The Need to Change Federal Policy and Practice Regarding Bicycle Transportation

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1 Conflict Between State Traffic Laws and Federal Policy


Senator Feinstein sent me a letter (25 June 97) saying that she believes that "intelligent planning of bicycle paths can serve both transportation and safety interests," and saying that she encouraged me to "share [my] ideas with state and local planning authorities in order to assist in the creation of safe, efficient routes for bicycle transportation."


I am sorry to read that the senator has been so poorly informed in this matter. The Federal government is far behind some of the states in the subject of bicycle transportation. Practically everything that I say herein about bicycle transportation was developed in California with the knowledge of CALTRANS, and through the governmental relations efforts of the California Association of Bicycling Organizations. A comprehensive discussion of this science of bicycle transportation engineering is in my book, Bicycle Transportation. (2nd ed, The MIT Press, 1994)


1.1 The Federal Government Discourages Bicycle Transportation


It is commonly asserted, and some people even believe it, that the Federal government has had a 25-year-long history of encouraging bicycle transportation. This claim is false, as almost every action or event shows. The bicycling program of the Federal government has not been devoted to encouraging bicycle transportation but, in accordance with the wishes of the motoring organizations, to preventing bicycle traffic from disturbing motor traffic. Thus, ironically, when examined objectively, the Federal bicycling program has done more to encourage motoring than to encourage cycling.


One would think that a contradiction of this magnitude would not have survived so long. It has survived because the program is based on a very large lie, and it is often easier to get away with very large lies than with small ones. The very large lie is that same-direction motor traffic is the greatest danger to cyclists, so that protecting cyclists against same-direction motor traffic is the most urgent safety problem in cycling. I say openly that this is a very large lie because same-direction motor traffic causes only 2% of car-bike collisions in urban areas in daylight (the conditions under which we expect to expand cycling transportation) and only 0.3% of accidents to cyclists, and, furthermore, the Federal government has known this since 1977 on the basis of its own study of car-bike collisions done for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by Ken Cross. The analysis of Cross's data given above is found in my Bicycle Transportation, Chap 5.


The public has been persuaded of the truth of this lie by decades of propaganda by the motoring organizations. The motoring organizations disseminate this lie because those measures taken because of it, frightening cyclists with fear of death, restrictive traffic laws, building bike paths and bike lanes, are precisely those that ensure that the roadways are kept clear of cyclists for the convenience of motorists.


1.2 Junk-Science Used to Support the Federal Bicycle Program


In pursuing this program, the Federal Highway Administration has contracted for many studies whose scientific merits have been thoroughly disproved. After all, when one is trying to prove the equivalent of the hypothesis that the Earth is flat, the level of science will be ludicrous.


1.2.1 Abandoned Federal Standard for Bikeways


The first federal effort was to establish scientific federal designs for bike lanes and bike paths, which resulted in a final report, Safety and Location Criteria for Bicycle Facilities, Final Report, FHWA-RD-75-112. The science used in this report was so thoroughly criticized that the accompanying design standards were never used. Instead, the federal government adopted the AASHTO Guide for Bicycle Facilities, which had started out as the California standard, developed at least with the cognizance of cyclists, and made considerably safer by their opposition.


1.2.2 Bikeway Demonstrations That Showed Nothing


For the next fifteen years the federal effort was largely a series of demonstration bikeways, none of which supported the claim that bikeways made cycling much safer. (I point out that some things done in addition to installing the bike path or the bike-lane stripe, such as removing on-street parking of automobiles, did reduce the accident rate while encouraging cycling, but the effect cannot be attributed to the bikeway itself.)


1.2.3 The Federal Bicycling and Walking Studies


In 1992, Congress authorized the FHWA to undertake a study of means to double the amount of walking and cycling transportation while reducing the accident rate. The FHWA let contracts for 24 studies. Even before the list of studies was finalized, the bicycling study subjects were criticized strongly as not being devoted to substantive improvements, such as reducing the accident rate or making cycling transportation more efficient. Instead, these studies were based on justifying the false claim that bikeways made cycling safe, like trying to prove that the Earth is flat. Naturally, while the studies were produced, there is practically nothing in them that describes the actions that would be necessary to accomplish the stated objectives. No actions described in these studies can reasonably be expected to reduce the cyclist accident rate. Almost all of any increase in the volume of cycling transportation would be caused by unethically using the public superstition about the safety of bikeways to persuade people to cycle without decreasing the dangers to which they are exposed or their ability to operate safely in that environment. Indeed, if the program has any success in increasing the volume, the accident rate is likely to increase disproportionally.


1.2.4 Survey of Bicycle Safety Research


The FHWA was so afflicted by the criticism of its earlier scientific efforts that it contracted for a survey of scientific work on bicycle transportation done since the 1970s. This was Bicycle-Safety-Related Research Synthesis, FHWA-RD-94-062, by Andy Clarke and Linda Tracy of the Bicycle Federation of America. (It is important to note that the Bicycle Federation of America is not a cycling organization. It is a consulting firm that depends on bike planning work and on the bike-planning seminars that it holds, and its work is generally despised among well-informed cyclists.) I enclose a copy of my critique of that document, demonstrating that the research synthesis is ill-informed and biased. However, the document contains one extremely significant admission. It admits that bikeways do not make cycling significantly safer.


1.2.5 Categorizing Transportational Cyclists as Inexperienced Incompetents


With this setback, the FHWA evidently decided that it was useless to try to base its tactics on any demonstration of bikeway safety. However, it could still rely on the public superstition that same-direction motor traffic is the greatest danger to cyclists. Its bike-programming contractor, the Bicycle Federation of America, invented a system for classifying American cyclists into classes A, B, and C: experienced Adults, inexperienced Beginners, and pre-teen Children. This was stated in Selecting Roadway Treatments for the Accommodation of Bicycles, by W. C. Wilkinson III, A. Clarke, B. Epperson, R. Knoblauch; FHWA-RD-92073, Jan 1994. The catch about the classes of bicyclist is that these authors estimate that only 5% of American cyclists will ever acquire experience and learn to obey the traffic laws and qualify as A cyclists. Therefore, so they say, all places which any significant number of the 95% of incompetent cyclists wish to reach must be served by highways with bikeways.


The FHWA's classification is utterly absurd. The supposed goal of American cycling policy is to produce a useful bicycle transportation system. That is the justification given for spending money for bicycle transportation. If this goal is achieved, there will be two consequences. The first is that, over most of the system, the majority of users will be adults, defined as persons old enough to drive a car. Children, pre-teens as defined by the FHWA, will be using only a very small part of the system, that near schools and parks. The second consequence is that then the great majority of the system's users at any one time will be experienced users. To think otherwise, as the FHWA policy states, is like supposing that a random sampling of married couples would produce a great majority of virgins.


Furthermore, since most American adults are licensed to drive motor vehicles, they are presumed to know how to obey the traffic laws, and in many states they are tested to demonstrate their knowledge. Only if the American bicycle transportation system were to be operated by the minority of Americans over sixteen who do not know how to drive automobiles, would it be possible that a large proportion of the bicycle users would not know how to obey the traffic laws.


There may be some use in building special facilities for child cyclists in those places where many children will ride. That is, provided that it is possible to build facilities that are both safe for child cyclists who have no idea of traffic operations, and provide transportational utility. Such locations must be rare. However, such facilities will be useless for transportation by older persons.
It is as absurd to build the rest of the bicycle transportation system to suit beginners as it would be to build the rest of the highway system to suit people who don't yet know how to drive.


1.2.6 Abandoning Science and Relying on Superstition


The Federal government now has accepted what others have known for decades, that bikeways cannot make cycling much safer for cyclists, competent or incompetent. Therefore, it has taken to relying on superstition instead of junk science to promote its bikeway program. It has supported a series of supposed experiments to determine the suitability of various designs of highway for cycling. While these originally were intended to be systems for surveying the hazards along roadways, and therefore of estimating the accident rate, they all decayed in use into determining the degree of fear of same-direction motor traffic felt by people on bicycles while ignoring all other factors. Naturally, when all other factors are removed, most people feel more endangered with more, fast, close, same-direction motor traffic than with less, slower, more distant, same-direction motor traffic, and they feel more protected with a bike-lane stripe than without. Although the measurements have almost no relevance to the actual causes of accidents to cyclists, the FHWA touts these demonstrations as showing that bike lanes are vital to a successful bicycle transportation system.


1.2.7 The Florida Bike-lane Study


The most sophisticated of these studies is the Florida bike-lane study, Evaluation of Share-Use Facilities for Bicycls and Motor Vehicles in Florida (Harkey, David L., J.Richard Stewart, Eric A. Rodgman, University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, March 1966). This study describes itself as: "The objective of this study was to evaluate the safety and utility of shared-use facilities in order to provide engineers and planners comprehensive results that can be used in planning and designing roadways to be shared by motorists and bicyclists." The objective was also described as: "mimimizing the risk of a conflict or crash."


The study did none of these things that it claimed to do. It ignored all the significant conflict and collision situations. All that it did was to measure the lateral positions on the roadway of motorists and cyclists under three different conditions: what it called wide outside lanes, bike lanes, and paved shoulders. It claimed three significant findings.


1: One wide-curb-lane streets cyclists rode closer to the edge of the roadway
2: On wide-curb-lane streets motorists moved further left when overtaking cyclists
3: On wide-curb-lane streets motorists encroached more frequently on the lane to their left.

These findings are touted as justifying bike lanes and paved shoulders instead of wide curb lanes. Note that the study has decayed from its stated objectives of "minimizing the risk of conflict or crash" into a mere study of same-direction motor traffic, just like the others. Furthermore, the study was manipulated so that the data came out as the motoring organizations want. Certainly, motorists on the particular wide-curb-lane streets that were studied encroached more frequently on their adjacent motor-vehicle lanes, raising the fear of head-on crashes between motorists.


This propaganda item has several factual errors. The first is that no study of collisions between motor vehicles has identified the overtaking of bicycles as a significant cause. Motoring organizations, such as the California Highway Patrol, have raised this spectre for twenty years, but they have never discovered data to support it. The second is that the average is not the important measure, because when there is traffic in the adjacent lane, motorists don't move over so far. The third is that the experiment was manipulated to produce the data that were desired.


Tthe data prove that the wide-curb-lane streets were the narrowest streets in the study. The proof is easy. On wide-curb-lane streets the cyclists rode nearest the curb, the motorists overtook the cyclists with the least clearance, yet the most motorists were in the adjacent lane as they did so. (The ranges of these variables were similar, with what little difference there was showing that on wide-curb-lane streets motorists were more consistent than on other streets.) Therefore, on the condition in which the motorists were closest to the curb they also had the greatest proportion of those in the adjacent lane. This is possible only if the roads so classified were the narrowest. Of course, as we all know, cyclists cause more bother to motorists on narrow roads than on wide ones; we didn't need a study to demonstrate that. However, to use that result to argue for bike lanes is plain junk science.


The only fair test of bike lanes is to test streets with bike lanes against substantially identical streets without bike lanes. The motoring establishment, which has all the research monies that are available for such tests, has never done this.


Whether or not the manipulation was deliberate is not known, but the cumulation of errors that allow the authors to unwarrantably criticize wide curb lanes and praise bike lanes is extremely suspicious. In the light of all the other junk science projects that the FHWA has subsidized to try to justify getting cyclists off the roadways, it is one more clear example demonstrating that that is the FHWA's policy, and hence is the policy of the Federal government.


1.3 FHWA Denies Cyclists' Right to Use the Roadways


The laws of all states and the Uniform Vehicle Code give cyclists the rights and duties of drivers of vehicles. (Not of drivers of motor vehicles. In most states there is a distinct difference between vehicles and motor vehicles.) (UVC 11-1202) Those laws give cyclists the right to use the roadways of the highways of the state, except for those roadways from which non-motorized traffic is specifically prohibited (freeways). This right to use the roadways provides the basic ability to travel that is the essence of cycling, it has existed from before the invention of the automobile, and it has repeatedly been affirmed by the courts.


The motoring organizations don't like cyclists to have this right; they want to have cyclists off the roadways, where they won't delay and frighten motorists. (Yes, motorists are frightened of cyclists; they fear that some magical force will cause them to hit cyclists. The fact that this superstitious fear is used to justify their dislike of being delayed is hardly coincidental.) The FHWA sides with the motorists in denying that cyclists are legitimate users of the nation's roadways. While the FHWA mouths all kinds of supposed support for bicycle transportation, it contradicts itself by officially denying the most basic right of cyclists, that of being legitimate roadway users.


A former Administrator of the FHWA, Dr. Tom Larson, stated (7 May, 1991) that FHWA's policy is: "Bicyclists and pedestrians are legitimate users of the transportation system," a statement for which he was praised in the bicycle planning press and by others who knew no better. They thought that he was conferring legitimacy upon a mode of travel that they unjustifiably feared was not really legitimate. (Bicycle planners are not known for understanding what they do. They earn their money by devising plans that discourage proper cycling for the convenience of motorists. When one's career is based on an anti-scientific paradigm, one has trouble understanding the science of the field.)


What Larson really meant is that bicyclists, like pedestrians, are legitimate users of sidewalks. At my request, Congressman Tom Campbell asked Dr. Larson to clarify this policy, as to whether bicyclists are legitimate users of roadways. Dr. Larson refused to do so (31 May, 1991, Larson to Campbell), emphasizing that the FHWA's policy was that stated in his earlier words. In other words, in response to a direct question by a Congressman, the FHWA refused to admit that cyclists are legitimate users of roadways, as state traffic laws provide.


1.4 ISTEA Defines Bicycling Facilities as "Lanes, Paths, or Shoulders for the Use of Persons Riding Bicycles"


While the ISTEA gives local authorities the opportunity to spend funds on matters other than motor transportation, the part of it that pertains to bicycle transportation is not in accordance with scientific knowledge about that subject. Instead, it follows the FHWA policy of denying that cyclists are legitimate roadway users. ISTEA defines bicycle facilities as "lanes, paths, or shoulders for the use of persons riding bicycles," none of which are part of the normal roadway. All that the FHWA will allow in its policy is that cyclists are legitimate users of "highways," facilities that include paths, sidewalks, ditches, and plain dirt in addition to the roadways that cyclists are not supposed to use.


1.5 Results of the Actual Federal Policy Regarding Bicycle Transportation


The result of these contradictions between cyclists' rights, state laws, and federal laws and policy is that the federal funds for bicycle transportation tempt local authorities to spend them in ways that serve motorists' obsession with clearing the roadways of bicycle traffic in an effort to cripple safe and efficient bicycle transportation and the rights of bicyclists. It has become extremely difficult to get federal funds spent on improving the roadways to make them better for cycling, which is obviously the best policy.


2 Bikeways Are An Inadequate and Dangerous Accommodation for Bicycle Transportation


2.1 Intelligent Planning of Bicycle Paths Cannot Provide a Useful System


Senator Feinstein stated her belief that "intelligent planning of bicycle paths can serve both transportation and safety interests." This may be so, but it is largely irrelevant to the bicycle transportation policy, because with intelligent planning of bicycle paths there would be very few paths built. The number of places where safe bicycle paths can serve a significant transportation interest is very small, and they certainly cannot serve more than a minute fraction of the cycling transportation needs of any urban area.


In existing urban areas, almost the only places in which paths can be put are alongside existing streets. These are very dangerous because there is no safe and efficient design for intersections between practical urban bike paths and normal streets. These create intersections of great complexity. Because it is impossible to provide for ground- level spatial separation between the conflicting paths of bicycles and motor vehicles, the only solution that has been invented, or is theoretically possible, is to have traffic signals that provide time separation instead of spatial separation. This divides the available time into smaller segments for each potential user, so that each class of user gets less green time than in a normal intersection. The delays and congestion produced by such systems are detrimental to both motorists and cyclists.


Naturally, most intersections cannot receive such protection. The result is that most urban bike-path cyclists are in great danger at most intersections and driveways, and, as you surely know, the great majority of car-bike collisions are caused by turning and crossing traffic conflicts. Same-direction motor traffic causes only very few (2% in urban areas in daylight) of car-bike collisions. The intersection problem is alleviated only where there are no path/road intersections, typically alongside non-industrial waterfronts, which are very few and rarely placed to serve many transportational cyclists.


2.2 Bike-lane Stripes Don't Protect and They Confuse Users


The other type of urban bikeway is the bike lane. To the ill-informed, the bike-lane stripe protects cyclists from motorists by having cyclists to the right of the bike-lane stripe and motorists to the left. However, this protection is practically irrelevant, because this type of conflict causes only very few, 2% in urban areas in daylight, of car-bike collisions, 0.3% of all accidents to cyclists. Belief in the simple rule of cyclists to the right of the stripe and motorists to the left, whenever these parties need to make turns, causes motorists to turn right into cyclists, and cyclists to turn left into motorists, and also to cause cyclists to overtake on the right of motorists, thus putting themselves into jeopardy of the motorist right turn. These movements are dangerous; they cause many more car-bike collisions than those that the bike-lane stripe is intended to prevent.


The proper way to cycle and to drive where there are bike-lane stripes is to ignore the bike-lane stripes entirely and do what the standard traffic laws require. However, the stripe confuses both motorists and cyclists because it tells people to do something different.


2.3 Bikeways Do Not Make Cycling Easier or Lower the Level of Skill Required


It is commonly argued that bike paths and bike lanes reduce the level of skill that is required, enabling cyclists who do not know how to obey the traffic laws to ride safely and efficiently. This is the presumption of the FHWA's classification of adult cyclists into Adults and Beginners, with its requirement that bikeways be provided everywhere to suit Beginning cyclists. However, this idea is false. No study has ever demonstrated that typical urban trips can be made safely in cities with bikeways without the need for using all the normal skills of obeying the traffic laws. In fact, every analysis of skills that has been made demonstrates that cycling on bikeways requires more and greater skills than cycling on normal roadways.


This is particularly true for bike paths. The complexity of intersections that involve bike paths exceeds the ability of traffic engineers to operate safely, let alone the naive users.


As for bike lanes, the user has to learn how to operate properly, and then learn when to disobey the bike-lane stripe and how to avoid making the mistakes that the stripes encourage and to avoid the motorists who make their corresponding mistakes. The best advice for cycling on streets with bike lanes is to ignore the stripe completely and do exactly what the normal traffic laws require, advice which requires that the user have so confident a knowledge of the traffic laws that he recognizes when to disobey the stripe.


2.4 Bike Lanes Do Not Make Space For Bicyclists


It is argued that bike lanes make space on the roadway for bicyclists. This is an entirely false argument that is advanced by the motoring organizations and the FHWA. The space on the roadway is created by one of two methods. By either making the roadway sufficiently wide to start with, or by re-allocating space on an existing roadway. Only once sufficient space has been created or allocated is it possible to paint the bike-lane stripe that makes that space a bike lane. The argument that the bike lane creates the space exists only because the motoring organizations and the FHWA refuse to provide roadway space for bicycling unless it is provided in the form of a bike lane to keep the normal roadway clear of bicycles for the convenience of motorists. Creating the space in the form of a wide outside lane answers all the needs of both motorists and cyclists without creating the confusion about how to drive properly and about the legal status of cyclists.


2.5 Bikeways Deny that Cyclists Are Legitimate Roadway Users Who Should Obey the Traffic Laws


In addition to these dangerous operational defects, these two types of bikeway tell the public, both motoring and cycling, that cyclists don't belong on the normal roadway. Bikeways say that cyclists need the supposed protection that bikeways supply. Therefore, the non-expert user thinks it is obvious that cyclists should not use a normal roadway without a stripe or a path. Of course, this is wrong, but that is what government production of bike-lane stripes and bike paths tells the public. The other superstition is that paths and bike-lane stripes reduce the level of skill that is required. This is false. Both bike-lane stripes and bike paths complicate the interactions for turning and crossing movements, as described above, between cyclists and motorists, making it much harder to learn how to ride safely.


Think of the unethical results of bike paths and bike-lane stripes. Although they are more dangerous than the normal roadway, they attract the ill-informed with false promises of safety. What happens when that false promise is not fulfilled? What happens when it is recognized that the accidents that have occurred were caused by serving the convenience of motorists? Who takes the blame?


3 Proper Behavior By Cyclists


3.1 Facilities to Match Proper Behavior


The proper attitude for cyclists and for society is that "Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles." Nothing else works as well or as safely. No practical system of transportational bikeways removes the safety need for cyclists to be able to operate according to the traffic laws for drivers of vehicles. Given that that mode of operation is required, it is utterly foolish to install a system of bikeways that complicates or prevents proper operation, or that persuades people that proper operation is not required.


This does not mean that no facility improvements are desirable. Adequate width of the outside through lane allows motorists to overtake cyclists without delay and without squeezing the cyclists. You can consider a wide outside through lane to be the space for a bike lane (it does not require quite as much space) but that is not delineated with a stripe. That wide outside through lane serves all the purposes that are required, without setting up any misapprehensions about cyclists not belonging on the roadway, or inducing people to disobey the traffic laws, or producing a false sense of safety.


3.2 Teaching Proper Behavior


The populations of cyclists who are most likely to operate as drivers of vehicles have an accident rate per mile only 20% of that of the general cycling public. (Bicycle Transportation, Chap 5) Given this ratio, training the general cycling public in proper cycling technique is probably the most effective bicycle safety program available. This means not teaching the traffic laws as is usually done, but teaching how to drive a bicycle in traffic in the same way that beginning motorists are taught. The Effective Cycling Program of the League of American Bicyclists teaches in this manner.


4 The Proper Content of a Rational Bicycle Transportation Bill


4.1 Protection of Bicyclists' Basic Right to Use the Roadways


First, the right of cyclists to use the normal roadways, the rights given by all the state laws, must be protected. All the state traffic laws include it, but the federal government chooses to jeopardize it. That right must be specifically affirmed in federal policy, with words similar to the following:
The federal government agrees with the state laws that give cyclists the rights and duties of drivers of vehicles, and nothing in this act or in federal policy shall be construed to reduce or qualify those rights and duties. Those rights include the right to use the normal roadways, except on those roads from which non-motorized traffic is specifically prohibited.


4.2 Creating Proper Accommodation for Bicyclists


Second, the traffic laws of many states, and the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC 11-1205(3)), say that when the outside lane is too narrow for motorists and cyclists to share, then cyclists are entitled to use the entire width of the outside lane and motorists must use the next lane over to overtake. Therefore, the federal act should support this principle in words similar to those following:
When any road is being constructed or reconstructed, consideration shall be given to the accommodation provided for bicycle traffic. If either motoring or bicycling traffic volumes warrant, that accommodation shall be provided by an outside lane that is sufficiently wide for motorists and cyclists to share. When such accommodation is not provided, then cyclists shall be entitled to use the entire width of the outside lane.


4.3 Safe Roadways For Bicyclists


Third, the effect of all the state laws is to require government to provide reasonably safe accommodation for bicycle traffic. This includes smooth pavement, bicycle-safe drain grates, traffic signal detectors that respond to bicycle traffic, adequate clearance time between opposing green phases of signals, etc. The federal government ought to include these items as proper accommodations for bicycle traffic.


4.4 Bicycle Safety Programs


Since the most likely way to reduce the cyclist accident rate per mile is to teach cyclists how to operate as drivers of vehicles, and since no bikeway program can substitute for such skill, and since highway system safety requires that cyclists operate in this manner, programs that teach such technique should be an integral part of federal highway accommodations for bicycling transportation.


4.5 Proper Uses of Federal Bicycling Funds


Fourth, it is a legitimate expenditure of federal highway funds to provide the accommodations for bicycle traffic that are described above.

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