Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Cycletracks: Safe until you are dead

From the Montreal Gazette news article: Investigators “are still trying to understand exactly what happened,” when a cyclist in a cycletrack and a turning truck collided. Guess who lost that argument?

Look, a smart cyclist is a very safe cyclist and cycling is a pretty safe activity, as activities go**. Adding complexity in the name of safety isn't always a good idea. Complexity can create confusion.

There are two street views that help to understand this. Here, looking NW-bound  and here, looking southbound and into the side street .Actually, the news article says the directions are south and north vs. the truck turning west. On Google view, the roads run NW-SE for Christophe Columb and NE-SW for Mistral. So I assume the SE bound truck made a right to turn SW on Mistral and crossed the path of the cyclist riding contra-flow in the NW bound cycletrack.  Sorry for the earlier version.

What bugs me about this scenerio is this: cycletracks are sold as being "safe", attracting inexperienced cyclists who otherwise would not be riding. Therefore, these facilities ought to be "safe".  The problem I have with the design as shown is that it introduces the “sidewalk rideout” hazard by putting cyclist and motorist on separate facilities, adds complexity to the intersection (in this case, in the form of a non-standard road layout with bidirectional cycletrack on one side), has significant visual clutter (see the Google views--thanks, Ian), and finally, does not manage right of way to prevent conflict, i.e., both cyclist and truck driver had the green light (see cyclist view and you can see the little bike green light). The "sidewalk rideout" hazard is one reason the AASHTO still has heartburn about cycletracks like these. This is "safe"??

 The cycletracks alongside streets I saw in Europe had protected crossing cycles. In such a scenerio, a cyclist in the intersection would likely be protected by an administrative barrier such as an on-demand "No Right Turn" light cycle for northbound traffic. This creates delays for everyone and decreases level of service; I wonder if that is why a protected light cycle was not included here.

As John Allen has said elsewhere, if you do this avante garde bikeway design stuff, do it right the first time.  By doing it badly, you kill people; inexperienced riders count on the design rather than their own wits to keep them safe.  Seems to me an "improved" road with a cycle facility should have fewer unmitigated hazards than its "unimproved" version.

Roads have unmitigated hazards. I prefer the proper risk analysis terms of "risk", "mitigation", and "hazards" rather than "safe" or "unsafe" because in proper hazard analysis, you have to identify the hazard and define how to reduce the risk; "safe" and "unsafe" are thrown about like religion. Furthermore, drivers are sometimes clueless. Sometimes, so am I.  Cycletracks are sold as being safe, i.e., reducing risk and eliminating hazards. But in this case, they add hazards that were not there to begin with.

By requiring bicyclists to mentally ride in the real world rather than in some mythical Land of Oz where everyone is safe, we reduce their risk by simplifying traffic, by requiring cyclists to increase their awareness, and by increasing their visibility.  That is what the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, Saavy Cyclist, and Traffic Skills teachers do.

Sadly, the best cycling teaching lately goes against policy more intent on putting more butts on bikes than on making sure the designs actually work as advertised and that the new cyclists on these facilities are indeed as saavy as they ought to be. I'm not anti-facility, but I am deeply troubled by what sometimes happens--the facilities are flawed, and no one tells the new riders of the actual risks they are taking and hazards they should identify and mitigate with proper technique.

I like the way the Motorcycle Safety Foundation puts it in this flyer: "If you are considering becoming a rider, here are some questions for you to use as a self-assessment of the physical capabilities and mental attitude required to safely navigate a motorcycle on the street".  Although bicyclists statistically are safer, i.e., at far lower risk of a fatal crash, in fatal crashes per exposure hour, than motorcyclists and even motorists ** ,we should still ask new bicycle riders the same question the MSF asks prospective motorcyclists: are you ready for and do you understand bicycling?

** According to this US News article, number of fatalities per million hours of exposure was 0.26 for biking, 0.47 for driving, 1.53 for living (all causes of death), and 8.80 for motorcycling.

Thanks, I guess, to Andy Cline at Carbon Trace for the heads up on this.

From John Allen's Blog: M. Kary’s review of the Lusk et al. Montreal bikeway study — A compendium of errors and omissions, or: What is not in this article


1 comment:

Steve A said...

So is the solution to put stop signs at each and every one of the blind intersections since they do not seem inclined to put the path designer on trial for negligence?