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Posted by on Mar 24, 2010 in Uncategorized | 12 comments

Another traffic/delay reality check

This is CyclistView video from Brian DeSousa’s first visit to Orlando. I first used it in a post called Take the Red Pill. At the time I had no idea how to edit video, so Brian kindly did a quick edit. I was recently preparing a DVD and decided to re-edit the video to emphasize some key points about traffic.

Platoons and gaps

One of the challenges I have with creating videos of confident traffic cycling is that it is mostly uneventful. Of course, that’s exactly what I want to show, but, well, it’s almost too boring to watch. It consists of less than a minute of cars changing lanes to pass, followed by less than a minute of nothing. So, if I show several minutes of continuous video, it’s going to have long periods of nothing but a cyclist on an empty road. Thirty seconds feels like an eternity if you’re watching nothing happen in internet video. I recently cut together a 6 minute video of me riding on University Blvd, just showing the platoons and not the gaps, I eliminated about 3 minutes of empty-road footage to get that. And it was shot at the tail end of rush hour. Unfortunately, eliminating the boring parts actually means I’m not telling the best part of the story. It makes it look as if passing traffic is a non-stop experience. It isn’t.

Funny thing about video. It’s incredibly useful for telling a story about how bad things are. I could do that in one or two sessions by riding too far right and then cutting together a 2 minute video with numerous close calls. You can find stuff like that all over YouTube. It’s much more difficult to portray cycling as safe and uneventful without producing something soporific.

The reality of delay

In the video above, I called attention to the van. From the time it comes up behind us until it is able to pass, the “delay” is 30 seconds. As much as I hate passing a queue, doing so gave us some valuable footage because we passed that van. Including the time we waited through one light cycle (I cut that part), it had been 4 1/2 minutes since the van had passed us. Notice that there are cars queued in front of that van. Those cars had already been ahead of us on the road before we ever turned on to Orange Ave — possibly by 30 seconds or more.

One thing I’ve seen entirely too often — from motorists, cyclists and law enforcement — is an obsessive lack of perspective about a cyclist’s impact on traffic. In my experience, 30 seconds is a relatively long time for a motorist to have to wait to pass me. Rarely, it may be a bit more. Usually it’s 0-10 seconds. Invariably, that motorist will then wait behind other traffic (that was already in front of us) at the next red light. At the red light he is stopped, when behind me he is still moving.

Courtesy scolds

Lately upon the internet, I’ve heard my fill of blather about courtesy (mainly chest-thumping from other cyclists about what better citizens they are than my friend Reed). They seem to wish to outdo each-other by claiming how dutifully they’ll hug the gutter or how quickly they’ll skitter into the shoulder upon the appearance of a motorist.

Courtesy is an important aspect of civility on both sides, but reality should have some bearing on the matter, especially when courtesy is being balanced against the cyclist’s safety and efficiency. If I’m on a 2-lane road with constant oncoming traffic for as far as I can see, I typically will pull over or practice control & release. Additionally, if I am first at a red light and a lot of traffic queues behind me, I will often drive through the intersection and turn into whatever business is on the corner. In 10-20 seconds (usually, little more than the time it takes to turn around) the traffic will often be gone, then I ride out on the empty road. That’s less about courtesy than my own comfort.

In most of my riding on arterial roads, the platoon looks like the one that catches up to us in the video above. Most motorists change lanes far enough back to open the sight lines and everyone goes by with little or no slowing. Occasionally an inattentive or incompetent driver will wind up stuck behind me until the platoon clears. But even so, all of them will be waiting together at the next red light. My getting out of the way would make zero difference in their trip time.

Increasing confidence with evidence

Shooting and watching hours of video has really given me concrete proof of how little actual impact I have on traffic. This further empowers me to ride assertively as an equal vehicle driver. It makes my bicycling experience calm, enjoyable and virtually conflict-free. It gives me the freedom to not worry about what’s behind me. It makes me feel as if there is no limitation for me to access any destination by bike.

I hope that sharing a few minutes of video here and there does the same for you.

12 Comments

  1. Great mention about the cyclist being on the roads by themselves. With the addition of bike lanes and widening the portion of S. Conway Rd. from Hoffner to the Beeline, I have taken notice of a few things.

    First, the passing speeds are way more annoying than before with the pre-construction speeds. Alas, the new limit was raised to 45 mph from 35 mph. During construction, I was forced to take to the sidewalk for the duration.

    Post Construction: Working different shifts, I began to notice things got really quiet for some time. From the red light at McCoy/S. Conway, it takes about 30 seconds max for the “platoon” to clear the travel lanes. Believe it or not, the next wave arrives some 00:02:30 later, just about the intersection of Judge/Datewyler/S. Conway.

    WOW! It doesn’t matter, I have found, the time of day either. This occurs at 8 am, 3pm, or 10:30pm.

    It never felt this way when this section was a 2-lane. Guess because the lane wasn’t wide enough to share then and never noticed.

  2. “One of the challenges I have with creating videos of confident traffic cycling is that it is mostly uneventful.”

    That’s the truth — when I’m telling people how great my daily bike commute is, I never mention that it’s actually a bit boring…nothing ever happens. Once you know how to ride properly, and you find yourself a good route, there’s really very little that can disturb you. I often wish it were safe to ride with headphones, so I could listen to an audiobook, but since that’s not the case, I just pay attention to the birds, flowers, and neighborhood cats…poor me.

  3. As many of the readers know, I record every ride. Since my velomobile has cameras mounted more or less permanently, it’s a matter of pushing a couple buttons when I start and stop. I have about six months of video in archive, and virtually all of it is uneventful, unremarkable and uninspiring.

    Isn’t that just wonderful? Really, it means that riding is just as Keri suggests, no worries most of the time.

    I look at my older YouTube videos when I had not learned the ways of the force, and I cringe inside. So much unpleasantness, but I survived my training and have become one with the roadway and its users.

    Some people may never learn:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xH7fze-KILk

    I had the motor vehicle version a couple days ago, but the camera chip files became corrupted. Two out-of-state drivers felt it necessary to pass me on the right, in a right-turn-only lane. Certainly not correct destination positioning. It happened in Port Orange…

  4. Great post! I must admit that I am horribly deferential–so bad that I am the type that once told someone to go ahead of me at a bottleneck in a race! I always pull over if I’ve got a line of people behind me. But even for someone that can’t stand to put herself first, it almost *never* happens that I need to pull over. I can’t think of a situation where I’ve ever delayed anyone for more than 30 seconds (and even that is rare).

    So much of it is perception. Every time I ride to work, I sit in my office watching the cars through my window and get stressed about riding home. They seem to be zipping by in a constant stream and I feel like I’ll have a million cars behind me. But as soon as I get out there, I find that waiting ~1 minute (at absolute most) always gives me a long enough gap that I have the road almost entirely to myself, even at rush hour.

    I also really liked how early you signaled when the van was behind you. I think it helps to alleviate tensions and defuse situations by letting them know, “hey–I’ll be out of your way soon!”

  5. Angie, I know what you mean about being getting over being deferential. I’ve actually gotten very good over the last year or so about taking up a lane on a multi-lane road, where motorists can easily pass, but I’m still of two minds on a two-lane road. There is a busy two-lane road on my commute, and to make it worse, the pavement is pretty bad in parts of it, right along the right tire track where I’d ideally like to ride. So, I can either ride right smack in the middle and definitely impede motorists (legally, I know, but I still hesitate), or ride just barely to the right of the bad part, which gives me less wiggle room than I’d like. The only good part of about it is at least there’s a dirt shoulder, not as dangerous as a curb would be.

    Map: http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=south+portland,+me&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=40.732051,93.076172&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=South+Portland,+Cumberland,+Maine&ll=43.637442,-70.35136&spn=0.009116,0.022724&t=h&z=16&layer=c&cbll=43.637732,-70.351506&panoid=ofTz7NGQKQxmIRwY1a_f_g&cbp=12,179.43,,0,20.81 (This gives you a good idea of the ruts, except they’ve only gotten worse in the few years since this picture was taken.)

    I think I would have to take the lane if I got a lot of close passing, or if there were a curb. However, even at the edge of the roadway, I actually get pretty decent passing most of the time anyway, so I guess that’s why I don’t feel real compelled to start taking the lane.

    Any reflection on this dilemma by other readers? (I think the road is about 11′ wide, maybe a bit less. And yes, it’s a double yellow line for its entire length, which is about a mile and a half.)

    • John, are motorists waiting if there is oncoming traffic, or at lease slowing to pass at a courteous speed?

      I have a default position, but it’s not an absolute. My lane position varies based on the road & traffic characteristics. I ride where I feel safest and most comfortable on a given road. A lot of factors go into comfort, including the amount of overtaking traffic and the ease of overtaking.

      I have found that different roads tend to have different traffic characteristics, the motorists have different temperaments. On some I can ride on the right side of the right tire track and motorists won’t pass unless it’s safe to move over. Others I have to ride in the left tire track whenever there’s oncoming traffic, to keep them them from doing something dumb and unsafe.

      If you can ride on good pavement near the edge and the citizens sharing the road with you are courteous in return, you’re safe from sight-line issues or other near-the-edge problems, then keep on. If you have problems or feel unsafe or uncomfortable in that position, move left and don’t feel bad about it.

  6. @ JohnB: Keri got it right (it’s actually safer on the left side of the travel lane). I don’t see any parallel roads or practical alternatives.

    What if Cumming Road was the only path between two fields, do you think a farmer would think, “Oh geez I can’t use that road I don’t want to delay anyone for even a minute?” Doesn’t Maine have “slow moving vehicle” law, where a faster vehicle can cross a double yellow live as long as it’s safe and not exceed the posted maximum speed limit?

    Watch out for the ruts and potholes in front of you and don’t worry about a “momentary delay” of other road users.

    • Thanks for the replies, Keri and danc. For the most part, I’m satisfied with the passing that I get, even though I’m riding a bit to the the right of my usual default position, which I guess is why I feel kind of conflicted. I do think that on this road, motorists seem to understand how narrow the road is and maybe show me some sympathy and extra consideration for it. Sometimes I’m aware of a motorist actually slowing down and waiting, and I make an effort to give them a friendly wave as they pass. Since I am in Maine, I have occasionally ridden this road in a snowstorm, and motorists are actually especially considerate in that case, since we all understand the need to drive carefully under such considerations. (At least after the first storm of the season, since it usually takes the first storm to remind us all of that!) Or maybe they just pity me, which is fine if it means they give me more consideration!

      There is one short section, probably a couple of hundred feet, where the bad pavement actually extends all the way from the edge to the middle of the lane. I’ve started thinking about trying to take the lane for that section, which depends of course on if I can move over during a time when overtaking traffic is far enough away to respond. So far, the first time I tried it, there happened to be a gap in traffic so it was easy. We’ll see about future times. It’s a challenge, but I feel fairly confident about it.

      • @JohnB: One piece of equipment to help any cyclist is a mirror (or turning your head around, regularly). A cyclist road worldview is being passed, particularly on a rural road. A mirror helps a cyclist keep track of other traffic and know everyone it working together.

        In terms of cyclist safety equipment a mirror (or turning your head around, regularly) is key to relaxing about traffic behind you and concentrate on road ahead. Think about Smart Cycling class, you won’t regret it!

        • Dan,

          John is an LCI.

          He can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think his questions are in the interest of seeking a balance between what we teach about lane position and what he’s experiencing on this particular road. They’re really good questions!

  7. @danc, Maine does have a 3′ passing law which allows motorists to cross the double-yellow if it is safe, and plenty of people do, whether because they know about the law or because they would anyway I don’t know. I don’t think the slow-moving law has it, though.

    My dilemma is not if I have the legal right to take the lane; I know I do, because the lane is < 14' wide. The dilemma is that even while staying to the right, I still get okay passing distance *for the most part*, and the potholes are fairly manageable if I'm alert. After all, it is my everyday route, and I know it well. So it's not so bad that I clearly need to take the lane for safety, so where the line is between my safety and their convenience is not so clear to me.

    • John, there are several roads around here on which I get consistently excellent passing behavior while riding significantly farther right than my default position. If I can allow a motorist to use part of my lane to take advantage of a smaller gap in oncoming traffic, that keeps pressure from building up behind me — there is safety value in that. If I can pick a position that allows for easy passing AND not get buzzed by anyone, that saves me the workload of having to practice control and release.

      But then, there are other roads where I experience enough dangerous passing while riding in my default position, that I have to ride farther left than that. My safety is far more important than anyone else’s convenience.

      My default on a 2-lane road is between the right tire track and the center (just to the right of the oil stain).

      If you’re getting good behavior where you are, and you’re comfortable, stay there. You know where the bad pavement patch is, so anticipate and move left early if a gap allows. I’ve found that the vast majority of motorists don’t expect me to ride through bad pavement, even if it means they have to wait.

      And, yeah, a friendly wave goes a long way. I frequently use the preemptive friendly wave before they pass :-)