I didn’t get in on the discussion about bicycle lanes in Bayshore Monday night, but I discussed the same subject at the Martin County Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee meeting. A representative from the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) presented a plan for Indian River Drive in Jensen Beach that did not include bicycle lanes, and the Committee got very fired up about the lack thereof. I’m not going to recount the discussion here, but I will bring up some of the same points as I try to show how they can apply to other projects.

The project in question proposed a typical section with on-street parking on both sides, wide sidewalks, and two 10′ travel lanes, with a design speed of 25 mph. The intent was to integrate bicycles into the flow of traffic, as speeds of bicycles and motor vehicles would be similar. This makes sense because bicycle lanes are not a one-size-fits-all feature, but should only be installed on the right roadways.

Let’s ask ourselves why bicycle lanes exist in the first place. Sure, they create a designated space for bicyclists to use. But why do we need that? The primary purpose of bicycle lanes has been to maintain motorist travel speeds. Bicycle lanes get the slower-moving bicycle out of the way of the automobile. They also keep bicyclists from getting startled when impatient drivers come up behind them and lean on the horn or perform other road-rage fueled criminal acts.

Some people say that bicycle lanes provide extra safety. This is a debatable point that I won’t start into other than to say that a bicycle lane feels safer on high speed roadways. I think that our own recent experiences with the Rickenbacker Causeway and other roadways proves that bicycle lanes don’t necessarily equate with safety. Bicycle lanes provide a perceived safety benefit to the bicyclist, that much is true.

Perhaps having the symbols on the pavement encourages more cyclists to ride, but shared lane markings as found in the 2009 MUTCD provide similar pavement symbols. So we can’t really count that one. Can you think of anything else that bicycle lanes do for the cyclist? Check out some of the lists of advantages or benefits of bicycle lanes, such as this PDF, and most of the benefits are for automobiles. That particular list has 16 benefits, and only one or  two apply to bicyclists. The CRA representative mentioned that in another published list of 21 benefits of bicycle lanes, only two applied to the bicyclists. So the motorists get most of the benefits out of the bicycle lanes.

Bicycles in the RoadwayNow, I’m still in favor of bicycle lanes on higher speed roadways. When automobile speeds are 30, 35 mph and up, the benefits listed above, while still few, are worthwhile. I think most of you would agree with that so I won’t argue that point. But what happens to those benefits when speeds go down to 25 mph or lower? Maybe the road rage can still occur, but if motorists are really going 20-25 mph or lower they are not as likely to be bothered by a bicyclist in front of them going 15 mph or so. Is there still a perceived safety benefit to bicycle lanes when motorist speeds are so similar to bicyclists speeds? If you’ve ever ridden in places such as Old Town Key West, you would probably agree that the roads are quite comfortable to ride on. My wife, who is not comfortable riding on the roads in Fort Lauderdale, had no problem riding in Key West in the same lanes as the cars.

There are other advantages to not having bicycle lanes, or disadvantages to bicycle lanes. If you are not familiar with the issues that arise with bicycle lanes, read some of them at Bicycle Driving or Bicycle Universe. One example is bicycle lanes next to on-street parking. The widest car doors can stick out 3.5′ into the bicycle lane, making riding in the bicycle lane clearly more dangerous than riding in the automobile lane. The crash rates of bicyclists getting”doored” are much higher and much more deadly than bicyclists getting hit from behind. Another example is bicycleAnother Reason to Ride Outside the Bicycle Lane.
lanes getting used when they should not be, such as a bicyclist turning left. Lately I’ve been having several coworkers who see me riding to work ask if my making a left turn from the left vehicle lane was proper or legal. They and many others, motorists and bicyclists, are so stuck on the idea that bicyclists belong in the bicycle lane that they cannot fathom that someone would ride outside of it.

The lower the motorist speed, the more the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Some studies might be useful to determine at exactly what speed it is better to combine bicyclist and motorist traffic. Until those studies are performed, we can go on experience. In my experience, I am comfortable using the automobile lane when motor vehicle speeds are around 25 mph. At what automobile speeds are you comfortable using the same lane as the automobiles? Let us know in the comments.

I’m not familiar with the details of the roads in Bayshore that were under discussion on Monday. But for those of you who are, think about whether bicycle lanes are the appropriate treatment for those roadways. Don’t automatically assume that we need bicycle lanes on every road. Every project requires good, site-specific design. If we get set on one way of doing things and refuse to change for an appropriate situation, we are no better than the bureaucracies we so often fight against.

First picture by flickr user Willamor Media. Second by Richard Drdul.

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6 Responses to Are Bicycle Lanes Always Best?

  1. Neil Fritz says:

    Personally, I’m comfortable in 25mph traffic without lanes. I’d rather see lanes where they are needed in higher traffic speed areas.

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  2. Gabrielle says:

    Having these arguments with people I respect is heartbreaking. The kicker is cars NEVER go 25 MPH on open roads, in neighborhoods or anywhere else without constant enforcement. So sure, JM, if you can pinky promise that cars will not travel on roads with any sort of bicycle traffic over 25 MPH, EVER, and that ALL drivers, even on 10-foot travel lanes, follow the state law that requires cars to maintain a 3-foot distance between themselves and bicycles when sharing the road, I am all for no marked bike lanes. Until then, we need to force planners and politicians to see bicycle lanes as a RIGHT of alternative transportation, and require them to add facilities when easily accomplished in the planning stages of ROW improvement projects. Think of them as “Lexus Lanes” for the pedal set. More choices eases congestion. Less congestion means safer roads. Are those not the transport planners mantras, my friend?

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  3. Prem says:

    I’m comfortable riding on bike-lane-less streets with legal speed limits of 35mph, such as Biscayne Blvd. It’s much more comfortable to do it in a group, but even alone I fair fine.
    It’s the sort of street though, where if people can maintain 35+ they can probably also move around me. Otherwise they’re stuck at a red light and it doesn’t matter anyway.

    I think the cycling community has a responsibility to start recognizing that different types of cyclists have different skills and riding preferences, and there is no panacea for the bike safety issue.

    In the example of a street with parking on both sides of traffic, a bike lane does very little to protect the cyclist from parking traffic and oncoming doors.
    There is a situation somewhat like this on Washington Avenue in South Beach and in that case, where traffic is terribly slow, but still quite dangerous, I ride on the LEFT side of the middle most lane. These kinds of streets next to plazas and shopping often have a median, and in the case of Washington Avenue there is also a rather large shoulder.

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  4. [...] Cyclists may soon be able to share Pennsylvania Avenue with the President; but maybe a bike lane isn’t always the best solution. Lance says don’t count on him to beat Contador in this year’s Le Tour. Floyd Landis finally [...]

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  5. JM Palacios says:

    Gabrielle, I understand your concern with speeding vehicles. Of course, no one can promise that cars will never exceed the speed limit or the design speed. Just as no one can promise that all cars will stay out of the bicycle lane.

    I would agree that the majority of drivers go fast on all our roads. That’s where we need to focus our efforts. The better solution for neighborhood streets would be to lower the design speed and the posted speed to 20 mph. That way speeders who are still within the 5 mph “grace period” speed won’t exceed the more comfortable speed, and the design will encourage them accordingly. This might mean further narrowing of streets or other features that serve to slow automobile traffic.

    You bring up the passing issue. Studies have shown that with lane positioning farther left, motorists tend to give cyclists more space. It’s quite legal to take the lane on roadways with narrow lanes or where the bicyclist speed is near that of the cars. When bicyclists use this proper lane positioning, motorists give us more respect. Shared lane use markings or “sharrows” aid this goal by highlighting to cyclists where they should position themselves in the lane. We can even put up the new “Bicycles may use full lane” signs.

    You mention congestion, but on these neighborhood or downtown streets we’re not usually trying to increase traffic flow or speeds, but improve safety and accessibility. Bicycle lanes do tend to increase automobile speeds for a motor vehicle lane (given the same lane width), and thus reduce congestion. If part of the goal is to calm traffic and lower speeds, bicycle lanes may be contrary to that goal. 

    We all want to see increased safety and mobility for bicyclists. But in some cases instead of bicycle lanes, the focus should be on slowing car traffic to better mingle with bicycle and pedestrian traffic. We can combine this with some special treatments for bicycles as well, just not a segregated lane.

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  6. Florida Man says:

    I think there is a place for bicycle lanes but not necessarily on the roads, I think the best place for them is to where you have dedicated routes. The problem with bicycles lanes means that you will always get motorists (especially motorbikes that will decide to use them also!).
    Are there places to hire bikes for people coming over for vacation from the UK? I think there is a missing opportunity in the whole of florida to hire bikes as I suspect a lot of people would do that. With the wide roads you have, generally better drivers then over in the UK and the nicer weather I think a lot of people would like to make the most of the weather and ride a lot more!

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