Bike Helmets Don’t Work, Part 7

Took my stepson to camp at UT this morning (on our bikes); he thinks he left his helmet there last Monday (the last time we rode our bikes there). While I make him wear his helmet normally (it’s the law here), I wasn’t willing to give up the only chance to ride this week (due to scheduling conflicts) just because we couldn’t find it at home this morning.
Coincidentally, today I saw this from England, which was considering a mandatory helmet law for children.

Note from 2005: That link no longer works, but I found an excerpt from the document and include it here now for reference.

EDM 764 * * * CYCLE HELMETS * *03.03.04 Griffiths/Jane That this House notes the substantial disparity between claims made for the efficacy of pedal cycle helmets and their measured effect in real populations; notes that the Transport Research Laboratory has reported the promotion of pedal cycle helmets may lead to increased injury rates; notes that cyclist injury rates remain unchanged following passage of mandatory helmet legislation in several countries; and calls on the Department of Transport to initiate a programme of research designed to establish why increases in helmet wearing rates are not associated with reductions in head injury rates, and why the countries with the lowest helmet wearing rates are those with the lowest cyclist injury rates

Of course, the New York Times covered the fact that helmets don’t seem to be doing anything in the general population, but peoples’ anectdotes about cracked helmets that surely saved their lives continue to win the battle on this side of the pond. Even the Times swallowed a load of credulity by blaming the inefficacy of helmets on everything possible except the chance that a tiny piece of plastic might not be living up to its Herculean billing.

Bus Reliability

This morning, after I finished a short interview with KLBJ-AM’s morning news show (despite being well-meaning in their attempts to cover local issues, the format isn’t very helpful – I only spoke about ten sentences total), I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway. Since I was up extra early, my choices were to take the #3 bus at 7:16 (arriving up near my office at 7:44) or take the more comfortable and quicker express bus at 7:48 (arriving near my office at 8:08).

I arrived at the bus stop about 5 minutes early (late for me), and waited. And waited. And waited. The bus finally showed up at about 7:30.

It’s now 8:03 and I’m finally at my desk. And by the way, thanks to the motorists on Jollyville who were relatively understanding of my slow cycling due to the water. I didn’t get splashed once.

The bus wasn’t late because it makes a lot of stops. That’s factored into the schedule.

The bus wasn’t late because it travels on city streets instead of the freeway. That’s factored into the schedule.

The bus was late because of unpredictable traffic downtown. And because there’s no transit priority (bus lanes or other) anywhere downtown, the bus suffers when cars jam the streets.

Now, compare and contrast to Capital Metro’s so-called “rapid bus” proposal. Their bus would run through downtown in shared lanes with cars, just like today’s #3 did. In downtown and through UT, it is unlikely that it would have been able to hold any lights green (without destroying the sequencing of the lights on that corridor). It would have been able to hold a few lights green outside downtown (but, when I got on the bus at 38th/Medical, we didn’t hit more than 2 red lights all the way up to my stop at Braker and Jollyville – and at one of those, we had stopped to pick up passengers anyways).

In short: the “rapid” bus wouldn’t have been any more reliable than the city bus I took this morning. And that’s not good enough for the taxpayers of Austin.

Followup

Adam wrote a thoughtful comment to the previous entry which I started to respond to in comments and then realized it was going to be too long. So here it is:

Yeah, that’s pretty well hashed. In response though…
speeding is a tough one. It’s fairly well understood in the more informed engineering circles that many posted limits have nothing to do with safety, and in fact can actually reduce overall safety due to higher speed differential (between the few people who will obey an obviously underposted sign and the majority who will not). But it is the law. One could even make a parallel to some ridiculous 4-way-stops like the ones west of downtown – those are clearly not there for anybody’s safety.

But then again, the “all lawbreaking is equal” argument seems ridiculous to me on its very face. Murder != jaywalking. Running the middle of a red light cycle != going 68 on Mopac.

Finally, I’m looking at this from a more pragmatic perspective – as I said, 99% of people drive. If they think cyclists disobey the law en masse, it hurts us. A lot. If we think that motorists disobey the law en masse, it doesn’t hurt them. At all.

(There are two other ways to look at this pragmatically: the “would you want motorists to be able to treat stop signs and red lights the same way you do on your bike”, and the “do you want motorists to have even less respect for the law that requires them to treat you and your bicycle as a vehicle”, but those are tangential here).

At previous jobs (not yet at this one), invariably when somebody found out I commute to work by bike some of the time, I’d get a very negative reaction – the person would ask me if I was one of ‘those’ cyclists who ran red lights and stop signs. I work in the suburbs in high-tech, and this is more representative of Austin as a whole than the people on the other side of this issue who either don’t work at all or who work at UT, yet they hold fast to their position that motorists just hate cyclists simply for being cyclists at all. That hasn’t been my experience – when I explain that I obey the law as much or more than when I drive, the conversation usually turns to “what route do you take?”, “how long does it take you?”, “is it scary?”.

The people who insist on preserving the status quo never actually get to that positive conversation because they get hung up on the right to blow a stop sign. That’s pretty damn sad.

More fun with bad cyclists

The issue of stop signs and red lights came up again on the
austin-bikes email list.
Here’s a sampling of what others and I have written in the past few days:
entry number one:

In fact, my fantasy is that the next time CAMPO or the City Council wants to deny funding to cyclists because some cyclists run red lights, I want to be there to enthusiastically scream, “I couldn’t agree more!” And then show a homemade video of motorists running every single cycle of a red light at some prominent Austin intersection 20 times in a row, and then ask, “Since road users who run red lights don’t get funding, when can we expect funding to be cut for new highways?”

Of course the irony here is that it was CAMPO member Senator Barrientos who implied at a meeting that he wouldn’t support increased bike funding because cyclists run red lights, and then a while after that the good Senator was arrested for drunk driving.

my first response:

Otherwise known as Fallacious Bike Argument #46.

Motorists don’t run red lights the way cyclists do. Period. They “run the orange” pretty often. This is a very different violation in terms of the real, pragmatic, world we actually live in.

“running the orange” means that some impatient jerk decides to keep going even though the light just turned from yellow to red.

Compare and contrast to cyclists – in my estimation, close to 50% of the cyclists I see on the road do not stop at stop signs unless they see traffic; and do not stop for traffic lights or sometimes stop-and-go (AND DON’T TELL ME ABOUT THE ONES THAT DON’T TRIP; I’M TALKING ABOUT LIGHTS LIKE SPEEDWAY AT 38TH WHICH IS ON A PURE TIMER).

It’s not the same thing. Every time you equate what cyclists do to what motorists do, you make it that much harder on people like me who are trying to get real things accomplished. Our outgoing chairman of the UTC voted against bike facilities on at least one occasion because of the obnoxious lawbreaking attitude evinced by cyclists like that; so we even have this problem at the city level.

SUMMARY: CYCLISTS RUN RED LIGHTS AND STOP SIGNS IN A WAY THAT MOTORISTS DO NOT. MOST MOTORISTS, IF THEY EVER DO THIS, “RUN THE ORANGE” OR DON’T COME TO A FULL ROCK-BACK AT A STOP SIGN. TRYING TO EQUATE THIS WITH THE WILD-WEST ATTITUDE OF MANY CYCLISTS IS MAKING YOU LOOK STUPID AND MAKING MY JOB HARDER.

The most reasonable retort:

It seems to me that hurling 4000lbs of glass, steel and rubber thru an
intersection at a high speed on a light that just turned red is a bigger
hazard to society than me pedaling thru it after quadruple checking that
the coast is clear. Granted both may be bad but why would you consider
my offence more grievous?

Me again:

“Running the orange” is a matter of education trumping impatience. We’ll get there sooner or later.

“Running the red” is a matter of your own convenience trumping _everything_ – it shows a complete lack of respect for the law that requires motorists to treat you as a vehicle.

Ask yourself which is worse from a purely motorist perspective: continuing to turn left at an intersection even though the light just turned red, or running the intersection halfway through the other peoples’ green cycle.

You run enough red lights and stop signs, and drivers will, no matter what the law says, treat you as a menace.

I’ve nearly wrecked my car at an intersection near UT because some bozo on a bike ran the stop sign. If I were older (worse reflexes), I would have. So there you go.

But getting back to the point – 99% of the people in this town drive. Pissing off 99% of the population in order to make some point about danger is really really really stupid from a pragmatic political perspective. Sooner or later, it comes back to bite you in the ass, as it did when our UTC chairman voted against bike facilities, using lack of respect for the law as his stated reason for doing so.

Then, they get angry:

I think Dahmus was suggesting that when motorists run red lights, it’s typically because they’re trying to beat a yellow light, while bicyclists will run a red light smack in the middle of the red light.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always true. If I had a dollar for every time I saw a car blast through an intersection right in the middle of the red part of the cycle (whether intentional or not — does it really matter?) then I wouldn’t be wasting my time on this forum, I’d be too busy enjoying my new private tropical island.

This discussion seems to come up over and over on this list. I personally don’t see anything wrong with going through a red light when there are no cars in the opposing lanes to be inconvenienced, others beg to differ. I don’t think anyone’s mind is going to be changed by blabbing about it on an email list, so why even bother bringing it up (Mike)?

#2:

First of all, as for motorists running lights, it’s not a case of “if they ever do this”. I can go to most busy intersections in Austin and see motorists running red lights on every single cycle, period.

As for motorists not running red lights in the same way that cyclists do, that’s really funny. I thought the argument was that cyclists were bad because they were breaking the law? Oh no, my mistake, it’s not that they’re breaking the law, it’s that they’re breaking the law in a less socially acceptable way. It’s perfectly acceptable to break the law if you do it the proper way. Motorists break the law in a good way, cyclists break the law in a bad way.

So it sounds like Dahmus’ real problem is with cyclists who do things that are unsafe. If that’s the case, then why SAY that their problem is with cyclists breaking the law? You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t harp on cyclists for breaking the law and then excuse motorists for breaking the law. The argument that they break the law “in a different way” is weak, weak, weak.

Motorists break the law in Austin every day in ways that are truly dangerous. People get hurt and killed as a result. But when was the last time anyone suggested that we cut roadway funding as a result? Let’s face it: people only care about cyclists breaking the law. They don’t extend that same outrage to their fellow motorists, period.

Yes, Dahmus repeats this a lot, and I’ve addressed it a lot. The fact is that I’m not going to accept responsibility for somebody else’s faulty logic. Someone could tell me that he’s going to kill a baby kitten for every week I remain a vegetarian. Well, I wish he wouldn’t be that cruel, or unfair, but ultimately, is it his fault or mine?

I don’t deny that the outgoing UTC chairman may have voted against bike facilities because he saw cyclists breaking the law. I simply can’t help it if that guy had a double standard. We certainly never saw him trying to cut facilities for cars because motorists break the law, did we? I won’t pander to that double standard, it’s unfair, and it’s ridiculous.

This is probably the biggest straw man argument I’ve ever seen in my life. Who exactly is it who’s advocating that cyclists run stop signs when it’s not safe to do so?

Anyway, let me return to the newsletter article that so raised Dahmus’ ire. In that article I pointed out that Senator Barrientos hinted about not funding bike facilities because cyclists break the law. And a while after that the good Senator was arrested for driving drunk. Is THAT how motorists break the law in a different way than cyclists that is so much safer? Does this person have any business chastising cyclists for breaking the law, much less denying them funding? Probably close to 100% of motorists who drive in an unsafe manner think it’s worse when cyclists do so. The question is, do we pander to that delusion or do we call them on it? Dahums evidently chose the former. I choose the latter.

Shoal Creek Debacle, Part XXXVII

Well, I rode down Shoal Creek yesterday (I’ve taken to alternating between two routes home – one east on Morrow to Woodrow and then south to North Loop; the other south on Shoal Creek and east on Hancock, then down Burnet and Medical Parkway). This one trip brought up several recent and not-so-recent points:

  1. Debris – Shoal Creek is now effectively a wide curb lane facility from Foster (just south of Anderson) to 45th. The debris is horrible – worse than I remember it. To be fair, the bike lane stretch between Steck and Anderson has one large gravel patch in it as well. This reinforces my thinking that the absence of the stripe does not in fact encourage cars to act as street-sweepers, or at least, that they don’t do a very good job of it.
  2. Parking – at the time we went over the Shoal Creek debacle, some claimed that the criminally negligent design sponsored by the neighborhood would not be a problem since it would rarely happen that you would be passing a parked car at the same time a car was driving past you. This happened six times during my short trip on Shoal Creek yesterday.
  3. Neighbors – during one of those six times, I took the lane as I always do, and a car turned left onto Shoal Creek behind me, and proceeded to lay on the horn. I told her via a charming pantomime that she was number 1 in my book. So it goes; even when you ride legally, sometimes some motorists don’t get it. (This is a bone thrown to my colleagues who disobey every traffic law they find inconvenient on the theory that all motorists hate them anyways).

Years later, Shoal Creek has no stripes and no calming. Read up on this page for more background on why the neighbors won, and why we never should have negotiated away the flow of traffic on a top-5 bicycle route in the city (and in my opinion, why we never should have supported their downgrade of this road from arterial to collector in the CAMPO plan).

Bike Lanes: Threat or Menace?

Well, the anti-bike-lane meme continues to spread. I came across a fairly good depiction of why you must push hard for street-sweeping of bike lanes from Cary, NC (where I have a few friends), which learned the lesson that bike lanes are bad because they attract debris.

Of course, personal experience on Shoal Creek says otherwise (just as much debris with no bike lanes) as does experience on Bull Creek (just as much debris on the wide-outside-lane stretch north of 45th as on the bike-lane stretch south of 45th).
And I’ve previously made the point that bike lanes DO, in fact, provide more space in passing, although not on average, but rather, at the minimum, which is much more important.

But the thing that most people forget to ever think about is this: the transportation department in your city does not exist purely for the benefit of cyclists. Yes, radical, I know. On high-speed roadways, there is a public safety AND a public service benefit to separating slower-speed traffic, and it’s not just for bikes. Spicewood Springs Road west of US 183 has an additional right lane on an uphill stretch for trucks. And other truck lanes exist on rural roads throughout our area. Those car drivers have a right to good traffic flow too, after all.

In fact, the transportation department in your city views it as their mission to provide for good flow of traffic, even when the traffic is cars. This means that once in a while, you might have to keep right, since you’re slower traffic, and it may, in fact, inconvenience you. Just as it may, in fact, mean that you occasionally inconvenience motorists. Likewise, while it may have been more convenient for me to drive the old convertible loaded with junk on Mopac on one of our moving trips, the fact that I couldn’t go faster than 30 mph without stuff flying out meant that I drove, instead, on Lamar Blvd, and what’s more, I drove in the right lane until shortly before I planned on turning left.

These wide outside lane (or shared lane) zealots logic questions why we bother with lane stripes at all. The law says slower traffic should keep right (whether it be my wife’s pokey old Civic or my bike), and by their reasoning, in both cases other cars think that when I use the right lane, I’ve segregated myself and allowed others to think I have no right to the other lanes on the road. Certainly one could see that having lane stripes at all is kind of a waste, given their experience that cars always provide enough passing distance when sharing a lane. Why don’t we just turn Mopac into a two-lane highway? If it’s good enough for passing bikes, why isn’t it good enough for passing cars?
Part of the reason why this bugs me so much is that I have been occasionally commuting by bike from the center city to the far suburbs at various jobs over the last few years (my fans will please note that the slideshow linked there is from my previous residence to my third of four offices two companies ago). In contrast, on previous occasions when I’ve gotten into it with these anti-bike-lane yahoos, it becomes clear that they’re primarily members of the following groups:

  • European cyclists – live in areas where suburbanization and the requisite high-speed arterials, useless collectors which don’t go anywhere other than the arterial, and cul-de-sacs simply don’t exist
  • Urban cyclists – those who rarely venture on roadways with design speeds or typical speeds more then 35 or 40 mph

Why do these people consider themselves qualified to judge whether Jollyville Road in northwest Austin (45 mph speed limit, 55-ish design speed) should have bike lanes? I don’t think downtown is the right place for bike lanes either; but a one-size-fits-all solution is just stupid.

BRT: The R stands for unReliable

Today, I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway to get on the “express bus” to northwest Austin (there’s a stop near my new office). This works pretty well most of the time. I don’t have a shower at work and am out of shape right now; so I take the easy trip in the morning and then bike home in the afternoon.

There’s a 983 bus every hour (most of the buses on this route run normal southbound and then switch to a different route northbound to pick up people in far suburbia; only a few buses ‘deadhead’ on the reverse-commute – but they are quite full; today’s bus had about 20 people on it).
The bus was supposed to arrive at 7:48. It arrived at 8:02. The interesting thing is that had this bus broken down (as they do constantly, unlike rail), the next one would have been at 8:48. Ever sat at a bus stop for an extra hour?

One of the greatest advantages of light rail over bus rapid transit (to which these express buses are very similar) is reliability. They simply don’t break down; and barring Houston-like idiot drivers, they don’t get into accidents. They don’t get stuck in traffic (90% of US so-called rapid bus installations end up without dedicated runningways, meaning that cars can use the bus lane and therefore the bus can still be stuck in gridlock). EVEN IF THEY’RE NOT A MINUTE FASTER, you won’t be stuck at 8:01 wondering if you’ll be waiting another hour or not.

Unfortunately, BRT is what Austin is going to get, thanks to a local pantload state legislator from a suburb that doesn’t even pay into the system. Why nobody is willing to stand up to this guy is beyond me; Austin itself voted something like 55-45 for light rail even with all of its half-baked problems at the time.

First day biking into work at new job

With new baby and new job, I don’t have a ton of time right now. But today’s combo bike-bus trip into work touched on the following papers I’ll eventually write:

  • Why suburbanites see only empty buses
  • Why frontage roads are bad for cars
  • Why frontage roads are bad for public transportation
  • Why we need to set aside 15% of that one category of federal MPO money for bike/ped projects
  • Auto drivers are nicer than you think
  • Fancy bike locking systems are a good intention gone awry

A few years ought to do it…

The trip went smoothly except for the surprise when the bus pulled up to 38th and Lamar and didn’t have a bike rack in front. Luckily there was another guy there doing the same thing who showed me that on the new fancy buses, they’re supposed to go in as luggage(!).

It’s Hard To Be Both A Cyclist And A Driver

(This entry is over a year old; but somehow it got reposted to austinbloggers.org as a new entry today while I was adding the Shoal Creek Debacle category to my site – apologies; but I can’t seem to fix it).
While driving home this afternoon (switching to working at home part of the day until my wife’s C-section is healed up better), I had the top down and was enjoying a nice (but windy) day travelling east on FM 2222 towards Loop 360 from the office. I came up to the light at City Park Road and caught up to two recreational cyclists (decked out with fancy bikes, fancy clothes, and fancy helmets). The light turned red. I and they slowed down. I stopped. They did not.

As is often my wont, when I caught up to them I yelled out “red means stop, asshats!”. One of them flashed me a peace sign. Hooray! Peace on Earth trumps traffic law.

I’m one of the perhaps 2% of cyclists locally who stops for stop signs and red lights. That’s because of two reasons: 1. I’m both a cyclist and a driver, and 2. I sit on the Urban Transportation Commission and have to fight quite hard for cyclist facilities.

1. As a cyclist myself, I’m occasionally hassled by drivers on the road and more frequently harangued off the road because other cyclists break the law. This is irritating but rarely important enough to worry about.

2. As a commissioner, however, you have no idea how often I’ve heard “why should we build (bike lane / shoulder / loop detector / etc) for cyclists when they’ll just jump on and off the sidewalk and run red lights anyways?” – even from the (outgoing) chair of the commission. In fact, we even lost a facility vote once on the commission on those grounds. (It gets hard to fight battles for things like Shoal Creek bike lanes when the racing cyclists piss off all the neighbors so badly that even I’m tempted to smack them).

Unfortunately, as I mentioned, I’m one of perhaps 2% of the cyclists that actually follow the law in this respect. The remaining 98% fall out roughly as follows:

Ignorant of traffic law – about one-third of the total – pretty much everybody around the University, and a lot of people who are clearly biking to work because they lost their license in a DWI conviction, or can’t afford a car. I don’t get angry at these people.

Self-righteous twits – another third of the total – mostly on the far left. The austin-bikes email list is full of people who defend running red lights by claiming that the environmental superiority of cycling justifies any transgression of mere traffic laws. If I point out that they make the job of reasonable cyclists quite difficult, they enter la-la land by claiming that motorists will hate all cyclists no matter what, so why bother being respectful and responsible. Additionally, this group quite often repeats the canard that motorists always run red lights too (what motorists do is often floor it on a yellow or the very start of a red light – this is often referred to as “running an orange” – while this is a serious threat, it’s far less serious than what cyclists do in completely ignoring red lights and stop signs altogether). Oh, and motorists do running stops at stop signs. Guilty. At least they slow down to a crawl first.

Finally, we have the recreational racers – the crowd that think that serious riders must wear certain clothes and drive to a ride start point (very high intersection with the Austin Cycling Association). These folks will tell you you’re going to remove yourself from the gene pool if you don’t wear a helmet, and then proceed to blow a stop light on a road with a 60 MPH speed limit (as in today’s example).

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why it’s difficult being a utilitarian cyclist in Austin. Any questions?