Critical Thinking about Bike Lanes
The Dallas biking Twitter world was buzzing this weekend about sketches of bike lanes for Main Street under I-45. This might very well be the first bike lane installed within the City of Dallas.
Traffic is a dynamic, yet fairly predictable, system. As a CyclingSavvy instructor, I always emphasize to fellow cyclists that you should never, ever let paint on the ground think for you. Your safety is more important than to follow what a possibly un-informed roadway painter put on the ground.
As an informed cyclist, you have the opportunity to learn how to be a natural part of the traffic and understand where friction and common risks might occur. In our CyclingSavvy workshops, we work through many different types of intersections and road configurations that you might find in North Texas urban areas and demonstrate proven techniques to reduce friction and risk. We call these “tools” that you can use to problem solve your own part of town.
With a possible new bike lane in town, let’s think about some situations that every cyclists should be aware of when they encounter a bike lane. I’ll split it into three categories: Mid-Block, Intersections, and Start/End.
Mid-block is the section of roadway between two controlled intersections. In business areas, the mid-block is where you’ll find the dreaded door zone.
If you haven’t heard of a door zone before, watch the following video to find out where NOT to ride. Safely implemented bike lanes have a buffer zone between on-street parking and the travel area so that doors can safely open and close without interfering or startling cyclists. I’ve heard a lot of rather stupid advice about how to avoid getting hit, such as “watch 3 cars ahead” (hello! tinted windows!) or “go slow enough to look in every car” (that takes all the fun out of biking! I might as well be walking!). But there is a much simpler method… ride 5 feet away from any parked car. You will never, ever get hit by a car door.
The mid-block is also where you’ll see drive-outs from driveways and alleys. This is particularly dangerous and confusing, and where you will normally hear motorists say “I didn’t see you!” Well, they’re right; they didn’t see you because you were blocked by poor sight lines. Riding on the far edge of the road with no buffer has a very long list of dangers. Motorcyclists know and understand this situation, and experienced motorcyclists never travel close to the edge of the road because of the poor visibility and high amount of debris (see: Lane Positioning by A Guide to Motorcycle Touring). To avoid these risks, well-designed bike lanes have a margin to the right that places the cyclist 3-5 feet away from the edge of the roadway.
If you are also a motorcyclist, I encourage you to apply motorcycle techniques to bicycling. Since motorcycles are also narrow vehicles, they face many of the same scenarios as bicyclists. Whenever I’m in doubt on what to do while bicycling, I just think… “What would I do on my scooter?” Almost always it’s the right answer. (I have a sweet 2006 Yamaha Vino 150cc that I love to ride. Dallas is also a great city for scooters!)
Intersections are very critical, and are often the least discussed. Intersections could include an actual 4 way cross street, but could also include on & off ramps. These are areas of merging, diverging, and crossing traffic. Since cyclists are narrow vehicles, visibility is the highest importance. Cyclists should position themselves, regardless of paint, in the location that is most predictable and has no “special” crossing patterns. For instance, right-turn-only lanes should not have exceptions for cyclists as this causes an unusual situation that motorists won’t immediately understand or recognize. The other drivers at this intersection can’t see that the sign has an unusual exception, so unless they are very familiar with the intersection, they will assume that the cyclist is also turning right along with all of the other vehicles.
Intersections are also the place where crashes such as a Right Hook, Left Cross, and Drive Outs occur. These crash types are so common and deadly that they got names. This is something that we spend a lot of time in CyclingSavvy working through, because all of these are completely preventable by a cyclist’s choice in lane position through intersections!
Bottom line, the key to intersections is predictability and communication with other drivers. If the bike lane sets the cyclist up in a way that is not clear or the cyclist is not relevant to the rest of traffic, that is a dangerous situation that can cause deadly results. The preference, though, is that the cyclist insures that he is most relevant and predictable to average motorists, regardless of how the lanes are configured at the intersection.
Another major point that is rarely evaluated is how exactly the lane will Start and End. For instance, the mid-block plans for the separated bike path on Jefferson Viaduct have been available since June, but no public information about how the path will start and end on either side of the bridge. Will cyclists have to become pedestrians (use crosswalks)? Will they have their own signals? Will the path have a fly-over bridge?
Since we do not have a comprehensive “go anywhere” bikeway system like a small European city, all bike lanes and bike paths must segregate and re-integrate cyclists with the rest of traffic. The more smoothly cyclists are able to merge in and out of the flow, the less conflict there will be. What makes for a smooth merge? A smooth merge follows common patterns that motorists can understand and work with. If you see a sign that says “Bike Lane Ends” with no clue as to what to do after the lane ends, that’s not a smooth merge. That’s the same as putting a “Dead End” sign at the end of a lane with no merge zone.
I hope that some of these points help you to evaluate the safety aspects of a bike lane in a particular installation. The more informed and educated you are about how traffic works, the better able you are to make safe decisions as you ride.
When bike lanes and paths are being installed in your area, don’t assume that the planners understand all of these facets. We have an opportunity to learn from other cities that have installed and tested bike lane designs. There’s no reason why we should repeat the same mistakes that others have made.
If you found this article useful, I highly encourage you to join us for one of our Fall CyclingSavvy workshops. There’s so much more that I couldn’t cover in this article that I would love to share with you. I believe every cyclist should be educated and informed so that you can be prepared for all types of situations. No matter what your skill level, you’ll find our workshops dynamic, interesting, and relevant to your own part of town.