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More Misplaced Advocacy

What’s wrong with this picture?

Some “bicycle advocates” promote bike lanes for encouraging people to ride.  However, cycling experts point out that bike lanes restrict cyclists’ right to use the roadway and often introduce hazards, especially to the novice cyclists the facilities are intended to attract.  The arguments go on endlessly.

Until recently, the photo below appeared at the top of the America Bikes home page.  Actually, this bike lane, on what appears to be a quiet, semi-rural road, probably has little effect on cycling conditions.  However, the "America Bikes" logo under the bike lane sign actually overhangs the bike lane, and is low enough that a cyclist’s head or shoulder could hit it.  Uh, welcome to America Bikes!

Also, consider the signpost in the photo.  If a handlebar end nicks it, the bicycle’s front wheel will swing violently to the right, and the cyclist will be thrown headfirst towards the roadway.  A cyclist injured in such a crash could (and should) sue the agency that installed the sign.

America Bikes logo

What is America Bikes?

It is a lobbying organization working for the reauthorization of the Federal Transportation Enhancement Act, which provides funding for bicycle facilities. 

The bicycle industry’s lobby, Bikes Belong, organized America Bikes as a nonprofit organization that can accept contributions from the public and from other nonprofit organizations.

Bikelane photo

The America Bikes coalition includes “quality of life” advocacy organizations; a nonprofit consulting and events management business; professional bicycle planner organizations; bicycle enthusiast membership organizations, and an industry lobby.  All have banded together to support TEA funding reauthorization.

But wouldn’t you think that the staff of even one of these organizations might have asked for the picture to be replaced?  The League of American Bicyclists once lobbied for GOOD road design and for cyclists’ right to the roads.  The National Center for Bicycling and Walking, the Association of Bicycle and Pedestrian Professionals, the Rails to Trails Conservancy and the Thunderhead Alliance also concern themselves with design issues.  Unfortunately, they are not enough concerned with proper design.

America has a much greater need to “Complete the Cyclists” than the streets.  A road that is properly designed, built and maintained is generally more suitable for cycling than a road specifically modified for bicycle use.  This “dangerous roads” myth must be overcome.

Some Engineering Guidelines

To be sure, crashes are no fun to think about, and they don’t make for upbeat publicity.  Traffic engineering can be, well, unexciting, too.  But when it is not done correctly, people get hurt.

The AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities [1] includes the guidelines shown below.  These would be most useful to the traffic engineer placing a signpost.  They would also be useful to the lawyer representing a cyclist who collides with a sign or other unnecessary barrier:

On page 36 of the 1999 AASHTO guide:

0.9 m (3 feet) or more is desirable to provide clearance from trees, poles, walls, fences, guardrails or other lateral obstructions…The vertical clearance to obstructions should be a minimum of 2.5 m (8 feet).

On page 67:

Vertical barriers and obstructions, such as abutments, piers and other features causing bikeway constriction, should be clearly marked to gain the attention of approaching bicyclists. This treatment should be used only where the obstruction is unavoidable, and is by no means a substitute for good bikeway design.

More Guidelines

Separate bicycle facilities cause many safety problems, simply because they encourage both cyclists and motorists to act in ways contrary to the standard rules of the road — and contrary to the expectations of other road users.  These driving rules were developed over the last hundred years to allow safe and efficient travel for all.  Separate facilities are often incompatible with the rules of the road.  In addition, there are specific engineering mistakes often seen in bike lanes and paths.

On-Street Parking: Bike lanes next to parked cars (i.e. “Door Zone Bike Lanes”) are dangerous unless there is much more separation than is typically provided.  Cyclists should never be expected to ride closer than 13 feet from the curb wherever cars are parked on the street.  Most bike lanes start nine feet or even closer to the curb.  This is too far to the right.  If there is not enough space to provide adequate separation, then there is not enough space for a separate bike lane and it is irresponsible to build one.

Turning Traffic: Where cyclists are traveling straight and other traffic is turning right, cyclists should be to the left of the turning traffic.  There is no excuse for a striped bike lane to direct cyclists to cross paths with turning traffic.  However, even where a bike lane is routed to the left of a turn lane, some novice cyclists are confused by the stripe.  We sometimes hear of someone making a right turn from a bike lane to the left of a right turn lane.  Worse are those who make a left turn from near the right edge of the road.  In addition, some cyclists who are in the correct place are harassed by motorists for not being where “they belong.”

Passing on the Right: The bike lane stripe tells motorists not to move over to the right when they are traveling slowly as the law requires.  The stripe also encourages any fast cyclist who overtakes a slow car to pass in the driver’s blind spot on the right.  This is a bad practice that can leads to a collision if the car turns right.  It’s much more dangerous for cyclists to pass trucks on the right.

Debris: Separate bike lanes accumulate debris, such as glass, gravel and broken mufflers.  Bike lanes appeal to novices who tend to make the dangerous mistake of swerving into the traffic lane to avoid such obstacles without looking or yielding to any passing traffic.

Limited room: The minimum 5 foot bike lane overlaid on top of a 1.5 foot gutter or punctuated with 3.5 foot sewer grates is unacceptable.  Any spot that lacks room for wide bike lanes is simply unsuitable.

Down hill: On a steep hill, cyclists can easily reach 30-40 mph.  Five feet is not nearly wide enough for this speed.

More Hazards Ignored

Misplaced signs and sign posts are not the only hazards introduced by separate bicycle facilities.  They are not even the most severe hazards.  Bike lanes are often sloppily built and poorly maintained.  We sometimes see bike lanes that run to the right of right turning traffic or on the descent of a steep hill (where the cyclist should use the full traffic lane, not just four or five feet at the edge of the road).  In cities, bike lanes are often crammed into a narrow road, often in the “door zone” of parked cars.

The Bike Lane Design Guide from the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center and Chicagoland Bicycle Federation proudly announces that the City of Chicago installs bike lanes on streets as narrow as 44 feet wide with parking on both sides.  This means the bike lanes are dangerously close to parked cars, such as in the photo at right (p. 5 of Design Guide).

The Design Guide distorts the scale of motor vehicles shown on its drawings to make the plans look more reasonable.  Some cars are made to appear as though they are less than five feet wide, rather than six feet typical for automobiles or 6.5 to 7 feet for light trucks.  You can read more about the distortion from this link.

But it must be OK to build these facilities in Chicago because they offer dangerous advice to go with the dangerous facilities“Look inside each parked car before you pass it” and “Keep track of traffic behind you so you’ll know whether you have enough room if you must swerve suddenly out of the ‘Door Zone'”.  What they should have said is “Don’t ride in the door zone.  If a bike lane is in the door zone (as in the photo at right), then the bike lane is too dangerous to use.”

Chicago used some interesting “new math” in describing the door zone.  “The “Door Zone” is the 4 feet along the side of a parked car where an opening door can hit and seriously injure a cyclist.  When riding in a bike lane, ride to the left of the center of the lane–at least 3 feet [2] from parked cars.  [Emphasis added.]

This cycling instructor teaches instead “ride at least 5 feet from parked cars.”  Imagine you have an imaginary companion riding between you and these cars.  Leave room for this “dooring dummy” and you will be safely out of the door zone.  The companion, being only imaginary is impervious to dooring hazards.

Chicago is unfortunately not the only place where dangerous door zone bike lanes have been proposed or built.  Cambridge MA is the scene of a gruesome fatal crash in which a bike lane cyclist was “doored”, and fell under the rear wheels of a passing bus.  An even narrower bike lane was proposed for Austin TX.

However, even where the absolutely best engineering, construction and maintenance practices are followed, separating bicycle and motor traffic often violates the basic rules of traffic engineering.  A bike lane, separated by a painted stripe on the road encourages motor traffic to stay to the left and bicycle traffic to the right, even where the rules of the road demand otherwise.

Traffic law and safe practice require that a driver making a right turn to first merge as near to the right side of the road as practicable and then turn.  However, a bike lane stripe encourages the driver to stay left until he begins the turn itself.  This leads to a “right hook” situation, where the car cuts across the path of the cyclist.  It is a frequent cause of collisions.

A cyclist overtaking a slow-moving vehicle should pass on the left, the same as other drivers.  If the road has a marked bike lane, there will be no room for passing on the left.  But there will be an inviting path on the right.  This creates a collision risk if the motorist turns right while the cyclist is passing in the blind spot.

Why this lack of attention to basic safety issues?

Are cyclist injuries and fatalities only collateral damage?  Would some leaders in the bicycle advocacy community rather just avoid safety issues?  Is bicycle advocacy all about marketing, and who cares about safety?  Are cyclist casualties just martyrs to the goal of a “Bicycle Friendly America”?  Do the ends justify the means?

“Bicycle Advocacy” through fear

In a 2004 article [3], America Bikes claims that our streets are not “complete” unless they have separate facilities for bicycles and pedestrians.  We have no quarrel with providing for pedestrians.  Sidewalks and crosswalks are appropriate for people on foot, especially the young and the old [4].  But well-designed and properly maintained streets are already quite suitable for cycling, so long as the cyclists know how to use them.  The biggest problem is that most people do not know how to drive bicycles according to the standard rules of the road.

Where there are problems, such as cracks and slots or non-responsive vehicle detectors, these defects should be fixed.  Extra width on the outside lane is often welcome, especially on a crowded, 2-lane road.  But America Bikes does not ask for fixing defects or providing wide outside lanes.  Instead, they call for expensive and often dangerous separate facilities that put at risk the very people they are supposed to protect.  The greatest need is teaching people how to operate bicycles correctly.  America Bikes shows little interest in such education.  Indeed, appeals to fear make teaching the correct techniques much more difficult.

Look at some excerpts below from the article “Complete the Streets for safer bicycling and walking [3]”.  Notice the implication that people need separate facilities to use bicycles.  And notice the appeal to fear and the total lack of advocating any training for bicycle use.

Our states, cities, counties and towns have built many miles of streets and roads that are safe and comfortable only for travel in one way, in a motor vehicle.  These roadways often lack sidewalks, have lanes too narrow to share with bicyclists, and feature few, poorly marked, or dangerous pedestrian crossings.  A recent federal survey found that about one-quarter of walking trips take place on roads without sidewalks or shoulders, and bike lanes are available for only about 5 percent of bicycle trips.

Streets without safe places to walk and bicycle put people at risk.  While 10% of all trips are made by foot or bicycle, more than 13% of all traffic fatalities are bicyclists or pedestrians.  More than 5,000 pedestrians and bicyclists die each year on U.S. roads.  The most dangerous places to walk and bicycle are sprawling communities with streets that are built only for driving. …

Think how this fear mongering would be used by a misguided city official who wants to ban bicycles from public streets.  Such officials typically claim that the streets “are not suitable for bicycle use.”  Taken to an extreme, this could mean that cyclists have no right to the road unless it’s specifically marked for use by bicycles.  Or, as in a perverse court case from Illinois, cyclists are not “intended users” unless the road is a designated bicycle facility.

Notice in the photo at right (from [3]), that the street was “completed” a by door zone bike lane.  There is no buffer space between the parked cars and the marked bike lane on the roadway.  A door from even a small car will intrude into the “safe” bike lane space.  In addition, many cyclists notice that cars pass them closer and faster if they ride in bike lanes.

From examining the photo, this author estimates that the area safe from car doors begins very close to the LEFT bike lane stripe, almost in the “car lane”.  In other words, the bike lane provides a buffer so cars can be driven safely, away from opening doors.  Why must America Bikes insist on promoting facilities to make it safer to drive cars at the expense of cyclists?

Separate bicycle facilities are actually appropriate in limited situations:  (1) As shortcuts or supplements to the road system to improve connectivity.  (Examples include connecting “sprawl” neighborhoods, through parks or other places where cars are not welcome and bypassing “traffic calming” barricades.)  (2) For recreational trails.  (But beware of hazards at road crossings.)  (3) On long-narrow bridges where gaining on-road access is otherwise not possible.  (However, beware the approaches and avoid 2-way paths.)

Perhaps the biggest problem in the usual approach of these “bicycle advocates” is that they totally ignore education.  Most people do not know how to operate bicycles properly and America Bikes is not helping to teach them.  America has a much greater need to “Complete the Cyclists”.  This “dangerous roads” myth must be destroyed.

In another article, we have many more examples of Misplaced Advocacy, but then we offer a better vision.  We also have more information about Bicycle Blunders and Smarter Solutions in addition to an article on Best Practices.


[1] Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, 1999.  Note: there are also some serious deficiencies in the AASHTO Guide, including in their guidance for bike lanes next to parked cars.

[2] Update: eventually the City of Chicago corrected their math.  They now say “… at least 4 feet from parked cars.”  This is better but it is still not far enough for safety — five feet is safer.

[3] “Complete the Streets for safer bicycling and walking” was on the americabikes.org web site. (Since replaced by completestreets.org)

[4] See an article promoting: “Safe accommodation of pedestrian travel on every road, across every intersection, to every destination.” by Steven Goodridge.  The difference between this and America Bikes is that Goodridge understands the difference between pedestrians and cyclists and he knows how to accommodate each type of roadway user without jeopardizing the others.

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© Copyright 2004-2017 Fred Oswald.  May be copied with attribution.
Some materials were reproduced under fair use guidelines or with permission of the original author.
The author is a Professional Engineer in Ohio and a certified Bicycling Safety Instructor.
Minor update Apr 2017