Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Cars vs Cyclists

with 9 comments

This post is prompted by two articles on the vexed issue of cars and cyclists trying to co-exist on the same roadway.

The first is in and makes the point – unhelpfully – by stating the obvious “When cars and cyclists clash, cars always win”. The car is bigger, heavier and its driver is much better protected than the cyclist. So in a collision the cyclist gets hurt worse. That doesn’t mean the car “wins” – nor does might make right. While there are some drivers who hate cyclists and think they should not be on the road, there are even more drivers who care about other people, and cyclists themselves – who would rather have a safer place to be than most of our roads as presently designed and used.

Some of the citycaucus piece describes first hand experience – in Toronto but that hardly matters since most places in North America are the same in this respect – but also refers to the Michael Bryant incident. And concludes

If any good is to come from the death of Darcy Allan Sheppard it’s that Toronto will get serious about cycling safety.

I think that is unlikely. That is because Bryant is now asserting his innocence, and as CBC tv last night pointed out, it is all about how the PR people handle the incident – not the incident itself. For if the cyclist can be seen as an aggressive attacker and Bryant merely trying to defend himself, then the incident takes on a whole different meaning. As that comment I linked to above by Kelly McParland says, bike lanes had nothing to do with it.

Which brings me to the second article from Seattle which reiterates a point I have made more than once here. Sharrows are a sham solution for bike lanes. They do not actually mean anything or change anything.

Perhaps the ultimate word on sharrows comes from the City of Seattle’s own website, which today answers the question “What do sharrows mean for motorists and bicyclists?” with this damning bit of faint praise: “Motorists: Follow the rules of the road as if there were no sharrows… Bicyclists: Follow the rules of the road as if there were no sharrows.”

Exactly the point — so why waste the paint?

The reason the paint is there is because it is cheap and easy to do – and gives the appearance of doing something. It enables the city to claim that it has increased cycling facilities when it reality it has done nothing of the sort. In fact it is like most paint on the roads – and the signs and other clutter that engineers have been adding steadily over the years. They are almost completely ineffective in achieving their stated objectives as, over time, everyone simply becomes less aware of them. Even the one line that people do pay attention to – the one that shows the middle of the road and what side you are supposed to be on – gets ignored as soon as there is an obstruction that people want to get around.  Indeed that is where the whole idea of “naked streets” comes from.

If we are going to continue to allow cars to dominate our lives – and our urban spaces – then separate bike routes are really an essential component simply because of the reality that road space that is not shared is not safe for cyclists – or pedestrians for that matter. But that also accepts the notion that cars now have the greatest share of the trips and therefore must be given the greatest share of the space. It is this shift from the descriptive to the normative that is the error. The situation that we now find ourselves is not only not one that should be continued it is also one that is not desirable either. It suited car makers – and other corporate concerns that make money out of car use – to convince us that having and using cars would make us happy, that it would produce a growing economy and improve general well being. But any objective assessment of what near universal car ownership has brought us throws a much different light on what still appears to be conventional  wisdom. Even if we only look at the casualty rates of collisions and ignore all the other social and environmental impacts.

Yes I want to see much safer streets for all users. But I also want to see the spaces in between the buildings used effectively for  a much wider range of activities – and not just for moving some people through as quickly as possible. We have accepted the argument that speed is good – and thus higher speeds better – uncritically for far too long.  Since cars are not going to vanish overnight, and there will be many people striving to come up with better cars that are safer and have lower environmental impacts, we need to come up with strategies that civilize car drivers – that is make them more aware of their impacts on the rest of us. And that does not mean painted symbols on roads, or bigger stop signs. It means drivers having to accept that in a crowded place they need to give way every so often to other road users.

For far too long we have tried to keep the roads free for fast moving traffic. That has not worked, and now we need to do something different. There is no one size fits all solution and we should be very wary of anyone who proposes seemingly simple solutions  to complex problems. Just like building freeways does not solve traffic congestion, building bikeways does not eliminate all conflicts between vulnerable and protected road users. We need a better understanding of how people interact – and the shared street experiments provide a lot of useful data – but also a more determined approach that sees streets as part of a complex urban ecology. Better design will be part of it, but so will better behaviour. And we will also need to wary of adapting the physical structure of places to take account of the exceptional circumstances when one or two individuals behave very badly indeed.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 3, 2009 at 10:14 am

9 Responses

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  1. “Sharrows”! I hadn’t seen that before, and it took me a minute or two to figure out what it was supposed to mean. A silly name for a sham idea. Perfect!


    September 3, 2009 at 10:40 am

  2. Personally, I’d rather have a sharrow than nothing (at least it alerts drivers to the fact that I have a right to be where I am). I’d really like physically separated cycle tracks, but until we get the budget (and political will) to roll those out, I’ll take what I can get, including sharrows.


    September 3, 2009 at 11:11 am

  3. The best bike lane i have seen in downtown Vancouver so far is the one on Carrall street as the parked cars separate the bikes from the car traffic (in other words you have the traffic lanes then a parking lane then the bike path and finally the sidewalk). Unfortunately this is also one of the less likely to be used bike path as it it short and goes from nowhere to nowhere.

    Red frog

    September 3, 2009 at 11:19 am

  4. LB – there is no evidence that sharrows “alert drivers” – or indeed do anything at all

    RF and LB – by going for “physically separated cycle tracks” or “The best bike lane” you concede that cars can and should occupy streets to the exclusion of other users. You effectively condone Mr Toad’s bad behaviour – and leave the road to him.

    I accept that some separated facilities may be useful and necessary – but I do not accept that roads are only for cars. Furthermore it is essential for the creation of better places for human beings to live in that we reduce the impact of the automobile – and we start that by first taking away space from cars, then we make car drivers less comfortable and more aware of others by the techniques described in the wikipedia “shared space” article I linked to.

    Stephen Rees

    September 3, 2009 at 12:13 pm

  5. To me, the only purpose a sharrow provides is if someone yells at me for not hugging the curb, I could say back “but look at the sharrow”. But that’s never happened to me on a sharrowed road, so I haven’t gotten to pull that quip out yet. Maybe there is some harm here too, perhaps then the yelling driver would get the false impression that non-sharrowed or non-bike-laned roads are off limits to bikes, or that they must hug the gutter/door zone there.


    September 3, 2009 at 12:23 pm

  6. I need to go for a walk and see Carrall up close, but I don’t recall seeing any parking along the newly renovated portion near SkyTrain. I thought the former parking lanes had been completely replaced by the bike lanes plus landscaping. That’s a great design for moving people, but obviously such a scheme would never be built anywhere with a significant BIA voice because merchants would complain a street without parking is a street without customers. Of course nobody drives into a store, they walk, but business organizations have an amazing ability to ignore that simple fact.


    September 3, 2009 at 1:45 pm

  7. When the Burrrad Bike lane was implemented I did notice a number of cars make sudden lane changes on eastbound Pacific in the block east of Kettle of Fish – i.e. out of the sharrowed lane to the unmarked lane. But I think that drivers now know that it’s a shared lane.

    I think that the Michael Bryant case is an unfortunate isolated incident with what appear to be a number of factors all colliding (what’s the expression I’m thinking of?).

    Ditto for the other recent Toronto cycling incidents:

    Pedestrian killed by cyclist on sidewalk
    (apparently not an offence because the wheel diameter was too small):

    Cyclist rides turns left and hit by streetcar:

    Ron C.

    September 3, 2009 at 5:21 pm

  8. Stephen you are right…this is why in other countries new bike paths, instead of being on a sidewalk or.. are taking the place of 1 car lane. There is a concerted effort (with pedestrian areas, bike lanes, trams, etc.) to discourage single occupant cars from driving in the downtown are of a town and use public transit instead or walk or bike.
    Obviously here we can’t do that until we have fast transit across the whole city. Not likely right now as there is no will and of course no $$$

    Red frog

    September 3, 2009 at 9:41 pm

  9. Well there’s LOTS of evidence that no sharrows fails to alert drivers to my right to the road (outside the door zone). I’d give sharrows a chance (i.e. they’re new, over time drivers will learn what they mean).

    If we need to quote studies for our opinions to have any valididy: this study shows that sharrows “significantly improved both motorists and cyclists positions in the roadway”:

    If you don’t like that study, I can only give you antecdotal evidence that as a chicken cyclist, I prefer to ride on sharrows than nothing.

    The reality is that the vast majority of people will not cycle with traffic. Show me a city with a significant mode share of cyclists that does not have physically separated bike lanes. There isn’t one. Copenhagen and Amsterdam and Stockholm are clearly showing us what it takes to get a broad cross-section of people cycling. And sharing the road with 2ton, 250hp vehicles is not it.

    (Stephen, I certainly am not saying that road are exclusively for cars, I’m saying exactly the opposite – that we need to carve out space for cyclists like we do for pedestrians.)


    September 9, 2009 at 2:18 pm

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