Does cycling-specific infrastructure slow you down? Can you ride faster on streets than on bicycle paths?
Some cyclists, many of whom seem to be of the vehicular persuasion, argue this point vociferously. John Forester may have been the first, with this pip from 2001 (among others):
The bikeway advocates are so imbued with the imagined virtues of the Dutch bikeway system, that it makes cycling safe for the incompetent and creates many cyclists where there were few before, that they have transformed, in their own minds, the defects of the Dutch system, its slow speed and long delays, into virtues.
The argument has stuck around even into this, the year of our lord 2015, the supposed year of hoverboards and powered shoelaces. That such myths and inanities persist probably has much to do with lack of experience; apparently, most cyclists in the U.S., for instance, have never ridden in a place with real bicycle infrastructure. Even John Forester, critic-in-chief of Amsterdam-style bicycle lanes, never visited the country.
Enter Strava data:
Riders in Amsterdam, that city criss-crossed by bicycle lanes and infrastructure, enjoy the fastest average speed (15.9 mph) of any major city that Strava tracks. For quick comparison, here are a few other cities:
- Los Angeles: 13.1 mph
- San Francisco: 12.9 mph
- New York City: 13.5 mph
To be sure, Strava results are easy to criticize for their reliance on data-hungry, athletic riders, those who belong to a demographic that can afford and use the devices Strava requires. (I find the service helpful for tracking times and distances of my daily commute and weekend rides.) However, comparing Strava riders city-to-city has a big advantage: Strava users look similar to each other worldwide, making comparisons easy. The point? Athletic Strava users — that category of fast, competent riders that Forester liked to describe — ride faster on Amsterdam cycling infrastructure than on any type of other (mostly non-cycling) infrastructure in major cities around the world. It’s time to retire the myth that cycling infrastructure slows you down.
When I wheeled the Bullit last Saturday into Charles Picture Framing to pick up some packages, Charles was understandably confused, and maybe a little startled. “Can I help you?” he asked. I was (admittedly) pushing the notion of “rock star parking” to the bleeding edge. You can’t get any closer than in the shop, but it sure made sense to me to get the bike as near as possible to the goods. When I told him I was picking up some frames, Charles recovered quickly, got my packages, and helped me load. He said he couldn’t remember any pick-ups by cyclists his thirty years there. I guess that wouldn’t be too far out of character for our town.
I love running errands by bicycle. It’s great to be out in the sun, hearing the wind whistling in my ears, and seeing the bustle of the city from the unique perspective available only to cyclists. I use the word “unique” advisedly: you won’t find me or any pedestrian standing squarely in the middle of the Sepulveda and Santa Monica intersection, two feet on the ground, waiting to make a left turn, with four lanes of cars whizzing by on either side — but put a bicycle between my legs, and there I am.
Oh, by the way, did I mention that I also find cycling in Los Angeles to be an act of quiet desperation, an activity almost always accompanied by low level terror? When I was headed home with all those picture frames, “driving” north on Overland Avenue and listening keenly for the sound of overtaking cars, I found myself overcome with a sudden rush of jealousy at the sight of a father on the sidewalk, out for a walk with his child, enjoying the afternoon unconcernedly, unhurriedly, with no care for traffic. The contrast made we wonder at my sanity: I must have a screw loose to “enjoy” the death riding on my left. I have a car. I can afford gasoline. Shouldn’t I be driving?
Last May, one of the more astonishing crash statistics came from the League of American Bicyclists. In a funding appeal letter, the LAB mentioned that “more than one in four of crashes we’ve documented involve cyclists getting hit from behind.” I’ve heard almost nothing about this number since, but it might be one of the more compelling data points that cycling has seen in years. If anything, this statistic should jump off the page to any vehicular cyclist who’s used to hearing that fewer than ten percent of crashes involve hits from behind. The ten percent number has been used to justify any amount of “proper” cycling behavior, from avoiding sidewalks, to taking the lane, to advocating against separate bicycle paths – because, the line goes, we’re “safer” in traffic than elsewhere. That such behavior often goes completely against common sense has never counted for much, in part because it’s hard to argue against a statistic without something comparable. But that low-level terror I feel when riding comes in large part because of the many, daily near-misses I face riding exactly where the “vehiculars” say I should be. Now, maybe, finally, we have statistics that correspond to the terror. At the very least, we have cause to reconsider a set of forty-year-old studies that may have no basis in current reality. The broader implications are tremendous: these are numbers that can change policy, that go far to show the need for separate lanes and real infrastructure.
Tom Vanderbilt — he of that famous book on traffic — tweeted this nugget the other day: “My general feeling on painted bike lanes and sharrows is: Would pedestrians feel comfortable on sidewalks that were made of icons & paint?” When I was looking over at that lucky father walking with his child on the sidewalk, I had to ask myself what the hell I was doing in the middle of Overland Avenue, creeping along at ten miles-per-hour, cars rushing and squeezing by me with inches to spare, and trying my best to keep those six picture frames from getting banged up. What the hell indeed? I was jealous because he had a lane of his own, and I did not. I was a supplicant in a land of brazen and selfish giants, the dog begging for scraps at the table; he was the master of his space. I want a lane of my own, a lane of one’s own.
John Forester, the father of vehicular cycling, may well be equal parts saint and villain in the annals of American cycling. Over the past forty years, he has defended “the rights of cyclists to the public roads” while also fighting “bike lanes, European-style cycletracks, and just about any form of traffic calming.” Forester’s initial entry into bicycle politics was limited to Palo Alto, California, where he successfully scuttled Dutch-style bicycle paths in the early 1970s. His influence later extended statewide, and then nationally. He “talked his way onto a California committee studying bikeway standards” and “particularly attacked protected bikeways running next to roads.” (AASHTO guidelines “still recommend against these types of facilities.”) In 1980, he was elected to the presidency of the League of American Bicyclists, where he stayed for three years, until he was “ousted … in a power struggle over the organization’s direction.”
Jeff Mapes, in his book, Pedaling Revolution (the source of all these quotes), takes a diplomatic tack in his overall description of Forester’s efforts for cycling, but he also portrays a man who despised most other cyclists: “[Forester] savaged the bike industry for supporting bikeway proponents and what [he] saw as misguided safety regulators. The industry … wanted to encourage more people to become cyclists. Forester wanted to see only properly trained riders on the streets.”
I find it cruelly indicative and galling to read Mapes’ small footnote about Forester in a chapter otherwise describing bicycling in Amsterdam:
Forester … said that, besides a childhood train journey through Holland before World War II, he has never been in the country. “However,” he told me in an e-mail, “I have several cycling associates who have cycled there, and they inform me that they didn’t like cycling there for reasons which I see as eminently reasonable and conforming to my feelings about the few imitations implemented here.”
In other words, Forester argued vociferously against infrastructure that he had never seen, that he had never ridden on, that he hadn’t experienced. It’s a crushing spirit that denies the visions and dreams of others without having experienced them firsthand. If you haven’t been to the Netherlands, you simply cannot understand cycling as a way of life — the immersive, encompassing, and encouraging way of it, and not the peripheral, excluding, and callous version we have in much of the U.S., and certainly in Los Angeles.
Forester’s advocacy for vehicular cycling, and in particular his rejection of separated infrastructure, may well represent the biggest squandered opportunity for inclusive cycling in the last forty years. His view of strong, confident, fearless, and fast cyclists navigating traffic like drivers has at least partially — and perhaps substantially — contributed to the very few cyclists we see today on the streets of Los Angeles. One need not make too many imaginative leaps to see a vastly different Los Angeles if Jan Gehl had begun his forty years of infrastructure build-out here rather than in Copenhagen. Two men, two divergent visions, and two vastly different outcomes:
We have to start somewhere, I suppose, despite the wasted time. And we have much work to do if we really want to remake our cities into places where human power has equal status on the roads. In previous posts, I have promised photos of urban infrastructure I had the privilege to see while overseas earlier this month. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve found it rather hard to relate to Los Angeles, because the buildout over there is so far advanced. However, I do have a few items of note.
Let’s take these photos of some typical German urban bike paths. These happen to be in Bunde, a village on the western edge of the country. Villages and Los Angeles share in common relatively empty sidewalks, so perhaps these paths might be instructive:
In essence, these two photos illustrate a shared-use facility, a sidewalk and bicycle path on the same level, built out side-by-side. Cyclists are guided on their portion through positioning, coloring, and surface variances, and pedestrians through the same mechanisms. They represent a rather simple, elegant, and cheap way to make a bike path, because they require giving up no road space and still give cyclists a place.
I realize that readers might point out that the bike path is actually on the sidewalk, and then perhaps alert me to the dangers of sidewalk riding. I am going to discount those studies in one stroke. They have nothing to do with sidewalk riding, and everything to do with conflicts at intersections. It’s not sidewalk riding that’s dangerous, it’s intersections, and we need to do a better job at making intersections safer.
No, I think the bigger challenge for L.A. would come from rethinking our cluttered sidewalks:
Where the Germans have nearly obstruction-free sidewalks, we have burdened them with signs, parking meters, power line poles, newspaper boxes, trees, etc. Walking in a straight line has become difficult in some parts of our city, much less riding a bike. However, it may be easier to remove parking meters — they are disappearing anyway — and rethink our sidewalks, than to remove traffic lanes and rethink our roads.
And then, maybe, someday, we’ll find a way towards something more advanced, like a real Dutch-style bike path, where the path is as big as a traffic lane, and where blocking it just isn’t done (well, barely done):
Paths like these, I think, are well outside the reach of Los Angeles for now. But one can dream.