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Do we really want bike lanes?

Courtesy of
The Portland bike lane still has cars and trucks driving in to it to make a right turn, park, drop people off, deliver stuff, pull out of a parking spot (without looking?), get around another vehicle, or just because it looks like a great place to drive. logo

Tony Hunt recently put up a great post (Park, Portland, and Alliteration) which garnered a question of why more people aren’t riding on these wonderful new bike lanes. This is not an uncommon question when new bicycle facilities go in, with most people also thinking “after all that money was spent and lanes taken away from cars”.

Well, it’s a bike lane. It’s a great bike lane, probably the best bike lane in the Twin Cities, but it’s still a bike lane. It still has cars whizzing very close by at 45 mph—separated only by a bit of paint, that disappears under snow in winter and is pretty well gone after five years anyway. It still has cars and trucks driving in to the bike lane to make a right turn, park, drop people off, deliver stuff, pull out of a parking spot (without looking?), get around another vehicle, or just because it looks like a great place to drive (and looks better and better with each beer or cell call the driver has had). It collects tire flattening and fall producing debris that only get swept away occasionally. It gets clogged with snow in winter and anyone daring to use it in winter is likely to get splattered with salty slush by those cars going 45 mph next to it. And then there’s the salt dust in your eyes and mouth after things dry out a bit. And after all of that, you still have to share a right turn lane (even though you’re going straight) with cars and the, not unfounded, fear that they will turn in to you and crush you.

What mom wouldn’t want to take her kids for a thrill bicycle ride on Park or Portland?

Don’t get me wrong, these bike lanes are a great improvement for some of us. I’ll take these over what was there before any day. But, they’re not even minimally good enough for the vast majority. So, instead of the 2% of us who were willing to ride on Park before, now maybe 4% of people are willing to do so. That’s good. But what about the other 96%?

Along with the 7 bicyclists they killed in Minnesota last year, drivers of cars also killed 276 people in cars (and over 100 pedestrians and others). Who really thinks it’s a good idea to share the road with these folks?  Even with those painted lines to protect you?

Here are the keys that, in my opinion, need to happen to get people bicycling:

Safe, Comfortable, Segregated Cycleways – Rational people don’t like to mix with motor traffic. They know, and feel in their gut, that we can’t even keep people in steel caged cars safe on our roads, what chance do they stand on a bike. Most people will not begin riding much until they have physically segregated cycleways that they feel safe riding on, are safe riding on, and can count on being available year-round. Bike lanes, boulevards, and sharrows are great, but they’re only great for a very few, and many fewer during winter.

segregated bike path
Rational people don’t like to mix with motor traffic.

Intersections need to be made safe and efficient and the entire network of cycleways needs to be smooth enough that people can carry a fews pints home on their rack without bottles breaking. A good measuring stick of safety and navigability is if it’s good enough for parents to allow their 8-year-old to ride a mile or two, by themselves, to school. Anything less may not be worth it.

Complete Reliable Network – People need to be able to go somewhere. If they can’t get from here to there safely, comfortably, and reliably, they ain’t gonna do it.  Imagine if the only roads for cars were those that currently have good segregated bikeways? And that they were often closed with no viable detour? How many people would invest in a car? Or use one very often if they had it?

Perhaps most important, we need great infrastructure at destinations. People may be able to get close to places on Grand Ave, Lake Street or Central Ave, but the closer they come to their destination, the more terrified they become of being killed. Even if they quash their fear, they then can’t find good places to park and lock their bikes once there.

By the way, this is a very equal opportunity problem in the suburbs as well as urban areas.

Bikes – The vast majority of bikes sold in our bike shops are not appropriate for daily transportation for most people. They’re complicated, uncomfortable, unreliable, and have exposed chains, gears, and brakes that ruin clothes and don’t do well in anything but the best weather. There’s a reason that few people in Europe ride them. People need to know that there are better alternatives in the form of city bikes and cargo bikes. Bikes that are dependable and easy to ride anytime no matter what you’re wearing.

Bike Shops – Bike shops in the U.S. are geared towards kids toys and recreation. Recreational shops make much of their money from selling accessories that most people don’t need, namely helmets, gloves, jersey’s, and shorts. Most of these shops have little or no knowledge about bicycling for daily transportation for the average person nor do they stock the appropriate bikes.

We need shops that are knowledgeable about and focused on transportation cycling instead of recreation. Shops that stock good city and cargo bikes (not just replicas) and who understand the needs of the average mom who wants to bike to the store with her children every day. Shops that make their money on the bikes and don’t need to push unnecessary clothes, shoes, gloves, and helmets. And, we need more shops. Lots more shops. People need shops with dependable bike repair close by so that if something happens they can get to a shop for repair. 200 small shops with 20 bikes each is much better than 50 big shops with 80 bikes each.

Mindshare – People need to think about riding. We’ve been getting in cars for the half-mile trip to the store two generations—bicycles are toys for kids or maybe for recreation, not for transportation. We need to plant seeds that bicycles are great for daily transportation in regular daily clothes for regular people of all ages. And, that bicycling is safe (yes, even despite what I wrote above) and does not require helmets any more than walking down the sidewalk does. Even in places that now have fairly good segregated infrastructure, this will take time, but it’s coming.

What came first, the bikeway or the bicyclist?

Both will take time. Even with really good Dutch style cycletracks, paths, intersections, bikes, and shops, things will take time. It will take time for the average person who doesn’t ride much, or at all, to begin thinking of riding as an alternative. It will take time for all of the little segments of good infrastructure to be connected so that people can actually go somewhere. It will take time for people to know that there are good alternatives to being hunched over with your pants stuffed fashionably down your socks so only your socks get greased by the chain. It will take time to get enough bicyclists to support the density of shops necessary to support transportation cycling throughout the metro.

Bicycling in The Netherlands didn’t happen overnight. It took years of effort to accomplish what they have today. In the 1960’s they were not much different than the U.S. They were on the same car-dominant trajectory.

One major difference may be that The Netherlands didn’t have a contingent of ‘cyclists’ running stop signs and pushing for share-the-road vehicular cycling—bicycles doing battle with cars. They started off with segregated bicycle facilities that 40 years ago were safer and more inviting than what we build today and call state of the art. They started with the idea that all children should be able to safely ride their bikes to school or the store. How many rational parents would let their 8-year-old ride by themselves to school on those Park and Portland bike lanes?

We can continue with this interim step of bike lanes for the daring 2% and wait 40 years for something better, or we can skip this step and go directly to a much safer and more inviting infrastructure for everyone that will get many more people riding much sooner.

This post was written by Walker Angell and originally published on Follow on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 10/04/2013 - 11:59 am.

    Biker safety

    I’m all for totally segregated bikeways. I think they’re the only way to greatly improve safety and thus increase bicycle use for daily activities.

    Thanks for mentioning bike riders who are oblivious to red lights and stop signs, as if their moral superiority will keep them from getting hit by cars with the right of way. I understand a bike rider keeping going through a stop sign when there’s no cross traffic, but when there is, the rider with the stop sign or red light needs to follow the rules! One of my scarier experiences occurred several years ago, as I passed a bike rider and then stopped at a stop sign, signaled for a right turn, and started to move. Only my peripheral vision and (then-younger man’s) reflexes prevented me from turning right into him as he blew through the stop sign on the right-hand side of my car. Again, I was signaling for the turn!

    Winter biking is another concern. I give bikers lots of room, but I always fear that one will slip and shoot straight under my front tires. Minnesota’s weather is more severe than western Europe’s, making winter biking here more dangerous than there. Maybe if we had a better transit system, people wouldn’t try to commute to work on bicycles when the streets are slippery.

    • Submitted by Walker Angell on 10/04/2013 - 01:47 pm.

      Neal, I didn’t even think about the danger of slipping under a car (and I’ve almost done it).

      Our winters are a bit more severe, but I’m not sure they’re extremely so and not a lot different than Montreal. Here, Montreal, and northern Europe are all equally dangerous places for bicycles and cars to mix on the streets in winter. Would proper bicycles facilities (segregated cycletracks, paths, proper intersections) be any more dangerous here in the winter than in The Netherlands or Stockholm?

  2. Submitted by jody rooney on 10/04/2013 - 12:21 pm.

    Just please don’t put more asphalt in the woods

    Nothing spoils a nice little strip of woods or trail for getting away from it all than a nice strip of unnatural asphalt in the woods. The irony is that bike riders are usually going so fast that they don’t really see the area like you would walking, skiing, or riding.

    What about bike lanes in the center of the road way? You would have double width for safety with a lane in each direction (ignoring head on bike collisions), people are use to being passed on their left and use to slowing for left turns ( I am assuming bikes have smaller blind spots than cars and in urban traffic clearly go faster because of less congestion) and you would be just more visible as “traffic”. It would also be a better design for rumble strips.

    Just a thought.

    • Submitted by Walker Angell on 10/04/2013 - 01:55 pm.

      Jody, I couldn’t agree more about preserving natural settings. My wife and I are lucky to live near a natural area and take walks through there several times each week. I think that there are instances where it might be best to route a transportation bikeway through such areas though. Any ideas on how best to handle that?

      As to putting bicycles in the middle, that’s been tried and failed. It is too dangerous and feels hugely too dangerous. There’s a reason that cities and countries with high rates of bicycling and low overall transportation fatality rates all migrate to the Dutch model of protected or segregated cycle tracks and bicycle paths—it works. It is safer and feels safer for everyone.

  3. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/04/2013 - 02:45 pm.

    A confession: I bike on the sidewalks.

    Although bicyclists are hit, run over, and sometimes killed on the roadways, I’ve never heard of a bicyclist getting run down on a sidewalk.

    Now, I know it is, strictly speaking, not a proper use of the sidewalk. But I bike slowly and I am very watchful for the use of the same space by pedestrians – when it appears I’m approaching some kind of conflicting use of the space, I’ll yield to the pedestrian by getting off the bike, or at least by stopping until they pass.

    It helps if you are not in a hurry. I never go from place to place at speed, as some bicyclists seem on a mission to do. I just kind of “toodle” along, no threat to anyone, as near as I can tell.

    So it is in self-defense that I bike on the sidewalks. It also puts me out of the line of fire of angry drivers, who sometimes punctuate their lack of empathy for bicyclists in the manner of their driving.

    Give me a protected bike lane on the street, and I’ll use it. But I don’t think a line of paint has ever stopped a car.

  4. Submitted by Walker Angell on 10/04/2013 - 04:59 pm.

    Confession: Me too

    There are a number of places I ride where the sidewalks are the ticket if I’m on my city bike.

  5. Submitted by April King on 10/07/2013 - 10:17 am.

    Minnehaha Avenue

    Reading this article just drives home how depressing it is that Hennepin County is slamming through another 55 years of status quo with regards to a lousy bike lane on Minnehaha Avenue, which could be — but isn’t! — one of the most useful roadways for bicyclists in South Minneapolis.

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