walking around in tap shoes and pyjamas since 2010 - my cycling log (opens in new window)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Passenger-Side Peril

Apparently, there's a proposal on the table to have bike lanes striped in on Fourth Street here in Louisville. If that were the whole story, I would probably say 'Meh' and accept that bike lanes act as 'noob incubators,' creating more wayfaring cyclists, and as long as they're actually on the roads, they do less than other dedicated bikeways might to encourage drivers to adopt a segregationist mentality.

The problem is, the proposed lanes are to be positioned to the right of a 'wall' of parked cars — that is to say, between the passenger's-side doors and the curb. The language being used is protectionist: the cyclists will be protected by a wall of parked cars.

To that, I say only, "Protect my hard-earned cyclist's posterior, schmucks!" Okay, actually, I will refrain from being that rude about it. I have absolutely no reason to be a jerk. In fact, I appreciate the thought behind the proposal — which is to say, I appreciate the fact that someone out there is trying to look out for cyclists. I just differ with that individual, whoever he or she may be, in my ideas about implementation, for quite a few reasons. I think they're good ones.

On LBC's listserv, Wake wrote:

There is a absolutely no difference between "ride in the protected lanes" and "you should be riding on the sidewalk".

I have to reply: "Amen."

Here's the deal.

There are a lot of things that concern me about the stick-the-bikes-on-the-other-side-of-the-parked-cars idea.

First, there's the universal right-hook dilemma: drivers won't look for cyclists moving along on the other side of a wall of parked cars (and won't likely be able to see us, even if they do look). This is guaranteed to lead to conflicts at intersections between right-turning cars and straight-going cyclists. Even where merging areas are provided, problems will ensue.

Bike lanes tucked behind parked cars serve to deprive both sides of the equation of the information they would need to make soundly-reasoned decisions. The cyclists can't see the drivers' turn signals, and the drivers can't see the cyclists well enough to really be aware of their speed or to see their hand signals. This is a formula for disaster.

I believe the unstated — not to mention legally indefensible and rather silly — assumption is that cyclists will always inherently be moving more slowly than cars and/or will simply stop if a car tries to turn across their paths. Since your average driver (rightly) slows down to turn and the average bike commuter is likely faster than non-cyclists imagine, any existing speed gradient is likely to be eliminated. So much for that theory.

In fact, my epxerience indicates that the speed gradient is often imaginary in the first place, at least in urban areas. I am not by far the fastest cyclist in Louisville, but my cruising speed usually falls in the range of 15 - 20 MPH (24 - 32 KPH). This means that, between stop lights and general congestion, I generally keep pace with traffic while riding in the busy parts of town — in fact, during peak traffic periods, I routinely check my own speed in order to 'play nice' and go with the flow (I don't filter forward at stoplights, nor do I split lanes unless I'm trying to avoid some kind of tire-shredding debris monster). In less-busy residential zones, where there are fewer lights and stop signs, and on broad multi-lane arterial roads, cyclists may be significantly slower than cars, but it also matters less in those areas. In fact, I prefer traveling on the bigger, faster arterials, because they offer drivers plenty of lanes in which to pass me if I'm going slower than they are, and they generally do so without comment.

Passenger-side bike lanes are dubious even in the hands of infrastructure designers who ply their trade well — and these are not, historically, the guys that ol' Loutown turns to when it's time to design some bike lanes (whoever designed our Riverwalk Trail, on the other hand, knew what he or she was doing). Our bike lanes — while I'm grateful for the effort — appear to have been designed by people who have never sat on a bicycle in their lives, or at least not in traffic. When they reach challenging intersections, they tend to simply end — like British films from the 90s, they lack a clear resolution. They often leave cyclists in really, really awkward spots.

The long and short of it is that experienced cyclists tend to avoid the bike lanes, and inexperienced cyclists learn to avoid them as soon as they feel comfortable riding in proximity to autos. Bike lanes 'protected' by walls of parked cars are likely to be even more stridently ignored by experienced cyclists while trapping inexperienced cyclists in merge zones and subjecting them to potential right-hook scenarios, thereby scaring them back off the roads. Forgive me, but this sounds like a lose-lose situation.

Second, the whole idea is kind of short-sighted: while its purported purpose is to protect cyclists both from being doored or side-swiped, it fails utterly on at least one point — passengers get out of cars, too (if less often, since cars seem to frequently carry only their drivers, their baggage, and a few dozen sauce packets from Taco Bell).

It would seem to me that passengers, exiting vehicles at the curb on the *passenger* side (which, in the US, generally means the curb-facing side) might not think to check before opening their doors (goodness knows even drivers often don't think of checking before they get out, and they're normally climbing right into traffic). Sure, it behooves those of us on two wheels to look out ahead — but if we fail to spot the signs of a door about to open in a passenger-side bike lane, I would imagine we'd be left stuck between a curb and a hard place. At least in an unimpeded driver's-side bike lane, one has some chance of being able to move over.

Add to the equation the likelihood that passenger-side bike lanes would become giant, street-sweeper-inaccessible debris zones, and they seem like a recipe for trouble.

My third and primary concern is that the more segregated the bike facilities are, the more average drivers seem to believe that bikes should be legally confined to them (note that I say "seem" -- I haven't done any kind of scientific survey, here; I just observe what's happening around me and watch what drivers and cyclists say whenever the topic comes up, be it on the news, on the internet, or at the dinner table). The more that non-cyclists believe cyclists should be confined to 'bike infrastructure,' the more likely it seems that laws will be passed confining us to said infrastructure. Those laws would spell disaster for the tender shoots of US bike culture (not to mention seriously ticking off those of us who already routinely ride on the roads).

Since it's unlikely that any city in the United States is going to invest in segregated, dedicated bike infrastructure equal in utility to the existing road system even if it was the only legal way to provide a place for cyclists to ride, I can't say I think that's a good idea to encourage the kind of thinking that leads to cyclist-confinement laws.

Moreover, when one considers the speed gradient that exists in the cycling world, with some of us routinely clocking 25+ MPH on our commutes, while others never exceed 10 MPH, it becomes very difficult to imagine what 'adequate' cycling infrastructure would look like. Even moreso when you consider that runners and in-line skaters tend to be attracted to bike lanes, and that while the standard version allows faster-moving cyclists a way to pass them, the passenger-side curbhugger lane would not.

As I see it, Louisville already has plenty of perfectly good bike infrastructure already in place — which is to say, we already have a road system including dedicated high-speed infrastructure for drivers who just can't stand to sit at stoplights — and we're already paying taxes and so forth to keep it in working order. I think I'd like to see more sharrows, because they serve to remind drivers that the roads are for everyone, but I really don't think we need more segregation. A couple of recreational bike paths are fine — it's when we start applying protectionist thinking to the routes that commuters use to get back and forth that things get a bit sketchy.

The fact of the matter is that competent cyclists don't need 'protection' from competent drivers — and competent cyclists don't become competent cyclists by riding in segregated facilities. Encouraging drivers to frame their prejudices in the light of 'protection' just makes it easier for them to rationalize unsafe behaviour (the same way the wily bike salmon frames his neck-risking habits in the fantasy that it is somehow 'safer' to ride against the stream of traffic!) up to and including harassment. Likewise, my experiences indicate that most drivers are much more competent and much less hostile than we often think. If one gets into the stream of traffic and acts like one belongs, most drivers seem to behave themselves.

It is certainly true that there is some danger involved in cycling. However, I would be remiss if I didn't observe that there is also some danger involved in waking up and walking out the front door. Drivers are injured and killed in transit more often than cyclists, and a sedentary lifestyle is a proven killer. Cycling is a proven way to increase health and longevity, and it's not just good for the cyclist — it's also good for anyone who breathes air, not to mention anyone who pays insurance premiums.

In this day and age, we make far too much of safety, and we often fail to see when our desire for safety starts leading us down a slippery slope (PATRIOT Act, anyone? — okay, no more politics).

To my mind, freedom is more precious than safety. I'm a Yankee by blood and upbringing, and a good chunk of my family still lives in the state whose motto is "Live free or die" (that's New Hampshire, if you're wondering — I grew up in Connecticut, with the less-exciting but more gardening-oriented motto, "He who transplants, sustains"). I don't want to be confined to 'protected' bike infrastructure any more than I want to be forced to adopt one religion or another. ...And only part of that has anything to do with the fact that I like to go fast, and I realize going fast on a narrow closed course in mixed company is dumb :)

I accept, every time I wake up in the morning, that things happen, and that this could be my last day on earth. Mostly, I don't go out of my way to do dumb things (though I probably do more dumb things than a lot of people because I apparently lack whatever gene it is that makes people fear physical harm), and I do take reasonable precautions — I ride sanely with the flow of traffic, I obey traffic laws, I try to be visible, I wear a helmet just in case.

We need to strike a balance between accepting the fact that life is risky and being the masters of our own fates.

To the would-be purveyors of the 'protected' bike lanes, whose intentions I do respect, although I believe their approach is misguided, I say, "Thanks, but no thanks."

I'll take my chances on the roads.

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