|Cyclists can ride on this five lane 50 mph (80 kph) street, as traffic permits|
In "Bicycle Commuting Tips: The Myth of Blood, Sweat, and Tears," I made the case that the main doubts that people raise to me about bicycle commuting don't really hold up on examination, and the true benefits of it outweigh the costs. When I wrote that post, I really did believe that bicycle commuting is much simpler than non-cyclists believe. Just get on a bike, and ride it to work, is really all that it is needed.
While that may be true, it is not a complete or decisive picture. Not many people ride their bikes to work, one can clearly observe. About 1% in Phoenix, is the current statistic. So what's going on?
Well, I may have been accurate regarding the essential, factual nature of the mechanics of bicycle commuting, or bike riding in general, but I failed to address the perceptions underlying the objections. Perception, you see, is reality. Fail to understand the perception, and you fail to understand the reality. And I can tell you, based on dozens of conversations, whatever the mechanics of bicycle commuting are, the perception is that it is dangerous. Really, really dangerous. As in, you have to be crazy to ride out there on the streets, with all those cars. Usually, said by people who drive those cars, so they ought to know, I guess, and in any case believe that they know, because they drive all the time.
With proper training and technique, the mechanics of riding a bicycle on those streets, with all that traffic, can actually be pretty safe. I've had close calls, and I can see the basis for the concern, sure, but what's really the source of the perception? What's actually going on? And how could I be basically right about the mechanics of bicycle commuting, yet so far off the mark when it comes to the perception of it?
In one of my favorite posts, "The Fruit of Error," I made the point that the source of advances in understanding is often mistakes which are understood as such, analyzed, and evaluated. My mistaken understanding of bicycle commuting, based on a lack of appreciation for the common perception of it as dangerous, led me to ponder, for a long time, on many, many rides on these busy streets, if there is a core, or underlying, concept which actually supports the perception. Is there a common principle at work which actually agrees with, or supports, or nurtures, the perception that bike riding on streets like these is dangerous?
To boil it down to its most basic form: if you get on your bike and ride, what's the first problem you run into which supports the perception that it's a crazy dangerous idea?
I found the answer in an innocuous-sounding phrase in the book "Effective Cycling." This post is not about that book, nor is the concept a key or core theme in the book, even though it possibly should be, because for me, it represents the entire program. The little phrase embraces the present reality of cycling in America in three simple words: As Traffic Permits (ATP).
At first, you notice ATP when it's time to merge, or turn, or cross, or take the lane, or enter or leave a bike lane, and then eventually you come to realize that when there's traffic, which can be most or all of the time when you're commuting by bicycle, more or less everything you do is ATP.
In my experience, a lot of my own successful and even fun bicycle commuting involves communication with hand signals, lane position, predictable and legal movement, patience, etc, and gaining the "permits" in ATP can be a two-way dialogue. I get it, and it can mechanically work, and I generally feel safe doing it, although much less so on the busy, fast street in the photo. But again, this is not about the mechanics of it working, or how I feel about it after several years of practice, but rather the root of the perception. Imagining a novice rider coming up to the stop sign on an entering side street here, on 44th Street in Phoenix, at rush hour, I'll tell you the root of the perception that it is a crazy dangerous place to ride a bicycle: As Traffic Permits. ATP.
When the cyclist approaches the stop sign, they instinctively realize that to cross this street, or to turn and merge onto it, or to do pretty much anything related to moving on or over it on the bicycle, all of it is ATP. Mechanically it can be done, of course, but the perception is that it requires Traffic to Permit the action. Sometimes this just means a gap of sufficient size opening, while other times it involves actual permitting by a driver, to yield. In any of these cases, however, there is one very accurate and key truth about the perception of of the danger of ATP: get it right and it mechanically works, but get it wrong, in any way, and at 50 mph it ends very badly, very quickly.
At 50 mph, a moving object covers 73 feet per second (or, at 80 kph it covers 22 m/s for you metrics out there). Which immediately indicates the central, fatal flaw with ATP: if any of the key parts of ATP are misjudged or misaligned, the speeds involved mean the mistake is potentially fatal very quickly. If the "As" part, the timing, is misjudged, if the "Traffic" part, the sum of the vehicles moving on the road and the gaps between them, is not accurately and instantly assessed and converted into an effective moving mental map, if the "Permits" part, the gap or ability for the bicycle to make the desired move is poorly judged, death is very possible and only a moment away, and our perception grasps this reality without hesitation. The margin for disaster or death is a split-second, in the ATP world. If it takes five seconds to assess the current traffic state, decide if Traffic Permits, and cross, the assessment needs to take into account five lanes of traffic at a distance of almost 400 feet in both directions. That's intense, and daunting, however you look at it.
ATP, As Traffic Permits, is in effect wherever cars and bicycles (and pedestrians for that matter) mix. It is particularly in effect where there are bike lanes, a reality which is seldom explicitly understood, even while the perception of danger is still present. ATP includes the scenario of vehicles crossing the painted line, which they sometimes do with terrible results, as happened with the death of 53-year-old Shawn McCarty at 4:30 on a recent sunny afternoon in Scottsdale. Traffic did not permit, and he had little or no chance of knowing, and little or no time to react. But more generally, ATP comes into play in bike lanes wherever motor vehicles and bicycles mix through entering, leaving, crossing, turning, merging or diverging, all of which are common and necessary maneuvers on our current streets, with or without bike lanes, in fact. And all of them ending up having ATP at their center. To complete the maneuver safely and successfully, an accurate split-second ATP calculation must be made by the cyclist certainly, and often by the involved motorists as well.
The only successful alternative I have seen to ATP are the comprehensive and holistic cycling infrastructure and laws such as those enacted in the Netherlands, and Denmark, for example. ATP is not the way to go, if you want or need more than 1% of your citizens to cycle to work, or if more people want to cycle, but are stifled by the perception that it is crazy dangerous to do so on the streets we currently have. ATP is bull.
|The reality of ATP: traffic does not permit. It fills up the space available to it, and moves as fast as it can.|
Motor vehicle traffic consumes all the space that is opened to it, clogs it up, and travels it as quickly as possible. It does not permit. It excludes. ATP nurtures in the mind of potential cyclists the not-wrong perception that it is crazy dangerous to venture out into it on a bicycle. Yes it is economically easy to obtain a working bicycle. Yes it is quite simple to get on it, and ride it to work. All true. But not the full story. The full story takes into account the strong, engrained perception that ATP is bull feces, from a safety assurance perspective. Ultimately, this is a perception of motorists, by motorists, who know what they know. And they know that it is crazy to trust in ATP, to rely on split-second decisions, to place your life into the hands of their distracted texting and tweeting kind.
This has led me to the realization that true separated infrastructure, a physically separate system of bicycle roads, bridges, tunnels, and signals, along with laws and practices which enforce strict motorist liability along with vulnerable user recognition, is the way to go. True Cycling Support (TCS) is what is needed to address the perception of crazy road danger and nurture the key perception of subjective safety, not ATP.
Any program, any technique or cycling methodology, any road feature or new paint, any enhancement or project which relies on ATP, actually ensures that more people will not cycle, as it perpetuates the problem by perpetuating the perception that the streets are dangerous places for cyclists.
One of the greatest aspects of cycling is that it can be a cheap, simple way to enjoy and experience the freedom of movement, of travel, of exploration, and discovery. In fact, and as I said in my Blood/Sweat/Tears myth post, the actual mechanical and economic barriers to get on a bicycle and go for a ride are trivial. However, the first, the and greatest, barrier that one will encounter that will interfere with that freedom and undermine that simplicity is ATP. The rub is, ATP is generally not intended to be that barrier. Right? It's meant to be, and is, a guideline for using the car-choked roads we have.
Intended or not, though, ATP is the first and most significant barrier to achieving the sense of subjective safety required to overcome the perception that cycling on those roads is crazy dangerous, the engrained perception which stands between potential cyclists and the freedom to move around and explore their own world on their own terms under their own power. So intentional or not, ATP has to go, and needs to be replaced with TCS. To overcome ATP as a barrier to freedom, all citizens should give due consideration to the matter of what True Cycling Support would actually entail.