Transportation advocates love to lump bicycles and transit into the same category. It makes sense on paper: Bikes and transit are both viable alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles, can be just as practical and fast as cars, and help reduce congestion and pollution.
But in practice, bikes and buses don't always mix well on the road. Buses can pose a real threat to bicyclists' safety. Bicyclists can get in the way of buses, increasing travel time and reducing their benefits.
Regular PubliCola commenter VeloBusDriver (as a public employee, he's asked to remain anonymous) left his techie software job and started driving a Metro bus in November 2006. He has been an avid bike commuter even longer; currently, he rides his electric-assist bike eight and a half miles from his home on the Eastside to Metro's Atlantic base to drive the afternoon Route 14.
I spoke to VBD about the problematic relationship between bikes and buses, some of the ways people can avoid those problems and Metro can work to find solutions, as well his thoughts on e-bikes. Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.
BikeNerd: What sorts of problems have you run into as a bus driver when interacting with bicyclists? Do they slow you down or get in your way? Do you have any advice for bicyclists (or bus drivers) for avoiding common conflicts?
VeloBusDriver: I could write a book on this subject, but I'll focus on a few things:
First, Be visible: Wear visible clothing and use lights—day and night. It makes a huge difference from a driver's perspective. I have lots of stories of cyclists seemingly coming out of nowhere at the last second. I can usually see a red tail light three or more blocks away while some lighting conditions can hide cyclists until I'm almost on top of you. Seriously, please, get front and back lights and use them all the time—I do.
Second: The "three-foot passing rule." Cycling advocacy groups have been pushing for legislation defining 3 feet as a safe passing distance. Cyclists need to remember that this applies to them as well. When you're passing a bus (hopefully on the left side and not on the right), please try to give at least three feet. This is especially important for buses, since we are constantly moving to and from the curb to pick up passengers.
Third: Don't plant yourself in blind spots when waiting for a light. Many cyclists like to ride up on the right side of my bus and then wait for the light right next to the door. There are many blind spots on a bus caused by window frames and the fare box, especially for shorter bus drivers. We are trained to "rock and roll" in the seat to expose the blind spots, but relying on a human being to be perfect in all situations is risky. Either wait behind the bus, or get well in front of the bus where you are very visible. Wherever you are waiting, it's a good idea to make sure you can see the bus driver's eyes directly.
BikeNerd: Do cyclists slow you down?
VBD: Yes and no. Yes in the sense that there are many times I am "stuck" behind a cyclist, particularly going up hills. No in the sense that when I keep track of time, it usually only accounts for a minute or two over an entire route at most. The biggest problem I have is passing a cyclist and then having a customer pull the bell at the last second. I then have to figure out how to get into my zone quickly and safely. Sometimes I'm sure it looks like I'm being a jerk, but really, I'm not.
BikeNerd: In that same vein, some bus drivers seem to treat bicyclists like a nuisance and make awfully close and fast passes sometimes. What's the general perception of bikes among Metro drivers? What's Metro's stance on passing bikes vs. waiting behind them (particularly on roads where buses and bikes tend to share the bus lane)?
VBD: There is absolutely no excuse for a close and/or fast pass. Metro's entire philosophy toward driving is "prevent the preventable." Rushing for time is not something Metro ever encourages. Because of this, anything involving a close or fast pass would not be acceptable since it decreases the margin of safety.
Although we aren't given a lot of specific training on how to deal with cyclists, we are constantly receiving training and safety messages to slow down, take it easy, and give plenty of room to all road users.
BikeNerd: Road diet opponents like to say that rechannelizations on roads like Nickerson, 125th, and Admiral Way slow down transit, defeating the purpose of making the road more accessible to all transportation modes. Have you found this to be the case?
VBD: My personal opinion is that the wider lanes given to automobiles after a road diet helps us keep the bus in the lane. Many four-lane roads have lanes that are too narrow. In such instances, we are trained to split the lanes, basically taking up both lanes, to prevent drivers from being too close to us, especially around turns.
BikeNerd: Did allowing bikes to get on and off in the ride-free area slow buses down or otherwise hurt service?
VBD: A little bit, but not much. Most rush-hour cyclists have the bike rack routine down. They will load their bike and then wait at the end of the line of folks boarding the bus.
One concern I have is with cyclists rushing to catch my bus. I've had many cyclists ride up on the left side of my bus, or even from the opposing lane of traffic, and then stop in front of me to load their bike. This is a very unwise thing to do. There is a blind spot up there and we're not expecting cyclists to ride up on the left side and stop in front of the bus. Always load from the curb side and always make sure the driver knows you are in front of the bus - we really appreciate it.
BikeNerd: Do you have an opinion on the new three-bike racks? Any thoughts on how Metro could improve their bike carrying system?
VBD: I personally like the new bike racks. They are a little bit more difficult to use since you can't stand your bike up in them and then pull the arm up. The arms seem to be a bit more difficult to operate too—probably because you have to hold your bike with your other hand. That said, the new bike racks feel more secure and can hold my monster electric bike with no trouble. They also can handle bikes with 16-inch wheels such as Dahon folding bikes.
BikeNerd: What are you thoughts on the bike storage on light rail?
VBD: I don't have a lot of experience with light rail since I live on the Eastside. However, in my humble opinion, Link needs luggage racks for folks who like to shove their luggage into the bike rack space. I've been on one Link train that had luggage in the bike rack area as well as one of the wheelchair flip-up seats. At the same time, the car was crowded and had both a bicycle and a wheelchair in the area between doors. Everybody was getting along fine but as Link gets more crowded, this is just going to cause more conflicts.
BikeNerd: You've got both an electric-assist bike and a traditional geared bike. What made you decided to get the e-bike originally? When do you chose the e-bike over the non e-bike these days?
VBD: I purchased the Giant Twist after I gave up on bike commuting for several y ears because of knee problems. After a year of riding the Twist, my knees improved to the point where I can ride 20 or more miles a day again. I use it less these days---mainly when I'm being lazy or don't want to get sweaty. I've got about 800 miles on my Surly this year and 780 miles on the e-bike, so I guess I've been lazy a bunch this year.
BikeNerd: Do you think there's a future for e-bikes in America? What will it take for them to go mainstream?
VBD: It's a good question that I don't really know the answer to. "Real" cyclists don't like them because they think they are for "cheaters." They are also expensive, but not when compared with a car.
That said, they make Seattle's hills very manageable and I don't need a shower even after riding eight and a half miles to work with hills. My biggest concern is that e-bike speeds need to be limited. Mine tops out at 15mph so it's actually a bit slower than my cross bike. People who use e-bikes that can go faster are just inviting bans because of reckless behavior.