Wednesday, February 02, 2011

'Separated' bike lanes

This is my column from the Red Dirt Pedalers "Wheel Issues".

I've been reading about various ideas to separate bicyclists from motor traffic using different types of 'protected' bike lanes, but I came away wondering, protected from whom?

Cycle tracks are popular with the let's-turn-our-cities-into-Copenhagen crowd, but absent the density of European cities, enormous taxes on motor vehicles, and exorbitant fuel prices, it'll never happen unless we tear down our cities and start over. In all honesty, some urban planners would be happy to do so, substituting high density housing for suburbs and sprawl. My grandparents arrived here from Europe and lived in high density multi-family housing for a time. They called it a slum. We still do. The planners overlook the problems that cycle tracks introduce, mainly increased numbers of collisions at intersections and between cyclists and pedestrians. Shouldn't we learn from other's mistakes rather than try to emulate them?

Blue bike lanes and magic paint. The theory here seems to be if the application of a magic white paint stripe improves a cyclist's lot, applying even more paint will make things even more better. More paint equates with more magic, apparently. Blue seems to be the accepted color, but one has to wonder if some other colors may offer enhanced magical properties. I vote for chartreuse, or since I ride a Bianchi, the more traditional celeste green.

Protected bike lanes between parked cars and the sidewalk. I saw a video of one of these from New York in which an experienced cyclist was horrified at the risks. Pedestrians came from both sides, some of them obscured by vehicles. Car doors opened, taking up several feet of the lane. Deliverymen pushed carts and people walked their dogs. Wrong-way cyclists wobbled along, oblivious to everyone else. In an emergency, there's nowhere to go. If a pedestrian steps out in front of a cyclist, his choices are to hit the curb, hit a parked car, or hit the pedestrian.

Washington, DC just opened a protected bike lane down the center of a street, apparently in reaction to the obvious defects when such lanes are located between cars and the curb. It may be a better idea, at least until you have to leave the lane in order to make a turn.

Vertical separation devices. A few cities have installed plastic bollards between their bike lanes and motor vehicle lanes. At first, this may seem to be an improvement over the traditional magic paint stripes, but in practice it's worse. The bollards are made from thin plastic tubing attached to an adhesive base. They're about three feet high, perfect for getting caught in spokes if a cyclist has to maneuver quickly. They also make inviting targets for some motorists who mow them down frequently. Pittsburgh used these for lane dividers in construction zones and truckers delighted in running over them. Believe me, you do not want to get one of these under your front tire!

As cyclists and taxpayers, we shouldn't be happy with whatever second rate facility the local planners devise. We should demand genuine safety rather than the mere illusion of safety. We shouldn't have to discover what works through trial and error.


Blogger The Donut Guy said...

My solution is to "take the lane" I do ride in congested city streets from time to time and while it pisses people off- that's what I do when there ain't enough room for me and a car.

I had a major confrontation last year with a motorist.....I now carry a large cannister of bear mace on my handlebars.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Steve A said...

Chandra and I got stuck in a lane by those infernal "vertical separation devices" on our way to LCI Training on Saturday morning. It made us late for class and THAT got us frowned at. We were reluctant to mow them down, but then we went down that road BEFORE reading your post...

7:05 PM  
Blogger Ed W said...

George, based on personal experience, I can tell you that pepper spray will not incapacitate someone. It will barely slow them down. And if they wear glasses, it's pretty much useless.

I first encountered those vertical separators inside the Squirrel Hill Tunnel near Pittsburgh, Steve. They were in use as lane separators during construction when one side of the tunnel was converted to two way traffic. Truckers mowed them down regularly, and the prospect of hitting one at 50 mph on my motorcycle was not one I relished.

8:10 PM  
Blogger Steve A said...

Our vertical separators were separating a "managed HOV lane" from the rest of the road. It managed to take us five miles past where we wanted to exit. We carefully avoided that lane the next morning.

8:29 PM  

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