doubting protected bikeways

Protected bikeways, also called separated bike lanes or cycle tracks, are all the rage these days. The NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide codified cycle tracks, but they were already showing up in several cities, and are now being implementing in a great number more. I’ve ridden on cycle tracks in Long Beach, San Francisco (just yesterday, in fact) and other cities, and yes, they are a pleasure to ride on compared to riding in traffic or traditional bike lanes. Many people have declared the era of vehicular cycling dead, and the era of protected bikeways upon us.

So why am I doubting?

I’m doubting because I think protected bikeways are a sign that we have given up on recapturing our streets from motor vehicles. The thinking is, “If motor vehicle drivers will not behave in a sane, rational manner, well then we will just separate ourselves from them and leave them to their own space.” I think this is a mistake. Motor vehicle speed is the leading cause of fatality and injury in crashes. It is not the interactions that happen between bicyclists and pedestrians on the one hand, and motor vehicle drivers on the other, but the speed of the motor vehicles that is the real issue. If we separate ourselves and give up on calming traffic, then we have lost our streets, this time forever.

Protected bikeways do almost nothing for pedestrians. They may result in a reduction of sidewalk riding, by providing a space where some bicyclists feel safe enough to ride. Sidewalk riding is a real problem, at least in that it intimidates walkers, though it is not necessarily a safety issue. There have been some people saying that protected bikeways increase danger for both pedestrians and bicyclists because the pedestrians must cross the bikeways, and pedestrians may step into the bikeway without looking, or even walk in the bikeways in preference to crowded sidewalks. However, I think this can be solved through design, education, and experience. Most people objected to roundabouts when they first showed up, but now most people feel they work fine. I think it will be the same for protected bikeways. My objection to protected bikeways is not the bikeways themselves, but to their role in the overall street environment.

By emphasizing protected bikeways, I think bicyclists are abandoning our brethren, the pedestrians. The danger pedestrians face is crossing multiple lanes of high speed motor vehicle traffic. In suburban and rural areas, and sometimes even in urban areas, there are long distances between safe and/or legal crossings, but even when there are safe and legal crossings, traffic is moving too fast to respond to pedestrians in the roadway, and many drivers choose not to yield to pedestrians even when the law and common sense require it. Cycle tracks don’t do anything to slow that traffic.

Our cities and neighborhoods will be safe, inviting, vibrant places only when we return motor vehicles (and their drivers) to their place. That place is as an invited guest who must behave in a sane and rational manner in order to retain the privilege of using the streets. That will happen only if we make streets work for everyone, and that will happen only if we slow traffic to a speed somewhere between that of a walker and a bicyclist, 3 mph to 15 mph. Yes, I’m serious. On some of our streets, cars should only be creeping along, yielding to all others, and on other streets, cars should be moving at the pace of a bicyclist, yielding to pedestrians crossing the street (as should bicyclists be yielding to pedestrians).

Copenhagendize-street-allocationThe graphic at right, from a post “The Missing Link: Bremerholm and One-Way Streets” on Copenhagendize (cited on Streetsblog), shows a different way of looking at streets, which I’ll explore more in the future, but it is a good shocking graphic to get you started thinking about how we allocate space on our streets. Motor vehicles are the lowest priority users, the guests, and not the controllers of the streetscape. A key quote: “motoring allowed on bicycles’ terms”.

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