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'Bike There' not just for cyclists

March 02, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Uncategorized

Providing bicycle route directions on Google Maps will make cyclists safer, but it will also make automobile drivers and pedestrians safer. Here’s how.

The diagram below is a snapshot from the Google Maps Satellite view of a section of Alma Street in Palo Alto, California, overlayed with some illustration by an expert diagrametician (me). :-) What is shown is a not-so-uncommon scenario along that stretch of road, which lies between downtown Palo Alto and California Ave - a bicyclist, cars, and pedestrians.

Two lanes in either direction - no shoulder - no bike lanes, and a small buffer zone on one side with a sidewalk on the other side of that buffer. This situation is very dangerous - I’ve witnessed it from behind the wheel of my car.

Dangerous situation for all - smaller

What happens is this - the cyclist doesn’t know that there is a bicycle lane/path on the opposite side of the railroad tracks, just to her south/on her right, and there is another bicycle lane a couple of blocks over, just to her north, on her left - on Bryant Street (Mid-Peninsula Bicycle Map (pdf)). Even without bicyclists, this road can get very hectic in a hurry, especially in any kind of inclement weather and during rush hours. If Google Maps made bicycle route mapping available, this cyclist would almost certainly be aware of these bicycle lanes and path, and she would use them.

It’s a bit difficult to get the proper perspective from just one picture, but the situation is actually very common across America, at least, and I suspect in other countries around the world. A cyclist can often feel ‘trapped’ - in this case, the cyclist sees nothing but railroad tracks to her right, and there is a neighborhood to her left, where she knows she can ride into if she’s interested in getting lost and never making it to her destination. So the only option left, she feels, is to ride as quickly as possible on this stretch of road which she very quickly becomes aware is not safe for her or anyone else. What else is there to do, really?

When she gets to work or school or wherever, she might remark to someone that part of her ride was dangerous, and maybe an experienced local cyclist will be able to help. That help may or may not include pulling out a gargantuan folded paper bicycle map - if you had access to an experienced local cyclist who happened to have a map on them. Or, that help might include jumping online and finding your town’s gargantuan PDF bicycle map and trying to figure out the safest way home that way. These situations are unlikely, not ideal, or some combination thereof. Google Maps can fix these problems by providing bicycle route information.

Back to the dangerous situation described in the picture, above — when a bicyclist is on this road, any number of things will play out - here are just four:

  1. Car driver just slows down and waits behind cyclist for some amount of time - probably longer than the car driver feels they should have to wait. Car driver eventually speeds around cyclist and may offer some ‘Good morning’-type pleasantries to the bicyclist for having slowed the car driver down, possibly informed the cyclist of his/her ‘lack of intelligence’, and may even offer a remedy for how the cyclist should go about fixing his/her intelligence problem. This situation may or may not escalate, may or may not include verbal threats of physical violence, the swerving of the automobile in the direction of the cyclist to physically threaten violence, etc.
  2. Car driver sees cyclist about to impede fast forward progress so speeds up and attempts to shift into left/passing lane ahead of the car on his/her left. This maneuver may or may not be successful, depending on any number of factors. A fun one to consider is when the driver already in the passing lane recognizes this same impending ‘traffic situation’ and speeds up to allow the car on his right to slide over into the passing lane without having to slow much - this means we now have two cars racing side by side towards the cyclist. Hopefully someone wins, because if one of them doesn’t, then the cyclist is going to be in major trouble.
  3. Car driver will have plenty of room to pass cyclist and will do so, and everyone is fine.
  4. The nightmare scenario - we don’t have to spell this one out. Any police officer or paramedic could detail what happens when hazardous road conditions and imperfect humans meet.

And while the bicycling conditions on this particular stretch of road might be hazardous, anyone who has ridden a bicycle around town, anyone who has driven a car that ‘got stuck’ behind a cyclist, and anyone who has walked a stretch of sidewalk along some crazy-looking roadway knows that these things happen all the time - possibly every day of your cycling/driving/walking life.

Bicycle routes shown directly in the core Google Maps service can make everyone safer. They will help us all lower our blood pressure. They can prevent road rage. They can give people more transportation options. They will help lessen traffic congestion.

Now, I have to plan my route to Zilker Park, where I’m going to watch the Zilker Park Kite Festival. Have a safe and happy day! :-)

8 Comments to “'Bike There' not just for cyclists”


  1. Kate Stange says:

    Hi,

    I agree that google maps for bikes would be great.

    But I *strongly dislike and disgree with* the implication that bicycles should not be on major roads. Bicycles are vehicles under the law and are legally allowed to travel on major urban roads. And they can do so safely! Some people may prefer not to, of course. And some people may do so in an unsafe way. And some drivers may behave badly (as in your situations above). But just because a bicycle is on a road and a car has to pass does not mean something is wrong. That’s just traffic.

    Kate.

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  2. I agree with Kate and want to add:

    1) It is not safer for the cyclist to ride on the side path across the street. It is unequivocally proven that side paths are more dangerous than the roadway, and riding against traffic on them increases that danger significantly.

    2) Cyclists do not have to cannonball down the road at a high speed to be safe. The cyclist has the fundamental right of first-come-first-served, no matter what speed she rides. And motorists are not going to run over her. If she uses her lane properly, they will simply change lanes and pass her.

    3) The offering of a dangerous situation is entirely based on fear of potentially dangerous behavior by motorists. Um, I’m sorry… why is that the cyclist’s fault? Furthermore, it doesn’t work that way. Watch this: http://www.cyclistview.com/laneposition.htm

    4) A multilane road likely offers a properly-riding cyclist a safer, more direct route and far more lateral clearance from passing traffic than the road with a bike lane. Many of us prefer multi-lane roads to bike facilities.

    5) What if the bike lane alternative (several blocks out of the way) is striped through a door zone or to the right of dual-destination lanes at high-conflict intersections? This would not only make it less desirable for a knowledgeable cyclist, it would make it dangerous for a novice.

    6) I think most of us can see what roads connect on a map. We can find our own alternatives that suit our riding styles. With the satellite view we can also see which ones are residential and even which ones have bike lanes. We don’t need a computer algorithm with no local knowledge or understanding of what makes a road cyclist-friendly to do it for us.

    7) Claiming that this “service” - ostensibly, removing cyclists from more direct routes - will reduce road rage, is ridiculous. We don’t address criminal behavior by removing the victims, we address it by removing the perpetrators.

    No, thank you! We don’t need uninformed people suggesting “safe routes” for cyclists. I don’t want routes chosen by a program that defaults to bikeway facilities with no analysis of the safety of those actual facilities.

    It’s also important to recognize that quiet, residential streets typically have lots of stop signs, making them less convenient. Motorists often do not make a full scan of the roadway before crossing and turning - they don’t expect any traffic, so they don’t really look. The quiet street can lull a cyclist into a false sense of security (as can a bike lane). I’ve had plenty scary moments from motorists running stop signs on quiet streets. It’s counter-intuitive to the novice or non-cyclist, but I feel safer claiming a narrow lane on a multi-lane road.

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  3. Peter Smith says:

    Thanks Kate - point taken.

    I think you and I might disagree on whether we should allow relatively-slow-moving bicycles on high-speed roads, but that’s a complicated discussion.

    As far as what is legal or not - I actually want to approach this whole situation from a ‘win-win’ perspective. I don’t think that for me to be able to get where I’m going quickly and safely that I have to take up a lane of traffic in downtown Whereeverville - which could cause auto drivers to have to slow down, become frustrated, etc., and ultimately oppose my cause, even if it’s in their best interests. Their interests are my interests - we need to work together.

    What I’m saying is that I care about that driver in the car as much as I care about any other person on the road - cyclists and myself included. Chances are that they’re just like me - working hard to take care of their family and make ends meet. I want them to pass me on my bicycle and think, “Damn - I wonder if I could do that, too?”

    But that’s not going to happen as quickly as I’d like it to if we buy into this ‘us vs. them’ mentality. In my opinion, the idea that we can or should be indifferent or worse to auto drivers’ experiences is not only morally lacking - it’s just bad strategy. And I’m not saying you feel one way or the other - I’m just there exists this righteous and angry ‘screw drivers!’ mentality that can, may, and probably already has dramatically slowed the growth of bicycling in the U.S., at least. Were it not for the incredible rise in oil prices, I wonder if this bicycle revolution would even be possible.

    So this is very much a strategy discussion where it is very possible that I’m in the wrong - but it’s very important, and we should all try to buy into what is the best way forward.

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  4. Peter Smith says:

    KC - I’m glad you’re publicly dissenting on the blog. We all have to think critically about how to fix our woes. I’ve put some responses in line.

    1) It is not safer for the cyclist to ride on the side path across the street. It is unequivocally proven that side paths are more dangerous than the roadway, and riding against traffic on them increases that danger significantly.

    >> I’m a little confused by this, but I think I can say this - there is a big difference between statistics and what humans actually feel (physically and emotionally) and see and hear when they’re cruising down a tight stretch of road. For me, I never rode down the stretch of road shown in the diagram - nor would I (save for emergency). This may be cowardly, it may be statistically proven to be more dangerous, etc. - but it was my choice.

    2) Cyclists do not have to cannonball down the road at a high speed to be safe. The cyclist has the fundamental right of first-come-first-served, no matter what speed she rides. And motorists are not going to run over her. If she uses her lane properly, they will simply change lanes and pass her.

    >> ‘Safe’ is only one indicator - and it can be misleading. Included in ‘safe’ should be a more complete definition - ‘Free from physical injury _and_ emotional injury - that is, free from being terrorized by pissed-off motorists’, as happened to me just the other day. We can have an academic discussion about what laws are written in which law books, but I’m tired of being terrorized. That’s just me.

    3) The offering of a dangerous situation is entirely based on fear of potentially dangerous behavior by motorists. Um, I’m sorry… why is that the cyclist’s fault? Furthermore, it doesn’t work that way. Watch this: http://www.cyclistview.com/laneposition.htm

    >> There are myriad road hazards that can cause a cyclist to end up in a compromising position, and be injured or killed. As for why more people don’t cycle, it’s one strategy to tell them that they’re all irrational cowards, but I’m not sure that’s a great idea. As for the video, we can discuss the relative merits of taking up an entire lane for a slow-moving bicycle. I think of situations where I’m going uphill at a strong 5 MPH. To me, I don’t think it’s fair to car drivers to have to wait behind me - legal or not - I’m just not interested in slowly all those drivers down - I want something better.

    5) What if the bike lane alternative (several blocks out of the way) is striped through a door zone or to the right of dual-destination lanes at high-conflict intersections? This would not only make it less desirable for a knowledgeable cyclist, it would make it dangerous for a novice.

    >> There are myriad ‘what ifs’ available to us. Obviously, any bad conditions we’d want to work to improve. That doesn’t change after Google Maps starts providing bicycle routing. I could imagine an easy-enough scenario where Google provides an ‘Avoid bike paths’ option. That’d work, right?

    6) I think most of us can see what roads connect on a map. We can find our own alternatives that suit our riding styles. With the satellite view we can also see which ones are residential and even which ones have bike lanes. We don’t need a computer algorithm with no local knowledge or understanding of what makes a road cyclist-friendly to do it for us.

    >> I’m going to post something tomorrow showing the process required to get from Point A to Point B using a typical bicycle map. It’s not pretty. If you just hate Google Maps, then don’t use it - you can still ‘find your own alternatives that suit your own riding style’. As for how smart or stupid a particular algorithm can be, or what local knowledge is known or can be known, I’d say that some software does a pretty good job at simulating and even bettering human decision-making, and the local knowledge would presumably be coming from locale-specific bicycle route information, put together by the city/town/county/region with knowledge of the local area.

    7) Claiming that this “service” - ostensibly, removing cyclists from more direct routes - will reduce road rage, is ridiculous. We don’t address criminal behavior by removing the victims, we address it by removing the perpetrators.

    >> I don’t care to remove cyclists from more direct routes - at least, alone. I’d just assume remove automobiles from certain direct routes, too. Whatever allows us be able to get to where we’re going safely, and without being terrorized - that option should be on the table. The ‘removing perpetrators’ sounds good on paper, but again, we’re trying to solve problems today, in the real world, and ‘locking everybody up’ is not a valid strategy for myriad reasons, the first of which is ‘enforcement resources’. Instead we need to work more on ‘crime prevention’ - and every option should be on the table. I’m not suggesting treating bicyclists as second-class citizens - just as equals, nothing more and nothing less, and with solutions that work for everyone.

    It’s also important to recognize that quiet, residential streets typically have lots of stop signs, making them less convenient. Motorists often do not make a full scan of the roadway before crossing and turning - they don’t expect any traffic, so they don’t really look. The quiet street can lull a cyclist into a false sense of security (as can a bike lane). I’ve had plenty scary moments from motorists running stop signs on quiet streets. It’s counter-intuitive to the novice or non-cyclist, but I feel safer claiming a narrow lane on a multi-lane road.

    >> I see your point, and I say ‘to each his own’. For me, give me the residential streets, unless I’m in a hurry. There’s no reason to believe that the Google Maps team couldn’t pull this off, and pull it off better than anything we could have expected - with options for bike paths, hills, etc. In fact, if it wasn’t even going to be a significant challenge, why would engineers even be interested in it? :)

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  5. Peter Smith says:

    Post about stressed out motorists doing battle with cyclists:
    http://bikecommutetips.blogspot.com/2008/03/ventura-pedaling-for-planet.html

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  6. Peter: I think characterizing “taking the lane” as antagonistic towards motorists is just flat wrong. I have 35 years worth of urban cycling experience, and I’ve found that lane position has virtually no effect on motorist belligerence. Motorists who hate bicyclists give me a hard time whether I’m on the edge or in the middle of the lane. Heck, I’ve even had drivers bitch at me when I’m in a bike lane.

    Taking the lane rarely has any real effect on motorist delay. The exception would be a narrow 2-lane road with heavy traffic in both directions. But on multi-lane roads the time it takes for the driver to get a gap and change lanes is irrelevant compared to the stop-and-go of signals and other impedences found in urban traffic. A bus stopping every few blocks to pick up and drop off passengers creates much more delay than a cyclist does.

    The problem is the Perception of delay, not real delay, and there’s no way I’m going to sacrifice my safety or mobility or access or quality of life because some nitwit thinks he’s going to get home 10 seconds earlier if I’m not “in his way.”

    As I mentioned at the ChainGang blog, I’m not against getting good information to people; we just need to avoid misleading them into believing bikeways are the most effective solution to their safety concerns.

    Check out my study of bicyclist/motorist crashes at:
    http://www.metroplanorlando.com/site/upload/documents/Bicyclist_Crash_Study_OrlandoArea.pdf

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  7. Peter wrote: “Whatever allows us be able to get to where we’re going safely, and without being terrorized - that option should be on the table.”

    Perhaps, but one has to be careful that one’s strategy to minimize “being terrorized” — which is an exceedingly rare event — does not in turn put one at risk from the much more common and mundane mistakes that motorists make. Given the choice between positioning myself to mitigate the potential motorist pulling out into my path from a sidestreet (which often entails “taking the lane”) — and positioning myself to keep mentally unstable people from getting angry at me (hugging the curb or riding on the sidewalk) — I’ll always choose the former.

    There is another environmental factor that may be difficult to account for with web mapping: crime. (Yes, I know crime maps are available, but then we’re into yet another realm with tons of variables.) A woman I know chose to use a collector road with narrow lanes for her commute because the more lightly-traveled parallel two-lane street alternative went through a bad neighborhood. I have no doubt she was quite safe from a traffic standpoint; no way I would want to recommend she subject herself to the stress — let alone risk — of cycling alone through a rough neighborhood.

    There is just no replacement for on-the-ground experience.

    Which leads me to another idea. Instead of using criteria such a widths and speeds and bikeways, let real-world cyclists rate the streets themselves, and even make specific comments. There could be a simple scoring field that would allow for the averaging of scores, and a comments field.

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  8. Peter Smith says:

    Thanks Mighk,

    when you mention ‘perceived interests’, i think you’re exactly right.

    as far as ‘web mapping’, in general - i think there’s something very important to point out. a lot of folks are worried (lots) that the Google Maps team would have to be stacked with bicycling cyborgs of some type - able to know about every one of the thousands of variables that affect traffic safety and be able to know about them and appreciate them in intimate detail for ever single street and intersection and bump and crack in the road that they could possibly suggest a route for, in every city and town in America and around the world - nothing could be further from the truth. Austin has a bicycle map. If the map says its safest routes are death traps, and then provides that data to Google, then we’ll have a lot of dead cyclists in Austin very soon. But if Austin’s bicycle map largely makes sense - if it was created by humans over years - tweaked - fixed - updated - by the local government, by local cyclists and local advocacy groups - and Austin provides this bicycle map data to Google, then Austin cyclists will be a lot safer very soon, and there will be a lot more of us very soon.

    as far as crime and other details, that is exactly how I think of them - details. that’s not to minimize how important any particular factor may be in determining the ‘safety’ of a bicycle route - whether it’s lane width or crime or traffic speed - it’s to put the responsibility where the responsibility belongs - on the group and/or agency submitting the mapping information to Google - and this is exactly where the responsibility belongs - local control. Right now, Google gives us directions for motorized vehicles and mas transit, and they do it based on information provided to them by a range of sources (I’m guessing) - do they take the crime rate of some particular area into consideration? I doubt it, but I suppose it’s possible. More likely, in my estimate, is that they just use the information that they’re provided and do the best they can with it - and it’s making a lot of people very happy.

    So, I’m with your ideas of letting real-world cyclists rate the streets themselves - in principle, etc. - but that’s what I believe bicycle maps are. They’re imperfect, you will never get 100% agreement from folks, but they are generally solid and accurate representations of what the local cycling community believes are valid places to ride your bicycle in relative safety and comfort, with marked streets, etc. Could user-driven content via online ratings tools, etc. be better than the existing bicycle maps that communities have created and refined over years by thousands of real-world cyclists and government workers and advocacy groups? Possible, I suppose. I’m not against looking at it in the future - for now, though, I just want something that works for 99% of us cyclists, and will allow the millions of Americans who _want_ to be bicycling to get out of their cars - right now, it’s just not realistic for most Americans for any number of reasons, but I’d put ‘perceived safety’ at #1. This has to change.

    I’ll tell ya what, though - if we can’t convince Google to hammer this out for us, it’s going to be a heck of an organizing effort to try to produce an online solution that will make most of us happy enough to participate in it and support it. For my part, I don’t want something good - I want something _great_. I actually feel certain that Google could produce such a product for us, but if not - we’ll do it. And we’ll need lots of valid input and criticism and participation and work - so please stick around for the ride! :)

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