it won't be long before the old bridge is history. And once the old span is gone, work will begin on completing the bridge path to Yerba Buena/Treasure Island.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Searching for Fred

KRAMER: Well my swimming pool problems are solved. I just found myself miles and miles of open lanes.

JERRY: What is that smell?

KRAMER: That's East River.

JERRY: You're swimming in the East River? The most heavily trafficked, overly contaminated waterway on the eastern seaboard?

KRAMER: Technically Norfok has more gross tonnage.

JERRY: How could you swim in that water?

KRAMER: I saw a couple of other guys out there.

JERRY: Swimming?

KRAMER: Floating, they weren't moving much, but they were out there.

Arriving at work the other day, a coworker approached me, gave my commuting bike the once over and said something like: "Look at this bike. You are so 'Fred!'" Having not heard this descriptive term, I asked for a definition. He provided his interpretation of "Fred" as a cycling term. I decided to dig deeper. What I discovered is that there are at least three competing definitions for "Fred" commonly used by cyclists.

  1. A neophyte, inexperienced, or bumbling cyclist
  2. A poser who buys expensive, state-of-the-art cycling gear, but is more interested in being seen that actually riding
  3. A utilitarian cyclist who outfits their bike and themselves in a way that is at once practical, yet unstylish to serious racing cyclists

To his credit, my coworker said he believes that there's a little bit of Fred in each of us. Given the variety of definitions for "Fred," I'd say that's a safe conclusion. The category I identify with most would be #3 because at this stage in my cycling life, I'm all about commuting efficiency. This wasn't always the case.

Years ago I purchased a Vitus 979 aluminum bicycle frame. At the time it was pretty much state-of-the-art. I outfitted that frame with Campagnolo components, a lightweight drive chain, very light wheels, pretty damn narrow tires, and the first generation Profile aero bars. I was too cool for school. When I used this bike to commute from my apartment on the peninsula to Santa Clara, I liked to ride fast. A coworker at the time decided to buy a bike with the goal of making it even lighter than my Vitus. He gradually bought more and more lightweight components, a seat with titanium rails, tubular tires, you name it. Yet with each lighter component he put on his bike, his ride became even heavier when compared to the Vitus. Not sure how that could have been, but I swear it was true.

Fast-forward 25 years, bike technology has changed in big ways and my priorities have shifted, too. Instead of lightweight, competition, and speed, I'm more biased toward durability and reliability. Instead of weighing in at less than 19 pounds (8.6 kg), my commuter weighs in around 34 pounds (15.4 kg). By the time I've loaded on the panniers, the whole production tips the scales around 45 pounds (20.4 kg). Okay, I admit I still get the urge to chase down younger riders on fixies and give them a run for their money.

The biggest improvement in the past two decades would have to be lighting systems. I had one of the original NightSun headlights and it was pretty awesome back in the day. The LED lighting available now is significantly more advanced both in lumen output and battery life. I wear a helmet, as I did in the old days. And brightly colored clothing, much to the amusement of the hip, ninja cyclists I encounter each day and night that I ride. So did I used to be cool and now I'm a Fred, or is it the other way around? Beats me ...

Near as I can tell, the main reason to use a term like "Fred" (or "Doris" for female riders) would seem to be to differentiate one group of cyclists as being better than or above the rest. The way I look at it, no matter how fashionable, unfashionable, or individualistic you may or may not be, the important thing is that you are on your bike and you are out there.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Milestones and Changes

Somewhere on Adeline Street, between San Pablo Avenue and 12th Street, it happened. I completed my 6000th mile of cycling for 2013. My goal was to see how much commuting I could accomplish with my bike as opposed to using a car and to reduce my CO2e contribution to the Earth's atmosphere. Based on previous research,  I calculate my cycling contributed 445 pounds (202 kg) of carbon dioxide. Driving those 6000 miles in a car would have not only been less fun, it would have contributed 5,714 pounds (2592 kg) of carbon dioxide. Keeping 5270 pounds (2390 kg) of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is, well, ... a start.

I didn't have any students at KOAK today, but needed to go there anyway to pick up some cycling gear I'd left behind when I flatted the other night. A beautiful day, blue skies as far as the eye could see, calm winds, warm temps, and the San Francisco Bay waters were mostly still.  On my way home today, I decided to take the long way and ride the eastern span of the Bay Bridge. This was my sixth trip across the bridge and even though it was Christmas Eve day, there were fewer pedestrians and cyclists than expected.

Construction on the new bike/ped path approach seems to be progressing
Mist on the water
It had been over a month since I last rode the bridge and this time I saw obvious signs of the slow, methodical demolition of the old cantilever span. If you haven't made time to ride or walk the east span and you want to see the old bridge, you still have time.

Upper deck being methodically removed, bracing added ...

A section close to the new span, debris shield installed ....
Once the old cantilever section has been removed, completion of the ped/bike path to meet Treasure Island will begin. That's currently slated to be completed sometime in 2015.

All these changes and milestones got me to thinking about next year. What should my CO2e goals be for 2014? I haven't finalized them yet, but one goal is to sell one of our cars. I'm biking so much that eliminating one car wouldn't be a hardship. Quite the opposite, it would save us money on insurance, license/registration, fuel and maintenance. Another goal would be to log more miles and while that is possible it will require thoughtful discipline: Less chasing down and dropping youngsters on fixies, a slower and more efficient riding speed, continued emphasis on riding safely, staying injury free, and avoiding illness. Perhaps 7000 miles of cycling for 2014 is achievable, but the main goal is to continue to keep my CO2e down and set an example for others: You can drive less, get more exercise more (walk or bike), be healthier and happier, and generate less CO2e to boot. Think about it ...

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Realizing Your Potential

With a long day ahead and few lunch choices near the airport, I made a sandwich detour. The woman behind the counter saw the cycling garb and asked where I had started and where I was headed. She was shocked, thinking it impossible or impractical to ride 16 miles to work in the morning and 16 miles home in the evening. I offered that I hadn't jumped into riding that sort of mileage, I eased into it. She claimed she could never ride a bike that far and I reminded her that each of us is capable of more than we realize.

Reaching the end of the 2013 and having completed my 56th lap around the sun, I find myself above my goal of 4500 cycling miles for the year. I've upped that goal to 6000 miles and with just under 5600 miles and a few weeks left to log the remaining 400 miles, I stopped to consider how far I'd come. With age comes wisdom and as I've grown older, my focus has shifted from my own needs to helping others. That sandwich shop chat got me thinking about what to suggest to readers who might want to undertake a bicycle commute, reduce their dependence on fossil fuel, shed some weight, improve their health, and generally feel more energetic about life.

1) Start Incrementally

First a disclaimer: Verify you are healthy enough to begin cycling by checking with your doctor or by getting a physical examination.

My commute routine started with a mile or so of cycling to BART, riding the train to a station near work, and cycling the remaining five miles. 12 miles round trip was tiring at first, so I'd alternate one day riding, one day driving. Often the train home was delayed and it began to dawn on me: If I could work up to cycling the whole way, I'd get home sooner. Occasionally I'd ride the whole way home. Then I began cycling to and from work and before I knew it, I had mostly abandoned BART. The key was starting with an intermodal solution and then gradually increasing my mileage. Try to do too much, too soon and you may give up before you've established the all important exercise habit pattern.

2) Find a Route

Most people say the number one reason they don't consider bicycling is the lack of separation from motor vehicles. Bike lanes, sharrows, and green lanes are great, but they don't guarantee protection from a collision with a car or truck. Mapping software like Google Maps or the interactive New York Times bike maps can help you discover a good route. Don't put your faith in any suggested route until you've verified it yourself. You may find that designated bike routes are actually less suitable than a routing you find yourself.

3) Form Good Habits

Exercising every day is a good way to ensure success, but realize that it can take as long as two or three months to work out the logistics and for the cycling habit to become engrained. Once you've established a pattern and worked out the kinks, driving to work will seem less and less appealing. If you have to spend time getting to work, why not spend some or all of that time doing something that will make you feel better?

What about arriving at work all sweaty? A lot depends on your circumstances, but with some planning and ingenuity those issues can be worked out. I carry two panniers: One is my flight bag containing my iPad mini, headset, and various supplies. The second pannier holds a change of clothes, a sweater, and my lunch. I use panniers because I don't like carrying things on my back while riding, but these solutions are individual in nature. Experiment and find what works for you.

4) Measure Your Progress

Regardless of your goal (sleep more, eat less, exercise more), you're more likely to succeed if you have a way to measuring your progress. I find the MapMyFitness iPhone app useful for tracking my weekly mileage and time spent riding. There are other apps and they all seem to have historical measurement and graphing tools. If, for example, you see your mileage increasing by more than one standard deviation, you're probably increasing your workouts too quickly.

5) Set Achievable Goals

Nothing will scuttle you faster than setting an overly ambitious goal. Better to set a less aggressive goal that you can meet or exceed. In my own case, I set a goal of riding 4500 miles for this year even though I suspected I could do more. When I met my goal early, I adjusted it upward. Time will tell if I make the 6000 mile mark, but I'll have fun in the process.

6) Pace Yourself

Once your exercise habit pattern is established, avoid being too aggressive with your routine. Americans live in an increasingly competitive, some might say militaristic, society.  Don't fall victim to the mentality of "If a little exercise is good, then more must be better." Unless you're a comic book hero, over-training will lead to burn-out, injury, illness or just a bone-tired feeling that you can't shake. The flip side of exercise is rest: We all need rest. If you have entered your fourth decade or beyond on planet Earth, you're aware that you don't recover from injury as quickly as you used to. So be wise and avoid getting injured in the first place.

7) Expect the Unexpected

Regardless of your well-laid plans, illness, injury, saddle sores, over-training, and countless obstacles crop up for cycle commuters. If you've set a reasonable goal, you shouldn't have any trouble taking a few days off when you don't feel right or if you need time to heal.

You'll also need to be prepared for unexpected bike maintenance, usually a flat tire. Install puncture resistant tires, carry the necessary tools and supplies to fix a puncture, and have the skills to do the work. Knowing how to make simple repairs in adverse conditions will serve you well.

What about rain, snow, and other icky weather, you ask? California generally has benign weather compared to where I spent my formative years (Chicago area), but things can still get nasty. Rain, strong winds, and cold temperatures with high relative humidity provide plenty of reasons to throw in the towel and just drive. My motto: "There's no such thing as poor cycling weather, only poor preparation." Fenders, shoe covers, riding tights, insulated gloves, helmet covers, and good cycling lights (front and rear) are excellent investments. Get equipped, get over the hump, get out the door, and you'll find things are not as bad they seem.

A side benefit of cycling is that you will regularly encounter unexpected moments of beauty and awe. It could be wildlife, a breathtaking sunrise or sunset, the stillness of a gentle snow fall, or the mystery of a thick fog. Consider carrying a camera and recording what you see, share these inspiring moments with others, but by all means slow down, appreciate, and enjoy.

8) Manage Risks 

Reducing risk on a bike boils down to being visible, wearing a helmet, and riding responsibly and defensively. It may not be fashionable, but bright clothing and lights (front and rear) reduce the risk you'll collide with a motor vehicle or pedestrian. If you find yourself resistant to wearing a helmet, ask yourself this: Do you want to experience a traumatic a brain injury when your noggin hits the pavement? Will you enjoy relearning the alphabet in a rehab facility while your significant other feeds you soup from a spoon? In addition to wearing a helmet, ride responsibly and follow the rules of the road. There's a difference between executing an Idaho Stop at a deserted intersection and acting like a selfish jerk in heavy traffic. Don't ride like a jerk!

9) Care for Your Ride

Once a week, clean your bike, check your tire pressure, oil your chain (if you're still using a chain), and check the condition of your brakes. A little preventative attention now can prevent a roadside repair at an inopportune time and location. I've learned this the hard way. Few things match the unwanted excitement of making a tire repair on a dark and lonely urban street in a pouring rain.

10) Be an Example for Others

When people you know or work with see you have adopted bicycle commuting, they may question your mental health. There's no need to try to sell others on the virtues of using a bike as transportation. The very fact that you arrive by bike and that you look and feel great is all the evidence others will need to adjust their commuting priorities.