Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Bike Lame

Clearly, this is social commentary, but what is it saying? That bikes are lame, they shouldn't be on this road? That bike lanes are lame? That the absence of a bike lane on this road is lame? Who knows? This photo was taken just outside of the town of Point Reyes Station in California.

There is a heated debate within the cycling community about the best infrastructure to support cycling. Some argue for the construction of bike lanes and bike paths, so that we can have a protected space where we can ride without having to contend with automobiles. Others within our community feel this is a tragic mistake; that bike lanes and bike paths actually make us less safe, that we should ride in the same lanes as motor vehicles. What most of us agree on is that where bike lanes do not exist (e.g. most places), bicycles should be free to use the same roads as motorists, and that motorists should behave in ways that are safe and courteous. For example, most of us bemoan the passion with which many motorists feel that they need to immediately pass every cyclist they see; we wish they would show a little patience and to wait to pass until safe. That said, most of us cyclists are also motorists, and thus have the opportunity to see things from the other person's perspective. Thus was our recent experience when vacationing in Point Reyes, California.

Point Reyes is just north of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and what makes it so attractive is that in stark contrast to the teeming megapolis to the south, the Point Reyes area is very quiet and rural. To that end, it would make no sense to shatter it with high speed freeways, and thus the major freeway in the area, Highway 101, lies well to the east. What that means is that Point Reyes can only be accessed via narrow, winding, country roads. Point Reyes is a major tourist destination, encouraged in part by the location therein of Point Reyes National Seashore (a real treat!) On the one hand, it would be a shame if folks did not appreciate and use this beautiful recreation opportunity. On the other, the success of Point Reyes as a tourist destination means that these narrow, winding country roads are heavy with traffic; automobiles, of course, but a plethora of bicycles as well. Because of the circumstances of this visit, I traversed these roads by automobile only. And as much as I wanted to celebrate my fellow cyclists without reservation, I found myself in what seemed to be an insoluble dilemma. It goes like this:

The speed limit on many of these roads is 55 mph. Due to the hilly terrain, the roads go up and down as well as wind around the hills, and as a result, there is no legal place to pass; there are double yellow lines for mile after mile. Many of the roads have no shoulders whatsoever. And, as noted above, they are heavily travelled. So what happened when I encountered a cyclist? In theory, I should slow to the speed of the cyclist and follow them thereafter, for as many miles as necessary. If I had done that, I would have been the only driver to do so and would have, in my opinion, created a very dangerous situation. So, in practice, I did what everyone else did, the cyclists being full participants in this illegal and unsafe ballet. The cyclist would cringe as far to the right on the narrow road as possible. I would slow down as much as possible. I would pass, leaving as much room for the cyclist as I could while trying to cross over the double yellow line as little as possible. Although passing is unsafe and illegal everywhere as indicated by the double yellow lines, I would try to pass at the least unsafe place I could find. Having done all that, I probably passed closer to the cyclist than the law allows and I certainly crossed over the double yellow line in violation of the law. Post all the caustic comments you like, I am 100% convinced I had no other realistic choice, and certainly this is the community standard for these roads, agreed-upon by both the cyclists and the drivers.

Am I saying that cyclists do not belong on these roads? Absolutely not! And even if I did, I would be in conflict with the State of California which posts "share the road" signs on these roads, along with numbered bike route signs. I believe that some of the roads to which I refer are part of Adventure Cycling's routes, and this I find very discouraging. I have a long term dream of taking a tour of the United States using the Adventure Cycling routes, and now having seen what roads these routes use, I would be unwilling to ride on them. What I am saying is that all of us, the State of California, Adventure Cycling, the cyclists, the drivers, need to admit that we have created an impossible situation, and to develop and implement a realistic solution. Of course, this is not just a problem in California. I have cycled on roads here in Texas that have many of the same problems.

So what is the solution? It would be arrogant to think I had the answer, but I do have some thoughts. Being the scientist I am, my first reaction is always to gather more facts. Implicit in everything I have said so far is the assumption that it is dangerous to put bicycles moving at 10 to 20 mph in the same lane with automobiles moving at 55 mph, but is that true? My son, the Google data scientist, was with me on this trip and cited a study showing that when the speed limit on freeways was set too low, the mixture of drivers who drove at a faster but still safe speed with those drivers who felt compelled to follow the speed limit created more accidents than if the speed limit were raised so that everyone drove at the same, fast speed. When I looked into these studies, they were less than ideal. In addition, what may be true for motor vehicles moving at mixed speeds may or may not apply to a mixture of fast motor vehicles and slow bicycles; unbiased, well designed studies are needed, and they need to be extended to study what happens when bicycles and motor vehicles mix. Many related questions can be asked. To what extent does the risk of mixing slow bicycles and fast cars depend on the level of traffic? To what extent is risk reduced by a wide shoulder/bicycle lane? On roads where passing is dangerous, how effective would periodic pullouts be where slow traffic such as bicycles could temporarily pull out of traffic to allow faster vehicles to pass? What would be the optimum spacing of such pullouts? The cost of various options would have to be considered as well.

I follow Houston Critical Mass on Facebook, and there are voices there who believe the answer is to lower the speed limit. To be effective on the roads I am describing, I suspect that the speed limit would have to be lowered from the current 55 mph to something like 25 mph. Thinking about the situation around Point Reyes, this would certainly cause considerable consternation among the locals who have lived and worked in this area their whole lives and whose ability to function would be significantly degraded. But that aside, if this were to work, strict enforcemen would be essential or the new speed limits would be ignored. In anticipation of hard facts, my preferred solution is wide, paved shoulders. Whether these are shoulders or bike lines is to a large extent a matter of signage. Certainly motor vehicles should not drive on these shoulders, they should be reserved for emergencies (e.g. breakdowns) and for unpowered, slower vehicles such as bicycles. My intuition tells me that this would increase safety not only by providing a safe way for motor vehicles to pass bicycles but also providing a way to get broken down vehicles out of the traffic lane. What I do know for certain is that the status quo is unacceptable. What do you think?

Addendum: A few days after I posted this, my son and daughter in law posted about their experiences bicycling in China. One post in particular put the post above into perspective. Everything is relative; as dangerous as I found some of the roads in California, they are safety personified compared to what my son and daughter in law experienced in China.

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