Why Are Cyclists Stressed and What Cities Are Doing About It.
As an “arterial road refugee”, I dodge in and out of my lane, avoiding trash bins and debris in my designated 4' wide swath of land, meandering around potholes and other disturbances towards my destination, trying to time my movements to coincide with the light change. Avoiding the noxious chemicals accosting my face, I attempt to find the balance and trip duration and safety, oftentimes opting for comfort as the means of my routing.
Let’s face it, cyclists can be faced with enormous amounts of stress, direct exposure to pollutants and have usually been an afterthought for how we design our roads.
In fact, most roadways are too stressful for most cyclists.
How come our roads are only designed for a small fraction of cyclist users? Imagine what our roads would look like if they were designed for only the “brave” car owners.
Unfortunately, this scenario is what cyclists have to deal with in a number of major American cities. Most roadways in cities cater to the 3-7% of cyclist who are brave enough to make it a mode of transportation.
Too often cyclists' mobility needs are not considered and that is why all too often we hear the following --- “I don’t feel comfortable biking to my friend's house” or “I would bike there but the ride is too stressful and I don’t want to show up sweaty.”
Well unfortunately for Americans our cities have been literally ripped up to be designed solely for the automobile (anybody remember the LA streetcar?). In the mid 1920s, the term “jay-walking” was created and effectively banned citizens from using roads as we’ve known them (vox.com). Streets used to be the home to neighborhood sporting events, the sale of goods, and a place for people, cyclists and carriages, all coexisting in the same shared space.
Federal funding was scarce for active transportation modes and have not been given their fair share of support in terms of dedicated protected space, let alone equal amounts of funding.
Many of our streets are incomplete. Framed in this manner and beginning in 2003 with cities such as Boston, engineers and planners started to shift their focus to completing streets’ and to consider all modes present along a corridor.
YAY!, WE HAVE MORE FUNDING, BUT WE STILL GOT PROBLEMS
Increases in crashes, more users to be aware of (micro-mobility) and our desire to reduce our carbon footprint are just a few reasons for more dedicated and protected space. However, despite the increase in dedicated space for active transportation and shared-mobility, fatalities and crashes have been a constant issue for cities around the world.
Most major cities have a vision zero policy, dedicating funds to strategize how to eliminate deaths on roadway systems. But not every country has struggled to get close to these ambitious vision zero policies. The city of Oslo in Norway was able to virtually eliminate their pedestrian and bike deaths by slowly curtailing vehicular traffic through much of the urban core (Curbed). In some instances, a shared street environment enabled a safer street as it made everyone conscious of other movements and helped to slow the speed across the corridor without sacrificing much in terms of collective user delay.
Source: US News
IF WE’D DESIGN IT BETTER WE WOULD HAVE MORE USERS
Why are we designing bike facilities for only 4-7% of the users? Better design empowers cyclists creates a complete streets environment for everyone to enjoy. And this has been proven true by a 13-year study of over a dozen cities. Almost astonishingly, researches estimated that a road with a protected bike facility in a city would lead to 44 percent fewer deaths and 50 percent fewer serious injuries than an average city (USA Streetsblog). If this study is as thorough as it states it is, this research should be serious ammunition for a rapid expansion of bike facilities, especially with the uptick (67% year over year on the NYC Citi bikes, for example) in cycle trips during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A BIKE MAP VS. THE CYCLE EXPERIENCE
It is important to differentiate what a cyclist actually feels on the road versus a bike map. In order to do this, level of stress became a widely accepted standard for measuring the facilities comfort level for cyclist. Developed in 2012 out of the Mineta Transport Institute, cities are now beginning to classify their roadways facilities and allowing users of the facilities ability to chime in.
Source: Alta Planning
Beyond level of stress, it is important to appropriately define the bike user experience. Personally, I feel this is more important than the user experience of a vehicle because bikes can interact with a space much differently from cyclist to cyclist. Cyclist are more exposed to the elements and need appropriate shade, especially in the summertime. Dismounting at stop lights requires the user of street furniture, pressing an actuator to use a crosswalk and other small amenities which can impact the overall user interface.
As an example, I often times "stand tall" while riding in a bike lane where I feel uncomfortable, hoping a broader stature somehow equates to enhanced visibility. I feel like a sitting duck at two intersections on my usual ride home. The lack of striping and three other vehicles adjacent to me gives me the impression that I am alone in a space designed to feel unwelcoming to anything other than a vehicle. Because this arterial roadway serves vehicles traveling onto a major highway (average daily traffic is between 17,000-18,000 vehicles a day), vehicle speeds often times exceed the posted speed of 30 miles per hour. Back-in angle parking on the road usually exceed their allotted space, further cramping the minuscule 4 feet of space separating cyclists from an onslaught of dangerous metal boxes. The City of Austin has a level of stress classification to each major street, which is a great first step towards identifying and prioritize problem corridors. The City adopted a bike plan in 2014 and recently updated the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan in 2019 which calls for a 50;50 mode split between single occupancy travel and other modes. In order to this, an expansion of facilities accommodating all ages and abilities will be crucial towards hitting these goals and defining the level of stress is a key metric in this process. However, upon closer inspection, this added classification did not transfer well into their city generated map (shown below).
Shown on the right, you would observe that there are some lower comfort roads crossing Mopac from west Austin into downtown. When you look at the map generated on the left by someone who routinely uses these roads, I would describe both major crossings into downtown (Enfield and 5th street) as having sections of extremely low comfort. "Helpful sidewalks" are facilities which cyclist can use at times but can create for awkward merge areas back onto asphalt which can cause confusion for all users. Additionally, a number of "high-comfort" areas are not actually high comfort at all times of day. I typically avoid some of the high-comfort facilities at night due to high-homeless activity, poorly lit facilities which has led to a crash with a poorly parked scooter. Some parts of the Shoal Creek trail are "typically" high-comfort, aka off-street paved facilities but the lack of width in some areas creates for potential traffic jams where I have seen some close call crashes with pedestrians and cyclists.
Fortunately for Austin, proposition A and B has opened up over $7 billion dollars worth of funding for public transportation and bike facilities, which will hopefully address these issues and allow for a rapid expansion of the all ages all abilities, but as you can see, a bike map does not always tell the full story.