My criticism of the Bicycle Friendly Communities (BFC) program

I’d like to expand on my criticism of the Bicycle Friendly Communities (BFC) program and why I think it is so abhorrent.

I’ve written two books & thousands of magazine articles on bicycling, and worked since 1981 as an expert witness in bicycle crashes. I am an avid observer of the causes, both direct and indirect, of crashes.

The problem with the BFC program is that it gives no priority to correcting some grave crash causes. Instead, it avidly promotes crash-causing facilities.

For nearly 20 years, the BFC program has counted “miles of bike lanes” without asking or caring whether they were in the door zone, led to a coffin corner at intersections, or put bicyclists in blind spots as they approached intersections with limited sight triangles.

bfc-dzblA door zone bike lane instructs the bicyclist to ride in a manner detrimental to his own safety. Door zone bike lanes have led directly to many serious injuries and deaths. They instruct the cyclist to ride in the most dangerous road position possible.

Given the frequency of door zone collisions, one wonders why this isn’t a national outrage. Reason: statistics are rarely available. With one exception, collisions between a bicycle and a fixed object are not considered reportable crashes, and therefore there are no counts of those crashes. The exception is the city of Chicago, where the state demanded that the city count dooring crashes. The city did, and that generated the remarkable map of dooring crashes in Chicago.

Just imagine what the difference would be if the League had spent all these years instructing bicyclists to ride in a safe part of the road. That map would look a lot different.

Equally chilling is the carnage we’ve seen from “coffin corner” bike lanes approaching intersections.

coffincornerThe coffin corner fatalities have an unusual, and very sad, demographic twist: they maim and kill the best and the brightest of our bicycling colleagues. In Boston, an MIT grad student and an astronaut candidate were both killed in coffin corner crashes, and an MIT undergrad was severely injured. In Seattle, a famous and much admired lawyer was killed. In New Orleans, a medical student was killed. In Washington DC, an Amherst graduate was killed. An outstanding scholar-athlete in Philadelphia was maimed. The list goes on.

What these crashes have in common is that the bicyclist was run over by a truck whose driver never saw the bicyclist.

Until the Bicycle Friendly Communities program appeared, no lobbying group was actively pushing for bicyclists to ride in the blind spot to the truck driver’s right. (If you’re unfamiliar with just how huge that blind spot is, this video shows eleven bicyclists all in the blind spot, completely invisible to the truck driver.)

Moreover, having recently driven a truck (well, a jayvee truck — a 22-foot U-haul) 3,000 miles, I roundly reject the notion that a truck driver should be asked to study his mirrors for bicyclists zipping alongside him while trying to execute a tight turn.

Defenders of these bike lanes will say, “Well, we’ve put up special signage or signals at these intersections.” Which adds a quarter million bucks and hours of signal timing delay. I could ride through the intersection faster, and at no cost, without any of that special garbage before. I don’t like my tax dollars being spent this way.

Moreover, special bicycle facilities are unique in traffic engineering because they do NOT reinforce the normal, safest, rules of the road. They introduce novel rules. For example, in both Portland, OR and Cambridge MA, the rules for where a bicyclist should position himself vary from one intersection to the next. We don’t expect motorists to figure out such bit-by-bit complication, and all traffic control devices for motorists reinforce what would be the safe practice in the absence of any traffic control device. I believe these non-uniform rules encourage bicyclists to act randomly, rather than predictably, at intersections without any special facilities. Those random actions create crashes. They also create a lot of near-misses, which, over the long run, teach the public, both bicyclists and non-bicyclists, that bicycling is dangerous and stressful. That’s not a good way to promote the long-range welfare of bicycling.

So the BFC program encourages governments to use tax dollars to create facilities that then maim and kill the taxpayers. And those governments are usually protected from the consequences of those actions by sovereign immunity.

How many mayors who bicycle to lunch with political supporters would it take to counter the effects of “My daughter is dead, crushed by a truck?” That’s a rhetorical question, of course. A program that rewards communities for such predictable tragedies is a program that should be eliminated.

Bicycle May Use Full Lane signWe had bicycle commuting before we had the BFC program. We had rail trails, urban trails, and secure parking before we had the BFC program. With zero help from the League, we’ve recently gotten the shared lane marking and the Bicycles May Use Full Lane sign. The BFC program’s biggest influence has been to promote bike lanes that are neither safe nor comfortable to use, and brainwash the public that this is good for cycling.

I’ve long wished that there were an alternative award available nationwide. Fred Oswald did a great deal of work to create the Ohio Bicycle Federation award, which has been given to a couple places. But no organization has been able to take that award nationwide.

So, why not just ask LAB to change its ways? They won’t. They can’t. They are too married to their current situation. For years, I’ve been watching them lash out when they’re asked, however politely.

In summation: no program is perfect. I get that. But I know enough about death and dismemberment to say that the BFC program is worse than nothing.

John Schubert
LAB vice president, 1997-1999
among other titles

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