Where Do ‘Bike Lanes’ Come From, Mommy?

Background Reading


All around the world road design engineers have been fiddling with automobile shapes to determine just how wide a street needs to be to accommodate cars and trucks along with parking. Not much effort was ever put into thinking about placement for bicycles. Then along comes a traffic accident here in Illinois and the Boub vs. Wayne legal decision ignites a firestorm of concern amongst bicyclists.

It turns out that all along we were never “intended” users of streets. Nobody complained about our being their, but when legal damages are about to be awarded on behalf of either the municipality or the cyclist guess who wins? So it became an issue about which cyclists could rally. It meant a flood of money for groups like the Chicago Bicycle Federation and the League of American Wheelmen.

Boub v. Township of Wayne is a ruling of the Illinois Supreme court made in 1998, where it was held that municipalities are not liable for the damage cyclists suffer on the poorly maintained roads. The cyclists were ruled permitted but not intended users of the roads in the state of Illinois. Under the state law municipalities has a duty to maintain local roads in a safe condition. However they are liable for damages only if the use of a road was both permitted and intended. The justices were sharply divided on the issue—four of them voted for the decision and three against. The dissenters called the decision “absurd and dangerous”.[1]

Absurd but Not Unprecedented

All across the United States there are African-American families like mine in which we have great grandparents who were white. You can tell who these folks are because their skin color is lighter. In some cases these families to this day look white and perhaps have a hint of something that resembles either Egyptian or perhaps Sicilian in their features. Their hair might be naturally curly but not overly so. And their nasal passages might be broad but not overly so. Some you would take as perhaps Sephardic Jews. But when the Emancipation Proclamation came down it unleashed a whole host of problems that no one ever thought to deal with before hand.

Our Second President Thomas Jefferson had a “special relationship” with one of his slaves Sally Hennings. He is believed to have fathered six of her children. This is of course hardly a rare situation. It was quite common and is the source of friction between African-Americans who were field hands and those who were singled out to be the concubines of the owner and thus lived inside the great house. The terms that we have today are “field niggers” and “house niggers“.

When the “house niggers” went to town they were often treated the same as the land owners children. In fact it was no secret to the towns people that they were his. But when Emancipation came it presented a problem in that these children “coloreds” as they called them since they were visually not “black” could not be allowed to inherit the estates of their fathers nor own land because in the prevailing notion of the day their parentage was tainted.

So it became the case that these people who had been “permitted” to live as whites but were never “intended” to do so. And so during Reconstruction after the war all sorts of laws designed to keep these “coloreds” from blending into white society began to be erected. It would have been a wet dream of the Tea Party to have been alive during these days. It is their hope to resurrect that kind of segregated system in the coming years to avoid another “black” president.

Cyclists Are The ‘Niggers’ Of The 21st Century

While we were living under the aegis of our masters on the plantation we cyclists were fat and happy. Then someone gets seriously injured and we discover that our status in legal terms is shallow indeed. We have been shaken from our dreams into the cold hard reality that the “coloreds” faced following Emancipation.

Nowadays the situation is evolving. We have won a modicum of support from the wider population of motorists. In fact we are now clearly “intended users” of the roadway (not just “permitted“) because we have paint to prove it. All you have to do is enter a reasonably-sized urban area in much of the United States to see “bike lanes“. Politicians love these things because it means that they gain instant credibility as forward-thinking individuals interested in sustainable futures for ourselves and our children. It is a very nice way to appear Liberal in your viewpoint without having to deal with social issues. Conservatives have been known to despise bike lanes and the social engineering they represent.

Segregation Drinking Fountain

Segregation Drinking Fountain

But if you look closely you with ask yourself whether bike lanes are a form of modern day Jim Crow-style segregation because they have some serious flaws. The thing you see happening is a growth in “Door Zone” collisions. Why is that?

Cyclists are getting the “left-overs“. The initial surge of bike lanes in the Chicagoland area was not actual bike lanes but rather “bike routes“. You could tell if a town was Progressive because it had these neat green signs that depicted a bicycle graphic along with a label that read “Bike Route“.

What is more in the more upscale towns these signs also gave you a destination label. It might be taking you towards the shopping district or the local town square or whatever. And suddenly all that Vehicular Cycling training started to pay off as small town cyclists hit the streets and rode to the annual fireworks shows or parades on holidays using their bikes.

Motorists are a funny lot. The presence of these bikes was a bit confusing and frankly irritating. Because the bikes move at a slower pace motorists often get impatient and want to go around them at high speed (to show their disgust) and with little room to spare (for the same reason as before).

Before long it was clear to cyclists that you were taking your life in your hands in some situations by being on the street. Suburban politicians rather than doing anything significant fell back on the tried and true ritual of extended bike trails by adding bridges to this or that forest preserve making a series of connected destinations for bicycles.

Nobody however thought to find out how to integrate bicycles into the traffic mix.

Along Comes The “Bike Lane” Idea

When Southerners found themselves faced with people who had been former slaves now living in their midst they found it nearly impossible to imagine that these people should ever be allowed to vote. After all in much of the rural south the population statistics made the election of black candidates a certainty since there were very few whites and lots of blacks.

So Southern politicians took care of this problem with strict laws to avoid the possibility of blacks being able to actually vote and at the same time they decided to segregate the whites and blacks from one another socially by offering what were known as “separate but equal” public facilities. Your average bicycle lane is exactly that. It represents the Jim Crow approach to sharing the roadway.

Bike Lanes and Parallel Parking

Bike Lanes and Parallel Parking

Take a look at how bike lanes are created. All along traffic engineers have been leaving a bit of extra roadway to the left of parked automobiles. It was intended to serve as a transition area allowing the passengers and driver to exit the vehicle and then walk to the curb. It is probably about 3 feet of space and actually serves as the prototype for the 3-Feet Law that has become so very popular.

So when the idea of bike lanes begins to gain traction the very first thing politicians in municipalities decide to do is “shoe-horn” in bike lanes where the automobile occupants will be exiting and entering their vehicles. Now let’s be fair, this kind of decision-making is based on current on-the-ground situations.

If you envision these lanes as being brought into sleep suburban communities or side streets in cities like Chicago you are probably correct in your assumption. But the problem here is that as the number of cyclists grows you have two situations that take place simultaneously:

  1. There is an increase in the number of riders and thus the possibility for increased “accidents”.
  2. As the numbers of riders grows the likelihood of untrained riders increases as well.

Cycling advocates are equally to blame for the ensuing situation. They were eager to be eating at the table of the “big house” on the plantation. They wanted to regain their rightful place at the table. So they took what they could get. And what they got was more bike lanes and an increasing number of “door zone collisions“.

This is a manufactured problem. Door-ings do not have to happen at all. But by being lazy and cheap municipalities found an easy way to create bike lanes which their constituents were all to eager to accept and people who were untrained suffered. Bicycle groups did not keep pace with the explosion in bicycle use. They needed to have more LCIs and trainers doing outreach to the community. There needed to be more “bike rodeos” for younger kids but these really did not get done in the numbers needed.

So hundreds of thousands of riders hit the streets in cities and towns riding alongside parked cars at speeds inconsistent with the lurking danger and were suddenly introduced to a basic law of physics. Injury resulted and everyone looked around for a scapegoat. Suddenly it was the motorist who was the “bad guy“. Never mind that a 6-year old was the one who exited the door while getting out of the backseat of the family van to go into school. The motorists was the person who had to pay for not being aware of the dangers of having a cyclist riding closer to the side of vehicles than they should.

What is unstated here is that cycling organizations were never going to place the blame where it should have been all along. After all it took all this time to get politicians to even recognize the rights of cyclists to be “intended users” of the roadway. No one wanted to risk a law suit which cyclists could lose in court (since it was their actions in riding too close to the vehicles that made the door zone collision even possible) when a municipality was being sued. So the onus fell on the shoulders of motorists and their lawyers to defend against a cyclist.

The jury is still out on whether the legal profession will ever wake up and realize that having insurance payers be the “fall guys” for poor design on the part of the municipality’s DOT is absurd.

Long Before Bike Lanes

Door Zone” collisions are nothing new. They have been around since the days of the horse drawn carriage and have always been the fault of the person exiting the conveyance. There are laws all over the place dating back decades which make it even illegal to exit on the street side of a vehicle. But road engineers came to the rescue and simple widened the streets to allow a reasonable chance for an exiting motorist to make it to the curb.

Widening the streets meant that you could build in a buffered area to the left of parked automobiles. It was nothing special but it acknowledged the fact that motorists transitioned to pedestrians whenever they exited their vehicles and that meant they needed some place to actually walk without getting hit or run over by passing vehicles.

Bike Lanes and Head-In Parking

Bike Lanes and Head-In Parking

One of the innovations that came along was “diagonal” or “head-in” parking. It made it possible to “kill two birds with one stone“. Anyone parking a car could just “pull in” and get out of their vehicle. With the exception of someone needing to retrieve or place something in their trunk the motorist-turned-pedestrian was safe from harm by passing cars.

Cermak Road in Chicagoland has think kind of parking. It makes for easier cycling because with the exception of a motorist backing out of a spot (and even then the rear backup lights signal danger) you never have to worry much about “door-ing“.

But streets like Milwaukee are notorious because they are narrow and have parallel parking with bike lane adjacent to the cars. To be fair along the stretch between Ashland and North Avenue what you have is not a formal lane. Rather it is a line that demarcates the parking lane with the occasional bike icon stenciled on the pavement as a “sharrow“.

But the practicality is that bikes ride against the cars and speed along at 15-20 MPH on a routine basis and as a result “door zone collisions” are common. Couldn’t the cyclist simply move away from the cars and “take the lane“? Yes, they could. But Urban Cyclists are so very shell-shocked as it is they are very unlikely to ride with an impatient motorist on their tails honking and trying to pass around them by going over the double yellow line.

Frankly Milwaukee should widened or abandoned as a thoroughfare for cyclists at all.

There of course are draconian measures like removing parking along one side of Milwaukee to effectively “widen” the street to allow room to move the cyclists away from the parked cars, but small business owners are justifiably worried about this lowering their customer traffic.

The City of Chicago has therefore decided that Elston to the north is the place to put a “Bike Lane“.

How Should A Bike Lane Be Constructed?

Bike Lanes with a Door Zone and Parallel Parking

Bike Lanes with a Door Zone and Parallel Parking

If you want to keep everyone safe you need to “bite the bullet” and make room for cycling lanes. The image at the right is how both side of a street should look (assuming parking on both sides). With an actual “door zone” in place people can get in and out of their cars while cyclists can keep their teeth and avoid purplish bruisings. But more importantly we can cut the silly legal wrangling that individuals are forced into simply because the municipality was too cheap to pay to widen their streets or to slim down their auto lanes.

Even Protected Bike Lanes (PBLs) are not immune from this problem. You can see that Dearborn Street while having a surface beauty is fraught with structural issues:

  • It has a parking lane in the center of the street which requires that motorists walk in the “bike lane” to reach their cars. And this is especially true when a motorist has to walk around another motorist whose door is open while he enters or exits his vehicle.
  • Because the cycle track on Dearborn is a two-way variety it means that motorists walking in the lane are walking in the northbound rider side and that often pushed them into the southbound rider lane to avoid a bike-vs-pedestrian collision.

This is a “comedy of errors” in traffic design. What makes it really tragic is how difficult clearing the lane of snow and ice can be in the winter months. But that is for another blog entry.

Well-Meaning But Confusing Messages

Every Lane Is A Bike Lane © Wheel and Sprocket

Every Lane Is A Bike Lane
© Wheel and Sprocket

If you have not seen them there are messages being posted everywhere that confuse the issue of bike lanes a bit. John Forester would love this message. In fact every Vehicular Cycling advocate would understand and sign on with the sentiments expressed here.

In Vehicular Cycling you are encouraged to integrate into the mainstream as a cyclist and behave as would any automobile on a city street. You make your turns from the left turn lane and not a “bike box“. In essence you are not a “segregated class of vehicle” just because you are a cyclist. Using bike lanes reinforces the “otherness” of bicycles.

In Nazi Germany you would find people wearing patches that singled them out as perhaps “queers“. Like it or not a “bike lane” which is intended to instill fearlessness in a rider has the odd effect of making them a “captive” in their own “separate but equal” road space. And that is exactly opposite of the message Vehicular Cycling intends to send.

So anyone who is new to cycling and sees this bus wrap is likely to wonder aloud what it means. In fact motorists are likely to wonder as well. After all everyone with eyes can see that the far right lane is painted green and clearly marked as the “bike lane“. So, what the heck does this sign mean?

Well in the final analysis it means that it is far too early for the bicycling community to have decided that Vehicular Cycling is passé. In fact it is more needed now than ever before. Bicycle lanes are being designed by people who do not ride bicycles. In many instances they are creating designs that preclude the much needed bike boxes. This means that riders are forced to leave the bike lane to reach the needed turning lane.

This confuses the motorists and puts stress on the very riders for whom the bike lanes were intended. Vehicular Cycling can equip a rider with the knowledge and training to understand how to navigate in a very cruel world where bicycles are concerned.