It’s Not A ‘Dooring Epidemic’ It’s ‘User Error’!

Background Reading

Summary

Protected Bike Lane

Protected Bike Lane

In less than one week I have read at least two articles in StreetsBlog that seemingly get the facts wrong. And I for one want to know why this is occurring. Last week Angie Schmitt decided to lead with the notion that a bicycle hitting the rear quarter panel of the passengers side of a left-turning vehicle should be interpreted as “Zach was biking to work in March when he was struck by a left-turning SUV driver.” No reasonable police report or the description by any reasonable traffic safety engineer would have described the collision in these terms. You could have said “he collided with an SUV that cut-him-off” and that would have far more accurate. So why the downright twisting of fact?

If this were Communist China or even the Soviet Union before its breakup the write-ups would make more sense. You could always chalk it up to a reporter trying to put the State in the best light possible. But this is the United States and we are hopefully not given to writing propaganda just to see our Urban Cycling Movement prosper. But sadly I think this is in fact the case.

So now we have the lurid headline that “there is an epidemic of door zone collisions” and of course the remedy is more infrastructure. I get the thrust of the Cycling Movement these days. It is to try and stare down any journalist who asks the hard questions about Divvy or Protected Bike Lane design or whatever in an attempt to maintain the Movement’s momentum. But at what cost? If we ever get to the point that it is difficult to distinguish the writings of the StreetsBlog staff from the rantings of the hacks at Pravda we are in “deep doo-doo”. And frankly we are dangerously close.

The Physics of the Door Zone Collision

The Door Lane

The Door Lane

We have two players in the Door Zone tragedy. The first of these is the City of Chicago and every other municipality in the country. Bike lanes are a relatively new thrust for federal and local governmental bodies. And in many places the width of the streets is simply too narrow to provide a Protected Bike Lane (PBL) like the “horrible” one that we have on Dearborn Street. Few streets are wide enough to allow a full width bike lane that is hidden behind the row of parked cars that have been moved away from the curb in towards the center of the street. In the space evacuated by the repositioning of parking a lane for bicycles is “hidden“.

PBLs like the one on Dearborn can be quite expensive because to function effectively they need special street lights to control turning and forward movement. Dearborn has the added problem that the PBL is situated over a section of curbside roadway that is constantly under water or ice or snow. Add to this the fact that underground parking lots empty directly into the bike lane and you have a recipe for disaster.

Cities that do try and squeeze a bike lane in despite the limited width are in essence creating not a “bike lane” but rather a “door lane“. And when you have a largely uneducated and untrained populace on personal and rented bikes thinking that the safe place to be is in the “door lane” you can always count on collisions with doors to increase in frequency.

Sharrows © beaconarts.org

Sharrows
© beaconarts.org

The second culprit in the tragedy is the bicyclist himself. If he is unaware that he is allowed to or too lazy to move out of the “door lane” while maintaining the same rate of speed he might use in a PBL he is asking for trouble. Riding in the “Door Zone” always requires a reduction in speed. The speed in question depends on the reflexes of the rider, his bike’s braking power and road conditions.

In essence collisions are not inevitable and if they are indeed happening at an epidemic rate then we need to ask the riders what strategies they are taking while riding in the “Door Zone“. Now in cases like Milwaukee Avenue there is not bike lane. Instead there are “sharrows” painted on the ground.

These merely reflect that the city is aware (and thus should the drivers who ply these streets be aware) that cyclists are “sharing this roadway“. On virtually all streets in the city that are designated for bike use this is to be understood. But the “sharrows” help to reinforce that notion.

This kind of situation calls for a very different approach to integrating into traffic. It means that you must “take the lane” riding to the right of the track assumed by cars but nevertheless squarely in front of the passenger side of the vehicle behind you. If you however feel uneasy about the dangers of riding in this fashion then you can do what I see being done by most Milwaukee Avenue riders. They ride as close to the line to the left of the parked vehicles as possible.

What they seldom seem to be doing is adjusting their speed downward enough to avoid a collision with a person exiting a vehicle. Just last weekend a rider on a bike blew past me (another bicycle) on Damen Avenue while I was stopped at a 4-way stop intersection despite the fact that pedestrians were in the walkway. it was senseless but that is the reality of Wicker Park and instead of going to the source of the problem (a lack of training on how to ride in this kind of situation) the burden is being placed on the tax payers to pony up for more PBLs which will may solve the problem of driver side door collisions but will not fix the scofflaw issues that are created when an impatient and frankly undeserving populace of riders on brakeless bikes ride like daredevils.

The place where I take umbrage with John is over the notion that this “epidemic” is somehow like an outbreak of influenza. It is not. It is as controllable as ever HIV was. Human behavior dictates whether a bicycle rider will fly past automobiles at speeds that make it impossible for him to avoid a collision should it begin. And about the only response that we will ever get out of the Urban Cycling Community is yet another maudlin display of emotion because one of their own was stupid enough to ignore the physics of riding in this situation.

The Unspoken Truth About Milwaukee

There was a celebration of the fact that a link between Dearborn-Kinzie-Milwaukee-Elston was recently established. The reason Elston was chosen is because Milwaukee is too narrow to put in a PBL without removing at least one lane of parking on the street. If you have ever visited the area you know that its lifeblood is traffic of all sorts. So for good reason the merchants along this stretch are reluctant to remove parking.

This is an area with lots of out-of-town traffic. It is the new Bohemian section of town. But the sentiments of the folks who live here are anything but open to cars of any type. And that frankly is a shame. Cyclists are going to have to get off their “I want it now or I’ll hold my breath until I turn blue” kick. We are rapidly racing towards a time when a new Presidential election could turn the tide for the other side. We do not need hastily installed crappy lanes like the many we already have. I’m sorry but I would never have the guys who installed many of these lanes across the city do work on my home. I am not anxious enough about “getting something, anything done” to take inferior workmanship.

We need leaders who have the vision to put in something that is as marvelous as the new Cultural Trail in downtown Indianapolis.

What we do not need are “trigger happyactivists and journalists more concerned about the number of miles of bicycle infrastructure rather than their quality of installation and beauty. Sometimes it appears that the same folks that paved over the suburbs 50 years ago are hard at work trying to paint every lane green and ram into place as many PVC bollard as possible, all under the misguided notion that doing so will somehow “save the planet“. That is pure poppycock and even if they don’t know that they should.

We Need Responsible Journalism Not Yellow

It is time to stop the mistaken notion that attacking your critics is the best way to move forward with the installation of bicycle infrastructure. Critics are helpful because in trying to refute their arguments you are forced to stop gulping the “Kool-Aid” and asking the hard questions. There is nothing about the plans we have for Chicago at the moment that could not be improved upon and Indianapolis with limited funds and population has proved this in a very big way.

But if the folks at GridChicago and StreetsBlog are intent on titillating their audience fine. But that is hardly a reasonable tradeoff for the intensely probing examination of everything we are doing. Never be afraid to step on the toes of the Cycling Advocacy Establishment. They have a vested interest in keeping the churning going on. They are a bit like the guys who sell you stocks and then keep asking you to sell those shares to buy some others that are on the way up.

The salespersons make money regardless of the overall trend of your portfolio. Keep that fact in mind and you should be able to spot the “big lie” from a far ways off.