Monday, March 2, 2009

Ride Safely: Rule #1 Build a safe route

A couple of years ago, I wrote a stream of thoughts on riding safely. At the time, I was motivated mainly by the growing group of people at work that were starting to ride their bikes in to work. Our peer pressure was really working! Unfortunately, some of them were having some serious challenges. In just a couple of months, we had stories of fist fights, collisions with cars and dangerous mechanical failures.

I sent this stream of thoughts out to everyone I knew who was riding or considering riding. The feedback I got was really unexpected - most of them read it, and I got loads of suggestions of feedback. Shortly after that, Ted started this blog and suggested that I blog a bit about safety. This entry is the first of a set I'm planning. Please add your own experiences, comments and corrections.

Why listen to me?
In 1999 I told the sales guys at the .COM I was working at that I was going to ride my bike in to work every day until they closed one of the deals in their "pipeline". OK, so they never got the deal done, and I'm still riding! Since I began riding every day, I have had my share of accidents, close calls and altercations as you can imagine. I use all these incidents as tools to manage my safety. So you should listen because I managed to simply live through 10 years of riding every day in one of the most hostile cycling environments anywhere: riding in Seattle.

Rule #1: Build a safe route
On February 4, Kevin Black was killed on 24th Ave NW near NW 65th st. I knew Kevin pretty well. Our children go to the same school and we encountered each other for years as we dropped the kids off at school on bikes. Kevin and I shared similar commutes - we were both commuting from Ballard to the University of Washington. Kevin worked there, and I was catching a bus there that took me to Bellevue where I worked for about 4 years.

Kevin and I didn't actually use the same routes though. At that time, I generally flew down 24th ave to NW 55th then to Ballard Ave. Kevin's regular route was to take NW 75th to 8th Ave and take that to Leary. He told me that he stayed off of 24th ave NW unless he was in a real hurry because 24th was so "bloody dangerous". I took his advice and changed my route to use 32nd ave NW to get south instead.

Commuting routes are all about statistics. You simply cannot predict and defend yourself against all random sorts of chaos on the streets. You have to reduce the chaos by picking safer route. Here are some things to guide you in choosing a safe route:

Reduce the number of cars that pass you
Take a stretch of your route, and for 1 week, count the number of cars that pass you on that stretch. Find a route that minimizes this number even if it takes you an extra 5 minutes to get to work. I have 2 basic routes to work, and 2 coming home - a safe one and a fast one. On my fast route to work, I have counted a weekly average of 86 cars passing me. On my safe route to work, I have counted a weekly average of 12 cars passing me. Going home, my fast route has an average of 136 cars passing while my safe route has an average of 5.

I am not suggesting that cars passing you is always dangerous, this is just a variable of your commute that relates to safety. Reduce it and your commute will be statistically safer.

Time is not that important
I mentioned this above, but it is so important that it merits repeating. You are riding to work on a bicycle. It is not going to be the fastest way you can get to work. A car or bus will almost always be faster. Put things into perspective when you choose your route. Adding an extra 5 minutes for a dramatically safer route is statistically going to improve the quality of your life.

Ask other cyclists
Don't just hop on a bike and start heading to work for the first time using your normal car route. Find people who ride in your area, at your job, or at the local bike shop and ask them about safe routes. Drill into details like where have accidents occurred, and how are routes different at different times of the day. Get a street map and pencil the route on it or add it to veloroutes.

Different routes for different situations
Your morning commute will very likely be different than your afternoon one. Also, commutes in low visibility situations (dark, foggy or rainy) may be different than your normal one.

Constantly retool your route
Each day, you will encounter new incidents. Use these as feedback to alter your route if you can.

Use your safe route
I do not suggest that you have a safe route and a fast route like me. That is playing with the odds. If you need to get home or to work fast, think about other options like a ride with a friend, or on the bus. Riding your safe route more often increases your odds of safety. On the flip side, the more frequently you use your fast route, the more likely it is that you will have incidents.

1 comment:

Ted Diamond said...

Thing is, I've found that the older I get, the more I hate riding with a lot of cars passing me, so that lines right up with avoiding cars for safety's sake.

Another benefit for me is that, without having to be constantly on guard against swarming cars, I can find interesting things on my ride. No that I zone out completely into la-la land, but when I get to work or home, I feel I've actually ridden somewhere, seen something. And in Sodo, there's just no end to interesting things.