Friday, June 18, 2010

Dedicated Bike Lanes

Trendy ideas come and go. We all (myself included) have a tendency to get behind an idea that sounds good, even if we haven't completely thought it through.

The latest fad, in Waterloo Region at least, is bike lanes with curbs around them. These, it is thought, will be safer for bicyclists and so increase bike commuting. Sounds good, no? All of a sudden everyone seems to be behind the idea - you hear it all the time, proposed with great authority.

But wait. There are a few other things to consider:

  • Given the much higher cost of this sort of bike lane over a regular bike lane, a shift to the new lanes will almost certainly slow down the development of new bike lanes.
  • The new bike lanes require more space so won't be possible on many roads. This isn't a drawback unless (as I've heard) people decry the regular bike lane as unsafe - then we just end up with less bike lanes.
  • In winter, it will be more difficult to plough these lanes. Regular bike lanes (essentially just a white stripe down the road marking off a lane for bikes) are easier to plough. The city will have to send out a different sort of snow plough to handle the new bike lanes. They likely just won't get ploughed.
  • As a cylist, I don't relish the idea of a curb surrounding my lane because it makes it more difficult for me to merge with traffic to make a left hand turn or get to an address on the other side of the street. It also makes it more difficult to pass slow bike riders and other impediments.
  • The curb alongside the bike lane does not solve the biggest problem of bike lanes: at intersections, bike lanes tend to disappear - leaving the cyclist high and dry in the most dangerous part of the street. This problem will probably be much worse with curbed bike lanes, as the curb will have to stop at every spot where cars need to turn.
  • Curbed bike lanes only make sense on streets with limited car access - long stretches of road without intersections or driveways. But in those situations, a path running a few meters away from the road is a safer and more enjoyable alternative for bikes.
  • There is an accessibilty consideration: how do pedestrians with walkers, baby buggies or wheelchairs cross them? What about the sight impaired?

The curbed bike lane idea may be made with the best of intentions, but it may also be a very negative force on the future of urban cycling. We'd be better off itemizing the problems with regular bike lanes and thinking up better ways to solve them: motorists parking in bike lanes; lanes running close to parked cars with doors that could suddenly fling open; safe ways for bikes to make turns and cross intersections; etc. And the number one priority is just to have more trails, paths and bike lanes, and to make sure they connect.



Michael D said...

There are certainly implementation issues with buffered and segregated cycling lanes, and intersections require careful handling. And of course they cost more -- you can't build many paths by spending the few hundred thousand a year that we currently do on cycling infrastructure.

As much as bike lanes are improved, they will always remain part of the roadway, right next to fast-moving two-ton chunks of metal. Though many cities have put in bike lanes, only the cities that have built segregated paths are the ones that have achieved success in getting a substantial proportion of trips being made by bicycle. You need cycling to be subjectively safe, and separation from fast-moving vehicles is necessary for that.

There's a great presentation for Portland that shows how cycle tracks can and should be designed, with particular emphasis on intersections.

By the way, I'd love to see cycle tracks become a fad here in Waterloo Region, however we don't have a single one at present. The most we have is multi-use paths next to some arterial roads. And we certainly have nothing of any note at intersections. I am very glad to see many people demanding better cycling infrastructure.

Yappa said...

Hi Michael,

Well I made a lot of other points other than the ones you've mentioned... like the pain of having to get off your bike and lift it up over the curb if you want to cross the street or if you want to get on to the path other than at a break in the curb. When I used to bike on the Queen's Quay in Toronto, I (and many other cyclists) preferred to ride outside the curbed bike path, on the road.

They also just aren't practical for snow removal, which means that they're not going to be cleared.

Finally, curbed bike lanes are simply not possible for the vast majority of roads in Waterloo Region because the roads have too many driveways and intersections.

I think this is a pretty big deal. It's not just the letter to the editor yesterday... everywhere I go these days people are decrying regular painted bike lanes, saying they're unsafe and that we must have curbs. That's nuts. Painted bike lanes are great and they're the only possibiility on like 95% of our streets.

Good intentions sometimes lead to worse results than bad intentions. The devil's in the details.

Yappa said...

PS: Great articel about Portland: thanks.

I've cycled in Holland too... of course there, bike paths are something that have been around, unlike here where the best we're going to be able to do is tack something on to existing streets (in most cases).

Michael D said...

Hi Ruth,

Serious separated bike paths are only now beginning to appear in North America. It's going to be an interesting challenge of how to design them so that they are usable even as incremental additions, and this problem is currently being tackled in places like Portland and New York City. Tackling it can mean mountable curbs, and it damn well better mean snow removal in winter. In Copenhagen, the cycle tracks have the snow removed first. Considering that cycle tracks would likely begin on the most important paths, it probably isn't that far-fetched for good snow removal.

The point that people are making is that bike lanes are not enough for them to feel safe while riding in them, and I agree with that. Bike lanes may ironically be spurring more people to try cycling, resulting in a realization that the infrastructure isn't good enough for regular use.

The Region and the cities now have policies in place (and are putting more in) that encourage or require cycling facilities on many roads. So bike lanes are not in any danger, I'd say. If enough people demand better infrastructure, there are many pots of money that can and should be used for cycling. $200K a year spent on regional roads for cycling infrastructure is honestly pathetic.

Yappa said...

Hi Michael,

I like the posts you've done focusing on the Iron Horse trail and sidewalks on King north of Victoria, where you use photographs to analyse something.

It would be interesting to show where curbed bike lanes could be useful in Waterloo Region, perhaps mixing photos of types of bike trail (like from your Portland link) with photos of parts of our area.

I may be wrong and there may be streets where curbed bike lanes are feasible. I'd be willing to give this a try if you could let me know what you think is possible. "feasible" includes:

- snow removal
- driveways, intersections
- street and sidewalk width
- parking considerations
- etc

What do you think?

Michael D said...

Hi Ruth,

Thanks for the suggestion -- that does sound like a good thing to do.

The most obvious and important candidates are the big arterial roads. Victoria Street would be a great place for them. King Street between the two downtowns, Union Street, Erb Street, Bridgeport Street, Caroline Street (two-way on the west side?), University Avenue, Columbia Street, etc.

With the Regional Transportation Master Plan being approved, the Region will be starting an Active Transportation Master Plan this fall. That will be exactly the right way to get cycle tracks on the above streets, and to make sure it's done well.

I forgot to mention earlier, but Guelph is going to be trying out cycle tracks and a bike box this year.