Tuesday, September 9, 2008


To the Editor, Los Alamos Monitor

In a letter entitled "Los Alamos bicycle unfriendly", letter writer Mario Schillaci claims that Los Alamos is bicycle-unfriendly. His argument concerns the traffic calming measures, or "bulb-outs", being implemented on Central Avenue, a road running though much of our town's businesses, library, retirement community, and government center. The idea that these are cycling-unfriendly is one shared by at least a few residents, but betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about cycling safety. Los Alamos County is actually making great strides in becoming more bicycle-friendly.

Mr. Schillaci states that "when [a cyclist] comes to [a bulbout], he/she is forced to the left into the traffic coming from behind..." This is precisely where cyclists should have been riding. By riding in a straight, predictable line, part way into the lane, visible to other traffic, and
not weaving in and out of parked cars (or bulbouts), cyclists increase their visibility, predictability, and reduce the likelihood of the two most frequent bike-car collision scenarios--motorist turning left across a cyclist's path, and motorist turning right after overtaking a curb-bound cyclist--both of which happen in front of the cyclist. Overtaking (i.e., "hit from behind") collisions make up only about 1% of car-bike crashes.

Bulb-outs also serve as effective traffic-calming devices, reducing the speed difference between motorized traffic and cycling traffic. A recent county study found 85% of traffic on Central Avenue through the existing bulb-outs travels below the posted 25 miles per hour limit. This lower-speed "main street" atmosphere is ideal for cyclists at any speed. The narrow lane and lower speeds ensure that any passing maneuvers are deliberate and well-considered, again increasing the margin of safety.

Just as importantly, pedestrian safety is vastly increased by traffic-calming bulb-outs. Visibility is increased at the crossing points by ensuring pedestrians are visible on the bulb-outs, clear of parked cars and in the sight lines of road traffic. Lower vehicle speeds mean drivers are more likely to stop, and should there be a car-pedestrian collision, the pedestrian's survival rate soars. According a UK Times Online article (http://tinyurl.com/5lbyz9), pedestrians struck by a car have a 97.5% survival rate at 20MPH , compared with 80% at 30MPH, and 10% at 40MPH. Such walkability improvements also improve the small business environment and decrease road congestion, by encouraging people to park their cars and walk to multiple shopping destinations in our town center.

With bulb-outs making Central so pleasant for cycling, walking, and driving, bike racks on all busses, bike lanes being added all throughout Diamond Drive, a cycling-friendly populace, and the recently enacted Bicycle Transportation Plan of Los Alamos County, Los Alamos is, in fact, becoming a very bicycle friendly community!

Neale Pickett and Khalil Spencer

League Cycling Instructors,
League of American Bicyclists


Amy said...

I'm starting to hear comments from people about your letter, and the main theme is that they're shocked that they need to be *out in the road*. It sounds like, logically, they know they have a right to be there, but putting it into practice is a huge leap for them. I heard from one individual "But, the cars can't pass you in the lanes with the bulbouts!" To which I replied. "No, they can't." And smiled. I pointed out that faster traffic stays on Trinity anyway, but I I think it's important to point out here that it is absolutely within their rights to be assertive, get out into traffic (that isn't going much faster than you are anyway) and that car drivers here are pretty respectful.

I know that Neale and I have both heard the "but, (this unfortunate incident) happened to my friends/husband/sister when they took the lane" and I'd love to have a good stock answer for that kind of thinking. Such as, be careful how you generalize from isolated incidents, because they're not necessarily representative of biking here in LA. Consider how *you* were riding, what mistakes you might have made, how you reacted.

Oh yeah, and take Road I, folks.

Khal said...

I suppose everyone knows of someone who has been hurt by a crash. And, while overtaking crashes are rare, they can be severe. A college friend of mine was rear-ended by a car while he was riding his motorcycle and he suffered a fractured neck and broken back. So I too have some "unfortunate incidents" to report.

But statistically, one is more likely to be right/left hooked. And those can be catastrophic too. My own crash which resulted in a severe concussion and a lost semester was a vehicle overtaking/hooking crash. I've since learned to avoid some of those.

Bottom line is there is no absolute safe zone. One has to use good form, situational awareness, and one also has to address the root causes of a lot of crashes. The root of a lot of them is apparently driver inattention.The same inattention that can lead to overtaking crashes can easily lead to hooking crashes.

I think Forester also has a point with the "cyclist inferiority complex". To wit, cyclists deem themselves out of place as traffic and want to be as invisible and out of the way as possible to avoid causing motorist impatience. Trouble is, that doesn't necessarily make you safe. Just invisible. And, marginalized. Might should not make right. Neither should buying a car make one person more worthy than someone else.

Amy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neale said...

When people tell me about such-and-such anecdote, I try to get more details from them about what precipitated the crash. Usually I can find some avenue for explaining some Road I principle. Typically it boils down to "cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles".

I know it's naïve to think that all crashes are preventable, but I like to look at things optimistically: many crashes are preventable, and here are some techniques you can use to get a leg up on the statistics.

I particularly enjoy when I can explain why someone's notion is completely backwards, like "riding through the construction zone is scary". Due to the lower speeds and higher congestion, the construction has actually made cycling more pleasant.

Making a statement that bucks conventional wisdom, then backing it up with well-reasoned arguing, seems to be a good technique for getting peoples' attention; it worked well for me in high school English class, anyway. Khal points out one such statement that seems to be an easy way to grab attention: lots of folks are of the opinion that "cars are scary" and it's best to do whatever possible to get out of their way. Pointing out why this is a terrible idea can be a great lead-in to Road I.