We Need ‘User-Friendly’ Bike Lanes

Background Reading

Summary

dc-bike-lanes

Bike lanes, sharrows and off-road trails.

There is a maddening bike lane in downtown D.C., on one of our nightly commutes, that disappears abruptly with no obvious logic. And it’s at least entertaining to envision possible scenarios for why this may have happened. The city ran out of bike-lane paint. Or maybe the crew that striped the lane became suddenly incapacitated or distracted. Maybe they took a lunch break — Busboys and Poets entices nearby — during which it started to pour and so no one could finish the job.

Bike commuting throughout the city is often like this: cobbled together out of a bit of bike lane here, an unprotected shoulder there, a scrap of sharrow and some silent pleas that cars won’t run you over. Bike lanes occasionally appear and vanish multiple times on the same street. Sometimes they last just a few hundred feet. It feels as if someone striped the city with dozens of quarter-mile commutes in mind.


TakeAways

To build bike lanes you need several goals:

  • You have to adopt a visual pattern that everyone eventually recognizes as a true bike lane.
  • You have to position the bike riders so as to give them the greatest impression of safety as possible (Bicycle Comfort).
  • You have to create a network of lanes that meet true transportion needs.
  • Your users have to easily recognize where they are and where they can get to from there.

Bicycles Are Currently Movie Props

Politicians are currently all about treating bicycles as props in the movie they are making. They love it when as was done on Roosevelt Road here in Chicago a town like Oak Park or Berwyn install literally dozens (maybe even a hundred or more) highly stylized bike racks. They look great (a bit like planters) that ‘shout‘ we are ‘bike friendly‘. Come live here, or come shop here.

Bike lanes are a bit like those giant billboards that go up before a housing development is completed. You will see and notice what kinds of people are welcomed by the developers.

If they expect kids you will see a mom with a six year old smiling at the camera and looking as if they belonged in a tree shaded suburb. There will be images of people whose ethnicity is less important than the fact that they are solidly middle/upper middle class. That child with her mom may even be learning to ride her first bike.

Bikes are a selling point just now in the re-development of cities. Cities are desperate to keep what few young people of child-bearing years close to hand before they become overwhelmed with the poor. Sorry to have to put it in those terms but that is really the truth.

But Bicycles Are Not Movie Props

When you get past the fashion statement that these politicians are trying to make to beautify their cities enough to attract young ‘elites‘ then their presence starts to fail the people attracted to them.

How do you get somewhere specific when you are riding in a city full of bike lanes?

Some politicians seem to think that if they can add enough miles of bike lanes that they will have achieved the goal of users. But that is not a credible way to proceed.

My thinking is that since money is scarce and the stated aim of the bicycle movement is to use bikes as basic transportation that you need to actually design a purposeful biking system.

The emphasis here is on system. If you take a look at how the bus and train components of Mass Transit work there is some method to the madness. They have to be designed so that people who actually live in the city can get to and from work and home.

But the other subset of users are those who might be visiting the city. These are sometimes thought of as tourists. But tourists are people who are not just walking aimlessly up and down Michigan Avenue taking in the sights. They are also people who might have targeted needs.

Getting to a sports arena is central to a visit to this city. Visiting a museum or finding the shopping district are all important. Can a visitor get by with just knowing that a Divvy bike station is handy? Nope!

In fact our bus and train lines are equally opaque to a visitor or tourist. So how then do people get from city to city to do all their tourist things? Well for that we have either airlines or passenger trains. But most of all we have super highways.

These latter designs are the things to which we should look to in planning our bike lanes.

What Super Highways All Have In Common

First and foremost superhighways have signage that tells  you where you are and how to get somewhere else.

If you climb on a superhighway you are likely to have been directed there by street signs in the city that say something like ‘To Detroit‘ or ‘To Milwaukee‘.

In addition to the overall idea of a destination you are provided additional signage that tells you which amenities are available at any given exit. Businesses even pay money to have their logos displayed. And you get to see which way to turn and how far to drive to reach that establishment.

The new cycle viaduct seen from the Máximakanaal looking north. All the sand will be covered in green grass very quickly. The plants and trees will take some time to mature, but this will be looking very nice in future.

The new cycle viaduct seen from the Máximakanaal looking north. All the sand will be covered in green grass very quickly. The plants and trees will take some time to mature, but this will be looking very nice in future.

In fact along the highways are tall signs that literally say come visit us or come here to eat or sleep. Businesses have these signs mounted on very tall poles at great expense. They are lit at night to be as visible as possible from as far away as needed.

Otherwise the sides of the establishments have signage as well. And across the highways are usually scenic information announcements. You might see a sign directing you to the local zoo or get off here for the sports stadium. Each overpass is generally labelled to give you a firm reference to your location.

Bike Lanes Should Be Like Super Highways

This photo (courtesy of the municipality of ʼs-Hertogenbosch) shows the temporary situation during construction. Left the canal is also under construction but the bridge is already finished, a bit to the North of the original road. Note that the rest of the road and the intersection will be moved a bit to the north, in the direction of the farm-house as well. The centre part of the cycle viaduct under construction is already clearly visible. The temporary roads make some sharp turns.

This photo (courtesy of the municipality of ʼs-Hertogenbosch) shows the temporary situation during construction. Left the canal is also under construction but the bridge is already finished, a bit to the North of the original road. Note that the rest of the road and the intersection will be moved a bit to the north, in the direction of the farm-house as well. The centre part of the cycle viaduct under construction is already clearly visible. The temporary roads make some sharp turns.

Cities are increasingly moving towards elevated cycle tracks.

When a cyclist is that far above the level of normal vehicular traffic it become imperative that they be able to gain their bearings. So along the length of these structures you need to see the kinds of ‘You Are Heresignage you would expect on a forest preserve trail.

But London is expecting to also build underground bicycle superhighways too. And once again users will need to know where they are and where to get off to reach their destinations.

And in both of these situations there will need to be ‘Minute Men‘. These are the folks (regardless of gender) who come out and assist you with a flat tire or a broken chain or other cycling calamity. And in addition there will have to be cops on bikes circulating along the length of these structures.

Bicyclists are going to be colliding with pedestrians and each other. So just as with a superhighway there will be a need for taking care of medical emergencies.

Electronic Signage For Alerts

If there is a a problem up ahead it will be vital to know about it. Signs along the route saying that there has been an accident or a medical emergency and that you can get off here to route around the congestion would be useful.

Street Bike Lanes Need Rethinking

Activists are fully engaged in trying to get the ‘Bicycle Comfort‘ issues resolved. They are the front line in getting more people out and about on bicycles. But if we allow ourselves to focus on that level of detail rather than looking at the ‘big picture‘ we end up with the kinds of pointless networks of bike lanes that go no where in particular.

How many times has your bicycle forum gotten a participant who is looking for a ‘safe route‘ across town. That is the kind of thing that good route planning should make obvious. But here in Chicago every trip is an ‘adventure‘ and I do not mean that in a kind way. It is the reason that the tourists and new arrivals get stuck on Divvy bikes riding on highways!

Bicycle activists have been busy squabbling over PVC bollards and the color of the paint used to beautify the lane and completely missing the fact that even a long time resident might have to get someone familiar with a different side of town than theirs to give them an optimal route to a site in their neighborhood.

That should not be.

If you want to get to museums or sports stadiums we offer a much better means of getting there than we do for attempting to reach a specific neighborhood. Why is that?

It is largely because politicians are all about the glitzy things that aid tourists. Tourists bring money and frankly even in a large city there are just a relative handful of tourist attractions that people can visit over the span of a weekend.

But there is also the problem of bicycling being in direct competition with an existing form of transportation, namely mass transit. Cities find themselves trying to display a welcoming hand to cyclists but also realize that if everyone bikes around the city then cabbies, buses and trains do not get used as much. And these forms of transportation are the ‘life blood‘ of city revenue.

Maybe the time has come to sit down and figure out just how we want people to get to various places. It might not be advantageous to have 15,000 bike racks places outside the museums of the city. Maybe getting to them should be via buses or on foot.

And the same is true of the shopping district. Right now the numbers of cyclists are few. But if there is a very large influx of bicyclists, we are going to have to bite the bullet and demand that they park in central bike parking garages and proceed on foot into the more densely crowded parts of town.

Nobody is really thinking about this just now. We have too few cyclists who are actually commuting to Loop buildings. Right now the cyclists are dawdling over where to get bike parking that lets them walk only a block or so to reach their offices.

But when you have to park 10,000 bikes then you have a logistics problem that needs to have been considered long before you reached that level of congestion. In fact there is really nothing being done at the moment is any of the big cities about this possible set of future issues.

Everyone is thinking about how to raise the numbers of cyclists. The ‘Bicycle Comfort‘ question is about the only thing that seems to matter. But the success of future generations of cyclists will depend on how we approach the designs of our current networks.

Bicycle Activists have to start thinking like motorists. They have to ask the hard questions about where their lanes go and how you inform users of those destinations being served. Somebody has to ask the question of how to find food, bathrooms, and emergency services along those routes. We are not even close to thinking strategically.

Right now we are at the ‘bicycles as props‘ level of thinking. And among the worst offenders are the bicycle activists.