11 May 2016

Bike Lane Follies, Here And Down Under

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you might have noticed that I am not enthusiastic, in general, about bike lanes. 

A separate bike lane, especially one that runs alongside traffic, is not intrinsically safer for cyclists than a traffic lane on a typical city or suburban street.  The biggest flaw in most bike lanes I've seen and ridden is that they're positioned so that it's all but impossible for cyclists, especially inexperienced ones, to turn or cross safely at major intersections.  This is particularly true for those lanes that, in effect, turn into the right-turn lane for motor vehicles at such intersections, or for those streets that have right-turn-only lanes that cross the bike lane.  Things are even worse for a cyclist making a left turn at such an intersection, as he or she must cross several lanes of traffic coming from different directions.  This particular hazard is exacerbated when traffic flows off a highway into the intersection.

There are also other hazards, such as pedestrians who use the bike lanes as sidewalks or who wander onto them while they're texting or talking on their phones.  Two of the worst lanes I've experienced for that are the portion of Manhattan's First Avenue lane below (south of) 14th Street and Brooklyn's Kent Avenue lane (the one that skirts the Williamsburg waterfront).  Both lanes are lined with stores, restaurants, clubs and bars.  The clubs and bars pose particular hazards, especially during evenings and weekends, with patrons staggering out to the lanes.  But even shoppers and restaurant-goers too often aren't paying attention to their surroundings as they walk, and sometimes talk, with others.  And, of course, the drinkers, shoppers and restaurant-goers often leave debris in the lane.

Not to mention the drivers who steer their vans and trucks into the lanes to make deliveries at those establishments--or the driver who  pulls in mistakenly, to make a turn or, on rare occasion, out of sheer malice.  And, yes, police officers who their cruisers in the lanes while they're having coffee.

But even worse than the hazards I've mentioned or lanes that are poorly-designed (or -constructed or -maintained) are those that are built in ignorance or defiance of regulations governing them.  One such lane is found in Melbourne, Australia:

Apparently, according to Austroad's guidelines (see p. 30, Figure 4.27) a bike lane should be 1.2 to 1.5 meters wide and be separated from the parking lane by a strip 0.4 to 1.0 meters wide.  The bike lane in the video clearly does not follow that principle.

A few years ago, I was "doored" in a similar lane not far from my apartment in Queens.  The marked bike lane was not in any way separated from the parking lane to the right of it.  Fortunately for me, I did not take a full facial hit; I took a glancing blow that left me looking like I was pregnant on one side for a couple of weeks.

Now, from what I understand, Austroad's guidelines are not law or in-any-other-way-binding policy, so perhaps the designer of the lane in the video was (in addition to a non-cyclist, most likely) possibly ignorant of them. 

Similarly, the Department of Transportation here in New York City has guidelines for bike lanes (pp.55-59) but they are essentially unenforceable.  To be fair, those guidelines include some of the flaws I have pointed out in this and other posts.  However, the guidelines call for physical barriers between two-way bike lanes and arterial streets, in addition to clear markings between one-way bike lanes and narrower streets.  I have ridden on bike lanes that fail to meet those criteria.  And, worse, those lanes include some of the other design flaws I've mentioned, particularly when it comes to turns and merges--or, worst of all, bike lanes that suddenly disappear.

The thing that rankles me most, though, is that even such dry technical documents as the ones issued by the Department of Transportation continue to blithely tout the "benefits" of bike lanes for cyclists as well as motorists.    A poorly-designed or -constructed bike lane helps no one and, if anything, only fuels anger and resentments between motorists and cyclists.


  1. IMHO, the only purpose of "protected" bike lanes is for the convenience and comfort of motor vehicle operators. It amazes me to read and hear all the propaganda out there about how bike lanes are "safer" for us and that traffic engineers are working hard improving the urban cycling experience. i feel we were safer before they got involved... it seems none of these designers is a cyclist.

  2. I am curious Justine, how you would compare Riding a bike in Europe as opposed to he US? Over here we have basically only separated, (by at least a meter and a kerb,) two-way bike paths, and bikes are legally equal to cars.

    My experience is cycling in Finland, Sweden and Germany on the one hand, and in cities in The Pacific NW in the US. The short version... European drivers depend on cyclists obeying the rules and laws and tend to go fast, depending on the infrastructure to do the work, assuming the cyclists know what they are doing. In the US, I find drivers are a bit afraid of the situation and many tend to be over cautious and yield right-of-way in situations where they really don't have to. I was surprised at how careful most US drivers are compared to the much more aggressive (but law-abiding) Germans.

    When I started reading English language cycling blogs about 10-12 years ago, it took me a while to figure out what "dooring" means. I know you could be "floored", but... It is a very rare occurrence here.


    PS. I am not trying to dominate the comments. Speak up, people.

  3. I was just thinking about bike lanes! My husband recently had to take a written exam at the California DMV in connection with a license renewal. One question was about whether cars could be in a bike lane if the dividing line is solid. He answered no, thinking the only time you can be in the lane is when the line is broken coming up on an intersection in order to turn. But the DMV lady said cars could be in the lane even if the line was solid. I haven't looked up the Vehicle Code for this rule yet. But I agree; in any event I don't see how such bike lanes make bikes any safer. We have the rule now that cars need to stay at least 3 feet away from bicycles but someone came quite close to me on my own residential street the other day. I think lots of drivers here either don't know or don't care about that particular rule.

  4. Mike, Leo and Frenchy--To me, bike lanes that are designated only by lines of paint are pretty useless and possibly even worse than no designated lane at all.

    And, as you say, Frenchy, rules like the one you mention are about as enforceable as cell phone bans.

    Yes, Mike, the lanes are really for drivers--at least their sense of self-satisfaction--and not the cyclists.

    Leo--I would pretty much concur with what you say. Even though Europeans drive faster (at least in my experience, which has been mainly in France and Italy) I feel safer around them, because at least they understand cycling and cyclists. And, as you suggest, the reactions of many American drivers have more to do with intimidation than hostility.