Elephant in the Infra: Signaling

A critically overlooked component of infrastructure as it relates to biking signaling. While great strides are being made everywhere in getting more infrastructure out, the timing and phasing of signals doesn’t seem to be keeping up. Yet, just as transit priority pays big dividends for buses, bettering signaling is possibly one of the easier ways to improve riding conditions.

No doubt, interested municipalities have been held back by requirements that have only recently been lifted. Prior to December, bike-specific signals required a $20k engineering study. Each. With their provisional approval, it is now possible to install signals that give a bikes a head start in the sequence and use signaling to address the issues of noncompliance with traffic signals. For example, Chicago saw a marked improvement in cyclist signal compliance once bike-specific signals were installed as part of the cycletrack on Dearborn.

But while the use of bike signals is certainly a step forward, there are other things that can be done first. Most of the traffic signals are decidedly installed with the goal of facilitating the flow of car traffic. However, these do little to address the needs of riders which are traveling much slower. Having to stop for each and every light is annoying as a driver, but jackrabbiting between lights requires little energy in a car. As a biker, doing so saps energy and greatly reduces the distance one is willing to ride. Areas serious about not just accommodating, but actually promoting biking, would do well to coordinate their signals, at least on certain corridors, to the average bike speed, not a target car speed. These so-called ‘green waves’ allow a rider to continue uninterrupted for the length of a corridor.

If a green wave isn’t possible to apply to, then more needs to be done to ensure that the signals can still serve bicycle riders. While signals here in CA are supposed to be able to detect bicycles, legacy signals often do not detect any type of bicycles at all. (For example, this man had to wait nearly six minutes to be able to proceed.) But even when bikes are detected, the signals often have minimum green standards that are inadequate for bicycle riders, resulting in a situation where the signal length is not long enough to allow them to safely clear the intersection before the light turns red again.

To this end, several cities in the Inland Empire make use of bike-specific buttons on the road side of the signal poles (though if allowed under the CA MUTCD, these are better) while others make use of video detection. Both methods allow for detection of all bicycles (loops frequently have trouble detecting non-metal bikes) and are supposed to give the rider special timing that provides an adequate minimum green so that riders can safely clear the intersection before the conflicting lights turn green again. This is a good step forward, though it creates special problems on corridors where the lights are coordinated. Nevertheless, traffic engineers should look toward making sure that bikes have time to safely clear an intersection.

While it would be better to develop a circulation system in the region where bicycle riders can make as few stops as possible, bike-specific signaling goes a long way toward making the bike experience more pleasant. Since signals are already required to detect bicycles, many will be upgraded over the coming years as development and improvements result in new signals. With the growth in riders on the streets, keeping them safe should be a top priority and signaling helps that occur.

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When the cyclist shares the blame

This is a summary of the Wilder-Watt altercation
This is a summary of the Wilder-Watt altercation

Over the last few weeks, a story has taken the cycling world by storm. As recounted in the press, a biker was left holding a $100 ticket after rear-ending a pickup truck. There was a general air of disbelief as to how the vulnerable road user could be considered at fault in an encounter with a motorist. As it stands, victim blaming runs rampant when cyclists are hit, so this story certainly had to be approached with caution. And although this incident didn’t happen anywhere near the IE, it seemed like a situation that may repeat itself out this way, so it seemed like a good topic to dive into.

Analysis

First, a look at what Evan Wilder, the cyclist in question, had to say about the incident, as recounted in the description of the video:

On Friday, May 9 as I rode home on the R St bicycle route I checked my rear view mirror and saw a truck one block behind at a four-way stop. I attempted to move into the center of the one-way lane in order to have the safest lane position if the truck were driving quickly. Before I could finish adjusting my lane position the motorist Rashad Watt came up beside me in his Toyota Tundra. I stretched out my hand to gauge the distance and was able to touch his truck meaning he was less than 3 feet from me and I said, “Move over!”

That summary covers the first 4 seconds of the video, which begins right as Wilder is passing 2nd St. NE. According to Wilder, he said he’d observed the motorist via his mirror at a four-way stop “one block behind”, so he decided to “move into the center of the one-way lane…if the truck were driving quickly”. (Emphasis added.) Right here in just this short segment, the tone of the whole encounter is set by Wilder. Intriguingly, there are several discrepancies between Wilder’s story and what’s in his video.

First issue: the location of the stop sign where he said he saw Watt’s truck.The actual stop isn’t visible on Wilder’s video, so perhaps it was just a minor oversight on Wilder’s part (though that’s odd since he seems familiar with the route). Still, it’s worth noting that the 4-way stop is two blocks behind at First St. NE, not one, which is Eckington Place. Maybe Wilder did first notice Watt’s truck when Watt was at the 4-way then kept an eye on him as he proceeded to the 3-way at Eckington. But in the absence of any such explanation, one is left to wonder if Wilder was actually referring to First St. NE on purpose or if he really meant Eckington Place and just didn’t realize that it was only a 3-way. Either way, it isn’t hard to check a map and confirm something like this

This leads into the next issue: Wilder attempts to race Watt for lane position. Considering how Watt’s truck appears abreast of Wilder almost immediately after the video began and that Wilder states that he was using his mirror, Wilder knew Watt was close behind. Watt presumably had also seen Wilder and elected to go around him instead of wait, as evidenced by Watt’s truck merging over the painted gateway toward Wilder as they entered ‘R’ St. At the same time, Wilder can be seen feverishly upshifting as he attempted to assert his place in the lane.

As it became evident that Watt was going to actually pass, Wilder says that “I stretched out my hand to gauge the distance and was able to touch his truck meaning he was less than 3 feet from me and I said, ‘Move over!'” However, the video again doesn’t quite agree with Wilder. Right after the 0:02 mark, Wilder’s arm can be seen reaching out. But on the video, the alleged stretch has all the elements of something more forceful. Additionally, a faint thud can be heard around 0:03 as his hand hits the truck. Audible contact isn’t expected if it was a mere touch, especially not contact that is audible to a bar-mounted camera. Since Watt and Wilder were nearly parallel at this point, the sound also cannot be attributed to either Watt or Wilder making a significant movement over toward the other. Therefore, Wilder had to have intentionally slapped the truck for there to be an actual sound. This is punctuated not by a polite “move over” as he states in his narrative, but by a far more agitated-sounding “move the fuck over!”

Those first few seconds take place over the space of 50 yards going from about the center of the intersection 2nd St. NE and ‘R’ St.  then continuing down ‘R’. By time Wilder finished touching Watt’s truck, they are well into the street itself. Wilder’s narrative continues:

The speed table on this street is significant and I trusted that Mr. Watt would slow and at that point I would pass him and get safely out of the door zone. Instead, he maintained his speed and then quickly drove over the speed table. I yell again for him to move over and this time he does, but towards me instead of away. I braked to avoid the sideswipe and since he was stopping at the stop sign and my lane had been cut off I ran into his truck.

As they continued down the street, Watt and Wilder were virtually neck-and-neck. At that point, the door zone was quickly approaching. But instead of actually trying to stay out of it, Wilder chose maintain his speed, despite it being evident that he was being passed. Wilder attributed this to his assumption that Watt would slow down for the upcoming speed table, which presumably he figured would then allow him to take the lane in front of Watt. However, many cars could undoubtedly drive over that speed table at 25 MPH with ease. It should be no problem for a full-size pickup, even if it is a Tundra. Perhaps Wilder is unfamiliar with handling characteristics of various vehicles, but it is still foolhardy to assume that someone passing is going to slow down to allow a slower vehicle to take the lane ahead of them.

In actuality, Watt did begin to slow for the table as can be seen right around the 0:04 mark, but almost immediately accelerated as they go over the table. By the end of the table, Watt was clearly passing Wilder. At that point, Wilder was also decidedly in the heart of the door zone as he was passing the parked cars mere inches away from their wing mirrors. As they continued down the road, Watt pulled on Wilder some more. At that point, Wilder again yelled at Watt to “move the fuck over, buddy!” Watt can be seen beginning to move to turn right at the the stop sign. However, as they near the corner, Watt apparently realized that Wilder was (still!) right beside him and turns back to avoid sideswiping him. As Wilder realized that Watt was coming over, he downshifted and slammed on his brakes, which can be heard squealing in the video. While he didn’t get sideswiped, he still ended up hitting Watt’s bumper.

Why Wilder should keep his ticket

Watt certainly was in violation of DDOT Rule 18-2202.10, DC’s 3 foot law, but Wilder is not completely off the hook either. As detailed above, he refused to give way to Watt, even after he’d been obviously passed. Yet, coming from the exact same section of the law as the 3 foot statute, DDOT Rule 18-2202.4 requires that a vehicle being passed “give way to the right in favor of the overtaking vehicle…and shall not increase the speed of his or her vehicle until completely passed…”. In short, Wilder got passed and should’ve given way to Watt and he had numerous opportunities to do so.

First opportunity: entering ‘R’ St. Both sides are daylighted and there is a bus pad that looks to be about 60′ long that directly abuts the no parking zone on the right side of the street. No vehicle is stopped there in Wilder’s video, so he had around 100′ available to allow Watt to safely pass after he observed Watt driving fast in his mirror. Instead, Wilder attempted to speed up and take the lane.

Next opportunity: the entire drag race down ‘R’ St. Instead of even just letting up his cadence a bit,Wilder continued racing along next to Watt and directly in the door zone. That was quite ironic to observe since Wilder stated that avoiding the door zone was his original reasoning behind trying to take the lane in the first place. Every second of the encounter as they continued down the street was an equal opportunity for Wilder to drop back a little and give Watt a couple feet, but he continued to attempt and assert his position even after he’d clearly lost it.

Watt avoids Wilder
Watt’s wheel can be seen turned left as he sought to avoid Wilder.

Third opportunity: end of the ‘R’ St. There is another daylighted corner where Wilder could have ducked at the end of the street. Watt cannot be seen signaling in the video, but his actions suggest that he planned to turn right and the road straight ahead doesn’t go anywhere either. Yet, it seems that Watt did realize that Wilder was still keeping pace with him and stopped his turn to avoid being in Wilder’s path. But even after Watt had seen Wilder and altered his path to avoid a collision, Wilder still rode directly into the back of Watt’s truck.

There’s also the issue of Wilder’s own account. When he finally started braking, he was barely 60 feet from the stop bar and he was braking hard. Yet, he says he braked to “avoid the sideswipe”, not because he was approaching a stop sign. Was Wilder just so distracted by the encounter with Watt that he didn’t notice the stop sign up ahead? Would Wilder have planned to stop if not for the situation with Watt? Since DC doesn’t have an ‘Idaho stop‘ law,

Summary

Wilder deserves to keep his ticket. He’s at least as guilty of any road rage as Watt is and he was ultimately following too closely after he got passed, to say nothing of his riding straight into Watt’s bumper. His other videos also show numerous instances of similar encounters, including some where he runs stop signs chasing drivers. That’s not responsible riding at all. Vehicular cycling does have its benefits and one should definitely ride assertively, but there’s no point in being “dead right”. A little courtesy goes a long way, especially as bikes still remain the minority on American roads. It’s no secret that riders can be harassed for riding correctly, but hopefully that has decreased in DC with their anti-harassment law.

Watt should hop on a bike sometime and feel the wind in his face. It’s a far different world when pushing the pedals actually requires energy, but just preaching or reading about that change isn’t the same as actually experiencing it. For as much of a hurry as he seemed to be in, his trip definitely got delayed far longer than waiting for Wilder would’ve taken.

2nd at R
The entrance to ‘R’ St. from 2nd St. NE as seen via Stret View in October 2011.

Washington, D.C. could improve the ‘R’ St. route. In another video, Wilder calls it “fantastic” while rolling along a street choked with cars. While possibly better than riding on a freeway, those are not fantastic biking conditions at all. A priority bike route should have as few stops as possible, so those signs he refers to have got to go. Though the paint is likely an interim change (picture at left shows old configuration), they should also consider upgrading those gateways from paint to something more substantial soon to keep this kind of conflict from repeating itself. And traffic diverters should be employed to make ‘R’ St. completely unattractive as a through route for cars.

Final thoughts

Stay safe on the roads and stay alive. Ride assertively but smartly. “Right of way by tonnage” means that sometimes, being right and being safe are not compatible with each other. It sucks, but we just have to deal with it. If possible, report harassment episodes. Even though charges may not be brought, the information can still be aggregated and help transportation planners improve the streetscape. A hot spot of complaints is a place to focus on that may not be evident strictly from collision data or Strava.

Missed Opportunities

One common qualm associated with bike/ped projects is that they’re “expensive”, especially when by themselves. As a result, many people balk at the idea that they be funded by tax dollars, especially when biking is still overwhelmingly viewed as a leisure activity akin to golf. “Why should we have to pay for Tour-de-France trainers?” is the general sentiment. Bike lanes on arterials sit empty all week then spring forth with pelotons on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

However, notwithstanding those out on the weekends, the vast majority of people are not willing to bike in the midst of traffic traveling at several multiples of their speed. (It may also be worth noting that Saturday and Sunday mornings have decidedly lower traffic counts than normal weekdays, so it’s likely that while they don’t mind a few cars, many of those people are also not willing to ride in traffic either.) Stats on this have been collected for years. Low stress environments created via traffic calming and/or separation bring out the casual rider that is “interested but concerned”. Striping a road that has a 35-55 MPH speed limit does not create a low stress environment.

Magnolia grade separation
Riders love the bike lanes on Magnolia.

As biking increases in popularity not only for recreation, but for commuting too, better provision for riders must be undertaken. Considering the costs associated with any infrastructure, it is imperative that the best bike facilities be planned and built from the very beginning right along with the regular road network. This avoids the costs of having to change things up later. Instead, space for cycling too often continues to be marginalized as a stripe on the side of the roadway. While these are nice on quiet neighborhood streets, they have no place on basically anything bigger or busier than that. People continue to vote with their wheels and ride on the sidewalk in locations like that.

New and redevelopment should take steps to ensure that the separation standards are adopted that encourage people to ride their bikes for more than just recreation. With the clock ticking for mandates laid forth by AB32 and SB375, drastic changes need to be made too the urban environment to meet them. Changing the status quo in building is a good place to start. Billions of dollars are flowing to the Inland Empire for infrastructure projects and development. Let’s make sure that they enhance the area and help it meet those goals and stop missing opportunities.

Technological Distractions

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion put on by the Urban Land Institute on transportation in the Inland Empire. It centered heavily on the changing landscape regionally that is being brought on by demographic shifts and consumer preferences. Suffice it to say that not many more single-family homes should be built for awhile.

Of course, the main focus was the changing shift in how people move themselves around. Not surprisingly, biking and walking as possible solutions to transport problems were given only passing mention. During the Q&A with the panelists, I sought to further clarify info about biking and walking and got decent feedback. Part of SCAG’s initiatives do focus on increasing the bike/walk mode share from the presently paltry levels to be slightly less paltry.

But my hackles were raised a little by the suggestion of one of the panelists that the bike industry needs to be “doing its part” to develop “smart bikes”. The argument was that since cars are getting smarter and will soon be able to communicate with each other, then bikes on the road should also expect to communicate with the cars, with an insinuation that they had no part in future transportation if they can’t “play fair”. I find that to be a glaring error and I hope planners don’t lap this up like they have John Forester’s outrageous claims.

We’ve all been anxiously awaiting the self-driving car for decades. At the current rate of development, cars will soon be able to communicate with each other and share information in real time about positions, speed, intended path, etc. to reduce collisions. Currently, newer cars are also already employing systems that can recognize a bike/ped in the path of the car and assist the driver in avoiding hitting them. The implications of this continue to be debated, but requiring bikes to also communicate with cars isn’t the solution to accommodate the unique needs of bicycle riders and certainly shouldn’t be touted as an alternative to actually building safe infrastructure (which is overwhelmingly done via separation).

Using the above video as an example, I’m not sure how the situation would’ve been much different had the bike been able to communicate with the car. The rider recognized the road hazard and swerved to avoid it. While a smart bike certainly could’ve beamed the deviation information to the car, the car should’ve already detected it anyway and applied the brakes. The video shows what is likely a low-speed environment similar to a fietsstraat (bicycle boulevard), so absolute separation isn’t expected here anyway. However, on an open road, relying on intervehicular communication and detection techonology alone cannot be allowed to replace the need for fully separate facilities.

The reasons are two-fold. First a bike cannot quite operate like a car, even if equipped with gizmos and gadgetry. Despite the advent of electronic braking and the proliferation of electric-assist or full electric bikes along with more flashy improvements, bikes must still often deviate from their paths for road hazards that a car needn’t worry about in an unpredictable fashion. On high-quality, separated cycle paths, this is hardly an issue (in part because such hazards are far fewer to begin with). A deviation there wouldn’t put them in the path of a car, just perhaps in front of another rider. Deviating on a 55 MPH arterial puts them in the path of someone driving 70.

Secondly, a bike is not going fast in the grand scheme of things. Most riders in countries with large segments of the population traveling by bike ride in the vicinity of 12 MPH. While many American bike commuters profess to travel at 20 MPH, that’s still relatively slow compared to a car. One of the advantages of autonomous and fully automatic, self-driving cars would be that they can operate more efficiently at higher speeds than allowed in the current environment due to elimination of human error. At the moment, Texas has a stretch of highway with an 85 MPH limit and many other states have 80 MPH as the top limit. (It’s officially 70 MPH here in CA, but we all know that CHP will fly past you on I-5 when you’re cruising at 90.) Autonomous cars could conceivably drive in close proximity at double that speed, but sticking a bunch of bikes in the car’s pathway, whether or not they’re communicating with the car, will still drastically reduce the speed of the cars, perhaps all the way down to bike speed.

So while “smart” bikes would certainly be interesting additions, let’s not continue to ignore the means of actually making roads safer for riders and other non-motorized users. They can’t be expected to mix with streams of fast traffic and slowing the traffic to their speed is foolish. Removing interactions as much as possible is still by far the best option available for actually encouraging bicycle use among the masses. After all, most would ride if they felt safe, while hundreds more stick to sidewalks or salmon bike lanes because it feels safer even though it’s the exact opposite. Technology is great, but a far greater ROI is available at much lower cost with some relatively simple planning.

David Mendez killed in Riverside

Well, that went downhill quickly. Not even a full week into the new year, we’ve already lost a rider. Yesterday, David Mendez was killed in Riverside. According to the report, he was heading east on Central Avenue about 3/4 mile before Victoria in the “far left lane”. Mendez, who was reportedly wearing a skid lid, was struck and subsequently died at around 3:45 PM. The driver of the car is suspected of DUI, but there is no word of an arrest being made yet.

I’m sure that Riverside PD undoubtedly would like to talk to anyone with more information about this incident. They can be reached at (951) 787-7911 or via this form.

Mendez is the unlucky first rider killed in all of SoCal, but it should come as no surprise that it occurred in the Inland Empire because the region is the worst in the state for bike/ped safety. Alas, that means that we’re already unable to match Portland’s stellar performance last year. However, I really hope we can make him the last for the year. California’s 3 Foot Law goes into effect in September, but both drivers and riders need to share the road responsibly all the time.

Welcome

Well folks, good day and welcome to the very first post here in iNLand fIEts! From these very humble beginnings, we hope to follow along as we transform the Inland Empire from the sprawl capital of the country to a more livable, workable, likable, and enjoyable urban space.

First, I’d like to explain the name. While most of us would certainly recognize the “Inland” part, I’ve added a little flair, highlighting the letters NL, which are the country code of the Netherlands. Why the Netherlands, you ask? Because they are long recognized as world leaders in building bikable cities. While they certainly haven’t gotten everything perfect, valuable lessons can still be learned from them and it’s foolish to brush them aside as not a relevant example of how things could be done here as well.

The second word follows along these same lines as well. “Fiets” is the Dutch word for bicycle and it also contains our regional code, IE, right in the center. That’s a rather interesting place to put it since quite frankly, the current reality on the ground couldn’t be further from the truth. However, I have faith that through some hard work and dedication, we can make the IE a much better place for someone who chooses (or otherwise) to get to the store via bicycle vs. getting in their car.

The transformation will not be easy. Old habits die hard. What we see on the ground in The Netherlands today is the result of over four decades of research and investment. At the same time, that means that we can (and should) skip those same four decades of trial and error, going straight to the good stuff from hence forth. Bookmark this page to keep up with the developments as they occur. And of course, leave comments on what you think. Ciao, and happy riding!

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