Monday, August 22, 2016

Learning to Dance Together

21st and Pemberton
Bicyclists, motorists, pedestrians all have one thing in common - the human body. It has abilities, and it has limitations. As Clint Eastwood said, A man's got to know his limitations.

We can't look back very well. If you drive a car, you know this. All that driver's ed about blind spots etc. Bicyclists can actually see better to the rear, because they don't have the structure of a car in the way, but still.

This limitation is a basic issue as we think about how to get cars and bikes to work better together on the street. And it's a strong argument for a network of protected bike lanes.

But in parts of Philadelphia - for instance, South Philly - there are many streets that are unlikely to see protected bike lanes any time soon. The parking lanes aren't likely to go away, and the remaining space is simply too narrow for a separate bike lane. Cars and bikes are going to have to learn to share.

Vehicular Cycling
So what would this look like? Enter John Forester, the apostle of Vehicular Cycling. I have a number reservations about Mr. Forester's work. But he has, over many decades, studied how cars and bikes can work together on the street. And I think some of his ideas may make life easier for everyone on the narrow streets of South Philadelphia.

The basic precept of Vehicular Cycling is Take the Lane. Don't cower at the curb. It's hard for many bicyclists to accept that riding in the middle of the street is actually safer, and there is a strong ethos in this country that bicycles should stay to the right so cars, which are faster, can pass more easily.

Let's see how this plays out in a town like Philly. First, a look at the real estate. As Forester notes in his 800-page magnum opus, Effective Cycling (7th ed., MIT Press, 2012), "Twelve feet is the width of the standard interstate lane and of many other main highways." (P. 392.) Needless to say, many lanes on the streets of Philadelphia are less than twelve feet wide. On Lombard Street, in front of my house, one traffic lane is ten feet wide, the other is eight feet, eight inches. (The parking lane is seven feet wide.)

Physically speaking, it is just barely possible for a car and a bicycle to ride along side-by-side in a twelve-foot lane. The typical American car is between six and seven feet wide. A bike's handlebars are typically around 24 inches, or two feet, wide. Seven plus two is nine, which leaves three feet for buffer space. The motorist will want some of this to the left of the vehicle - at least a foot. The other two feet can be buffer space for the bicyclist. This doesn't leave very much room for error.

A complicating factor is the law in Pennsylvania, which requires that a motorist passing a bicyclist must provide four feet of clearance. (Here is a link to the law, courtesy of the Bicycle Coalition's website.)

A seven-foot car, a two-foot bike, and four feet of clearance add up to thirteen feet, and the motorist will want clearance to his left as well.

It seems reasonable to conclude that side-by-side sharing of a twelve-foot lane is illegal in Pennsylvania. And this would go in spades for lanes less than twelve feet wide.

What's a cyclist to do? Well, first, don't wait for the motorist to figure it out. In dancing terms, take the lead. In  biking terms, take the lane. You don't necessarily need to ride in the middle of the lane, but you need to be far enough away from the curb to convince even the most fanciful driver that he's not going to be able to squeeze by you in the same lane.

If the street has two lanes, like Lombard Street, the motorist will need to swing into the next lane to pass. If the street has one traffic lane, the motorist will need to stay behind you. When you get to a stop sign, you may want to pull over and let the cars behind you go ahead. They are faster vehicles, after all. It's a courtesy.

Down to Pemberton
At the beginning of this story there is a photo of a sign at 21st and Pemberton. There is one traffic lane on 21st, heading south, and it is twelve feet wide. There are two seven-foot parking lanes, one on each side.

Dear Bicyclist, 
The Streets Department doesn't love you. And here even they are telling you to freaking take the lane. Listen to them.

You don't want a car trying to squeeze by you on this street. You can't escape. The parked cars have you caged in.

Vehicular cycling is not without its dangers. A following motorist may simply decide to ram you. This is unlikely, but in Philadelphia it is certainly possible.

You are also likely to have conversations with uncomprehending motorists. Forester recommends that you engage in education rather than invective. Be an ambassador for bicycling. Remind the motorists that, as the sign says, bicyclists may use the full lane. You could even tell them about the four-foot passing law. It's highly unlikely that they will have heard of it before. Finally, as Forester puts it, "Often the best action is a friendly wave and a happy smile - motorists don't expect that." (P. 518.)

Two Hazards
All this conversation may leave you a trifle hoarse, but keep in mind that taking the lane does have its benefits. It may head off two serious hazards, both of which have happened to me: the passing motorist who cuts you off, and the driver who tries to squeeze past you when there isn't enough space.

Both of these maneuvers are particularly dangerous because they engage the motorist's physical limitations. The driver who swings out to pass and then cuts back too soon may well have misjudged your speed and then lost sight of you in his blind spot. In addition, both this motorist and the one who tries to squeeze by in the lane probably have only a vague idea of where the right side of their car is. Particularly the right rear.

If there are two traffic lanes available, as on Lombard Street, even if you've taken the lane, you may well encounter a motorist who swings out to pass and then cuts back too soon. However, you can brake, and you also have room to maneuver to the right. If you start by riding at the curb, you have no escape space.

If you have a lane of parked cars to your right, instead of the curb, taking the lane will also put you out of range of being "doored" - that is, hit by a car door being opened by an occupant who didn't see you. That pesky looking-back thing again.

Vehicular cycling is not a Vision Zero program. It is not as good as a protected bike lane, but it's much better than cowering at the curb.

And we don't need City Council to pass an ordinance. We can just do this. We can do it now.


  1. Great!! Thank you for this post! Here at CyclingSavvy, we like the "dance" metaphor:

  2. The thing about "protected" bike lanes: What about the intersections and driveways? Not really protected there, unless there is a separate traffic signal.

    In general, special bike infrastructure requires education, but education does not require special bike infrastructure.