The Wrong Side of my Car

A blog about Auckland City, its streets, and culture shock

3 Nov 2015

Figuring out again how a bicycle works

Here in Auckland, riding a bicycle is a distant memory at best. Something people did once upon a time, before the industrial revolution. Or back when the animals were still speaking. Or something else long time ago.

So it’s not really surprising to see warts like this in the newspaper:

A bicycle registration system will be introduced so that future cycle lanes will be built when the fund accumulated from cyclist registrations allows for it.

That’s one David Rankin running for council. So I think he’s serious (correct me if I’m wrong). What about this idea:

Restore the access to all the volcanic peaks as it existed in 2011

Yeah sure. Anyone who has ever driven his car up one of those peaks during a sunny summer weekend knows how stupid that idea is.

But I digress. You know there’s trouble when people start talking about bicycle registration, and seriously think it’s a good idea. I guess after being on a car-only diet for too long everything starts to look like cars, and these little things about driving a car—like you need a license, a rego, etc.—just seem normal things for everyone underway on our streets.

But no, they all have a reason, specific to the fact you’re driving a car, and not a Segway or a step or a bicycle. Applying what you know about cars to other transport leads to all kinds of weird ideas.

When you realize that a bicycle is in fact not a miniature car, it’s easy to debunk these ideas.

idea #1: we need registration for bicycles

We, the car drivers, pay taxes in the form of car registration, fuel taxes, the occasional toll, etc. Why are bicycles not required to pay for their bicycle lanes?

Actually in the near future they are on at least one point: The harbour bridge will be the only bridge in the world where cars can pass for free, while bicycles and pedestrians pay a toll. It’s already happening.

So why do we have to pay taxes when we drive a car?

Roads are expensive to build and maintain. Most cars weigh over 1000 kg. The larger SUVs can weigh over 3000 kg. And trucks obviously can be even much heaver. You can’t just pour tarseal on the ground to make a road. It will sink right into the ground under the weight of traffic. A road needs thick layers of foundations to withstand that weight. Even then, roads will wear out within a couple of decades. Roads are expensive, both to build and to maintain.

A bicycle doesn’t weigh a couple of tonnes. Not even close. So bicycle paths don’t need that kind of strength. And if you ride a bicycle on the road, you’re simply not heavy enough to do any damage. How many potholes do you see in dedicated bicycle lanes?

Cars also take up a lot of space. Notice how a bicycle lane is much more narrow than a car lane. If there would be a lot of people cycling, you could count the number of bicycles and cars passing by. You may have two car lanes and only one narrow bicycle lane, but even then you’ll find a lot more bicycles than cars are able to drive by. And usually a lot faster during rush hour.

And square meters are expensive too in a city. An extra meter of road width takes up 1000 m² for every kilometre. If land goes by $2000/m², well, you can do the maths.

Sure, bicycle infrastructure costs money too. But that cost is so low it’s not worthwhile to go to the trouble collecting it. Compared to infrastructure for cars, it’s almost like a rounding error on a transport budget.

But wait, did you know that about half of the money spent on maintaining local streets comes from general rates? In other words, those bicyclists are already paying for your roads. So you can stop complaining about this one.

idea #2: we should have a bicycle driver license

Or is it more correct to call it a rider license? Why would you need a license for a car and not for a bicycle?

Once again, once you realise we need a driver license for cars in the first place, it’s easy to see why:

I mentioned before that cars are heavy. They also move fast, over 100 km/h on highways. If one of those ends up going in the wrong direction, it’s going to do a lot of damage. A bicycle on the other hand usually moves at below 20 km/h. If you run into someone with a bicycle, the most likely outcome are some bruises and scratches. With a car, the most likely outcome is death.

You can teach a 10-year old child how to use a bicycle safely, even on the street. We don’t need bicycle riding licenses because using a bicycle safely is so easy.

But we won’t let the same child drive our car, for a good reason. Cars are dangerous. You need a license to drive a car for the same reason as why you need a license to buy a gun 1. Using either one improperly will get either yourself or other people killed. So the government wants to ensure that people driving cars know what they’re doing. If it is successful in achieving that goal is a somewhat contested issue, but at least they’re trying.

(*1) 

Yes, I know about the USA. And I still think having a gun without having a license is stupid. A gun is nearly useless if you haven’t learned how to aim properly.

idea #3: we should enforce strict traffic rules for cyclists too

Yeah, what is it with all those bikes crossing on red?

Road rules have been with us for a long time. The rule to keep to one side of the road has been with us since at least the Middle Ages. Or since the Roman Empire, depending on who you ask. Give way to the right is another one of those old rules.

But the intricate system of traffic rules we know today, that only came to be with the rise of the automobile. Turns out, it’s really difficult to drive a lot of cars in a constrained space like city streets without accidents. So we had to come up with all sorts of complex new rules, in an effort to keep the death toll of car traffic in check. Without automobiles, we simply don’t need them.

The next time you take a stroll on Queen Street, stop at one of the crossing with one of the other big streets, like Victoria or Wellesley Street. Wait until the pedestrians get green light.

These crossings have what’s usually called a Barnes dance over here. Meaning you can cross diagonally. The most interesting thing happens in the middle, where the two diagonals cross. Look at it. Look at the four streams of pedestrians going to that same point.

If you’re a traffic engineer, things will now get very scary. Four flows of free flowing traffic on a collision course, without any signalling or priority rules to regulate them. Are we going to get accidents? Will people get maimed or killed?

oh dear…

Probably not. Relax. Keep watching the flows. Watch them almost magically pass right through each other. Maybe there is the occasional bump, but these don’t do much damage. Pedestrians need no traffic rules to avoid carnage.

This comes back to that point that cars are fast and heavy. The combination of high speed, lots of momentum and finite reaction times means you have a limited amount of time to react to surprises. And a lot of traffic rules are there to avoid these surprises.

Bicycles are somewhere in the middle. You need a few rules when a lot of people ride their bicycle. But nothing like the strict rules needed for cars.

By the way, there’s more to that story about bicyclists running red lights. That was in the newspaper a while ago. What they didn’t tell us is that many of the red light runners were actually crossing through a Barnes dance. A car is too clumsy to drive through this mass of pedestrians without accidents. But on a bike it’s possible if you’re careful. It’s definitely safer to share the road with pedestrians than with cars, as would have been the case if the bicyclist had waited for green light.

idea #4 bicycles should be banned from car-free zones

Aha. This one makes a bit of sense. It’s called pedestrian zone after all. Sure.

But let’s take a step back and ask why cars are banned, and why that’s such a good thing. Contrary to popular belief, the shops and restaurants fronting these streets don’t go bankrupt when you take away the parking spots and car access 2. Quite the opposite. So what makes these spaces so special?

Two pictures:

High Street

Eliott Street

So which one looks like somewhere you’d go on a Saturday afternoon?

The first one? Not me. You can’t really talk to each other because there’s hardly room to walk side by side. And with all the traffic noise it would be quite awkward too. If you have kids you have to watch them all the time to make sure they don’t get hit by a car.

What if there are no cars on the street? Now all of a sudden you can just relax. It’s no problem if the kids run away for a few metres. And what if the shop is on the other side of the street? Just go there. Crossing the street only became so awkward after cars came along.

The difference between those two pictures is how much space is allocated to cars. Cars have a way of dominating the street, squeezing out everything else by the sheer amount of square metres they take up. By the way, you may recognise that second experience from when you went to the mall. Malls are our replacement city, built after cars made our actual city inhospitable for humans.

So will bicycles dominate the street in the same way as cars? Not really. They are not nearly as fast and heavy. They don’t take nearly as much space. They don’t produce all that noise and exhaust gases. They can ride fast enough to be a hazard to pedestrians, but nothing that can’t be solved with a bit of courtesy.

(*2) 

Note to Europeans: Don’t laugh. Ask your parents if they remember the protests back when it happened in your country.

So before spreading your ideas:

You can’t just treat bicycles as some kind of car. It doesn’t make sense. A typical car weighs 1300 kg and moves through a city street at 50 km/h. While a typical bicycle + rider weighs less than 100 kg and moves at maybe 15 km/h. Please give that a bit of thought before coming up with those ideas. It may save you quite the embarrassment some day.

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