Thursday, July 15, 2010

NYC Bicycle Commuter Tip#8: Bike Lanes are not a Panacea

Okay, I'll say it, I am not all that crazy about bike lanes.  I hate to say so because folks are so excited about it and all, but as a bicycle commuter I don't think bike lanes are such a great idea.  As an urban motorist I like them even less.  In an already congested city they only add to the congestion and the confusion--I can't make sense of some of the markings on some streets, which is not only confusing but dangerous.  There is an effort to micromanage traffic that is ill-advised, however well intended.  I will try to confine my comments to bike lanes and add the caveat that I really do get some of the many complications of trying to address this problem, and even why lanes seem like the way to go.  I am going to try and keep out of the policy debate on this one for now and focus on why the cyclist should be wary of bike lanes. 

There are several kinds of bike lanes in the City of New York, but I am only concerned with the ones that are actually where people want to go--the ones in the actual street.  I am not interested in the recreational multi-use paths, which cyclists share with pedestrians and I think serve to sour relations between them.  These are pleasure paths as far as I am concerned (Unfortunately, I don't have much time for pleasure.), but some cyclists think they are race courses--I live here and I don't care for the attitude.  The street offers far more opportunity for speeding, but generally, the population density of the city doesn't make it a good idea.  The the most common, real bike lanes, generally consist of two solid white lines along the right edge of the road with about a yard's width between them.  This three foot lane--between the traffic and the parked cars--is the assigned domain of the street cyclist.  It is a crude attempt to solve several problems, it also creates problems though. 

The first and most significant problem is that the system is too inflexible.  The two solid white lines, as any motorist knows, are not to be crossed.  Certainly, there are extenuating circumstances to everything, however, in the event of an accident outside those lines, the onus is on the cyclist and proving otherwise as again, any motorist knows, is difficult without witnesses that are actually willing to step up.  Folks would say, "Well just stay in the lane and you're fine."  Not really.  I find that on a daily basis the right is the right place to be most of the time, but about 20-30% of the time it is not.  First, in rush hour gridlock, I am often not the slowest vehicle on the road and passing on the right is often not safe.  Second, the bike lanes are constantly blocked.  Third, how do make a left turn?  Finally, there is the danger of getting "doored."  As stated throughout this blog, I do believe shared roads or "sharrows" make more sense for bicycle commuting.  They are easier to implement, do not contribute to traffic congestion, and can be implemented at a much lower cost.  They have the same effect of serving notice on motorists that bicycles belong on the roads.

The admitted advantage of bike lanes is that they force a space for the cyclist and give the cyclist a sense of greater safety.  I also realize that folks don't share space well.  These are important matters to cyclists, but let's be honest biking has been popular in NYC for a long time.  The ones who took the streets for cycling in NYC were the bike messengers.  They were detested, but besides a little risky behavior on their part, they endangered mainly themselves and enraged motorists who didn't want to be bothered looking out for them.  They demonstrated that cyclists can handle traffic.  They elicited negative reactions mainly, I think, because they were people of color--I think folks are, and always have been, ruder on the subway than cyclists were on the street.  Everyone is riding "fixies" because of the messengers.  There are still bike messengers, but the money isn't there like it used to be, or so I am told. 

Don't get me wrong, the NYC DOT has worked hard on these lanes.  It shows.  Some of these lanes make a lot of sense and are very well placed.  The effort to dedicate one side of the Williamsburg Bridge multi-use path to cyclists is a good idea.  There is a lane that is separate from traffic en route to the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, which takes a little getting used to, but it makes sense because the area is very congested and connected to and transitions from highways, so shared roads are not ideal, but the two lines on the side of the road are way overused and might hurt more than help.


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