"The streets belong to the machines now. Thank you for granting us passage, metal majesty."
A friend passed this new TV series on to me...Adam Ruins Everything from TRUtv. Essentially the premise is the host, Adam, dismantles many of our preconceived notions about why things are the way they are. In this episode he takes on car culture, dealerships, transportation infrastructure, and where our love affair with the car really comes from. And while I was delighted that the statistics that were actually cited within the tv show were from many of the resources I have already read, (indeed some of these live on my book shelf) they are no less devastating. In fact, cramming them so entertainingly into 22 minutes may make this the best bang for your buck TV ever!
I'm sure many in Planning or those who can't break free from the idea that the car is the only way to get around will say that we live in 2015 so this is the world we have to build for. But that is a ridiculous argument when you understand that some of our greatest cities for walking and cycling and transit went down the car dominated road several decades ago and realized it was a dead end, quite literally. They turned away from a car dominated society and are now held up as the best examples of how city transportation should work. Better for quality of life, health, and society.
It's not that person driven cars are completely going away in the near future. But even in smaller cities an educated guess would lead you to believe driverless cars, combined with car sharing, will dominate the roads by the end of the 2020s. That's a mere decade or so. So when urban "Master Plans" and the "Reimagining" of cities is occurring locally and around the country, who is considering this paradigm shift that is coming? And what do we do with the amazing amount of urban space that is earmarked for car parking right now?
It's not often that I take my day off to read a Masters Thesis but the subject matter was simply too compelling to pass up. After years of reading articles talking about he economic benefits of adding cycling infrastructure, even while taking away some of the on-street parking, it would be nice if this study done in Denver drove a stake through the heart of the ill-conceived notion that losing a parking space in front of a store will put you out of business. But my guess is certain business owners will clasp their hands over their ears even more firmly while chanting LALALALALALA because they can't get beyond the simplistic notion that a parking spot means more traffic through their door rather than understanding that creating a better overall safe and enjoyable place in a neighborhood will inspire far more traffic of all modes and make more people want to walk, bike, take the bus, and drive to shop and dine.
Choice Quotes from this study from the University of Denver Natural Science and Mathematics Department:
There are four broad conclusions within this research. First, Denver exhibits untapped potential for increasing the bicycle mode share, especially when bike trips are combined with transit trips. Second, bicycle facilities are correlated with statistically significant positive economic impacts for local businesses and do not have negative impacts. Third, PBLs improve overall safety for all users and encourage more “types” of bicyclists to use the facility. Lastly, PBLs increase overall bicycle traffic, while simultaneously decreasing the number of traffic violations and sidewalk riding counts. It represents a next step towards cultivating a method to provide an unbiased view of the direct economic impacts of cycling infrastructure improvements.
From the Conclusion of the Thesis:
This research revealed four central findings that contribute to the current transportation and bicycle literature and to future studies. First, Denver exhibits untapped potential for increasing the bicycle mode share, especially when bike trips are combined with transit trips. Many Denver residents live in close proximity to transit, which suggests that they can replace car trips with bike and transit trips. There is also considerable room to improve Denver’s on-street bicycle network to encourage people to ride bicycle for transport.
Second, bicycle facilities are correlated with statistically significant positive economic impacts for local businesses and do not have negative impacts. This research uncovers that new bicycle facilities do not hurt local businesses. In fact, the findings from the Larimer Street study area suggest that the new bicycle facilities significantly increased economic performance within the corridor, when compared to similar local streets. Modeling, time, and other constraints limited the ability to claim that the new bicycle facilities directly caused the economic increases. However, the analysis certainly suggests that the new bicycle facilities were a key component, and potentially the impetus, behind the improved economic performance. While this research was unable to claim direct causality, future studies can combine these methods with interviews or a more robust statistical model to assign causality.
Third, PBLs improve overall safety for all users and encourage more “types” of bicyclists to use the facility. The current lack of bicycle facilities represents the main barrier to increasing ridership levels. This research makes the case that new bicycle facilities can improve the overall safety and equity of the US’ bicycling transportation system. One cannot undervalue the importance of human safety, and this research highlights the key role of bicycle facilities in making US streets safer for all.
Lastly, PBLs increase overall bicycle traffic, while simultaneously decreasing the number of traffic violations and sidewalk riding counts. 15th Street experienced a 37% increase in bicycle traffic at the same time as a 33% decrease in traffic violations and a 54% decrease in sidewalk riding. The impressive increase in ridership, coupled with drastic decreases in sidewalk riding and traffic violation counts, point to new bicycle facilities as a win-win-win that attract more usurers to a space, while also encouraging many of the new users to obey the traffic laws at higher rates than before.
The preceding findings from this research highlight how the bicycle is an underutilized mobility tool with major room for growth in the current US transportation system. New bicycle facilities are tied to increased safety and use, and also appear to provide major economic benefits for the businesses located along the street improvement.
A mixed methods analysis of geographic sales tax, bicycle count, transit access, land use, and census data, paired with qualitative observational research, suggests how planners, policy makers, and other relevant stakeholders can build the best transportation network for Denver’s future.
The peak travel context informs this study on the economic and traffic impacts following the installation of new bicycle facilities. Emerging trends suggest that policymakers and transportation planners need to reconsider the belief that VMT levels will perpetually continue to increase. This study helps to address the need to understand how new bicycle facilities impact local neighborhoods, businesses, and the people who use them to get around the city. These findings speak to the logical reasons why Denver should build more bicycle facilities, but the intrinsic benefits of the bicycle as an inexpensive, efficient, cost-effective, healthy, low impact, local, sustainable, equitable, accessible, and enjoyable transportation mode, represent the true reasons why US cities must improve their bicycles networks and encourage more residents to have fun riding their bicycle for transportation (Rosen et al. 2007; Mapes 2009; Byrne 2010; Birk and Kurmaskie 2012; Pucher and Buehler 2012; Henderson 2013).
When Are Cyclists at Fault for Car/Bike Collisions? Almost Always
This post has stuck with me in part because it relates a close call I had with a car, and partly because I see cyclists often doing dumb things on the road. Not necessarily illegal things, but not identifying danger zones and riding cautiously but assertively in traffic. That is the fault of the cyclist, but also the fault of our lack of driver and rider education in this country. It's no wonder that some of the best cycling countries in the world have extensive bicycle education programs that start at a young age.
On my way home from work on Saturday I had one of the closest calls on my bike that I’ve ever had with a car. Or more accurately, a mini-van. It’s one of those common scenarios for a bicyclist, traveling in a right hand lane and an auto approaches the road from the right on a side street looking to make a left hand turn across my lane. Without pausing to thoroughly check both ways they pull out and hit the cyclist who clearly has the right of way. In my case the minivan driver started out across the lane just as I went by and came within inches of clipping the right back end of my bike. It was only after I turned around to yell and get a good look that I saw that he was on his cell phone and almost completely oblivious to my presence.
After calming down and the adrenaline subsided a bit I couldn’t help but remember that I was about a quarter of a mile away from the ghost bike memorial for David Pumphrey I took part in the ghost ride in his honor along with dozens of other cyclists.
In thinking about my close call, I had to admit that in reality, it was my fault that I almost got hit. I don’t mean in a legal sense. I most certainly had the law on my side (although the police typically do a bad job of enforcing the law when a cyclist is hit). And I don’t mean ethically. There is nothing ethical about running down a cyclist in a 2 ton piece of metal. But, as a cyclist I think that for the most part cyclists must be hyper aware of their surroundings and know how to make sure to be seen, double-check eye contact with drivers, use hand-signals, and simply make their presence known and recognize the potential for a bad situation before it happens.
In this case, the mini-van had very tinted windows making eye-contact impossible to confirm, but I was riding wearing a multi-colored jersey on a bright orange bike on a bright mid-day ride, and I was only going about 16 mph. But in the end I shouldn’t have assumed (hoped) that the driver saw me.
It seems to me about the only time we as cyclists have to just have some measure of faith that we are seen is when cars approach us from behind and we assert our place in the road while giving drivers the appropriate amount of space for the given lane width and driving conditions.
Over the many years I have biked on city streets I have had very few (amazingly few, really) close calls. Knock on wood. This is certainly because of the hyper awareness I mentioned above. There are times that I have felt almost a sixth sense about what the cars around me doing so I know exactly the safest (and usually legal) place to be.
In the end perhaps the most unnerving thing about my close call was that my instincts failed me and it was a good eye-opener for me as to the potential dangers all cyclists can face on the roads. Never be complacent, wear a helmet, and ride assertively but safely.
While I appreciate some of what the Cycle Chic movement has done for making urban cycling cool, my criticisms in this piece stand. Particularly the emphasis on mostly shooting photos of young beautiful and mostly well-off women. It just seems to miss the point of how cycling levels the field for those riding in our cities.
I like bicycles. I like photography. I like pretty girls. So you'd think that I'd be an easy mark for the so-called Cycle Chic movement which has grown from its Copenhagen origin to dozens of other cities throughout the planet. I've even mulled the idea of launching a separate Reno Cycle Chic website at one point.
Unfortunately, over recent years cycle chic has started to rub me the wrong way. For instance, they have the audacity of taking credit for the growing cycling movement all the while expressing disdain for the work of bicycle advocates who created the very urban infrastructure that the cycle chic subjects ride on daily. The fact that these advocates started working in Europe in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, to build a better urban space that provides a safe environment for cyclists years before they provided a back drop for Cycle Chic seems to go unnoticed.
Also troubling is that the socioeconomic status continually represented on the site. I get that the movement is about fashion and looking good on bicycles being used as a utilitarian tool. It is called cycling “chic” after all. But the emphasis does seem to grossly misrepresent the reality of bicycle use around the planet. The subjects represented are almost exclusively young, beautiful, women. Nice to look at but when Cycle Chic starts claiming that they have done more for cycling since the inception of their blog than all of the bicycling advocates than you have to question whether they believe that 95% of cyclists are beautiful 20 something women.
I suppose I could create a website called the Pragmatic Pedaler but that really is not nearly as sexy sounding. But it does more accurately reflect the reality of life on the streets for most urban cyclists. Not just in Reno, but around the world, where millions of people ride their bikes in clothes that look like they are going to work in a factory or in the fields, not in an advertisement for for some high tech industry.
More than that, if you look at their criteria for setting up a “cycle chic” blog for your own city you realize just how tight their vision is for urban cycling. No helmets are to be pictured, …. I'm not out to start a helmet war but it seems to me that if an individual rider decides they feel better wearing a helmet on their commute are they out of hand dismissed from possibly being chic?
It seems to me that adhering to this strict view of what is cycling and what is chic, all the while taking credit for the growing bicycle boom is extraordinarily arrogant. As it is, I'm content to occasionally post photos of cyclists in Reno who are practical and chic in their own ways.
Ten Years of the Rambler - Favorite Posts #20 - "Bicyclists Are Not Drivers!"
This particular post inspired some of the most hostile email I've gotten and a few comments (see below). It seems that cyclists who see bicycles as strictly vehicular in nature are often, shall we say, simpleminded and hostile. It's fun to see how my own ideas about cycling and infrastructure have changed as well. I hope you enjoy this entire series.
A few months ago I joined a group on Facebook calling themselves, Cyclists Are Drivers. There are some fascinating conversations and articles posted there but after observing the page for weeks I was finding that the opinions posted were increasingly unreasonable in the way they could not accept any infrastructure that did not treat bicycles as if they were cars.
Now donât get me wrong, I am not saying, nor is my postâs title meant to indicate that I do not believe that bicycles are vehicles. They clearly are in that they convey people and their stuff from location to location using whatever urban infrastructure is available to them. What troubles me is the lack of willingness to consider that the physics and engineering of a bicycle does not give a bicyclist the same ability to navigate our landscape and there is little acknowledgement of this. Simply put, the bicycle as a means of locomotion has strengths and weaknesses that need to be considered when designing our cities.
To be sure, the Cyclists Are Drivers proponents raise some important questions about safety and the trend towards more âbicycle specificâ infrastructure. Unfortunately, the group also seems to think that they have all the final answers regarding these questions, i.e. treat cyclists like cars in all situations. I wonât site the stats regarding new bike lanes, etc. and safety, because I know Iâve seen numbers that lean both pro and con on the subject and you can pretty easily find various studies if you look around the web. But what if those stats are not the whole story?
Perception versus reality
As cyclists weâve all had those conversations. âIâd ride to work but itâs not safe in my neighborhood because there are no bike lanes.â How do you get people to ride if they perceive the roads to be unsafe, but what they desire to make them safe, i.e. bike lanes, actually is (maybe) less safe? Itâs not like lines of paint act as a force field for cyclists yet thatâs exactly how some novice riders feel about them.
For years as a younger rider I adhered to the idea that we already have a vast network of âbikeâ lanes through our cities. They are just plain traffic lanes, to be used by anyone regardless of whether they are in cars or bicycles. That seemed the best answer to the question of how to get around by bicycle.
Yet after a while I realized that that answer worked just fine if you were an experienced, and typically young, fit, and male, cyclist. This attitude is a recipe for keeping the number of cyclists at the abysmal 1 â 3% range of users of the road. In some places that 1% is being optimistic. If you are happy with that number then you are set because in my experience, growing the cyclist population isnât going to happen without more cycling infrastructure.
But whatâs the end goal in terms of adding more bicycling infrastructure? Safety and the increased use of the lanes by cyclists. Is safety or numbers more important? What if there is more safety in numbers? The Cyclists Are Drivers contingent clearly comes down on the side of less (or no) cycling specific infrastructure but if the end game there is no increase in ridership is that in itself a dead end?
Here is a question worth considering: If bicycle specific infrastructure proves to be less safe than a purely autocentric infrastructure is that a good enough reason to throw it out? Arenât we all hoping to increase the number of cyclists? And more intriguingly, how do you quantify the effect that seeing more cyclists on the road has on motorists? Certainly the more cyclists they see, the more likely they are to be accustomed to looking out for us on the road.
Personal Responsibility and City Planner Responsibility
Adherents to the idea that bike lanes are unsafe will often point to the right hook as a problematic example of biking infrastructure. But where does the responsibility of urban design end and the urban cyclist begin. We all have to take some personal responsibility for how we use our shared urban space. Just like a pedestrian can blindly use a crosswalk without looking both ways she might just find herself dead. It wonât really matter if she had the right of way. In the same way, a cyclist should note problem areas in the urban environment and be extra careful regardless of whether there is paint on the road with a bicycle symbol in it.
In the end there are no easy answers. We have a growing movement of people wanting to use their bikes for transportation in urban environments that have been shaped and reshaped, and reshaped again, by the needs of automobiles for decades. Those numbers are growing for a whole variety of reasons from economic and environmental, to health.
This poses some very real challenges for urban planners when from block to block different variables that they have inherited keep evolving. Nevermind the economic challenges faced by infrastructure redesign. Some of the cookie cutter approaches used in some cities seem just as dangerous as the rather loose interpretations of what is considered a bike lane that I have observed in various U.S. cities.
The Cyclist are Drivers contingent seems to have tunnel vision in terms of their definition of cycling and their ideas about how to navigate our roads. While I support the idea that cyclists should have full access to our transportation infrastructure as vehicles, I fear that their strict definition is a recipe for keeping cyclists subordinate to the car. Havenât we had enough decades of that already?
Appreciated or Summarily Dismissed by the RTC? What Now?
About 8 years ago I received an email from then Reno City Councilmen Dave Aiazzi inviting me to sit on the newly reformed Regional Transportation Commission's, Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. He had found this blog and figured pulling together a group of people concerned about the safety and needs of cyclists and pedestrians could reap greater benefits for the community as a whole. It's no coincidence that the more walkable and bikable a community is, the better it is for everyone.
So these many years later I can proudly look back and say that we accomplished some good things and assess the issues facing the community. One, we are a bike friendly community. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. Yes, we have a Bronze level rating from the League of American Bicyclists. But that's not really what I'm talking about. We have a lot going on that is positive here and I would point to the Reno Bike Project, the BPAC, and the Great Streets Coalition, as being important agents for change.
Where we have failed...or more specifically, the RTC has failed, is in pushing harder for changes that will create a healthier, safer, more vibrant community, and going beyond the one person, one car, mentality that has been so pervasive in American culture for decades. When 95% of the time an auto sits unused, yet will build our transportation system and storage of autos around the single occupancy vehicle, we know there needs to be a culture shift. That shift is happening in many other communities looking at the long-term benefits of getting people out of cars. Reno could be at the forefront of thinking differently about these issues but all too often the RTC has hidden behind "what the business owners say they want," rather than what would actually be better for the community.
This all came to a head last year when they revealed their initial plans for the Virginia Street corridor which elicited a collective, "meh," from most community members. Thus the Great Streets Coalition was born. Then, when pushed to do something more innovative, the RTC changed their power points and tune to say, "We Want A Great Street Too!" And by the end of the process they compromised themselves into a prettier street to be sure. But it will not be necessarily a Great street or a safer street. It certainly won't be that innovative.
Lo and behold towards the end of the process, we on the RTC's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee were informed that the committee would be dissolved, or the word they used was "merged" into the Citizens Multimodal Advisory Committee. The reasoning, too much staff time was being allocated to Advisory committees. Effectively what it really meant was the needs of cyclists and pedestrians, and the voices of the most passionate people in the community regarding the issues surrounding walkability and bikability were being diminished. Nobody in the cycling community believes that the RTC was doing anything other than trying to stifle some voices of the most outspoken critics of their process. Ironically, this was on the heels of some major outcries from the community and City Council over a string of pedestrian deaths in the community. It's hard not to be skeptical of the RTC when they say they want safety but then don't push for slower speeds and diminish the voices of the people most likely to advocate for safety concerns.
I knew I was terming out this summer after years of service. I was still a little surprised to receive this in the mail two days after the last meeting of the CMAC. I hadn't been able to attend because of the Senior Capstone presentations going on at my school that night.
So what next? For me I need to find another outlet for my Bicycle Advocacy. Still figuring out what that may look like. More writing, more riding...it would be nice to be involved at a political/policy level. It's not like I haven't been studying these issues and taking classes on urban analysis for years now. We shall see.
This post is one that I'm most proud of in that I feel it contributed in a great way to what will become a much better corridor that serves the community along Keystone Street. It will be safer and create a nicer neighborhood in the area just south of I-80 which is struggling to say the least.
When I woke up last night at two in the morning because of the pouring rain buffeting the side of the house you would have thought that the rain would have eventually lulled me back to sleep. Instead I spent a few hours brooding over one of the more troubling Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee meetings I can recall.
I've been on this committee created by the Regional Transportation Commission for years and while we are all bicycle advocates and riders on the committee, it was disheartening to see some of the reactions to a proposed option for the Keystone Corridor that is going to be revamped in the future. For anyone familiar with the Keystone corridor in Reno you know that this stretch of road has some challenging, to say the least, infrastructure issues as it transects residential neighborhoods, business districts, I-80, and the Truckee River.
The proposal on the table was an "alternate" route for cyclists along Vine street that was billed by some as a viable "compromise" for the cycling community given the challenges facing that stretch of the road. Vine street is a pretty easy road to ride on with low traffic volumes and does link the southern portion of Keystone with the Riverside Bicycle Boulevard, and the northwest neighborhoods that are outside of the main business district in the middle stretch of Keystone. But something didn't quite sit right with me in calling this a compromise.
It's worth noting that I'm not necessarily an advocate that believes all roads should have the yellow brick road of cycle tracks with barriers or planters and green space separating bikes and cars. But I do believe in complete streets (now to be known as "safe streets" apparently because of the overwhelming data that is demonstrating how much safer we are with this type of infrastructure). I'm also realistic enough to understand that during the 20th century it took decades for our infrastructure to be eroded away from a more peoplecentric model to an automobile dominated landscape. It will likely take years, if not decades, to get the balance back where it needs to be. And, frankly, the areas immediately north and south of I-80 are bewildering in terms of the challenges facing whichever city engineer is "lucky" enough to have to deal with that section.
All this being said, I was initially disturbed by the calls for "compromise" that I was hearing around the table last night as BPAC members weighed in on the merits of the alternate Vine street route. On its face it seems like a good option. I myself use Vine sometimes as a connector from the downtown area to the northwest part of town or my recreational rides. But the committee is not part of the Regional "Recreation" Commission. Transportation isn't just part of the RTC's name but part of its mission. I looked at the map presented above with the highlighted red showing the Vine corridor and noted the portion of the business district that Keystone transects. That area, for those familiar with it, is an economic blackhole. It is also an area that is serving residents of the adjacent neighborhoods who happen to mostly be from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
As I laid in bed I realized what the crux of my discomfort really was. Members of BPAC were being asked to sign off and "compromise" in a way that has little to no effect on the quality of their lives. They (or we) were using this alternate proposal for our recreational purposes to get us around an "ugly" area of town with little regard for the one of the main purposes of a complete streets overhaul of the corridor. I kind of cringe at all of us well educated people on BPAC with our expensive bikes calling the detour around that area a "compromise." It seems like the people we need to be thinking about first are those that are living near that area that need safe access to those businesses and services.
The complete streets redesign should do more than keep people safe, it should also provide a significant toehold for the economic revitalization of that neighborhood. More and more studies are demonstrating that these kinds of redesigns of urban infrastructure have positive economic effects for neighborhoods. Look at the map above and imagine that you live at 2nd and Washington street and want to walk or ride your bike over to the Savemart for groceries, pick up a sandwich at Port-O-Subs, pick up a movie at Videomaniacs, and buy a book at Sundance Bookstore. Oh, scratch those last two...they are out of business or relocated because the neighborhood is virtually not economically viable unless you are selling fast food.
I don't know the full story behind why Sundance Books vacated its location over on Keystone. But, I don't really think it is a coincidence that they moved the store to one of the most economically vibrant areas of Reno, between MidTown and Downtown. And is it surprising that a street at their front door happens to also have undergone a complete streets revamp in the last couple of years? I think not.
On the table are all manner of options to make Keystone a safe and vibrant neighborhood in Reno. Sharrows, road diets, new sidewalks, revamped intersections, all could be part of what makes that area a bustling economic neighborhood serving the people that live there.
To borrow a phrase from the education world that I am a part of, I believe no neighborhood should be left behind and this is precisely what it felt like BPAC was willing to do under the guise of "compromise." That doesn't mean there aren't difficult challenges facing the Keystone corridor and I don't have a perfect solution to offer. No doubt whatever happens there will have to be an improvement over the existing conditions. What I do know is that forgetting that the purpose of the RTC and BPAC is to provide safe transportation opportunities for all residents and visitors to Reno, and focusing on the recreational route around a portion of the most difficult sections of Keystone is not an acceptable compromise.
For over 12 Years I wrote the Reno Rambler Blog covering everything from Bicycle Advocacy, Reno Politics, Popular Culture, and my experiences as a long-time cyclist.