Thursday, April 23, 2009

Safe Cycling Tips: Why Santa Monica Bike Lanes Kind Of Suck And How To Ride In Them Safely Anyways

Bike Lane In Gary Vision

Many cyclists, especially ones with less "hardened" experience on the road, often assume that if there is a bike lane, like a driver in a car lane you should ride down the middle of them. Usually the arrow on the ground follows this assumption. However most bike lanes in Los Angeles, and Santa Monica is no exception, place bike lanes with a majority or even the entirety of the bike lane, directly inside what is commonly known as the door zone. This creates the illusion of providing ample space for cyclists, however at any time a latte sipping crack berry typing motorist can swing their door open with out looking, and completely shatter that illusion of space and possibly shatter parts of you if are unable to respond in time.

Car door collisions are a common source of fatalities and serious injury for cyclists. Door impacts come by surprise making them hard to avoid if you are deep within the door zone, and although they lack as much impact as being hit by a moving car, in a worst case scenario being doored can push or knock a cyclist into the path of oncoming traffic that is not expecting a flying cyclist to fall in front of them, which is where the real serious injuries, and worse, occur. In addition to the door problem, you also have to keep an eye out for the sudden dart out without signaling when motorists leave parking spaces, although these are easier to spot. Tell tale clues of a driver about to leave a parking space are brake lights, reverse lights, and the turning of the front wheels, or gasp, they might actually flip the knob so the blinky light can warn others of their intentions, but that is too hard for most people so don't count on it.

In both door hazard and pulling out situations, an important clue mentioned in the comments which I also do my self (and am now retroactively inserting into the post using magic blog powers) is too look for heads through the windows. Although it can be tough to spot in long lines of cars, especially at night and of course vehicles with tinted windows obscure if anyone is inside. I hate tinted windows, even when I was a driver who only occasionaly rode a bike, but that is another rant...

Also be aware of motorists getting ahead of you and then cutting you off from the right, to park or to enter a driveway, known as a "right hook", since no one, I doubt even most police officers are aware of California Vehicle Code 21717, which specifies that automobiles are to merge into a bike lane before turning right, and NOT cut across the bike lane causing an unsuspecting cyclist to t-bone into the car if they are not given enough time to brake or avoid. This is how I got in my first and only accident with an automobile, luckily walking away with only a sprained thumb.

Most conflicts with motorists can be avoided while riding in the bike lane, if you assume the bike lane is actually only a few inches wide and at the far left side just before the normal lane of traffic. You may worry that being that close to the left side might get you hit from behind, but collisions from cars approaching from behind in the same direction are one of the most rare of bike collisions, and tend to be less serious since your momentum is traveling in the same direction. Also motorists can more easily see you riding in that position. In a few cases of exceptionally bad road engineering, where the entire bike lane is inside the door zone of even a compact car, the safest place to ride may actually by outside the bike lane all together.

By law you are obligated to ride in a bike lane where one is provided, but with exceptions for; leaving to make a left turn, avoiding a hazard in the bike lane, or passing another cyclist. To me a car door, even if it is not open at the moment, is a hazard in the bike lane because you can't always anticipate when it will open, and you should never assume a motorist is paying attention to what they are doing. On roads without bike lanes, motorists usually take more caution when opening a car door, because another car could fly by and smash their door, or a bus driver may rip it clean off, something some bus drivers call "catching a door". However since bike lanes tend to be lighter traveled, and the travelers in the bike lane are also lighter, and more squishy, motorists are more likely to not think twice before blindly opening their door since their self preservation is not as threatened. I seriously doubt any malicious intent on the part of most drivers, except perhaps some radio talk show hosts, but ignorance can injure or even kill just the same. A group working to combat this ignorance through web promotion and stickers formed last year called Anti-Dooring, if you are interested in learning more about the issue.

Now before I let you think that I do not appreciate the bike lanes being there, even if they kind of suck, let me explain why I prefer to ride on bike lane routes despite the short comings. Streets with bike lanes usually feel safer to me, particularly in Santa Monica, and I attribute the primary reason for this is more to do with the fact that people use the bike lanes, than any engineering of the bike lane it self. By creating a space that clearly defines that cyclists belong on the road, more people are empowered to ride there, and cyclists who are already comfortable on the road may prefer to ride there. This creates a stream, albeit still small at this point, of cyclists on the same road. Studies have shown in cites around the world, the most influential factor in improved safety for cyclists is more cyclists, since it creates a culture of understanding where motorists become accustomed to bikes being there, and look for their presence. However this sense of safety should not make you complacent, since anyone visiting Santa Monica from somewhere else without regular cycling, or a careless local, could be sitting in that car ahead of you and swing that door.

Santa Monica has also done a few other things right that other areas in Los Angeles have not, to make their bike lanes safer. First of all most bike lane roads in Santa Monica are on streets with only one lane of traffic in both directions, which creates a less competitive and more evenly paced rate of travel for most automobile traffic on the roads. This is also makes it considerably easier for cyclists to get over to left turn lane. Second of all, with a few exceptions, nearly all the bike lanes and routes are not on streets with bus routes. Anyone who rides Sunset Blvd. through Echo Park and vicinity can tell you what a death trap it can be at times riding the bike lane along a road with heavy and frequent bus traffic. By having a bike lane on Broadway, and a Big Blue Bus route instead on Colorado one block over, you eliminate the problem of buses cutting across bike lanes to drop off passengers.

The bike lanes here aren't great, but they are better than nothing, which is unfortunately what most cyclists have to deal with in L.A.. Hopefully future bike lanes or any restriping of existing roads could nudge things a bit more in favor our safety, but if the new bike lane in front of city hall is any indication we will continue to see almost good bike lanes. Maybe someday we can get common sense legislation like Massachusetts has adopted recently to specifically target careless door opening with citations. In any case, ride safe out there, and see you in the bike lane.


RussRoca said...

excellent post!

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the previous comment — great post, Gary. While I was familiar with most of the things you wrote about, I certainly didn't know about VC 21717. My best trick to avoid dooring is to scan park cars looking for heads inside and brake lights outside; the presence of either is a pretty good indication to use caution when passing. However, the bike lanes along Ocean in Santa Monica run parallel to a number bus lines, causing a frequent dance as cyclists and bus drivers attempt to avoid one another, with varying degrees of effort and success.

Gary said...

Although most bike lanes do not share routes with buses, the Ocean and Main St. bike lanes do compete with buses. Although I find they are not quite as bad as riding down Sunset's bike lane to me. Ocean is for sure one of the more hazardous bike lanes, and I have another gripe with it as well in design. In one place, it is not just in the door zone, the bike lane is actually inside a parking space, going north just past Colorado. I may do a post just on that, where by design a cyclist has to leave the bike lane because the bike lane goes straight into a parked car at most times of the day.

LisaNewton said...

Like bikinginla, I, too, look for the heads and brake lights. As far as the buses go, I am always mindful of the fact that they will probably not follow the law, thus cutting me off, which is more of a concern for me when riding the bike lane on Santa Monica.

Great post, Gary

Gary said...

Since I also look for heads, forgot to mention it, and everyone is talking head spotting I retroactively inserted that into the post.

Thanks for the comments.

jericho1ne said...

The traffic calming measures, like dropping Arizona and Broadway down to one lane, do make them safer simply because cars have to slow down. Even the nicest bike lane in Santa Monica (Broadway) still has its issues. Sometimes cyclists' view of cross traffic can be obstructed by unnecessarily large cars parked at a street corner. I think it's time for Santa Monica to give Bike Boulevards a shot and upgrade either Broadway, Arizona, or California.

For those that live or ride through Santa Monica and care enough to make their voice heard, you should consider attending the 2nd Santa Monica Spoke meeting next Tuesday April 28th.

Bike lanes on fast streets need to be respected first of all, and also be considerably wider in order to provide any real safety. The Westwood bike lane between Wilshire and Santa Monica is a danger zone. It's a temp parking lane, moped and motorcycle lane, it gets blocked by cars turning right. Your chances of getting right hooked anywhere on this stretch are pretty good throughout.

Ben said...

great post, made me lol. but it's true. there needs to be a separation between the parking zone and the biking zone into which doors can open without collecting innocent cyclists. trying to make drivers more aware or less selfish is probably a losing battle, unfortunately. which is not to say that we shouldn't try, but i wouldn't expect miraculously more considerate behaviour any time soon after.

AJP said...

I could not agree with this post more!! I live in Boston and have been bike commuting for almost a year now. Last July I got doored, which caused a broken elbow, and only now is all of the insurance nonsense getting wrapped up. (Fortunately my arm has since healed, and I had the good fortune to get hit by somebody with a conscience and car insurance.)

Bike lines can be quite scary, they're not the norm here in Boston, but when they're around they're always used as parking spots for delivery trucks, taxis, or double parked drivers. And if the bike lane is free, and I have the misfortune of biking alongside a bus, I have to worry about that as well. So I'm always riding nearly on the left line of the lane, when it's even empty to begin with.

Lauren S said...

Thanks for a great post - as I was riding down SMB through West Hollywood just yesterday I was thinking about how most of the bike lane is inside the door zone.

I really appreciate your safety posts, by the way - having an occasional safety tip show up in my rss reader is a good way for intermediate urban cyclists like me to not get complacent and as a check to review how I ride.

One idea for a future post - when to take the lane vs. ride in the shoulder on high-speed roads. I was riding (more like careening) down Sepulveda Pass into Westwood yesterday after a nice ride down Mulholland.

Because traffic tends to take this part of Sepulveda Blvd pretty fast, my tendency is to ride as far onto the shoulder as possible. Unfortunately, the shoulder on this stretch of Sepulveda is very inconsistent - often it is so narrow that you are riding right next to the lane, causing passing traffic to fly by much closer than the required 3 feet. I experimented with moving out into the lane about a quarter of the way, hoping this would force drivers to wait until the second lane was clear to pass and give me a wider berth. I still got grazed a number of times by drivers who thought they could squeeze by, and drew the wrath of a couple honkers who were pissed that I was riding in the lane when there was a two foot shoulder available. I wasn't really comfortable riding farther into the lane because traffic was moving so fast and there were quite a few blind curves.

Anyway, I made it into Westwood in one piece but I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

Gary said...

Thanks for comments everyone. I want to get back into periodically highlighting specific safety issues for cyclists and how I approach them, and the response to this post suggests people would like to see some more of that.

@ Lauren's questions. Maybe at some point I will do a specific post on when to take the lane and when not too, but it is a tricky topic. Some people are militant proponents of nearly always taking the lane, and some practically shove them selves off the road. For me it's all about context. The road, what part of the road I am on and it's condition, the incline, my speed, the traffic speed, traffic level or congestion, the time of day or night, what day of the week, is their street parking, are all variables that influence how far into a lane I position my self. Lane positioning I think of as part science and part art form.

For Sepulveda going downhill southbound, I sometimes position my self in the shoulder on some stretches, but on most stretches I enter the lane. If traffic is really heavy, enough that people have to brake often, and my speed is equal to surrounding cars, then I, checking for clearance first, move into dead center of the lane. I keep enough space with the car in front of me that I can brake or maneuver out of the way if necessary. Because the shoulder in many places narrows significantly or is rendered hazardous to ride in due to condition, I spend most of the downhill in the lane. How far into that lane I think again is a subject to debate on the various conditions I mentioned. However I consider in safety passing distance to be a more important factor than getting honked at. Bike Snob has a philosophy that if he is honked at, it's generally a good thing. Being honked at confirms without a doubt that the driver can see you, and a driver who can see you is less likely to hit you. Hope that helps.

Defensive Cycling said...

In my opinion a bike lane is not a bike lane if cars can park in it. In Holland for example a bike lane is separate from the road. Each bike lane is placed at the side of the roads and has its own kerb enclosing the lane and preventing cars from entering it.
Where I live the council paints a line at the side of the raod, puts a picture of a cyclist on it and calls it a bike lane. This is a joke.