Bike Box

You’ve got to be kidding me

Yesterday, Streetsblog posted a wonderfully toolish video titled “Portland (Green) Bike Box!” Edited by a Clarence Eckerson, Jr., the video features a self-satisfied horde of middle-aged bicyclists chanting …

Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box!

… while Mr. Eckerson hops around like some kind of bizarro boxer. If you haven’t seen the video already, click on this link immediately. You will not be disappointed.

Problem is that Mr. Eckerson, in typical Streetsblog fashion, doesn’t explain how bike boxes accomplish anything more than inducing bicyclists to chant …

Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box! Bike box! Bike Box!

… and since the video assumes that you, the viewer, already know what the hell a bike box is and why it’s important, some basic questions arise.

For example, Mr. Eckerson announces, “As you can see, bike boxes help people get right through the intersections,” while pointing to a bicyclist who pedals right through the intersection without ever entering the bike box.

 

Eckerson: “As you can see, bike boxes help people get right through the intersections.” Huh?

This is quite confusing to the non-Streetsblogger. Is the little green strip in the middle of the intersection that the bike is crossing also a bike box? By that logic, the entire bike lane is a bike box.

Bewildered, I searched Google and found a slick, expensive-looking, taxpayer-funded marketing document produced by Portland’s Office of Transportation, titled “Get Behind It: The Bike Box.” It explains what a bike box is, what it’s meant to accomplish, and why we should care.

The “bike box,” as it exists in Portland, is a small green square located in the right hand automobile lane just before a stop light. When the light turns yellow or red, bikes are allowed to move into the bike box. Cars must stop at the white line behind the bike box when the light is yellow or red. They’re not allowed to turn right on red when a bike is present.

The main goal is to prevent collisions between motorists turning right and cyclists going straight. It’s all about visibility and awareness. At a red light, cyclists are more visible to motorists by being in front of them. At a green light, the green bike lane through the intersection reminds motorists and cyclists to watch for each other.

So the purpose of the bike box is to prevent “right hook collisions” at red lights.

 

This means that a bike box in the right hand automobile lane is only relevant when both a car and bike stop at a yellow or red light – the only time a bike is allowed to move into the bike box. The idea is that the driver sees the bike in front of him and this reduces the risk of him running over the bicyclist if he makes a right turn.

The question therefore is: What percentage of right-turn accidents occur directly after the light turns green, i.e. when the bike goes straight and the driver hooks right?

Logic instructs us that the percentage is probably very small.

A bike is much smaller than a car, and when it stops at a light it is generally flush with the front end of the car next to it. This means that, from the driver’s perspective, the bike is positioned at about 2 o’clock. Unless his vehicle is so big that he has no visibility to the right, a driver can’t help but notice the bike. Moving 3 feet into the bike box doesn’t make much difference.

Also, how fast can a car accelerate while making a right turn? When the light turns green and the bike goes straight through the intersection, the driver would have to literally burn rubber while making the right turn in order to gain enough force to harm the bicyclist. Remember: Force = Mass times Acceleration. How often do drivers peel out while turning right? I’ve been driving in cities for 10 years, and I’ve never seen a car do this.

Compare this to the other right hand turn scenario, which is legitimately dangerous: A car and a bike approach the intersection at substantial speeds, the light remains green, the bike goes straight through the intersection at 20 mph, the car hooks right, the car slams into the bike. In this scenario, which logic tells us causes the greatest number of collisions, the bike box is completely irrelevant.

So if the bike box doesn’t address the core problem of right hand turns, what’s the purpose of it?

In January 2008, the New York Times reported that Portland planned to spend $150,000 on these bike boxes. Judging by the slick production quality of Portland’s “Get Behind It” marketing document, the city is tearing through that money. Other costs would include strategic planning, resource allocation, implementation, advertising, metrics collection, and administrative overhead.

Does Portland have any evidence that these new bike boxes are worth the $150,000 investment? Or is this really about acting on impulse and hoping for the best?

Bike Lanes – Safe or Not?

The Washington Post Express ran an article about bicycle safety. This article comes on the heels of a tragic traffic accident that claimed the life of a young woman on a bicycle.

The article makes the case that as more people begin to ride bikes in the wake of the gas crunch, the rules of the road for cyclists will become more critical. It focuses on the use of bike lanes, and interviews the president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation, Allen Muchnick.

Bike lanes, says Muchnick, president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation, aren’t always the safest place to be. For one thing, a carelessly opened car door can fell even the savviest biker.

Muchnick, who teaches Confident City Cycling classes for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (Waba.org), is not always a fan [of bike lanes] — ride on or close to the outer line if you must use them, he says.

I have to admit that, as an occasional cyclist, I’m not convinced that bike lanes are safe. The best lanes completely separate auto traffic from bikes and pedestrians – the George Washington Parkway for example. Lanes that are integrated into the road have always seemed dangerous to me, and though I use them, it’s always with a degree of caution.

The problem with these lanes is that there’s really no good place to put them. They’re either sandwiched between the traffic and parked cars, which can get the cyclist doored or force them to swerve into traffic to avoid it, or they are on the left which lessens the dooring risk, but places cyclists closest to the fastest moving traffic. Both locations cause problems with turns and lead to the type of accident that claimed the life of Alice Swanson last week.

I have seen proposals to put the lanes on the opposite side of the parking lane – so that the road is structured as car lanes – parking – bike lanes – sidewalk. I haven’t actually ridden on a road like this, but I’m not sure this is a wise choice either because it makes it harder to see the bicyclist.

“There’s this mind-set in this country: If you bicycle in front of a motor vehicle, you’re going to get run over,” says Muchnick. “It’s nonsense. It’s the safest place to be. Especially in the cities, where traffic speeds are fairly comparable — in fact, most bicycles are faster than cars downtown.”

WABA executive director Eric Gilliland agrees but adds that [the bike lanes] still show “drivers that you should expect to see cyclists on this road.”

I actually agree with Mr. Gilliland on this point – visibility (along with the accompanying awareness) is the most certain way to prevent accidents. But I’m not convinced that bike lanes increase that visibility. Mr. Gilliland, advocates for bike lanes, but agrees that bike lanes should be taken with a grain of salt.

The important thing, says Gilliland, is for riders to look at those painted lines as guidelines, not barriers. When approaching intersections, a cyclist in the bike lane could end up in the blind spot of a right-turning vehicle. “We tell people to ride the safest way possible: If it’s out of the bike lane, it’s out of the bike lane.”

All of this makes me ask, why are the lanes necessary?

If the leaders of the local bicycle organizations acknowledge that the lanes don’t necessarily guarantee safety, or encourage safe riding practices, why build them?

If the real lesson for bicyclists is to ride in a defensive way on the road, make yourself visible and observe the normal traffic laws, why invest in bike lanes that may cause accidents?

I have seen studies that seem to show that bicycle lanes reduce accidents. The problem with many of the studies is that they set out to prove that bicycle lanes are safe, and don’t look at the addition of the lanes to the roads holistically. For instance – if lanes reduce the incidence of certain types of accidents, but increase the incidence of others – dooring or right hooks – the overall percentage may fall initially, but you could be making a devils bargain as more people are encouraged to ride by the new lanes.

The people on the roads before the lanes are implemented are typically the most experienced riders, so the lanes decrease the risk of their most common accidents, and the experienced riders have enough savvy to watch out for the other risks now imposed on them. But the newcomers are the ones who most need to have a healthy fear of the road and awareness of their vulnerabilities in order to survive, and they wouldn’t normally take the risks that experienced cyclists would take. Thus the accidents that bike lanes prevent may not be common for most new riders. The risk of accidents could simply be switching to different types that new riders may be more vulnerable to, and as their numbers increase, so could these accidents.

In my opinion, the greatest benefit of bike lanes is that they encourage bicyclists to behave in a predictable way on the road. The failure to investigate this fully is a major shortcoming of the existing research into bicycle safety, and a reason that I have advocated for more bicycle safety research on this site.

There is a big difference between a bike lane preventing accidents because it makes cyclists more visible or alerts cars to share space, and preventing accidents because bicyclist behavior changes in a way that makes their actions more predictable.

I will admit, there are significant volumes of research on the subject, and I haven’t been able to digest all of them, but thus far, none of the studies I have found have looked at distinctions like this; they stop at the correlation between bike lanes and decreased accidents without actually arriving at true causation.

Understanding the true causes of accidents, or their avoidance, is important because as more people ride, the chances for new types of accidents that bike lanes may amplify increase. We need to truly assess this risk before encouraging people to ride in the bike lanes, which to an inexperienced rider may imply a false security. We also need to understand that if safety is the main objective, which it should be, then we should focus on the most effective way to ensure it. If that turns out to be bike lanes, build more, if it turns out to be bicyclist education on rules of the road, then we need a paradigm shift in the way we view bicycle safety.

Paul DeMaio, bicycle promotions and car-sharing manager at the Arlington Division of Transportation

is not concerned that the coming surge in cycling will mean more accidents. “With more cyclists on the streets, it will make motorists even more aware of them.” He cites a July 2008 Rutgers University study that showed cities and countries with higher percentages of cyclists on the road had lower fatality rates overall.

I searched but could not find the Rutgers study that Mr. DeMaio discusses. This statement seems to run counter to a recent New York City study that found that the city had a higher rate of accidents than the nation as a whole despite being a bike-friendly city. The study also didn’t show a decline in bike fatalities despite the city doubling its bike lane mileage. It is obvious that different people are arriving at different conclusions, which should be our cue to engage in further research.

When it comes to cycling in traffic, says Muchnick, “If you’ve got a driver’s license, you know how to operate a bicycle properly.”

Exactly. That doesn’t involve bike lanes, and could begin saving lives now.

Why So Much Bike Hate?

Plenty of angry cyclists are quick to point out perceived persecution, but you don’t often hear a cyclist take the opposite point of view – that of a rational person who understands the shared responsibilities of the roads and many encourage responsible cycling to get the best commute by bicycle.

On our site, we get labeled everything from bike-haters to car apologists to buffoons for pointing to basic common sense arguments explaining why everything that the bike community advocates should not be taken at face value. Oftentimes, these arguments incorporate pro-bicycle ideas that are undermined by the social irresponsibility of cyclists and their demands. These cyclists may be a minority in their community, but they are by far the most vocal and visible. In their hurry to decry us for speaking truth to the establishment, it tends to go overlooked that two of us are actually cyclists.

In response to the question – why so much hate? – one commenter, who happens to be a cyclist, offered one of the best summaries of the flip side from a cyclist’s perspective that I have ever seen.

This deserves to be quoted at length:

Richard Conroy:
Disclaimer: I’m an avid, lifelong cyclist, daily bike commuter year round (about 100 miles a week), & bike tourist. I work for a bike organization & am a cycling instructor. The reasons why cyclists are so poorly regarded are not hard to understand. This is what I’ve observed about the cycling community, and why I think we invite trouble on ourselves.

In a nutshell, many cyclists want to have it both ways in terms of road safety. They want drivers & pedestrians to act courteously & legally, but many, many cyclists don’t want to act that way themselves. The double standard is glaring, and yes, the non-cycling world notices it. The various blogs, message boards, bike fora, etc. are filled with cyclist stories about rude & dangerous drivers. There are a number of committed cyclists who believe & openly say that cycling on the roads is dangerous. So there’s a lot of finger pointing at others. But on these same message boards, when the topic turns to rude cyclists, obeying the law, stopping at red lights, there is a split in the cycling community. Many cyclists will espouse a “share the road, same roads, same rights, same rules” ethic. Many, many others, however, think it’s ok to blow off the rules, and resent “being told what to do” by other cyclists (note: it’s the state legislature telling you what to do, not other cyclists!).

Even prominent local bike organizations have gotten into the act. One local bike organization can be heard in the press frequently lamenting how dangerous the streets are, that the streets need a better design, yadda yadda (if cycling is so dangerous–why do it? is one obvious question that comes to mind). Yet I know many of the staff of this organization think it’s OK to ride against traffic, ignore traffic signals, & ride on the sidewalk. Sure, their publications urge cycling safely & courteously, but there’s been too many statements from them in the press that preaches a diametrically opposite message. Then we get a prominent local blog, which has twice in the past year, published articles suggesting that traffic law should be amended to allow cyclists to run stop signs & red lights, allowing cyclist behavior that is less predictable, and less in sync with the rest of traffic.

Critical Mass is another case in point, and a glaring example of a supposed bike promotion movement with no leadership, no goals, and no coherent strategy, where the lowest common denominator sets the tone. Some of these people need to study some Gandhi, to understand when law-breaking can be an important part of a social movement, and when it’s just plain mindlessly stupid. “Be the change you want to see in this world” is one statement that seems to be completely lost on the Critical Massers.

In the end, instead of wallowing in self pity, lamenting why cyclists are singled out, maybe the cycling community needs to take a look at itself. Instead of complaining about how dangerous the streets are, let’s talk about what cyclists can do to make themselves safer (thereby making the streets safer as well). Instead of asking for special exemptions from traffic law, lets ask how traffic law can be molded so that riding on the streets seems less scary, and that both cyclists and drivers are accountable for road safety.

The beauty of cycling is its freedom & independence. But freedom also needs to be tempered by self-discipline, and much of the cycling community, especially critical mass, has completely failed to exercise that. Here’s a basic rule of politics: if you don’t control yourself, somebody else–mainly the government–will do it for you, often in a manner that you don’t like.

Amen. Notice how many of those same arguments have been made on this site? (Hint – Every single one of them.)

As of today, no other commenter has agreed with this comment, or even acknowledged it yet.

Summer Streets – Success or Dud?

The question of how successful New York’s Summer Streets was this weekend is hard to answer, and different sources give different accounts. It seems that many businesses think it was a disaster, while most pro-bicycle organizations think it was a great success.

The impact on businesses seems to depend on the type of business you run.

Mark Barbosa, manager of Manhattan Cabinetry near East 30th Street, said his sales dipped 50 to 60 percent compared to a typical Saturday.

Barbosa said most of his customers arrive by car, and while they swarmed in once vehicular traffic was permitted after 1 p.m., the rush did not compensate for the morning lull.

Food places, on the other hand, were thrilled by the spike in revenues from hungry cyclists and pedestrians.

A Subway sandwich shop down the block reported a 10 percent increase in sales, and a Guy & Gallard eatery a block away raked in an extra $500, compared to average Saturday sales.

But the overall impact of this is unclear – if food stores make substantially less than other stores, their 10% increase could be a drop in a huge bucket of economic loss compared to other businesses.

The problem is New York didn’t seem to have a very concrete way to gauge the success of this event.

How will the city assess whether the program works? Officials haven’t been all that clear on that point.
Or is this success?
Please tell me that before we embarked on this great social experiment, we had someone sit down and figure out what “success” means.

Please tell me that “success” is defined a little more concretely than “people having fun”.

Please tell me that “success” is measured more accurately than through Mayor Bloomberg walking a block or two down the street and using his anecdotal experience to determine if he likes what he sees. I’m probably wrong – he probably also asked his buddies at Transportation Alternatives what they thought of it. I’m sure their answer was completely thorough and unbiased.

At the very least, the city should have had some plan to measure the increase or decrease in business revenues along the route and count the number of participants. That measurement effort would cost a total of about $100K tops, and it would be well worth it.

It may be great that a few thousand people were “happy,” but it’s also great if you don’t kill the businesses that make these neighborhoods so “livable” in the first place. Determining if Summer Streets will cause 25 businesses that pay $4,000 in taxes to shut down would be worth the $100K investment in metrics collection. It seems wise to know if you’re helping or hurting things.

If the New York Times is correct and there was really no plan to measure the “success” in units of measure beyond hopes and dreams, this is complete and unforgivable irresponsibility.

I looked at a lot of pictures today. (Gothamist.com has a pretty good selection – some show empty streets, some show crowded streets) In the vast majority of them, I saw no more people on the streets than I would probably have seen on an average Saturday on the sidewalks. The only difference was that people were wandering aimlessly in the streets this weekend. Hooray.

Predictably, idiotic commentary from places like Cap’ n Transit shames anyone who dares ask for something as simple as a measure of success to help determine if it would be smart for us to do this every week.

After I got home, I realized how annoyed I was by the headline and focus of Sewell Chan’s City Room post, Will Car-Free ‘Summer Streets’ Work?. Of course this is a large sum of money spent on police and planning, and a potential disruption for businesses along the route. But still, that Chan must be a hit at parties:

“Hey Sewell, guess what? Next Saturday I’m having a few friends over for some beers and conversation. What do you say?”

“I don’t know, Bob. Do you think it’ll work?”

Seriously, what kind of a question is that? Of course thousands of people came out and had a lot of fun. Does that count as “working”?

Here’s my favorite part:

Chan must just be really used to the NYC press rut where, when confronted with a new livable streets initiative, the reporter’s first response is to stick a mike in a car window, and their second is to interview a shopkeeper about lost business.

Well, when we replace tens of thousands of people in cars who are buying things with “thousands” of people on foot who aren’t buying things – we’re undermining the very fabric that your livable city is built on. Journalists are right, and in my opinion obligated, to report on these issues and question the choices of elected officials.

The verdict on Summer Streets is still out, but New Yorkers ought to be demanding to know the criteria being used to decide it.

Washington, DC Bike Share Program

Washington, DC became the first city in the nation to launch a technologically advanced public bike share program. I actually saw one of these things in action last week, and in general I think this is a very good idea.

However, I think the official launch is was small, and it is ridiculous that tax dollars are paying for it.

SmartBike DC will rent 120 bikes at 10 self-service racks mostly in the downtown area, including near the Gallery Place, Shaw and Judiciary Square Metrorail stations.

“We want to start small and start slow,” Sebastian said. “We don’t want the first-time people . . . we’re trying to keep this simple at first.”

Many of the kiosks are near streets that host some of the city’s 34 miles of bike lanes. Thirty-one miles’ worth have been added in the past seven years.

Why? If this is a good idea, and for once I actually think that it is, why start small? Starting small only makes it difficult to attract people – you’re naturally catering to a much smaller audience. If you want this to have mass appeal, make it available for the masses.

In my opinion this is minor compared to a larger problem:

In most cities, bike sharing is a public-private partnership between city governments and outdoor advertising companies. The District’s program will be maintained by Clear Channel Outdoor and is part of a 20-year bus shelter contract.

To help cut through the crap – this means that Clear Channel Outdoor has either been given free ad space, or deeply discounted ad space, on city bus shelters. Clear Channel Outdoor then sells this ad space and that’s how they make money off of this scheme. In return, they provide the bikes to the city free of charge and maintain them, plus the city gets to keep all of the revenues from the $40 annual subscription fee.

This sounds like a good deal for the city, but it’s not. Clear Channel Outdoor is a business that exists to make money. They are making more in profit off of the ad space than it costs to run the bike service – that’s why they’re doing it.

So DC is giving up lucrative ad revenue from its bus shelters, in order to not pay for a bike program that doesn’t cost as much. This leads to a net loss for DC.

Look at it with basic math – the subscription is $40, and let’s make some assumptions about the cost of the bikes and the ad revenues. Let’s say there is a one-to-one ratio of bikes to ad spaces, the bikes each cost $99 to buy, maintain, etc.., and each ad can bring in $100 (remember, since Clear Channel Outdoor needs to cover their costs and make a profit they have to be making more than the bikes cost). Under the current arrangement, for each bike, Clear Channel Outdoor will bring in $1 in profit, and DC will bring in $40.

But if the city did the whole thing, they would bring in $41 (they’ll pay $99 for the bikes, and make $100 from ad revenue + $40 from subscriptions, so $140 – $99 = $41) – so they’re not getting a good deal under the current arrangement – they’re losing $1.  In actuallity, the loss is assuredly much larger – Clear Channel Outdoor wouldn’t sign on without being able to make a decent profit.

 

There’s only one reason you would do this – it’s not financially feasible to do it as a private company. You would have to charge so much for the bike subscriptions that it would be prohibitively expensive and no one would sign up. So DC has decided to keep the cost for users low while masking the true cost of the program under the free ad space.

Now you can argue the merits of the benefits to society of having these bikes on the roads, and thus the need to subsidize them, but even that doesn’t explain the current fee structure.

If you want to make the judgment that these things should be subsidized and the cost kept low, you still need to understand that the city pays the cost of these bikes either way. Either they’re going to absorb all of the costs themselves up front, or they’re going to lose them indirectly through the ad revenues.

The argument that Clear Channel Outdoor doesn’t need as much infrastructure is bunk – they are an advertising sales firm – they have to create the same infrastructure that the city does. The revenue from the ads is obviously enough to cover these costs and then some. DC is on the losing end of a bargain. They are eating the whole costs either way, but they are getting less revenue under the current scheme.

In my opinion, this program should be completely privately operated, and the revenues should be derived from user fees, just like Zipcar. That is certainly more expensive, but it also has benefits that currently don’t exist. For instance, I can guarantee that service would be better under a totally private structure – right now, any increase in service starts to cut into the profit Clear Channel Outdoor makes off of ad revenue. So at some point, the service will start to suck because it isn’t profitable for Clear Channel Outdoor. If we forced this to be an entirely private enterprise, there is an incentive for the company to provide good service, and expand the availability – otherwise they won’t be in business. It may be more expensive to the users for it to be private, but it’s never going to be as expensive as driving or riding mass transit, so it’s still a bargain.

There is some more idiocy surrounding this though:

In the United States, cities including Portland, Ore., and Austin have experimented with more low-tech versions, in which “beater bikes” were painted one color and made available for use. Most were vandalized or stolen after a short time.

Guess what DC’s bikes don’t have? Bike locks. Guess how much you get fined for losing a bike? $550. It’s not very convenient to have to carry a bike lock around all day on the off chance I might need it. Inconveniences like this are the kinds of things that turn off potential riders. Get some locks on these bikes, get more of them on the streets, and do it without using tax dollars.