Monday, September 12, 2011

Scofflaws by Design

I recently attended an event on bicycle facilities in San Francisco at which Andy Thornley, Policy Director of the San Francisco Bike Coalition, gave a great presentation on how our challenge is to design bicycle facilities that work not just for serious cyclists, but for everyone. In order to draw this distinction, he showed a few slides distinguishing between people on bicycles—businessmen and women in work clothes on their way to the office, a mother toting her kids on an Xtracycle—and spandex-clad racers and tattooed bike messengers. One of these compared a “scofflaw,” riding the wrong way up a one-way street, to a “lawmaker,” bike-riding Supervisor Eric Mar. I nodded in agreement. After all, in order to meet our climate goals, we’re going need a significant shift away from driving toward other modes, including bicycling, and cycling is never going to take a bite out of driving unless we re-design our streets to appeal to normal, law-abiding citizens who are currently intimidated by the prospect of riding in traffic.

Then, on a ride the other day, I ran a red light. And not just any red light: it was a red light at the intersection of Scott and Fell Streets, which is located along one of San Francisco’s most popular bike routes, the Wiggle. 

The city has done a lot of work to improve this intersection for cyclists. Fell is a busy one-way street running east with a bike lane on the left side of the street, and the city has striped a dedicated left turn lane for the many cyclists who head north on Scott and turn into the bike lane on Fell to head toward Golden Gate Park. However, the city overlooked a crucial detail: the light at Scott and Fell doesn’t stay green for traffic on Scott very long, and there is often a queue of southbound cars heading straight through the intersection that makes it difficult or impossible for cyclists to turn left during the green cycle.

Most riders seem to do what I did that day, and took an illegal left on red. When I looked around, most of my fellow lawbreakers didn’t look like the bike punk scofflaw in Andy’s presentation. Instead, they were what I’ll call “scofflaws by design:” riders who are generally law-abiding, but who end up breaking the rules on poorly designed streets.

This distinction between illegal behavior where the traveler is to blame and illegal behavior where the designer is at fault has a precedent in the world of transportation. Traffic engineers distinguish between the posted speed limit and the design speed of a road. The former is a number on a sign, while the latter refers to a set of physical variables, such as the sharpness of curves and the length of sight lines, which determine the maximum speed at which a vehicle can be operated. Though police can hand out the occasional tickets to drivers who exceed the speed limit, if you really want to slow down traffic, you have to change the design speed.

Likewise, if you want to get normal people bicycling, you have to design your bicycle facilities for normal people. The City of San Francisco has determined that the design speed for utilitarian bicycle travel is a steady 13 MPH, and has timed the signals on an eight-block stretch of bike-friendly Valencia Street accordingly. Contrast that to California Street in Berkeley, which is designated as a bicycle boulevard, but has stop signs every block or two, requiring cyclists using the street to either expend much more energy and travel slower, or roll through the stop signs. The former option isn’t that appealing, particularly to normal people who have places to go and don’t necessarily want to show up all sweaty, so they become scofflaws by design.

Once I started noticing scofflaws by design, I realized that they’re everywhere—rolling through stop signs, maneuvering through crosswalks in complicated intersections, and hopping onto the sidewalk when a bike lane disappears on a busy street. While I wouldn’t necessarily argue against a police officer ticketing any individual cyclist who risks taking the law into her own hands, I do think that planners, engineers, and designers need to recognize the distinction between plain old scofflaws and scofflaws by design. Understanding where our bike facilities fail normal, law-abiding people is an important first step in designing cities that get more normal, law-abiding people riding.

If you have examples of bicycle facilities that encourage scofflaws by design, please reply to this post with pictures or links to Google Map views. I’m interested in collecting other examples of cases where our cities turn normal cyclists into lawbreakers.

No comments:

Post a Comment