Why Bike Lanes In The First Instance?


Background Reading

Bike Lanes Are A Traffic Congestion Strategy

The interesting thing about traffic congestion is that most cyclists do not fear the prospect of more bicycles, to some degree they should. What they are hoping instead is that their fear of vehicular crashes will subside with the increase in segregated lanes. This is the main reason for the pushback campaign by Active Transportation Alliance to get the Governor to rescind his delay on increased numbers of these segregated lanes until data is available from the existing set of lanes.

Commuters with bicycles, electric bikes and mopeds move across the street, Friday, May 23, 2008 in Shanghai, China. While two-wheelers have long since yielded the roads to sedans in this increasingly affluent society, the bicycle is far from dead. In fact, its numbers are growing. For many, if not most Chinese, pedal power remains a mainstay, for commuting, sending children to school or making a living. (AP Photo)

Commuters with bicycles, electric bikes and mopeds move across the street, Friday, May 23, 2008 in Shanghai, China. While two-wheelers have long since yielded the roads to sedans in this increasingly affluent society, the bicycle is far from dead. In fact, its numbers are growing. For many, if not most Chinese, pedal power remains a mainstay, for commuting, sending children to school or making a living. (AP Photo)

The design of segregated lanes seems reasonable at first glance. But when you imagine a throng of cyclists like those in Shaghai, China you get the distinct impression that bike boxes are simply not going to “cut it” when that many people need to turn left or right.

A fellow blogger sent me an article on Long Beach’s bike lane study. And as usual the results are glowing. The trick is to get the statistics out in the early stages of the use of a bicycle infrastructure increase. They you get these numbers which some a 50% drop in automobile accidents and a 33% increase in ridership along various streets. It all sounds just wonderful and cycling activists seize on this kind of “feel good” data to push for even more bike infrastructure.

What is notable with Long Beach is that the majority of their infrastructure are “Sharrow Lanes”. What the politicians like to trot out are the “segregated lanes” which are either a pastel blue or green and are visually appealing. These things show “signs of progress” because people can notice them.

When you make infrastructure changes that are great (like replacing aging sanitary and water pipelines as Chicago has been forced to do) but virtually invisible there is less enthusiasm from the general public. Green spaces and pretty green bike lanes make great photos for your campaign posters at election time.

The Real Magic Of Segregated Lanes

Segregation of lanes really works because it makes the streets narrower. That in turn forces the traffic speeds down as the original automobile volume is forced through the “narrower straw”. The lanes themselves probably do invite newbies to use their bikes but as is often pointed out the real target population of bike lane infrastructural increases are riders whose travel represents “about 40% of trips” and  “tend to be a mile or less“.

That level of traffic on bicycles is right in the wheel house of bike share projects. It means that people who are in their offices and want to get from there to a local food shop at lunch are ideally the persons for whom all of this cycling infrastructure is being built. What this tells me is that in large cities unless you live downtown you are unlikely to ever use these bike lanes to commute. This vision of ridership is for retired folks who live in high rises and want to tour the city and think that either walking or taking a bike share tour would be the most enjoyable.

It also means that tourists can get around your city on these heavy cumbersome bikes that require credit cards and little else to be useful. They will serve as direct competition for tours of the city on foot or by Segway. But let’s be honest about bike lanes, they are never really going to decrease traffic congestion nor should we wish for them to do so.

I have included a number of studies above which in essence make it clear that city planners are rethinking their view of urban traffic congestion. They in fact are beginning to view it not so much as a symptom of a dysfunctional transit system but just the opposite. Congestion is an indication that the city is alive and vibrant and hopefully doing quite well, thank you.

Going For The Functional Over The Cosmetic

Our taste in sexual partners is often driven by surface features. We look at the outside of the person and decide whether they are suitable. Thus the glamorous girls and guys get all the “action” while the not-so-glamorous ones wait by the phone. Pretty green lanes are glamorous. Even cyclists are seduced by their color and visual attractiveness. It is only when a seasoned cyclist actually tries to use one of these lanes that it becomes clear that they are actually more difficult to use if you really have to get somewhere other than a mile away from your starting point.

© pedalsk.wordpress.com

© pedalsk.wordpress.com

Take bike boxes for instance. They are offered as a means of effecting left and right turns from a segregated bike lane which has been shoved up against the existing curb (the automobile parking now pushed out into the street to provide the new space). The problem with bike boxes is that they are small. A good-sized bike box can hold a half dozen or so upright bikes before it gets pretty crowded.

Bike boxes could never handle this level of traffic (see illustration at right) because the more increased bicycle traffic on the roadway would overwhelm their use. In fact if the predicted ridership volume increase of between 300-to-500 percent were to actually materialize the current crop of buses with bike carriers would simply be overwhelmed.

In fact commuter trains, elevated trains and buses are being outfitted with paltry spaces for multi-mode commuting while the folks designing the New World Order of transportation openly state that they expect and even want more people and bikes on their streets than they are planning to handle. That is tantamount to opening a baseball stadium with half as many seats as the old one and only a quarter of the parking as before and claiming it will succeed in a grand fashion.

It turns out that Sharrow lanes are popular and that buffered lanes even more so. The reasons are easy to understand. Bicycles like cars are vehicles and need to be able to make graceful and efficient use of their time during transit. A bike box requires a two-step turn process. That in and of itself is a deal-breaker. When you have experienced cyclists who are clamoring for “green waves” (i.e. being able to maintain a steady pace of around 14 MPH and hitting all green lights at each intersection as a result) there is no way on earth that crowd is going to allow a bike box to “stand int he way” of their progress along the roadways.

As a matter of fact unless you have folks living pretty close to the urban centers (usually in expensive high rises) they are not even the target of the pretty green lanes. Remember these are being installed with the expectations that their occupants will be traveling about a mile or so. It would seem that for folks coming from neighborhoods up to 10 miles away from the city core there needs to be a completely different infrastructure at various points.

Looking At The Hipster Highway

Every section of the city has such a highway, especially along the northwest corridors into the city. Milwaukee Avenue is one such corridor and it is far too narrow to provide a segregated bike lane approach. Instead Sharrow lanes are the order of the day. That seems to work fairly well for the inhabitants of communities like Wicker Park. But there are folks hell bent on getting their quota of segregated bike lanes in place to show that progress is occurring in their communities.

Real estate agents and schools are probably the biggest fans of these attractive lanes. But the hard reality of displacing automobile parking will bump up against that visual attractiveness they offer. In fact that is likely to be the case all over the city and suburbs. If you look at suburban towns all along the various Metra corridors leading out of the city, you will see clear evidence that congestion has arrived in each of the more vibrant ones. High rise buildings with living quarters over commercial buildings are all the rage. In addition for the even more affluent you will note large condominium and apartment complexes more typical of downtown Chicago sprouting up everywhere.

These towns are seeing rapid growth in their downtown sections where multi-level parking structures are all the rage. People are driving in from the surround communities and enjoying the night life while walking around on foot. Bicycles would be fine if there were really a need for them, but most suburban downtowns are less than a mile or two in length in any direction.

Segregated lanes might be fine for the main street but frankly Sharrow lanes are far more convenient. Sharrow lanes offer the flexibility of use that everyone desires while declaring loud and clear that bicycles are not just permitted but also intended users of the roadways in the area. Some towns like Naperville have very scenic bike routes that extend as many as 10 miles along a river and adjoining forest preserves that make for a suitable destination for both tourist and local inhabitant half day outings.

Cyclists Are Often Aggressively Anti-Mass Transit

Maybe it is the fact that in large cities the bulk of the underclass travel by mass transit buses that makes them less desirable. But I read the Facebook pages of countless cyclists who are loathe to travel this way on a regular basis. The same is true in the suburbs. Only the underclass and cost-conscious seniors ever take buses. This disconnect between the supposed “green vision” of America and the harsh reality of class distinction is what keeps bus use quite low in the suburbs and where it exists in the city it is often relegated to the same underclass. Trains are another matter.

Commuter trains are thoroughly ingrained in the hearts and minds of suburbanites. What is astounding is that so many cyclists who could take their bikes into the city on these same trains do not, preferring to brave the elements on side streets through crime-ridden neighbors just to save a few bucks or win “brownie points” from their fellow cyclists.

The lack of intelligent purchase and use of folding bikes is what keeps commuters from being more bike friendly. Because commuters seldom if ever see cyclists onboard their trains the idea of having a folder to take them the least few miles from the train station to their office building along north Michigan Avenue never crosses their minds.

To grow cycling it is going to take a giant leap forward in multi-modal travel by suburbanites. They are going to have to spearhead the charge by riding from their doorsteps down to the train and then boarding it with their tiny bikes under wraps only to exit their passenger car in downtown Chicago. From there they can hop on their bikes and ride over to north Michigan or the near South Loop areas or over to Willis Tower or State Street to their places of employment.

At lunch time this same cadre of individuals will be able to run errands on these same bikes and after work visit a cultural exhibit in the Museum Campus area or travel to a swank restaurant on the near North Side or even hit a dive in Wicker Park, all by bicycle. No need to wait for a cab and certainly no need to trouble oneself with segregated bike lanes for the newbie traveller.

Taking the Chicago Lakefront Bike Trail opens up the whole of the Hyde Park area around the University of Chicago. It is a trip of about 9 miles or so from the Downtown area and buses and trains make it possible to travel back to the Loop late at night to get home with ease.

What is needed are cyclists who are less tribal in their cycling activism and willing to share the bike lane with folks from the suburbs or on tour from other countries. We need cyclist who can embrace the very congestion that is a sign not of the death of a city but its vibrancy and see automobiles less as killers of the planet as just another form of personal transportation.

Without cars suburban downtown areas cannot and will not survive. The convenience and safety of automobiles makes them a necessity. But even more important is the fact that all over the developing world the automobile is the symbol of upward mobility. The pressure to drive one has never been greater. We need to embrace the growth in the middle class that they represent and demonstrate how better to deal with very short trips of a mile or so.

The long term survival of cycling is less about cycling commuting than it is about cycle errand running and tourist trips.