By Dan Hartzell, Of The Morning Call
March 9, 2012
Bike lanes may be good for bicycling, but are they safe for bicyclists? Road Warrior Dan Hartzell discussed the issue with two advocates as Allentown mulls replacing a motor-vehicle lane with a dedicated bike lane on Linden and Turner streets in a plan to link parks and neighborhoods and to promote exercise.
BIKE LANES GIVE FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY
Steve Schmitt, head of the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation in Bethlehem, prefers painting streets with “shared lane” markings, or “sharrows,” to remind motorists bikes share the right of way.
Q: You believe that bike lanes are more dangerous than sharrows, in part because they promote a kind of false sense of security among bikers, and because of conflicts with turning vehicles at intersections. If this is true, why are New York and other major cities forging ahead with bike-lane installations?
A: [Bike lanes] are good for very young kids or older people … they allow for low speeds. [But] few cyclists want to travel that slow. [Bike lanes] are completely unnecessary and inadvisable … [particularly] in a built-out urban environment like Allentown’s. The cops didn’t like the bike lanes in Bethlehem in the 1970s, and that’s one reason they disappeared.
Q: Why are bike lanes more dangerous than bicyclists’ riding directly in the motor-vehicle lanes?
A: The main problem with any kind of separate facility is the intersections. By pretending you’re in your own space, you’ve magically created a false safety zone. What about cross-traffic? The most dangerous [situation] is a left turn coming at you.” Right-turning vehicles can hit cyclists as well, Schmitt said, but left turns across a cyclist’s path are more dangerous.
Q: What do sharrows offer? Why are they superior to separate bike lanes?
A: The option we could all get behind is [bicycling] education and sharrows. The American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials [and] the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices [endorse] “bikes may use full lane” signs. [The safest way to ride is] to stay way from parked-car doors, riding almost in the center of the right lane where the bike is best able to do that. Yes, some motorists become annoyed, but keeping to the right [in a bike lane] is more dangerous. Sharrows give cyclists a genuine sense of safety; when they ride over the shared-lane marking, they’ll say, “Oh, the city agrees with me, I’m not a second-class citizen, I’m part of the traffic.”
Q: If sharrows are actually safer than bike lanes, why are the latter promoted by PennDOT, its New Jersey counterpart and other state agencies? The Smart Transportation Handbook developed by the two states generally recommends bike lanes first in the proper applications, with sharrows as a secondary application only if bike lanes are not feasible.
A: It’s not unusual to have misconceptions in the public mind. We are undergoing a grand experiment here in this country, and I see a lot of confusion in terms of bike facilities. … People automatically think if there’s a bicycle facility, it’s a good thing. Separate but equal is not safer. Keeping to the right is dangerous … it’s inherently unsafe. … The worst possible thing in the Lehigh Valley is to train cyclists about these separate bike lanes, that it’s OK to pass stopped traffic [at an intersection], then [ ride] in the “door zone” and pass all the cars, [infuriating motorists and creating more possible passings and conflicts with the same cars]. It’s called filtering forward, and it’s extremely dangerous.
Q: Anything to add in conclusion?
A: We look forward to seeing shared-use markings and “bikes may use full lane” signs on Linden and Turner streets and elsewhere in the Lehigh Valley. To me, a bike lane is a street lane. Every street, unless it’s prohibited for use by a bicyclist, is a bike lane. I don’t recognize the term “bike lane” as being something separate. So the question of which is more dangerous becomes moot. It’s the same thing.
BIKE LANES ARE SAFER AND PROMOTE MORE BICYCLING
Douglas Adams, director of active transportation planning for Schwartz Engineering, says bike lanes are safer and promote greater use of bicycles, an aim of Allentown’s Connecting Our Community effort.
Q: Steve Schmitt says bike lanes can give people a false sense of security. Is he wrong?
A: I think there’s the potential for that, but I wouldn’t agree [that it’s a widespread problem]. Sharrows have been demonstrated to have some safety benefits, [including] encouraging cyclists to ride far enough from parked cars to avoid being “doored.”
Q: OK, if sharrows have safety benefits, why not opt for them on Linden and Turner, retaining the vehicle lanes as well?
A: There’s plenty of evidence that cities with bike lanes … have lower crash rates for bicycles, pedestrians and motorists, because [traffic generally slows and] the streets are calmer. The safety benefits have been shown for all users. In addition, sharrows don’t grow cycling populations.
Q: Why do bike lanes lure more riders than sharrows?
A: Growing the cycling population is about adding facilities that increase cyclist comfort, and sharrows don’t do that. Strong and fearless riders make up about 1 percent of the population — folks that will ride regardless of the facilities provided. Enthusiastic and competent riders will ride with some segregated facilities; that represents about 6 percent of the population. … The bulk, about 60 percent, falls into the interested but concerned category [for whom] bike lanes will add to their comfort level. That’s who we’re designing for; we want to see increases in this population [riding bicycles in Allentown].
Q: But if sharrows provide at least some safety benefit, and don’t require the loss of traffic lanes, why not opt for them on Linden and Turner?
A: Sharrows haven’t been shown to increase the rates of cycling at all. Schmitt is advancing a notion that’s been promoted by vehicular cyclists [those who feel comfortable riding in the vehicle lane] that no facilities for bikes is appropriate. That has been shown for 30 years to be untrue. It’s just not borne out …. This is an old argument that really needs to be put to rest. When you provide safe, separate facilities for different users, you get safer streets. … There’s no municipality that’s making the case that sharrows are safer than bike lanes.
Q: Schmitt says the favoritism shown by PennDOT and other agencies for bike lanes is simply misplaced. He’s an extremely experienced road bicyclist. How could he be wrong?
A: I would say, what evidence … does he have that bike facilities are putting cyclists in harm’s way? PennDOT, for instance, a very conservative organization, recommends bike lanes [based on American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials and Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices guidelines]. I’m not aware of any government [agency] that recommends sharrows and no other bike facilities. You might consider sharrows for connecting two [separated] bike facilities, [for example] if there’s a gap between bike lanes.”
Q: What about bikers going straight at intersections and being struck by right-turning motorists they are coming up to from behind, or worse, bikers going straight and being hit by oncoming traffic turning left across the cyclist’s path?
A: Intersections are not a major problem. It’s a matter of cyclists … and drivers being aware of each other. If you’re driving a car and you need to make a right turn, you need to maneuver slowly [alerted in part by the painted bike lane]. It’s similar with the left turn. Just because I’m riding a bike doesn’t mean cars aren’t going to be turning across my path. In that sense, there’s no difference between sharrows and bike lanes. Anyone riding a bike [on the street] needs training and [a sense of] caution. Just putting down a bike lane doesn’t mean you should just ride [carelessly].
Copyright © 2012, The Morning Call