Biking Behaviour

Why I Run Red Lights On My Bike

Good little article here on why this person chooses to run red lights, whilst on their bike. I might not agree with all of it, but I do believe that the easiest, fastest and cheapest way that cycling can change in Australia at the moment is to allow cyclists to turn left on red lights, when safe to do so, in the same way that vehicles do in Sydney. Sitting at a looooong set of lights just to get permission to go around the corner infuriates me, but I do it, begrudgingly and forgive those who don’t.

Thought Catalog

Recently, a cyclist in San Francisco was convicted of manslaughter for striking and killing a pedestrian. According to witnesses, before the cyclist, Chris Bucchere, struck the pedestrian, he ran a stop sign and several lights, including the one at the intersection in which he struck and killed the elderly man (Bucchere stated previously that the light was still yellow).

The details of this case leave me feeling conflicted. While this case is indeed a tragedy, and I feel terrible for the family of the man who was killed, I also can’t help but feel for Bucchere. His story could be mine. After all, I too am a cyclist, and I also run red lights. I am not ashamed of this, because it is one of the most common, generally harmless traffic violations that a cyclist can commit. The problem arises from the fact that non-cyclists don’t understand what they’re seeing…

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Doing it with the Danes

Copenhagen: a city that, you know, gets it.

Copenhagen: a city that, you know, gets it.

Facilitate (verb)
From the 1610s, “make easy, render less difficult,” from French faciliter “to render easy,” from stem of Latin facilis “easy” (see facile). Related: Facilitated; facilitates; facilitating. (from online etymology dictionary).

I start this little post with that tiny history on the word of facilitate as it is such a simple word but encapsulates so much about what a city or built environment could (and maybe should) do for its citizens. Depending on how a city is designed, how equitable it is, how healthy, how ‘smart’, how pleasurable, affordable etc. it will enable a citizen to be their best or not. The city, in this sense, facilitates good citizenry.

In Denmark (a place that should be the benchmark of how places should operate, in my opinion), this is evidenced in a myriad of ways, but most notably through policy implementation. Policies on health for example, don’t merely operate in a vacuum as they might in, oh I don’t know… Australia, where they are seen as isolated. They are incorporated into the city itself and the machinations of how that city operates. In doing so, the city becomes a space for policy to manifest, raising otherwise turgid documents from merely aspirational quotes, ideas and stats that no one will ever read.

In a practical sense, an example can be found through looking at the current policy on men’s health in Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics National Health Survey published in 2009 (which can be seen here), 68% of males over 15 years of age reported doing no exercise or having low exercise levels (supporting facts and figures can be seen here). Obviously, this is sub optimal and the government of the day instigated numerous policies to address such  pressing – and depressing – health concerns. So far, so good.

One of these policies was the Healthy Communities initiative, whereby local Councils and local organisations received funding to implement exercise, nutritional and behaviour change programs in the hope that such stark statistics would change, for the better. Along with Diabetes Australia, the Heart Foundation and others, one such organisation was Cycling Australia (CA) in conjunction with the Amy Gillett Foundation. It was explained that what CA’s role would be on the government website and for clarity, it is worthy of reading it in its entirety:

Cycling Australia (with the Amy Gillett Foundation) – AustCycle – AustCycle aims to equip people with the skills and confidence to cycle regularly through the provision of cycle training. The types of training courses range from beginner programs through to skills for riding in more challenging situations, including coping with traffic and riding safely in groups. AustCycle training courses are designed to teach participants of all ability levels how to ride in on-road and off-road environments and can be targeted for new cyclists or people who have ridden before and wish to increase their activity and bicycle use. Programs can cater for between three to eight students per Teacher depending on the skill, confidence and attitudes of participants.

The program uses a train-the-trainer model to train people to become accredited AustCycle Teachers who then deliver cycling training to the community through their own businesses or for an accredited AustCycle Provider (e.g., cycling school). AustCycle Providers are independent licensees able to run training courses that their Teachers are accredited to deliver. AustCycle Providers are usually small businesses, but can also include community groups, cycling clubs and local councils.

The AustCycle Teacher training course includes elements on nutrition, achieving a healthy weight through exercise and developing programs for individuals and groups to address healthy weight and fitness objectives.

For more information, visit the AustCycle website.

Now this brings me nicely to my point of this post. Whilst such programs may encourage some people to ride a bike more often, it is unlikely that such initiatives will have long lasting positive health implications on a large cohort if the built environment does not encourage (or facilitate) people to ride their bike. It seems to me that health programs and health promotion in general in Australia goes for the quick fix when it comes to cycling. It is far more effective to build separated bike lanes if you genuinely want your health policies to have desired, long term health outcomes, but it is also far more politically contentious. In annual reports it is easier to say ‘We funded all these organisations to come up with ideas as to how to reduce the inactive lifestyle of most males in Australia’, than it is to say ‘ We have put a lot of people offside by building better infrastructure for cycling, and we probably won’t see any evidence of how this will improve health outcomes for at least 3 more election cycles’.

Unless we have political will to genuinely change the paradigm as it currently stands however, we are simply throwing good money after bad. We know what we need to do. Currently, the built form of a city (and largely suburbia, too), does not facilitate riding a bike with ease and a tension therefore exists between policy, practical implementation and long term behaviour change and I would argue that it is this trifecta of ingredients that is needed for a citizen to be healthy. Unless the built form of a city changes to encourage cycling and make it easy, facilitating positive health outcomes for citizens is stymied by the city itself.

This whole post can be reduced to six little words: let’s just do what Denmark does.

 

 

Mangoes From Forced Go Slows

Tan, before I met her

Tan, before I met her

Riding along on my way to meet a friend for lunch, I found myself behind this woman, Tan. She had a weighty looking backpack and three bags of shopping on each side of her handlebars. Subsequently, she was a tad slow. But I didn’t mind – it was quite a nice change to just cruise along and, well, ride slowly.

When we got to a set of lights, I looked down to notice her back tyre was incredibly low. I asked her if she would like me to put some air in it (seriously, my bike pump? If I’m on my bike, it’s right there with me), and she was almost overwhelmed with appreciation. I got out my handy pump and was astonished that she hadn’t already gotten a nasty flat, her tyres were so low. She told me that she doesn’t own a car (the same as me) and that she only ever rides her bike or runs to places she needs to be. Runs! I told her – rightfully – that she is awesome.

After I pumped up her tyres I asked if I could take her photo for this blog and she was delighted to, and told me her name is Tan.

Tan, after I met her

Tan, after I met her

Then, digging through her shopping bags, she produced the most beautiful mango and insisted that I take it as a token of thanks. After much protestation from me, I succumbed, thinking that sometimes you need to accept an invitation with the grace which it is offered. I put it in my bag, she had pumped tyres, I got given a mango, we bid fond farewells and got on our respective ways.

Tan's mango, now mine

Tan’s mango, now mine

This all sounds like a nice story really, doesn’t it? And it is. But it serves to demonstrate so much, so simply. The fact Tan rode slowly forced me to slow down and actually enjoy the journey – something I don’t do enough of. The fact we were going at such a glacial pace meant that I noticed how low her tyres were. The fact she was going so slowly made me presume (and yes, it was a presumption) that she would be receptive to the offer of help. The fact that after I’d pumped up her tyres made her want to demonstrate a kindness to me, and so offered me a mango.

Of course, this was dependant on a myriad of variables which could be explored endlessly, but there is no point because the simple message behind the above events, the one huge fact that cannot be ignored or questioned is quite plainly this: that interaction would not have happened if we’d been in cars instead of on bikes.

 

 

 

Lycra, lace or leather

blac

Anyone who rides a bike knows what sort of rider they are.

Some will be what a friend of mine refers to as ‘la de dar’ bike riders. They are good. Others are Lycra lads and ladettes or MAMIL’s. They are good too. And then there are those like me. Common commuters who don’t really even know a fixie from a mountain bike, a hybrid from a unicycle. OK, I’m exaggerating to prove a point, but hopefully you get my drift: Common commuters just want to get from A to B and use a bike to get there. We were probably doing it before it was cool and will ride no matter what the weather. And we are good too.

My point is that we all want the same thing, essentially: we want to be able to ride safely, whether it be in Lycra, lace or Blundstones.

And yet, and yet…all too often there is a division amongst us. The la de dar riders hate the fixie folk, the fixie folk hate the Lycra lads and ladettes, the Lycra ladettes and lads hate the common commuters and the common commuters hate the BMX bandits. The BMX bandits hate everyone. And that they have to wear a helmet.

What is with this? Why do we need this division? Are we not all road users? Are we not all struggling to get better paths built for cyclists, regardless of the sort of cyclist we are? I would like to think so.

I have a theory about the people who ride aggressively on the road and it comes from riding a bike in city streets for 10 years and looking at how cyclists interact with one another. There is definitely a competitive element amongst us all. Even if you don’t own the expensive bike, you want to prove that your bike is just as good, just as worthy and just as capable as any other (namely the one sitting next to you at the lights). Where there should be camaraderie there is competition. There also seems to be a sense of entitlement with many riders. Not stopping at stop signs, red lights, or pedestrian crossings (even when pedestrians are clearly crossing) all seem to be a ‘right’ for some cyclists, even if the law would deem it otherwise.

My theory, and this is the point of this post, is that some cyclists have this competitive, tough person ‘I’m above the law’ stuff going on because to ride a bike on a road in Melbourne right now, in 2014, is dangerous. Of course you’re going to feel tough and above the law and a little competitive and just a little bit arrogant and maybe a bit too cool for school. What would solve this? Better infrastructure. If people didn’t feel that riding a bike was ‘tough’ then they wouldn’t have to prove themselves as it would be seen as any other mode of transport.

Do people who ride trains feel tough? Do people who ride buses or trams feel tough? No, because it’s an everyday thing with a very small degree of risk as it’s so safe and people from all walks of life do it – it is seen as normal.

Still not convinced? Do you believe that most of Amsterdam feel ‘tough’ and therefore flout the rules when they’re on their bikes? Of course not. It’s a normal, everyday form of transport that 7 year olds do amongst 70 year olds. Make it normal, allow people to feel safe and I believe attitudes amongst cyclists themselves (along with perceptions of them) will change.

 

Back in Your Box

Bike boxes. They’re a little weird, I think, and it wasn’t until I attended the Bike Futures Conference last year (part of the conference included a bike tour), that I realised what their purpose was.

The theory is that whilst  cyclists ride along the road single file, once they get to the lights they miraculously, confidently and – some might say strangely – fan out in front of the cars that are waiting behind them. Then, the lights turn green, and they supposedly shuffle back to their single file state of play as they continue on with their journey.

During the bike tour that I did with the conference, the leader of the tour instructed us to “move into the bike box”. I thought this was weird, for several reasons. Firstly, I never really understood what I was meant to do in that big space with the bike sign on it (like the road had been tattooed just for cyclists), that sat in front of the car whilst I waited for the lights to change. I saw the massive bike emblem, so knew that I was within my rights to sit on my bike there, but just wondered why I would. For starters, it not more comfortable to rest one’s foot on a curb than the ground at a set of lights, given that the curb is higher?

Secondly, I didn’t see the point in moving right into the ‘bike box’ only to move left again into the gutter (and I sincerely mean the gutter – have you ridden a bike down Burwood Road lately?). Meanwhile, whilst motorists wait for the nanosecond for cyclists to move from the bike box to the left of the road, they get pissed off, infuriated, aggressive and again start the mantra of “F***ing cyclists” under their agitated, hot breath. Are bike boxes, then, little more than a tokenistic road affectation that appease Councillors, Mayors and wealthy ratepayers but actually do nothing in real terms for cyclists and motorists (or, in short, those who most need to share the road)?

Lastly, I have to say, there is that weird thing where if you are all bunched up together, there’s an awkward moment whereby you have to sort yourself out into supposed speeds of what your fellow cyclist travels at and therefore the most appropriate order. Wouldn’t it just be easier to give us a dedicated bike lane? Social awkwardness, be damned.

I had ridden a bike most days in the previous 8 years since arriving in Melbourne and yet I had no idea how to conduct myself in a bike box, let alone what it’s purpose was, or that the term ‘bike box’ even existed. That is a problem.

The streetswiki on Bike Boxes is actually really fascinating. It states at one point “[bike boxes are] thought to elevate the “status” of bicyclists relative to motor vehicles”. This may be fine in some parts of the world, but for the most part, in Melbourne’s East at least (where I reside and cycle), a cyclist sitting in front of a car is simply going to piss off the driver, and the cyclists’ status is reduced to little more than the grease on the chain.

Fact.

Having said that, the page goes on to say “The City of Copenhagen has concluded that bike boxes are most effective when combined with a brightly colored lane continuing straight through the intersection to help alert right-turning motorists to the fact that bicycle riders may be traveling straight through the intersection along their right side [Jan Gehl]”.

Little of this is done on roads near where I live. In fact, my commute involves pretty much no infrastructure for cyclists at all, until I reach the City of Yarra – a Council area on the other side of the river to where I reside.

Sadly, this is not the side of the river where my rates go. And, er, just a reminder, I live in the City of Boroondara. The only Council without a comprehensive, costed, Bicycle Strategy and yet according to Bicycle Victoria’s Super Tuesday Count for Boroondara it’s…well…this is when a picture paints a thousand words:

Screen shot 2014-02-10 at 11.43.37 PM
Need I say more? Probably not.
But I’ll close on this – with it being announced today that cycling could save the NHS over 250 million POUNDS a year in health benefits – can we please just get some green paint on the road?

The Power of Peer

Admittedly, The Innocent Bikestander has been a little quiet of late. However, this doesn’t mean that the author of this blog has been resting on their laurels and not really doing much. I think about biking and planning way too much and if my Manager actually knew how much time I devote my thoughts to this, I would surely get, well, not fired, but ‘talked to’. I imagine, at any rate. Having said that, can you get into trouble for thinking about something constantly that is completely un-work related, whilst at work? Isn’t that what people do who fall in love? Their thoughts are hardly “on the job”, are they? Anyway, I digress…

This week I spent some time watching cyclists at points where they intersect with pedestrians. Whilst entirely dull to the vast majority of the population, I found it fascinating to view how cyclists’ behaviours changed depending on if they were in a group or cycling by themselves, and there was also a noticeable difference between the way men and women approached these intersections.

The first point I stopped at was on Swanston Street in Melbourne’s CBD, near City Square – this was at one of the ‘ride over’ tram stops where the cycle path is really an extension of the tram stop platform. My initial observations became compounded the more that I sat there. What tended to happen was that if a lone cyclist approached a slowing tram, they would generally sit behind it, as they are meant to, until the doors closed or there was a perception of no further pedestrians, and then ride off. What was interesting was the behaviour of that initial cyclist was repeated if others had seen it. In short, the person at the front of the pack would essentially dictate how others behind them would behave. If the leader stopped, everyone stopped. If the leader waited until the tram started to move before starting again (which is legally what is meant to occur), so would the others.

However, sadly, what would also happen is that if the leader of that pack broke off and started to ride before the doors of the tram had even closed, the chances were quite good that others would follow suit, and the little biking bubble would start to weave amongst pedestrians trying to board the tram. Not good.

I know myself that it is actually hard to stick to your guns and sit patiently at the rear of a stationery tram when cyclist after cyclist overtakes you. The power of the peer plays out on the bike path just as much as it ever did in the school yard. There is something in this for urban designers and planners, I’m sure, along with behavioural scientists.

And this leads to my second lookout point, St Kilda beach. There is a very good bike path that runs along just about the whole of the bay area in Melbourne and – fortunately – it is extremely well utilised by bikers, dog walkers, joggers, stollers and alike. As I was sitting there, the time was approximately 5:30pm so the majority of cyclists were heading south, in the direction of the arrows. I was sitting where the red circle is, and behind me were showers, drinking fountains, and public toilets. Due to the four sets of lights, this is a main access point for pedestrians arriving at the beach from St Kilda itself, and surrounds.

St Kilda peds and bikesAnyone with half a brain can tell what I’m about to say. The cyclists come streaming (streaming? Screaming would be more accurate) down the cycle path, entering the same space where there are pedestrians and beach-goers ambling about, either approaching the beach, and therefore surveying where to set up a towel, or they’re slowly making their way back to the toilets/showers/drinking station/traffic lights – all of which lay ahead. The point is that pedestrians crossing the bike path have no incentive to look either left or right as regardless of whether they are arriving or leaving the beach, their focus is straight ahead.

Sadly it would appear that the cyclists entering into this shared public space hold little regard (or knowledge) for the necessary changes that are needed in speed and attitude at this juncture, and I repeatedly witnessed cyclists tearing down the bike path and pedestrians oblivious that they were even on a bike path. Whilst I did not witness an accident, I certainly saw pedestrians scared and startled. In my head, that’s just as bad as the narrative of “F***ing cyclists” was no doubt conjured up.

After studying the movement of cyclists in both the city and at the beach, I made other observations. The number of men cycling still outweighs the number of women, vastly. Sadly, the more aggressive riders, and those less likely to stop for pedestrians or trams (or even to slow down) were…you guessed in: men in lycra with what I refer to as ‘loud bikes’ (when they’re just rolling along and not being peddled, you can hear them before you see them, which is strange given that these bikes are lighter than oxygen). This is not a good thing and some serious training or education needs to be done for, dare I say it, MAMIL’s (Middle Aged Men In Lycra). I hasten to add that there were all sorts of people not slowing down on all sorts of bikes, (and yes, some were hipsters) but by far the majority were men on fast bikes.

The City of Melbourne recognises speed as an issue in it’s Bicycle Plan 2007 – 2011 where it states under Clause 56:

“The main issues that may lead to conflict between pedestrians and cyclists are: 56.1 reckless or thoughtless behaviour.  This usually relates to cyclists riding too fast. ”

Both City of Melbourne Bicycle Plans for 2007 – 2011 and 2012 – 2016 can be read here

Again, I think peer education needs to be implemented somewhere along the way for cyclists everywhere.

We can change, we can do it better. One of my further blog posts will be on the psychology of cycling, of which – as you may imagine – I have a lot of thought (er, opinions) on. Happy cycling and don’t scare the peds.

I Just Want a Route

The next few – hundred – posts will undoubtedly be about issues related to the Bike Futures Conference that I attended last week, as there was a phenomenal amount of knowledge and insight that came from it.

My main impetus for going in the first instance was to see Paul Steely White talk (the CEO of Transportation Alternatives), as he featured so heavily in The Human Scale – the doco that made me want to get into planning in the first instance and really showed the connection between happiness and the built environment. He was an absolute delight. Charming, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, I couldn’t help but wonder what he made of the hosts that are Bicycle Network. They don’t really have that passion and the political will to do what TA have done in NYC, which is frustrating as I believe they could. Their focus tends to be greatly on organised bike rides, and riding ‘events’ where you pay a great deal of money, rather than advocating on behalf of everyday, commuter cyclists. If this is not the case, then why is it that this is my opinion? What is missing from their advertising or their marketing that leads me to believe this?

Transportation Alternatives logo

Transportation Alternatives logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not surprisingly, there was a significant number of representatives from local Councils, and a couple of people from my own. Also unsurprisingly, I sallied up to them and chatted to them about biking in the area as the night before the conference began, I was perusing the bike map for the area and I realised that there is not a single stretch of road that is genuinely safe for cyclists to ride into the city on. As I live in the East of Melbourne’s CBD, it would make sense that most people would need a route that goes from East to West in this area. There is a treacherous stretch of road that I use daily to get to work – Burwood Road. It is, I learnt from a council member, the busiest arterial road in the council.

I suggested that they implement a similar system as is on Nicholson street currently, whereby they could close one of the lanes of traffic and make that a bike path, and then, with the remaining three lanes of traffic, alternate the direction of these lanes with lights overhead indicating the changes. So, in the morning, you could have two lanes for traffic going into the city and then the reverse for when the rush hour means two lanes are needed for vehicles leaving the city. I could told that this would cost about 3 million dollars to do this, and that there are all sorts of problems because it is a VicRoads road, not a road owned by council.

My argument is this – what sort of money is going to be needed to be spent on health by this council if people just sit in their SUV’s and cars and don’t become more physically fit? And, even if they are getting enough exercise, I don’t understand why we can’t just have one road – just one! – that is a safe passage for people riding into the city. There is so much evidence that supports people using bikes as a legitimate form of transport, if the infrastructure is built that allows them to do this. My councillor informed that a vast sum of money had been spent on the Gardiner’s bike trail. That’s great, brilliant, wonderful and all, but I don’t live within close proximity of the trail so I’m not going to use it. Why should I be shunted in the gutter of Burwood Road, just because I don’t live near the river which is where the path has been upgraded? I just one road. Just one safe, alternative to get to work each day.

You could say, I just want a route.

You Have to Start Somewhere

So, here’s my little blog.

Like most blogs, I suspect it will become a rant, but I’m hoping that what this blog will really be will be an informative page about bike riding and planning in an urban environment and how the two currently work, how they don’t and how they could. I visualise a rich world, where people cycle and slow down, because they can, because the infrastructure is provided regardless of whether you are an 80 year old or an 8 year old. I believe it was Jan Gehl (my hero) who said that if roads can only be ridden on a push bike by brave young people, it doesn’t work.

I agree.

There is much to do. We have a climate that is retaliating. We have an obesity problem and other co-morbidity issues in most Western countries that are spiralling out of control. We have an addiction to sugar and fat in proportions that is almost comical (it would be funny if it wasn’t actually killing us), and our addiction to the car is similarly not a pretty one. We need to change and we can change.

But to survive, we must change.

The genesis of my enthusiasm is tied to this little film:

Watch it, and you may just want to do things differently too.