Riding on the tiny bits of bike-centric infrastructure in Seattle – the bikeways on Broadway and 2nd Avenue – offers a glimpse of what urban cycling could look like if we had meaningful planning and building around it. It would be easier, less stressful, slower and safer.
But until that day, those of us who ride daily in the city must contend with infrastructure and traffic rules that are designed primarily for cars. As a result, it’s safest for cyclists to “ride like cars” and truly share the road (rather than just a tiny slice of it).
But what if, in the embryonic period between vehicular cycling and fully-separated bike infrastructure, cyclists and drivers alike developed rules – not so much laws as guidelines – for sharing the road?
I know, it’s a pipe dream, as most drivers can’t relate to the issues cyclists are dealing with when navigating the city’s car-focused streets. But in the spirit of holiday optimism, here are my thoughts on what these rules might look like:
- Stoplights and stop signs are optional for bikes.
- Bikes: You can ride through a stop signal when it’s safe to do so – meaning no cross-traffic or other dangerous condition. Otherwise, wait along with the cars.
- Cars: You won’t get butthurt because some cyclist ran through a red light when there wasn’t any cross-traffic. Their doing so impacts you not at all, except for some vague sense of unfairness in your lizard brain. Let it go.
- Bikes will “take the lane” whenever it’s safest to do so.
- Cars: Most of you don’t realize that bikes who give you enough room to pass often have to put themselves into the low-visibility “door zone” to do so. This substantially raises the risk of being “doored” or colliding with a pedestrian darting out between parked cars. It also make it much harder for cars crossing or turning onto the street to see the cyclist before pulling out. And no, the fact that the city of Seattle has stupidly placed bike lanes right in the door zone on many streets doesn’t magically make it safe for cyclists to ride in those lanes.
- Related bonus for cars: Look before opening the damn door.
- Bikes: Take the lane more often. You’re not doing anyone any favors by wobbling along in the door zone. But you should also be making an effort to move along as quickly as you safely can, and give cars the opportunity to pass when it is safe to do so.
- Cars: Don’t pass a bike, particularly one that is taking the lane, unless you plan on driving straight and at speed for at least a few more blocks. If you’ve got a notion to turn right, cruise for a parking space, or drive slowly while looking up an address on your iPhone, just stay behind the bike.
- Bikes: Don’t pass cars on the right (or the left, on one-way streets) when you are both about to enter an intersection. Even if – hell, especially if – you’re in a bike lane.
- Safe Driving/Riding.
- Cars: Drive predictably. Don’t tailgate or crowd bikes.
- Bikes: Ride predictably and visibly. Don’t do dumb stuff. Have working brakes on your bike.
It seems so common-sensical, but of course, that’s too much to expect in a world where people still think bicycles need to be licensed, bikeways get torn out in favor of parking, and everything on the road is built in deference to King Car.
But just you wait – if I don’t get my Christmas miracle of drivers and cars getting along (which, in fairness, they do better on Capitol Hill than in most places), I can still look forward to end of urban cars. That’s on its way, and soon (my musings on that subject to come).
The Stranger tries an 8-way race, 3.5 miles cross town, to see which mode of transport is fastest.
I could have told them that. 3.5 miles is the same distance as my daily commute; it’s consistently fastest door-to-door if I do it by bike.
“Pronto,” Seattle’s bike share system, launched today, with some 500 bikes spread across 50 stations. A couple of those stations are mere blocks from my office, so I took one of the shiny green things for a quick shakedown cruise.
The system operates similar to those found in other cities – insert your key fob (if you’re a member) or use the kiosk to buy a pass (if you’re a visitor), press a button to unlock a bike, adjust the seat height if needed, and off you go.
Unlike the 3-speed bike share bikes I’ve ridden in flat places like D.C., Denver and Columbus (yeah, freaking Columbus freaking Ohio got bike share before Seattle!), the Pronto bikes have a 7-speed internal hub. The shifting mechanism works well, but as you’d expect with heavy bikes that need to cater to a wide swath of people, the gearing is set pretty low. These things aren’t built for speed, and those accustomed to riding single speed are rarely going to need to shift out of gears 6 and 7, even climbing Pine Street.
It remains to be seen how well the helmet system will work. Right now it’s on the honor system, with the dreaded helmet vending machines expected sometime next year. I really hope the system proves popular, and the stations expand around town. It’s a great addition to Seattle’s transportation infrastructure, particularly for quick point-to-point trips around downtown and Capitol Hill. I’m excited to use it more in the months to come.
Despite some website difficulties (and my skepticism about the program’s success, given Seattle’s nanny-statish helmet law), I signed up for a membership with “Pronto,” Seattle’s new bikeshare service. It’s scheduled to launch in mid-October. Although the nearest initial station is a mile from my house, I figure it will give me yet another option for closing shorter distances downtown and on Capitol Hill. And I want to support the program, of course.
One system that doesn’t need any additional support? Any bike share system in China. Vox reports today that China has over 400,000 bike share bikes – and growing, very, very rapidly.
So, this “Seattle” bike won some sort of bike contest for the “Ultimate Urban Bike” and is going into production. While it’s vaguely cool looking, at least in a “Breaking Away” meets “Aliens” sort of way, it’s just another piece of evidence showing that bicycle design reached its evolutionary limits in the 1960’s.
Sure, there are performance improvements and useful add-ons to make. But when you starting compromising the handlebars by having them double as a lock, and replacing perfectly adequate fenders with some sort of crazy brush system that you KNOW is going to underperform and get clogged with junk, and adding another inverted triangle to the headtube geometry just because you can, you’ve gone beyond expanding the vernacular into design for design’s sake.
And I bet that headlight is WAY too bright for riding in the city.
This excellent piece by Carl Alviani, titled “Why Bikes Make Smart People Say Dumb Things,” tackles the cognitive dissonance at work when people spew vitriol at the occasional scofflaw cyclist (or worse, tar all cyclists with that brush) while blithely accepting the carnage and lawlessness committed all around them by drivers.
As Alviani notes, the vast majority of people don’t ride bicycles, particularly in urban settings, leading to:
The social psychology term for this bias is “fundamental attribution error”: the tendency to attribute the actions of others to their inherent nature rather than their situation, and the less we sympathize with their situation, the greater the bias. A 2002 study from the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory found that it plays a starring role in our perceptions of traffic behavior, with drivers far more likely to see a cyclist’s infraction as stemming from ineptitude or recklessness than an identical one committed by another driver.
This lack of sympathy for cyclists is also related to the failure of drivers to understand why someone on a bicycle might do something – even if that “something” is breaking the law. A driver might understand and sympathize with another driver who cuts off a pedestrian in a crosswalk, but is aghast at the cyclist who rolls through a red light.
It also probably explains why I always feel safer riding on Capitol Hill. You see, it’s not only the relatively lower traffic speeds, but also the fact that so many of the drivers are bike-sympathetic riders who just happen to be driving at the moment.
My travel schedule has been nutty of late, so even fewer posts than usual. But here’s one: about my trip last week to Columbus, Ohio, a city I visited for the first time.
I was impressed with Columbus. What I’d pictured as a rust belt city was in fact a thriving town that seems to be rapidly reinventing itself. The “Short North” neighborhood between downtown and Ohio State University campus is a rapidly-gentrifying area full of bars and restaurants, most of which look like they’ve just opened in the last five years (not unlike Market Street in Ballard, in that respect). There’s all sorts of construction along the river, with a newly built esplanade along the downtown bank. And to top it off, Columbus has some of my favorite transportation options: Uber, Car2Go, and a bike share system – “COGo,” which I used to see all that I could around town.
I’ve lauded bike share here before, and I try to use it whenever I come across a new system. Because of the vagaries of getting between Seattle and Columbus, I had more time than I usually do when traveling on business this time. Instead of using the bike share to make a single trip or two to meet people, I was able to use it for an afternoon to play tourist. And it’s the best way, hands-down, to see a town. It helps, too, that Columbus is very flat, and has wide, empty sidewalks (the streets are highly suboptimal for riding, I learned). It may be a different story when the weather gets oppressive, but on a 62 degree day it was darn near ideal.
The flatness also encourages a lot of single-speed and fixed gear riding; I saw these bikes everywhere.
Purple single speed in the Short North, near one of the arches from which Columbus draws its “Arch City” nickname.
Bike Snob (of course) nails it far better than I could in addressing the “you cyclists should just follow the rules and send the right message” crowd:
It’s impossible, and in fact downright stupid, to “obey the letter of the law” on your bicycle when you find yourself in a situation where the streets and the laws are designed specifically for cars, which describes most of the United States. Moreover, it’s gone way, way past the point where cyclists should need to prove to the very people who are fucking us (that’s drivers and police officers) that we “deserve respect.” We deserve respect for being human, and it ends there. Yet we’re supposed to be good little boy scouts and girl scouts–even when it’s more dangerous for us to do so–to prove we’re deserving of not being killed? That’s just stupid and insulting.
Seriously, read the whole thing. Hilarious, and right on.
- I walked around downtown Louisville at the beginning of the month and was stunned to see that the city has beaten Seattle to the punch with bike share – and no silly bike helmet vending machines (and +1 for being the heartland of bourbon).
Unfortunately, Louisville also has some Angry Birds.
The definition of a New Yorker is not “when walking, ignores lights.” It’s “when walking, knows what’s up.” It’s not ignoring the lights, it’s knowing that you know better than the lights.
Truer words, etc. It’s knowing that you know better than the lights – which is how you have to ride in the city, if you want to stay safe. It’s also how you should walk, but most Seattle pedestrians take after Delia Ephron and blithely wander about and then look around slackjawed when they almost get run down.
And that’s not when they’re minding the lights. Nobody jaywalks here – or at least you’d think so from the amount of stinkeye I get whenever I do it. I think the aggressive obeying-of-street-lights may contribute to the pedestrian ineptness. It’s as if the requirement to obey the lights frees the peds up from critical thinking, so they go when the light is green, stop when the light is red, and walk out into any crosswalk without looking first because it’s their right to walk there.
- The first segment of the Broadway Bikeway – Capitol Hill’s first – is now open. It’s not on my regular commute route, but I checked it out on the ride yesterday. Nice ride, complete with bright green paint on driveways, some spots with actual curb separation, and bike lights at the intersection. This is what real bike infrastructure is all about. Or will be, as soon as drivers learn to not park in it.
Today, on a gloriously sunny afternoon, I finally got a chance to try out Denver’s B-cycle bike share system. I was visiting Denver three years ago on the day the system launched, but the weather didn’t cooperate: thunder, lightening, rain spitting sideways – it was the full gamut of what you can expect on the eastern slope of the Rockies.
Today was far different. I rode through the sunshine around downtown, tried out Denver’s bike lanes (just slightly more removed from the door zone than Seattle’s) and finally ended up south of town at the Buckhorn Exchange for dinner.
Where, as it turns out, there was a B-cycle station right across the street.
The beauty of bike share is the ubiquity of the system. In the core areas, you’re never more than a few blocks from a station. It makes it easy – and fun – to move about town. Simply park the bike in the nearest station and move on. As with most (all?) systems in the US, Denver’s operates on a subscription basis that includes all rides under 30 minutes. Given the ubiquity of the stations (and the fact that the ponderous 3-speed bikes don’t lend themselves to extended rides), it’s hard to imagine getting into extended time.
In Denver, the tourist subscription is available in 24 hour increments for $8.00. You simply show up at any station, swipe your credit card, accept a few click wrap limitations of liability, and you’re off.
Definitely a better way to get around than a cab – provided it isn’t pissing rain.
And no helmet required! Hear that, Seattle?