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Posted by on Jul 3, 2013 in General | 6 comments

CyclingSavvy and A Continuing Discussion of Bike Lanes

Last month’s CyclingSavvy workshop generated a fair amount of publicity in St. Louis. Attendees in Truth & Techniques of Traffic Cycling (the classroom session) included West End Word columnist David Linzee and Safe TGA founder Matt Wyczalkowski. (Safe TGA is a loosely-knit group of citizens working to make Tower Grove Avenue, a premiere Bike St. Louis route, safer for cyclists.) Matt also attended Train Your Bike, the parking lot skills session. After this session, I invited him to ride with our group to lunch (we were riding from the Central West End to South City, close to where I knew Matt lived).

After his experience, Matt wrote a blog post describing his reaction to CyclingSavvy. This prompted an email discussion that I believe is worthy of a larger audience. Here is a link to Matt’s email without my comments interspersed. Some background: After reading Matt’s blog post, I sent him an article written by CyclingSavvy founder Mighk Wilson, entitled CyclingSavvy Works, which Matt references in our conversation below.

Matt Wyczalkowski practicing "Quick Stop" during the CyclingSavvy parking lot skills session on June 8 (with Karen Karabell & Gerry Noll)

Matt Wyczalkowski practicing “Quick Stop” on June 8 during “Train Your Bike,” the CyclingSavvy parking lot skills session (with Karen Karabell & Gerry Noll)

Matt described his experience of CyclingSavvy without participating in the Tour of St. Louis. The tour is the on-road component open to those who have participated in both the classroom and parking lot sessions. The on-road tour is what CyclingSavvy is all about. The on-road tour lets people experience for themselves what we have discussed and demonstrated in the classroom and parking lot sessions. The on-road tour includes ideas and strategies that most people believe simply cannot work, until they try them.

I told Matt that I believed his assessment was both premature and unfair, and hence our conversation begins:

Matt: First, I understand that I did not participate in the Tour of St. Louis, and I made that clear (I felt) in my post.

Karen: Your upgraded description is a bit clearer. It would be very clear if you were upfront and stated that you did not participate in our on-road tour that day. You rode to lunch with us. That is all. Had you participated in the Tour of St. Louis, I believe that you would feel very differently about what we teach regarding safe traffic cycling.

Matt: The description I provided (“[it] pulled the lessons together to demonstrate safe and confident cycling in challenging traffic scenarios, including high volume roads like Kingshighway”) is meant to be factual, and I based it on our conversations and CyclingSavvy literature.  I’d be willing to clarify my participation or correct factual mistakes.

Karen: Again, it is not fair to present yourself as “judge and jury” on what we teach until you’ve experienced it. Another analogy: There is a huge difference between having a theoretical understanding of lovemaking, and actually making love. You can study all you want, but you’ll never know…until you know.

This most certainly is not to say that one must participate in a CyclingSavvy on-road tour to understand how safe traffic cycling works. There are many paths! I learned a lot of this stuff well before CyclingSavvy existed. However, the knowledge base had heretofore not been pulled together so cogently or elegantly.

I am certified as a bicycle safety instructor by the League of American Bicyclists (at least I am as long as I pay my dues, or until the League kicks me out for not teaching their curriculum any more). I mention this because I have come to realize that most League Cycling Instructors do not know how to impart or convey safe traffic cycling fundamentals — and indeed may not know. Yesterday I saw an LCI riding on Arsenal in a door zone — and inviting motorists to “squeeze on by” in the same lane. In May an LCI in California circulated a video of himself being right-hooked at an intersection. It apparently did not occur to him to not put himself in that position in the first place.

Even though you did not participate in the on-road tour, I believe that you now have had more exposure to the safest and best traffic cycling practices than almost every LCI in America.

Matt: I understand that there is a diversity of opinions among cyclists about bike infrastructure, including bike lanes, and part of why I attended CyclingSavvy is to understand the perspective of those who don’t broadly support them. Having become more involved in Safe TGA, I feel I need to educate myself on the issues before advocating for a position. I perceive several different arguments against bike lanes, and both the course and the Wilson article have helped me understand them. Rather than getting lost in the details of the arguments, though, in my post I tried to give a broad and fair outline of the principal schools of thought.

Karen: Would that — like religious differences — it could merely be a simple diversity of opinions! If innocent people were not being lured by misguided engineering standards into situations that injure and kill them, there would be nothing to discuss. Below I will “copy and paste” part of my husband’s response to David Linzee’s article:

“Pity David Linzee, the poor ‘Gutter Bunny!’ One hopes that Mr. Linzee never will be ticketed for ‘blowing’ a red light, ‘doored’ by the occupant of a parked car, ‘sideswiped’ by the driver of an SUV, or ‘right hooked’ by a motorist at an intersection. And one further hopes that the two-wheeled ‘Gutter Bunny’ never, ever will hop up along the right side of a truck.

“CyclingSavvy teaches how to avoid these dangers — and many more — as part of an overall philosophy that bicyclists should be a normal and respected part of the traffic flow, with the attendant rights and responsibilities of all other road users.”

When bike lanes were first installed in St. Louis, I was thrilled. Finally! I thought. Recognized and supported as a user of our roadways. But then. I’d hear stories of people having trouble. And the bike lane on Grand between Russell and Arsenal terrified me, because motorists simply passed me too closely at very high speed differentials.

Right-turn only lane northbound on Tower Grove Avenue at Shaw Boulevard...

Right-turn only lane on Tower Grove Avenue at Shaw Boulevard…

...becomes a bike lane on the northbound side of Shaw

…becomes a bike lane on the northbound side of Shaw

Did I tell you that Harold [my husband] was almost killed last summer in the bike lane on Tower Grove Avenue? We had dinner at Sasha’s on Shaw. After dinner I wanted to go to the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Lantern Festival. He wanted to go home [north on Tower Grove Avenue, to the Central West End]. Motor traffic was backed up because of the festival — and because of the newly restriped “road diet” on Tower Grove Avenue. Harold turned right from Shaw Boulevard onto Tower Grove Avenue into the bike lane. As you know, the bike lane there is simply a former motor vehicle lane divided with painted stripes into two sections.

I was first in line waiting at the red light on Shaw to go to the Garden, and saw an impatient motorist speed through the right-turn-only lane across the intersection up the newly striped bike lane headed straight at my husband. I howled with absolute terror. Harold heard me and saved himself by moving left into the lane where the motorists were.

On our CyclingSavvy group ride that Saturday morning in which you participated from the Mormon Church in the Central West End to the Bread Company on South Grand, I was fascinated with motorist dynamics. When we were riding south on Grand Boulevard, there were two motorists who when they passed intentionally appeared to “buzz” me, as the last cyclist “in their way.” (Remember when we got to the parking lot and I joked about the “bike lane passes” that we had just received on Grand?)

In all the times that we have taken participants on-road — with thousands of motorists having passed us — buzzing has previously happened exactly once, by one motorist. Why did this happen twice during that ride on Grand? I think it is because we were not in “our” space on that road [the bike lane]. We were being “uppity.” Motorists as a rule don’t understand any of the potential problems with bike lanes. Most motorists surely welcome bike lanes, because they keep cyclists out of the way.

Indeed, this may very well be the dirty secret about bike lanes: They make you as a cyclist irrelevant to other traffic. Remember this. When you are out of their way, you are irrelevant.

Sometimes this is OK. Harold and I like using bike lanes as “control & release” lanes. Usually we want to be relevant. But we’re happy to move over when it is safe to do so. If we move into a door zone bike lane, we — and now you — are well aware of the dangers. We take proper precautions, like riding really slowly so that we can stop on a dime if necessary.

Motorists excel at not hitting what is right in front of them. As you read this sentence, hundreds of millions of motorists are doing just that (driving along and not hitting anyone or anything). Next time you hear of a cyclist being injured or killed by a motorist, find out where that cyclist was positioned on the roadway. Was the cyclist practicing “pedestrian,” “edge” or “driver” behavior? Most bike lanes force cyclists to practice “edge” behavior — where all the turning movements and conflict are.

Matt: Ultimately, though, I am interested in expressing a vision of what Tower Grove Avenue will look like in five years.  Will it have bike lanes or other bike-specific infrastructure?  Who will use it, and for what sort of rides?  How will the interchange at I-64 be accommodated?  It is from this perspective that I approach the issue, and for this reason I think its important to move beyond the education argument — I’m all for it — and consider the infrastructure part of the equation as well.

Karen: I also care deeply what Tower Grove Avenue will look like, especially once the interchange with Interstate 64 is complete. Tower Grove Avenue had better have bicycle-specific infrastructure, dammit! Hundreds of cyclists consider Tower Grove Avenue “their” North-South connector. Perception matters.  I understand that many cyclists do not feel “safe” unless “their” roads are marked with special paint. This is one paragraph where I wish we were face-to-face instead of writing each other. I promise that I am not intending to be sarcastic. I know that special road markings make the vast majority of cyclists feel validated, and that validation is important.

Having written that, the only bicycle-specific infrastructure of which I am aware that sends the right message to all users on a roadway like the rebuilt Tower Grove Avenue are properly placed shared-lane markings. These would be sharrows painted in the middle of each effective travel lane. If the roundabout at the interchange is to have two travel lanes, shared lane markings should be painted in the middle of each travel lane, to accommodate cyclists going where they need to go. Depending on where cyclists are going, it might be safer to use the inside lane rather than the outer lane (as is true for motorists). This should be supplemented by the white information signage that states: “Bicycles May Use Full Lane – Change Lanes To Pass.”

Integration works and — when we all respect each other’s right-of-way under the idea of “First Come, First Served” — is the safest way to travel. The new Tower Grove Avenue/I-64 interchange could be a model for the nation in showing safest and best practices. I hope we don’t screw it up.

Matt: To this end the Cycling Savvy approach falls short, and the Wilson article illustrates my point.  He writes,

“Do places with bicycle facilities get more cyclists, or do places with more cyclists get more bicycle facilities?  It may be both.  But if increases in cycling are due in large part to factors other than bikeways, then any reduction in the crash rate is indirectly due to those other factors, not to the bikeways, and if those bikeways cause or contribute to conflicts and crashes — which they do — then providing bikeways as means of increasing use and improving safety does not work and is in fact unethical.”

Wrapped in this opaque and seemingly circular argument is a statement of his belief — that bicycle lanes are bad — and a rejection of any facts (e.g. statistics) to the contrary.  Why? It seems that this view is driven by something other than a narrow consideration of rider safety:

“Perhaps this strategy — of leading people towards confidence and competence rather than providing facilities which make people feel safer without actually addressing the real conflicts — won’t get as many people on bicycles, or do so as quickly, but we can feel sure that we are supporting our principles rather than subverting them.”

Karen: Below I will offer a link to research disputing the “facts” that you cite above. I don’t want to put words in Mighk’s mouth, but I know that he, too, was a proponent of bike lanes — until he started studying the data, and seeing the same pattern over and over again.

Matt: To me this rings of dogma, and suggests that the author knows better what’s good for the riders than they do.  I simply disagree with that perspective.

Karen: Just can’t agree with your assessment of dogma and elitism. Mighk is both a traffic cycling expert and a transportation planner for Metroplan Orlando (our regional equivalent is the East-West Gateway Council of Governments). Criticizing his observations in this context would be like me criticizing a paper that you wrote about your scientific work. I would be inclined to think that you know what you’re talking about when the topic is your field of study.

Musing on your statement that “the author knows better what’s good for the riders than they do”: This makes me think of Steve Jobs. At the end of one of his presentations, Jobs was asked whether he thought Apple should conduct market research to see what customers wanted. “No,” he replied, “because customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.”

How does this relate to bicycling? All the market research indeed shows that people want segregation. Until they are shown or make the discovery on their own, people just don’t know and can’t believe how much safer and easier it is in the U.S. traffic system for everyone — motorists and cyclists alike — to be integrated (except, of course, on roadways like interstate highways with posted minimum speed limits).

Back to Mighk: He simply is stating that traffic engineers have placed on our public roadways facilities for cyclists that do not set them up for successful or safe behavior. He believes that this is unethical. In your field, I believe the equivalent would be conducting experiments on non-consenting humans.

I agree with you that anyone who wants to ride seriously will sooner or later discover what works best for them. To this end, I am delighted to see more and more cyclists being visible and predictable and simply taking their place in traffic.

Matt: I see Tower Grove Avenue as a road which is safe and accessible for all riders, whether experienced ones like you and I, to first-time commuters, to poor people who rely on it to get around, to kids exploring their world (like I did when I was little).  Not everyone will be able to find the time or the money to take a CyclingSavvy course, but I believe that they have the same rights to use Tower Grove Ave as we do.

Karen: I agree, with one exception: Kids on Tower Grove Avenue should have their wingmen with them :)

Matt: I generally support bike lanes because (designed properly) they establish expectations for both riders and drivers.

Karen: Ah, “designed properly.” Therein lies the rub.

Matt: I myself feel safer on bike lanes, and pretty much everyone I speak to does as well.

Karen: Safer? Really? Or do you feel validated? There is a difference.

Matt: I believe the broad consensus of studies which show that bike lanes reduce accidents…

Karen: Who is paying for these studies, and with what motives? Dig deeper into this, Matt, with your scientist hat on. I predict that you will be appalled. To get you started, Ian Brett Cooper of Silver Spring, MD, has compiled good work on this topic.

Matt: …and trust that good design — see http://nacto.org/cities-for-cycling/design-guide/ — can make bike lanes safe and address all the concerns raised in the CyclingSavvy course.

Karen: Oh, boy, NACTO. Sitting here shaking my head. Don’t even know where to begin. Take a look at some of the proposed road treatments. Knowing what you now know, tell me what you can enthusiastically support, and why. I sense two agendas behind proposed cycletracks and other multi-million-dollar road treatments. First, there is a lot of money to be made in remaking our public roadways. By whom and to what end? That question leads to the second agenda: There are those who want to make motoring in American cities so difficult that people will just throw up their hands — and what? Pull out their bicycles? I just don’t see this happening. It is more civil, and a whole lot cheaper, to teach everyone how to safely coexist.

Matt: I’ll conclude by saying that I agree with 90 percent of what Mighk wrote. I agree with the tactics of CyclingSavvy — taking a lane as necessary, communication with drivers, watching for dangerous scenarios, importance of knowing how to brake/shift/turn — as well as the motivation. I love to ride, I prefer quiet streets, I know I need to navigate busy arterials sometimes.  I don’t want cycling to be elitist, and want riding to be as accessible to the slower casual riders as the speedy racers.

Karen: Agreed! When in my late 30s I became a serious adult cyclist, I fell in love again. I wanted the whole world to see how great — and how easy — was my love, the bicycle. Everyone should ride, I believed. This would save the world! Eventually I lost my “convert’s fervor,” but I still love bicycling for all the hundreds of reasons that it is so darn great. And I want to be safe, which led me to where I am today.

CyclingSavvy taught me to appreciate the cooperative nature of our existing traffic culture, and ways to operate safely and easily therein on our entire network of roadways. Scofflaw cyclists, by the way, are unintentionally doing their best — or worst? — to turn this cooperative culture on its head.

It’s so funny that David Linzee brought up “road rage” in his West End Word article. As an integrated cyclist I so rarely experience road rage that it’s not even an issue.

Matt: I don’t think we disagree about our goals — only how best to achieve them.

Karen: I’m obviously a big fan of education. Compared to remaking infrastructure, the cost of education is infinitesimal.

I posted your article to the CyclingSavvy Instructor group on Facebook. A couple of interesting responses I will share here:

“I must say that I don’t find a lot of joy in riding multi-lane arterials either. Nor do I find any joy in driving on them, or walking near them, or living near them, or looking at them. Unfortunately, when I need to go buy a lawnmower at Home Depot because my neighbors have begun to complain, I have to use a four-lane arterial to get there. I don’t go to Home Depot expecting a joyful experience, and I don’t really relish spending money on an appliance, but I do get a tiny little kick out of dragging a lawnmower on a trailer behind a bike down that four-lane arterial.”

And this:

“The safety of a street is determined primarily by the behavior of its users. If the behavior is poor, it doesn’t matter how you design the infrastructure to be “idiot proof”, better idiots will come along find ways to crash. OTOH, skilled users will build robustness and crash avoidance into any infrastructure. Seen in this light, CyclingSavvy has an extremely coherent vision of how to make streets safer, by creating skilled users who actively avoid crashes through their behavior, which also helps others to avoid crashes.”

Respectfully,

Matt

Thank you!

Karen

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6 Comments

  1. Interesting interaction.

    The bike lane shown in the photo on the northbound side of Shaw appears to be a right-buffered bike lane which allows cyclists to avoid the edge of the roadway and motorists to merge into the bike lane before making a right turn. It looks similar to the recommended bike lane design at the bottom of the I Am Traffic inforgraphic:
    http://iamtraffic.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/widthsx2_short_preferential.png

    So what is the problem with this bike lane?

    • Gary, in and of itself for three blocks, that could indeed be called a “best practices” right-buffered bike lane. For the next three blocks after this section, the bike lane becomes a door-zone bike lane. Then the bike lane suddenly disappears into a “right-turn only” lane.

      My main complaint is that the restriping was unnecessary. Before this section of Tower Grove Avenue was reconfigured last year with bike lanes, it already was arguably the most popular cycling route in St. Louis. Google Maps still provides a view of what the road looked like before the bike lane restriping: http://goo.gl/maps/7vDiR

      Most cyclists feel validated with the installation of the bike lanes. But in truth we did just fine with “naked” asphalt. Before the restriping, we all had a lot more room on that section of Tower Grove Avenue. The restriping has severely reduced capacity for motorists, which usually is a problem only at rush hour. If that was the point — to make motorists “crawl” — it’s worked.

      I believe that for those who must have validation to ride, well-placed sharrows (in the center of the each travel lane, if desired!) are infinitely more useful and civil.

      • P.S. Also, riding in that “best practices” bike lane puts me a lot closer to motorists than I used to be :(

  2. This conversation has made me think a lot about my “joy threshold” (something I’ve already done some thinking about in the years since I started commuting). In a word, it’s been lowered. There are simple, but deep, pleasures in just riding and feeling alert and competent on the road, interacting and communicating with drivers. (It’s amazing how well so many of them do handle sharing the road.) On my regular commute, it’s a feeling I can count on. On new routes, I always start out more nervous than joyful, but I make progress along the way.

    • I love that idea, Cathy: A “joy threshold.” Has your “joy threshold” been lowered on Tower Grove Avenue since the installation of the new bike lanes on that road? Or am I misreading your comment?

      • Oops. Not lowered as a result of the installation of bike lanes, but lowered over time the more I ride, as my confidence increases, whatever the conditions.

        I felt pretty good without the TGA bike lanes – that is, not having a bike lane forced me to learn to use the traffic lanes under often-stressful conditions, which was good for my confidence – and consequently brought pleasure:). That said, the lanes did end up making the most stressful moment of my commute (the heart-in-my-mouth rush-hour lane change on TGA southbound, to make a left turn onto DeTonty) far less stressful by removing one lane of traffic from the equation. In that situation the bike lane also gives me a bit of space to gather my confidence, take a swig of water, whatever, before re-entering traffic.

        But ultimately I think I need that “in-traffic time” to feel the real high of being a bike commuter. It’s not just a victory over anxiety but an opportunity to interact with drivers, and find out that most of them are being careful.

        This touches on a different issue entirely, but I’ve had similar thoughts when I read comments by people saying that stopping at lights & stop signs reduces the pleasure they seek on a bike. I pretty much feel that you can get pleasure from biking, period, and a person who can’t get pleasure while following simple laws that maintain order on the road has something else going on. But of course this is a totally different issue from the bike lanes/traffic lanes one.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Thoughts on Cycling Savvy and bike lanes | SafeTGA - [...] Karabell, one of the CyclingSavvy instructors, posted her reply to a series of conversations we’ve had regarding this [...]
  2. A Conversation with Karen Karabell about Cycling Savvy | SafeTGA - [...] You can see Karen’s response to my note here. [...]

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