CategorySafety

To slow down drivers, we must speak up to our own drivers

Backseat view of drive to Oak Park

We have a lot of power from the backseat to influence our drivers to drive better. We only have to speak up.  Photo: John Bracken

I’ve had a lot of experience with a major “transportation network company” this weekend. TNCs are also known as e-hail car services, and, inaccurately, “ride share”, because a car arrives at your location after pressing a button on an app.

I rode in one four times from Friday to Sunday because my visiting friend had a broken bone and couldn’t ride a bike – that was our original plan. Instead we had a multi-modal weekend and relied on walking, public transportation, another friend’s personal vehicle, and the TNC to go out.

These experiences reminded me that advocates for safe streets and better active transportation service and infrastructure – including myself – must directly battle entrenched norms about the “plight of the driver”.

In our final ride, on our way to the airport to drop off my friend, the TNC driver asked about the timing of our trip, if we were in a rush so the driver could know if they needed to drive a certain way.

I said that we were not, that we had budgeted plenty of time, and that Google Maps showed green lines on the local streets and highway between where we had dinner in Ukrainian Village and O’Hare airport.

As he was driving the car northbound on Western Avenue toward the Fullerton Avenue on-ramp to the Kennedy, my friend asked him about the app he was using that was speaking the turn-by-turn directions, and how it knew what the road conditions were.

The app uses the Waze service, which collects data from transportation departments, other drivers, and databases of upcoming road closures. The driver said he liked that it warned him of the locations of red light and speed cameras, too.

“I’ve gotten four speed camera tickets in the last year”, he said, “and they were all $100 each.”

I have written about Chicago’s speed cameras several times in Streetsblog Chicago, and I thought the cost was different so I asked, “Isn’t it lower for the first time?” Nope, he said.

When I looked it up at home I remembered why I was mistaken: The fine is $100 if you are traveling 11 miles per hour or more over the speed limit. The fine is $35 for traveling six to 10 miles per hour or more over the speed limit, but the cameras aren’t enforcing this range currently.

That was the end of our conversation, but I should have kept on.

The conversation we should have had would have questioned his driving behavior. I should have asked, “Why are you driving so far so often?” and “Why aren’t you slowing down? Don’t you know that speeding is dangerous to you, your passengers, and other people outside the car?”

I was spineless and didn’t challenge how he was contributing to unsafe streets in the city. My silence was tacit agreement that four $100 speeding tickets – for driving 41+ in a 30, or 31+ in a 20 in a school zone if a child was present – was a personal burden and not a necessary enforcement tool to try and reduce the number of injuries and deaths in car crashes in Chicago.


Later, on the Kennedy Expressway, he was traveling a bit over 70 miles per hour, or more than 25 miles per hour greater than the speed limit. Again I said nothing.

Another of the TNC drivers this weekend was likely high on marijuana. I shouldn’t have accepted any of these situations.

There are many kinds of shared space

A guy standing in the middle of the intersection

I took this photo outside the café Memory Lane in Rotterdam because the man in the white shirt was standing in the “middle” of this intersection for a couple of minutes. Before he took this position, he was walking slowly across the intersection to the opposite corner as his car. He’s a livery driver, and he appeared to be waiting for his passenger.

This intersection is raised (the sidewalk is level with the road surface), and is uncontrolled (there are no traffic signals, stop signs, or yield signs). A bicyclist or motorist can pass through this intersection without having to stop unless someone is walking, or a bike or car is coming from their right.

This junction has no crosswalks, either. And no one honks. Especially not at the man who’s in the roadway.

Because he’s not in the roadway. He’s in a street, and streets are different. Streets are places for gathering, socializing, eating, connecting, traveling, and shopping. There was plenty of space for him to stand here, and for everyone else – including other motorists who were in their cars – to go about their business.

The rate of change on city streets: USA versus the Netherlands

ThinkBike 2013

One of the people in this photo is Dutch. We’re on the Dearborn bike route installed downtown in 2012. The next downtown protected bike route was installed in 2015 serving a different area. However, the Dearborn bike route has become so popular that it’s size and design (t’s a narrow, two-way lane) are insufficient for the demand (who knew that bicycling in a city center would be so high in demand, especially on a protected course?) and there are no plans to build a complementary facility to improve the conditions.

My friend Mark wrote the following paragraph on his blog, BICYCLE DUTCH, relating the need to change a city and its streets to the way families change the contents of essential parts of their homes. In other words, cities and streets are like our living rooms and they must also change as we change.

Think about your living room, chances are you change it completely every 15 to 20 years. Because you need a wider sofa for the expanding family, or because you rightfully think that table has had its best years. Maybe the extra big seat for granddad is sadly not needed anymore. Of course, things can’t always be perfect: you have a budget to consider and it is not so easy to change the walls. Replacing things does give you the opportunity to correct earlier mistakes and to get the things which are more useful now. While you are at it, you can also match the colours and materials better again. Our cities are not so different from our living rooms. Just as families grow and later decrease in size again when the children leave the house, the modal share of the different types of traffic users changes over the years. These shifting modal shares warrant changes to the street design. So you may need some extra space where it was not necessary before, but if you see less and less of a certain type of traffic, its space can be reallocated to other road users.

What I really want to talk about is the rate of change in the Netherlands. I’ve visited Mark’s home in s’Hertogenbosh (Den Bosch), and we’ve walked around Utrecht.

One thing he told me, which is widely evident, is that the Netherlands is always renewing its streets. Or it has been for decades (maybe since World War II). They update street design standards regularly and streets that no longer meet these designs (or a few generations back) are updated to meet them.

Now, the two changes – updating the standards and updating the streets – don’t happen so gloriously hand in hand. Just like in the United States it takes a couple of years to come up with the right design.

The difference between our two countries is the regularity in updating the designs, and the regularity in updating streets.

I’ll lead with one example in Chicago and ask that you tell me about projects in your city that repair what’s long been a pain in the ass.

An intersection in the Wicker Park neighborhood got modern traffic signals, added crosswalk signals (there had never been any), and a stupid, sometimes dangerous little island removed. One of the four legs didn’t have a marked crosswalk. The state of Illinois chipped in most of the cost of the update – this was known at least four years before the construction actually happened.

When I wrote a blog post about the project for Grid Chicago in 2012, I found a photo from 1959 that showed the intersection in the same configuration. I also wrote in that post that the construction was delayed from 2012 to 2013. Well, it got built in 2014.

Milwaukee & Wood ca. 1959

Intersections like this – with difficult-to-see traffic signals that motorist routinely blow past, missing crosswalks, and curb ramps that aren’t accessible – persist across Chicago in the state they’ve been in for 55 or more years.

The “reconstructed bicycle route” that Mark discusses and illustrates in his blog post is known to have been updated at least once a decade. He wrote, “pictures from 1980, 1998 and 2015 show how one such T-junction was changed several times. The protected intersection went through some stages, but having learned by trial and error, the design we see now is one that fits the present ‘family’ best.”

Three books by well-known city transportation planners have all been published within months of each other. I read and reviewed Sam Schwartz’s “Street Smart”, and I’m reading Janette Sadik-Khan’s “Street Fight“. Gabe Klein’s “Startup City” is the third. All of them advocate for new designs to match the changing attitudes and needs cities have. Actually, the needs of the cities haven’t really changed, but our attitudes and policies – and the politics – around how to update cities has evolved.

I don’t know what can spur all of these seemingly minor (they’re no Belmont Flyover) infrastructural updates. I don’t think a lack of money is to blame. I think a lack of coordination, staffing, and planning ensures that outdated and unsafe designs remain on city streets.

P.S. The Netherlands “renewal” attitude isn’t limited to streets. The Dutch national railway infrastructure company “ProRail” (which is “private” but owned by the government) has been completely replacing all of the primary train stations. The Dutch have been rebuilding dikes and building flood control projects for decades, many under the common name “Delta Works”.

Here’s a photo in Nijmegen where the government was building a new, bypass canal that would ease a shipping route, create a controlled flood area, a new recreation area, but that would also displace homes.

#Space4Cycling: Chicago needs intuitive bike lanes and other street markings

Two bicyclists take different routes around this driver blocking the bike lane with their car

In this case at Milwaukee and Green, space was made and well-marked for cycling but no space was outlined for driving. The driver of the black car must pull up this far to see beyond the parked silver car. In the Netherlands they’ve come up with a solution that would work here: shift the green bike lane toward the crosswalk so that the motorist crosses the crosswalk and bike lane at the same time and has space to wait to turn left between the bike lane and the travel lane.

What does an intuitive bike lane or other street marking mean?

It means that the street user can reasonably (yeah) guess, and guess right, what they’re supposed to do.

For bicyclists in Chicago, the lack of bike lane markings that continue to the edge of an intersection (often demarcated at the stop bar) creates an unintuitive bike lane design.

At intersections, an intuitive bike lane design would mean that the bicyclist and the motorist know where and how to position their vehicles in respect to the other, even if there isn’t a car there yet, or there’s not a bike there yet. Many intersections in Chicago that have protected bike lanes do this; especially the ones with separate signal phases. And these intersections work really well for bicyclists: they stand safely away from motorists, and motorists don’t attempt to occupy these spaces.

Inverted sharrow

The “sharrow before and after the intersection because the city dropped the bike lane” is the most common “didn’t make space for cycling” problem. There was plenty of space to make for cycling here, and nearly every other “sharrow…” situation: it’s along the curb and it’s subsidized, curbside parking for drivers.

But currently at dozens, if not hundreds, of Chicago intersections where the bike lane drops before the intersection, you’ll see bicyclists behave and maneuver in several ways, none of which are accommodated by the street’s design.

Some people will bike between two lanes of cars to the front of the line, and when they get there, lacking a bike box or advanced stop line, they’ll stand with their bike in the area between the crosswalk and the stop bar. If the first car is over the stop bar, then people will usually stand with their bike on the crosswalk.

Riding north on Damen towards Fullerton-Elston

The sharrow painted on the pavement, and an accompanying sign saying, “shared lane – yield to bikes” are unintuitive because no one can occupy the same space at the same time, and the symbols don’t communicate who gets first right to a specific part of the road space. In the end, though, in a situation like this, I’ve never seen someone wait back this far on their bike, and many will consider riding on the sidewalk to get to the front. When they get there, though, they won’t find any #space4cycling.

Others will bike between a lane of cars and the curb to get to the front of the line.

New buffered bike lane on Halsted just ends

This is another version of the “sharrow before and after the intersection because the city dropped the bike lane”. Why’d they drop it in this instance? To make space for Halsted Street drivers turning right, and to push more drivers northward through its intersection with Clybourn Avenue.

Others will wait to the side of drivers, and other still will wait behind a line of cars, putting themselves at a major time disadvantage as the people who biked up to the front. Not to mention they’ll choke on more fumes.

Then, when the light turns green, motorists behave differently. Some will follow behind the first bicyclist, while others will try to pass but closely because they’re essentially sharing a lane side-by-side – this exerts a lot of mental stress on the bicyclist.

Where the city has built space that’s absolutely not to be shared (meaning it’s for the exclusive use by people bicycling), then the designs are substandard because they still allow or seem open to driving. Otherwise, though, space for cycling that’s “part time” is only usable space for those holding the most power and not for the people riding bikes who need it.

frankling at washington bike lane (composite image)

In this new design that built a “protected intersection” for bicyclists going north on Franklin and east on Washington Street, the bike space is still a drivable area. (Top photo by Kevin Zolkiewicz; bottom photo by Skip Montanaro)

These deficiencies in Chicago’s bike lane network are often the result of failing to make, or make well, space for cycling from space used for parking or turn lanes.

Bicycling on the Dearborn Street bike lane

Three years after the City of Chicago built the novel and well-used two-way cycle track on one-way Dearborn, this situation north of the track still exists. And somehow they expect drivers on a 4-lane road to travel at 20 MPH.

This is 2015 and we continue to “not make space for cycling” despite every policy that calls for making bicycling in Chicago safe and convenient so that more people will do it. It’s just that in the unwritten policies it says that you can implement that policy if it doesn’t impede driving*.

* The City of Chicago has built many road diets (a reduction in the number of travel lanes) in the last four years, and some before that. A few of these have worked well for bicyclists, like on 55th and Vincennes where they built protected and buffered bike lanes, respectively (and Dearborn through the Loop).

I put road diets in a note after “impede driving” because they’re only done where they also won’t make local traffic more congested on that street or an intersecting streets.

On the face of it, that’s exactly what many people believe they’ll do because a road diet removes or converts lanes and that’s seen as the same as reducing car capacity which will shift that car traffic to other streets. That pretty much doesn’t happen and the city only implements road diets on streets that have MORE capacity than is used.

Transportation infrastructure is for more than transportation’s sake

Transportation infrastructure should be designed for more than carrying people through places. It also needs to be about carrying people to places, because transportation is for moving people as much for commerce as it is for being social.

The Dutch consider “social safety” when designing and redesigning streets (they’re constantly upgrading streets, roads, and entire neighborhoods to standards that seem to be frequently updated).

Mark Waagenbuur posted a new video this week showing a new tunnel under Amsterdam Centraal, the main train station in Amsterdam, and he highlighted several of its social safety features.

The screen grab I embedded above – and posted on Twitter where it got a lot of shares and likes – shows an aspect that’s common across all cycling facilities in built-up areas: it’s wide enough to ride side by side with your friend, mother, or lover, with still enough room on your left for people to pass you in the same lane.

Another aspect of this tunnel is that it has sound-absorbing panels. Often tunnels have a disturbing echo that inhibit comfortable communication – my new home office has an echo and it makes it hard to have conversations on the phone here because I hear an annoying feedback. The communication is important to be able to hear people cycling with you, but also to hear what other people are doing.

The tunnel has a final feature that supports social safety: clear, wide, and open sight lines. Not just from end to end, but also to the sides. It’s hard to hide around the corner because the breadth of vision is so wide that you would see someone lurking in the corner.

For Chicagoans who use one of the many old tunnels under Lake Shore Drive connecting the “mainland” to the nation’s most popular trail along Lake Michigan, the feeling of claustrophobia and invisibility of what’s around the bend is too common. New tunnels, which I prefer to bridges because you go downhill first, should be a priority when the State of Illinois rebuilds Lake Shore Drive north of Grand Avenue in the next decade. This is what those tunnels look like; sometimes they have mirrors.

We can sell ads on the Lakefront Trail underpasses, but they're still shitty to walk through

I finally heard “My best friends are bike lanes” at a meeting

Augusta @ Washtenaw

Yes, more bikes, but keep them in the parks! Unrelated photo by Josh Koonce.

Last night at a ward transportation meeting I finally got to hear it: “My best friends are bike lanes”. AKA the plight of the motorist.

In many words, bike lanes and other kinds of infrastructure that make bicycling in a city safer and more comfortable must be impinging on driving and the needs of the motorist must be considered.

Okay, it wasn’t exactly uttered “my best friends are bike lanes”, but no one ever says that verbatim.

It went more like this: “We’re all for more biking. Biking in the park, more of that, that’s great. But you have to consider the motorist because there’s very little bicycling in our neighborhood and most of us don’t ride bikes.”

No one ever says that they oppose the act of riding a bicycle. Doug Gordon keeps a diary of the different ways these phrases are coded. They say something that sounds like the opposite: “I’m not against cycling” and “We’re not opposed to bicycle lanes”.

Yes, they want more biking…but not if it affects driving.
Well, that’s just not possible.

And we’re not even starting from a place of equality, either, regardless of how many people in the neighborhood are riding bikes versus driving cars.

No, instead, there is zero infrastructure for bicycling, and all infrastructure is optimized (er, “accommodating”) for driving. However the city staff at this meeting said there are some times, evident from their traffic counts, when bicycles made up 10 percent of traffic on certain streets in the neighborhood.

So there are people bicycling, yet are not accommodated. Driving is fully accommodated and anything less than that is essentially impinging on this motorist’s right to drive and park for free on publicly-funded streets.

Here’s how to fix the right-hook problem at Kinzie and Jefferson

Kinzie runs east-west, side to side in this Google Street View image. The ideal viewing angle between a motorist and bicyclist is 90 degrees, which is possible for the eastbound cyclist (from right to left) and the northbound motorist (pictured, in the white car). The eastbound motorist turning onto southbound Jefferson has an acute view angle to the cyclist and motorists typically believe they can make the right turn before it could possible harm the cyclist. Making the street one-way would mitigate this right-hook problem.

Kinzie runs east-west, side to side in this Google Street View image. The ideal viewing angle between a motorist and bicyclist is 90 degrees, which is possible for the eastbound cyclist (from right to left) and the northbound motorist (pictured, in the white car). The eastbound motorist turning onto southbound Jefferson has an acute view angle to the cyclist and motorists typically believe they can make the right turn before it could possible harm the cyclist. Making the street one-way would mitigate this right-hook problem.

Make Jefferson Street a one-way street going northbound so no more motorists will turn right onto southbound Jefferson and right-hook bicyclists going east on Kinzie Street.

It’s that simple. It should have been done four years ago when the Kinzie Street protected bike lane was created from a road diet (4 to 2 conversion). Instead, I get reports like this one. In fact, this exact scenario has played out several times since the lane’s inception, including with a truck in the first weeks after the lane opened.

I was traveling eastbound in the bike lane on Kinzie Street. A car was traveling in the same direction, but did not yield to me as it turned in front of me. I had my attention on the car in advance in case it did something like this, so I had sufficient time to slow down and avoid running into it as it turned to the right in front of me.

I’m glad this person was experienced enough to avoid the crash, but we can’t expect that bicyclists and motorists have the right experience when traveling within the city.

A two-way Jefferson isn’t necessary to provide access to the parking behind the residential building here because access can be gained from Canal (a two-way street) and the two-way driveway leading from Canal.

If maintaining Jefferson as a two-way street is imperative, then we can make some really intense infrastructure – intense by Chicago standards – and create a neckdown and raised intersection so that only one direction of traffic can cross the bike lane at any time. If there’s a northbound motorist waiting to turn onto Kinzie from Jefferson, and there’s a motorist on Kinzie wanting to turn onto Jefferson, then the Kinzie motorist would wait for the Jefferson motorist to turn.

The raised intersection is an additional traffic calming measure that also improves pedestrian accessibility.

What sucks about the state of infrastructure in the United States is the lack of understanding and knowledge about atypical designs (limited and rare examples of practical applications across the country) and this leads to deficient implementations of designs proven to work millions of times a day elsewhere.

The person who submitted this Close Call suggested more signs or a flashing overhead light. Yet those are tools that don’t actually require the motorist (or the bicyclist) to react in any way, whereas a piece of infrastructure – concrete, asphalt, and their topography – does more than just remind or encourage.

I would go so far as to suggest a policy that sets a target reduction in signage in the city, because eliminated signage must be replaced by the appropriate infrastructure. The best example? We have a law in Chicago where, if there’s a sign saying so, you cannot park a car within 20 feet of a crosswalk.

Get rid of the sign – they’re so ugly – and the need to pay attention to it by building a bumpout with a bioswale. Not only have you enforced the “no parking” regulation now until the concrete crumbles, and given pedestrians a shorter walk across the roadway, you also add stormwater infrastructure that reduces the burden on our combined sewer system.

Study recommends designing bike paths for bikes, not for sharing

running and bicycling on the lakefront trail

Some parts of the Chicago Lakefront Trail have a 2-foot wide side path designed for pedestrians but the study reviewed very cases where bicyclists crashed with pedestrians. It’s unknown if this side path results in fewer crashes than the parts of the Lakefront Trail without it. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

The Active Transportation Alliance posted a link on Facebook to a new study [PDF] in the Open BMJ from December 2014, a free peer-reviewed “version” of the British Medical Journal, and said it “conclusively shows separated space reduces crashes and the severity of injuries when crashes occur”.

The posting was in the context that bicyclists and pedestrians using the Lakefront Trail should have separate paths. I agree, but there’s a problem in how they stated the study’s support for separation.

I wouldn’t say that the study “conclusively” shows that bicyclists would fare better on paths without pedestrians. The study reviewed fewer than 700 crashes in two Canadian cities. Only 11% of those crashes occurred on multi-use trails and only 5.9% of the crashes were with a pedestrian or animal (the two were grouped) – this sample size is too low from which to draw that kind of conclusion.

The study didn’t report the association (correlation) between crash severity and pedestrians. The authors didn’t even recommend that bicyclists and pedestrians have separate paths, but instead wrote “These results suggest an urgent need to provide bike facilities…that are designed [emphasis added] specifically for bicycling rather than for sharing with pedestrians”.

While I don’t discount the possibility that separating bicyclists and pedestrians in off-street corridors will reduce the number of crashes and injuries when those two user groups collide, it’s imprudent to call this study “conclusive” when linking it to the measure of crashes between bicyclists and pedestrians.

The study’s primary conclusion was that bicyclists crash more often when there are high slopes, fast moving cars, or no bike lanes and the authors recommended that bike infrastructure be built for bicycling. That’s a solid recommendation and I recommended that you sign Active Trans’s petition advocating for separate facilities in the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction project.

We’ve already found all the ways to make bike lanes safer in the 43rd Ward

Michele Smith, 43rd ward alderman seeking re-election, responded to Bike Walk Lincoln Park’s addendum questionnaire about active transportation issues in that ward (which also includes part of Old Town).

“We must continue to explore different ways to make our bike lanes safer given the narrow width of our roads.”

I would discuss these points with her:

1. The number of ways to make bicycling in bike lanes safer is very small. The two biggest problems are car doors and people parking their cars in the bike lanes. I don’t know Smith to have supported building the only bike lane type – a protected bike lane between a car parking lane and the sidewalk – currently in our city’s roster of possibilities that mitigate either of these problems.

2. The problem “given” isn’t the narrow width of roads. Streets in the 43rd Ward range in all sizes, from the very small one-way brick streets to the 4-6+ lane behemoths of LaSalle Boulevard, North Avenue, and Clark Street. The problem is one of allocation – storing things or keeping people moving. Again, see the lack of Smith’s support in the previous point. (No other candidate touched on this either*, and one pitted sidewalks against bike lanes, as if that was the choice that had to be made.)

Despite four years of Bike Walk Lincoln Park’s advocacy to redesign Clark Street I know of not a single person hired or a curb moved – aside from a lonely pedestrian island at Menomonee Street, peanuts compared to what’s been discussed as needed – to improve conditions for walking, bicycling, and transit use on this important connector that is currently a barrier for those modes.

* BWLP asked about moving parking spaces around and Alderman Smith mentioned that the city faces financial penalties when removing metered parking spaces from revenue service, even if temporarily. This is true, but she ignores that the city doesn’t do this on a permanent basis and instead finds unmetered spaces in equal-revenue-value locations that can be swapped.

Eight dead cyclists, but red light cameras are the worst

Streetsblog Chicago reader David Altenburg left a salient comment this morning in response to the final tally of cyclists killed in Chicago last year after being hit by cars.

David's comment about cyclist fatalities and red light cameras

David’s comment about cyclist fatalities and red light cameras.

He wrote, “Is there any evidence that those cyclists who were killed were also issued improper tickets from red light cameras? Because if there is, then maybe we can get the current crop of ‘progressive’ mayoral candidates to give a shit about them.”

In 2013, three bicyclists died in car crashes, a fluke, because if you look at RedEye’s chart the annual average of bicyclist fatalities is 6 people. (There was a fourth cyclist death in 2013, but that was a train crash with the Brown Line.)

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