Friday, August 6, 2010

Rethinking The Way I Ride And The Routes I Choose, Life Outside The Door Lanes Of Santa Monica

Santa Monica Door Lane / Bike Lane
(An update to my previous "Gary Vision" graphic from last year. A commenter on a blog in Florida also made this spoof of the original image featured on my blog, calling the red door zone the death zone, where I had formally been riding the oh s**t zone, and the actual lane, for car/bike in green. Which inspired me to revisit the image as if the paint on the street reflected the reality cyclists face with highly compromised bike lanes. )

I was under the impression I asserted my self pretty well on the road, but as I had been following along with the instruction my wife went through to become a certified bicycling instructor by the League of American Bicyclists, I've begun to rethink assumptions I held about safe riding. I would usually control a lane when there is near by parking (to avoid door zone), but sometimes hold that one third of the way over position. When riding in the bike lane I would ride to the far left of the bike lane to avoid doors, but admittedly that often results in cars to the left passing a little too close for comfort. I realized despite my assertiveness as a cyclist, I was still sometimes exchanging my personal safety for the sake of not upsetting motorists.

Now I really get what the LAB means by lane control, if the lane is too narrow to share side by side with a car with safe passing, regardless of other factors, just control the center position of the lane, it's always safer. Drivers will pass with more distance because they know that have to get over and cannot put the squeeze on you trying to stay in the same lane. Most drivers understand that by turning their wheel a little bit to the left, and then a little bit to the right, they can actually go around. Some drivers will not understand that something in front of them not shaped like a car could be in the road. They may honk at you or worse yet, in rare cases shout to get out of their way or get on the sidewalk (sidewalk riding is illegal in Santa Monica). If you can, try to remain clam and zen. Just think of it as their way of saying they see you, and that is a good thing, considering how often "Well I didn't see" is used as an excuse in all kinds of motorist caused collisions.

The safety instruction has also changed how I feel about bike lanes. I've always thought the design of most bike lanes in Santa Monica were total crap. Too narrow, shoved much too close to opening car doors, too inconsistent, and with often poor intersection positioning. The more I think about it, the more I feel like bike lanes as they currently exist in Santa Monica constrain safe riding rather than promote it. They are obviously the product of highly compromised politics born in the 1995 plan, and for the most part have been repeatedly painted down unchanged in design ever since.

Seperated Bike Lane With On-Street Bicycle and Motor Bike Parking
(For comparison, check out this bike lane I saw in Paris on my honeymoon. Separated bike lane facility that uses parking, with on-street bike parking, as a buffer from other traffic. Our city being built out, and without enough space is often an excuse for impotence in redesigning streets in the Los Angeles region. Paris is making things happen, and their bike and bus lanes are all relatively new developments. Paris is a real built out city, built out long before Los Angeles was even a twinkle in a real estate developers eye.)

When bike lanes are present, you are obligated to ride in them, except when necessary to leave the lane because of hazards or to make an upcoming left turn, signaling first of course. Also if the speed of other traffic is as slow or slower than you are traveling, you can leave the bike lane. But what if the whole bike lane is hazardous? On certain blocks where the bike lane is especially narrow, or positioned entirely wrong, clearly the safest place to ride is always outside of the bike lane however. The law is phrased to be flexible, but I'd rather the safety of a bike lane be clear than have to argue semantics with an officer who disagrees.

14th St. Sharrow Markings In Santa Monica

Especially since sharrows can be used to promote safe riding without having to allocate separate space, I don't understand why they aren't used more often. I'd prefer more streets with sharrows over more door lanes. Sharrows are purely psychological, they can encourage riding out of the path of doors, and have an amazing ability to calm the number of motorists who honk at you. They simply reaffirm the existing legal rights of cyclists, and can change road way behavior with a bucket of paint and a stencil.

Broadway Ave. between Cloverfield and 20th is narrower than most other blocks of Broadway, and like most blocks that happen to be a little narrower and are part of a Class II bike route (aka bike lanes), the squeeze is put on the space of the bike lane, not the car parking, the regular travel lane, or center turn lane. This particular block is also constantly full of delivery vehicles and the turn over rate of parked cars pulling out and opening car doors is extremely high in the work commute rush and lunch hour time periods. When I ran back through my mind, I realized nearly every close call moment I've had riding on Broadway was on those few blocks.

So during a ride down that stretch during lunch a few weeks ago, which was especially congested with cars sticking into the bike lane at every angle and driveway opening that day, I got the idea to try something different. Since then I've been protesting the Broadway Ave. bike lane, my formerly usual route, as much as possible, and taking 2 lanes each way roads like Colorado Ave. instead. Controlling the center of the right lane as outlined by LAB instruction. On Broadway I always used to ride in the far left sliver of the bike lane to avoid car doors, but this also results in approaching cars giving me less passing distance. At least on Colorado, I can both ride where it is safe from doors and get decent passing room.

I did have one driver put the squeeze on me in the first week doing this, but compared to the almost daily near misses I would have riding Broadway, I much prefer life outside the door lane even if the occasional driver proclaims from their window I have no such right to be in the road. If drivers want cyclists to stick to official "bike routes", perhaps they should join cyclists in asking for bike routes that don't suck.

So as I ride currently in Santa Monica I am routing to avoid bike lanes all together, which to my initial surprise has significantly reduced the number of times I've had to evade or make a hard braking to avoid collisions. Additionally there are times where destinations I am trying to reach necessitate riding on a street with a bike lane, but rather than ride in the bike lane I am riding completely outside of it.

While the city may wish to obligate me into shoving my self into the path of opening car doors, my personal safety comes first, so screw the bike lane, or as I refer to them now, door lanes. If the SMPD would like to write me up a ticket for riding outside an available bike lane, I'd gladly accept and would come prepared to argue in court that some bike lanes in Santa Monica are sub-standard facilities unfit to be obligated to ride in. CVC 21208 section (3) permits leaving a bike lane to "...avoid debris or other hazardous conditions" after all.

Based on the safety literature provided in the League Of American Bicycling course instruction, I think it is perfectly reasonable to argue that on some streets in Santa Monica, the entire bike lane represents a hazard because of it's insufficient width and proximity to opening car doors. I'd like to see legislation to address careless door opening, but the truth is, even if that did exist, I would not trust door lanes, I mean bike lanes. Just because something is both illegal and has a defined fine attached, some people will still do it.

Drivers who are driving usually, hopefully, are paying attention to what they are doing, but the moment the ignition is off, they are in another world, and concern for something like an oncoming cyclist is the last thing on their mind as they open their door. As a cyclist, you have to as much as possible take safety into your own hands. We cannot trust drivers to not swing their car doors in our path, we don't have a crumple zone, we are the crumple zone. And as long as bike lanes are designed without consideration for our safety we shouldn't so easily trust bike lanes either, and demand cities do them correctly or go back to the drawing board.

Substandard Bike Lane Width For Potential Door Zone Risk

Some may question why make so much fuss over car doors, isn't it that faster oncoming traffic behind that is more dangerous? There are a few reasons why door zones should be avoided entirely. First of all after you account for intersection and driveway collisions from turning cars, always the most dangerous situations for cyclists, the next most frequent motorist at fault collision with a cyclist is opening car doors, about twice as frequent as being struck from behind. Additionally, those intersection collisions are more likely when riding in the door zone, because you reduce your visibility and buffer to traffic turning at driveways and intersections. This neat little animation, though not about door zones in particular, illustrates how lane positioning effects intersection conflicts.

Depending on the speed of the cyclist and the speed of oncoming traffic, the speed differential between you and a non-moving door may even be higher than the moving cars. The physics of speed differential is a large part of what creates the severity of an impact. Lets take Broadway for example. If car traffic is going the posted speed limit of 25 mph, and I am hustling along at 20 mph, there is only a 5 mph difference between me and the cars, but a 20 mph difference between me and a stationary door. However even if I was riding a much less bike racer sort of speed, of say 15 mph, that is still 10 mph differential between me and a car, and a 15 mph difference between me and a door.

So not only is it more likely to be hit by a door than hit from behind, that impact with the door can in some cases be more severe than being hit by a car. To top it all off, depending on how you make impact with a door, in the most horrible dooring cases, a cyclist falls into the path of oncoming traffic after being struck by the door or after their evasion of the door. As if running into a car door and flying off your bike wasn't bad enough, it could be topped off with being run over. This is how most deaths by car door happen, it's not the door it self, it's the motorist pushing you into on-coming traffic that will be surprised to suddenly find you in their path without warning, and may not have sufficient time to brake or evade. An especially tragic example of this potentially deadly side effect of being doored, happened recently to a mother in New York. In trying to avoid sudden impact with a car door that was suddenly opened, she was still clipped by it, and then taken out by a bus. Being in the door zone turns cyclists into traffic ping pong balls, and presently most cycling infrastructure actually encourages this.

Bike Lane With Right Hook Setup

I don't think cities like Santa Monica are really intending to put cyclists in harms way on purpose, though that may be the outcome. I think it is the product of years of political compromise to the motoring majority, which unfortunately seems to put space for parked cars before safety or quality of life outside the metal boxes.

I also think Santa Monica like most cities lacks perspective on the risks associated with door lanes. In one of the round table discussions members of Spoke had before Jennifer Phillips left the city, a representative from Transportation Management said their data didn't suggest the accident risk I was saying about the Broadway Ave. bike lane. First of all, I seriously doubt the accuracy of data avalible for door collisions, since many bike collisions, especially ones that don't result in an immediate hospital trip go unreported. My experience from the one time I was hit by a car, riding in the bike lane interestinglyca enough, is that SMPD, like most police departments in America, discourages cyclists from reporting collisions, much more so than incidents between two motorists.

In the same round table room at the time was SMPD deputy chief Phillip Sanchez, now the Police Cheif of Pasadena. He was a veteran of the Santa Monica police force, and is an avid road cyclist. He was struck by a car door riding on Main St., a street with a bike lane that is for the most part entirely in the door zone. He didn't even file a police report for the door collision he was involved in. Additionally, the number of times you have to swerve around to avoid car doors, drivers pulling out, drivers cutting you off, weigh strongly on the feeling of safety, even if you don't actually get hit. Without further elaboration on how Santa Monica collects it's data, I am inclined to believe any data Santa Monica has on bicycle hazards is incomplete at best.

Santa Monica likes to look progressive on issues and it has pointed out the miles of bike routes it has as a badge of honor in the past. However quality of bike routes is more complicated to discuss, and bike lanes if done right, take up more space than presently allocated. What good is having miles and miles of bike routes if they usually die off before a destination and are mostly crap anyways. Some of the best streets to ride, like Michigan are not even bike routes, though it is planned to become one. Meanwhile Lincoln Blvd., largely regarded as a death trap by many, full of aggro drivers and nightmarish intersections like Lincoln over the 10 freeway, is a bike route. As I've mentioned before without quality control of what the various classes of bike route mean, the distinctions become mostly meaninglessness.

We have the beautiful beach bike path, but that does little for cycling as transportation. I can't use the beach path to get to the mid city office district, I can't use the beach path to pick up groceries, or go shopping. The bike path is first and foremost a recreational facility, and that is how it is commonly used. It is officially bike only, but everyone knows that is a joke. It's also so poorly integrated into the rest of the city that most people throw their bike into the back of a truck or on a car rack and drive their bike to the beach parking lot to go for bike ride. In it's current state I can't imagine the beach bike path reduces car trips, but most likely induces them, made possible by countless acres of parking real estate for cars on beach front property.

Ocean Ave Cluster F*#k Bike Lane

What we call bike lanes in most places are really just left over bits of road way. That space between the parked cars and other traffic, is one of the most dangerous places on the road for a number of reasons. Something Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa learned the hard way. Yet we put cyclists, one of the most vurnable road users, right in the hot spot. We should not accept the garbage of unwanted road space as our lane of travel and call it progress just because it is in theory bike only space. Much of the time bike lanes have cars turning across it, double parked in it, or I have even seen taxis squeeze through them on Ocean Ave., nearly taking off side view mirrors, as a short cut. Bike lanes as bike only only space only exists if it is enforced, and design is such to make it clear they are bike only and practical for that segregation.

All it takes is one incident riding at the wrong place and time to have a driver's car door put you through facial reconstructive surgery or worse. I don't aim to find out the hard way.

Now after saying all this I want to point out I am not anti bike lane, only anti door lanes. Some cycling advocates promote the idea of purely vehicular cycling, and that there should be no separated facilities. Especially as of late I have been riding very much to the letter of vehicular cycling, but I'm not in the camp that is against bike lanes. I think separate facilities that feel safer from other traffic on key routes are an important stepping stone to getting people to consider bikes as transportation and can form the core, to borrow a term from Bikeside, the backbone, of a cycling network. The experience of cities the world over is that if you build good infrastructure for cycling, people will ride. They key word there is good infrastructure.

One of the reasons besides the obvious safety issues, that I have decided to take a more critical approach to these sub-standard bike lanes is that I think poorly done infrastructure can stunt the development of fostering a truly thriving cycling culture, and actually provide ammunition and justification to opponents of bicycling.  When bike lanes are done poorly, rather than feeling inviting for anyone to ride as they should be, they are still mostly populated with the same hard core riders that would exist regardless of whether bike lanes were there. As well as for the most part being underutilized for the real estate they take up. When drivers who despise cyclists see bike lanes with a low traffic flow, some cyclists still riding on the sidewalk anyways, and some cyclists trying to avoid doors hovering at the line or just outside the bike lane  (in their way as they see it), it paints a picture that justifies seeing cyclists as second class citizens of the roadway.

An experience that left an impression on me of what is wrong with our bike routes, is when my wife's parents visited from Indiana and we all went out together by bike to a restaurant at the border of Santa Monica and Brentwood. The entire route was all class II bike routes for the whole trip, and being led by Meghan and my self, both highly experienced cyclists. My father in law said later, he was pretty terrified at first, but once he adopted a fatalistic attitude he became a lot more comfortable with the ride. Meghan's mom I think had an easier time with the experience since she was on the back of our tandem with me in the drivers seat, so she didn't have to think about the traffic mess, but simply trust that I knew what I was doing.

Feeling as though one must adopt a fatalistic attitude to ride is not how someone should feel riding on what should be the best cycling routes the city offers. Bike Date hasn't been blogging as much lately, but his heartfelt posts about his concern for safety with his kids in tow with the poor design of Santa Monica bike lanes, highlight so clearly what is wrong here. As an individual cyclist he feels fine controlling a vehicle lane when necessary to avoid doors and such, but when he is slower and wider with a kids trailer on the back, he doesn't feel comfortable chancing being rear ended with kids back there. If a bike route doesn't feel safe to have kids with you, or your parents are nearly given a heart attack riding, than our bicycling infrastructure is quite simply a failure.

So I urge that as soon as possible, Santa Monica begin the process of updating it's Bicycle Master plan, so we can finally move past thinking that is 15 years out of date, and finally accept bicycling as a real transportation choice in this city. LUCE has been passed, the years spent waiting for it can't be the excuse anymore. The citizens of Santa Monica have bikes, they want to ride them, and want to feel safe doing so, and know that their bike won't be stolen when they get back from their errand.


Stephen said...

I live in Delaware. The city I work in is considering bike lanes and sharrows. I have some questions:
(1) "Sharrows ... have an amazing ability to calm the number of motorists who honk at you. They ... can change road way behavior with a bucket of paint and a stencil."
Have you actually observed this since sharrows were installed?
I favor sharrows in the middle of the lane over door zone bike lanes (90% of the bike lanes I've seen in Philadelphia and Baltimore are in door zones; Baltimore has also placed the sharrows in door zones ). My question arises because I find I receive the most harassment and profanity when traffic is so congested the cars are slowing down my bicycle, i.e. motorists tell me to get out of the road when we’re all stopped behind other traffic at lights.
Have the sharrows reduced harassment? Do the police respect bicyclists' right of way if motorists are present? (I find it depends on the officer here.) Has there been publicity or additional enforcement to obtain motorist compliance with the sharrows?
(2) The photos show sharrows in the middle of the lane.
Do you know what convinced the city to place them there? The state here seems to read the MUTCD as placing the sharrows in door zones; fortunately the city planner does not want to set up bicyclists to be doored.
"The more I think about it, the more I feel like bike lanes as they currently exist in Santa Monica constrain safe riding rather than promote it."
It’s not just Santa Monica, it’s every where. My view is that if bike lanes were meant to help bicyclists, they would not need to be mandatory. If the lanes were meant to help bicyclists, the city or state would install lanes where they are safe, and bicyclists that didn’t find them helpful or safe would not be restricted to riding in them.

Jeremy said...


Your post is an excellent breakdown of some of the many issues that need to be addressed in Santa Monica. I hope to speak in greater detail with you about them... and local cycling in general, but first let me quickly introduce myself.

You mention at the end of your post that you hope "as soon as possible, Santa Monica begin the process of updating it's Bicycle Master plan." Well, I can tell you that process has indeed started. My name is Jeremy and I am a consultant working with the City's Transportation Management Division to produce a comprehensive update to the now aging 1995 plan.

This September, I will begin working with city staff to coordinate an official public outreach campaign including various stakeholder meetings, etc. Until then, I am looking to local bike-related blogs and cycling groups (i.e. SPOKE) for some preliminary outreach.

My schedule is currently monopolized by travel for work and family for much of August, but I hope we can be in touch and I would be happy to meet or join a ride in SM early this Sept. You (or for that matter any of your blog's readers with thoughts on SM bicycling) can reach me at jeremycogan_at_gmail_dot_com. I also periodically blog on sustainable, multi-modal transportation issues and news at a site I co-founded with Masters students in UCLA's Urban Planning department,

Jeremy Cogan

Gary said...

Hey Stephen,

Concerning sharrows, I have experienced them and their potential effect first hand. Most of my experience thus far being with the ones that were put up in Hermosa Beach, one of the first areas in Southern California to install them. I ride through Hermosa often on long training rides along the coast, and I have seen a noticeably apparent reduction in hostility from drivers when controlling the center lane position since they were installed. The sharrows there are also supported with occasional signage every few blocks clarifying that cyclists can use the full lane. I think the supporting signage makes a difference in how the sharrows are interpreted, and that signage is much more clear than ambiguous "share the road" signs.

In that particular installation it is also a 2 lanes each way road, and so there is rarely a time a motorist can't go around fairly easily, and thus is easily sharable, but motorists needed reminding of cyclists rights through signage to respect those rights. It's also a popular beach area, and traffic is often congested enough people are not driving much faster than a bike anyways, if at all. The police there from my experience, respect lane position of cyclists, but are not forgiving when it comes to rolling stop signs. I've never been cited, but I also make an effort to at least slow down to a near stop at stop signs, but I have heard of a lot of people being cited for that there. I'd love to see along bike routes especially, more creative forms of traffic calming than constant 4 way stops, which can be very draining for the cyclist who generates their own acceleration.

If I understand correctly San Fransico was the birthplace of sharrow installation, and the standards for where there are to be placed in California are to be to position cyclists out of the door zone. If sharrows are installed in the door zone, that defeats the point of them as I see it. Additionally in CA sharrows are at this time only able to be installed in places with constant street parking, places with street parking only part of the day are not eligible. Making clear the intent is to direct cyclists away from car doors.

There was recently a convention in Chicago on sharrow standards across different states, trying to unify them more. A few of the ones the City Of Los Angeles recently installed in a trial run are a little inconsistent. If you're finding sharrows are being installed in the door zone, I would push back against that, as that clearly is counter to their intended purpose.

Gary said...

@ Jeremy,

I'm glad to hear efforts are already underway to update the Santa Monica Bike plan. I think it has long outlived it's usefulness in guiding the direction Santa Monica ought to be going in, toward promoting cycling, and providing for cyclists safety, of person and of property (lack of parking and it's contribution to bike theft).

I'm certainly open to meeting to discuss the issues, and bringing on board others, such as members of the Spoke group, who are daily or frequent cycling commuters in Santa Monica.

My e-mail is

- Gary