Last November I reviewed the concept of protected bikeways that embody a different philosophy from the guiding principle 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. Using the protected lane on Castro Street in Mountain View as an example, following are some of the factors that must be considered when designing a bikeway.
Separated vs. protected
Clearly, a bikeway completely separated from the roadway eliminates a lot of dangers, but walling off a portion of the roadway is not the same thing.
A reader told me she rode the Castro bikeway and did not feel safe. Why? First, the bumpers on the left side of the lane protect only one side of the lane. 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 road before stopping to look. Experienced cyclists know to monitor driveways and plan an escape route, but that is not possible in this case. In some spots, parked cars replace the bumpers to buffer the cyclists from the road, which is fine until a passenger door opens in the cyclist’s face.
A second problem caused by bumpers: What to do at intersections? The bumpers prevent motorists from merging into the bike lane to make a right turn, and they prevent cyclists from merging with traffic when going straight through an intersection. Signage, patience and lots of green paint are needed at the intersections.
Children vs. adults
So if the bumpers on the Castro Street bikeway create dangers, is it possible to ride it safely? Sure, by riding slowly. If you watch children going to school, you may notice they typically ride at under 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 this project is for. This specific design does a great job of addressing special needs of children (or older people like me). But please don’t become irritated and honk the horn when you see an adult cyclist moving smoothly along with traffic at 20 mph and not using the special-purpose bike lane. Cyclists must have the same awareness and empathy – if you are not comfortable mixing with traffic at 20 (or 25 or 30) mph, then please don’t try. And if you are unwilling to slow 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.
A lot of separated bike paths are shared with other users, including people walking with or without dogs, pushing baby carriages or jogging. While not a serious problem if you are willing to slow down and stop if necessary, I hate these kinds of paths and limit their use to short stretches.
Chris Hoeber is a local resident, avid cyclist and founder of a cycling club. Email questions and comments to chris@ cfhengineering.com.