Paint is Not Enough

Copenhagenize recently wrote a good post on bicycle lanes, paths, and general infrastructure, emphasizing how and why it is not sufficient to provide designated bike lanes only with paint.  You can find it here, and I highly recommend reading it, if you are interested in bicycle planning and safety.

For the most part, Bloomington's bike routes are designated by a single line or a sharrow. Bloomington has been also making an effort to increase bike paths that are off the road, or side paths along routes like the by-pass and East third street.  Most recently, the city painted a double-lined bike path on Third leading into campus.

I've written about the problems with this infrastructure many times. (Here, here, and here, for starters). I hate, hate, hate the sharrows. I find them dangerous and difficult to maneuver. They are located on the roads with heavy, high-speed traffic, where drivers are not paying attention.  Unfortunately, these routes also contain many of the shops and restaurants where cyclists may want to go. They are also the quickest and easiest routes for commuters to take to work or school. That makes these routes the most logical for lanes segregated by curbs with special turn lanes. 

On a few roads around downtown, you'll find the one-lined, bike paths (that come and go, randomly around downtown).  But nothing is continuous, and only a few are convenient.  While I do appreciate it, I often feel like the existing lanes and paths were a result of planners throwing a bone to cyclists, without really much thought on where cyclists are riding and where they need to go (hence the problem with the awesome bike box leading nowhere--not even covering two lanes, for those cyclists who need to turn left).

Then there are the side and bike paths.  The B-line is great, and it goes from southern neighborhoods to the west-side of downtown. But what about the rest?  They are for recreation--for the person who doesn't have a destination, just a desire to be active.  And the side paths? The side paths along the by-pass and the east side of Third Street are nice, well-paved and spacious, but how many people will be taking that route, as opposed to others that go downtown?  The side path on Third Street is particularly confounding, since it runs on one side of the road, and then ends at a massive intersection (the by-pass and Third Street) with no apparent connection.

Sigh. I just continue to dream that Bloomington government will magically understand why better paths are needed: lanes that are segregated (so cyclists are safe); convenient to where commuters are riding; and continuous and linking. But, then again, I'm not holding my breath.

Cycle for Life

Here is a great video by WWF (not to be confused with the WWE). The WWF created the ad as a part of its campaign to promote cycling for the environment.

I try not to harp too much about the environmental benefits of bike riding because, for most Midwestern Americans there are other reasons to ride that are more compelling: convenience and health, to name just two. But you really can't ignore the environmental benefits from cycling, and cycling should be part of the larger conversation on how to survive in a world with finite resources.

Obviously, more bikes on the road mean fewer cars, which, in turn, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants that contribute to global warming and air pollution. Bike paths also leave a smaller footprint, so exchanging paths for road building reduces the amount of greenspace that is paved over with concrete. Increased greenspace has aesthetic benefits and directly changes current weather patterns, since massive amount of concrete heats up the air (creating heat islands).

But the environmental benefits from bicycles are not limited to reduced air pollution and emissions. Bicycling reduces noise pollution and light pollution. It also contributes to a sense of community because bicyclists must interact with their broader environment--and the people in it. They are not closed off, shut away in a car, windows rolled up, music blasting. They can't as readily be jerks to others. There is no (or at least less) anonymity.

Bicyclists also tend to be happier. They have reduced levels of cortisol (stress hormone) and increased levels of endorphins rolling around in their bodies from the exercise. They have been breathing fresh air and listening to the birds. They can think clearly from seeing trees and green space. 

Just imagine this world: people who are no longer depressed or suffering the ennui and exasperation that comes from everyday life, happily riding their bikes around cities with plenty of green space (trees, parks), interacting, talking, laughing with one another. The levels of ambient noise is greatly reduced, and, as a consequence, levels of stress.  Doesn't this sound like a pleasant place to live?

I'm not stuck in la-la land here. These places do exist. They exist in the Netherlands, in Denmark,  in Sweden and many other places. These are cities and countries where the people and their governments believe that it's important for people to exercise, to get fresh air, to enjoy reduced noise, light, and concrete pollution. It's important for people to interact with and trust their neighbors. And, yes, while all of this riding does help the "environment," it also helps all of us in countless other ways.

I applaud the WWF for promoting cycling for the benefit of the environment. I hope that we continue the conversation, including in our concept of "environment" everything around us.

Bicycled Bikes

Check out this new bike company, making pretty fantastic bikes--in case you don't already feel like biking, alone, is doing enough for the environment (or your coolness factor).

Turning Right: Safety in Bloomington

I wanted to share this story, of an English mother who worked with companies to make trucks safer for cyclists. She did this after her daughter was killed by a cement mixer who turned left (the equivalent of turning right in the US) into her path.

This story touched me because, while I am not scared of riding, and I am a huge advocate of cycling, I have indeed had my share of run-ins, including cars turning into my path.  One vehicle, in particular, I want to tell you about. I wish I had this woman's name or driver's license number so I could publicly shame her.

Back in October, on a rainy afternoon, I was riding my son home from daycare. It was around 5 o'clock, and we were at the corner of Buick-Cadillac Road and College Mall. We arrived first at the stoplight, and we were stopped, intending to go straight to get on the cycle path that runs along College Mall Road.  My son was sitting in his seat, on the front of my bike.

A few seconds after we stopped at the light, an SUV pulled up beside me.  I didn't think much about it, but then I happened to look to my left, and I noticed that the car had its right turn signal on.  I looked at the car, and I made eye contact with the driver--a mother, no less, with her tween-aged daughter in the passenger seat. I signaled to her, the best that I could, that she shouldn't turn, that I was going straight.

This woman looked at me. And disregarded me. When the light turned green she turned, right in front of me and my 18-month old.  Luckily, I was cautious. I saw the turn-signal. I knew what she was going to do. So I got going slowly. But this was a rainy day. This was a day that I normally would have sprinted across the intersection, eager as we were to get home and get out of the cold rain. If I hadn't looked down by pure happenstance, this woman would likely have hit us, or come damn near to it.

I haven't written about this because I don't want to scare people into not riding. I don't want parents to fear riding with their children. The fact remains that you are much more likely to get in an accident in your car or on foot than on your bike. Bicycling is a safe enterprise. But you have to be cautious because not everyone is looking out for you.

The Bike Box!

You may remember (although you probably don't) that WAY back in 2008, I posted on the need for "Bike Boxes" in Bloomington.

I am so thrilled to write this post--you have no idea how thrilled--about Bloomington's own bike box!

This bike box is at the corner of Jordan and Third, going east on Third Street.  It comes at the end of an equally-new, segregated bike lane that is segregated by not one, but two (two!!) lines.  The bike box and lane were created at the end of last fall, right when it started to get too cold for me to ride my son to daycare (and thus to give me the only reason to ride down Third Street), so I have had only this one chance to ride the path and wait in the bike box.

I have, however, had many opportunities to drive this route, and, well, the verdict for vehicular use isn't great.  Most people aren't quite sure what to do with the bike box.  Some cars park right in it. Others leave the space, but for apparently no reason since all of the cyclists park themselves in their lane, outside of the bike box.

It's not surprising, really, that the first and only bike box in Bloomington would be so confusing. And, while I am so happy to see it, my happiness is tempered by one glaring omission from the Bloomington planners' part. The bike route disappears!

And it doesn't just disappear. After this particular intersection, the road turns treacherous and there is no apparent route for bikes to take. Add to this the cars flying down the road, way faster than the limit of 30 miles per hour (I know because I routinely clock 40 mph), slamming on their brakes for buses that stop in the middle of the road and not in the designated bus pull off (why?) and for college students randomly stepping into the road without looking.  Third Street is dangerous. You cannot safely ride your bike on it. There is nothing more to say about that.

I want to give Bloomington credit for this new lane and bike box. As I have written repeatedly, the best way to make cycling safer is to get more bikes on the road. And the best way to get more bikes on the road is to provide safe paths, lanes, and routes, preferably separated by a physical barrier from cars. The double-line segregated lane does this without a curb, and, while not as nice a physical obstacle (I have seen many, many cars driving over that double line), it does provide a visual barrier and plenty of space.

But--and this is a big but--ending the beautiful path at the Jordan/Third Street intersection was a really bad idea. You not only need safe lanes to get people on the road, you also need consistent and continuous infrastructure. Bloomington! You can't just make routes to nowhere!

As a bit of a post-script here: on the day that I rode this route, we had to continue down Third Street to get home. This was on a Sunday afternoon--a relatively slow, and traffic free time of day. Yet we almost got hit by a car, and several cars had to slam on their brakes and swerve into the other lane because cars on this road are not used to dealing with bikes and there is no room (or designation) for bike traffic. Until this is fixed, I am never going to ride on this route with my son again.

Stop the Child Murder

Here is a great piece on how Dutch citizens were able to force their government to promote cycling: Stop the Child Murder.

In case you didn't know, the Netherlands has the highest cycling rate in the world. Around 30% of Dutch adults always ride their bike to work, and around 40% sometimes do. In fact, there are more bicycles in the Netherlands than there are people. And, in Amsterdam, more trips are made by bike than car.  Bicycle is a preferred method of travel.

But this wasn't always the case.  While cycling was popular before World War II, apparently the government--like governments worldwide--began to favor cars in infrastructure planning. As a consequence, but not a surprise, the number of deaths increased, including among children. Out of protest, the "Stop the Child Murder" group formed and advocated for policy and infrastructure changes that made bicycling safer, particularly for children.

This is another way of looking at advocacy for new and safer infrastructure, as the article points out. Instead of cyclists advocating for cyclists, maybe the solution is to advocate for safer travel for children.  American ideas of safety always go back to personal and individual choices--like wearing helmets--that are unproven or that make little difference.  We tend to react distastefully to ideas of government promotion of anything.  The fact remains, however, that the Netherlands and other European countries have much better health outcomes, lower rates of obesity, and higher levels of happiness than we do in the United States. 

Wearing a helmet will not make a child safer, at least not as safe as providing a segregated lane or bike path will.  And until we begin to provide the infrastructure, parents will not feel safe sending their kids out on the roads to ride.  Perhaps it's time to reframe our arguments.