Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Narrowing the Spectrum of Street Users

I’ve written several times about “Twenty is Plenty”, an initiative in many towns, mostly European but spreading toward U.S., to reduce speed limits on most streets to 20 miles per hour.  A recent sidewalk encounter gave me another reason to think that Twenty is Plenty is an enlightened concept.

One of my first household tasks each day is walking an elderly Golden Retriever.  Tyson will turn 15 in a couple of weeks.  (There are several different equations for converting dog years into human years.  By the equation I find most reasonable, Tyson’s 15 years will convert to 80 human years.)  At his age, he struggles with mobility and breathing, but a quiet amble around the block gives him needed exercise.

Also, it gives him a respite from sharing a house with two younger, rambunctious dogs.  He can stop and sniff a blade of grass as long as he wishes without another dog shoving him aside.

With his uncertain balance, a leash is often an encumbrance to him.  Plus, if he tries moving too quickly, falling down is the usual result.  So I let him walk unleashed much of the time.

Being unleashed, Tyson often finds a way to greet other early risers, wheedling for a kind word or a scratch behind an ear.  I usually try to keep him away, allowing his targets to continue with their mornings unimpeded, but he can be wily about avoiding my knee nudges.

Thus, a few mornings back, I was standing idly on the sidewalk with the leash folded in my hand, watching the old boy casually sniff an orange tree, when I was surprised by a handful of bicyclists streaming past me on the sidewalk, probably twelve-year-olds on their way to the nearby junior high school.

They were pedaling at a moderate pace, maybe 8 to 10 miles per hour and were giving me as much clearance as the sidewalk would allow.  However, my immediate concern was keeping Tyson, whose failing vision and uncertain hearing might fail to distinguish between a quicker-moving bicyclist and a slower pedestrian, from sticking his nose into the stream of bicyclists, seeking attention and getting a tire in his snout for his effort.

It was only as the last bicyclist slipped past and I secured a handhold on Tyson’s collar that I was able to direct an imperative toward the trailing rider, “In the street!”  To which his response, tossed over his shoulder as he continued on his way, was that his parents had told him the sidewalk was safer.

Well, of course the sidewalk is safer.  For them.  But their presence on the sidewalk greatly reduced the safety for elderly dogs taking morning moseys.  And perhaps also for the middle-aged owners tending to the elderly dogs.

Then I looked at the situation from the perspective of the parents.  If I had a twelve-year-old child, would I want him riding a bicycle on a street that is often a route for speeding and/or distracted drivers

And even if I could convince myself that a twelve-year-old would be okay on the street, what about a nine-year-old, the age at which bike riding to the nearby elementary might begin to seem appropriate?

I began riding a bike to school at age nine.  But my route didn’t include streets as busy as the street on which I now live.  And even then it took me only eight weeks to find myself lying in the street next to my bike with the skin scraped from my nose and a milk truck turning the corner toward me.  (You can tell my age by the fact that milk trucks were still doing home deliveries in my youth.)

As you presumably guessed, the truck driver stopped in time.  He also helped dust me off and send me on my way home, on foot, for cleanup and bandages. 

But the experience stuck with me.  And I’d have a hard time sending a nine-year-old on a bike into the street in front of my home.  And that would be a shame because I’d want that nine-year-old to have the personal freedom to find his own way to the nearby elementary school.  It’s even possible that, with training and safety warnings, I’d encourage the nine-year-old to use the sidewalk instead of the street, even if it endangered elderly dogs and middle-aged walkers.

I’ve previously written about the challenge of allocating street users across a right-of-way, recounting an anecdote from an Oregon project with which I was involved many years ago.  The problem is taking the wide spectrum of users, from senior citizens using walkers to inattentive drivers edging above the speed limit, and dividing them into two streams, one using the street and one using the sideway, in a way that minimizes the risk to all.

It’s not a problem with an easy solution.  And it finds me putting twelve-year-old bicyclists on the roadway with speeding motorists and nine-year-old bicyclists on the sidewalk, endangering seniors with walkers, neither of which feels right.

One way to simplify the challenge is to reduce the spectrum of street users.  Obviously, we’re not going to speed up seniors with walkers, but what if we slow the motorists?  What if we drop speed limits from 30 mph to 20 mph?  How does change the allocation of users?

Personally, I’d be more comfortable letting a nine-year-old ride a bicycle in a street where the speed limit is 20mph.  Not only is the speed differential between the cars and bicycles reduced, but drivers are more able to respond to bicyclists when traveling at the lesser speed.  And that change improves the safety for both seniors with walkers and elderly dogs.

All of which is consistent with what the Twenty is Plenty folks have been telling us for awhile.

It’s always interesting where encounters during early morning dog walks and the resulting cogitations will lead.  In this case, it led to a new way to justify that Twenty really is Plenty.

Next time, I’ll write about the relationship between urbanism and environmentalism, a relationship on which I seem to have a different perspective than some.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. We've talked before about the interchange at the Lynch Creek Trail to Deer Creek Village requiring cycling on the sidewalk, and how this has been the proposed solution when I've mentioned this to local bicycle advocacy types.

    (It's a little less bad to the Plaza North shopping center because a cyclist could merge on to McDowell Blvd southbound.)

    Separate infrastructure is "separate but equal" infrastructure, and the fact that we have separate infrastructure means that we're constantly trying to decide when one path is acceptable vs another. If there are sidewalks, drivers will demand that bicyclists use them, and pedestrians will ask that cyclists use the roads.

    If there are Multi-Use Paths mislabeled as "bike paths" (and unless the paths are actively patrolled and the pedestrians ticketed, they're all MUPs even when labeled "bicycles only"), drivers will get even more violent in confining cyclists to them.

    So: Yes. Around our homes and in our neighborhoods we need narrower streets, sloped curbs that blur the line between street and sidewalk, and speed limits that allow use of the neighborhood by more than just drivers.

    1. Dan, thanks for the comment. I've had other folks asking me about the terminus of the Lynch Creek Trail. I need to do some introductions. You could also attend a meeting of the Petaluma Ped-Bike Committee, although you'd be mostly preaching to the choir. However, if you have a solution to propose, that would definitely be the place to start.

      With regard to your comments on cars versus bikes versus peds, I agree that you've identified the points of conflicts, but I'm not sure that I see good or easy answers. If we ban peds from paths, we condemn them to sidewalks, which would often result in out-of-direction travel in uncomfortable settings. If we use roll curbs everywhere, peds are discomfitted by the lack of barrier between street users and sidewalk users.

      The decisions are challenging and most certainly non-intuitive. And we have a long ways to go before we find consensus. Although slowing traffic would be a big step in the right direction.

  2. I know it is expensive and difficult to retrofit, but having spent 3 weeks in the Netherlands in the lovely city of Haarlem I can report that having separated pedestrian, bicycle and auto paths is amazing. It just works so well (at least the way they do it in the Netherlands).

    In the cities and suburbs there are one-way bicycle lanes on either side of the wider roads, separated from the car lanes by narrow curbs or higher elevation. The sidewalk is differentiated from the bike lane by paint, a curb, or elevation. At intersections the light cycles control all three forms of traffic. On the narrower urban streets (often but not always one way) cars and bikes going the same way share a lane, which works because these lanes are so extremely narrow that cars go very slowly. Streets that are one-way for autos will usually have an opposite-direction bike-only lane incorporated.

    In the countryside there are two-way fietspads (cycle tracks) which are completely separated from the roads and which have a clearly marked pedestrian path included on one side. These create a cycling network that connects all the towns and regional parks, and also offer lovely walking opportunities.

    I can't speak to the driving experience there but as a pedestrian and a bicyclist I felt comfortable in every setting, from the most urban to the most remote. It was really life-changing to experience being a Dutch housewife for a few weeks, going everywhere on my second hand omafiets (granny bike) and doing my shopping by bicycle at the local cheese shops, bakeries and supermarket.

    If you ever have a few hours to kill, play around with Google Street View in the Netherlands. Of special note are the huge numbers of bicycles parked in front of every train station. In fact, there is good example of an intersection that we traversed almost daily, in front of the train station, with three separated (and separately controlled) paths: auto, bike and pedestrian. If you want to see it you can go to Google Maps and enter 2011 MH Haarlem, Netherlands and choose Street View.

    1. Raoena, thanks for the comment. I envy you the three weeks in the Netherlands.

      In the mid-1950s, my uncle and aunt took my three young cousins to the Netherlands for an 18-month work assignment. I recently read my aunt's memoir of that time and thrilled to learn about my nine-year-old cousin (now in his late 60s and newly retired) having the freedom to bike ten miles with a friend to the beach for a day of play in the sand.

      In the late 1940s, the Netherlands had the "advantage" of having few cars, little oil, and the need to rebuild massive amounts of infrastructure lost to the war. It's not surprising that a bicycle culture resulted. Although it's completely to their credit that they retained the culture even when times got better.

      I suspect there will be turning point when U.S. goes the same way, but I also suspect that we're not yet very close to that point.