Category Archives: Roads

“Bikeable Cities” and Bike Lanes

Seattle was recently ranked #7 in the nation for “bikeability.”  While we can all collectively pat ourselves on the back or bemoan the fact that we finished behind DC and Minneapolis, I was interested in the methodology used.  According to the Walkscore folks who put it together, the “bikeability” rating of a community is based on four equally-weighted factors: Hilliness, bike lanes, road connective and bike commuting mode share.

I guess Seattle’s always going to be in a hole compared to DC & Minneapolis when it comes to hilliness.

Having a fair bit of familiarity myself with the ins-and-outs of rating the intangible, I’m impressed with the thought that went into the Bike Score rating methodology.  For instance, check out how bike lanes are dealt with:

Bike lanes are divided into four categories: on-street bike lanes, off-street trails, cycletracks (separated bike lanes), and residential bikeways (a.k.a. bike friendly streets or greenways).

While examining the data, there were variations in how cities reported their infrastructure, especially with regard to residential bikeways. In cities like Vancouver, residential bikeways are bike priority streets with traffic calming, signage, and on-street markings. In some US cities, a residential bikeway might have very little infrastructure. Because of these, we collapsed the four bike path categories into two categories, on-street and off-street.

For a given location, we sum up the length of all nearby bike lanes. We apply a distance decay function to each segment, where no value is given to segments further than 1,000 meters from the origin. We weight off-street lanes 2X as valuable as on-street lanes. This creates a raw value that we normalize to a score between 0 – 100 based on an average of the highest Bike Lane Scores that we sampled.

Obviously there is a wide variation in the quality of bike lanes, and it’s great to see that the Walkscore guys are accounting for the differential between on- and off-street lanes.  However, seeing this recent tragic news out of Portland about a cyclist dying in a right-hook collision while riding in a bike lane, I have to wonder if on-street lanes should count at all – or if they should carry a negative weight.

The problem is that many urban on-street lanes are poorly-designed.  They put riders in the door zone, require swerving around double-parked trucks, dealing with buses crossing the lane mid-block to meet stops, and offer no bail-out options if a clueless pedestrian steps off the curb.  They also reduce visibility while simultaneously raising cyclist complacency that they are safe in “their” lane.

This is why I often don’t ride in bike lanes, preferring to take the whole lane for safety’s sake – and why I find that some of the lanes (like Pine Street downhill – photo above) don’t contribute at all to the “bikeability” of my city.

Taking the (Residential) Lane

The last mile or so of my commute home is through the residential portion of Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Like many residential neighborhoods in Seattle, the streets on Capitol Hill are remarkably narrow. How narrow? On many, the fact that parking is permitted on both sides means there is only one lane. If two cars are headed in opposite directions, one must dive into an open parking place or driveway to let the other pass. That narrow.

These streets are also notable for having uncontrolled intersections, many of which have “traffic calming circles” in the center.

(feel the calm?)

So, of course, I almost always take the lane when riding through my neighborhood. In fact, on many streets there’s really no other option unless you like being passed very closely while riding right in the door zone. Which I don’t.

While this doesn’t usually cause much consternation with drivers, I’ve had three occasions this week where I’ve been passed by drivers DESPITE my trying to take the lane (these were on some of the wider streets where two cars can pass abreast). In two of these cases, they passed in the half-block before getting to a “traffic calming” circle, forcing me to practically climb up their asses as they had to slow down to navigate around the circle.

While I still think taking the lane is the safest thing to do in most cases, it sucks when drivers won’t respect it – particularly when they pull off dangerous moves to get around.

Still Cold

I was commiserating with a bike commuting friend yesterday about the sorry state of Seattle’s roads in the winter – between the potholes and road grit, it’s a dirty, bumpy ride.

And it’s also been a COLD one. 28 degrees this morning, and we had snow over the weekend. In what’s getting into late March. Sheesh.

Still, beats driving any day of the week.

Fixed Gear Dangers

Yesterday, as I rode down Pine Street in the rain, bouncing along at 20-25 MPH, my chain slipped off the chainring. All it took was a mixture of a little deferred maintenance, a chain drawing near the end of its useful life and the sorry condition of Seattle’s pavement following our January snows.

And it was no big deal. I braked, pulled onto the sidewalk, put the chain back and on and was on my way.

But if I’d been a slave to fixie fashion? Without brakes, I would have been absolutely screwed. The only way to stop a brakeless, chainless fixed gear bike going downhill is to lay it down or run into something. Chain derailment may be less common occurrence when riding fixed or single speed than it is with a geared bike, but it can easily happen.

More Bike Boxes, Please

Riding home the other night in the rain brought to mind two other locations where I regularly make my own bike box by riding to the front and taking the lane. Sure, I’m depriving cars of the ability to make a right turn, but I like to think of it as me them a favor.

Drivers, you’re welcome.

EB Pine at Boren:

Pine adds a right-turn-only lane at Boren, eliminating the bike lane in the process. A cursory sharrows before the intersection suggests taking the lane in a *shrug* sort of way. So I always take that turn-only lane, but not to turn – it’s just my bike box. And here’s where I’m doing drivers a favor: Pine onto Boren is a very dangerous right turn, because with the hill on Boren there’s almost no visibility of the traffic coming uphill (usually very fast) until it’s practically on top of you. It’s no place for a car to turn right on red.

I used to take the center lane, but I learned that a lot of drivers get confused by the turn lane and try to go straight out of it. Not safe to get jammed in the middle of that.

EB Pine at Broadway:

Another spot where the bike lane disappears, as the block between Harvard and Broadway in front of the Egyptian is taken up with bus stops. I usually have to take the lane on this block anyway to get around the buses, but I’m not content to retreat to the corner once I reach Broadway. The intersection is clogged with pedestrians, and too many cars try to jump the light changes and turn before the peds can step off the curb.

Even more crucially, Pine narrows dangerously on the other side of Broadway. A left turn lane from WB Pine and inexplicable parking spots turn EB Pine into a single narrow lane for half a block before it widens out and the bike lane reappears. There’s no way to get through there without taking the lane, and taking it aggressively. Cars will squeeze by you by inches if you don’t. Not safe.

Those are but two suggestions for places the city could improve cycling safety with a little bit of paint. I’m sure there are plenty more.

Variety Bad

Rule 5 of my annoying-but-satisfying rules for urban commuting is to pick a route and stick to it. Why? Because habits keep things sane and safe. And by not needing to satisfy your variety/curiosity bug on something as mundane as the route you ride home, you can let your freak flag in some other area of your life.

Just don’t get facial tattoos. Unless you’re Maori, it’s not a good look.

Anyway, the safety of a predictable route to and from work. When you know your route, you know the dynamics of every intersection, where the buses like to cut you off, where the drunks are likeliest to stumble off the curb, where you need to give the door zone a wide berth.

And, most importantly, where the potholes lurk.

(this is one of the ones I know about)

I failed to observe Rule 5 last night. And it’s dark dark dark these days in Seattle. After taking a one block deviation from my normal path due to some backed-up traffic, I rode right into a tire-swallowing pothole. It could have been ugly, in a tumble-over-the-handlebars kind of way, but somehow I managed to stay upright. Must remember to mind my own rules.

Pine & Bellevue Green Bike Lane

Seattle Bike Blog points out the intersection of Pine and Bellevue – through which I cross twice daily on my commute – was ranked one of the top 5 crossings in Seattle for bike-car collisions. I can’t say I’m surprised; there’s lots of cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians in that area. The saving grace is that the cars aren’t usually moving very fast.

In response, the City of Seattle has painted a green bike lane through the intersection.

While well-intentioned, it’s not likely to make much of a difference. The problem with this intersection – and indeed, this entire stretch of westbound Pine – is the bike lane itself. It shouldn’t be there. There’s too much double-parking, too close of a door zone, too many pedestrians darting out, too many buses diving across the bike lane (and blocking it) to make stops and too many cars making right turns. It’s far safer for cyclists to simply take the lane, or use the bike lane only – and cautiously – to pass backed-up traffic.

Not to beat a dead horse, but I would have rather seen the City do to this intersection what they did to westbound Pine between 14th and 15th: bike lane uphill; sharrows downhill. People on bikes instinctively want to take bike lanes, and drivers expect them to. The city shouldn’t exacerbate this problem by painting lanes in places they don’t belong.

The good news is that we can take matters in our own hands. We’re not required to ride in bike lanes, and shouldn’t ever do so if it compromises safety.

Just ignore this bike “facility” and take the lane.

Aloha Means Goodbye

I don’t know what it is about the stretch of Aloha Street eastbound from 19th to 23rd Avenues. There’s a four-way stop at 19th. A light and “T” intersection at 23rd. Two schools (St. Joe’s; Holy Names). A single narrow lane in each direction. For whatever reason, this stretch seems to be the epicenter – indeed, the Hellmouth – of anti-bike behavior on my commute. Downtown? Pike Street? 12th Avenue? I hardly ever have issues. But this scant stretch of Aloha, which I only travel on for 2-3 blocks . . . I’ve been tailgated, honked at, flipped off, passed on the right and passed on the left.

I take the lane, but it’s THREE BLOCKS. And they’re short blocks. And I ride through there at close to 20 mph. I have no idea why so many of the drivers on this stretch are such asshats.

Sure, it looks peaceful . . .

I could avoid this stretch of Aloha, but the alternate route has less visibility. Plus, this is my neighborhood, for christsakes.

Ray LaHood on Urban Biker Safety

Interesting interview of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in The Huffington Post. While I’m a bit dubious about his “that’s the reason we have these bike lanes” comment, here’s hoping this sentiment picks up more traction with politicos far and wide:

“Bikers have as much right to the streets as anybody driving a car and I am concerned about [their safety].”

Amen, brother LaHood.

“Quiet” Streets

Capitol Hill – or at least the northern end, where I live – has lots of quiet, residential streets.  One thing about these streets, which struck me as odd when I moved to the area 10 years ago from San Francisco, is how freakishly narrow they are.  Cars can’t pass on many of the streets, requiring a sort of tango where one party has to duck into a parking space so the other car can’t pass.  Even the slightly wider streets require slowing way down to pass.

When I started riding every day in the neighborhood, I would ride to the side on streets without parked cars (like 18th, or Aloha).  Drivers coming up behind me would zoom around me, often perilously close to the cars parked on the other side of the road (and me).  But on my daily rides I started seeing all the kids and pedestrians walking into the streets, the errant soccer balls and blindly-swung-open car doors.  There’s too much uncertainty for high speeds and close passing on these narrow streets.

So now I just ride right down the middle of the street.  I don’t even give the cars an opportunity to try to pass me; 15 mph is plenty fast enough for these streets.  Consider it mobile traffic calming.