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Posted by on Sep 24, 2008 in General | 11 comments

The Damaging Mythology of Delay

Bicyclists suffer far less from actual dangers on the road than they do from the mythologies which influence their behavior. I bring these up a lot because the key to being a truly empowered and safe cyclist is overcoming them… I mean really purging the damaging nonsense from every fiber of your being.

Yesterday, P.M. Summer pointed his readers to a truly disturbing blog entry from Seattle. Similar to the Corvallis letter from last month, this author feels insecure with having sharrows instead of bike lanes. Among other annoying things (which Summer has addressed in his post), she writes:

…substituting sharrows for bike lanes on downhill slopes creates problems the city might not have foreseen. Unless you’re going as fast as car traffic—in which case, you’d have to be cruising along at 35 miles per hour on most of the designated bike routes in Seattle—you’re going to stick to the right side of the lane, to avoid annoying drivers and to stay out of harm’s way. That puts you right smack in the “door zone”—the area of the traffic lane where car doors can open into a cyclist’s path. If you’re moving at a typical downhill speed of 15 to 20 miles an hour, you’re not going to have time to stop—or check the lane, move out of the way, and shake your fist at the jerk who didn’t bother to look for you—before you run into an opening door.

So, having a door zone bike lane and a stripe to make motorists think you’re going to stay to the right of it (in the hazard zone!) would be better, how? This tortured logic screams of this cyclist’s need to take a bike ed class. First of all, when riding at downhill speeds you MUST ride farther out into the lane (and she makes the case perfectly, without meaning to, in the last sentence). The common crossing and turning crashes are increasingly possible and potentially deadly when a cyclist is traveling over 18 mph outside the primary travel lane and the sight triangle. Even on a minimal downhill grade, like we have around here, it’s easy for the average cyclist to achieve speeds well above 20 mph (on real hills, I easily reach speeds above 30 mph).

The whole point of using sharrows instead of bike lanes on hills is that cyclists should NOT ride that far right at downhill speeds! It doesn’t matter what the speed limit is! It doesn’t matter if motorists have to wait a few seconds to pass!

Which brings me back to the most irksome statement in the quoted paragraph: “you’re going to stick to the right side of the lane, to avoid annoying drivers…” Well no ma’am, inexperienced, mythology-driven cyclists might do that—putting themselves in harm’s way—but a competent cyclist will use the lane properly as a (properly-placed) sharrow indicates. And without a bike lane stripe to ignore, the properly-riding, competent cyclist will most likely not be harassed by a misguided motorist.

Compromising your safety for fear of “annoying drivers” is pathological. First of all, I don’t ever do that and I very rarely have drivers express annoyance at me. And if they do, so what? Their lack of perspective is hardly a reason for me to put my safety at risk, or to give up my right to safe space on the road.

I’m going to offer a story from my commute yesterday. It illustrates the myth-busting reality of a cyclist’s impact on traffic.

As I approached the Howell Branch intersection, headed south on Lake Howell, the light was red. I rode in my usual position, occupying the center of the thru lane early, so right-turning motorists could enter the right-turn lane as the road widens (right-turners make up about 50% of the traffic). That morning, there was a truck in the center turn lane, waiting to turn left. Just as I was passing him, a motorist squeezed between us on my left (I honestly don’t know how she fit). She just had to get to the back of stopped traffic 40 feet ahead. She was moving slow when she passed, so I shrugged it off and just pulled up behind her (no fist-shaking necessary).

After the intersection, several more cars passed me. As the line of traffic backed up at the stop sign, I looked back, signaled to the the next motorist not to pass and slipped behind the one that was passing—moving from the right tire track to the the left tire track. I then coasted along in the queue, stopped at the stop sign, and was on my way. One of the cars that had passed me earlier took the speed bumps very gingerly. I really love it when that happens, I just relax and effortlessly soft-pedal along in the line of traffic.

Despite his slow progress down “bumpy alley,” we caught up to the line of traffic again at the stop sign at Lakemont, because there was a school bus picking up children at the corner.

So, when I got to the red light at Palmer, guess who was directly in front of me in the right lane? That’s right. The lady who felt it necessary to squeeze past me a mile earlier. I coasted behind her through the Lakemont Elementary school zone. She accelerated after the school zone, but I arrived at the red light at Aloma only seconds behind her.

There are a lot of elements on the road which cause delay. Count them in the 1.5 miles described above: red lights, stop signs, speed bumps, gingerly motorists, school buses, school zones and the volume of motorists on the road. The one element so often perceived as causing delay, the cyclist, did not delay anyone!

And this brings me back to the aforementioned Seattle cyclist. She is not only her own worst enemy, but when she insists on entering the advocacy scene with her fear-based mythology, she is all of our worst enemy. She is inwittingly aiding the forces which undermine our efforts to become a normal, accepted and respected part of traffic.

11 Comments

  1. For once, I have nothing to add.
    Well said, friend. Well said.

  2. Something else she says that I don’t understand:
    “And intersections—where the majority of bike/car collisions take place—are even more perilous. If you’re cruising along on the right side of the lane of traffic, confident in the false sense of security a sharrow gives you, you’re not going to have time to stop if a driver pulls out in front of you—which, believe me, happens all the time.”

    First, I can’t recall the last time a driver pulled out in front of me while I was on a bicycle. False starts, yes, that happens to me sometimes, but not actual pull-outs.

    Second, I don’t understand her argument that sharrows “limit” how far left the cyclist rides. It certainly doesn’t limit as much as line does. Apparently she doesn’t see that and says, “That’s less of a problem with bike lanes, because they give cyclists more room to maneuver and stay out of the door zone without veering into the lane.”

    If the cyclist is too far right so that traffic constantly “pulls out” in front of her and is too close to the doors, then that will happen no matter what is or isn’t there.

  3. Exactly, Eric. Her problems are a direct result of her riding style. And yet she wishes to inflict a bike lane line on the rest of us, even though the line exacerbates the exact problems she is complaining about.

    Yesterday, I was sitting outside on Edgewater, eating lunch and watching the dismal parking jobs in the onstreet parking. One car was parked illegally for 45 minutes, with its back end in the bike lane. Two other large SUVs pulled in, half-assed, with their wheels a foot into the bike lane. Most of the other SUVs were parked with their wheels on the bike lane line. There is no way a cyclist can pass any of these cars outside the reach of their doors without entering the traffic lane. Add high speed to that and it should be clear why a faster cyclist should already be maintaining a predictable line out in the lane, a safe distance from all possibilities.

    Because motorists underestimate cyclist speeds, high-speed cyclists are much more susceptible to drive-outs and left-cross conflicts. I’ve had motorists turn left in front of me when I was screaming down a hill at 30 mph. I need the whole lane to maneuver around someone who does that. Because motorists play mindless follow-the-leader, I want to be on the left side of the lane to be in view of the driver behind the one who is sneaking a left in front of me. And I definitely don’t need to divide my attention between the intersections ahead, parked cars and overtaking traffic.

    All of this is established best-practice. All of it is taught to motorcycle drivers. But bicyclists are indoctrinated in the mythologies that make them feel like interlopers, so the simple skills which keep them safe are so much harder to adopt.

  4. I think the mythology of delay was a part of why the leader of a group of local riders told me she didn’t want me to ride with them again. Her words were that I” endangered the group” by using VC practices. It made no sense to me at all, even though she kept saying that I was angering the motorists and that by riding in the lane, someone was going to strike me. I’m not sure how that endangered the others in the group either!

    As is my practice, I had recorded the entire trip on a pair of Sony digital cams in video mode. After reviewing the video, I found that this particular leader had instilled in her group the need to shout “car back” and were particularly insistent in doing so, when I was the only one not playing gutter-bunny. The roads selected by this ride leader were either far too narrow for same-lane passing, or were multi-lane, high speed roads (US1, NSB) and in either case, riding the line or riding the shoulder, respectively, was too dangerous. I told the leader that my lane position provided the group with a higher level of safety than they would otherwise enjoy, as vehicles were making proper, safe passes when appropriate.

    As keri notes, vehicles parked in the “bike lanes” or on the shoulders are of no danger to a properly positioned cyclist. Back in my stripe-riding days, I would become mildly irritated at the motorists who would park there and obstruct “my” way.

    The worst of all this encounter is that the other riders also displayed the inferiority cyclist behaviors in the debate at the coffee shop. Oh, no, wait, it is worse, because the ride leader “peeled off” to a side path, at 20 mph and nearly t-boned a pickup truck coming out of a business parking lot.

    Yeah, I’m endangering the group!

    A short section of the video of the ride:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZ1TgVcZsic

  5. This all goes back to bicycles as toys, or as we call adult toy playing, a “recreational activity.”

    Not just motorists have this opinion. Many well meaning cyclists do, too. The logic goes like this:

    First, we teach children not to play in traffic. Didn’t you learn that when you were five? If you want to engage in a recreational activity, then don’t do it where it bothers anyone and for heaven’s sake, don’t do it in traffic. Too dangerous!

    Next, whose time is more important? The person who is just using his bicycle for fun the way you are or the person who is trying to get to work on time? Certainly, no serious transportation takes place on a bicycle, it is too slow!

    Then, if you insist on doing your workout in traffic and obstruct everybody trying to get to work, at least STAY OUT OF THE WAY! The government is busily building bike lanes and trails JUST FOR YOU, so use them! We don’t understand why anyone would want to engage in an activity so dangerous that the government requires helmets, but don’t hold up the traffic if you are going to do so.

    Last, since you persist is such a dangerous activity, you should know that you owe your life to careful drivers. After all, every time we pass you, we may have missed and then you would be dead. Some drivers are not as careful, and if you get hit, it is a tragic, but predictable result of your engaging in this dangerous activity in our streets.

  6. Strangely enough, I was NOT taught that it was wrong to play in traffic. Must be my age showing. From the mid-60s to late-70s my brothers, friends and I routinely played baseball, Frisbee, and a variety of other games in the street in front of our house. It was NOT a cul de sac; indeed, it was somewhat of a cut-through street. Since most of our games involved facing up both ends of the street, we always knew when cars were coming. It was no big deal.
    Perhaps this early-learned comfort with being — and even (gasp!) playing — in the street inoculated me against that sense of being an “intruder” in the motorists’ realm.

  7. I see a large number of posts in so many different locations, both bicycle related and motor vehicle related, and especially in the electric vehicle area. These post have in common a concept I’ve learned can best be described as “car-head” or “car-think”.

    One recent message thread expounded on a particular class of vehicle as being safe or unsafe. A bicycle is not unsafe nor unsafe. A motor vehicle is not safe nor unsafe and the same applies to roadways and intersections. If a roadway is unsafe, it should be closed, not modified to “make it safer”. If a vehicle is not safe, it should be removed from production.

    Of course, the key commonality is the operator. Keri and friends have done the Orlando area a great service by educating a few motorists who can read and think, after seeing the back panels on some of the city buses.

    I stopped at a green light a couple days ago, while traveling in my Gizmo EV, waiting to turn right, while the two pedestrians crossed in the crosswalk, with the light. The monster pickup truck behind me had to wait, but when I completed the turn, I could have used the sound of the exhaust and power of the acceleration he felt necessary to display to run my EV for a month. No consideration and/or no intelligence? I was pleased to see that the next traffic light was red.

    I don’t think anyone can expect the entire driving and cycling population to learn to be safer, more considerate drivers, but that’s really the answer, isn’t it?

  8. “Must be my age showing.”

    Not your age, but where you lived. If you lived in a relatively low traffic area, then it probably wasn’t taught because it wasn’t a big deal. In other places, where children would get run-down for doing what you were doing fairly routinely, then it was a bigger deal and TV ads were run educating children how to deal with traffic. I’ll bet you didn’t see those either.

    The NEast US was quite different than the MWest US, even in the ’60′s.

  9. “I was pleased to see that the next traffic light was red.”

    It was red because you “delayed” him. Had brushed back the pedestrians, the way others do, he would have made that light in plenty of time. Don’t you think that was what was going through his mind while he waited for that light to turn?

  10. I’m not sure brushing back the pedestrians, when they were standing in the middle of the crosswalk, would have been a good idea. I’m certain I delayed him, because the pedestrians have right of way over motor vehicles and over bicycles when in a marked (or unmarked, in Florida) crosswalk, and I have stopped traffic for pedestrians crossing while riding my bicycle as well. The light had already turned red, prior to the turn, as it is on a different timing sequence. My point was that heavy-footed drivers have to stop more frequently than light-footed, observant drivers and equally skilled cyclists.

  11. “I’m certain I delayed him, because the pedestrians have right of way over motor vehicles and over bicycles when in a marked (or unmarked, in Florida) crosswalk,”

    Yeah, yeah, we know all that, but the law of Florida doesn’t change the Law of Physics that says that greater mass rules.

    Besides, when was the last time you saw a driver get a ticket for violating a crosswalk, marked or unmarked? If the government doesn’t care to enforce their laws, why should anyone care about their laws?