How Bike Lanes Work

By Keri
February 11, 2011

Source: Commute Orlando

Background Reading

Ferncreek: A Case of Unintentional Manufactured Conflict

Avoiding Unintended Manufactured ConflictRun The Animation

Can you tell this lane is full of glass?

Can you tell this lane is full of glass?

Last Friday evening I was riding in the bike lane on Ferncreek and encountered a solid pile of broken glass extending from the gutter to the stripe. The road was dry and the glass was glittering in the afternoon sun, turning the bike lane white. Although I saw it ahead, I was pinned in the bike lane by overtaking traffic and had to stop and wait for the cars to pass before I could move out to get around it.

The photo on the right is from two days later. The glass had been spread by the rain from the original pile all the way past the intersection. It was still a tire hazard, but much harder to see and avoid. I suspect there will be glass along this stretch (southbound between Concord and Vermont) for weeks.

Last time there was a large field of glass in this bike lane, glass shards remained for over a month. Apparently, the street-sweepers don’t pick up glass. However, you won’t see any of this glass lingering in the general use lane. If the rain spreads it there, the cars will sweep it back into the bike lane. Glass doesn’t cause a motorist to have to fix a flat tire on the way to work or lunch or the grocery store.

Unnecessary and Detrimental

Click the photo for more images of bike lane debris

Click the photo for more images of bike lane debris

The bike lane on Ferncreek is an unnecessary symbolic gesture. Frankly, the road was fine in its old configuration (a narrow lane southbound and an extra-wide lane (with occasional parked cars) northbound. By moving the stripe to the center of the road, the city had an opportunity to create a wide lane in each direction. That would have been a fine configuration, allowing for easy release of overtaking motorists, but for a cyclist to maintain adequate sight lines on the approach to the numerous intersections. Wide lanes would have been swept clean by the variations of motorist lane position. Thus the additional pavement would have been more useful to cyclists, as well as more optional.

Sadly, we are enduring a stage of bicycle policy-making in which actual utility takes a back seat to symbolic accommodation. Instead of 15ft of usable space for cyclists to position themselves as practicable, Ferncreek has ten feet of clean pavement for the exclusive use of motorists and 5ft of filthy and sometimes obstructed pavement that bicyclists are mandated to use.

Unintentional Manufactured Conflict

The top images is the old configuration, the bottom image is the new one.

The top images is the old configuration, the bottom image is the new one.

The sight line issue is a significant problem. At several unsignalized intersections the cyclist in the bike lane is obscured from the view of crossing drivers by poles or trees. In the old configuration, a cyclist could easily move slightly leftward within the lane, to the left tire track, to be visible to crossing motorists. Now a cyclist must change lanes from the bike lane to the general use lane in order to improve sight lines. Doing this every 300ft becomes tiresome. It would be easier to ride farther left and move right when practicable and warranted to facilitate passing (ie, when motorists could not easily pass otherwise). But the stripe makes that difficult, legally and socially.

At the signalized intersections of Livingston and Amelia, there used to be a left turn pocket which facilitated thru traffic. With a simple move of a few feet, I could position myself on the left side of the thru lane to increase my visibility to drivers turning left from the opposing side. After the repave, the striping crew correctly re-striped the turn pockets, ending the bike lane before the intersections. But someone nixed that. The new paint was blacked out, removing the turn pockets, and the bike lanes were striped (with a dashed line) to the intersection. The problem with this is, left turning traffic causes cars to back up in the thru lane. Cyclists are encouraged to pass the queue. Those of us who don’t pass the queue now have to negotiate out of the bike lane and move clear across the general use lane to get to that safe position on the left side of the lane.

The animation at the top of this post shows the conflicts that are created by this configuration. These are not theoretical conflicts. In the months since this road was repaved and striped, I have seen them all. I avoid passing the queue, but if I did, I would have had several close calls already. I have gotten trapped in the bike lane a few times by overtaking cars and had to approach the intersection with extreme caution from that disadvantaged position.

This intersection position is taught in motorcycle training. It applies to bicycle drivers for the same safety reasons.

This intersection position is taught in motorcycle training. It applies to bicycle drivers for the same safety reasons.

Where Ferncreek intersects Robinson and Colonial, the bike lane ends in order to make room for a left turn lane. This configuration works much better. Unfortunately, uninformed cyclists (I used to be one of them) complain about the bike lane ending before an intersection where they feel most insecure. Most people have no idea that staying in a bike lane increases their risk of being hit at an intersection. (See What’s Wrong with This Picture? and Preventing the Left Cross)

First, Do No Harm

It’s time to take a sober look at what we’re doing with public policy. Bike lanes have become an orthodoxy in promoting and accommodating cycling. I believe one day we will look back upon this like we do the notion that the earth was flat. Collective experiences, observations and a thorough understanding of what causes crashes all point in the same direction.

  • Bike lanes manufacture conflict at intersections.
  • Bike lanes collect debris which would not collect in a wide or narrow lane
  • Bike lanes encourage motorists to pass without slowing or moving to the left(In studies that have demonstrated this, the fact of closer passing was masked by the authors reframing it as less “encroachment” into the other lane. IOW, they don’t move over! Here are 2 examples: Bicycle Facilities Added and Red Shoulders).

It sucks to stand up against orthodoxy. It’s unpopular and we all know what happens to heretics. But this is an orthodoxy that increases risk to the very people who are least informed and equipped to deal with it. That is an ethical dilemma worthy of a whole lot more consideration than it is being given.

There are better ways to promote and accommodate cycling.

1 Comment

  1. Some observations: I think it has been 20 years since Effective Cycling was first published. EC classes have been available for many years. If these ideas were compelling and powerful enough to dramatically increase cycling, I think it would have happened by now.

    I think what is happening now is that you are in a transition phase. Both cyclists and car drivers (not to mention facilities designers) are all in learning mode. I used to do a large group tour every year. Always lots of bike/bike crashes and conflicts as people got used to riding in crowds. It settled down after a day or two. This will take longer, but in the long run, I think it will work out. Things seem to be coming together in San Francisco. This is happening in a much shorter time frame than EC has had. I would say keep the discussion going, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    I think the principles in the article are sound, but I think the number of people (including children) who are willing to challenge car drivers for lane space is always going to be a limitation of this approach. Car drivers also vary geographically. I have had some bad experiences with this in Miami.

    As I say, I think the principles of EC are sound but in some situations, a jury might consider the EC approach to be contributory negligence. Their “common sense” tells them that cyclists should not be on busy roads, should not be in the middle of the lane, etc. I don’t have any specific examples, and the laws vary, but a lawyer I have spoken with, who argues at jury trials, thinks I have a point.

    You can see it in the news coverage and comments. CYCLISTS often go into blame the victim mode if someone is hit while practicing EC. It happens that whole packs of cyclists (a bus?) are sometimes hit. Meanwhile a car hits someone off to the side, and the police say, “The cyclist was where they were supposed to be.”

    Keep calm and carry on.

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