Storm Creates Commuters

7 Nov

Cyclists on the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo by Benjamin Norman, New York Times.

What do you do if you live in a major city where all of a sudden an extensive public transportation goes almost completely out of commission, gas becomes scarce, and tunnels for cars impassable?  Well, for short distances, you walk, which many New Yorkers do anyway.  But for many the solution has been to dust off that bicycle usually used for the occasional jaunt.

A good number of New Yorkers have started to commute by bicycle in recent years.  That number may increase, according to a recent New York Times article, as people who never considered commuting by bicycle are forced to do so by circumstance, and then find out that they really like it.

The fact that New York has added a lot of bike infrastructure in recent has contributed significantly to the increase in bike commuting pre-Sandy.  As I reported in a recent post, recent research has demonstrated more clearly than ever before the link between good infrastructure and the number of people cycling for transportation.  Another recent study conducted in Vancouver and Toronto and published in the American Journal of Public Health suggests that people not only perceive bike lanes, cycle tracks, and other infrastructure to be safer than sharing lanes with cars, they actually are safer.  They can reduce the risk of injury by 50 percent.

Interestingly, the article outlining the study suggests that the most crashes involving bicycles and cars occur where cyclists share lanes with cars on major streets where parked cars are present.  In other words, the biggest risks are being hit by an opening door (getting “doored”) or by a car moving out of a parking space into the travel lane.  If the number of cyclists I see riding with a foot or two of parked cars is any indication, a lot of riders don’t take this threat seriously.

Of course even if we install bicycle infrastructure in Richmond that rivals the best in the country, there will be streets without sharrows or lanes where the cyclist has to judge independently where to ride relative to the parked cars.  On narrower streets in Richmond, like in the Fan and downtown, that often means riding in the middle of the lane, or at least five feet or so to the left of the cars.  Remember that even if you’re far enough to not run smack into a door, it could still knock you out into the path of a car behind you.  Or your evasive maneuver could lead you to veer out into traffic.  You need to be far enough out that you would not need to swerve if a door opened suddenly.

Cycle tracks carry the least risk, according to the study.  Situations without parked cars and other facilities separated from cars — paths and traffic-reduced bike boulevards — also increase safety a lot.  This is where we need to be aiming our sights in Richmond: cycle tracks or bounded/buffered bike lanes that separate cyclists from parked cars and traffic on major streets; bike boulevards in more residential areas like the fan and Church Hill, and bike paths or greenways where possible.

Although it did not involve a situation with parked cars, Richmond has unfortunately seen yet another cyclist fatality, this time on Mechanicsville Turnpike.  The RTD reports that the investigation is still underway, but we know that a 65 year-old man was traveling southbound on a bicycle when he was hit and killed by a panel truck.  This is precisely the kind of suburban arterial road that is often the most dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians, because they are built only with car traffic “throughput” and little else in mind.

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