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Don't go there: Some cyclists question Same Rules, Same Road

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/08/14 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Biking

As more people try biking in Cleveland, they’re starting to see things from a new perspective: Up close to pavement conditions or traffic laws written for motor vehicles, for example. It has led to some interesting ‘a-ha‘ moments. Like the first time a pothole almost swallows a wheel or when a traffic signal never changes.

What they’re confronted with is a feeling that is difficult to express outside of their tribe. Some cyclists are starting to wonder if the Same Road, Same Rules mantra is really serving their needs?

A cycle track in The Netherlands<br />A cycle track in Montreal<br />Family on Detroit Avenue bike lane<br />

The Netherlands is a country slightly larger than Maryland that survived the Oil Crisis of the 1970s by turning to carbon-lite and car-free forms of transportation. Today, cities like Amsterdam have 40% of their population going places on a bike. The Dutch have gone so far as to build a bike-only “super highway” between cities.

The idea of creating a whole, separate network of bikeways is certainly appealing to cyclists who might not like the idea of mixing it up with cars and 4 tons of steel. But, the dream quickly vanishes when faced with the expense of buying land in urban places.

So, what the Dutch did—and are inspiring here in the U.S.—was to follow the path of least resistance. They realized the best place for cyclists to be was in the road. Bikes are more visible and move closer to the speed of cars. In Ohio, the law supports that bikes belong on roads instead of on sidewalks.

In the Netherlands and later in places like Montreal, bike lanes with a small barrier, such as a curb, or a grassy median, or a painted red zone started appearing. In the last two years in the States, so called “cycle tracks”—painted green and with popular barrier of choice, plastic bollards—started popping up in cities like Chicago, Memphis, Austin, D.C. and Portland.

There is a growing body of evidence that protected bike lanes like cycle tracks are attracting more people to try biking. While Cleveland has yet to build one, cycle tracks have been proposed on Lorain Avenue in Ohio City and on St. Clair Avenue on Cleveland’s east side where it’s so wide and empty most days, that they’re talking about running it right down the middle of the road (like in D.C., on Pennsylvania Avenue, in front of the White House) and planting trees around it. Imagine, a parkway for bikes. Planners see a bicycle expressway fanning out across 50, 80, even 100 miles of roads that once were streetcar routes, The Plain Dealer wrote this week about the plan that supporters call The Midway.

“It might not be elevated and separated by a parking lane,” Cleveland Heights resident and cyclist, Joy Henderson, says of the need to separate bikes and cars. “But, we have to start somewhere. Be bold and acknowledge it’s going to take away some parking or a driving lane.”

For Christina Vassallo, the Executive Director of SPACES Gallery, if a traffic signal only turns green when it senses a car, that could make her late to a meeting. What’s a busy person to do?

“I know this is controversial, but I think we deserve our own set of rules,” says Vassallo, who doesn’t own a car. “To physically separate bikes and cars would be the best, but most unlikely, scenario.”

Painting 80 or more miles of bike lanes—as the city of Cleveland has committed to doing by 2017—is a step in the right direction. In addition to infrastructure, Vassallo and Henderson would like Ohio to adopt a law pioneered in Idaho where it is legal for cyclists to treat stop signs the same way motorists treat blinking yellow traffic lights—as cautions. Known as an Idaho stop, the law also applies to traffic lights which cyclists obey the same way motorists do at stop signs—pause and go.

“If a car is going to turn right on red, they’re probably going to hit you if you’re on a bike,” explains Vassallo. “If you can get a bit of a head start, it will decrease accidents.”

Tom Ligman, a bike commuter from Cleveland Heights to University Circle, understands where the dialogue emerged that cyclists should have different rules on the road. But, Ligman sees greater need for driver education.

“At the point where we are, I would be happy with more visibility and the three-foot passing law being adopted by cities outside of Cleveland,” he says. “We should get to a spot where it is less likely to hit people on bicycles.”

Riding with his son, who turned 16, on a bike for the last four years, Ligman feels that driver’s education classes should incorporate a module on how to drive safely with bikes on the road.

“They should figure out a way of showing new drivers what 3 feet looks like when passing a bike,” he suggests.

He figures, since pedestrians and trucks are allowed in the street under their own rules, the same should go for bikes.

“Roads are built for people, not cars,” he says. “We forget that.”

Henderson, who bikes to work at Cleveland Heights High School, adds: “Are there vehicles we value because they are a valuable form of transportation? We might have children or use a wheelchair. If you’re more vulnerable, you need protection.”

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Marc
3 years ago

@Jason - I experienced something similar in Germany when visiting Berlin and Dresden. A bike path was often designated as part of the "sidewalk" space and pedestrians, at least the natives, knew to stay out of it (cyclists would get very touchy about pedestrians who wandered into their space). I wonder if we have that same opportunity in the U.S., or if it would be faster and a whole heck of a lot cheaper (and thus more feasible) to designate a bike lane in the roadway and then protect it with a physical barrier? Also, I wonder about crossing conflicts -- when cyclists are moving across intersections in separated bike facilities? Europe seems to have a whole series of on-road bike facilities aside from cycle tracks, but when they do have cycle tracks, they seem to have invented new ways of signaling for cars and bikes to mix.

Jason K. Moore
3 years ago

@Marc -- I've lived in the Netherlands and bicycled, trained, and driven through 30+ cities there. In the densest part of the city centers, cars and bicycles may share the same space*, but in these situations the car/bicycle ratio is extremely low and the cars usually can go about 10 mph max due to the small cobblestone roads, large bicycle/ped traffic, and road design that favors the bikes/peds. There are few places in the entire USA that have that kind of density or city design. These areas in the Netherlands are one of the few places that cars, bicycles, and pedestrians seem to safely co-mingle. But even at 10 mph the bicyclists and pedestrians are the much more vulnerable than automobile drivers. My best friend's wife was crushed and killed by a automobile driver going about 10 mph. 2000 lbs of steel isn't that forgiving to a 100-200 lb mass of flesh and bone. Our streets in the USA, even in the densest areas are more akin to the Dutch's outer ring and "suburbs" around the old city centers. And in those areas you will never find bicyclists co-mingled on the car road with automobiles. The Dutch simply do not put bicyclists and automobiles in the same space when the automobile speeds are 15 mph +**.

*Actually many cities ban normal car traffic in these areas. Amsterdam is not one of these cities. But on only 1 in 4 people in Amsterdam own a car as compared to 1 in 2 people owning a car nation wide. FYI, There are 18 million bicycles for 17 million people.

**Quiet country roads do have this but there are often road treatments that keep care traffic relatively low.

Marc
3 years ago

@Jason -- I've visited The Netherlands and seen thousands of cyclists using the street. While it is true that they also have done a very good job of intentionally creating separated cycle tracks, most of the time people are biking where the cars go. I think their smaller streets work to the advantage of bringing greater parity between cars and cyclists. I don't mean to downplay the great resistance or upwelling of support among citizens that directly influenced the decision to invest in cycling. It is the most important, missing element here in the U.S.

Jason K Moore
3 years ago

The following quote from the article is very misleading.

"So, what the Dutch did -- and are inspiring here in the U.S -- was to follow the path of least resistance. They realized the best place for cyclists to be was in the road. Bikes are more visible and move closer to the speed of cars. In Ohio, the law supports that bikes belong on roads instead of on sidewalks."

In the Netherlands, the car lane is the last place that you will find a bicyclist (except maybe on small country roads with little car traffic). If the world has anything to learn from the Netherlands about increasing bicycling it is to create dedicated infrastructure for bicyclists. In virtually every city there you will find dedicated transportation infrastructure for pedestrians, bicyclists, automobiles, trains, and trams. All of which are carefully segregated and organized. All of this didn't come to be through least resistance. It actually took a great deal of resistance from citizens who wanted to keep the automobile out of the streets that their children normally could play in.

You may think that bicyclists and motorists traveling together at similar speeds is a good idea, but simple high school physics tells us that the energy imparted in a collision between an automobile that weighs thousands of pounds traveling at 15 mph and a 200 lb bicycle and rider traveling at the same speed by far favors the motorist, at least 10 times in most cases. Bicyclists, pedestrians, wheelchair riders, etc are by far the most vulnerable modes of transportation and our cities in America should have a zero tolerance policy for the injury and loss of life of citizens that simply want to walk or ride from A to B under the power bestowed upon them by nature. I'm sick and tired of having to cross a river of death (i.e. street) when I simply want to walk to my neighbor's house. High speed, automobile dominated streets are a far cry from simple livability.

Cliff
3 years ago

I follow the same rules as motor vehicles (even when no one is looking) and it works well for me, at least until I have run-ins with drivers and even other cyclists who think differently. I think the most important thing is to get everyone--motorists, cyclists, pedestrians--to agree on the rules and best practices for cycling. Safety experts generally do agree, but too many cyclists either do not know the rules or choose to ignore them.

julie
3 years ago

My newest favorite road to ride is the stretch Shaker Boulevard that is in Shaker Heights, where signs reading "[bicycle symbol] may use full lane". It makes riding so pleasant. I can take the lane and cars change lanes to pass me without incident or rancor. This signage on all four lane (or greater) roads at the very least, perhaps alternating with "change lanes to pass bike", would be a start toward better cyclist/motorist interaction. I think it is more effective than sharrow markings on the pavement.

The question is not just law, but best practice. Can all of best practice for motorists and cyclists be coded into law? I don't know. I do favor the "Idaho law" approach to stop signs and red lights.

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