Jan Heine Is Correct. “A Bad Cycle Track Is Bad.”

Background Reading


I loved reading Jan Heine’s article yesterday. A critical analysis of the “best protected bike lanes” here in Chicago leads you to believe that they are harder to create than anyone who is a proponent of these lanes will let on. If you read the thread on Chicago’s “showcaseProtected Bike Lane (PBL) Dearborn Street you find that the mood changes the further in you get.

Initially everyone is self-congratulatory. Then the harsh reality that the lane while costing $450K is not finished as yet. There is a bridge that needs traction plates and much of the pavement is uneven and collects water which then turns to ice. Eventually people are admitting that this is a nightmare when it comes to cleaning the lane and navigating around pedestrians whose crosswalks intersect with the bi-directional PBL. The really stupid thing that was done was to have placed the parking lane adjacent to the bike lane and thus necessitating that drivers exit and enter their vehicles while standing in the bike lane!

Jonathan Maus has and interesting article about the demographics of the folks who erect the lanes in Oregon. And yes, middle-aged white guys are not the kinds of folks you want to help your design and then install these lanes. First and foremost these folks need to be cyclists. And then they need to get off their asses and actually ride the streets that will be altered to create these PBLs.

I doubt seriously that this happens in Chicago and certainly the Jackson Street Buffered Protected Bike Lane bears witness to the fact that a “newbie” with no Vehicular Cycling training is likely to end up stranded while trying to get to the UIC campus by attempting a right turn (southbound) on Morgan. The essential ingredient here is the missing “bike box“.

Because the workers who are involved in implementing these lanes are not cyclists it is difficult for them to anticipate and then troubleshoot the problems that real cyclists will have with their creations. And in fact the problem is deeper than just crudely constructed lanes, it goes to the fact that much of what we are creating is passé. The Dutch have tried and discarded some of the very notions that were implemented on Dearborn Street.

American Know-How Needs To Be Uitilized

If we are to get good PBLs then we are going to have to work harder. Recently a young woman’s life was celebrated in the Bike Portland Blog. She died while using a bike lane. Proponents of bike lanes are reluctant to even engage on issues like this one. It is a bit like having a conversation with an Evangelical Tea Party member who is a Climate Change denier.

He feels as if he has God on his side, big corporations reinforce his feelings of being in the right (mostly because they do not wish from the planet to levy huge fines for practices the Western World has been employing to power its productivity) and finally there are plenty of scientists who have a great willingness to say whatever needs to be said to get funding for whatever it is they want to do. And if that means upholding an anti-Climate Change position, then so be it.

There are lots of dollars and hopes being pinned on pretty green bike lanes. Their chief value is their visibility. If you can convince others that your city is moving in a “sustainable energy” direction young minds who can create the next software breakthroughs will flock to your environment. So it should come as no surprise that when Dearborn Street was being rolled out a direct and open challenge was being made to the intellectual property workers of Portland that they could come to Chicago and feel right at home.

The Slide Rule and the Calculator

Everyone who is on-board with PBLs cites the statistics that support their view. Never mind the fact that medical practices long held to be proven life savers are now being discarded because new data shows us to have been in error. Needless tests and procedures are now being discounted where once the efficacy of using them was certain. PBLs are likely to be shown to need a revision in this country inside a few years because one or more of the designs currently in vogue prove to be “dangerous“.

In the meantime, consider the lowly slide rule. At one point no self-respecting college graduate in the hard sciences could have gotten through school without owning and knowing how to use one. Along comes the electronic calculator. It provides a greater degree of accuracy and operates faster. And in many cases it can be programmed. In fact the calculator has been supplanted by the spreadsheet. And the GOP learned a very valuable lesson of late when some statistics, being used to show with utter certainty that we could not afford to avoid draconian measures, turned out to be wrong. Flat out wrong!

Now consider one other thing. When was the last time that were in a store during a power outage only to realize that anyone under the age of 30 years was utterly unable to carry out transactions in a retail setting because the cash registers and their electronic calculators were unable to work. Pretty green bike lanes are like electronic calculators. They are supposed to be superior to the slide rules of Vehicular Cycling. But what happens when someone at CDOT puts in a lane that makes a right turn impossible without resorting to Vehicular Cycling strategies?

The world is in need of folks who can wield a mean electronic calculator or write a fantastic script in Microsoft Excel. But come the day when a storm takes out most of the power in your area and the traffic lights are no longer working along Dearborn Street and won’t be for days on end, what do you do? Then you need folks who understand how to use a slide rule or better yet can conduct arithmetic with pencil and paper and do long division if necessary.

Then you will need people who know how to “take the lane” and how to signal lane changes and all the other things that have been taught for years by LCIs at the League of American Bicyclists. The day that the paint on the group peels off following a flood and there are no clues where the “Bike Boxes” went you will have to fall back on what has grown out of good old-fashioned American ingenuity.

Remember that stuff? That is the stuff that created all manner of historic inventions that have allowed mankind to light the night, see moving pictures, fly in the air for hundred of miles, reach the moon and plant a flag there, find cures for countless diseases and craft the economic marvel of the world in a scant few hundred years.

Being able to follow green paint on the ground is a clever and useful trick, but it won’t help when the paint has peeled off or the whiz-bang special bicycle traffic signals are not working. Then you will have to stand up and be counted on the strength of your understanding of how to handle a bicycle in any situation.

Move most bicyclists outside of an urban environment into the wilds of the Western United States where bike lanes are not even a gleam in anyones eyes and you suddenly have to know how to navigate safely without a lot of visual clues. Out there when the sun goes down the place gets pretty dark. And if you are riding in the midst of the desert in near total darkness it does not matter how much paint is on the ground or what color it is. You either know how to drive that bike or you don’t.

Never Get Too Far From Self-Sufficiency

Protected Bike Lanes have their place. I would still prefer a segregated lane system that looks more like the Chicago Lakefront Trail if one is going to insist on providing a non-threatening environment for “newbies“. But until such time as every square inch of Chicago has bike lanes, there is nothing for one to do but learn to operate in the absence of such lanes.

Americans are at their core far different from Europeans. Mikael Colville-Andersen has a blog entry in which he pokes fun at our obsession with the bicycle as something other than basic transportation:

I Vacuum Copenhagen

I Vacuum Copenhagen

I’ve been saying for years that we don’t have bicycle culture in Copenhagen. We just have vacuum cleaner culture. We all have one, we all have learned to use it, we use it. End of story.

We don’t buy vacuum cleaning clothes at a specialty store, we don’t wave at other vacuum cleaning enthusiasts on the street, we don’t keep 7 vacuum cleaners polished in our shed. It’s not a hobby or a fetish or a sub-cultural membership card.

Our vacuums, like our bicycles, are just tools that make everyday life easier.

So I figured I needed a logo.

He has a very good point. In the final analysis bicycles are tools just like any other appliance. We however have a tendency to treat bikes as “precious objects“. Most American bicyclists do not dream about getting a Bike Share Bike (in good used or brand new condition) for Christmas.

Something far more upscale is what we like. Even the Urban Cyclists who favor fixed gear bikes without brakes still take the time to get matching colored rims, handlebar tape and even bike chains. We love the bicycle as far more than a simple appliance.

Even our infatuation with cargo bikes is more upscale than what you might get from a company that makes bikes strictly for grocery delivery purposes or to be use to shlep hardware around a factory floor. We love bicycles that gleam with shiny colors and sparkling paint. We love bike porn. This is a foreign concept to the Colville-Andersens of the world.

And one should consider this when trying to understand the nature of the protected bike lane designs that actually work in European settings versus the ones we are trying to install over here. And one should also consider just how radically our view of cycling will change when the overwhelming number of bikes on the streets of Chicago weigh 60 pounds or more and have giant balloon tires and racks front and rear. Will our current crop of cycling activists embrace a much blander world of bicycling? Time will tell.

But what will not change, ever is the need to know how to navigate your bike even if there is no green paint to be seen anywhere around.