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Where is the Bicycle Program Headed?
John S. Allen,
[ This was my parting statement to the
My latest news today: To a certain extent, this is a summation of my opinions. I have not been reappointed to the Committee. I understand that the reason for my not being reappointed is that I am not a Cambridge resident, and that I am not alone in this. I have no reason to believe or suspect that my opinions have had anything to do with my not being reappointed.
First, some positive comments
I hate being negative. I wish that the items under this heading were all I had to tell the Committee. Let me make some positive suggestions.
Now, the negative part
It takes off from where I just left off. I feel that there is a need for the Bicycle Committee to debate some fundamental issues of traffic law and theory, policy and procedure.
I'll also say it right up front: Cara Seiderman's very considerable strength, as I see it, is in working with people, in and out of City government. Her work has resulted in a number of significant achievements for the Bicycle Program.
Her strength is not in knowledge of bicycling, bicycle facilities design, traffic theory or traffic law. There are several committee members who know these topics better than she does. She has a very impressive collection of documents in her office, but her experience in her present capacity is not yet very deep. The way she works with the Bicycle Committee needs some rethinking so that she can take advantage of the Committee's strengths along with her own.
She is trained professionally as a planner. This is an asset because it gives her the ability to think big. Unfortunately, however, it is also a liability, in that there is a bicycle facilities planning subculture which goes in very different directions from what responsible bicyclists themselves advocate, and which often fails to benefit from what we know from our years of experience, study and advocacy. It also often deviates from standard traffic law and traffic engineering principles. This division has been apparent over the years at the 4 Pro-Bike conferences I have attended. (The next one will be in Portland, Maine this year. GO TO IT.)
Over the years, the planning subculture has resulted in some successes and some failures. Where it has succeeded is where it has worked hand in hand with bicyclists, and developed a flexible and pragmatic approach. Perhaps the best example of this over the years has been the Seattle program. Our present Massachusetts Bicycle Coordinator, Josh Lehman, got his start as the Seattle Bicycle Coordinator in the late 1970's, and he is a valuable resource. An important element in Seattle's success is the power of the Cascade Bicycle Club, which has thousands of members and a 6-figure campaign war chest. The Seattle planners and bicyclists listen to each other and work together.
Where planning has failed is where planners fail to listen to what bicyclists are saying, or to benefit from our long experience with the facilities that have been planned for us. In America, there has been one spectacular failure, the demolition of the Manhattan barrier bike lanes a few months after they were constructed in 1980. (If you have any questions about my own judgment on bicycle facilities issues, I can show you that I predicted this in writing a month before it happened. This prediction was not published, by the way, so it was no self-fulfilling prophecy.) There have been many more fizzles, and even more smoldering controversies like the one about the Cambridge bike lanes that began with Michael Kenney's Globe article last year. These aren't what we need, but they are best avoided by having real agreement and sound policies before going ahead with construction.
I fear that Seiderman follows the bicycle planning approach without enough attention to what knowledgeable bicyclists are saying. When she said in a recent meeting that John Forester is "biased," well, that's like discarding Milton Friedman's economic theories because they are "conservative." If there were a Nobel prize in bicycling theory, John Forester would deserve it, partly in spite of, and partly because of, his sometimes extreme anti-bike lane views. What he says needs to be studied seriously, not dismissed casually. Any member of the Cambridge Committee who has not studied Forester's books (available at the MIT Press bookstore in Kendall Square), is not ready to discuss issues of planning for bicycling any more than you could call yourself an economist without reading Friedman's books. By this, I am not saying that you have to agree with all that they say. It's just like, you haven't read Shakespeare, and you call yourself an English literature grad? "Well, I don't like Shakespeare very much." That's not the point.
Seiderman spent a considerable length of time in Denmark. She describes herself as a slow bicyclist, with a typical speed under ten miles per hour. Both of these factors tend toward disagreement with the point of view of bicycling advocates and the typical riding style in the United States, because Denmark has a very different traffic law from ours which essentially treats bicyclists as pedestrians. The pedestrian style is most appropriate for the slow riding which is typical of Northern Europe. (My friend John Schubert, formerly editor of Bicycle Guide magazine, after visiting relatives in Germany: "They all ride at 8 miles per hour with a pedal cadence of 30 rpm, on one-speed clunkers!" This is not an exaggeration. I've been there too and seen this)
The pedestrian approach becomes unworkable at normal road speeds of bicyclists who ride regularly and with reasonably good technique, and who want to make trips of more than a mile or so by bicycle (and I am not talking about racers, just ordinary people who use bicycles. I'm talking 15 miles per hour, not 25). Denmark has institutionalized its pedestrian style of riding with very restrictive bike lanes everywhere. These can be regarded as a success in terms of maintaining and increasing ridership levels in Denmark. However, they are only suitable for low-speed riding.
I see Seiderman's planning vision of bicycling as favoring a modified version of this approach. She repeatedly says that the facilities the City has designed are based on American standards, but the question is -- which American standards and also, will it work out? I will have more to say about that later. For now, I would just point to the central goal of Seiderman's approach, as she has expressed it: to increase ridership. She has also stated that she regards bike lanes as one of the most important types of facilities to accomplish this.
Her advocacy of bike lanes is very single-minded, to the degree that the draft policy statement submitted to the Committee last June gave very short shrift to all other facilities approaches including bike paths, wide outside lanes, and neighborhood traffic calming. When I read this, frankly, my jaw dropped. All of the above are important elements of a bicycle program, and what is more remarkable is that people who favor wide outside lanes generally don't favor bike paths, and vice versa.
I completely agree with Seiderman that bike paths are impractical to serve most transportation needs of bicyclists in Cambridge. Whether you like or dislike bike paths in principle, you have to agree that there are few places to build more bike paths in Cambridge. Nonetheless, we already do have quite a number of bike paths, and we need to have a policy on how to maintain them and make the best use of them. And there are a few additional, very interesting bike path opportunities such as the rail bed between Vassar Street and Albany Street, with the connecting bridge across the Charles.
When I ask you to read Forester, I also ask all of you to take up the offer that Seiderman has generously made even to me, despite my being perhaps the most difficult member of the Bicycle Committee for her. She has a large collection of documents in her office and is happy to let any of us read them. There's a lot I don't agree with in some of those documents, by the way, and that's fine. If you want to call yourself an economist, no matter what your political bias, you had better read not only Friedman but also Keynes and not only Samuelson but also Karl Marx.
When Seiderman treads into areas in which she is not expert, she has made mistakes. The Committee wishes to work with her and complement her strengths. I have not found one member of the committee who feels differently. But Seiderman must be willing to take the Committee's advice to heart in order to avoid future mistakes and to strengthen all of our efforts.
It is very hard for me to disagree with people in Committee meetings, or to write this, because I very much prefer not to annoy or anger anyone. I have been anxious and unhappy over this issue. I remember the days of the Mayor's Bicycle Committee when Seiderman served as its facilitator, always pleasant and diplomatic, building consensus and moving us steadily along the path towards producing our report and achieving approval by the City Council. Many members of the Mayor's committee, including Walter Willett, Doug Kline, Rebecca Hall, Andy Rubel and me, have continued as members of the appointed Bicycle Committee. I wish that we had the same accord we had back then.
But things have changed. Seiderman is no longer the facilitator of the Committee, but the City's Bicycle-Pedestrian Coordinator, in charge of its bicycle program. Clippinger is the Director of Traffic and Parking. They now have a great deal of power in determining the course which bicycling will take in Cambridge -- and through the Cambridge example, in the Boston region. What has really thrown me for a loop is not so much the construction of bicycle lanes which have got a very mixed reaction from the Committee and in the media. The problems with the bicycle lanes can be chalked up to lack of experience, and we should all be able to move on. I have more serious problems with what Seiderman and Clippinger have articulated as policy. The question of basic policy, and how it will be determined and implemented, hangs like a cloud over the Bicycle Committee.
There have been two written policy statements from the Bicycle Program. One was the Draft Bicycle Policy Plan circulated to the Committee last June. Paul Schimek and I submitted extensive comments on that to Seiderman at the July meeting. Now we have seen another, public, policy statement, the op-ed piece "Three things Cambridge bicycling needs," which had appeared in the City Weekly section of the Boston Globe on November 5, under Seiderman's by-line and that of Cambridge Director of Traffic and Parking Susan Clippinger. Over the end-of-year holiday period, I took the trouble to read it carefully and write this memorandum.
At the November 8, 1995 Cambridge Bicycle Committee meeting, Seiderman distributed copies of the op-ed piece to the Committee. This was one of a series of items in the Globe, the first of which was by Globe writer Michael Kenney and critical of the Cambridge bike lanes. Several other items in the Globe, including a letter by Bicycle Committee member Andy Rubel, reflected various opinions. Seiderman distributed only the City's contribution to this dialog. This in itself struck me as unfortunate; I saw her as stepping out of the role of facilitator into that of defender of her own opinions.
I will document my assertions about the need for the Committee and Seiderman to work differently through an analysis of the op-ed piece.
I've been a writer long enough to know that some of what the Globe published may reflect editing and not be exactly what the authors intended. I would be glad to accept corrections or clarifications. However, Seiderman did not point out any problems when she distributed the statement. What I write here will be mostly in the form of a response to the statement.
I agree with Seiderman and Clippinger when they say that bicycling is a desirable form of transportation, that bicycling should be encouraged and that bicyclists deserve respect and have rights and responsibilities under the traffic law. Those of you who know me as a bicyclist know that I live these beliefs. I also agree that it's a good idea to promote law enforcement and education. This is what responsible bicyclists have always advocated. There's not much else in their Globe piece that I agree with.
It's not so much Seiderman's and Clippinger's emphasis on bike lanes and neglect of other facilities options that bothers me. I'm no voice in the wilderness on this subject. Concerns about the bike lanes have been well-aired in Committee meetings. What bothers me is the need for a more fundamental debate about policy and procedure.
Seiderman and Clippinger have gone public with their statement in the Globe and to the Committee, and I regretfully now feel that it is only fair for me to respond to the Committee, because I don't believe there is a level playing field, or in fact any playing field at all, unless both sides have the facts straight. Without the points I am about to make, I don't think that either side has.
I will reserve detailed comments on the draft policy statement at this time, because I have already submitted those. I will only say here that I liked much of the statement but found the parts on laws, accidents and facilities deeply flawed; only one of several problems was a list of legal definitions that were taken not from Massachusetts law but from other laws.
As an example, the Massachusetts definition of "bicycle" includes children's bicycles and tricycles, and adult tricycles such as pretzel vending carts. The definition in the draft doesn't. Issues like this are not just theoretical. It would be very embarrassing, for example, to design barriers into a bike path entrance through which a pretzel vending cart could not pass. You think I'm quibbling? This exact problem was only narrowly avoided during construction of the Minuteman path a few years ago. It was avoided because Andy Rubel and I were given an opportunity to review the plans.
I am dismayed that a new version of the draft has not been submitted to the committee 7 months after the comments on the initial one were received. I have made an offer in writing to Seiderman to save her the trouble of redrafting the section on laws, since I have researched the Massachusetts laws related to bicycling and have them in my personal library. This offer has not been either taken up or refused, and I feel hurt by the lack of a response. Despite any differences of opinions, this is a task which I felt I could handle in good grace with no ill feeling, since the laws are a question of fact, not opinion.
Public officials are generally cautious. They are required to pay careful regard to facts. One of the main facts they must respect is that of the law, since they work within the framework of law and are sworn to uphold the law. Where the law disagrees with planning guidelines or theories, no matter what their source, public officials are bound to the law.
I was therefore dismayed to find that Seiderman and Clippinger make statements in their op-ed piece -- generally repeating ones in the draft policy statement -- implying some significant changes in present Massachusetts traffic law as it applies to bicyclists. What is more disturbing is that they do not say "I think the law should be changed in this and that way," but rather speak as if the law is if it were different from what it is.
Though Seiderman and Clippinger maintain that bicyclists should be "following all rules of the road," they describe some rules of the road quite unlike the actual ones described in the law. It is quite clear from statements Seiderman and Clippinger have made and from the facilities they have constructed that the basic thrust of their program is to remove bicyclists from the category of vehicle operators.
Clippinger and Seiderman wish to impose on us something much more like the Danish quasi-pedestrian rules, in the hope that this will encourage people who are now afraid to ride bicycles. Some members of the committee favor this approach and others oppose it, but in any case only the legislature and the governor have the authority to change the traffic law. The Bicycle Committee needs to evaluate Seiderman's and Clippinger's approach in order to consider its implications. If we want to change laws, then we must have a discussion and submit our recommendations to the Legislature.
I am concerned about more than the law; I am concerned in general that the op-ed piece points out a need for more contributions to the City's work by the Committee in areas in which Committee members have particular expertise. Now, some specific comments on the op-ed piece.
Whether these two officials speak for all of Cambridge is questionable. Certainly, many members of the Bicycle Committee are troubled by the bicycle lanes rather than proud of them. In any case, there have been bicycle lanes on Worthen Street in Lexington for many years.
This statement has a friendly sound, but it is too inaccurately expressed to have any clear meaning. How could there be a street with no space? Cambridge has painted lines rearranging the way it thinks people should use street space, that's all. No new space has been added, for example by removing parking places.
This statement appears to refer to anecdotal statements from Cambridge residents, but refers at least in part to a Harris poll from 1990 that shows that many people say they would ride bicycles if there were "safer places to ride." (cited on pages 112 and 123 of Bicycle Use and Hazard Patterns in the United States, published by the US Consumer Products Safety Commission in 1995). The poll didn't go into detail about what sort of places the respondents meant in their answer, try to determine to what extent people actually would do what they say they would, or point out that most people responding don't know what type of places in fact are safe.
Seiderman and Clippinger also imply that their facilities approach increases bicyclists' safety: "[t]o increase bicycling and its safety we need education, enforcement and facilities." As described in the op-ed piece and the draft Policy Plan, "facilities" translates almost entirely as "bike lanes." The only study I know of which makes a direct, scientifically rigorous comparison between streets with and without bike lanes found no measurable effect on safety. (Wachtel and Lewiston, Institute of Traffic Engineers Journal, September, 1994)
The pros and cons of bike lanes have been discussed at great length on the Massbike e-mail list and in debates in the Cambridge Bicycle Committee. Suffice it to say here that this sentence, along with a lack of discussion of other on-street treatments -- wide outside lanes, signalization improvements, traffic calming, and many more -- sidesteps the many serious engineering and political issues which bike lanes pose, both in theory and as constructed in Cambridge; above all, the fundamental question whether a particular design promotes safety and mobility in a given location. The correct engineering and political approach is to ask "what will work best here?" while also looking over your shoulder to make sure you don't unleash either inappropriate enthusiasm -- or a backlash because you have gone too far too fast and things didn't work out.
The second sentence here doesn't make any sense at all. Maybe it's an editing error? But the first sentence isn't quite right either. The only real exclusive-use lanes are carpool or bus lanes on limited-access highways without crossing or turning traffic. A bike lane on a city street is not in fact designated only for bicycles, because other vehicles must also use it.
The national guidelines for bicycle lanes were developed under the aegis of the Federal Highway Administration but are promulgated by the private American Association of State Traffic and Highway Officials. The FHWA declined to give the guidelines an official endorsement in 1980. As I understand it, the FHWA considered the guidelines too controversial, with some interests wanting them watered down and others, strengthened. Yes, the Cambridge bike lanes, including the Mt. Auburn Street one, generally meet the specifications of the guidelines, and reveal just how inadequate the guidelines are. In fact, the guidelines have been a topic of hot debate for years in the bicycling and traffic engineering community, ever since that first Federal action. People who want to promote bicycle use by novices talk about the good points of the guidelines. Others, including many members of the Committee, have seen that the guidelines are no guarantee of good design.
Here's another sentence that doesn't make sense. I think that it means to say that the lanes, rather than the rules, are only for bicyclists. After saying that the rules are only for bicyclists, this paragraph goes on to give only one rule, for motorists. Besides, this rule is not what the traffic law says. Under the law that applies to all types of exclusive lanes, a motorist could be cited for traveling continuously in a bicycle lane, but Massachusetts has no traffic laws specifically for bicycle lanes.
All states require motorists to merge into the rightmost lane before making a right turn, with no exception for restricted lanes such as bike lanes or bus lanes. Chapter 90, section 14 of the Massachusetts General laws says "When turning to the right, an operator shall do so in the lane of traffic nearest to the right-hand side of the roadway and as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway." This is as the law must be. Any law requiring or encouraging right turns from the left lane, as the Cambridge officials propose, can lead to liability suits following accidents. Then, not only the driver who struck the bicyclist, but also the City, is liable. The Cambridge officials' advocacy of such maneuvers and construction of facilities which encourage them also easily lead to such liability lawsuits.
By designating space for through bicycle traffic to the right of right turning motor traffic, and proposing that motorists "cross" the bike lane, Cambridge is encouraging bicyclists, and motorists, to violate the vehicular rules of the road. Bicycles are defined as vehicles under Massachusetts laws (Chapter 85, section 11B) and regulations [720 CMR 9.01 (26)], and the vehicular rules are the ones bicyclists must follow under the law unless they dismount and become pedestrians.
Once again, the Cambridge officials describe motorists as "crossing" bicycle lanes. Yes, everyone should be especially cautious when making the maneuvers described here. Why? The classic Cross and Fisher study of car-bicycle collisions (A study of Bicycle-Motor Vehicle Accidents: Identification of Problem Types And Countermeasure Approaches, NHTSA, 1977) shows the #1 and #3 car-bike collision types for adult cyclists in urban areas to be the oncoming motorist left turn and the motorist right turn from the left of the bicyclist.
The bike lane's positioning bicyclists to the right of right-turning traffic, and concealing them from oncoming traffic, inherently worsens these problems. The nonstandard and illegal maneuvers contradict fundamental traffic theory, which requires all vehicle operators -- bicyclists and motorists alike -- to merge to the correct lane position before the intersection so they fan out, rather than crossing each other's line of travel, and so they do not block each other's line of sight in the intersection.
A motorist preparing to turn right should slow and follow a bicyclist in the bike lane if necessary, not "cross the lane." Furthermore, traffic signals do not effectively separate crossing flows of traffic which have not merged before the intersection. As theory and experience both show, bicycle lanes encourage motorists to operate recklessly and unlawfully in making right turns. Many of the more gruesome accidents I know of, including one to Peter Campagna, former president of the Bicycle Coalition, involved motorist right turns.
The dashed sections of the Cambridge lanes are too short to permit a standard merging maneuver either by bicyclists preparing to turn left or by motorists preparing to turn right. This is what I call the "miniature golf" approach to bicycle facilities, the idea that "well, bicycles are smaller and so we'll make smaller markings for them." The confusing markings are nonstandard according to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the national and Massachusetts standard for such markings. The dashes as originally painted are too small to be visible from the distance at which bicyclists and motorists must make decisions about merging, though the City has indicated that this will be changed. There is no signage, and no instruction available in any effective way to bicyclists or motorists indicating the purpose of the dashes.
All in all, the dashes do not serve their proper purpose, which is to indicate to bicyclists and motorists the requirement to merge before the intersection. My understanding earlier this year was that the lanes would be discontinued ahead of intersections rather than dashed. Andy Rubel has suggested that bike lane stripes should be dashed everywhere. Lanes dashed everywhere would be particularly encouraging to the bicyclist who feels the need for official permission to leave the bike lane on Mt. Auburn Street to pass one of the trucks which line up every weekday to deliver food to the Harvard dining halls. The only known alternatives: convince Harvard to build loading docks (a noble cause to which I wish much good luck); bicyclists ride on the sidewalk; bicyclists crawl under the truck; truck parks outside the bike lane, blocking a full lane of motor traffic, while the driver, hand truck and stacks of foodstuffs repeatedly cross the bike lane while unloading.
On first reading, this sounds like a generous recognition of bicyclists' rights. But if we read more carefully, we see that Seiderman and Clippinger once again misread the law. In this case, they fail to recognize important legal rights which bicyclists actually have. This reminds me of the scene from the old Mickey Mouse cartoon where one of the Beagle Boys (bad guys) asks Mickey "do you want that button?" Mickey replies "Yes," and the Beagle Boy yanks the button off Mickey's shorts and hands it to him. Mickey still has the button, but it is no longer holding up his shorts.
I know that the Beagle Boys meant badly and the Cambridge officials mean well, but good intentions make little difference if the outcome is the same. Massachusetts law sets no special conditions which bicyclists riding outside bike lanes must meet. The lanes outside the bike lane are not "motor vehicle lanes" but all-vehicle lanes. In fact, bicyclists may by law (Chapter 85, Section 11B) not be prohibited anywhere except on limited-access and express state highways.
Bicyclists often travel more slowly than motorists and, like all vehicle operators, are required by law to keep right to allow faster vehicles to overtake when safe [720 CMR 9.05 (5)]. The Cambridge officials' statement says something different. It rests on an assumption with no basis in the law, that bicyclists must remain in the bicycle lane at all times except under special circumstances. Such a restriction -- as in fact exists in some states but not in Massachusetts -- in a collision with a motor vehicle, this restriction drastically weakening the bicyclist's claim against the motorist's insurance just because the bicyclist was outside the bicycle lane and can not demonstrate a good reason for it. That can be hard to do, for example if the dog chasing the bicyclist ran off or if, as often happens, the injured bicyclist does not remember the accident. Seiderman and Clippinger set up a higher, more restrictive standard for bicyclists than for other vehicle operators, quite unlike the present Massachusetts law (Chapter 90, section 14, "Precautions for safety of other travelers"), which sets a higher standard for motorists to protect the lives and safety of the more vulnerable pedestrians and bicyclists who share the road with them.
This is not a hypothetical quibble. In my 13 years as an expert consultant in bicycle accident cases, I have repeatedly seen insurance company lawyers use any possible argument to prevent a bicyclist from collecting on a motorist's insurance. I have developed a healthy distaste for anything which gives these lawyers a broad brush with which to tar injured bicyclists. Careless statements about bicyclists' legal rights are not politically correct with me, to use a currently popular expression.
I don't know why Seiderman and Clippinger, once again, don't cite the traffic law correctly. If they didn't think they had to consult the City's attorney, we should raise this issue with them. If they didn't have the authority to ask the City's attorney to review their statement before publication, or if the attorney raised no objections, then we should raise this issue with the City. I do know that our government officials have to interpret the traffic law correctly to carry out their responsibilities and win bicyclists' respect, and if there is to be meaningful discussion of issues in the Committee.
I strongly agree with and support riding with the flow of traffic though, as Michael Kenney pointed out in the Globe, bicycle lanes sometimes do encourage wrong-way riding -- but I don't think that the bicycle lanes are specifically to blame for this. A wide sidewalk or wide outside lane could also encourage wrong-way riding. It's much more a problem of law enforcement, and of the one-way eastbound Mt. Auburn St. lane's not being accompanied by a facility equally attractive to novice bicyclists for westbound travel.
The second part of the sentence is false. Unless bike lane designs and the locations where lanes will be installed are selected very carefully to avoid the intersection problems I've described -- and the Cambridge lanes are not -- bicycle lane operation follows not "all the rules of the road," but, an altered, nonstandard system of traffic rules which has no official status. This distinction has the important implications for safety, mobility, design and liability which I am discussing here.
The problem of bicyclists on sidewalks is real and troubling, but it is ironic that Cambridge proposes to solve this problem by making part of the street into what amounts to a sidewalk for bicyclists. This is the root of most of the legal and operational problems of the bike lanes. While bike lanes may be a benefit to pedestrians on the sidewalks, their benefit to bicyclists and their agreement with the law are by no means as assured, and generally depend on design discretion going well beyond what is embodied in the AASHTO guidelines.
Because the bike lanes are delineated like a sidewalk, they also are popular with inline skaters, but this works to the detriment of bicyclists. Inline skaters are faster than other pedestrians, and are six feet wide as they fling their arms and legs from side to side. For these reasons, and also because many Cambridge sidewalks are paved with brick, inline skaters will often choose to travel in a bike lane. However, inline skaters are generally slower than bicyclists. Inline skating is very popular; in the summer, we will see some of the bike lanes fill up with inline skaters until bicyclists can not use them. Messages about inline skaters in the bike lanes have already begun to show up on the Massbike e-mail list.
What do we do about this? I, for one, don't have any answers to this problem, short of great reductions in motor traffic. I have very mixed feelings about inline skating. I am sympathetic with it as an efficient, low-cost means of transportation and exercise much like bicycling. On the other hand, the width and speed of inline skaters make it hard to accommodate them either on the streets or on the sidewalks. Inline skaters have a very high accident rate compared with bicyclists for these reasons, among others. Some hard thinking is needed on this subject.
The Cambridge lanes are not properly designed from an engineering point of view, or a legal one unless we are going to change the law to fit the facilities. As to the ridership increase: if this is achieved at the expense of known hazards and legal problems for the City, shouldn't we be looking for less problematic ways to achieve it? Must we swallow bitter medicine with bad side effects to increase ridership, when other medicine is just as effective and doesn't have these problems? Is it ethical to encourage novice bicyclists to ride by providing facilities with these known hazards?
In conclusion: most of what the Seiderman-Clippinger op-ed piece says about the City's policies and the thinking behind them, needs a thorough review. The City of Cambridge can not build the facilities element of its bicycle program on these shifting sands.
What is to lose and what is to gain by changing the basic rules?
Bicyclists need to understand what they stand to gain and to lose by being removed from the category of vehicle operators and placed under quasi-pedestrian rules. This is hard to state briefly, but I'll try.
The advantages of the vehicular approach over the pedestrian approach: the vehicular approach uses the standard rules of the road, making it easiest for bicyclists and motorists to understand when interacting with one another. The pedestrian approach slows bicyclists down, increases travel time, creates new hazards, particularly at intersections, and eliminates the assertive-defensive vehicular riding technique that is the only practical real-world protection against the mistakes of drivers, pedestrians and other bicyclists. Assertive-defensive riding technique, possible only with the vehicular approach, requires a flexible use of road space and a reasonable level of confidence and skill -- but one that any teenager or adult of normal or near-normal intelligence can attain, and it is far safer and faster than any other technique.
I've heard complaints that the vehicular approach is "elitist." The stereotyped implication is that ordinary people can't learn to ride a bicycle according to the vehicular rules, that vehicular riding is too risky and only for daredevils, and that "elite" bicyclists don't understand other bicyclists. Baloney!
For six years I lived, studied, worked and rode a bicycle in Cambridge before I heard of the vehicular approach. I never felt safe or confident in my riding then. I remember all of that very well, thank you. And I am no daredevil. I am a married, middle-aged consultant and writer with family responsibilities, not a gonzo punk Generation X mountain biker overdosing on testosterone. I don't even ride very fast, partly because I don't have it in me any more and partly because I don't have the time to train. My friend Ed Trumbull, who rode 4000 miles last year, is even slower. He's 80 years old and rode it all those miles at 10 miles per hour -- one of the joys of being retired. He's a vehicular cyclist too.
One day in 1977, I read the description of riding techniques in John Forester's book Effective Cycling and my entire approach to bicycling changed almost overnight. OK, I'm a college grad. On the other hand, I know all kinds of people who ride the way I do, including a Charles River Wheelmen member who rides all around the Boston area with style and grace. He spent most of his childhood in the Wrentham State School. The impediment to learning the vehicular style of riding is not intellectual but psychological.
My wife and I have gone on a long bicycle tour in France, where the rules of the road are taught in second grade in school, and where bicyclists uniformly obey the traffic law and ride in the vehicular style. We rode in the country and in the cities, including Paris in rush hour. If you need any proof that a whole nation can accept and promote the vehicular style of bicycling, then go to France and see for yourself.
The advantages of the pedestrian approach: it is perceived as safer by novices, so it encourages them to ride; and if everyone -- bicyclists, inline skaters and pedestrians -- plays by the rules and doesn't make any mistakes, it is consistent, as are the rules for pedestrians. It is more orderly than the chaotic bicycling style that is typical in this country at this time, even if it does not agree with the order established by present traffic law. (This is what I think Seiderman means when she says that she is trying to get bicyclists to "do the right thing.") Since this approach takes responsibility for the safety of bicyclists' interaction with motorists away from the bicyclists themselves and places it with motorists, it makes bicycling as practical a transportation mode in the city as walking even for children who are not ready to operate according to the traffic law, as long as we can trust the motorists also to "do the right thing."
Notice that I didn't say the pedestrian approach makes bicycling safe for children, as some people like to say. I said that it makes bicycling as practical as walking. To anyone who is a parent as I am, the idea of children below the age of 12 bicycling on urban arterial streets with or without bike lanes, or crossing them on foot unaccompanied, is very troubling. What would have to happen so I would let my child ride would be not be the creation of bike lanes, but a reduction in motor vehicle numbers and speeds, combined with a much higher level of civic consciousness and respect for traffic law. Then I might let my child walk and ride by himself a couple of years earlier. I am reminded of the few days after the blizzard of '78 when the major streets were cleared but driving was prohibited. Then, I would have joyfully taken my 5 year old for a ride around Cambridge with me, but I didn't have a 5 year old then.
By "plays by the rules," I mean no double parking, no jaywalking, no inline skaters using the bike lane, no doors of parked cars opened without first rolling down the window to look back, and no motorist right turns without first looking back over your right shoulder. Where conflicts are too bad, we will prohibit motorist right turns as we now prohibit left turns. If you are driving a vehicle such as a van which obscures your view to the back and rear, you must install school bus-type convex mirrors and use them every time you prepare to turn right at intersections and driveways, and when pulling over to park. As you do this, you must be extra slow and careful, because you are looking into the mirror, which diverts your attention from the vehicles and pedestrians ahead of you in the intersection. Expect some accidents despite these precautions. At major intersections, we're going to need new traffic signals alternating a no right turn phase for motorists and a full red for bicyclists. Rebecca Hall and Cara Seiderman have expressed enthusiasm for special traffic signals. I, too, think they can be helpful under certain conditions: for example, there's little reason not to let bicyclists continue across the top of a T intersection while traffic enters from their left. In most cases, though, special signals for bicyclists are strong and bad-tasting medicine. Like our present special left-turn-only phases, which traffic engineers install only when there is no alternative, they lead to greater delays for everyone as the green-light time for each traffic movement is reduced.
Will the pedestrian-type approach work in reality? If you are a bicyclist, will you wait longer for your extra red light with the same steadfast patience and dedication as you wait for the conventional red light? If you are the Police Department, will you enforce all of the new and unusual rules? If you are a motorist, will you be careful enough? If you are delivering food to the Harvard dining halls, just where are you going to park your 10-ton truck? If you are the City, will you invest in the new traffic signals and put up with the resentment from bicyclists and motorists alike about the new, more restrictive laws and increased travel delays?
For the record, I stop for red lights myself. I don't know that I would have the patience to wait for extra ones when I have the option of merging left and moving through the intersection in the normal traffic stream, as I already do. If the laws are ever changed to require pedestrian-type operation and prohibit merging out of the bike lane (as is the case in Denmark, for example), I will use my bicycle less, because I won't be able to get places as quickly or get as good exercise by riding. It's a real Catch 22 when facilities which are supposed to make bicycling more attractive for people who don't ride bikes make it less attractive for people who do ride bikes.
Why the idea of segregating bicyclists is so seductive
Beginners to bicycling always start out with a knowledge of pedestrian operation, and it is all too easy to get stuck at this level of bicycling. I did, for years. Novice bicyclists find it too easy to perceive the hazards and conflicts as being worse, rather than better, for bicyclists who follow the standard rules for vehicle operators. This is what John Forester calls the "cyclist inferiority phobia." A specific example: a bicyclist approaches an intersection in the right-side blindspot of a van which then turns right. The bicyclist is forced into the curb and narrowly avoids being run over by the van's right rear wheel. The bicyclist perceives the hazard as being the van, and motor traffic in general. The bicyclist is understandably terrified about moving farther out into the street. The common cry is "The driver didn't use his turn signal."
Very well, but in the real world, motorists often do forget to use their turn signals, and they don't expect to be passed on the right in the lane from which they turn right. It is also hard, and sometimes not possible, to see what is to the right and behind you as you drive a motor vehicle. On the other hand, motorists very rarely merge left out of the right lane without first looking back to see whether another vehicle is approaching. They can easily scan to the left out the driver's window and in the left rear-view mirror. Besides, there is no curb to the left. The bicyclist can keep far enough away to slow and drop back if the motor vehicle unexpectedly starts to merge left -- while also in the center of the field of view of the vehicle's left-side mirror (rule of thumb: if you can see the driver's eyes in the mirror, the driver can see you). The bicyclist who merges and overtakes to the left of the van is much safer, and faster too. Nobody who has taken up the vehicular style of riding ever abandons it. Only by moving past the pedestrian style is it possible to ride with confidence and in safety while maintaining normal bicycle travel speeds.
The pedestrian-style bicyclist is forever hobbled by fear and regards the vehicular bicyclist as a crazy daredevil. In fact, statistical studies show that the vehicular-style bicyclist rides much more safely than the typical, unskilled bicyclist, despite higher speed. Isn't that ironic?
A few final thoughts
Rigid, "trolley track" bike lanes like those in Cambridge institutionalize the pedestrian style of bicycling. Once they become the norm, very few bicyclists ever move past this style. When facilities and bicyclists' behavior reflect the pedestrian style, the laws often are changed to reflect it as well. Then, bicycling becomes a slower-speed, shorter-distance travel mode as it is in northern Europe. This approach does not fit with the greater size of American cities and the American preference for high-performance, multi-speed bicycles. It is especially troubling in Cambridge where an unusually large percentage of people who use bicycles for transportation is young and healthy, primarily college students. In that context, a program which tries to institutionalize a pedestrian style must be regarded to an unfortunate extent as one which prevents bicycling from achieving its potential as a transportation mode, and perpetuates bicyclists' riding in a condition of fear, submission, danger, and disorder.
Over the past 25 years of my riding in the Boston area, I have seen the skill level of the better bicyclists increase enormously. The college students are still a problem, but the resident regular bicycle users, well-represented on the Cambridge Committee, know what we are doing. When I first moved here, I rarely saw anyone make a vehicular left turn. People would instead ride to the far right corner of the intersection and then swerve left -- one of the most hazardous maneuvers possible, but people thought it was safer since they always stayed at the side of the road. 25 years ago, I frequently saw people riding along the curb to the right of right turn lanes. Now that is less common. There is a much stronger bicycle club and BCOM presence now which is spreading the information about good riding skills. Andy Rubel's popular Boston's Bikemap gives all the essential information or riding techniques on its back side. I am proud to be the author of the back side of the map.
Bikes themselves are better: in particular, as it affects utility riding, brakes are much smoother and work better in the rain with today's parallel-flange aluminum rims. Helmets were unknown in 1971 when I moved into "The Warren" at the corner of Ware Street and Broadway in Cambridge. (The adjoining building is called not "The Bear Cave" or "The Wolf Den" but "the Harding" -- I guess you can figure out when they were built). Now helmets have dramatically reduced the risks of bicycling.
A program to pedestrianize bicyclists' behavior throws away everything bicyclists have learned about safe riding skills and which I have worked very hard for as an author and advocate for 20 years. Basically, that anyone should be constructing, and defending, rigid bike lane treatments that encourage the pedestrian style disappoints, angers and saddens me deeply. Let's not do it.
I don't think that the laws will ever mandate the pedestrian style here, and if so, they won't be enforced. The likely outcome of continuing a single-minded focus on bike lanes that encourage this type of riding, like the "trolley track" bike lanes built last year, is that the facilities just won't be a good match for the bicycling population, riding styles will remain as unfortunately chaotic as they are now, and the good citizens of Cambridge will rebel against the Bicycle Program. This is the risk which bicycle programs in other cities such as Denver, Seattle and Portland have moved beyond by adopting flexible and advanced design principles. I hope we do too, both in our facilities and in the underlying policies.
I thank you for your attention.
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