Sunday, 20 April 2014

Where are Melbourne's real cycling danger spots?

Summary: Identifying a city's real cycling danger spots is challenging as even simple statistical approaches require taking the popularity of routes into account. Most published cycling black spot data for Melbourne doesn't take route popularity into account and is thus mostly relevant for planners (seeking to reduce overall accidents) but not individual cyclists. In this post, I will try to provide useful guidance for Melbourne cyclist's on common risk factors and how to find and address actual danger spots on their common routes.


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Details:
1. Most news media cycling black spot lists are flawed as they count total accidents not the accident rates (accidents / trips)
- The maps and lists of cycling black spots in the news media all typically suffer from this flaw. A good example is The Age's reporting:
"Researchers have identified the five areas in Melbourne where cyclists are most likely to be killed or seriously injured. An analysis of nearly 10,000 VicRoads accident reports, from January 2007 to June 2012, found that the areas highlighed in this map are the most dangerous."
Cyclists get warning on danger spots

- However, as the details of the story indicate, these black spots all include routes which have the most cycling traffic in Melbourne. Consequently, the total number of serious accidents, in and of itself, does not make these locations the "most dangerous" or highest risk. These types of analysis are useful for governments and departments seeking to reduce overall accidents and better protect key transport routes but are much less relevant for utility cyclists simply seeking information on spots with elevated risks and specific hazards to learn about.

- The methodology for highlighting the danger spots is also limited in that in doesn't target actual cycling routes and specific locations on them but simply a geographic radius of 100m. This means an isolated high-risk route location with many serious accidents will be ranked lower than a cluster of route hot spots within 100m. Warnings on general areas (combining multiple streets and intersections) have little value to cyclists.
"The areas were studied in a way that captured accidents within a 100-metre radius. Each area includes a number of intersections, and the data should be taken as a warning on the general area rather than the particular intersection."
Cyclists get warning on danger spots
- Moreover, the five highlighted danger spots chosen also seem inconsistent with the stated methodology and map data provided. For example, the third most dangerous spot (near the Richardson and Canning streets intersection) has only 2 serious accident marked over a 5 year period and nothing else within a 100m radius. Yet nearby locations have many more accidents clustered together. Also, the grouping of these 2 serious accidents suggests Richardson St may be the issue but these two accidents are completely unrelated on two separate north-south routes.


- Finally, based on the data provided it doesn't seem stastically justified to label the area near the Richardson and Canning streets intersection the 3rd biggest danger spot given just the 2 serious accidents documented on the map from 2007 to 2012. It appears the broader data set of all reported accidents (not just serious ones) may have been used to isolate this location.

2. Comments about The Age's 5 "most dangerous" cycling accident spots in Melbourne
- Overall, there are no exceptional risks or niche issues at any of these locations; they are hot spots because of the number of cycling trips passing them. Normal safe, defensive cycling advice applies. However, governments and departments have further work to do to make popular cycling routes as safe as possible; the more popular the route, the more protection cyclists should have on it.

(a) On Swanston Street between Collins and Flinders streets, CBD
- This is one of the busiest cycling routes in Melbourne due to CBD commuter traffic as well as it being adjacent to a key river crossing. Private cars are not allowed to drive here so the major types of cycling accidents are tram tracks, pedestrians crossing the street, taxis and delivery vehicles and occasionally other cyclists. The risk of dying here is low. The risk of serious injury is also low if you don't cross the tram tracks, stick to safe speeds, pay attention to pedestrians and don't try and squeeze between taxis, vans and trams.


(b) Around the Johnston and Brunswick streets intersection, Fitzroy
- Brunswick St is probably the third busiest cycling route and naturally accident rates are higher at major intersections, so high total numbers at this spot are unsurprising and do not imply any increased danger. The trams, tram tracks, parked cars (dooring), major pedestrian flow and lane merging do make Brunswick St intersections areas you should ride carefully. If you ride defensively out of the door zone and away from tram tracks, your risks of serious injury or death here or elsewhere on Brunswick St are minimal.


(c) Around the Richardson and Canning streets intersection, North Carlton
- Canning St is likely the second busiest cycling route and naturally accident rates are higher at intersections. Cars travelling east-west here are crossing a busy cycling route where the cyclists have right of way and, if unfamiliar with this cycling highway, may not pause long enough to check the cycle lane is clear - especially as cyclists are much harder to see, particularly when there is less light (dusk, night time). Solar-powered LED signs for east-west motorists have been added to help address this issue. Speed bumps right before the intersection would also be welcome. Nevertheless, there are no exceptional risks for cyclists at this intersection. As with any Melbourne intersection, cyclists should ensure they are confident any cars are stopped and have seen them. Relying on right of way is not sufficient to protect your safety in car-centric cities.


(d) Around the Macarthur Street and St Andrews Place intersection, CBD
- Hundreds of cyclist commuters pass straight through or turn at this busy intersection and with the added complication of the tram and many pedestrians it is simply a busy spot where defensive riding is essential. Always check that cars aren't turning across your path and when turning across this intersection make sure you watch out for cars also turning across the intersection. If not confident, use the nearby pedestrian crossing to cross over. It also provides helpful breaks in the traffic.


(e) Around the Swanston and Victoria streets intersection, CBD
- The most frequent cycling accident appears to be from cars turning left onto Victoria St across cyclists that are going straight north or south on Swanston St (see CrowdSpot reports). Swanston St through the CBD is Melbourne's busiest cycling route so there is nothing particularly dangerous about this intersection. Cyclists riding straight through intersections should always ensure that turning traffic has already seen them and wait if the car is clear to turn and you are not yet in front of it. While chains of cyclists can follow each other through the inside of a turning car, you do need to be confident the driver has seen you and is still going to wait. If unsure, just stop - regardless of whether cyclists behind you are urging you on.

3. Factors contributing to elevated risks on Melbourne cycling routes
- While "total accidents" (whether all types or serious only) are not a useful indicator of particular danger spots or risks that cyclists should take note of, there are other ways of identifying elevated risks or niche issues that are currently unresolved. Two feasible methods are:

- Reviewing the aggregate black spot lists/maps for locations where the number of accidents appears to be out of step with the likely number of cycling trips. There is no comprehensive data to do this, so the most practical methods include picking a key transport route you use and seeing if there are any particular intersections that appear to have more accidents than others. See the VicRoads 2007-2012 data or the CrowdSpot 2013 data.

- Assessing actual cycling accident details for common factors that appear to contribute to elevated risks of cycling accidents. From reviewing the VicRoads data and especially the CrowdSpot 2013 reports some common risk factors can be identified:

(a) Pedestrians crossing at blind spots or unexpectedly and cyclists not conscientiously avoiding them
- Cyclists should always give way even if pedestrians are jaywalking. Occasionally infrastructure creates blind spots or greater conflict than is necessary.

(b) Cycling paths or infrastructure that places cyclists in positions motorists don't expect them
- Cycling infrastructure is inconsistent and often places cyclists in positions motorists don't expect them or can't see them early enough. Bike paths which turn into sidewalk paths for certain periods are one example. Bike lanes directly  in the door zone are another.

(c) Intersections where drivers are less concerned about ignoring signs and signals
- Motorists will often ignore stop signs, give way signs and signals if they won't be injured doing so. Hence, their tendency to roll across bike tracks or not give way to the pedestrian/bike signal at intersections.

(d) Tram tracks
- A lot of accidents appear on routes along tram lines and cyclist's own reports on CrowdSpot indicate that crossing tram tracks (to turn or go around obstacles) is often the proximate cause of an accident.

(e) Roundabouts
- Roundabout not designed to slow cars and protect cyclists can be hazardous, especially when visibility is reduced such as at dusk or night time.

(f) Cyclist speed
- Excessive speed by the cyclist given the circumstances (weather, traffic, visibility, hazards) is often a major factor in certain types of accidents.

(g) Cars stopped, bike lane still flowing but ignored
- Car lanes are often congested while the bike lane continues to flow. Unfortunately, drivers from intersecting streets, pedestrians and parked vehicles often act as if all traffic has stopped and ignore the bike traffic.

(h) Wet weather + Slippery surfaces
- This combination is a common factor in accidents involving single cyclists.

(i) Obstructions in bike lanes and clear ways or temporary double parking
- Any obstruction to a bike lane or the position the cyclist is safest in or expected to be is often a factor in accidents. This occurs both due to the cyclist having to take a riskier, unsafer position but also because they have to swerve to avoid the obstacle.

(j) Cyclist risk taking
- For example hopping tram tracks, taking shortcuts, weaving, tight filtering, impatient manoeuvres.

(k) Breaking road rules
- Unpredictability contributes to certain types of accidents as other road users are relying on signals, signs and expected actions.

4. Review crowd-sourced reports on your common routes for specific hazards and useful advice
- As an example, using CrowdSpot, I reviewed reports for a few routes I often ride and found the following useful reports on very specific dangers and issues:

(a) Hazardous crossing of shared path by pedestrians due to poorly placed tram shelter

Here's the dangerous tram waiting shelter which pedestrians can step out of directly onto the shared path used by cyclists often going at speeds of 25-35km/hr:

Below you can see that to cross to the western side of St Georges Rd, pedestrians need to walk behind the tram shelter and zig zag up the shared north-south path:

(b) Oakover Rd left hook on St Georges Rd shared path
- This isn't just a normal risk of a left hook as cyclists here are on a part of the St Georges Rd cycling route that is particularly dangerous at intersections. The cyclist has right of way and a green signal but the motorist is unused to having cyclists continuing straight from what in more common circumstances is only a pedestrian sidewalk. Many serious cycling accidents throughout the world are caused in exactly this scenario of a cyclist being left hooked when crossing from a raised path (usually a sidewalk). The cyclist-car accident rate for riding on the sidewalk is more than twice as high as for riding on the road precisely because of this danger. The City of Darebin should properly address all of these intersections of the St Georges Rd path that are exposed to left/right hooks. Until then, cyclists need to protect themselves.


Below you can see exactly what happened to Sonia. She had the green light and, like all riders of the popular St Georges Rd path, is used to maintaining speed when one has the right of way. Note that most of the path runs in the centre of this major road, is very safe, and is not exposed to these left/right hooks. Experienced cyclists know this "sidewalk hook" situation is always dangerous and will always slow down to check over their shoulder for turning cars. It is vital that less experienced cyclists learn to always do this too regardless of how safe the rest of the route has been or how quickly other cyclists take these intersections. (I often check for turning cars from 30m before this intersection in order to maintain speed).


(c) Gadd St Stop sign runners on St Georges Rd path
- The St Georges Rd separated path runs down the wide centre median strip of a busy road but there are gaps for cars to cross over. Cyclists have right of way on these crossings but car drivers often roll the Stop signs or simply don't wait long enough to check for rapidly moving cyclists before moving across. Inexperienced cyclists tend to trust that road rules will be followed (multiple signs and markings) and existing infrastructure (like the speed bump) is safe enough. Experienced cyclists have seen so many motorists ignore road rules, signs and other road users that, in this situation, they always ensure a car has stopped or definitely seen them and is stopping.


Below you can see how Heath and Nic were hit by motorists. There are several such crossing points on St Georges Rd but Gadd St appears to be particularly bad for such accidents and near misses. Note how close the speed bump commencement is to the path - it offers virtually no protection.

(d) Low angle cross of tram tracks turning right from St Georges Rd to Charles St
- Crossing tram tracks and getting the wheel stuck or slipping is a major factor in many serious cycling accidents in Melbourne. Cyclists should avoid crossing tram tracks where possible and, where they have to do so, cross as close to perpendicular as they can. However, sometimes the specific road/track layout and route makes this more dangerous. In the below report you can see that Ado was turning right, had very little lane to work with and was forced to cross the tram track closer to parallel than perpendicular.


Below you can see that the cyclist had to cut across the two lanes going straight and get to the third lane but to get to the centre of that lane (out of the way of cars going straight) has to cross a tram track at a pretty straight angle which greatly increases the risk of getting the wheel stuck or slipping. Even for experienced cyclists this is a turn with significantly elevated risks. If it's wet or the traffic is too fast to cross lanes safely or you can't get the space to cross the tram track at a good enough angle or you aren't confident, you should use the pedestrian crossings to get to Charles St.


(e) On-road right and left hooks on St Georges Rd
- On CrowdSpot, three cyclists riding on St Georges Rd reported being hit by cars turning across them in a very short stretch of road - one from behind (left hook) and two from in front (right hook). In a minority of instances, the motorist sees the cyclist but either decides not to wait or misjudges their speed. In the majority of such instances, the motorist doesn't see the cyclist as they are looking for cars in the centre of the lane or because the cyclist is harder to see than a car (night time, no bright head light, blends into background).


Below you can see how Natalie was hit. A car turned right into Clauscen St and hit her while she was going straight. Even for defensive riders, left/right hooks are difficult to avoid if the motorist simply isn't taking enough care. A cyclist can't be expected to slow down or stop each time a car is in a position to hit them like this. The best thing a cyclist can implement permanently is maximum visibility. Use front and rear flashing lights at night, ride far enough out from the kerb or parked cars (don't blend in) and consider choosing more visible clothing/equipment (e.g. I use a white helmet). At intersections where a car looks like it is preparing to turn right and you aren't sure if it has seen you, be prepared to stop. If the intersection enables cars to make fast turns without slowing down be extra cautious.


(f) Not seen at a roundabout on St Georges Rd and Church St
- Emma almost got cleaned up at this rounadabout on the way to work due to a distracted motorist. Experienced cyclists will tell you that all roundabouts require great caution. Never assume a motorist has seen you and wait for them to stop before proceeding. If visibility is low (such as at dusk) use extra caution. At night, always use flashing lights.


This is the roundabout where Emma almost got hit. There's nothing exceptional about it, motorists are just used to noticing cars not bikes.

(g) Doored on Brunswick St
- Cyclists who through inexperience or for feelings of safety ride in the door zone on busy, destination streets like Brunswick St are at risk of eventually being doored. The per trip chance is very low but it's just a matter of time. Experienced cyclists will never ride in the door zone on streets like Brunswick St unless at very low speeds when filtering near intersections.


On streets like Brunswick St there is usually sufficient space to ride far enough from the parked cars to be completely out of the door zone. This does place cyclists closer to the lane of cars than many feel comfortable with which is why they tend to ride within the door zone. However, evidence clearly shows that dooring is a much greater safety risk on streets like this than being hit from behind.

(h) Speeding cyclist takes unnecessary risks and crashes
- A proportion of cycling accidents are due to a combination of speed and unnecessary risk taking or manoeuvres. Hazards or unexpected obstacles or actions that would normally be avoidable then precipitate accidents. In the below report, Edward admits he was going too fast, performed an unnecessary bunny hop over tram tracks and then lost control of his bike due to no one's fault but his own.


(i) Other road user acts based on stopped cars and forgets about flowing bike traffic
- A common cause of many cycling accidents is another road user observing that the car lane has stopped moving and presuming that means it is safe to move out, forgetting about the bike lane which is still flowing. In the case below, Matthew was hit by a motorist who observed the stationary cars that couldn't move but didn't check the adjacent bike lane that was still flowing. Experienced cyclists know these situations with stopped cars around intersections or pedestrians are dangerous and ride defensively to avoid accidents - in this case, slowing down to ensure you have time to brake should cars from the cross street decide to pull out.


Below you can see the bike lane in this location which is always flowing while cars are often stopped due to congestion. Experienced cyclists ride defensively assuming that cross traffic and pedestrians will enter lanes of stopped cars and often not register cyclists.

In the below incident, Tom hits a pedestrian due to the same cause - the pedestrian has seen the stopped cars but not the moving bikes. While Tom has marked this as the pedestrian's fault the fact is that he could have prevented it by anticipating that this busy pedestrian crossing often has people crossing when cars are stopped. Cyclists need to protect more vulnerable road users regardless of whether they are breaking road rules or not.


(j) Bike lane or clearway obstructed forcing cyclist to swerve out of safest road position
- Many cycling accidents are caused due to the bike lane (actual or de facto) being illegally obstructed by parked or standing cars. This forces cyclists out of the safest riding position and also leads to them swerving in the direction of moving cars.


William St - at peak hour it is meant to be a clearway for cyclists:

5. VicRoads Crash Stats data for Victoria

VicRoads now publishes Crash Stats data online via the Tableau data visualization tool. This can be filtered and viewed on a map to identify the routes and black spots which appear to have a higher concentration of crashes - especially serious injuries - compared to the number of bike trips.

VicRoads Crash Stats involving Bicyclists from 2015 to July 2016


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