Bike Lanes ‘Make No Sense’

Background Reading

There is a basic problem with how the Urban Cycling Movement sees bicycle infrastructure needs.

Let’s begin with the thread below:

Downtown Chicago to Oak Park
Posted by Leah on July 21, 2008 at 10:54pm

I’ve lived in this city for 6 years and honestly never knew how to bike to Oak Park – embarassing, I know.
I just found this route from downtown, courtesy of a colleague who comes in every day. Check it out here.
I’m still looking for the best way to get there from the north side (best = most bike-friendly streets and best quality street surfaces). Any ideas?

Leah is not alone in wanting to know how to get from Point A to Point B. I have lived in Chicago or the western suburbs all my life. And yet there has never been much of a ‘system‘ that supports an easy ride from say Chicago to a specific (or even general area of the south or west suburbs).

But even more important is the need for understanding what routes are ‘safest‘. So let’s take a look at what all this means.


First of all ‘safety‘ is subjective. Leah seems to be talking about ‘efficiency‘. How can she do the circuit she wants with an eye towards some sort of coherency in the kinds of streets used as well as avoiding deteriorating infrastructure. In short she is asking the kind of question one might ask if you were visiting Ireland and wanted to go from its largest city to a rural district for a luncheon or dinner at a fine restaurant.

But there is always (at least in urban areas of America) a subtextual understanding that ‘safety‘ includes ‘safe passage‘. Friends who have visited the Holy Land have remarked about the need to have a guide with you who knows where it is ‘safe‘ to ride and where it is not. Nothing new about this sort of thing. The world can be a dangerous place.

Bicycles Seem Like Vulnerable Targets

I am going to go out on a limb and say that in general motor vehicles seem ‘safer‘ than bicycles for several reasons:

  • you are ‘out of the elements‘ so in winter and even in summer your body temperature is easier to maintain
  • motors attached to thick tires seem to be ‘more suitable for handling bad pavement
  • motor vehicles have all sorts of built-in amenities that mean you have fewer decisions to make when planning a trip (i.e. lights, horns, GPS, and plenty of hauling space)
  • speed to outrun dangers is always a plus, motor vehicles have that in spades


What Does A Rider Need To Feel ‘Safe‘?

Well, let’s acknowledge that ‘person physical safety‘ is also a known issue for many people. How could it not be. Remember that mention of avoiding ‘unsafe areas‘ in Israel? Well the map of such areas is flip-flopped depending on whether you are Israeli or Palestinian. A ‘safe area‘ may depend on who you are.

In war zones where there are thieves who are taking advantage of the fleeing hordes of refugees it might not matter which side you are from. If you get caught you will be robbed or worse. As I said, the world can be a very dangerous place.

Every rider needs to know two things:

  • the route I am on will get me where I need to go
  • I can expect help along the way (i.e. bathrooms, emergency mechanical aid, food stops, and emergency medical attention)

If you are a motorist you recognize that these are the basic criteria for any superhighway. You enter the river of traffic and see large signs that say take me towards Madison, WI. And if you are intending to go there or perhaps somewhere near there, you ‘follow the signs‘.

Superhighways attract hotels, restaurants, gas stations with bathrooms and places to stop and sightsee. That is exactly what a bicycle rider needs to have as well. A bicycle rider needs to know that on this lonely dark stretch of road I can be assured of getting to my destination.

London Is Thinking About Bicycle Infrastructure Holistically

We seem to be stuck in some sort of ‘meaningless arms race‘ with New York City and other meccas of cycling for ‘number of miles of bike lanes‘. Pardon me but that is like entering a plastic surgeons office and saying ‘make me beautiful‘. What exactly does that mean, the surgeon asks. Your reply is, I want my bra size to be 44D.

And things definitely go sideways when you return in a few months and demand that your breasts be enlarged to require a bra sized 60D. That is essentially what we are doing. We are obsessed with the number of miles of bike lanes. And what we end up with is millions of dollars spent on pretty green paint and PVC bollards and no idea at all how any of this will be maintained over the winter months and worse yet how it will be refurbished come spring.

But what about routes? If I get every single roadway in the city converted to add a ‘bike lane‘ am I any further towards my goal of getting ‘safely‘ from Logan Square to Hyde Park? If I have to ride for some reason down to Oak Lawn can I get there without being blocked by highways? If you have ever ridden to the Pierogi Fest in Indiana there is some of that sort of planning needed to make certain that you can safely navigate from the Buckingham Fountain to your destination.

London is trying to make that decision of what route to take a great deal easier. They want to establish at least 5 bicycle superhighways at ground level.

Without going into the details and debating whether their other ideas about underground and aboveground superhighways make any sense, the focus should be on the concept of a superhighway.

Bicyclists like myself often drive a route just to make certain of what it looks like ‘on the ground‘. Eventually you have to do a ‘scouting ride‘ to traverse those areas of a general route that are accessible by bicycle only. Once you have verified that everything is safe and that passage is even possible you feel comfortable using your new route with friends and family.

Cities Need To Rely On Locals

When Active Transportation Alliance (back then it was called the Chicago Bike Federation) began creating its early bicycle street maps, it did something that made sense. You could find out which streets were lightest in traffic and discover where the gaps might exist. And most importantly the information was gathered by locals.

Fast forward to 2015 and all we know about now is that some streets have bike lanes and some do not. And get a general report every few weeks and months on how far along the installation of the full 100 miles of bike lanes has come. But what we do not know is what is the state of a given route between where I am now and where I want to go?

If I am going to be riding for say 3-4 hours I will probably need to stop at some point and refuel. But I am a vegan, so I cannot know for certain whether food that I want is going to be available. And besides what place is the best of the best and in the price range I require.

Now you can try to cobble together some sense of these things using your SmartPhone and an app. But on a superhighway there would be signs at exits showing the various places just off the highway where I can refuel, sleep or get food. That is what I need when riding my bicycle. Believe it or not a 25-mile commute to work in very bad weather does indeed mean that I might have to find a place to hunker down while a storm passes. I want it to be a safe place.

I want the city that is supplying me with all these miles of lanes to have done its homework on my behalf. If I am at Wrigley Field on a Divvy bike and want to visit the Museum of Natural History how do I get there most efficiently? I need to know too what ‘bailout‘ options I might have.

Suppose I am pregnant and need to end the ride because I am feeling exhausted. Or perhaps I am a father taking two kids on tiny bikes for their first excursion to the Northwestern Campus from downtown Oak Park. What’s my best route. Will there be a bike shop along the way where my son’s tiny bike can be serviced? Where are the bathrooms and places to get Happy Meals or whatever your child wants?

We need to think not about miles of lanes but rather routes. That implies thinking about things the way a planner of superhighways would. Otherwise all we are doing is asking for a bigger bust size.

What About Effort Levels?

Not all bicyclists are created equal. Some may be on hand cycles. Others might be riding with e-assist motors and require a place to recharge in the event their motors are exhausted. Some folks who are novices might want to avoid steep hills or really busy traffic. Any good route planning needs to take into account all these things and offer people an option of exertion level as well as route. After all if I am a fit roadie and want to get in a good sweat while riding down to stuff a few dozen pierogi into my pie hole then I might want to work up and appetite first. I might want some hills!

Likewise if I decide to ‘tie one on‘ and realize it is very late in the evening and want to take a train or bus back to civilization where can I find a terminal or bus stop? Again, these are the kinds of things that a good bicycle superhighway planner would consider. And Chicago seems to have no concept of route planning that they are sharing with the rest of us. All we hear about is ‘equity‘ in terms of areas where lanes are installed.

But if I am a tourist or a commuter what is it that I would need to know about an area that might help with that elusive thing we call ‘Bicycle Comfort‘? Seems to me that any good route planner would pick a line that almost anyone could follow and expect to arrive safely and find shops and service people willing to help.

Again, this is not the kind of thing that can be answered in terms of inches of bust size. It is rather a question of what kind of ride do you wish to take? Do you want a scenic route? Are you interested in passing historical sites? Are you looking for a certain kind of cuisine or night life? You get the idea. I want bicycle infrastructure for thoughtful people and not something designed to gather my votes bases on some stupid and inane number of miles of pretty green paint and PVC bollards.