Monday, March 14, 2011

Op-Ed: Shouldn’t bicycle planning and facility design experts at least ride bikes?

When I go around New Jersey talking about the importance of advocating for better bicycle amenities I’m often told by other bicyclists that they are frustrated, fed up and don’t bother even trying anymore. These bicyclists often complain that when they have petitioned for facilities in the past, if something was built, it was entirely unsuited to their needs. The typical complaint I hear is, “Why bother?!?! If something actually does get built, it will just get designed by someone who has obviously never even ridden a bike!” (I’ve honestly heard close to this exact complaint from several cyclists.)

While I can say with confidence that things are indeed changing for the better here in New Jersey, the unfortunate reality is that these bicyclists’ frustrations are well founded and their misgivings are all too often manifested in the concrete, asphalt, paint and steel of many of the facilities designed for bicycle use around the State. And while the professionals that plan and design these facilities may be very well intentioned and completely sold on the idea and wisdom of accommodating bicyclists, the reality remains that if the expert is not an experienced bicyclist themselves, they may continue to be blind to the potential hazards unintentionally incorporated into their designs and plans.

So I propose a theoretical test for anyone in charge of planning and/or designing bicycle facilities. This test would even be helpful for those in charge of awarding grant funds for bicycle facilities, as they would be more capable of critically evaluating the merits of a project and its usefulness for cyclists. I admittedly set the bar pretty high but that’s the point. If a candidate could pass this test then I would have unquestioning confidence with their professional opinions relative to proposed bicycle facilities. So beyond the candidate’s relative professional and academic achievements (degrees / experience in engineering, planning, etc.) the candidate would need to pass the following requirements to be a qualified bicycle planning and facility design expert. Those are:

Mandatory competences –

1. Theoretical and practical mastery of Smart Cycling as taught by the League of American Cyclists
A comprehensive, firsthand understanding of the hazards cyclists face while interacting with motor vehicle traffic would help prevent the design and construction of undesirable if not unsafe facilities. The candidate would have to demonstrate his/her proficiency with Smart Cycling in both a written format and while riding a bike. The on-bike proficiency must be demonstrated with ease and confidence under all but the most extreme traffic conditions. One does not need to be a League Certified Instructor to show competence in this requirement but it would indeed be a bonus. This requirement does not preclude the expert from approving facilities that do not attempt to exactly replicate Smart Cycling techniques in their profession practice.
2. Practical experience riding a bike for transportation purposes
A bicyclist riding for transportation will frequently seek a route that is the most direct. However, the bicyclist will often have to balance the need for a direct route verses the desire for a route that provides the best level of comfort and safety from motor vehicle traffic. Since most funding sources for bicycle facilities are often based on the premise that people will use their bicycles on these facilities to replace trips that would otherwise require the use of a motor vehicle (private and/or public), having firsthand experience bicycling for transportation would naturally help to make the best use of limited bicycle amenity funding. And by default, having used a bicycle for transportation the candidate would have a better understanding of the practical and proper placement of secure and situational appropriate bicycle parking. The candidate must show competence in using a bicycle for transportation over a minimum one-way distance of ten miles.
3. Experience riding a bicycle in rural, suburban and urban environments
Understanding that the needs of cyclists differ depending on the local environment is critical to providing site appropriate bicycle amenities. For example, barrier-protected bicycle lanes might be highly desirable to provide a comfortable bicycling environment on an urban arterial with heavy traffic volumes but would likely be totally inappropriate elsewhere. Understanding these needs would prevent the construction of inappropriate facilities and also help to wisely disseminate scarce bicycle amenity funding.
4. Experience and confidence riding a bicycle at speeds in excess of 25mph
Such experience would allow the expert to fully comprehend the needs of cyclists comfortable with operating a bicycle at higher speeds. Experience in operating a bicycle at such speeds also brings with it an understanding of a bicyclist’s strong desire to conserve hard earned momentum. Such an understanding could help prevent the design of slow speed facilities in downhill situations and/or the repeated close placement of stops signs on a bicycle facility in all but the most necessary circumstances.
5. Experience riding a bicycle at slow speeds (<12mph) in heavy traffic
Just as some casual bicyclists are completely unfamiliar with the needs of bicyclists who travel at high speeds (averaging >15mph), others who approach bicycling strictly as a high paced and sometimes competitive sport are often equally unaware of how bicycling at slower speeds can completely change the riding experience on a given stretch of road under otherwise identical traffic conditions. The candidate must understand that riding a bicycle at slow speeds can actually make bicycling more dangerous and more stressful, independent of the individual bicyclist’s experience and comfort in traffic. First, bicycling at slow speeds increases the total number motor vehicles that will overtake the slow bicyclist versus that of a fast bicyclist over a given distance. Second, on top of increasing the number of passing motor vehicles, those that do overtaking the slow bicyclist will do so at a higher relative speed, making each pass more stressful and potentially more dangerous. Third and finally, when bicycling at slower speeds it is much more difficult and stressful to take a lane when needed. By contrast the fast bicyclist can interact with traffic more easily, by being able to take a lane for a shorter period of time and with minimal interruption to the velocity of motor vehicle traffic. By understanding that riding a bicycle at slow speeds can actually be more stressful than riding fast, in certain instances, the expert would be better able to identify the needs of slow (often new) bicyclists while also considering the needs of fast bicyclists.
6. Experience riding a bicycle at night
Riding a bicycle at night is a unique experience that poses different challenges and potential dangers. Nighttime is also when a large percentage of bicycle crashes happen with motor vehicles with many of those resulting in fatal injuries to the bicyclist. Having experience riding at night would allow the expert to understand that a facility that may seem to work well during the day could pose significant hazards to bicyclists when used at night.

Elective Competences – (must show proficiency in at least two of the following)

1. Club / Competitive road bicycling
Many persons who readily identify themselves as bicyclists ride in bicycle clubs and/or ride bicycles competitively on the road. They also make up a large portion (if not a majority) of bicycle advocates. Having a firsthand understanding of their requirements would be a highly desirable so the expert could better satisfy their needs. Having ridden in a group and drafted other bicyclists is the critical part of this requirement.
2. Bicycle/Transit integration
Having firsthand experience using a bicycle with mass transit is critical to understanding the detailed needs of persons who wish to use a bicycle with mass transit. The candidate should be familiar with the both needs of bicyclists who use a bicycle just to access a transit station and those that also wish to take a bicycle with them on the transit vehicle. Better bicycle/transit integration has the potential to open up a whole host of possibilities for bicyclists while providing a new source of riders and revenue for transit agencies.
3. Riding with children
One could argue that this should be a mandatory requirement. Understanding the needs of child bicyclists is critical in providing proper bicycle accommodation on select facilities. Bicycle facilities where children are likely, or ones where bicyclists have must use a certain route to reach major, vacation or other family-friendly destinations must consider the needs of child bicyclists. A prime example of the later would be bicycle access to certain critical bridges. These facilities should be made comfortable for children as young as age 10 with adult supervision. This experience is also critical when working on Safe Routes to School bicycle projects.
4. Bicycle touring (preferably unsupported)
Bicycle tourists have many requirements uniquely different from that of most other bicyclists. They will often be totally unfamiliar with the area, roads and trails they are riding through, as they are likely visiting for the first and likely only time. As such bicycle tourist might not be aware of the safe scenic route that parallels a dangerous main highway. They can travel in excess of 100 miles in a single day and will have bicycles loaded with gear that can reach 100lbs or more. Bicycle tourists also require access to dinning and overnight accommodations and advanced knowledge of their precise locations. Again, having firsthand experience with bicycle touring would provide the candidate insights into the needs of a unique form of bicycling that is sure to grow as the popularity of bicycling increases overall.

Note – There is no requirement that the expert have experience with mountain biking. This is because mountain bikers themselves build most mountain biking amenities. There is often little need to bring in an outside expert to plan such facilities. And since these facilities rarely serve a transportation function, they are not usually eligible for transportation funding nor are they put through the same stringent vetting process as other bicycle facilities (yes, I am aware that some people do include sections of mountain bike trail on their commutes to and from work).

In closing, it should be noted that many bicycle planning experts in New Jersey already meet most if not all of the above requirements. Often, the frustrations bicyclists have with some bicycle amenities are due to compromises professional bicycle planning experts have to make with elected officials, other bureaucrats and members of the public others who don’t quite understand the needs of bicyclists. In some cases there is even total opposition to building bicycle accommodations that then force severe compromises to an excellent plan, if not complete cancellation of the amenity. It also cannot be forgotten that budget limitations can, and often greatly thwart otherwise excellent plans and ideas. This final issue is probably the greatest enemy of well thought-out bicycle plans and facility designs.

Still, government agencies, consultants and even the bicycle advocates themselves cannot petition, plan and design world class bicycle amenities until they first fully understand and comprehend the needs of bicyclists, which comes best from firsthand experience.

What do you think? Are there any other requirements that bicycle facility design and planning experts need to have to properly evaluate and design bicycle amenities?


BobP said...

Of all of the bicycling advocates I know, none of them ride in clubs/groups. All of the advocates I know bike commute, which is what advocacy's focus should be - making roads safer for bicyclists.

I have yet to come across a club ride where the riders have any respect for the cars behind them. This apparent disregard for other road users is what fuels much of the angry comments I get from people when discussing bikes on roads.

Andy B from Jersey said...

That's a real shame on all points Bob. I'm not much of a club rider but I've ridden in a few of their rides and they were mostly very polite to passing car traffic. However, I've seen whole pelotons of 30 plus cyclists taking up the whole road before while in the car.

It's also a shame that clubs don't take the time to advocate. I know some members that do but their efforts are scattered. This is why the NJ Bike & Walk Coalition is so important.

Frank Warnock said...

For some, group rides are also a safety bubble. A greater presence forces drivers to truly slow down, and pass as though it was an Amish Buggy or other SMV. Especially women; many will not ride alone. "Safety in numbers" is really in play for them. So while it is ashame feathers get ruffled, it is somewhat self-induced by a minority of careless or belligerent drivers. That is what I usually tell those who come to me about it, and it usually quiets them.

My personal peeve is modified exhaust systems, usually on motorcycles. Some are loud enough to cause instant hearing damage or pain. And some throttle it deliberately at close range, as they pass, which should qualify as assault in any civilized society. The excuse for many is "to be seen is to be heard", even though no creditable study has shown noise directed from the back of a vehicle lowers risk of a frontal collision.

If only we could all be peaceful toward one another in this world ...