Bollards, oh bollocks!

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bollard:  (n) a pole or structure erected to direct traffic or obstruct access to certain road users (cars).

bollocks:  (n) literal meaning:  testicles.  common use:  an expletive uttered after a misfortune.

One of my coaching clients recently crashed his bike and suffered some pretty serious injuries.  He was commuting to work on the SF Bay Trail as part of a group ride.  The route was detoured to a narrow section of trail with a bollard at the entrance.  He didn’t see the bollard and hit it.

This crash has prompted heated discussion on the local bicycle advocacy email list.  The debate had focused on the illegality of the bollards and how dangerous that type of structure could be for trail users.  The debate transitioned into a discussion of the intended use of that trail with respect to large fast-paced group rides.

I don’t typically participate in debate on email groups or on-line forums.  We all know how they end up.  But I felt strongly that there was another message that should be considered and perhaps some learning to be done.  Yeah, I was the person who mentioned that the speed limit at that high-use section of trail was only 5mph and that a change in rider/group behavior might have prevented the crash.  And the personal attacks flew — good stuff.

I know that section of trail very well.  For 12 years I lived just a mile from there.  The intersection in question is very busy — with lots of kids, joggers, older adults, and folks visiting the dog park.  The speed limit there is reduced for that very reason.  I also led a fast-paced, early-morning group ride on the SF Bail Trail for a number of years, until the numbers grew so large that I felt it was no longer safe for us to share the trail with other trail users.

For more than a year, I commuted by bicycle from San Mateo to San Francisco — long before commuting became popular and a group activity.  I also commuted for a year from San Mateo to Los Altos Hills.  I understand commuting.  I get it.  Your goal is to get from point A to point B with as few transitions (red lights, stop signs, turns) as possible.  You might go slow or fast, flat or hilly, short or long, but in the end, your goal is to get there.

So, back to last week’s crash.  While I agree that bollards create unnecessary hazards for road users and that there are other alternatives, I would also challenge riders to think about how their behavior could prevent something like this in the future.  Is a multi-use path the best place for a large, fast-paced group ride (even in the early morning hours)?  Are there alternative routes that still offer a good, solid commute but would be more appropriate for a large group?  Can we remind participants to call out hazards, leave more space between riders, and slow down a bit as the group encounters bollards, and then soft pedal to re-group after the entire group has passed through?

Many of the folks who participate in this particular ride are relatively new to cycling, commuting, and/or group riding.  They trust the de facto leaders of the group (whether it’s a cycling club, an employer, or just a group of friends).  They trust that those leaders will lead them on routes that are safe and hazard-free.  They trust that other riders in the group will communicate obstacles/hazards, changes in pace, and changes in direction.  They trust that we’re all in this sport together and that we’ll look out for each other.  After all, isn’t that one of the reasons we choose to ride with others?