22 June 2012

Bike Lanes To Nowhere

Greenpoint Avenue, Brooklyn:  Bike Lane To Nowhere

There's a planner who's sure he knows what cyclists need
And he's building a bike lane to nowhere
What he's finished he knows, if the mayor needs their votes
With a word he can get a grant for one more 
Ooh, ooh and he's building a bike lane to nowhere.

If you're a Led Zeppelin fan, I hope you're not offended.  But after riding on yet another "bike lane to nowhere," I found myself intoning the phrase to the tune of "Stairway to Heaven."

If you've read some of my earlier posts, you probably know that I'm somewhere between skeptical and ambivalent about building bike lanes. If they're well-conceived and -constructed, they can be a boon to cyclists. Sometimes it really is nice to be able to ride without having to worry about traffic and such.

But that "if" is a big one.  Too often, I've ridden on bike lanes that seem to go from nowhere to nowhere or, worse, that begin or end abruptly.  

The latter is what one experiences when cycling along Greenpoint Avenue from Greenpoint, Brooklyn into Long Island City, Queens, as I frequently do.  Greenpoint Avenue is two lanes wide, with the bike lane on the side, in Brooklyn.  But at the bridge over Newtown Creek, which separates Brooklyn from Queens, the roadway widens to four lanes, with no shoulder and a narrow walkway on which cyclists aren't allowed to ride (although cyclists do it all the time).  

Worse still, on the Queens side of the bridge, the roadway crosses a very confusing intersection, which includes a street used mainly by trucks (It's mainly an industrial area) that approaches the intersection from behind.  Also, car and truck traffic exits a nearby expressway and turns from  Van Dam Street, into the point of the intersection a cyclist would approach when exiting the bridge.  But the traffic is approaching from the opposite direction.  

To me, it's a wonder that there haven't been more accidents in that intersection!

What's really disturbing, to me, is that it's probably not the worst-conceived lane I've ever ridden.  But since I ride in the area frequently, it's one of my biggest safety concerns.  

Perhaps just as bad as the poor conception and construction of bike lanes--and the biggest reasons for my ambivalence and skepticism--are the illusion of safety they give some cyclists and the misconceptions about safety they foster among non-cyclists.  A lane that's separated from traffic but abruptly leaves cyclists in intersections like the one I described puts them in even more danger than riding on the streets would.  This is one reason why John Forester (author of Effective Cycling, one of the best cycling books in English) has long argued that such lanes will ultimately hinder any efforts to get non-cyclists, planners and the rest of the public to see bicycles as transportation vehicles and not merely recreational toys. 

When such things are pointed out, non-cyclists don't understand why we're "ungrateful" that their tax dollars are spent on bike lanes.  And planners who don't understand what bike safety is continue to build bike lanes to nowhere.


  1. You might commiserate with the folks that publish the bad cycle facility of the month at http://homepage.ntlworld.com/pete.meg/wcc/facility-of-the-month/ They're British, and most of the facilities they feature are in the UK, but some are positively dreadful.

    I agree that badly designed bike lanes are worse than no bike lanes. But I don't accept the argument that the goal is bikes should just act like cars and have have no special facilities, either. Well designed bike lanes can make using the road safer and more enjoyable for both bikes and cars. Sadly, the good bike facilities are often outnumbered by the bad.

  2. Funny you should mention Effective Cycling. My copy arrived yesterday. I look forward to seeing what got changed - as well as what did not. Given Forester's age, this may be the final edition.

  3. Ailish--Thanks for the tip. I think some of Forester's arguments against bike lanes were made at a time (30+ years ago) when there were far fewer cyclists (at least in the US) and even fewer people who used bicycles as their primary form of transportation. It was also based in a time when there were far fewer bike lanes, nearly all of which were bad, in the US. So, as per Steve's comment, I want to see the latest edition of his book to see whether he's revised his position.\

    Steve--If I'm not mistaken, Forester is on the other side of 80. So you may well be right, sadly. Perhaps someone else will pick up where he leaves off.

  4. Born in October of 1929, that'd make Forester closing in on 83. Of course, being a cyclist, he's a YOUNG 83. Still, that makes it possible the new edition rpresents his last real legacy to the cycling world and that makes the new cover doubly unfortunate.

  5. Forty five years ago I knew the head of roads for the region and they were maintained better than they have been since. Could it be that he only travelled by bicycle?

    All bikeways and safety features for the disabled should be demonstrated as fit for purpose by those responsible for designing and building them, They would be improved overnight!.

  6. Coline--I don't know how things work here in the UK. But here in the US, money and contracts seem to be the main considerations in considering a project's worthiness. Sadly, few of those involved are cyclists (at least, people who ride for transportation as well as recreation) or people who get around with wheelchairs or walkers.