Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Designing for Bicycle Riders: Is There a Best Practice?

I'm going to diverge into bicycling for a post.  There seems to be a division occurring in the bicycling community that I've been giving a lot of thought to.  Mr. Mayor recently appointed me to the city's Bicycling and Trails Advisory Committee.  I heard through the grapevine that a city councilor was looking for me to fill a spot on the committee, and I believe that was in response to a letter I wrote to the newspaper criticizing the mayor's sudden announcement of a green bike lane initiative.  We had just wrapped up a Santa Fe County Bicycle Master Plan a couple of years ago.  The master plan is well thought out and fairly comprehensive.  According to the news article I read, the mayor had spoken with a bike shop owner downtown who had recommended green bike lanes.  At first glance, the idea sounded horrible and not thought out at all.  If things unfolded as they typically do, I could see some disjointed, strips of green flaking paint on the side of the road in remote areas that did not really go anywhere or connect to anything.  Santa Fe recently received a silver designation from the League of American Bicyclists as a bicycle friendly city, and we're hoping to reach a gold designation soon.  We don't need more plans.  We need to stick with the plan we've come up with.

We seem to be slipping into two distinct design philosophies in this country based on my loose observation of my Twitter feed.  I'm a League Cycling Instructor, albeit a fairly inactive one, and my background is in Vehicular Cycling.  When the Bicycling and Trails Advisory Committee was formed, I quickly became part of the on-street subcommittee because I reacted to another news story that the money in the bond cycle was "money for trails."  It was not money for trails, it was money for bike facilities.  Among other things, our subcommittee was responsible for getting sharrows on narrow roads in the city, and we also pushed through traffic signal triggering symbols showing bicyclists where to park to trigger the traffic signals.

Lately, on Twitter, I've been seeing these very sharrows, that I believe are effective reminders that bicycles belong on the roads, even if the exact import of the symbols is misunderstood by almost everyone, mocked and attacked.  These attacks come from some people I do admire, and I followed on purpose, like Mikail Colville-Andersen, but there's a few people/magazines I've started following haphazardly - Momentum Mag and Chris Bruntlett are a couple - that retweet a lot of vehicular cycling critical tweets.  The entire Green Lane Project seems to be coming from a group called People for Bikes.

Now here's the thing - I am sympathetic to the concept, but I just do not see protected bike lanes as safe in most instances.  In a city, where there are few curb cuts, and bicyclists are largely trying to get from one side of the city to another, or from the terminus of one urban trail to the beginning of another, maybe.  Otherwise, how is a protected bike lane unlike a sidepath, or even riding on a sidewalk, and it's clear that riding on the sidewalk is one of the leading causes of getting hit by turning traffic.  Santa Fe is an old city with narrow streets and low speed limits.  We have lots of curb cuts, so there aren't many places where a protected bike lane would make sense to me personally.  In some discussions, I have mentioned that, well, maybe we could put a protected bike lane down the length of St. Francis, which is actually a state highway running through the city - 6-8 lanes, 45 mph speed limit, few curb cuts.  When I bring that up, everyone says "who would ride down St. Francis?"  It's a valid question.  The rail trail parallels it.  There's not a really good reason for using it.

I often ride in the bike lane on Cerrillos Rd., another high speed arterial cutting from the outskirts of the city to downtown.  The part of it near where I live was redone a few years ago.  Now we have the traffic lanes, a bicycle lane, a bus lane, and the sidewalk.  The bike lane puts you out there next to the traffic so that both the traffic sees you, and the people pulling out of the driveways and side roads see you.  It's a very safe place to be on a bicycle.

I do understand that many people are not ready to jump right in to being a full vehicular cyclist.  In an ideal world, I would love it if the number of roads/lanes cars could use were drastically reduced and some version of a workable protected bike area could be implemented that would still allow for bicycle riders to move into a left turn lane safely, etc.  Six lane major road?  Give the cars one lane in each direction, slow the speed to 20 mph, and use the other two lanes for linear parks with ample bike paths.  That would be ideal.  But in the meantime, I do not understand this attack on vehicular cycling, nor - as someone who doesn't think of himself as a "bicyclist" per se - this portrayal of people who ride in traffic as lycra-clad daredevils who don't really care about the common man.  I believe bike lanes, in almost all cases, belong next to travel lanes, not on the passenger side of the parked cars.  Side paths need to remain labeled a bad practice.  Educating people on how to bicycle should remain a priority.  Sharrows send an important message.

What's up People for Bikes?

The mayor's green bike lanes are going through as a test, but they're being used exclusively to guide bicyclists through busy intersections.  In that context, I think it sounds great.  Anything that both guides bicyclists out of the right turn lanes and alerts motorists that bicycles are supposed to be out there sounds good to me.  I'm looking forward to the test intersections.

In the meantime, I would love to hear from people in locations that have implemented Green Lane Project ideas, and who have protected bike lanes, how they are working out.  Are they mostly in areas that don't have a lot of curb cuts?  I don't see how they would work otherwise.  Is there guidance for bicycles moving into left turn lanes to turn left?  How is that working out?  I would love to better understand how pursuing an ideal of protected bike lanes while denigrating vehicular cycling helps everyone who wants to cycle get from their home to their destination.

I love to be out on the bike paths, because I don't like the noise and congestion of cars, but there comes a time on every trip when you have to become part of traffic.  We need to stop this silly attack on vehicular cycling.

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