My friend Matt Bernhardt (who I hope you'll be reading here soon with a story of his own) shared an article from the Cleveland Plain-Dealer with me. It's a very interesting look at the disagreements between the advocates of bike-specific infrastructure such as bike lanes and those of vehicular cycling.
For the record, I happen to be mostly the latter. I think a number of things happen when you have bike-specific infrastructure that are detrimental to cycling and city planning in general. Some of these are mentioned in the article, but for the sake of my arguments I'll mention them here as well.
1. Bike lanes give cyclists and drivers a false sense of security. What is a bike lane? It's simply a few feet on the right side of the road with a line painted to separate it from the car lane. That's it. There's no magic force field there that protects cyclists from motorists who get too close.
2. Bike lanes are natural trash receptacles. Think of the roads you see on your way to work. Where does trash collect on the road? In the center? In the middle of the traffic lanes? No. It collects on the side of the road. Most roads are built to rise in the middle and fall away from the middle of the road to a low point on the sides. And that's where they want cyclists to ride. So unless the municipalities are going to CONSTANTLY be sweeping out the bike lanes, cyclists are either going to have to risk riding OVER trash (possibly throwing their wheels around dangerously) or going around it - swerving out of the bike lane into the car lanes. Which leads to my next point.
3. Bike lanes lead motorists to believe that bikes BELONG in bike lanes. First, let's say that you're in a bike lane on a four lane road (two lanes in either direction plus a bike lane on the outside of the street on either side). You get to a point in your ride where you need to turn left. So you raise your left arm to signal that you need to get over. What's going to be be safer, having to cross two lanes of cars to get to the left-most point so you can turn, or having to cross one lane, as you're already riding in a manner that allows you to control the right-most lane?
Second, one of the frequent reasons you hear for cyclists receiving poor treatment from motorists is that the motorists don't expect to see cyclists in their lanes. Let's face it: cars allow motorists to drive as if they wearing blinders. Whatever they don't want to see, they ignore. And that includes a bunch of bicyclists in a bike lane. The presence of the bike lane takes the cyclists out of their way. So if a cyclist needs to make that left turn and suddenly (in the motorist's view) makes a left turn signal to change lanes, is that motorist even going to see it? Is that motorist going to accept that the cyclist probably just needs to make a left, which the cycling infrastructure doesn't provide for? Or is he going to get angry, wondering what that stupid cyclist is trying to do by leaving that bike lane, where he belongs!
4. What happens when the bike lane ends? Unless you're in Portland, Davis, Boulder, Madison, or one of these cities whose urban planning has revolved around both bikes and cars for decades, you probably don't have a lot of room to expand every road in town to accommodate bike lanes. So that means that the lanes will have to end somewhere. What happens when they do? When cyclists are suddenly thrust back out into the normal flow of traffic, you are looking at an accident waiting to happen.
5. What happens when your bike lanes are a success? Okay, let's say that somehow you're able to put in your bike lanes, and they attract countless more cyclists to the roads. In fact, they attract so many cyclists to the roads that the bike lanes are becoming more dangerous due to the problem of trying to cram tons of cyclists into a few very small spaces. We're seeing complaints of this in Portland now. Wouldn't it be better to have the cyclists in an already well-established path of travel, like a car lane, where there's plenty of room to ride and plenty of room for increases in the rates of travel by cyclists? Every problem above will be exacerbated by the small space that is available in a bike lane.
The answer, then, is not to build bike lanes. Instead, use that money on education and enforcement. The Plain-Dealer article missed that crucial second part of the equation. Sure - education is important, but if no one is going to enforce the traffic code, then all that education means precisely nothing.
What's the number one legitimate complaint you hear from motorists about cyclists (I say "legitimate" to disqualify statements like "They belong on the sidewalk")?
"They don't follow the rules of the road."The problem is twofold: most cyclists don't know HOW to ride the road, and no one is making them do it via proper and correct enforcement.
All most cyclists hear is that they have to stay to the right, and occasionally use signals. They haven't been told that they need to heed traffic signals and laws. They haven't been taught that they have the right to take the lane if necessary. They haven't been taught that the law allows them to go at a speed that's acceptable for a bike and not a car. They worry too much about holding up traffic and not enough on their own safety. Or they worry too much about both issues and ride on the sidewalk.
They have no idea that there are proper techniques and rules for riding. Let's face it: the ratio of cyclists who actively pay attention to the bicycling community and media versus cyclists who are just people who said "I'm gonna ride my bike today" and hopped on and took off is very low. And these same folks aren't going to know how to ride in a bike lane properly, either.
So they hug the curb, allowing cars to pass them too closely. They run red lights and ride on the sidewalk, endangering themselves and others. They panic because they think a cop is going to ticket them for riding too slow. Or they ride on the sidewalk, which helps neither their fellow cyclists nor the pedestrians who DO belong on the sidewalk.
The answer is cyclist education. Make this part of high school civics or something. Or as a general lesson in traffic safety as part of middle school, or even earlier.
And educate the police, too. Let them know what's acceptable for cyclists on the road, and what they can and cannot enforce. Bob Mionske's article in Bicycling Magazine of a few weeks back shows this need clearly.
Then the police can go out and properly enforce the law. They can ticket people who buzz cyclists. They can force cyclists off the sidewalks and into the road where they belong.
Segregating riders from the rest of traffic is not the answer. It's a stop-gap measure designed to please paranoid cyclists and greedy drivers, and to make politicians look good by "taking action to improve things for cyclists and make our city green." If it gets more people cycling, it's doomed to failure. If it gets no one else out cycling, it's doomed to failure.
Educate and enforce, and you're on your way to a better community for cyclists, drivers, and everyone else.
People, not speed.