All users vs. all access

Recently, I chanced upon this post by John Allen. In it, he laments the current movement to develop bike facilities that are suitable for anyone aged ‘8 to 80’ (or an even more inclusive ‘8 to 88’) as being the cause of bottlenecks and generally unpleasant bike experiences. These concerns are also shared by others such as the California Association of Bicycling Organizations. One of the consequences of all this fervor has been that AB 1193 being watered-down amended to effectively make all cycletracks/side paths optional for bicyclists.

At face value, that may seem like a reasonable standard. As it stands, CVC §21208(a) requires bicycle riders to ride a Class II bike lane (note that one of the amendments to AB 1193 also finally abolishes the Class I/II/III nomenclature) except under the provisions set forth therein, but not in an adjacent Class I bike path. While the specific designs vary, most cycletracks that get people out are basically on-street Class I facilities. Design features used to separate the bikeway from the regular traffic (parked cars, planters, bioswales,  etc.) would inherently make it difficult or impossible for someone riding in the cycletrack to leave it at will to in response to any of the exceptions provided by §21208. Additionally, they would be “locked in” both physically and legally without the amendment.

Critical to that line of thought is the worry that cycletracks will be stuffed with schoolchildren and grandmas, ‘preventing’ fast riders from getting through. However, that is a remarkably flimsy excuse. While children certainly might be allowed freer reign on good infrastructure and the number of grandmas pedaling is up too, the claim that they’ll prevent meaningful movement on the paths seems rather outrageous. Certainly, there may very well be an elevated number schoolchildren and elderly using bikeways that have been designed to appeal to them as compared to the status quo. But it seems unlikely that they’ll completely ‘overwhelm’ cycletracks outside of a few specific times and places.

Schools and nursing homes don’t magically appear overnight. Shopping centers don’t mushroom out of nowhere. The general hours of operation and when one should expect to find the average user of those and similar facilities is common knowledge. It should be simple: if someone is concerned that kids might “hold them back”, then they need to stay away from where they’re likely to be found in any significant number when they’re likely to be there. As it is, the same exact thing already happens to cars too, sometimes with dire consequences for those who do not comply. No one can reasonably expect to legally hit top speeds (or even the regular speed limit) in a school zone during school hours. There are also sometimes warnings and reduced speed limits in the area around nursing homes, schools for the blind, and other areas where people are more vulnerable than average might inadvertently end up in close proximity to the street.

All of this brings up a deeper issue: why do bicyclists feel they deserve to be able to go at top speed anywhere they feel at any given time at all costs? As it is, society doesn’t allow it for car drivers. Someone wanting to test the top speed of even their Prius can’t even do it legally on public roads, and wouldn’t dare think of choosing I-405 as the optimal place to attempt such a feat because it’s perpetually crowded. People also don’t take too kindly to idiots who do it in the neighborhood–or even empty industrial districts. Yet riders expect to be given free reign of the streets without restriction, and often get mad (road rage?)  when anyone challenges that expectation.

At the same time, there’s another fact that needs to be acknowledged: in the grand scheme of things, bikes are slow. Despite the argument that bikes “belong” in traffic and the resulting lament that bikes are “losing ground” because some places restricted their place in traffic, the basic fact still remains that even someone pushing themselves to the limits of puking is most likelystill at least 10 MPH (but easily 20-30) slower than the speed limit of the road where a cycletrack would likely be most appreciated and necessary. As it is, all vehicles, but especially those going slower than normal traffic, are required to keep right. Does society need to accommodate what amounts to intentional impediment of traffic even when a facility specifically for traveling at the comparatively low speeds of a bicycle is already provided?

This issue will become even more pertinent as more self-driving cars join the roadways. They will likely be able to travel at higher speeds that are in excess of current speed limits far safer than humans, probably leading to an eventual raising of speed limits once a critical mass of them has been achieved. While they should certainly greatly reduce the accident rate (after all, physics does have its limits), forcing them to slow down to keep pace with bikes on all but neighborhood streets and dedicated bike routes seems unnecessary and cuts into some of their advantages. Also, they will likely free up a lot of traffic congestion due to communicating with other vehicles on the roads (and the roads themselves). That means that many roads that are built for peak traffic flows of today (or worse, in 30 years from now) are extremely overbuilt for the future. The extra right-of-way can be used for quality bike infrastructure instead.

Of course, that brings up the issue of what exactly constitutes a quality bike facility. If what ultimately ends up on the ground is truly inadequate to handle the needs of the kids, grandmas, and ‘fast’ riders within reason, there is a problem. Restrictions limiting bicycles to such facilities cannot precede the facilities themselves. As such, municipalities need to provide infrastructure that is of pristine quality, especially on new construction. Advocates need to hold them to that and ensure that only the best stuff ends up on the ground. There’s no reason to build roads to their ultimate width then not stripe the outside lanes because the capacity isn’t there yet. Meanwhile, these same thoroughfares often only include a 5′ BIK LAN at the edge of a nearly 30′ expanse. Situations like that could just as easily include a cycletrack instead of the unstriped outside lanes from the very beginning, which will likely reduce the need for them to begin with*. Widening projects that don’t include cycletracks also should be pressed to include them.

In summary, care should definitely be taken to ensure that bicycles are not marginalized nor maligned on substandard infrastructure. At the same time, the bicycle is but one tool in the transportation and recreation toolbox. If time and due diligence have been put into designing and building a bicycle facility of exceptional quality, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to expect all bicycle riders to use it. It may not necessarily provide for every single potential rider at any given time, but it should allow the vast majority of riders to be served almost all times. There are undoubtedly times when those minority riders will be served as well and there should also be alternates available to lessen the detriment to them. However, just like cars, it seems reasonable for society to have certain expectations of riders’ conduct including not impeding traffic and for them to not ride recklessly. Bicycles can provide lots of benefits, but they won’t provide the ultimate solution for everyone. Bicycle riders need to understand that and cooperate with reasonable requests put on by society.

*This concept has made its way into a project proposed right here in the Inland Empire. Harmony in Highland include what would amount to cycletracks in practice, but are called Class I paths adjacent to the road but within the right-of-way due to the complications of Caltrans.

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3 thoughts on “All users vs. all access”

  1. Is that how I feel? Not really, and as the blog post you’re critiquing is my own, please allow me to respond.

    The problem with the cycle tracks in the Assen, Netherlands videos I have embedded in my blog post is not that children and grandmas ride on them, causing congestion for cyclists who would like to go faster. The problem is that mature, skillful cyclists who would like to go faster are prohibited from riding on the lightly-traveled parallel streets, where the speed limit is 30 km/h — not even as fast as fit adult bicyclists are easily capable of going. The round, blue signs in the videos indicate that the bikeways are mandatory-use.

    “It should be simple: if someone is concerned that kids might ‘hold them back’, then they need to stay away from where they’re likely to be found in any significant number when they’re likely to be there.”

    That’s works well for recreational cycling, A person headed to work or an appointment, on the other hand, may have a schedule to meet.

    “All of this brings up a deeper issue: why do bicyclists feel they deserve to be able to go at top speed anywhere they feel at any given time at all costs? As it is, society doesn’t allow it for car drivers.”

    At all costs? Running every red light and stop sign, riding like a madman through crowds of people like the ones around the school in the videos? That’s a straw-man argument. Many bicyclists do flout the law, but that’s anti-social and unsafe, just as it is with motorists who do.

    In any case, the sustainable speed of typical fit young adult cyclists is around 30 km/h, slower than the speed limit for motorists on urban arterials. You make that point to argue for separate infrastructure. I’ll make it to point out that for bicycling to draw more trips away from motoring, bicyclists need to be able to travel, to the degree that is practical, comfortable and safe, at the speed their legs will propel them — not be slowed down by congestion, whether on streets or on separate facilities; by indirect or hilly routes; by unnecessary or inconveniently timed traffic signals; by parking (or share-bike stations) inconveniently far from trip endpoints.

    The number of destinations — workplaces, retail outlets, schools, places of worship, friend’s homes, whatever — in a street grid reachable within a given travel time increases as the square of travel speed. 16 mph average, instead of 8 mph? Four times the number of destinations. You do the math. OK, I did. The appropriation of the grass strip between the bikeway and roadway for car parking in the Assen neighborhood in the videos offers a clear indication that bicycling is not competing well with motoring for as many trips as it might: Clearly, the demand for parking space here has outstripped plans and expectations. Also, the blind conflicts and dooring risks from these vehicles are a hazard for the cyclists.

    “This issue will become even more pertinent as more self-driving cars join the roadways. They will likely be able to travel at higher speeds that are in excess of current speed limits far safer than humans, probably leading to an eventual raising of speed limits once a critical mass of them has been achieved.”

    I agree that self-driving cars will bring about major changes, but I think that the higher speeds and denser packing of vehicles you anticipate can’t happen In urban areas, with crossing motor traffic and pedestrians, wind blowing trash barrels out into the streets, etc. Emergency swerves and stops need to be very uncommon for robotic driving to gain acceptance, and so the speed limit will be set by the turning speed and deceleration that are comfortable for vehicle occupants. They don’t change because a robot is driving. It is likely also that robotic drivers will be more cautious than human drivers, because robots won’t try to outbluff other travelers with tricks like inching forward at stop signs, etc.

    You discuss separated on-street bikeways on major arterial streets, but the example in my blog post isof a neighborhood around an elementary school where there are only local streets.

    I think that robotic crash avoidance is going to be widespread within a decade or two, but if it makes the roads so much safer, then what is the rationale for separate bikeways, at least for the faster bicyclists? All that separate bikeways will then achieve is more delay to everyone due to the increased number of crossing and turning conflicts, and unnecessary congestion on the bikeway, or the roadway, when one or the other reaches its capacity. I’ve long advocated neighborhood greenways, or bicycle boulevards if you will, as a less disruptive solution, and the Assen neighborhood with its 30 km/h streets would offer a fine example if only bicyclists were allowed ot ride on them.

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    1. Yes, as you mentioned, the cycletracks seen in that particular video are of the ‘compulsory’ variety, as is indicated by the blue signs (G12). No, that’s not the problem you keep making it out to be for several reasons.

      First, school does not continually begin and end all day long. The elevated number of grannies/kids only happens at the times of day when school is beginning or ending. A Google Street View of the area shows that hardly anyone is on them at other times of the day, at which point someone can ride as fast as they are able. At the same time, congestion around schools is definitely not a problem due to cycletracks. It happens when too many people try to go to the same place at a time, a situation that if bad on a cycletrack is outrageous on regular streets. Agencies all over the country continue to spend millions of dollars on stuff like drop-off zones, median islands, and even secondary access roads to schools to handle it all. In many instances, the the associated congestion is so bad that it would be impractical (if not completely impossible) to ride even 10 MPH. In the street.

      Also, the decision to use a cycletrack in this particular location instead of bike boulevard was the correct one. When looking at the area on a map, it becomes apparent that this is one of the main roads into the subdivision. While many individuals certainly bike in roads with much heavier mixed traffic even in The Netherlands, this one also connects directly to the school and is one the bus route. If parents are going to let their little kids ride to school (because this is only an elementary school), they really don’t want to see them riding in the midst of lots of traffic with buses and trucks, both of which regularly drive through. That’s why a cycletrack was used instead of a bike boulevard. That’s not to say that they aren’t used at all. The rest of the streets that connect off of this one are all de facto bike boulevards that dead-end for cars but connect to more trails that form the bike network for the suburb. Additionally, a good portion of the main route directly between the city center and this suburb is comprised of a bike boulevard.

      That bicyclists need fast, direct connections is not an alien concept. Though there are innovations everywhere, the Dutch have been the ones to develop the best infrastructure for biking that meets those requirements. It’s important to realize that they maintain two biking networks: one for recreation and one for transportation. Contrary to popular belief by some, the Dutch go to great lengths to do stuff to ensure that biking is fast and direct on the transportation routes. As much as possible, main roads and main bikeways are grade separated where they meet. If not possible, then at least traffic lights that default to green for bicyclists or at least (should) change quicker for bikes than for cars. That’s why the all-directions green phase for bicycles came about, and the CROW manual even includes the option for a diagonal crossing phase between left turns (which to my knowledge, has yet to be tried out). The vast majority of intersections in the country that aren’t roundabouts have no stop requirement and if they are a roundabout, they frequently assign priority to the adjoining cycletrack. As described above, a lot of roads employ traffic diversion that allows bicycles to continue use them as a shortcut that is not available to motorists. Those measures and many more are all taken to encourage biking for shorter trips over driving. The vast majority have resulted in a biking environment that individuals ages “8-80” find to be comfortable, convenient, and safe to use, which is something critically lacking here in America.

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