Another danger of at-grade RR crossings: bike crashes

One at-grade railroad crossing in Knoxville, Tennessee illustrates the danger such crossings can present to bicyclists:

As many riders know from painful experience, crossing rails embedded in the street is a treacherous undertaking on a bike. There are at least 100,000 at-grade rail crossings in the U.S., not counting city trams and streetcars (which are also notorious for taking down cyclists). But it’s tough to gather data on how many crashes they cause because so few are communicated to the authorities. “The work I looked at, we saw people getting hauled off on ambulances and other things, but very, very few police crash reports,” says Cherry. “There’s a lot of rail infrastructure throughout Tennessee, and I can only imagine how many unreported crashes are occurring statewide or even nationwide.”

That’s part of what motivated Cherry and company to conduct what they call the nation’s first “empirical analysis of rail-grade crossings and single-bicycle crashes.” To them, the problem wasn’t with the cyclists. It was with the roadway design and the fact nobody knows, scientifically speaking, the best way to bike over railroad tracks….

Most experienced riders know the ideal way to do it: As the folks at Bicycling say, cross at a 90-degree angle. That’s the “gold standard” many infrastructure designers strive for. But in cases when the crossing has gaps running in different directions, it might be best to pedal through at 45 degrees. Of course, all this is more complicated when metal tracks are wet, a situation that can turn even a savvy cyclist into a hollering missile directed fast into the pavement…

After pondering a 90-degree crossing that would cost $200,000, partly due to the route being near a river and needing retaining walls, the city and the railroad company settled on a cheaper, roughly 60-degree “jughandle” detour on the side of the street where people were tumbling into traffic. “The total cost was $5,000 for all of that, which is unbelievable, really,” Cherry says. “This has been years in the making, with probably hundreds of crashes there, and it took $5,000 worth of in-house crew time and materials.” (The city later made the path on the other side, located on a greenway, angled to about 60 degrees.)

In addition to bicycles, at-grade crossings are notoriously dangerous for cars and pedestrians. All would do well to pay extra attention when crossing these, even if they are familiar or rarely involve trains. For example, there are several crossings I can think of within a ten mile radius that involve either extra bumpiness, steep approaches, or multiple train lines crossed at once.

While the solution above for bicyclists seems pretty simple, the long-term goal of reducing the number of such crossings is an expensive proposition. It is costly to build bridges and underpasses since in addition to the typical costs of building a bridge or underpass, a solution requires using more land (I recall a proposal to build an overpass in downtown Wheaton that would have obliterated a good portion of the downtown just to provide the necessary ramps) and it can be expensive to construct something while still allowing traffic through (even if roads are closed, trains have a much harder time finding alternative routes).

The difficulties of thief-proofing a bicycle

A recent summary of bike lock techniques in Citylab were ultimately depressing: determined thieves can get to your bicycle in many different ways.

So what can be done? A few ideas:

  1. Why aren’t there more companies trying to provide solutions? Several innovative ones are presented in the article:

There’s also a prototype called the Skunklock that, when tampered with, sprays chemicals “so disgusting they induce vomit in the majority of cases,” according to its makers. For the well-being of the community, Grajales doesn’t recommend using this one…

When out and about, Oakland bike advocate Francisco Grajales always tries to use BikeLink, a national service that operates stainless-steel lockers around transit hubs and other cyclist-friendly locations. The amenity is extremely cheap, renting lockers for 5 cents an hour, and offers nice protection in the form of cages resembling those that wall off divers from sharks. “I’m willing to walk a half-mile or something to my destination from the BikeLink just for that added security,” says Grajales.

It seems like there is some money to be made here.

2. A somewhat obvious answer is to have more eyes on bike racks and other locations where bicycles are frequently stored. Paid attendants? Security cameras? Bike check-in centers? It seems like some organizations might want to have attendants if they are truly serious about promoting bicycle use.

3. Perhaps municipal bike-sharing systems – like Divvy in Chicago – can be more widespread. It is not as convenient as having your own bicycle from door to door but the costs of protecting and maintaining the bikes is done by the city or company.

Dutch cycling culture aided by 1970s protests against kids killed in car accidents

The Dutch are known for their bicycling. How exactly this happened includes some interesting tidbits, such as the 1970s protests against cars (as told by Wikipedia):

The trend away from the bicycle and towards motorised transport only began to be slowed in the 1970s when Dutch people took to the streets to protest against the high number of child deaths on the roads: in some cases over 500 children were killed in car accidents in the Netherlands in a single year.[10] This protest movement came to be known as the Stop de Kindermoord (literally “Stop the Child Murder” in Dutch).[10] The success of this movement — along with other factors, such as the oil shortages of 1973–74[11] — turned Dutch government policy around and the country began to restrict motor vehicles in its towns and cities and direct its focus on growth towards other forms of transport, with the bicycle being seen as critical in making Dutch streets safer and towns and cities more people-friendly and liveable.

In the United States, over 32,000 people were killed in car accidents in 2015. The number was over 40,000 less than ten years ago and deaths in accidents peaked at over 50,000 a year in the early 1970s and late 1970s. (See the data going back all the way to 1899 here.) So where are the protests in the United States? A few reasons why the experience of the Dutch may not be replicated here:

  1. Americans love to drive. They have since the car was introduced. We have designed our lives around cars (think single-family homes with garages, highways, fast food, the vast system of gas stations, etc.). Could people protest about something they like?
  2. Mass movements in the United States where people turn out to protest in large numbers are relatively rare.
  3. Americans are willing to take risks in areas that other people in the world are not. Maybe it is due to a love of driving, perhaps it has to do with emphasizing individual freedoms.

It is fun to imagine Americans taking to the streets against cars…what exactly would it take? For some reason, I suspect they might protest more because of really high gas prices rather than high number of deaths by car accident.

Better ways to signal pedestrian crosswalks

The death of a cyclist recently in Mount Prospect has led to an examination of how to stop drivers for walkers and bicyclists:

Using data from studies of 16,716 vehicles at crosswalks equipped with amber beacons in seven states, including Illinois, researchers found on average 72 percent of drivers yielded to pedestrians. Interestingly, only 33 percent out of 1,402 vehicles yielded in Illinois.

Drivers tended to stop more frequently if the amber beacons were located overhead instead of alongside the road, near a school or transit stop, and on roads with fewer lanes, the study stated.

A different Federal Highway Administration report found a huge gap in drivers obeying amber beacons at crosswalks that ranged from 19 percent at one site in Illinois to 98 percent at a Colorado location…

Meanwhile, another type of crosswalk signal with a red light offers a promising track record. Known as a pedestrian hybrid beacon, the device typically hangs over an intersection and is dark until someone presses a button activating a yellow warning light, then a red beacon for drivers.

Studies of 3,504 drivers in Texas and Arizona showed 96 percent on average stopped.

All the road signs and traffic lights in the world will not lead to 100% compliance from drivers. Of course, some solutions are more effective than others. Later in the article, an expert explains:

“Traffic engineering is harder than drivers may think,” Fitzpatrick said.

Another problem that could be solved with self-driving cars. Until then, cyclists and pedestrians have to be really careful with cars driven by humans who can have all sorts of reactions to people crossing the road.

First segment of “bike autobahn” opens in Germany

Following up on an earlier post, the first part of the “bike autobahn” recently opened in northwest Germany:

Last month, Germany opened its first stretch of “bike autobahn,” a cycle route that will eventually cover 100 kilometers (62 miles) between the northwestern cities of Duisburg and Hamm. The autobahn moniker (the German term is actually radschnellweg) may sound over the top given that so far just five kilometers of the route have been launched. But the plan’s ultimate scale and ambition is not to be denied…

The idea nonetheless has real potential for medium-length journeys, pushing the limits of frequent daily bike use out from the (now well-provided-for) inner city into the suburbs and wider regions. Munich isalready planning a network like this one, which will stretch from the historic center out along 14 protected two-lane paths through the suburbs into the surrounding lake land. Germany’s fourth city, Cologne, has a smaller plan for a similar bike highway out into its western exurbs.

When it comes to extending this idea from metro areas to tracks between cities, the new Hamm-Duisburg route is ideal. It will pass through the most densely populated region of Germany, the Ruhr region, where a network of industrial cities lies scattered at only short distances from each other, interspersed with forest and farmland. When complete, the route will bring a string of cities into 30 minutes cycle distance of each other—almost 2 million people will live within a two-kilometer radius of the completed highway…

The main sticking point is cost. The full cost of the new Ruhr highway will be€180 million, funding that is not yet in place for the whole route but which should ultimately come from a blend of municipal and provincial budgets. Elsewhere, not everyone is convinced the benefits of projects like this outweigh the expense. A Berlin bike autobahn plan, which would link the city center with the southwest area, is facing resistance from opponents who say that, as as a link primarily used in good weather, it would do little to relieve pressure on existing rail links.

The portion that just opened – and the planned sections for Munich – seem to be primarily about commuters. If you have several million people within easy distance of these new routes, the bike autobahn could get significant use. It would be interesting to also know the ongoing maintenance cost of such paths; compared to laying down roads which need regular repair (and complete overhauls with several decades), these paths might be relatively cheap in the long run.

I do wonder how the commuters might mix with more recreational users. Perhaps the times of use might be slightly different but paths like these could attract both people who want to get to work and others out for exercise – all at varying speeds. Perhaps Europeans who are already more interested in bicycling around cities could handle this better than Americans who often use bike paths for recreational purposes.

Planning bicycle-only highways in Munich

Officials are looking into constructing 400+ miles of highways for bicycles:

The ambitious plan calls for a network of 14 two-way bike paths, each 13 feet wide and fully segregated from automobile traffic, that would spread out over an area of about 400 square miles. No crossroads, no traffic lights. It’s an autobahn for cyclists, or, as the Germans obviously call it, a Radschnellverbindungen

The Radschnellverbindungen is designed to do for bikes what highways do for cars: make traveling long distances more efficient and pleasant. Cyclists will be able to ride at about 12 mph, Kastrop says, without the need the need to slow down then get back up to speed at intersections. There are no nearby cars to worry about, and with wider lanes, you don’t risk getting stuck riding single file behind some slowpoke…

This idea of networks made for bike commuting has been catching on lately. As usual with this kind of thing, the Netherlands is out in front, with 28 long-distance, cyclist-only paths, according to City Lab. London’s planning a network of “direct, high capacity, joined-up cycle tracks.” Copenhagen’s got a “bike skyway.” Paris’ $160 million plan to boost cycling includes five proposed “highways” that will be almost entirely protected from car traffic, on some of the city’s biggest corridors, including the Champs-Elysées.

Building the Radschnellverbindungen’s not a done deal yet. Local authorities must approve the project before construction starts, and it won’t be cheap. The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung pegs the estimate at $1.75 million per mile.

Three quick thoughts:

1. It would be interesting to see what it takes to plan such paths around existing infrastructure like roads, rail lines, power lines, and other obstacles. To not have any interruptions on the paths could require some ingenuity.

2. Would bicycle highways require their own rules of the road or traffic laws? You don’t want riders in the middle of the paths or riding three abreast. What happens when needing to make an exit from the path?

3. If you are curious about the cost per mile of construction, one group estimates it costs $8-10 million per mile of highway construction in urban areas.

Collecting data to see if cyclists break traffic laws more than drivers

Cyclists and drivers often do not get along but which group breaks the law more? Some researchers are hoping to find out:

These questions about sociology and infrastructure point to a more nuanced picture of what’s happening on city streets than most heated rhetoric — darn law-breaking bikers! — allows. Marshall, who co-directs the Active Communities Transportation Research Group with Kevin Krizek, wants to research this scofflaw behavior, why people say they do it (drivers and cyclists alike), and when they don’t.

As part of this research project, they and Ph.D. student Aaron Johnson and Savannah State’s Dan Piatkowski are running a survey that they hope will gather broad data on all of our behavior (go ahead and help science out here, even if you’re not a cyclist yourself).

Most of us, whatever mode we travel, break the law at some point, Marshall points out, whether we’re driving five miles over the speed limit, or crossing the street against the crosswalk. And yet, we tend not to treat lead-footed drivers with the same disapproval as cyclists who ride through stop signs, even though the former behavior is potentially more publicly harmful than the latter. Which raises another question: Are cyclists really more prolific scofflaws than drivers anyway?

More data on the scofflaws inside all of us could potentially help create safer streets, even, Marshall imagines, more productive public debate about how cars and cyclists coexist. There is some evidence, for instance, that cyclists may be less likely to ride the wrong way down one-way streets and more likely to wait at red lights when they’re given dedicated bike paths. This would make sense for a number of reasons.

I would like to think that having more data would solve the issues and help both sides look at the situation more rationally. However, I suspect both cyclists and drivers might prefer more anecdotal stories that privilege their own perspectives. People on the roads tend to get angry with the people right in front of them rather than with abstract groups. However, the data could be used to change the infrastructure – more bike lanes? more regulations for cyclists? Roads with no markings or separation from the sidewalks? – which then might have more direct effects.