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.
Now, 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 bicycle
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.
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