Guest Editorial

Pretending to accommodate bicyclists is no solution
Don't sweep known safety hazards under the rug

By John Schubert

John Schubert is technical editor of Adventure Cyclist magazine, an expert witness in bicycle accident reconstruction, a candidate member of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, secretary of the Pennsylvania Pedalcycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee and founder and chairman of the BicyclePA touring route network.
This article first appeared in 2002 in Southwest Cycling News of Austin Texas.

The July 2 death of Texas native Dana Laird, who was "doored" while riding in a Cambridge, Massachusetts bike lane, has focused many people's attention on a simple fact:  bike lanes can lure bicyclists to their own injury or death.

Not all bike lanes do that.  But many do.

A strong case can be made that the Massachusetts Avenue bike lane was a major cause of Laird's death.  She was riding in the lane when the driver of a parked Honda CRV opened his door immediately in front of her.  She was thrown under the wheels of an overtaking bus.

The bike lane is alongside parallel parking, and when a car door is opened, the door reaches across the lane.  Depending on the car, the door may reach just about entirely across the lane.  At that accident scene, the bike lane is five feet wide, and the parking area is seven feet, five inches wide.  The adjacent travel lane is 11 feet wide.

Simply stated, this isn't wide enough to have a bike lane, because the bike lane is all door zone.  There are better alternatives, which I'll discuss below.

There are also worse alternatives.  And one of these worse alternatives is being proposed for Shoal Creek Boulevard in Austin.

Bike lane dimensions

Take the Cambridge street dimensions.  Remove one foot from the travel lane.  Remove one foot from the bike lane.  Remove one foot, five inches from the parking area.  That's what's being proposed for Shoal Creek Boulevard.  It's a door zone bike lane, only more so.

A door zone bike lane instructs the bicyclist to ride in a manner detrimental to his own safety.  We shouldn't give bicyclists the hurdle of disobeying a traffic control device (the bike lane stripe) to ensure their own safety.

One "solution" that will not work is to pretend we can get all motorists to watch for bicyclists before opening their doors.  People forget.  Some people are careless.  Bicyclists in the door zone are also in the blind spot.  Some vehicles have poor visibility to the rear, and some drivers have necks that don't flex.  I'm not excusing this carelessness, but expecting it to disappear is foolish, and we shouldn't endanger bicyclists by relying on such foolishness.

Instead, the bicyclist can have complete freedom from dooring accidents by riding outside of the door zone.  That's where the bicyclist should always ride, regardless of what paint is or isn't on the road.

An overtaking motorist, in turn, should overtake and pass when it is safe to do so.  This means waiting until there is a gap in oncoming traffic (a concept some of the dimmer humans need to work on) and giving the bicyclists adequate space.

The concept is simple:  (1) First come, first serve.  (2) Horsepower doesn't give superior rights.  (3) No one should endanger his own safety.  (4) No one should endanger anyone else's safety.  (5) Y'all be polite out there.

There's no way to paint a safe bike lane on Shoal Creek Boulevard.  We shouldn't have bike lanes that the rider is expected to ignore or disobey.  Some riders will make the mistake of thinking the bike lane designer knew what he was doing.

Now:  about those better alternatives.  I suggest two, and you can use neither, either or both of them.

The first alternative is "Share the Road" signs.  My home state of Pennsylvania uses these with great success.  We deliberately place them on streets like Shoal Creek Boulevard -- streets where space is at a premium.  The signs are there to tell bicyclists they're invited to use those streets, and motorists are expected to share and make nice.

The second alternative is a painted pavement marking informally called the "sharrow."  It's a bike symbol with an arrow, and it is intended to indicate direction of travel and proper position within the lane.  The beauty of the sharrow is that it's somewhat vague, unlike the hard stripes of a bike lane.  The sharrow gives bicyclists permission to modify their lateral position for the best combination of their own safety and courtesy in sharing the road.

Of interest to people in the world of bureaucracy is that the Cambridge bikelane met the guidelines of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) with five inches to spare.  (The lesson there is that the AASHTO guidelines need some work with a red pen.)  The Shoal Creek Boulevard proposal falls far short of these inadequate guidelines.

Nowhere else in traffic engineering would someone dream of posting a traffic control device that road users would need to disobey to save their lives.  When we stop crying, let's laugh this one off the table.


[1] Photo by Robert Winters from Cambridge Civic Journal.

© Copyright 2002 by John Schubert.  Reproduction for educational purposes permitted, provided full credit to the author is given, along with notice that this article first appeared in Southwest Cycling News of Austin Texas.

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