Protected Bike Lanes vs. Convenience and Safety

Background Reading


Josh Haner/The New York TimesIn New York City, traffic fatalities from July 2011 through June rose 23 percent over the previous year. The increase came after years of consistent declines.

Josh Haner/The New York Times
In New York City, traffic fatalities from July 2011 through June rose 23 percent over the previous year. The increase came after years of consistent declines.

In commenting on the study aired on StreetsBlog one respondent noted:

Paul Schimek

The analysis was based on “only two blocks” of cycle track (Carrall St, Vancouver) out of hundreds of miles of road in Vancouver and Toronto. They found only 2 injuries on those 2 blocks whereas their method (which is highly questionable) predicted they would find 10. This is not exactly convincing evidence, don’t you think? What they did seem to find (again, the method is dubious, but these results seem plausible), in order of significance:

  • streetcar tracks are very dangerous to bicyclists
  • on-street parking, with or without bike lanes, is dangerous
  • “minor” roads are marginally safer than “major” roads

Chicago’s efforts at creating protected bike lanes in “low income” neighborhoods has hit some snags. Trying to install them on streets where parishioners are likely to need parking on Sundays is causing problems for the CDOT. Grid Chicago wrote about their research as follows:

For another perspective I contacted Ben Fried, editor of the transportation news website Streetsblog, which has documented the famous battle over protected bike lanes on Brooklyn’s Prospect Park West, as well as opposition to protected lanes in low-income communities. He argues that protected lanes are a safety win for all neighborhoods, and says it’s important that underserved areas like Lawndale get their share. Last year proposed bike lanes on King Drive in Bronzeville were changed to buffered lanes after local clergy voiced concerns about parking. “You really don’t want this to create a precedent where neighborhoods without much bike infrastructure continue to be left behind on street redesigns that make everyone safer,” he says. “That’s not fair to anyone. Church parking can’t take precedence over public safety.”

The problem here is that the planners are being a bit disingenuous when the claim to be looking to make certain “that underserved areas…get their share“. As much as I like the idea of safer biking for everyone in Chicago, the fact is that the African-American community is not a biking stronghold. In fact the benefactors of protected bike lanes in just about any area of Chicago are predominately young and white.

New York City had its share of protected bike lane detractors and most of them were not in low-income areas. But neither has it helped that the safety statistics in New York City were worse after their lane installations. So what gives?

 Famous Dave’s Barbecue and “Subjective Safety”

The observation on StreetsBlog regarding the dubious methodology used to gather their data was followed by another:


Another safety not thoroughly discussed here is the subjective safety, yet it is arguably equally as important in terms of convincing people to ride. It’s way less intimidating when you don’t have to “share” the road with large SUV’s and pick-ups driving towards you from behind, not always able to pass, at 30, 35 or 40 mph, or more. I doubt most people are or ever will be comfortable riding in very close proximity to motor vehicles. Even if ALL drivers were courteous, the physics of a moving vehicle isn’t going change, all things being equal.

You only have to look over to the 2 most cycle-friendly countries (Holland and Denmark) to see what their safety statistics say, and proportion of cyclists (it’s estimated to be > 90% and > 80% of the entire population that ride a bike at various times in the two countries, respectively). That includes ALL demographics and ages of people who ride out on the streets. Even if we included all the Americans who only will ride a bike which they’ve driven to the park on the trails there, I doubt we would still come anywhere near that number of people who ride a bicycle, ever. What I’ve noticed from all my years of riding is the absence of elderly people or children riding their bikes out on the street.

I can personally speak from experience in Copenhagen that EVERY single street is accommodating to cyclists in one way shape or form. I never once felt stressed or unsafe or squeezed off by cars at any time while cycling there. And Holland apparently does a considerably-better job as an entire nation for cycling. The key is to there for examples.

Chicago like most of the rest of the United States is in a headlong attempt to Europeanize its transportation infrastructure. The assumption is that we need to increase the ridership of bicycles on our streets to accomplish the following:

  • Reduce our dependence on foreign oil
  • Improve our collective physical health through increased exercise
  • Reduce the maintenance demands on our roadways
  • Reduce the adverse effects on our air quality
  • Eliminate traffic congestion from automobiles
  • Improve the safety of cyclists by reducing automobile-vs-bicycle collisions

And we are trying to accomplish all of this with road designs which are a bit like Famous Dave’s Barbecue. If you have never had barbecue cooked in small southern towns by the folks who taught white people how to love ribs, then you will find Famous Dave’s Barbecue just fine. But if you have tasted authentic barbecue done by the folks who created the cuisine you might be somewhat disappointed. Both kinds of barbecue are nutritious enough, but they are indeed different.

Likewise American-style protected bike lanes do create a definite amount of “subjective safety“. In fact I would argue that this is for the present the most lasting benefit of these lanes. New Yorkers like Chicagoans will have to learn to deal with this new paradigm of traffic infrastructure. People who drive and are parking on streets will have to re-learn their parking skills to effectively use center lane parking areas. I know this first-hand.

But time and again we see that after installing bike lanes there are still bicycle-vs-truck altercations where the cyclist ends up getting crushed to death because the driver is positioned in such a way that a cyclist can be in his “blind spot“. It is an unintended consequence of using a design created by someone who has never driven a truck. In fact the parking problem experienced on Independence could have easily been anticipated if the folks designing this bit of bicycle infrastructure had been cyclists who attended any of those churches.

What we are looking at here is the recreation of the kinds of problems that high-rise buildings were supposed to resolve when they were installed decades ago in low-income areas of the city. And as anyone can tell you they were at least on paper an efficient and safer housing solution for high density populations of poor residents. But in practice they were a nightmare. What might work in North Shore neighborhoods along the lakefront are not always going to work elsewhere.

Chicago Is Neither Amsterdam Nor Copenhagen

Our intentions are well-meaning but naive. We are a bit like Christian Missionaries of a century ago who set off to “save the souls” of the aborigines in various lands colonized by Europeans. Where we found native women walking around bare-breasted we decided to enlighten them to the inherent sinfulness of this activity and asked them to cover up.

When we claim that bringing protected bike lanes to a community by arguing:

“That’s not fair to anyone. Church parking can’t take precedence over public safety.”

What we are really saying to the residents is that we know better than you what your needs are. We are from the government and are here to help you. Cover your breasts, dressing that way is inherently sinful. You are going to love these high-rise buildings that we are building because they are safer and more efficient that run-down tenement housing.

We are trying to sell our style of bicycle infrastructure as the authentic stuff. But, what we are offering is the equivalent of Famous Dave’s Barbecue. Our bicycle infrastructure looks a bit like what they have in Amsterdam but it differs in key ways. If you really want to have a sound critique of what we are doing here in the United States you need to get some average cyclists from Amsterdam to tell you. Avoid at all costs the guys who are the hired guns who try to sell their consulting skills to the highest bidder. They are likely to tell you what they think you want to hear.

Instead have some school-aged kids critique our designs. Have some senior citizens ride our protected bike lanes and let you know what they think. Heck have some American truck drivers tell you why placing riders in certain places at intersections is stupid. In fact you do not have to do much more than contact the legislatures of states like Oregon to see that they now demand additional mirrors to avoid that dreaded blind spot for truckers.

What I Would Like To See

My first wish is that the Cycling Advocates of America dial down the pomposity and be prepared to learn from the residents of any community. We should be prepared to admit that the lane designs being proposed are likely to need adjustment later on. It beats having to tell parents of young children that using a protected bike lane on a busy thoroughfare at rush hour was a bad idea. People are going to find it difficult to connect the dots and contemplate the unintended consequences of putting on a protect bike lane if you do not do enough community-based research.

It should come as no surprise to folks a few years from now that putting bike rental stations that require credit cards in “low-income” areas is a bad idea. People who are living in such areas seldom have bank accounts and deal primarily with cash and money orders. Shootings outside places that offer paycheck check cashing are common. But if you persist in trying to impose a model on a community whether it be high or low in income distribution you are likely to end up with egg on your face.

We see this time and again when the good folks at Mass Transit headquarters decide to cut service to a community where seniors are their predominant users and have few if any alternatives. Then there is a “hue and cry” from the residents and feathers get ruffled and once again we realize that you cannot design infrastructure or plan service changes in a vacuum. You need to get off your butt, put aside the powdered donuts and burn some shoe leather in the real world.

How for instance anyone could have opened up Dearborn Street knowing that the bike lanes collected sizable puddles of water and of course by extension ice is really beyond me, except that I know that no one from City Hall bothered to move the parked cars and check the curb areas for imperfections. In short no one doing the planning was actually on a bike when they made their decisions. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Lose the arrogance and ride your bikes around the city and determine before hand what will and what will not work. We are in the midst of updating the Chicagoland Bicycle Map that is published by Active Transportation Alliance. The success of this activity is always reliant on the judgment of the volunteers who do the fact finding as they traverse the proposed routes. But I have used the maps from time-to-time (I have one on every bike we ride) and been disappointed at some of the route choices.

You are never going to get 100% agreement on route choices. But relying on just a handful of volunteers might not be the wisest thing to do. And you certainly need to have less skilled riders try out the routes at busier times of the day to verify that they are “subjectively safe“.

I would love to be able to hold out for bike infrastructure that looked and felt more like the Chicago Lakefront Trail. A place where cars are not allowed and there is minimal interaction with them. But failing that I certainly think that placing bike lanes along the sides of the streets is the very worst place for them. Unlike automobiles the debris that is supposed to collect there is very troublesome for bicyclists. We get flats at a far greater rate because of tires are thinner. We are also less likely to safely encounter water puddles and ice patches that are certain to exist along the sides of streets.

Bikes should probably be riding down the middle of the street with cars to their right. And if this is not suitable then at least extend the sidewalk another six feet or more towards the street on either side and if need be eliminate the parking or reserve it for one side only. You could do this easiest if the streets where heavy bicycle traffic was intended were uni-directional.

I certainly hope that we get our plans in place with enough attention to the communities they serve to make the expenditures worthwhile. But given the track record of urban developers (which is essentially what a traffic engineer becomes) I won’t hold my breath.

Finally, automobiles are not the enemy, people are. We, all of us are the enemy. If we were ever likely to encourage oodles of folks to ride their bikes we would most likely see a spike in bicycle-vs-bicycle injuries. Over time this might be reduced by reshaping the infrastructure. But certainly it would mean having to reshape mass transit to allow for more on-board bicycle transport than is currently possible. And it would mean encouraging riders to switch to a style of bicycle (folders) which are better suited to multi-modal transportation schemes. And we would certainly want to “encourage” riders to better observe traffic laws than they do just now.

Shame On us

Keeping in mind that Dearborn Street is the poster child for protect bike lane creation these kinds of comments should never appear from newly created infrastructure used by seasoned riders:

Reply by in it to win it 8.0 mi 41 minutes ago
After trying Dearborn a few times; then going back to Clark inbound and Franklin outbound; I’ll take the Clark/Franklin route. These streets seem less restricting to me.

Reply by Skip Montanaro 34 minutes ago
I tried Dearborn just once. I’ll stick with Clark and Franklin as well. There certainly seems to be more room to maneuver, and the bike lanes are wider.

Now if you take a look at this bit of stumbling it is easy to see why you could have predicted the fiasco on lanes created where dozens of churches are located.

You cannot create infrastructure in a vacuum.
Somebody needs to get their fat arse out of the chair and onto a bike to see if the planning will work.
If Active Transportation Alliance cannot help in this regard, then who can?