Thursday, April 23, 2009
Many cyclists, especially ones with less "hardened" experience on the road, often assume that if there is a bike lane, like a driver in a car lane you should ride down the middle of them. Usually the arrow on the ground follows this assumption. However most bike lanes in Los Angeles, and Santa Monica is no exception, place bike lanes with a majority or even the entirety of the bike lane, directly inside what is commonly known as the door zone. This creates the illusion of providing ample space for cyclists, however at any time a latte sipping crack berry typing motorist can swing their door open with out looking, and completely shatter that illusion of space and possibly shatter parts of you if are unable to respond in time.
Car door collisions are a common source of fatalities and serious injury for cyclists. Door impacts come by surprise making them hard to avoid if you are deep within the door zone, and although they lack as much impact as being hit by a moving car, in a worst case scenario being doored can push or knock a cyclist into the path of oncoming traffic that is not expecting a flying cyclist to fall in front of them, which is where the real serious injuries, and worse, occur. In addition to the door problem, you also have to keep an eye out for the sudden dart out without signaling when motorists leave parking spaces, although these are easier to spot. Tell tale clues of a driver about to leave a parking space are brake lights, reverse lights, and the turning of the front wheels, or gasp, they might actually flip the knob so the blinky light can warn others of their intentions, but that is too hard for most people so don't count on it.
In both door hazard and pulling out situations, an important clue mentioned in the comments which I also do my self (and am now retroactively inserting into the post using magic blog powers) is too look for heads through the windows. Although it can be tough to spot in long lines of cars, especially at night and of course vehicles with tinted windows obscure if anyone is inside. I hate tinted windows, even when I was a driver who only occasionaly rode a bike, but that is another rant...
Also be aware of motorists getting ahead of you and then cutting you off from the right, to park or to enter a driveway, known as a "right hook", since no one, I doubt even most police officers are aware of California Vehicle Code 21717, which specifies that automobiles are to merge into a bike lane before turning right, and NOT cut across the bike lane causing an unsuspecting cyclist to t-bone into the car if they are not given enough time to brake or avoid. This is how I got in my first and only accident with an automobile, luckily walking away with only a sprained thumb.
Most conflicts with motorists can be avoided while riding in the bike lane, if you assume the bike lane is actually only a few inches wide and at the far left side just before the normal lane of traffic. You may worry that being that close to the left side might get you hit from behind, but collisions from cars approaching from behind in the same direction are one of the most rare of bike collisions, and tend to be less serious since your momentum is traveling in the same direction. Also motorists can more easily see you riding in that position. In a few cases of exceptionally bad road engineering, where the entire bike lane is inside the door zone of even a compact car, the safest place to ride may actually by outside the bike lane all together.
By law you are obligated to ride in a bike lane where one is provided, but with exceptions for; leaving to make a left turn, avoiding a hazard in the bike lane, or passing another cyclist. To me a car door, even if it is not open at the moment, is a hazard in the bike lane because you can't always anticipate when it will open, and you should never assume a motorist is paying attention to what they are doing. On roads without bike lanes, motorists usually take more caution when opening a car door, because another car could fly by and smash their door, or a bus driver may rip it clean off, something some bus drivers call "catching a door". However since bike lanes tend to be lighter traveled, and the travelers in the bike lane are also lighter, and more squishy, motorists are more likely to not think twice before blindly opening their door since their self preservation is not as threatened. I seriously doubt any malicious intent on the part of most drivers, except perhaps some radio talk show hosts, but ignorance can injure or even kill just the same. A group working to combat this ignorance through web promotion and stickers formed last year called Anti-Dooring, if you are interested in learning more about the issue.
Now before I let you think that I do not appreciate the bike lanes being there, even if they kind of suck, let me explain why I prefer to ride on bike lane routes despite the short comings. Streets with bike lanes usually feel safer to me, particularly in Santa Monica, and I attribute the primary reason for this is more to do with the fact that people use the bike lanes, than any engineering of the bike lane it self. By creating a space that clearly defines that cyclists belong on the road, more people are empowered to ride there, and cyclists who are already comfortable on the road may prefer to ride there. This creates a stream, albeit still small at this point, of cyclists on the same road. Studies have shown in cites around the world, the most influential factor in improved safety for cyclists is more cyclists, since it creates a culture of understanding where motorists become accustomed to bikes being there, and look for their presence. However this sense of safety should not make you complacent, since anyone visiting Santa Monica from somewhere else without regular cycling, or a careless local, could be sitting in that car ahead of you and swing that door.
Santa Monica has also done a few other things right that other areas in Los Angeles have not, to make their bike lanes safer. First of all most bike lane roads in Santa Monica are on streets with only one lane of traffic in both directions, which creates a less competitive and more evenly paced rate of travel for most automobile traffic on the roads. This is also makes it considerably easier for cyclists to get over to left turn lane. Second of all, with a few exceptions, nearly all the bike lanes and routes are not on streets with bus routes. Anyone who rides Sunset Blvd. through Echo Park and vicinity can tell you what a death trap it can be at times riding the bike lane along a road with heavy and frequent bus traffic. By having a bike lane on Broadway, and a Big Blue Bus route instead on Colorado one block over, you eliminate the problem of buses cutting across bike lanes to drop off passengers.
The bike lanes here aren't great, but they are better than nothing, which is unfortunately what most cyclists have to deal with in L.A.. Hopefully future bike lanes or any restriping of existing roads could nudge things a bit more in favor our safety, but if the new bike lane in front of city hall is any indication we will continue to see almost good bike lanes. Maybe someday we can get common sense legislation like Massachusetts has adopted recently to specifically target careless door opening with citations. In any case, ride safe out there, and see you in the bike lane.