Monday, August 23, 2010

It's the most dangerous time of the year....

As I ride around town every August, I have that holiday song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" going through my head, but with new words, as noted in the title of this post.

The highest crash rate for bicyclists in Madison is late August and the month of September. This is due in part to all the new bicyclists showing up each year. Many undergraduates have heard that the best way to get around town is by bike. "Don't bring your car!" is written in very large letter - three times - in the materials on transportation given to all new students coming to the UW.

The problem is that many 18 year-olds, and even older bicyclists that are riding around Madison for the first time, haven't learned to do it right. American teenagers often give up riding a bike when they are about 13 - about the age when they can really start to understand how to negotiate traffic safely. It's not cool to ride a bike around town when you are in high school, and you start to have friends with a drivers license. So the Freshmen coming to Madison haven't been on a bike, except maybe on a trail or in a group, since they were truly kids.

And there are also many people moving to Madison that aren't used to a real city. Although Madison is still considered only a mid-sized city in population, our downtown and campus area operates much more like a bigger city because of density, urban design, and traffic congestion. So even if the new bicyclists are used to riding in the street, they may not know how to ride in urban traffic.

These two factors - no adult experience on a bike and no experience in urban riding - cause new Madison bicyclists to make all sorts of mistakes: riding the wrong way, riding without lights, riding on the sidewalk, riding unpredictably, turning without looking for cars or signaling, etc. After awhile, they either learn to ride correctly (more or less) or they give up on biking in Madison. The crash rate goes down either way.

But there is another factor that may contribute to the crash rate. And it certainly makes biking harder and more stressful for those of us used to Madison's patterns: There are a whole bunch of new drivers in town.

Parents are dropping off the kids at the dorms, trying to find a parking spot or just generally lost. Late summer tourists looking for the Farmers Market or Monona Terrace are confused by the one-way streets and inner and outer loops of the Capitol. New faculty, graduate students, or staff trying to find their way around their new home. And then those new students: young, excited to be on their own, impulsive, and completely clueless that driving is sort of a pain in the ass in Madison. None of these groups are used to the many bicyclists, pedestrians, moped drivers, buses, and general confusion and congestion of our downtown and campus.

We veterans of the Isthmus know that W. Dayton ends at both Camp Randall and the Overture Center, that you can't drive a private car on State St, that there is both a King St and Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd, that the diagonal streets to the Square are one way, that bicyclists are likely to be sneaking up on the right side where there is a bike lane and riding on the sidewalk everywhere, and when traveling west on E Johnson from First St, the name of the street changes to Gorham -> University Ave -> Campus Dr -> University Ave.

We also know that there is construction everywhere, and the Isthmus makes both driving and parking a dicey and slow process.

But many of the newbies and visitors don't know any of these things, and they are lost, confused, stressed out and distracted by all the activity. That makes for lots of mistakes on their part, and a dangerous situation for those of us using less protected modes of travel.

To the veteran bicyclists and walkers, I urge patience and caution. You can tell when a driver is not a local. There's car "body language" as surely as there is human body language. Be especially careful when someone is going slow, drifting about in their lane, or the car is filled with furniture and luggage. These people are about to make a sudden turn without signaling or turn the wrong way on a one-way street. Try to wave with all your fingers and smile instead of yelling.

The visitors are probably not going to see this post, but in case it gets passed along to new residents, my advice is to park the car as soon as you can and walk. Really, it's faster than looking for a parking spot. Please remember that you must yield to pedestrian in the crosswalk, and bicyclists both have a right to the road and also are likely going as fast as you are in traffic. No matter where you lived before, Madison has a different traffic rhythm, and a different mix of road users. It's slow going in the car, and it's sort of confusing as well. Did I mention that walking might be easier?


  1. "Did I mention that walking might be easier?"

    Only until you have to cross one of those roads populated by all the new and clueless drivers and cyclists you described here!

    Madison will only be safe for walking once the crosswalk laws are enforced. Since moving here two years ago, I've been shocked at how pedestrian-unfriendly this town can be.

  2. “riding the wrong way, riding without lights, riding on the sidewalk, riding unpredictably, turning without looking for cars or signaling, etc”

    Those aren’t mistakes, they’re willful violations of common sense, to say nothing of obvious laws. I really don’t think it’s a lack of education or urban riding experience that causes people to bike the wrong way down one way streets here. It’s a sense of entitlement shared by incoming suburbanite freshman and our provincial resident hipsters. They’re not city people, but they’re living in an increasingly urban environment and they’re not cut out for it, or even willing to try, evidently.

    And I don’t think it’s fair to put the jump in accidents on the students. I believe you that the number goes up in the fall (though I’m not seeing where you get that data in the Crash Report). You’re adding 30-40,000 residents to the city, increasing the population by about 20%, which is going to have an impact even if only a fraction of them bike. Most of those 30-40,000 turn around and leave shortly after “normal” biking season starts up again in late spring, so the effect of this population infusion on the accident rate is largely limited to two or three fall months. But I doubt that the bad behavior rises disproportionately when students arrive. It’s always bad, it just gets more pronounced when there are more people of a particular mindset around to engage in it, and it’s a mindset that’s surprisingly common among post-college aged adults in Madison.