Wisdom from a bicycle advocate

He is a cyclists’s cyclist: published author on bicycle safety, expert witness in bicycle accident lawsuits, member of MassDOT’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, former member of the governing boards of MassBike and the League of American Bicyclists, former contributing editor at Bicycling magazine.

And many other things besides.

And in October of 2008, John Allen was at the very first public workshop that Arlington’s consultants held to redesign Mass. Ave.

Here’s what this two-wheeled Robespierre, this Lenin of the lanes, had to say about Mass. Ave. in 2008:

It seems that cars and bicycles get along pretty well on Mass. Ave today.

That’s a paraphrase, not a perfect quote. He spoke very briefly, concluding:

It’s really pedestrians that have trouble with the current situation.

Allen did not say a word about bike lanes that I recall, though he does write about them on his web site (and his blog).

I have noted elsewhere how in Arlington the rebuild’s fiercest opponents seem oddly obsessed with bicycles.

In contrast to their extreme man-the-barricades-against-the-two-wheeled-horde rhetoric, Allen’s words are uncommonly sensible.

Things don’t change much for bicycles under the new design. The proposed bike lanes are in exactly that zone of the street where cyclists ride today.

And of course, that zone will still be used repeatedly by cars and trucks entering and exiting Mass. Ave., just as it is today.

What the design does do is make the street significantly safer and easier for pedestrians. This has been a neighborhood priority since at least 1996, when two women were struck and killed in crosswalks on Mass. Ave. here in East Arlington.

The bump-outs, additional crosswalks, pedestrian refuge islands, and additional traffic signal all benefit pedestrians.

The dramatically shorter crossing distances are safer and the proposed lane configuration completely eliminates an entire source of risk to people crossing the street, though only on the outbound side.

It’s been two and a half years since John Allen spoke at the start of this process.

The time has come to act on his advice.

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14 comments so far

  1. dr2chase on

    The difficulty I have with John Allen, is that though he is in some ways an expert, he is also a bit blinkered in his view of cycling. He is correct that it doesn’t change things much for cyclists, but I think he is incorrect that they get along pretty well. If cyclists and cars got along pretty well on Mass Ave, I think there would be far more cyclists on Mass Ave. The density, topography, etc, that we have, even in the US, every 10th vehicle ought to be a bicycle (in the Netherlands, with more comprehensive support for cycling, you’d expect 40% or more). To me, this looks like a massive failure, and the bike lanes will be at best a modest improvement (and depending on the details, in particular their interaction with parked cars, they could be a net safety loss, as I am sure John Allen will tell you if you ask).

    My hope is that the lanes will make clear that bicycles do belong on that road, in a way that a few lines in the driver’s ed handbook does not, and people who are deterred merely because they are unsure (and there are many such people, I have met quite a few, unsure even of the proper direction to ride, or behavior at stop signs and lights) will be less deterred.

    To me, this is a bare minimum.

    I’m sure this will replay itself all over again when Trapelo Road finally advances to the nearly-ready-to-build stage. Sigh. You’d think we were slaughtering kittens, to hear some people talk.

    • Adam Auster on

      To be fair to John Allen, the conclusion that the new design won’t change things much for cyclists is mine, not his.

      I hope he’d agree that we’ve made things better for pedestrians.

  2. Mark Kaepplein on

    Who paid John Allen’s way to the meeting? Is he a walking expert? Were motorist advocates invited?

    I’ve expressed before, Arlington needs to be acknowledged for greatly improving crossing safety since the drunk driver killed one pedestrian, and sober one killed the other, 15 years ago. You might argue 15 years is a blink of the eye compared to when local travel capacity was added – 40 years for Rt. 2, 75 years for the parkways.

    dr2chase is dreaming about any significant travel mode choice. We would be all solar and wind powered by now if such dreams came true. Locally, we are already doing above average, with Middlesex commuters bicycling 0.9%, compared to S.F.’s 1.1% (US Census). Nationally, its more grim:
    http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/american_community_survey_acs/cb07-cn06.html

    • dr2chase on

      Mark, I’m not “dreaming”. There’s similar areas in the Netherlands, with similar population density (or even less), with bicycle ride shares around 50%. I think 20% of that is not too optimistic a projection, if people were not uniformly put off cycling by our crappy infrastructure and connectivity. I don’t think the proposed redesign of Mass Ave will get us all the way to non-crappy, but I think it will be less crappy.

    • dr2chase on

      PS, you also need to source that SF ride share claim. Is that city, or metro area? Other figures I see claim 3.9% and 6%. ( http://www.copenhagenize.com/2011/04/san-francisco-connecting-city.html )

      Middlesex county includes a lot of suburban towns, that are nowhere near as dense as the immediate area.

    • John S. Allen on

      Let’s first fry up the red herring. Who paid my way to the meeting? I came on my own time, like any other interested citizen. My family paid, because i didn’t get to spend the evening with them.

      As Adam said, I didn’t say much about the effect on bicyclists.

      Another commenter raises the issue of actual safety versus perception of safety. I do have problems with the creation of a perception of safety while decreasing actual safety. I didn’t have that issue with the plans I saw for Massachusetts Avenue and I do think that it decidedly improves conditions for pedestrians.

      • Mark Kaepplein on

        John, you are missing the money train, probably because you are too logical and honest. Bike advocate lobbies and government groups are paying for speakers like Dan Burden and Janette Sadik-Kahn regularly.

        Giving novice riders the illusion of safety makes them martyrs in the religious jihad some cyclists seem to have against cars. They want to recruit more riders at all costs despite the growing injury and death tolls in NYC, Cambridge MA, and elsewhere. Are suicide riders promised an afterlife of beautiful virgin roadway without motor vehicles, as that is the heaven on earth goal?

        I disagree that the Mass Ave plan makes walking safer. Raised median refuges increase safety but most were sacrificed for bike lanes and street landscaping which do not increase safety. Bump outs have no data showing accident reduction, and slowing traffic yet more just promotes J-walking. Sidewalks the width of two-lane roads as proposed in sections of Mass Ave and Broadway in east Somerville are an absurdly poor use of scare transportation resources – far beyond the mode share demands of pedestrian volumes.

        A few days ago a pedestrian was killed crossing the street in front of a hospital in Lynn MA. The crosswalk is barely visible. It should have been marked how Arlington now does, 12-18″ wide bars, 6-10 feet long in reflective thermoplastic paint (or tape when repaving). Most local pedestrian accident scenes I’ve seen lately are at low visibility crosswalks. Shame on those cities and towns, and MassDOT regulations for allowing them at high risk areas. Paint is the least expensive and most effective safety tool. It can even be used on curbs to designate no parking areas instead of bump-outs! I’d even rather see a bike rack in the road to block parking than a bump out.

        • dr2chase on

          Mark, as long as we are talking about the “perception of safety”, do note that mortality rates have been studied for people who drive to work and those who bike to work (this is in Denmark, with large populations of each, and adjusting for other risk factors). Not-cycling is correlated with a 39% higher mortality rate. ( http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/160/11/1621 ) The people who are deluded about safety are those who think that driving is safer than cycling. I’m not too happy about door lanes because they reduce actual safety, but otherwise whatever gets more people on bikes is a good thing, even if there is little change in the narrowly-defined safety from crashes. Perceived safety is what changes behavior.

          You’re incorrect about New York, bike lanes, and safety, at least from what I read. The bike-laning of Prospect Park was a win in almost every way — tripled the number of cyclists, yet reduced the number of crashes and injuries: http://www.xoxosoma.com/ppw/

          I think, also, that if transportation resources are truly scarce, then you don’t waste them on cars. A “lane” of red line carries more people than a lane of Longfellow bridge. A lane of pedestrians (in our crowded squares) carries more people than an auto lane. In theory, if not in current practice in this country, you can comfortably fit three lanes of cyclists (same direction) in the same space used for one auto lane (12 feet). Look at Alewife — for not much space, and not too much money (when compared to the cost of parking cars), they provide hundreds of parking spaces for bicycles, and most of them get used. Doing that for cars instead of bicycles would cost far more money, take far more space, and add even more traffic to the clogged roads feeding Alewife.

          • Mark Kaepplein on

            Once again you ignore the opportunities of motor scooters and motorcycles in transportation for moving more people in less space than cars or bicycles by being smaller than cars and faster than bicycles. In the developing world, as wealth increases, personal transport choice goes from foot to bicycle to motorbike to car. Only where cost of ownership for motorbikes is burdened so as to equal cars, does the mode dwindle.

            As for accidents in NYC, I didn’t mean any street in particular, but rather Manhattan in general where no bike lanes used to exist. Fewer people got injured or killed on bikes when they walked, took a subway, bus, or cab instead.

            The health benefits of cycling seem to be in spite of cyclists, who optimize routes not for safety and exercise, but shortest path, fewest hills, fastest time, and least effort. Likewise, most people do the same in choosing to drive instead of ride. You’re fighting human nature to get people on bikes, and then they still want to work as little as possible, purchasing multi-kilobuck, sub 20-lb. bikes to go the shortest distance possible.

            • dr2chase on

              Mark, if you want to maximize transportation safety, you want people on bikes. It is safer for the riders (lower mortality rate), it is safer for the people that they sometimes run into. That’s the safety story, full stop. People like Sadik-Khan who encourage bicycle use are not increasing risk; they are decreasing risk. (You accused them of increasing risk; that is what this addresses.) Motor scooters and motorcycles are probably less safe than bicycles because they have all the crash risk (and then some, because of their higher speed) and little-to-none of the exercise benefit. Someone truly interested in reducing risk would not propose motorcycles as an alternative, though it would save space and use less gasoline.

              Whether or not people will choose bicycles over motor scooters does not change the fact that bicycles are the safer choice.

  3. Mark Kaepplein on

    After reading on his blog that John Allen was meeting tomorrow to discuss the AASHTO Guide for the Planning, Design, and Operation of Bicycle Facilities, Feb 2010 Draft, I clicked on his link and began reading.

    Section 3.4.1 Bicyclist Crash Studies reports: “Studies that examined hospital records have demonstrated that the majority (70‐90%) of bicyclist crashes that are serious enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room are not the result of a collision with a motor vehicle. Most result from falls, crashes with fixed objects, and collisions with other cyclists.” [ Stutts, J.C and Hunter, W.W. Injuries to Pedestrians and Bicyclists: An Analysis Based on Hospital Emergency Department Data. Washington, DC: Federal Highway Administration, 1997. FHWA‐RD‐99‐078]

    So, for the minority of significant crashes that involved motor vehicles, 3.4.2 reports: “Bicyclists were judged to be solely at fault in about half of crashes with motor vehicles. Failure to yield, riding against traffic, and stop sign violations are the most common bicyclist contributing factors.
    Failure to yield is the most common contributing factor in crashes where motorists were at fault.” [Hunter, W.W, Stutts, J.C, Pein, W.E and Cox, C.L. Pedestrian and Bicycle Crash Types of the Early 1990’s. Washington, DC: Federal Highway Administration, 1996. FHWA‐RD‐95‐163]

    Section 3.4.3 states:”Attempts to enforce “full stop” compliance at stop‐controlled junctions where most riders find they can safely yield without necessarily making full stops are unlikely to be successful, given cyclists’ strong counterincentive to minimize the amount of energy needed to regain momentum after stopping or slowing.”

    To sum up, motorists are involved in only 10-30% of serious bicycle crashes, and when only one party is at fault, its as likely the cyclist as the motorist. Furthermore, don’t expect cyclist’s red light running behavior to change as long as bicycles remain human-powered. Bicyclists are their own worst enemies.

    • dr2chase on

      Five problems:

      #1 You continue to ignore the much larger safety risk of lack of exercise. Just because you can’t point to a bloody crash, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t cause deaths. That Danish study even adjusted for other physical activity; riding a bike is a big deal.

      #2 If you throw untrained children into the mix, the cyclist-at-fault rate goes way up (my last header was 30 years ago, just for example). This is a problem with many studies. Adults are much safer than kids, and frequent cyclists are safer than infrequent cyclists. Regular commuters are safest of all (these estimates/claims from Effective Cycling). Put untrained kids behind the wheels of automobiles, they’d crash there, too.

      #3 other studies conclude that of road injuries, the motorist is more often at fault (I don’t have the links handy, I am looking for them).
      Here’s one: http://road.cc/content/news/46995-helmet-cam-study-australia-reveals-extent-motorists-involvement-cycling-crashes (cyclists aware of study, so some potential bias, plus they were commuters, so expected to be safe).

      #4, enforcement and reporting is widely believed to be biased against cyclists. Police bias and ignorance of the law has been documented in various youtube videos, everything from a (former) police office tackling cyclists for no reason (and reporting it as “resisted arrest” until the contrary video surfaced), to mistakenly claiming that bike lane use was mandatory (Casey Neistat, look it up, it’s a hoot), to various helmet-cam clips of cyclists being told they were obstructing traffic on empty roads. See also: http://www.bikeforums.net/archive/index.php/t-424649.html

      #5, a more interesting analysis is pedestrian fatalities. One assumes that nobody wants to hit pedestrians, right? And pedestrians don’t want to be hit, right? Maybe the driver/cyclist fails to see the ped, maybe the pedestrian fails to see them — the pedestrian is constant in this comparison, and all we care about is how well drivers and cyclists do at avoiding a crash. Whoever is less likely to kill a pedestrian, is clearly being more careful, for the most important and all-encompassing definition of careful.

      Cars kill about 3000 pedestrians per year — bicycles, despite their allegedly irresponsible scofflaw behavior, kill only 1. Ballpark a ride share of 0.5% (and ignore the fact that cyclists are much more often put into the same space as pedestrians, and are quieter and less well-lit at night), and the average cyclist is 15 times more careful than the average driver. Understand, I am not measuring intent or adherence to the law — I am measuring what matters, which is harm, and the outcome of ALL decisions, not just the narrow view of whether laws are obeyed. A car driver makes one huge dangerous-to-others decision, and despite all the care that they claim to take, fails to get anywhere near the safety of a cyclist, scofflaws and all.

      And I know you disagree with this, but how do you justify calling cyclists unsafe, if they’re so much less likely to kill other people? Choosing to drive a car or not is far and away the most significant choice for pedestrian safety; why should we exclude it from the set of safety decisions?

      • Mark Kaepplein on

        “Nicole Freedman, the city’s [Boston] director of bicycle programs, conducted a survey in 2009 in which 1,440 bicyclists said they had been involved in a cycling mishap in Boston dating back to 2005. Of that total, 37 percent said they were involved in an accident that included a vehicle, she said.”

        63% in the survey is lower than the 70-90% of cyclist injuries NOT involving cars reported by Emergency Rooms, so doctors must be biased against cyclists too? Why ever would cops have a bias against cyclists? Like almost every cycling survey, respondents are self-selected and thus less accurate.


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