Ever hear local leaders tout the growing miles of bike lanes in your community? Maybe they show a map, with bright green lines denoting bike lanes… maybe they show you a map of how many green lines existed 5 years ago and how many exist now. They talk about safety, about moving forward to accommodate the growing cycling population as a mode of local transit.
I don’t mean to call out well-meaning legislators and community leaders for doing what they can… it can be very difficult to actively accommodate cyclists in a world where any fiscal expenditure that isn’t devoted to moving cars from point A to point B as quickly as possible is overwhelmingly criticized.
That being said, when talking about the construction of bike lanes with no division between cars and bikes save a swatch of white paint, the key question to ask isn’t how many miles your city has, it’s how many of those miles have “quality” bike lanes that make cyclists safer and welcome.
Above is a Google Street View photo of NY-252, Jefferson Road in Henrietta, New York just south of Rochester. In this photo, note the cozy unprotected bike lane on the right, tucked into this 9 lane road with a 36,000 daily traffic and a 45 mile per hour speed limit. While the road “narrows” to 5 lanes and drops to a 29,000 traffic count (which is still incredibly congested) at other points, this bike lane is still about as safe as a running of the bulls. I would know, I used to use this bike lane every day to get to work until I had one too many close calls and decided to “sidewalk it” from then on.
The fact is, on a road like this, an unprotected bike lane is virtually useless from a safety perspective. Counting this mile-long stretch of bike lane in any tally of bike lane miles is like counting Monopoly money as part of your income… it’s just for show. This road was simply never made to accommodate cyclists.
The above photo of South Ave. through Rochester’s friendly South Wedge neighborhood, in contrast, shows a very useful and inviting bike lane, flanked by two lanes of 30mph traffic on one side and parallel parking on the other. Not only is this bike lane safer than the earlier example, it connects several key Rochester neighborhoods with the University of Rochester Medical Center to the south and Downtown Rochester to the north. It is perhaps the most often utilized piece of on-road cycling connectivity in the city.
Like any transit upgrades, unprotected bike lanes offer value only when they are placed in locations that make already safe roads even safer for bikes. It helps if they are also practical places that connect cyclists to key locations… again, like good transit. They add little to no value when placed on roads that frankly are no place for bikes to begin with.
At their best, unprotected bike lanes act as a reminder to drivers to give space to cyclists, and are an inviting element to cyclists, saying “this road is open to you.” Placing bike lanes on high-traffic, high speed, lane-happy roads is neither inviting to cyclists, nor is it a reliable reminder to drivers who are speeding through heavy traffic.
Until bike lanes are physically protected, their main purpose is to send a message… if that message is overshadowed by an environment that is tantamount to cycling Kryptonite, they have no value. Bike lane mileage is only relevant if the placement of those lanes are purposeful, safe and connective, because in the end, bike lanes don’t make cyclists safer, safe roads do.