Novelty or Legitimacy? The Bike Lane Dilemma In Rochester

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Note: A special thanks to many Rochester Urbanists out there for contributing photos of cars parked in bike lanes for this piece…  When we all work together to highlight issues in our community, I truly believe we can make a difference.

The summer of 2017 saw some incredibly solid steps toward a bike friendly future in Rochester, New York.  Zagster (now Pace) bike share added a beautiful new way to see and move about the city, and was wholeheartedly embraced by the community.A sizable portion of Main Street was reduced to two lanes from four, with bike lanes in either direction.  A mile of paved dedicated bike path was added along Union Street near the Inner Loop Infill project, adding a north/south connector for cyclists across some of Rochester’s most frequented streets.  Finally, protected, green-painted bike lanes were added across the Broad Street bridge, giving two-wheel riders safe passage across the Genesee River.

These additions gave Rochester cyclists the hopeful impression that their city was taking important steps forward, driving Upstate New York toward a brighter future for cycling culture.

Then the cold season came, and after several years of mild winters, Mother Nature got back to business and delivered her usual blow to one of the snowiest regions in the country.  In a city that receives nearly 100 inches of white stuff each year, bike share left us from November to April (by design).  Bike lanes weren’t plowed.  That mile long bike path next to Union?  It’s made of a softer pavement and thus can’t be plowed with existing city equipment.  And Broad Street saw the removal of the “protective” barriers between the street and the bike lane removed because the snow plows would likely knock them over over the course of 4-5 wintery months.

As Rochester finally gets back to the first hints of spring, city cyclists are looking to take their The Roc by “storm” once again.  Pace bike share is back and better than ever, but the rest of Rochester’s bike infrastructure is the source of tremendous frustration.  The lack of bike lane maintenance and enforcement has been the talk of the winter for those of us who are hearty enough to brave the cold on two wheels.

Cars Parked In Bike Lanes

With new bike lanes, or any traffic pattern change in general, comes the uncomfortable period of educating the public on how to properly use them.  A key piece of this is enforcement.  Clear markings, accompanied by swift and consistent ticketing of violators is key to establishing the legitimacy of cycling infrastructure.  But the lack of this enforcement in the face of repeated and increasing violations negates this legitimacy, rendering any effort to establish this new infrastructure completely ineffective.Furthermore, it is a waste of resources and taxpayer money when said infrastructure is implemented and not utilized properly.

“You can call 311, but it’s a fight you are going to lose. The City does not want to ticket people who come downtown to spend money.”

That’s what a parking enforcement officer said to Rochester cyclist and advocate Scott Wagner when he questioned why cars weren’t being ticketed for parking in bike lanes.

This all leads to the “copycat” effect of drivers seeing other cars utilizing bikes lanes inappropriately without proper enforcement, which only exacerbates the problem. When drivers know something more convenient is passively allowed, they will continue the behavior and incorporate it as one of those “flexible” laws, like driving 5mph over the speed limit or rolling through a stop sign when no one else is at the intersection.

Lack of Maintenance

Ask quickly as bike lanes are being implemented in Rochester, many others are fading into oblivion. Bike lanes, unlike automobile lanes, are clear delineations between two distinct modes of transit, automobiles and bicycles. Because of this, it is vital for bike lanes to be adequately maintained, not just to invite cyclists, but to continue to provide a clear path for bikes to follow and cars to avoid. When city leaders tout “we have xxx miles of bike lanes,” are they counting these in the mix? Typically and unfortunately, yes.

Perpetuating Perceptions & Costly Mistakes

When protected bike lanes were added to the aforementioned Broad Street Bridge last summer, it was hailed as a small victory for two-wheelers crossing the Genesee River. However, like Rochester’s only other protected bike lane on a short section of Chestnut Street, these barriers were added with the knowledge that they would be removed for winter street plowing. While understandable, this removal of a safety feature, paired with the assumption that cycling is a fair-weather recreational activity instead of acknowledging that it can be a legitimate year-round transit option (see Chicago and Minneapolis on this subject) continues the notion that roads are exclusively for cars, and bikes are simply “guests when conditions are good.”

To further this point, a severe lack of foresight welcomed the problem depicted in the photo below.The sign on the new Broad Street bike lanes implies that cars CAN park in the bike lane after 6pm and on weekends. Initially, this signage was intended to refer to the traffic lane outside of the bike lane during warmer months when the bike lane barriers are standing. But upon their removal, the sign welcomes all to legally park in the bike lane.

Finally, five months after this issue was addressed to city leaders, the signage has been changed.The damage to the legitimacy of bike lanes through months of parking on them, however, has already been done.

Legal Ambiguity

The debate over bike lane parking in Rochester gave rise to the question… is it actually illegal to do so in New York State?

The law for the state as a whole does not clearly say that parking in a bike lane is illegal. The key here is “preferential or exclusive,” leaving an open-ended, nebulous debate on whether or not bike lanes are legitimately legal and enforceable right-of-ways in Rochester or any Upstate New York area.

The law IS abundantly clear for New York City, however, as shown below…

The question in Rochester and Upstate New York is whether we can transition from the novelty of temporary, unplowed, under-maintained, and unenforceable bike lanes, to the creation of a functional bike lane network with practical and legal legitimacy. Positive steps are being taken, but the truth remains that we have a long way to go before Rochester is a place where bikes are welcomed as a safe and sustainable year-round form of transit.