Archive for the ‘Cyclists’ Category

Cycling to LaGuardia

I was interested in this comment in the earlier post about the piece in Outside:

My favorite secret though is riding to La Guardia. It is AMAZINGLY easy to ride right to the terminal at LGA. What is impossible is finding a place to lock your bike. I ended up just taking it into the terminal which was met with no objection.

When I was out with some cyclists in Canberra, Australia, we went fairly close to the airport and I was advised it was indeed very possible, even pleasurable, via segregated paths. This got me to wondering about what other airports one could reasonably cycle to, and then what to do with the bike once you arrived. Anyone done it?

Posted on Friday, February 25th, 2011 at 1:05 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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On Bike Lanes, Road Widths, and Traffic Safety

There was an assertion made in one of the letters (signed by Louise Hainline, Norman Steisel, and Iris Weinshall in response to a recent New York Times editorial on cycling that caught my eye:

When new bike lanes force the same volume of cars and trucks into fewer and narrower traffic lanes, the potential for accidents between cars, trucks and pedestrians goes up rather than down. At Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, for instance, where a two-way bike lane was put in last summer, our eyewitness reports show collisions of one sort or another to be on pace to be triple the former annual rates.

The first point is that while the PPW conversion did take away one travel lane, the width of the existing lanes was not altered. So there may be fewer lanes, but they are not, as the letter argues, “narrower.” It may be that entire street feels narrower, which, as an emerging school of what I’ll call ‘behavioral traffic calming’ argues, is actually a good thing. Drivers, as I’ve quoted Ezra Hauer as saying, “adapt to the road they see.” They either do not see traffic signs or fail to read their meaning correctly. If they see a wide open, long boulevard, they will drive like this.

Even if the lanes were narrowed, as John LaPlante recently argued in the journal of the Institute for Transportation Engineers, “there is no significant crash difference between 10-, 11-, and 12-foot lanes on urban arterials where the speed limit is 45 mph (or less).” (a finding, he notes, that was unfortunately left out of AASHTO’s recent Highway Safety Manual).

And there’s something deeply suspicious about that “eyewitness reports” note; were they actually out there, day after day, meticulously logging conflicts and crashes (tellingly, they make no note of severity)? And why, if everything was so great with the street before, were they even doing these “before” counts? As the case of roundabouts shows, what people perceive as individual danger often does not translate at all to an increase in overall risk; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

But let’s take that notion — that fewer and narrower lanes lead to more crashes. This is a staple of traffic engineering, and in fact it does have some validity — when applied to highway environments (which PPW at times unintentionally resembles). Even here, though, the effects are often not ‘statistically significant’ and ‘more complex than expected.’

But in non-highway environments, there’s all kind of evidence that reducing the number of lanes (a.k.a. the ‘road diet’) can have positive safety benefits. As the Federal Highway Administration has noted:

Road­ diets­ can­ offer­ benefits ­to­ both ­drivers ­and­ pedestrians… road diets may reduce vehicles speeds and vehicle interactions, which could potentially reduce the number and severity of vehicle-to-vehicle crashes. Road diets can also help pedestrians by creating fewer lanes of traffic to cross and by reducing vehicle speeds. A 2001 study found a reduction in pedestrian crashing risk when crossing two-and three-lane roads compared to roads with four or more lanes.

But what if one of those lanes your crossing is a bike lane? Surely that must make things less safe, no? More interactions in less space. In a forthcoming paper to be published in the Journal of Environmental Practice Norman Garrick and Wesley Marshall examined 24 California cities (12 with relatively low traffic fatality rates, 12 with relatively high rates). They found that the cities that had a higher bicycle usage had a better safety rate, not just for cyclists but all road users. They write:

Our results consistently show that, in terms of street network design, high intersection density appears to be related to much lower crash severities. Our street design data also contains strong indications of these trends; for example, the high biking cities tend to have more bike lanes, fewer traffic lanes, and more on-street parking. At the same time, large numbers of bicycle users might also help shift the overall dynamics of the street environment – perhaps by lowering vehicle speeds but also by increasing driver awareness – toward a safer and more sustainable transportation system for all road users.

And as Eric Dumbaugh, of the University of Texas A&M, notes, “most recent research reports that wider lanes on urban streets have little or no safety benefit, at least to the extent that safety is measured in terms of empirical observations of crash incidence” (e.g., Potts, I.B., Harwood, D.F., & Richard, K.R. (2007). Relationship of Lane Width to Safety for Urban and Suburban Arterials. Transportation Research Board 2007 Annual Meeting; Milton, J., & Mannering, F. (1998). The relationship among highway geometries, traffic-related elements and motor-vehicle accident frequencies. Transportation 25, 395–413; and so on).

But the authors of this letter are not trafficking in empirical evidence, even as they allege that the NYC DOT’s data “more puzzlement than enlightenment.” It’s unfortunate that this letter is signed by a former DOT commissioner, and an academic — who should both know that it is evidence and analysis, not vague “eyewitness” reports and random testimony, upon which good science, planning, and safety interventions are made.

And as always, curious to hear of more work either supporting or countering what I’ve said here.

Posted on Thursday, December 23rd, 2010 at 12:47 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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A Further Word About the Australian Magpie

What better way to conclude the Australasian Road Safety Conference, thought me, then to head out for a spot of cycling in Canberra, where spring is just on the wing. My guide was Ashley Carruthers, an anthropologist and member of local advocacy group Pedal Power (and my ride was a surprisingly nimble fold-up Dahon). Canberra is one of those intensely planned capital cities, its geography dictated by fiat and compromise, its layout and design (via the American Walter Burley Griffin) evoking, to my mind, D.C. — though, as Carruthers noted, reputedly infused with esoteric and hieroglyphic meanings. While the city, cycling wise, hasn’t gotten the attention of, say, Melbourne, with its new sharing scheme, Pedal Power boasts a large and active membership, and there’s a fairly wide trail network (though not much evidence of on-street cycling, in the area I was staying, at least).

Now, about that magpie, which I had tweeted about briefly in reference to its intoxicating song. It turns out they can be rather fierce enemies of those on bikes, swooping down from trees to land on their helmets and peck at their ears. As a countermeasure, riders will strap plastic twist-tie-like things to their helmets, virtually sprouting of their heads like gangly antennae. It was a bit unnerving to find a couple of these fellows coming toward me, the shock troops of some alien two-wheeled race. I’m not sure if this sort of thing happens elsewhere, but it was the first I had seen in such active preparation for avian attack. Yesterday, at least, the magpies were quiet.

Posted on Thursday, September 2nd, 2010 at 12:38 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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On That New Japanese Pedal Design

A number of people have written in to tell me about the new pedal design in the New York Times (as an aside, I always chuckle a bit when I get NYT links, as I have essentially read the paper seven days a week cover to cover since the late 1980s, when a college professor haughtily advised me it “would make a better person” — but I digress). One even reminded me that I was “harsh” on driver behavior (e.g., in this post).

What I had raised objections to in the whole debate over unintentional acceleration was its actual importance in the overall traffic safety picture; and whether our innovative energies wouldn’t be better focused on things like better impaired driving interventions.

That said, as someone who has written quite a bit on design, I’m always in favor of design that makes everyday life better, or eliminates simple human errors all of us, on one occasion or another, are bound to make. We can chastise the “idiots” who leave their card behind in an ATM, or designers can install a simple intervention, the beep that won’t stop sounding until you’ve removed your card. Of course, there are social issues here as well: Given the older demographic that seemed to be particularly implicated in the unintentional acceleration cases, is it a question of improving the car’s design to accommodate older drivers (in essence making a “Jitterbug” version of the car), or of more closely monitoring and perhaps restricting older drivers?

The bigger issue here, as the article notes, is changing the ingrained mass muscle memory of hundreds of millions of worldwide drivers; i.e., would the shift to a new pedal actually cause more injuries than reducing the (rare) instances of accidental acceleration. After all, the new pedal is just one of a number of design tweaks that have been proposed to improve traffic safety (e.g., changing the colors of brake lights or having them give a special display when they are fully depressed), but as the CHIMSIL showed, it takes years of research and testing to actually get these things implemented — and even then the predicted safety benefits might not meet expectations.

Curious to hear what you human factors folks have to say.

Posted on Wednesday, August 4th, 2010 at 8:06 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Nimble Cities Update, Part 2

Over at the Nimble Cities project, I sift through some of the latest developments in bicycle infrastructure for cities, from “bicycle superhighways” to “bicycle boulevards,” that are being rolled out around the world. Further examples/concepts always welcome!

Posted on Wednesday, June 30th, 2010 at 11:32 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Transmobility: The City as a Networked Resource

Over at Gerry Gaffney’s User Experience podcast, there’s an interesting conversation with Adam Greenfield (among other things, a user experience designer at Nokia) that takes a brief turn towards transportation:

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about something that I’ve been calling transmobility. And I go into this to some degree in the new book, “The city is here for you to use”, the notion that once you take a vehicle, or any other object, and you make of it a networked resource, it’s no longer an object anymore, it becomes something with the nature of a service, it becomes something that you can schedule, something that you can share, something that has a presence on the network and is capable of locating itself, and you can book it or swap it or any of the other operations that you can perform on a networked piece of data you can now perform on that physical vehicle.

It turns out to change the nature of urban mobility entirely, at least potentially. It opens onto something that I think of as transmobility, where again you’re really taking the network seriously, and you’re understanding what it can do to vehicular mobility. And I think a really, really crucial and important aspect of that is shared bicycle systems.

The bicycle is an incredibly supple and finely-grained way of using urban space. To be kind of wonky about it I don’t think that there is any finer tool in the psychogeographer’s toolkit than the bicycle. It allows you to traverse comparatively large stretches of ground in short order, and yet you still have something of the pedestrian’s ability to make instantaneous decisions about: I’m going to stop here, I’m going to turn down this corner. And yet as opposed to walking it lowers the opportunity cost of having made a bad decision.

So if you turn down a street and you find out that it’s really not that interesting, you really haven’t made that great [an] investment in time whereas on foot, obviously, if you make a wrong turn and you walk to the end of a block, there’s a significant investment of time involved in doing that.

The bicycle is just… It is hard for me to imagine a technology that has less downside and more upsides than the bicycle. It’s just an incredible thing, and the degree to which we could turn bicycles into network resources and ensure that everybody in the city can use them, and allow them to sort of insufflate the street network and the street grid, it’s tremendous.

So yes, absolutely one of the things Urbanscale is interested in doing is the next generation of network shared bicycle systems.

Lovely word, that: Insufflate. But I was intrigued by Greenfield’s concepts (and thought they’d be suitable for the Nimble Cities project), which, I should say, are somewhat in spirit with the “mobility internet” as envisioned by Bill Mitchell and the other authors of Reinventing the Automobile (and please turn here or here for remembrances of Mitchell, by two friends of his, and mine; I didn’t know Mitchell but had engaged with his work on various occasions).

And I wonder if there’s some useful metaphor here vis a vis cloud computing; instead of just having one’s application (e.g. music library) running native on one’s own device (limited in memory, etc.), one can gain access to a shared music library as one needs, where one needs, through the cloud, for an arguably richer experience in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I hereby trademark the phrase: “Cloud commuting.”

Posted on Wednesday, June 16th, 2010 at 10:00 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Winter Cycling in the Netherlands

Kids these days.

Via David Hembrow.

Posted on Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010 at 10:27 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Kafka in Texas

Dan C. sends along this link to a case of a Texas cyclist who has been repeatedly arrested for the apparently radical (though seemingly legal) act of riding his bike on a road (and we’re not talking about an Interstate Highway here, but 30 mph local roads). Read all about it (and donate to his defense) here. As Commute Orlando points out, this sort of thing is not uncommon.

Posted on Friday, March 19th, 2010 at 6:58 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘City Permeability’

A useful addition to the urbanist lexicon.

Posted on Friday, December 18th, 2009 at 11:24 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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American Idle

In my latest Slate column, I consider the drive-through.

One thing that struck me was the historical novelty of the form; McDonald’s didn’t begin to unroll them until the mid-1970s, and they now, rather shockingly, account for the majority of their restaurant business. It’s a subtle, yet indicative, symbol of how much American society has changed, driving-wise, in a few decades. At one moment, most children, like me, were walking to school, and while we may have driven to McDonald’s, we actually got out of the car to eat our meal (and something like McDonald’s, pre-drive-through, was then an occasional novelty, at least for me).

Posted on Saturday, December 12th, 2009 at 1:26 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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End-of-Year Holiday Road Read Roundup

Seeing Traffic positioned on a reading list recommended by Foreign Policy’s “Top 100” thinkers had me in mind of book lists, and so I thought I’d round up the transportation-related books (or at least marginally so) that have crossed my desk this year and would make good holiday purchases for your mobility-minded friends (or yourself).

In no particular order:

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1.) Joe Moran, On Roads. I’ve noted my interest in this book before, but suffice it to say it’s cracking cultural history of the U.K. motorway system, a must-buy for bitumen boffins everywhere.

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2.) Ted Conover, The Routes of Man. OK, this one’s not out until February, but the galleys of this book accompanied me on a cross-country flight, and I was hooked. A far-flung, elegiac, honest examination of roads and their impact on us and society, Conover’s book ranges from the tangled “go slows” of Lagos, Nigeria to an (illicit) “capitalist road” trip in China.

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3. The Yugo: The and Fall of the Worst Car in History, by Jason Vinc. If you’re old enough to remember actually riding in one of these things, and enough of an automotive-cultural obsessive to remember, say, the Yugo’s appearance in the plot-line of Moonlighting, then this tale of geo-political commerce is for you. And as Vinc reminds us, the Yugo was the “fastest-selling first-year European import in American history.”

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4. Carjacked, by Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez.
OK, this is turning into next year’s list — this one’s not out until early January — but in Carjacked, an anthropologist and writer delve into American car culture — the romance that longed ago turned into marriage — and offer a thorough, gimlet-eyed assessment. Sample quote: “In the period from 1979 to 2002, the period in which seat belts, air bags and other improvements in vehicle crashworthiness were installed, U.S. crash deaths declined by just 16 percent, while those in Great Britain declined by 46 percent, in Canada by 50 percent, and in Australia by 51 percent.”

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5. Waiting on a Train, by James McCommons. Shifting from road to rails, McCommon’s book is a cross-country trip into the modern-day heart of U.S. passenger rail (“service that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of,” notes James Howard Kunstler in his intro), laying bare the roots of its decline and offering a way forward for the country’s most embattled mode. And I’ve not read it yet, but Matthew Engel’s Eleven Minutes Late, a “train journey to the soul of Britain,” is definitely on my list.

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6. Jeff Mapes, Pedaling Revolution. Another one I’ve banged on about before about, but the go-to work on cycling as a form of transportation in America today. And full disclosure: The guy did lend me a bike to ride in Portland.

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7. City: Rediscovering the Center. By William H. Whyte.
One of those rare books — reissued in paperback in 2009 — that actually lives up to the promise of “changing the way you see the world.” Along with the writing of Joseph Mitchell, I can’t think of any other title that has so influenced my experience of living in New York City.

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Cars: Freedom, Style, Sex, Power, Motion, Colour, Everything (text by Stephen Bayley).
Because sometimes you just really want to look at a pretty picture of a 1955 Citroën DS.

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9. Jeff in Venice, by Geoff Dyer. One of my favorite writers, and his description of driving in India does not disappoint.

Suggestions are welcome for others I may have left out.

Posted on Monday, December 7th, 2009 at 4:19 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Foot Notes

Ian Walker hates pedestrians.

Posted on Monday, November 16th, 2009 at 9:03 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Silly, Controversial, Progressive, Then Obvious

I had come across the above slide, via a post at Kottke’s blog, and it is taken from a talk by a Harvard University researcher named Lant Pritchett. I was intrigued by the progression Pritchett had theorized in the way that once-seemingly controversial issues (his slide illustrates changing attitudes over interracial marriage) had, over time, simply become part of the normal state of affairs. Now, clearly this is not always a linear, teleological dynamic, but it’s interesting to try and think of other examples where it applies (a woman’s right to vote, recycling, smoking is bad for you, etc.).

I was also interested in what areas of traffic safety and the larger culture of traffic to which it might apply — seat belt usage, for example (or the idea of laws for same), driving while drunk, motorcycle helmets (or helmets in hockey and other sports), etc. And I found myself reaching for the concept in a recent column for Reclaim, the magazine of NYC’s Transportation Alternatives (of which I’m a member; if you think, by the way, that this makes me some anti-car radical, I’m also a member of AAA). The column was prompted by some recent commentary in the press, in light of the recent closing to traffic of a few blocks of Broadway in Times Square, that the NYC DOT was running a series of “elitist” reforms.

Whether this would in and of itself be a bad thing is another issue altogether — for all kinds of civic reforms we now take for granted and that make cities livable places began as the work of progressive “elites” — but I took exception with the idea that programs meant to benefit pedestrians and transit users, who represent by far the majority mode of Manhattan, were “elitist” policies causing harm to some disenfranchised majority of New York car users. But I am interested also in the reception of this and other projects via Pritchett’s evolution; in certain quarters of the media, they have been branded in the “silly” and “controversial” vein, though as this “Q Poll” indicates (the poll found early support for the Times Square project, support that might rise if the media didn’t always frame the story so negatively, or if the project’s benefits were explained to more people), we might already be moving closer to obvious.

In any case, the essay is here, or after the jump.


Posted on Friday, July 31st, 2009 at 10:53 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Trixi Mirror

The Guardian notes that London, under the guidance of cyclist-mayor (and near traffic fatality) Boris Johnson, is installing a number of so-called “Trixi” mirrors as it ramps up its “cycling superhighways” ahead of 2012.

This is to help ameliorate a quite clear pattern of danger in truck-cyclist interaction:

Of the 15 cyclists who died on the capital’s roads last year, nine were killed in collisions with lorries. In most cases the lorry was turning left and the driver failed to see the cyclist on their inside, according to TfL.

As even the most cautious driver can fall victim to blind spots, this seems theoretically like a good, low-tech idea. I’m wondering if anyone has seen any data, pre-post installation, on whether they actually help reduce incidents? And one wonders whether the burden shouldn’t fall onto the truck itself having better mirrors, as one can imagine the many intersections that wouldn’t be equipped. Also wondering if readers have come across these in other cities?

The curious name, by the way, comes from a German girl, “Beatrix Willburger, who was 13 when she collided on her bike with a cement mixer. Her father then developed a convex mirror to be mounted on traffic lights at intersections. It lets truck and bus drivers see all around their rigs before driving off.”

Posted on Wednesday, June 17th, 2009 at 4:43 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Safety in Numbers: A Few More Numbers

On heels of some recent findings in NYC that the cycle fatality rate has declined, I came across this report from CTC with a few other interesting stats:

1. London has seen a 91% increase in cycling since 2000 and a 33% fall in cycle casualties since 1994-98. This means that cycling in the city is 2.9 times safer than it was previously.

2. The Netherlands has witnessed a 45% increase in cycling from 1980-2005 and a 58% decrease in cyclist fatalities.

3. Copenhagen, 1995-2006: 44% increase in cycling, 60% decrease in KSIs, with cycle to work modal share rising from 31% to 36%.5.

Posted on Monday, June 8th, 2009 at 1:22 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Collateral Damage

Almost in the tragic irony department: London Mayor Boris Johnson (and his Transport Department head), scouting the capital (helmeted) on two wheels for the best cycle routes ahead of next summer’s big “Super Highways” cycling initiative, is nearly taken out by a rogue lorry (which itself had hit a Ford Mondeo, “catapulting” it towards the group). More here and here.

As Ben Porter notes, the event “seems to bring several issues together that are of concern at the moment in London. In addition to the irony of this incident occurring while the cycling group were scouting safe cycle routes there are growing worries about the dangers of HGVs in London, particularly in east London with the increase in construction traffic for the 2012 Olympics. There have been three women killed by lorries in recent weeks in the capital.” (see here and here).

Ben also notes the truck’s doors seem to have flown open after it crossed a speed table at an inappropriate velocity.

(thanks to Karl as well)

Posted on Tuesday, May 26th, 2009 at 4:27 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Honk If You’re Going to Report This On the Internet

My first “Transport” column is up over at It’s about websites that comment on peoples’ (typically) bad driving. Familiar ground, yes; future columns will be less auto-centric.

One thing that that cut from the piece for space, just after the discussion of Jeff Frings filming his bicycle rides, is the idea of filming one’s ride for possible legal reasons. For instance, check out the video below, from motorcyclist Dawn Champion. It shows the following event:

On my way home from work Friday afternoon, a Honda Civic lost control in the HOV (Carpool) Lane. I was in the #1 (Fast Lane). The Honda Civic spun around on the freeway and came at me. No one knows yet why the Honda driver would lock the brakes, swerve out of control, and never try to correct it. If you watch the video though, you do see him accelerate at first towards the white car ahead of him. He doesn’t get that close to the white car – he still had at least a car length – but for whatever reason he slammed on the brakes, resulting in the locking of the wheels, burning/smoking tires, loss of traction, loss of control, etc. . I end up in the #2 lane. His vehicle is almost turned around 180 degrees in the wrong direction, completely across the #1 lane and into the #2 lane. His left front headlight/front panel T-boned the left side of my bike. This accident occurred on the 55NB/Dyer at 3:18 PM in Santa Ana, California. This is a 4 lane freeway with a HOV lane.

As she put it, “how many times have things happened to you and it became a ‘he said/she said’ situation and you just wished you had recorded it so you had proof?”). I’m not actually sure how often this sort of thing has been used in court; I do know DriveCam, which records the interior/exterior view of a drive, has been. But given the vagaries of crashes and crash investigations, not to mention eyewitness testimony (when it’s even available) — all of which is often slanted against the “vulnerable road user” — one wonders if wearing a camera is not being overly paranoid.

Posted on Saturday, May 2nd, 2009 at 3:04 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Does a Forward-Facing Bike Light Increase Rear Visibility?

A driver has been exonerated in Australia for striking a cyclist because he did not have a front-facing light and was, in the words of the magistrate, “an accident waiting to happen.” There’s just one thing: He was struck from behind, and he was sporting a rear tail-light.

Police prosecutor Sergeant Bob Anderson submitted that a headlight was not relevant because Mr Angel was hit from behind.

He said if Mr Angel was found to be wearing the yellow jacket, there would have been sufficient reflective material clearly visible by cars.

“A flashing red light was displayed on the victim as required by the road rule,” Sgt Anderson said.

So far, so good.

Defence lawyer Jon Irwin submitted that a cyclist riding in darkness required a headlight, rear light and reflectors on the bike.

After hearing six prosecution witnesses and two defence counsel witnesses, Magistrate Terry Wilson found Mr Angel failed to equip his bike with the requirements.

“If he had a (front) light it would have projected 200m in front and Ms Jasper could have picked up a bike was on the road,” Mr Wilson said.

This I find a bit hard to swallow. Firstly, I can’t say I ever spotted a cyclist from behind by dint of their front light. Secondly, maybe I’m using the wrong light, but there’s no way the beam projects 200 meters — it spills a (very) little light on the pavement about 15 feet of me. But maybe others out there have had a different experience?

(Horn honk to Treadly)

Posted on Thursday, April 23rd, 2009 at 7:04 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Walker Vs. Gutierrez

I’m still digesting all the information from a post over at Ian Walker’s blog concerning a reaction to his bicycle overtaking study, but I can’t shake from my mind the old Hank Kissinger saw, ‘academic disputes are so bitter because the stakes are so small.’

I would side with Ian Walker (who of course is featured in Traffic) in his assertion of cross-cultural differences. Nothing in the traffic world (fatalities, laws, norms, etc.) translates easily across borders — not even state borders. The U.K. driving population, the landscape, the safety rate, the regulations, etc., have little to do with U.S. traffic culture. And while I find the Gutierrez work interesting, I can’t also help thinking it comes shrouded in a militantly ‘vehicular cycling’ agenda — I really can’t imagine many civilians out there would even feel comfortable in the first instance riding on that road on which they’re riding (in L.A., where cyclist-car relations have been less than rosy), much less taking up big amounts of road space. Which points to a larger sort of question: Is this what we should be worried about to begin with? Is a cycling culture going to be built on a game of inches from cars overtaking at high speeds? I can’t imagine these are top-of-mind concerns in the Netherlands or Denmark (but I could be wrong).

But like I said, I’m still digesting, only wading into a very deep pool here (Google ‘vehicular cycling’) and primarily wanted to highlight the exchange.

Posted on Friday, April 3rd, 2009 at 7:23 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Phantom Menace

Streetsblog has a good interview with Manhattan D.A. candidate Leslie Crockett Snyder on the subject of “traffic justice.” The piece notes the following:

Snyder said that the biggest traffic safety complaint she hears from community leaders these days is not about reckless motorists but “bicyclists being dangerous” and “messengers running us over.” If she is elected DA, she invites livable streets advocates to educate her on the issues and “meet with me regularly and make sure I’m staying on top of it.”

This incredibly oft-repeated idea — that cyclists are some grave threat to the lives of pedestrians, not motorists — is one of my greatest sources of irritation, and also puzzlement. I don’t have the NYC stats at hand, but in London, for example, from 2001 to 2005 there were 535 pedestrians killed by automobile. The number killed by cyclists? One. (the injury numbers are equally skewed, even taking into account possible underreporting).

One obvious reason for this is that humans generally rely on an imprecise calculus for real and subjective risk (this book provides an excellent survey of risk analysis). Things that are novel or out of our perceived control invoke particular “dread”; so too do those things we can more easily remember.

In an endnote to Traffic (and you really should read the endnotes!), I quote a bit from what I thought was a good answer to this question, from Ryan Russo, of the NYC DOT. The endnote runs as follows:

In New York City, an undercurrent of public opinion says that bicycles are “dangerous.” Neighborhoods have fought against the addition of bike lanes for this very reason. Yet one could count the number of people killed by bicycles in New York City each year on one hand, with a few fingers left over, while many times that number of people are killed or severely injured by cars. When I met with Ryan Russo, an engineer with the New York City Department of Transportation, I could not help but hear the echo of several of the reasons why we misperceive risk. “It’s silent and it’s rare,” he told me, when I asked about New Yorkers’ antipathy toward cyclists. “As opposed to cars, which make noise and are prevalent. You don’t see it because it’s smaller, you don’t hear it approach because it’s silent, and you don’t expect it because it’s not prevalent.” A close call with a cyclist, no matter how less dangerous statistically, stands out as the greater risk than a close call with a car, even though—or in fact precisely because—pedestrians are constantly having near-hazardous encounters with turning cars in crosswalks.

Following that idea that one does not expect it because it’s “not prevalent,” this might key in to the idea that novel risks are perceived more intensely than the everyday, mundane risks (like those posed to pedestrians from cars).

There are other possible reasons. Pedestrians may not be cyclists as much as they are also drivers, so they may feel more a hostility to, or less kinship to, cyclists. People may not respect the legitimacy of cyclists as a form of transportation as much as they do automobiles. Maybe there’s something about the idea that cyclists are often found on sidewalks, and perhaps pedestrians view them as a more personal encroachment than cars, to whom the road “belongs” (I should point out that even when we’re talking about fatalities on sidewalks, cars are much more the prime offender). Another possible reason is what’s been dubbed here as “bikeism”; pedestrians may somehow deem the actions of cyclists as being part of their character, rather than to situational responses in the moment. Thus the action of one bad cyclists comes to taint all of cyclingdom, while the actions of many bad drivers are diffused into a sort of blameless norm.

I was actually talking about this a bit recently with Dr. Oz (yes, he of Oprah fame) on his radio show. In theory, cyclists and pedestrians would enjoy more collegial relations (and maybe they do; maybe it’s only the people call in to complain to the DA who don’t like cyclists) because, unlike drivers, they are not shrouded in thousands of pounds of metal. Pedestrians and cyclists can often make eye contact (an agent of cooperation), they can literally feel each other’s humanity. Then again, maybe this only perversely raises the level of antagonism; and, as I mentioned in Traffic, people are more likely to refer to cyclists as cyclists, where they often talk about a car instead of the person driving that car. With a cycle there is less chance of the actor being subsumed by the vehicle; does the anonymity of the “car as threat” thus make it less memorable, or, again, less personal?

To refresh, however, bicycles as an urban threat must surely be exceeded by any number of hazards, ranging from fatal slips down stairs to dog attacks. And they are vastly exceeded as a threat to pedestrians by cars. Cities would do well to run ad campaigns touting the benefits to everyone of cycling, and dispelling some of the falsehoods concerning risk (maybe a simple campaign, on bus sides, showing a car and a cycle, saying This is X Times More Dangerous Than This, or some such).

Posted on Monday, March 16th, 2009 at 12:43 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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