Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Are We Building Too Many Bike Lanes?

First published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan, May 21, 2012

Sometimes I worry that we are building too many bike lanes.   We build them to encourage children, families, and novice cyclists to ride more.  But bike lanes can be misleading if they give a false sense of security to novices who need to learn when and how to get out of the bike lane safely.  They can also mislead motorists and parents into thinking that the only place for bicyclists is in the bike lane. 

Looking east on Lake Street on the Colorado State University campus.  I've seen east-bound cyclists use the left hand bike lane, riding the wrong way on this street because they were afraid to take the travel lane and felt that they should be in the bike lane.  As you can see, City and CSU authorities don't do a very good job of plowing this bike lane.  What's a cyclist to do?  What will it take to teach college educated students that they should just take the lane and avoid wrong way riding?

If we are going to become the safest bike town in the nation we’ve got to come to an understanding of where bicycles belong on our streets and the role of bike lanes in this.   Three principles govern the concept:  1) Colorado law; 2) common sense; and 3) best practices in bike safety.  Common courtesy also plays a role. 

Colorado law requires cyclists to ride in the right-hand lane if they are traveling at “less than the normal speed of traffic.”  In Fort Collins we’ve built 130 miles of bike lanes to encourage people to ride bicycles. But there are many conditions when bikes should not be in the bike lane and it is important that everyone understand those conditions. 

Cyclists should exit the bike lane if it is dangerous for them to be there because of debris, potholes, glass or the threat of opening car doors from parked cars.  Cyclists should also get out of the bike lane and merge into the travel lane to make a left turn, when overtaking a slower vehicle, and to avoid a right turn lane if they are continuing straight through an intersection.

Conflicts are often built into intersections where right turning cars must cross bike lanes.  How many motorists know that the law requires them to allow one hundred feet before turning right after passing a cyclist?  Not many, I fear. 

When there are no bike lanes cyclists can and should use the right-most regular travel lane in a position where they feel safe:  they should stay away from parked cars and occupy the entire lane if it is not wide enough to share side-by-side with motor vehicles.  Lanes less than fourteen feet wide cannot be safely shared so cyclists should position themselves in the center or the right third of that lane.

Roundabouts in south Fort Collins often have bike lanes leading into them.  In some cases the bike lane ends before the roundabout, requiring cyclists to merge with traffic, which is desirable, while other times the lanes end abruptly at the roundabout itself creating potential confusion for cyclists and motorists.   

Instead of more bike lanes we need an intensive education program to educate all road users of the rights of cyclists and best practices for everyone.  The City should take the lead in this.  Maybe when we conduct a national search for a new bike coordinator we can look for someone to help us move in this direction.

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