In the Door Zone: If You See Something, Should You Say Something?

The Valencia Street bike lane on a normal sunny mid-afternoon. The hazards abound, but is it my responsibility to say something to careless cyclists? Photo: Matthew Roth
The Valencia Street bike lane on a normal sunny mid-afternoon. The hazards abound, but is it my responsibility to say something to careless cyclists riding in the door zone? Photo: Matthew Roth

I ride my bike along Valencia Street nearly every day from my home to City Hall or some other assignment and I love the relatively slower pace of traffic that resulted from the bicycle green wave signal retiming last year (way to go Janel!). Without fail, however, my heart rate rises when I come upon someone riding in the door zone of Valencia’s lanes, which happens every single day I ride. I have visions of a door opening and the person getting maimed, or worse. Maybe it reflects my own obsessive mental state, but I’ve literally had dreams where the cyclist in front of me gets into serious trouble when a door swings open, leaving them no time to safely maneuver around.

What’s even more astounding, I’ve witnessed a door-zone rider weave around a door that has opened ahead of them and right back into the door zone. Does the thought not register in their minds that the same door could just as easily fly open without warning?

As Joshua Hart so capably argued in his piece on the failure of bicycle lane design in San Francisco, the city is partly to blame for designing lanes that encourage riding too closely to cars. Valencia is particularly bad, because the whole street has been re-configured for safety for vulnerable users, save the bike lanes. Because there is only one stripe to the lane on the left-hand side, it gives the impression the lane is particularly large, though the actual safe area in the lane is only about two feet on the left. It’s even worse on the newly constructed sections between 15th and 19th, where the lane narrows even more at the intersections.

Then again, I assume if the SFMTA were to realistically stripe the safe portion of the lane, it would lead to an outcry from the public for “shrinking” their bike lane.

So should I say something to the riders? I’ve rehearsed the speech in my head a thousand times. “Hi, I don’t mean to intrude, but did you know the single most common cause of injury by drivers to people riding bikes in San Francisco is dooring? You should move over.”

To which I expect, “Hey buddy, mind your own business!” or some other pleasantry.

What do you think? Should I say something? Do you?

  • smushmoth, you think or you know? I can’t find anything to back that up.

  • @Mick –

    Al

    No driver deliberately runs anyone down.

    Christopher Thompson tried that defense. He’s in the can now.

  • smushmoth

    Mike, I posted a study. read it

    or read this
    http://www.ehjournal.net/content/8/1/47

  • I’m confused. I was asking about your claim that bumping a car with a bike to get their attention is considered assault.

    The conclusion to the ehjournal study:

    “Evidence is beginning to accumulate that purpose-built bicycle-specific facilities reduce crashes and injuries among cyclists, providing the basis for initial transportation engineering guidelines for cyclist safety. Street lighting, paved surfaces, and low-angled grades are additional factors that appear to improve cyclist safety. Future research examining a greater variety of infrastructure would allow development of more detailed guidelines.”

    This first sentence says it all. Or are you talking in respect to cyclists on the sidewalk? I don’t think I’ve seen one person here disagree with you that it is dangerous for both pedestrians and the cyclist.

  • MickV2

    Thiegles

    We could debate the meaning of the word “practical” all day but I’d venture that you will have problems if you hold up faster vehicular traffic by hogging the whole lane when you can’t keep up with traffic.

    And that that puts you at greater risk than keeping right as the law prescibes and as common sense dictates.

    While if it were me, I’d prefer to hit something that is not moving to something that is moving.

    JohnM

    OK, change that to hardly anyone deliberately runs anyone down.

    But that is not an argument in favor of excusing cyclists who don’t ride with lights at night.

    Nor one in favor of provoking drivers with provocative behavior or retaliatory dissent.

    That driver who deliberately smacked down 4 cyclists a few months back in SF? I wonder what it was that provoked him?

    If I were as vulnerable as the average cyclist, I’d behave with modesty, humility and restraint.

  • @Mick – Nils had lights on his bike on Masonic, and Calder didn’t intentionally run him down, but Nils is dead.

    The driver that smacked down the 4 cyclists was provoked by “going off his meds”

  • “If I were as vulnerable as the average cyclist, I’d behave with modesty, humility and restraint.”

    If I am operating a vehicle that can end many lives in an instant, I’d operated it with care, vigilance, and restraint. 41,000 per year apparently don’t agree.

  • smushmoth –

    Seriously? I was stopped, bound by her and passing car traffic, and gave it a little push on the back with my tire. What she was doing by blocking the bike lane was far more dangerous to me than any nudge on the back of her precious car.

    By the way, I forgot to mention:

    When people open doors in front of me without looking (which happens all the time, but I am almost never found in the door zone), I say, “LOOK FIRST”. Even if it’s not a close call, it doesn’t make it okay. They just potentially endangered your life and violated a serious law, and chances are they do it habitually without thinking.

    Please help spread the word! It could save a life.

    P.S. Mick: Thanks, Dad.

  • @Mick, “practical” and “practicable” are NOT THE SAME THING!

  • @Mick – the word is “practicable” – not “practical”. And the law does not prescribe that you have to keep further right than is practicable. And if Thielges is “holding up traffic” but “nobody deliberately runs down a cyclist” then he’s not going to have any problems now, is he?

  • CVC 21202:

    (3) When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes) that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge, subject to the provisions of Section 21656. For purposes of this section, a “substandard width lane” is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.

    There’s a reason they post those signs saying “Bikes Allowed Use of Full Lane”.

  • Here is a direct link so there is no question.

  • MickV2

    JohnM/Mike

    Practical or practicable, the word is a little too subjective to be that helpful. You think it means you can hog the left; I think it means you keep right unless there is a pothole or open door that prevents it.

    But here’s the problem. If I am driving and another vehicle swerves close to me, I will instinctively swerve right, and right into the path of a bike. I’d rather hit some thing small and slow than something big and fast.

    If you’re way over on the right, chances are that won’t affect you. If you’re immediately to my right, you’re offal soup. It’s your choice on the level of risk you take, but it doesn’t sound real smart to be to be as close as possible to speeding traffic just because there in a one in ten thousand chance that you won’t be able to avoid an obstacle ahead of you, whether a opening door or leashless hound.

    Oh, and Aaron,briefly blocking a bike lane isn’t dangerous – merely inconvenient. It only requires you to stop and wait. Deliberately hitting her was not cool, even if you did get away with it this time.

  • “If I am driving and another vehicle swerves close to me, I will instinctively swerve right, and right into the path of a bike.”

    PASS WITH CARE.

    If I am way over on the right, chances are you are more likely to NOT pass with care. My choice is basically to *prevent* you from passing on a double yellow (If I read one more LTTE about drivers being “forced” to cross the double yellow I’ll puke).

    The problem is that you are willing to risk passing me in a situation where there is another vehicle coming the opposite direction instead of waiting for an appropriate time. I am not taking the risk – YOU are taking the risk but here’s the fun part, you take the risk, I am the recipient if your gamble doesn’t pay off! Heads you win, tails I lose! Fun!

    If you can’t figure this out – PLEASE go to the DMV and turn in your license.

  • I’m getting a bit concerned that Mick has a driver’s license. Sadly, I’m sure he represents a large majority of drivers.

    Taking the lane makes me feel much safe, out of the door zone (which is more of a risk then 1 in 10,000), and the car behind me won’t speed by and buzz me. I don’t do it often, I usually stay at “sharrow” distance from the curb – about the 1/3 mark. This allows a car to pass but I’m not ruining their day by slowing them down 30 sec.

  • Mike –

    Ah, sharrows – did we forget about them? They show us where people should be riding. Hard to argue with those (though it pains me especially when I see others still riding to the right of them).

  • Mick–V2

    JohnM

    Why assume I am passing anyone? They could be passing me and then cut back in too soon. Or it could be a car coming the other way moving into my lane.

    And criticizing a driver who has passed a test and has a license, when neither of those is required of a cyclist, is a bit much.

    Be safe; keep left.

  • Yeah, sharrows are 50/50 with me. I like them because it shows I belong and helps keep people out of the door zone. However, it makes drivers think either A) cyclists are only allowed to be that far out or B) cyclists aren’t allowed on streets that don’t have them.

  • “And criticizing a driver who has passed a test and has a license, when neither of those is required of a cyclist, is a bit much.”

    My Grandmother is 95 years old. She took – and passed – a road test to get a drivers license 67 years ago. Has never been required to take another road test. Still has her drivers license.

    A drivers license isn’t a very high bar.

  • thielges

    Mick – As I mentioned before the CVC’s use of the word “practicable” is unfortunate and confuses some people (as you have demonstrated) because it is not in common usage. Because of that there’s a lot of confusion on the roads that creates tension and sometimes rage. That’s unfortunate and avoidable. Some cities like San Francisco have been proactive by installing “Bikes Allowed Use of Full Lane” signs in key locations. Other like San Jose decline to clarify this confusing law, propagating the tension and rage.

    The fact remains that bicycles are legal vehicles on almost every street in the bay area. The need to take the lane is awkward and I personally dislike riding that way. But I’ll take safety over comfort. I prefer streets that don’t require taking the lane. I avoid them when possible as well as recommend that cities reconfigure those streets to eliminate the conflict.

    In the situation I mentioned at the very worst taking the lane delays motorists 3-5 seconds. But usually the delay is moot due to traffic lights that equalize traffic. The vast majority of motorists are calm, courteous, and careful but a few bad eggs conclude that cyclists have to be riding further to the right and take vigilante action.

    Your swerve case is interesting though a bit of a red herring. The two feet between staying out of the door zone or not doesn’t really matter.

    Also know that if you had been riding aside a biker who took the whole lane, you would have had to legally change lanes anyways to pass. You don’t swerve into a lane without looking first do you ? You’re responsible to be aware of the traffic around you, even traffic on little two wheeled vehicles.

    I hope you reconsider your feelings about this situation because your approach to driving seems to be dangerous.

  • Katherine Roberts

    A guy got killed in the Richmond about 10 or so years ago, I don’t remember his name, but he was a young guy & a very experienced cyclist. A door opened in front of him & he was going too fast to stop. It crushed his trachea & he died instantly. He *WAS* wearing a helmet, but that didn’t protect his windpipe. This was a terrible occurrence & it affected all of us viscerally.

    There was a woman who was riding around 6th Avenue just south of Judah, around the same time. She was coming around a blind curve and a woman opened her door & killed her. The woman got off without even being charged because she had been sitting in her parked car for quite awhile (or so she said), & she looked once (or so she said) & then looked away before she opened her door, & that’s when the cyclist ran into her. It sounded like a carefully rehearsed story her lawyer came up with that got her through all the legal loopholes. But regardless of all that, that young woman is still dead.

    These are very serious issues, please don’t minimize them. Any driver who shrugs them off is putting people’s lives at risk. If you don’t understand this you’re fooling yourself. I hope it doesn’t take blood on your bumper to make you see that.

  • micV2

    Thielges,

    I will address your specific points carefully as I think they are illustrative and educational:

    “The fact remains that bicycles are legal vehicles on almost every street in the bay area. The need to take the lane is awkward and I personally dislike riding that way.”

    I feel sure that you feel awkward riding that way. But my point wasn’t ultimately about awkwardness, being considerate or legality. It was about safety. The closer you are to moving traffic, the more likely you are to be impacted by lateral movement, whether swerves or sideswipes. And that discounts the obvious problem inherent with having frustrated high-speed traffic behind you, which itself places you at risk of tight overtakes and road rage.

    And remember that, as “legal vehicles” you are required to pull over if there are five or more cars stuck behind you. And if don’t, you run the risk of a ticket, but also of the cars behind you maybe being a little less concerned with your safety.

    “Also know that if you had been riding aside a biker who took the whole lane, you would have had to legally change lanes anyways to pass”

    As I told John, I may need to swerve for reasons other than passing, e.g. another vehicle cuts in front of me, or one coming the opposite way pulls out, or a dog or child runs out, and so on.. Why would you want to be close to me when that happens?

    “You don’t swerve into a lane without looking first do you ? You’re responsible to be aware of the traffic around you, even traffic on little two wheeled vehicles.”

    No, I don’t swerve in front of a cyclist by choice. But given the choice of hitting a 3 ton SUV coming the other way at 60mph and hitting you then, sorry, but it’s going to be you. And even that assumes it’s a conscious choice. More likely my instincts would have committed me long before rational thought intervened. Self-survival can’t be over-ridden.

    “I hope you reconsider your feelings about this situation because your approach to driving seems to be dangerous.”

    It’s not about my feelings or me reconsidering anything. It’s about how I react in a life-and-death situation when I have milliseconds to respond. And even if I know you are there, you’d be sacrificed if the alternative is front-ending an oncoming truck.

    Which is why it makes sense to always give yourself as much lateral distance between yourself and the prevailing traffic as possible. Compared to the alternative, going head-first over a door and dusting yourself off seems vastly preferable.

    Katherine

    Those cases are sad but, as the saying goes, anecdotes aren’t evidence. Two serious cases in 10 years isn’t actually that many – there have probably been more serious accidents from changing lightbulbs or mowing the grass. And of course what we don’t know is how many cyclists got hit because they were riding too far left to avoid the risk of dooring. Could be more.

    As for jailing drivers for accidents, where there was no intent to harm, that could be counter-productive. If I ever hit a cyclist, I’d stop and help, maybe saving their life. If I thought I might go to jail for a few years for an accident, I might just be tempted, in the heat of the moment, to pretend I never noticed and drive away. I really, really don’t want your blood on my bumper but when all things are considered, it is YOUR blood.

    Look guys, I really don’t care what you all do and, one way or the other, I will get ahead of you and be on my way. But as JohnM revealingly said, vis-a-vis a car, it’s “heads I win; tails you lose”. I am merely inviting you to reflect on the downside of riding as far left as possible. If being legal or considerate doesn’t matter to you, maybe being safe will. And just as cyclists advise drivers to “slow down” if there might be cyclists ahead, why not “slow down” if you think people might be getting out of cars?

  • Sounds like a string of veiled threats. Thanks for making a little more nervous out on the roads.

  • Riding in the far left of the bike lane is legal, considerate, safe… AND often as not it’s easy to beat the cars (city congestion is a b*tch!! 😉

  • Al

    A lot of these examples are a bit weird. SUV coming at 60 mph? Another vehicle cutting in front of you? What sorts of streets are you talking about? I don’t think there are many

    The fact remains that “getting run down from behind” is a rare occurrence. Probably because most people aren’t psychos. The common dangers are turns, intersections, drunk drivers, and, yes, doorings. Two fatalities in ten years is a significant fraction– how many are there usually, two a year?

    Also, yeah– “one way or the other, I will get ahead of you and be on my way”– is a pretty ominous statement.

  • prinzrob

    Giving strangers on the street safety “lessons” is an entirely pointless endeavor. I get so many such “lessons” from car drivers all the time, usually after I have made a specific maneuver intended to preserve my own safety through a dangerous intersection or narrow stretch of road. Of course they only roll down their windows long enough to spew their ignorance, and then speed off feeling smug and self important before a real conversation about bike safety can ensue.

    No matter how right you are, no stranger on the street who has been scolded by a passerby has ever thought “Hmm, you know, they have a point there.” At best, if someone is doing something that directly impacts my personal safety I will give them a hearty “Hey!” to get their attention, but all the other stupidity I see on the streets on a daily basis just earns an eye roll. Particularly bad behavior becomes an anecdote to share with friends and family at the end of the day, in part as a joke but also as a shared “what not to do” agreement.

  • prinzrob

    Hate to feed the troll but @McV8:

    If I were operating a vehicle as capable of as much damage and injury as the average car driver, I’d behave with modesty, humility and restraint. The responsibility lies with the operators of the more powerful vehicles, not the more vulnerable ones. Did Spider Man teach us nothing?!

    How about we just put the bike lanes in the middle of the road and the car lanes within a couple feet of parked cars. I think after just the first few doors got ripped off people would learn to start looking before stepping out.

  • prinzrob

    Per my comment above about the pointlessness of chastising strangers on the street, the same goes for website comments boards, so it appears I have actually learned nothing.

  • JimD

    Aaron Bialick

    Bicyclists already take no responsibility for public safety. Passing a law to give them immunity would just reinforce entitlement attitudes. You don’t have to listen to me though…I’m just JimD no body bus rider. That’s why it was ok for bicyclist to not stop behind all the cars waiting on the the N Judah and yell I have no brakes and ram a concussion into my head right?

  • JimD –

    A little bit of an exaggeration & over-generalization, don’t you think? I’m sorry to hear that once you get on a bicycle, you won’t take any responsibility for public safety.

    Not sure if you actually read the article I linked:

    “Strict liability encourages more careful driving (and cycling, because a cyclist would be deemed to be at fault for crashing into a pedestrian).”

  • I agree with prinzrob mostly, but:

    “No matter how right you are, no stranger on the street who has been scolded by a passerby has ever thought “Hmm, you know, they have a point there.””

    When I get negative feedback on the street over something I did on my bike, I usually take it as a pretty good sign that I should have handled that better. Over the years, learning from such incidents has helped me become a better rider… and I rarely get negative feedback anymore 😉 (Unless it’s from a clueless yahoo who HAS NO POINT!!1!)

  • thielges

    Mick – Though your action movie scenarios are entertaining, real life is much more mundane. You’re basically suggesting that cyclists make a tradeoff to defend against a severe and rare event by putting themselves at risk of a much more probable but less exciting hazard.

    Bicyclists are vulnerable and even small things like hitting a car door or getting a wheel stuck in a drainage grate can have grave consequences.

    Coincidentally my number came up again Wednesday night. This time it wasn’t on that busy commercial street I mentioned before but rather a quiet residential street (Easy St. in Mt. View). The door popped open right next to me as I passed, from fully closed to fully open in an instant. It all happened so fast that it startled both of us. Had I been following your advice there’s no doubt that I would have hit the pavement. The motorist might have been injured too. Though it is easy to get peeved at the motorist for being so careless, I take this as a periodic reminder of how dangerous the door zone can be.

  • Mick__v2

    Thielges,

    Those examples I came up with aren’t make believe. I have had passing vehicles cut in in front of me causing me to take evasive action. Ditto, and far more dangerously, when an oncoming vehicle comes into my path, again usually when passing recklessly. And I had a dog run out in front of me just a few weeks ago.

    And there is a serious question raised here – what does a driver do in an emergency when he has a cyclist to his immediate right? Does he swerve and sacrific the cyclist to avoid a much worse collision? Or risk a head-on to save the cyclist? And even that assumes there’s time for a conscious decision rather than instinctive reaction.

    But I think your statement of the equation is a good one: Do you prefer the low probability of a catastrophic accident or a higher probability of a lessor accident? Different for different folks, I guess.

    PeterNatural

    If you can keep up with traffic flows, then fine. But that’s 25mph to 30mph on many streets. You’d need to be very fit to do that.

    And what about the uphills? I’d argue that’s where you’re really going to slow things down by keeping left. And of course at a much slower speed, the risk of dooring is much lower due to your low speed and easy ability to stop quickly.

    Al

    60mph would be the combined impact speed of a head-on collision between 2 vehicles doing 30 each – typical city driving speeds

    PrinzRob

    I agree that nobody wants “advice” which, in any event, is usually self-serving rather than genuinely educational. And particularly, don’t try and lecture drivers.

    But as for the alleged extra burden on drivers – well, you can’t have it both ways. If you want to claim that bikes are “full vehicles” with equal rights to the road, then you can’t simultaneously claim to be the little child that needs to be coddled and protected. Seems you want the best of both words – equality AND with special rights and status.

    Mike/JohnM

    Next time, if you cant refute my points, then please don’t post just to make snide comments. If you have no argument or refutation, then there is no need to clog up the bandwith here at all.

  • Mick,

    I think your triad before was a series of veiled threats at cyclists. I stand by that. I’m more nervous being on the road knowing that people like you are out there.

    That being said, I think you are completely misunderstanding what is being said here. People are advocating riding to the far left of the BIKE LANE. And if there is no bike lane, to ride at the right 1/3 of the traffic lane (sharrows depth). This doesn’t block the lane completely (though that is allowable BY LAW – even if you disagree) and allows the cyclist to be out of the door zone.

    And please know and understand the meaning of practicable. For the safety of everyone on the road.

  • prinzrob

    I don’t think that my expectation of being able to bike in a bike lane, following all the rules and regulations of the road, without being rammed by a car does not equate a desire to be coddled. On the contrary, most streets in this country were designed with only auto traffic in mind, with bike and pedestrian facilities being shoehorned in, so in fact the car drivers are the ones being coddled, and the ones with an inflated sense of entitlement. If we were to start designing a bike-centric infrastructure I can assure you that there would be a lot more bitching from car drivers than you currently hear from bikers.

    The two vehicles I operate on a regular basis are my 23 pound bike, and a 38 foot mobile laboratory for UC Berkeley. When I am driving the mobile lab on the highway at 60+ mph I take extra care and consider it an extreme responsibility, because I know that if I was to get in an accident with your SUV you would be absolutely creamed, regardless of fault. As such I try to keep my speed down, anticipate any sudden moves from the traffic around me, signal all my turns, and give plenty of space between myself and the traffic in front of me. Even if the accident was not my fault, as the driver of the larger and more dangerous vehicle it is my moral responsibility to remain alert and be even more cautious than the traffic around me. Perhaps it is too much to ask for, but I would hope that car drivers take the same approach when operating around bikers and pedestrians.

  • Chris

    Mick,

    I think you are ignoring which of the two situations is easier for a cyclist to avoid.

    In my opinion (as a daily cyclist), it is much easier for me to avoid the swerving SUV. A bicycle being smaller and lighter is much more maneuverable than a car/SUV. Chances are that I am also going to be reacting to the exact same situation that the swerving car/SUV is. The amount of time and distance it takes for a car/SUV to block a bicycle lane are both considerably longer than a car door. A dooring also has the risk of throwing you into the moving travel lanes in which case you are on your back and completely defenseless.

    For me… since the car door situation is something that is much more difficult to react to… that’s the one I’m going to try to avoid. Don’t get me wrong… neither situation is preferable, but I like my chances against a swerving vehicle way more than car door thrown out right in front of me.

  • Mike,

    I’m not sure but think he may not be misunderstanding. Mick’s point is that you should stay as far to the right as possible (far right of the bike lane, if there is a bike lane), because some drivers (example: Mick) have a tendency to swerve unpredictably all over the road, which could happen at any time. So even though you’ll get doored once or twice a year, what’s a little tumble in the dirt compared to getting creamed by a swerving maniac who realized you had to be sacrificed?

  • Mick makes a pretty strong case for the banning of automobiles. To read his comments makes one believe that pretty much every driver is incapable of driving a car.

  • Ha John, I was thinking the same thing though Mick will probably see this as meaning that you should secure yourself in the most heavily armored vehicle you can afford.

    But we all know that cars will never be banned. I’d settle for more stringent examination to weed out sociopath drivers. How ’bout a Voight-Kampff test 🙂 :

    Holden: You’re driving down a desert highway …
    MadMotorist: which desert ?
    H: It doesn’t make any difference what desert, it’s completely hypothetical.
    M: But, how come I’d be there?
    H: Maybe you’re fed up. Maybe you want to be by yourself. Who knows? You look down the road and see a slow truck you want to pass but some bicyclists are coming the other way. You think you can pass but aren’t sure you can overtake without hitting the cyclists. You pass anyway. Why ? …

    ——

    Mick – so you’ve presented two choices :

    1: ride to the left out of the door zone, slightly increasing your chance of getting sideswiped in a rare confluence of events. Maybe you’ll be killed. Maybe you’ll survive with injuries. Maybe you’ll evade the sideswipe altogether.

    2: ride to the right and in the door zone creating a certainty that you’ll eventually be doored. Who knows the outcome ? Maybe you’re emerge with a few scrapes in bruises. Maybe you’ll suffer permanent serious injuries. Maybe you’ll get thrown under the bus : http://www.rwinters.com/docs/DanaLaird.htm

    Getting doored while riding in the door zone is like experiencing an earthquake while living in the SF Bay Area : you never know when it will happen though it is certain that it *will* eventually happen. For daily urban cyclists the potential dooring interval is something like once every 5000-10000 miles. Your head-on collision avoidance scenario is possible though far far less likely than being doored. And given the vulnerability of cyclists the outcome of either event could be severe.

    Given the chance of a high or low possibility of a life threatening collision, I’ll go with low any day.

  • Here is some more advice. Wear a helmet – always

  • patrick

    Here’s some better advice: learn the basics of bike safety, and ignore Tony Belway, he doesn’t seem to have a clue what is important for safety.

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