Saturday, May 22, 2010

Serious Cyclists

And Yet Somebody Loves Me
And Yet Somebody Loves Me, Helsinki, 2007

There are a few ways you can know that winter is gone, up here in the North. Two of the certain ones are the annual rantings about dog poo and cyclists. The dog poo is revealed when the snow melts, and the cyclists appear once the dog poo has washed off.

Cycling in Helsinki is a bit... interesting. In fact, it's sometimes uncannily close to pure chaos. That leads to hate all around: pedestrians hating cyclists for cycling on sidewalks, drivers hating cyclists for cycling on the streets, cyclists hating pedestrians for getting in the way and drivers for trying to run them over, or off the street, and everybody hating the street planners who made the mess in the first place.

From where I'm at, the problem is pedestrians who don't take cycling seriously, drivers who don't take cycling seriously, street planners who don't take cycling seriously, and cyclists who don't take cycling seriously. 

Pedestrians who don't take cycling seriously consider bike lanes just extensions of sidewalks. They cheerfully walk on them, stop on them to talk, and cross them without looking if anyone's barreling down it toward them at breakneck speed. Drivers consider bike lanes extra parking or stopping space, and consider a cyclist on the street a public enemy and criminal, and will honk at them, overtake them at a very close distance, or worse. Street planners will put cycling lanes in combination with busy sidewalks with no partitions, or at the edge of the street between the main traffic and the row of parked cars, where anyone getting out of a car will have to open their door blocking the lane, or will introduce sudden breaks or loops or switching sides or just omitted signage from them.

Cyclists who don't take cycling seriously fall into two groups: sheep and wolves. Sheep are often a bit uncertain in cycling technique, don't know or don't care about the rules of the road and will, for example, yield in unpredictable directions, will cycle on sidewalks, will ride side-by-side hogging the entire road, and so on. Wolves are hard-riding lone heroes who treat the city as a parkour course, weaving among pedestrians, cars, obstacles, and other cyclists with masterful technique, breakneck speed, and considerable danger to themselves and others.

What all of these groups have in common is that they consider cyclists to be, essentially, pedestrians on wheels. They aren't. A bike is faster in the city than a car, and getting hit by one going full tilt can kill you. A cyclist has more in common with a driver than a pedestrian, and they should be treated accordingly—with both rights and responsibilities that go with the status.

The police have recently introduced bike patrols. These are cops who patrol on bikes, doing what beat cops do, but keeping a particular eye on cyclists. They've handed out hundreds of tickets to wolves and sheep already. That, in my opinion, is a good thing. However, it's not enough: the pedestrians, drivers, and street planners need to change their behavior too, not just cyclists.

In my opinion, the heaviest responsibility lies on street planners. Anyone who gets around Helsinki by bike more than occasionally will plainly see that there's no coherent vision about how cyclists should navigate the city. There's a quite a lot of bike lanes, but they're chaotic and random. They suddenly stop after an intersection without so much as a traffic sign indicating that the bike lane stopped and the cyclist should now move onto the street. The worst ones are like the ones on Bulevardi, where they hug the parked cars so closely that it's simply not possible to use them safely—anyone getting out of the car who didn't check his mirror beforehand will suddenly open the door right in the cyclist's face, and people getting from the tram stop to the tram will have to cross the bike lane en masse. A very common if less bad feature is a zebra crossing that has the marker for the cycling lane, with no cycling lane at the other end, plunking the cyclist right in the middle of pedestrians with no way of knowing whether it's a sidewalk, a combined lane, or what.

Cycling is a great way to get around town, at least when it's not knee-deep in wet snow. A bike is fast and nimble, takes up little space, emits no pollution, and keeps the individual on it fit. It's also a really good way to see the city. However, if we want to really make it work, we need to take lessons from Copenhagen, Amsterdam, or even Stockholm. To start with, we can import their approach to cycling infrastructure, and then get started on the culture that goes with it. With a bit of respect all around, I'm sure we can slowly wind down the state of war between cyclists and others.

In fact, this is already happening. While it's still chaos, it's not quite as chaotic as it was ten years ago. Most pedestrians do look where they're going and keep clear of the cycling lanes, most cyclists do follow the rules of the road and don't go weaving among pedestrians, and most drivers do treat cyclists like regular vehicles in traffic, and many—if not yet most—cycling lanes are perfectly functional. We only need to deal with the still relatively large and extremely visible minorities in each of these groups, and to iron out the kinks in the infrastructure. In another decade, Helsinki can be the cycling-friendly city it likes to think it is.

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