Sunday, October 11, 2009

Cycling in Houston

The current issue of The Houston Press has a fantastic article, "Ghost Riders" by John Nova Lomax, about the dangers of cycling in Houston. "Ghost Bikes" are the term Lomax uses to describe bike memorials, the sites of where a cyclist has died that has been marked with a bicycle painted white. Lomax starts the article with the story of one such cyclist, Cisco Rios.
Rios wouldn't get to enjoy his revved-up bike for long. Pedaling down — or near, as accounts vary — the shoulder in the 7000 block Old Katy Road near the Hempstead Road fork at around seven in the dark winter evening, Cisco was rear-ended by a beer delivery van. He suffered massive head trauma and died at the scene — the 11th and last Houston-area bicycle fatality of 2007. "It was terrible," says Wurth. "I saw pictures of the accident scene. It threw him like several hundred feet. He just nailed him. There wasn't much left."

Today, a bike painted white hangs from a fence near where Rios died. Wurth placed it there — the first such "ghost bike" memorial in Houston. It wouldn't be the last.
I have seen that bike many times, but it appears to be gone. It was an unofficial memorial, and I suspect the property owners or city workers took it down. But I would like such memorials to remain in place to remind drivers to be careful of cyclists. Of course, the ghost bike memorial for Leigh Boone at the intersection of Westhiemer and Dunlavy remains.

Leigh Boone Memorial Pictures, Images and Photos

There are places that are more dangerous to ride and less dangerous. I have to say, I would be afraid to ride where Cisco Rios was hit. People drive really fast there, and it is a weird and confusing intersection with no stoplights or stop signs.
[Houston cyclists] will tell you that drivers here are at best inattentive and at worst aggressive, and that it gets worse the farther from the city's core you go. Longtime cycling activist Dan Lundeen frequently rides from downtown to Fulshear and Richmond. He says the city's ring roads correspond to levels of danger for cyclists, with the Inner Loop being the safest, inside the Beltway a step down and beyond Highway 6/FM 1960 the worst.

A map compiled by suburban bike commuter Peter Wang, admittedly drawn from incomplete data, would seem to bear out Lundeen's premise. Wang's data comes from the In Memoriam section of the message boards at the Web site of local advocacy group BikeHouston, to which locals send news clippings of every fatal accident covered in local media.
Only ten of the 44 fatal ­incidents took place inside the Loop.
 My guess is that there are two reasons for this. First is the most obvious--on average, due to the congestion and layout of streets inside the Loop, people drive more slowly there. The further out you go, the faster the streets get--and fewer alternative routes are available to cyclists the further out you go. Almost all the old neighborhoods inside the Loop connect up on side streets, so you can avoid getting on higher speed arterials except in certain bottleneck areas (crossing freeways or bayous, for example). But as you get further out, subdivisions are more self-contained and less likely to connect with adjacent subdivisions via the surface streets. So for a cyclist outside the beltway, there may be no "back route" to get from point A to point B--you have to take the arterial. And arterials out there are a lot like highways--think of Highway 6 or FM 529. They carry car traffic at high speeds--speeds that make it harder for drivers to avoid cyclist, and more fatal for cyclists when hit by a car.

The other reason is more subtle. There is a well-known phenomenon that people don't see what they aren't looking for. The excellent book Traffic by Tom Vanderbit suggest that this goes a long way towards explaining a lot of accidents. The phenomenon is known as "inattentional blindness." Drivers are paying attention to a lot of things at once, but not expecting to see a cyclist (or a pedestrian or a motorcyclist or an emergency vehicle or a road construction worker). So a driver hits the cyclist even though the driver should have been able to see him.
This attention disorder could also help explain the "safety in numbers" phenomenon of traffic, as described by Peter Lyndon Jacobsen, a public-health consultant in California. You might think that as there are more pedestrians or cyclists on the street, the more chances there are for them to be hit. You are right. More pedestrians are killed by cars in New York City than anywhere else in the United States. But as Jacobsen found, these relationships are not linear. In other words, as the number of pedestrians or cyclists increases, the fatality rates per capita begin to drop. The reason, as Jacobsen points out, is not that pedestrians begin to act more safely when surrounded by more fellow pedestrians--in fact, in New York City, as a stroll down Fifth Avenue will reveal, the opposite is true. It is the behavior of drivers that changes. They are suddenly seeing pedestrians everywhere. The more they see, the slower they drive, and, in a neatly perpetuating cycle, the more slowly they drive, the more pedestrians they effectively see because those pedestrians stay within sight for a longer period.

And so New York, when one considers how many pedestrians it has, is actually one of the safest cities in the country for walker. (Tom Venderbilt, Traffic, pp. 85-86)
Given this, the best way to reduce the rate of car-bicycle accidents is simply to have more cyclists on the road. Cyclists need to be a visible part of traffic. I suspect there are more cyclists (on a per capita or per road mile basis) inside the Loop than outside, which might contribute to the relative safety of the inner city for cyclists.

That said, I also believe laws to protect cyclists, like the vetoed safe passing law, need to be enacted and enforced. (That veto alone is reason to vote Rick Perry out--there are many others, though.) Houston needs better bike infrastructure--bike paths, real bike lanes (not the lame, dangerous ones we have here and there now), etc. Bike infrastructure should be designed espcially with the intent of giving cyclists alternatives to dangerous arterials in places where there currently are no alternatives (so at freeways, but in general outside the Loop and definitely outside the Beltway). And when the city or county announces a bike path, it needs to really build it--there needs to be a sunset provision and real oversight. Otherwise, we have the following situation.
[M]illions of dollars flowed into the hands of consultants and the people who consult about consultants. City Councilman and current mayoral candidate Peter Brown, an architect in private life, was hired in 1995 to helped design a bike trail along White Oak Bayou. In 2004, work had not yet begun, and he told the Houston Chronicle that the city had spent $6 million paying "program managers," as people who oversee consultants are called. Brown said the waste was downright "frightening." [The Houston Press]

Right now, when a driver hits a cyclist, there is usually no particular penalty.Obviously it is hard to tell who is at fault sometimes, and everyone gets a presumption of innocence in court.
It's a good thing Rios was remembered so well by the cycling community. The world at large hasn't treated him as well. The driver of the van was questioned by police and released with no charges filed, though he and his employer — Silver Eagle Distributors — were later sued by Rios's family. The trial was ugly. Picking up on his couch-surfing temporary lifestyle, the defendant's lawyers portrayed Rios as a vagrant with no fixed abode and a reckless cyclist who was to blame for his own demise. They contended with some backing from the police that he had no light on his bicycle. Rios's friends all say he bought a light several weeks before the accident, as the Night Rider All Stars had been stopped and warned by a cop in Memorial for not having lights at the time. And everyone who knew him said he was very cautious.

The Rios family lost. According to Rios's riding partner Ahmad Cherry, Silver Eagle's attorneys successfully argued that the driver was not on the clock and thus the company was not a party to any damages. Cherry says a suit is still pending against the driver alone. "I don't know what can come of that," he says. "Even if the guy loses, what are you gonna do? Take his CD collection? He's not an affluent guy or he wouldn't be driving a beer truck." (Neither of the two firefighters involved in the collision that killed Leigh Boone was charged with a crime, and the Boone family, not optimistic about its chances of winning in court against a city employee, has not filed suit.) (The Houston Press)
At least one of the firefighters was responsible, however.
Houston police will cite the ladder truck driver in Monday's collision of two firetrucks.
Officials determined that Warren Ducote ran a red light, causing the crash that injured 11 people. [This article was written before Leigh Boone died.]

Both Houston Fire Department trucks were en route to what firefighters thought was a blaze but turned out to be a Houston public works crew smoke-testing sewer lines.
The Houston police investigation determined that Ducote ran a red light while headed northbound on Dunlavy and was broad-sided by a pumper truck westbound on Westheimer.
Investigators determined that the pumper truck had a green light, Houston Police Department spokesman Kese Smith said.
"The ladder truck driver will be found at fault for failure to use due caution," Smith said. (The Houston Chronicle, April 5, 2009).
I can't prove it, but I get the feeling that cycle accidents are simply taken less seriously by the police. But that is something that would also change if there were more cyclists on the streets, because a lot of cyclists--just by being visible--can act as a consciousness raiser. We become more visible, and crimes against us become more visible.

So why the bike tirade today? Weirdly enough, it's in celebration. I just got a new bike, a Worksman Newsboy.

My new bike

It's a heavy-duty 3-speed bike with old fashioned rear brakes (the kind where you pedal backwards to stop) augmented with a front drum-brake. Worksman basically makes bikes for industrial uses (factories, warehouses, docks), but as I researched bikes, Worksman got really positive reviews, especially as a good bike for big guys like me. It is a very different bike from any that I've had. Unlike a mountain bike or a road bike, it's not built for "sports"--it's not light, it is not designed to go really fast, but it is perfect (I hope) for urban  rambles.

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Blogger Peter Wang said...

good blog post, thanks. Peter Wang

7:12 AM  
Blogger  Robert Boyd said...

Thanks for commenting. I would love to see your "bike fatality map" (and post it, if you'd let me). It would be particularly interesting to see the total number of bike accidents combined with bike fatalities. It would be even more interesting to take those numbers (and locations) and match them to the zip codes in which they occurred to get an idea of the accident rate and the fatality rate in different parts of the metro area. It may be that the accident rate is about the same inside the Loop as outside, but because of the generally higher speed driven outside the Loop, accidents are more likely to be fatal. On the other hand, it may be that the accident rate itself is lower inside the Loop, which would tend to support my "inattentional blindness" theory.

(I realize this is quite morbid. But I think these kinds of statistical analysis can be useful in setting public policy regarding cycling, and helping to get past the knee-jerk thinking that so many people have on the subject.)

8:21 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

Great post. I live in Houston and I've just taken up cycling. Have really enjoyed it even though it means getting honked at and passed aggressively, even inside the loop.

1:59 PM  
Blogger  Robert Boyd said...

Thanks for commenting. Assholes who honk and drive aggressively will always be with us. But the more cyclists there are, the lower the accident rate will be. I firmly believe this.

2:14 PM  
Blogger There she goes! said...

Nice write up, thank you. How are you enjoying your bike? We looked at buying a Worksman cargo trike (I have small kids), but I was reluctant to make the investment without trying it. Looking at yours, I started to wonder if I'm missing out on something.

After suffering a head injury in 2007, and after having twins in 2005, I have become very conscious of the risks we take when we ride a bike here. But we also take risks when we decide we are too afraid to take risks.

11:59 PM  
Blogger  Robert Boyd said...

I don't think you can go wrong with a trike. Just remember it's heavy--it won't be any kind of sleek space-age alloy.

7:31 AM  

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