On The Road

When it comes to bike lanes, one size does not fit all

My column last month reviewed the concept of protected bikeways, which embody a different philosophy from the thinking that the best way to achieve cycling safety is for bicyclists to behave like motorists and share the road.

I have traveled in Northern Europe and seen the extensive network of protected bikeways, and it is hard to argue with success.

But the European bikeways are the product of years of evolution, and not every local attempt meets the same high standards. This month I’m going to present some of the factors that must be considered when designing a bikeway, using the protected lane on Castro Street in Mountain View to illustrate them.

• Separated versus protected. A bikeway completely separated from the roadway eliminates many dangers, but walling off a small portion of the roadway is not the same thing.

After last month’s column, a reader wrote to tell me that she had ridden the Castro bikeway and did not feel safe at all. Why not? First, the bumpers on the left side of the lane protect only one side. There are many driveways coming in from the right, and the bumpers cut off an important escape route if a cyclist encounters a car that pulls 10 feet into the roadway before stopping and looking. Experienced cyclists know to monitor driveways and plan an escape route. And in some locations, the bumpers are replaced with parked cars to buffer the cyclists from the road – that is fine until a passenger door opens in the cyclist’s face.

A second problem caused by the bumpers is what to do at intersections. The bumpers prevent motorists from merging with the bike lane to make a right turn, and they prevent cyclists from merging with traffic when going straight across the intersection. Signage, patience and lots of green paint are needed at the intersections.

• The needs of children versus the needs of adults. If the bumpers on the Castro Street bikeway create dangers, is it possible to ride it safely? Absolutely, simply by riding slowly. If you watch children going to school, note that they typically ride at less than 10 mph. Many do not have the strength or skill to merge with traffic at 20 mph, the speed of a typical adult bike commuter.

When designing a bikeway, it is necessary to decide which kind of cyclist the project will serve. This specific design does a great job of addressing the needs of children (or old people, like I will be soon). But please don’t become irritated and honk your horn when you see an adult cyclist moving smoothly along with traffic at 20 mph. Cyclists must have the same awareness – if you are not comfortable mixing with traffic at 20 (or even 25 or 30) mph, then don’t try. And if you are unwilling to slow to below 10 mph and prepare to stop every time you approach a driveway or intersection, then don’t use the bikeway. Unfortunately, there isn’t much room for the middle ground; riding at 15 mph is too slow for the roadway at rush hour and way too fast for the bikeway. Cyclists need to acknowledge this choice and decide which type of cyclist they are. Indecision is not safe!

• Pedestrians. Many separated bike paths are shared with other users, including people walking with or without their dogs, pushing baby carriages and jogging. Again, not a serious problem if you are willing to slow way down and stop if necessary, Personally, I hate such paths and limit their use to short stretches.

To illustrate the good and the bad, let me cite a few of my bike-path experiences. My 2011 trip across the country started with 20 miles along the Los Angeles River heading east from Newport Beach. Yes, there were occasional dog walkers, but it sure beat 20 miles of congested LA surface streets. Three weeks later I encountered a 10-mile stretch in Ohio in the woods along a suburban road with moderately heavy traffic. There were many signs proclaiming the path a bike trail, but with small print saying that bikes had to yield to anyone and everyone else. And every mile the path crossed a road (the path had stop signs) at intersections where it was impossible to see oncoming traffic because of the trees.

Chris Hoeber is a local resident, avid cyclist and founder of a cycling club. Email questions and comments to chris@cfhengineering.

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