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Bicycle Friendly Fiendish Communities

— NOT so Friendly to Cyclists —
by Fred Oswald, PE, LCI #947

1 — Engineering — Winking at Safety

Overemphasis on building separate facilities

“Engineering” in the BFC program has mostly meant separating bicycle traffic from motor traffic.  Separate facilities make beginning cyclists feel better while they remain beginners, rather than teaching them how to ride better, enjoy it more, and actually be safer while they do it.  Separate facilities encourage mistakes by both cyclists and motorists.  These mistakes cause major safety problems.

Bike lane stripes encourage cyclists to stay to the right and motorists to stay left, even when the rules of the road require otherwise.  If a fast cyclist (perhaps a tail wind or descending a hill) catches up to a slow car, there is a tempting clear channel for passing in the motorist’s blind spot.  This can lead to a collision if the motorist turns into a driveway or parking spot while the bicycle is passing.

Segregated bike lanes conflict with traffic rules.  Consider the Uniform Vehicle Code instructions for turning right: § 11-601 Required position and method of turning.  (a) Right turns – Both the approach for a right turn and a right turn shall be made as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.  In the photo at right, [2] the bike lane stripes encourage any motorist intending to turn right to violate § 11-601(a) by directing the driver to stay left (out of the bike lane) until the intersection.  Therefore, a motorist turning right here will cross paths and possibly “right hook” any cyclist present.  This situation is sometimes called a “coffin corner.”

Encouraging Hazards
Being “Bicycle Friendly” should not mean winking at safety standards and forgetting common sense just to have bicycle facilities.  Highway engineers can lose their jobs if they build roads that kill people.  Why should cyclists accept a lower standard of care?
Suicide Slot bike lane [5] Door zone bike lane fatality [6] Wash. DC door zone bike lane [7] Bicycle Friendly? bike lane [8]

The BFC application asks the wrong questions:  “How many miles of bike lanes do you have? and How many miles of bike paths and trails do you have? [3]  BFC Applicants are never asked whether these bike lanes and paths are appropriate facilities nor are they warned that facilities may be unsafe.  There is far too much emphasis on spending money:  What was your community’s most significant investment for bicycling in the past year? [3]  (In other words, how much did you spend?)

BFC makes no attempt to discourage unsafe practices, such as creating conflicts with turning traffic.  Consider the Portland “Blue Bike Lanes”. [4]  The photo at right shows a suicide slot bike lane that routes cyclists downhill (4-5% grade), through a door zone hazard and then into an intersection conflict on the right of significant right-turning traffic.  (Painting a dangerous intersection blue supposedly makes it OK.)  Novice cyclists are likely to run through these hazards at speed, making them extra dangerous.

In other Portland “blue bike lanes”, cyclists are encouraged to swerve across the path of traffic on highway entrance ramps.  Motorists using the ramp are expected to yield to traffic crossing the ramp, including from the motorist’s blind spot.  This is intensely dangerous because it conflicts with standard traffic rules for both cyclists and motorists.

The proper cyclist’s route at a highway ramp is to stay in the through lane to avoid swerving across the path of motor vehicles.  Unfortunately, Oregon traffic law forbids leaving a bike lane, even for safety except for specified “exceptions”.  These exceptions do not include avoiding hazards not on the specific list, such as door zones and crossing paths with turning traffic.

Portland seems to be proud that they paint bike lanes blue to warn travelers of “high-conflict areas”.  The blue paint may indeed help alert some motorists to the non-standard intersection but it does not make bad engineering safe.  It would be much better to simply follow sound practice and avoid creating the conflicts.

The BFC program shamelessly promotes dangerous practices, such as running bike lanes on the wrong side of turning traffic, placing bike lanes in the door zone, or building sidepaths.  Instead, they take the attitude that all facilities are good, whether safe or not.  Badly designed facilities can be fatal, as in Cambridge, MA (2nd photo at right).  The slideshow used to promote the program shows door-zone bike lanes as examples of “bicycle friendliness”.

The third photo at right shows a dangerous door-zone bike lane in Washington DC on 14th St. SE (between E. Capitol & A St. SE).  Notice that although the car is parked very close to the curb, the entire “safe” space is blocked by the open door; you could not ride past this open door without leaving the bike lane.

The bottom photo at right shows another door-zone bike lane that ironically is right next to a BFC sign (marked by yellow circle) in San Jose , CA.  No part of any of these bike lanes is safe to ride in.

Awards for Deceptive and Dangerous Practices

Chicago was given a BFC award in 2005.  This city is infamous for dangerous door zone bike lanes.  They apparently falsified diagrams in the Bike Lane Design Guide to make the cars and trucks shown in the diagrams appear to be about 20 percent smaller than they actually are (appearing to be less than five feet wide, instead of the typical 6-6½ feet or so).  Can you imagine a Ford F-150 truck that is narrower than a 1967 VW Beetle?  That’s what the Chicago Guide shows.

Click to see one of the Design Guide drawings with the vehicles re-scaled to the correct size.

Boulder has had a sharp increase in car-bike collisions, according to the Colorado DailyBoulder’s rate of collisions involving bikes and cars has been on a steady upward march, growing from 88 in 2007 to 139 in 2008. Last year, there were 162 such incidents. There have been 40 so far this year, through the end of April.

For more information about hazards in Chicago, Boulder and other places with dangerous bicycle facilities, see Bicycle Blunders and Smarter Solutions and More Misplaced Advocacy.

Engineering — Better Ideas

Safer seam around drain grate. Cracks developing here are less likely to trap a wheel. [9]

Detector stencil [10] Share the lane stencil [11]

The best and most important facilities for bicycle transportation are good roads.  Engineering efforts must concentrate on correcting the real roadway hazards to cyclists:  potholes, cracks, slots or parallel bar grates that can cause serious falls, non-responsive traffic signal vehicle detectors, signal timing problems, particularly at wide intersections, and crowded roads that are inadequate for the traffic carried.

The top photo at right shows a little thing — an angled seam around a drain grate that avoids creating a slot in the direction of travel.  This design is less likely to trap a wheel and cause a fall.  However, angled seams do not replace the need to patch cracks promptly.

Off-road paths are popular for recreational bicycle use.  We have no objection to building such facilities provided they are designed safely, built properly and maintained carefully.  Indeed, paths can restore connectivity in “suburban sprawl” neighborhoods with cul-de-sac roads.  However, recreational paths must not be confused with transportation facilities and they must never replace teaching people how ride correctly.

Rather than painting stripes on the roadway to segregate bicycle and motor traffic and thus creating hazards, there is a completely beneficial use of paint on the road:  marking vehicle detectors so that cyclists can find where to stop in order to “trigger” the circuit and get a green light.  The middle photo at right illustrates a vehicle detector stencil on a street in Victoria, British Columbia.  Fixing and adjusting vehicle detectors encourages cyclists to comply with traffic laws.

Another way to “encourage bicycling” is to paint “share the lane” symbols on the pavement.  While these should not be used to suggest the cyclist’s position on the road, they may be intrepreted that way.  Thus they must be placed carefully, far from any hazards.  In the bottom photo at right, the stencils are right between the tire marks on the road, where they will last longer.  More important, they will not lead cyclists into danger from parked cars ahead.

Engineers and traffic planners simply must understand and encourage the best practices of bicycle operation.  Failing to understand that bicycles are vehicles and that these vehicles must be operated appropriately leads to malpractice.  Any city that “earns” a BFC award must train its engineers and facilities planners in bicycle driving.

Every lane is a bike lane!

For a good comparison of the pros and cons of various infrastructure treatments, see Understanding Infrastructure from Commute Orlando!


[1] Bob Bayn photo from Newburg, Oregon [2] Unless otherwise noted, photos are not necessarily from cities designated as “Bicycle Friendly” or BFC awards may have expired for some of the cities with problems noted here.  However, the problems noted exist in many BFC cities.  We simply lack photos of many of them. [3] BFC application, part 2 (pdf file on BFC web site). [4] “Blue Bike Lanes for Greater Safety”, on the Portland, Oregon web site. [5] Ryan Conrad photo from Portland, OR. [6] Robert Winters photo from Cambridge Civic Journal. [7] Bill Hoffman photo from Washington D.C. [8] Bob Sutterfield photo from San Jose, CA [9] Fred Oswald photo from Cleveland, OH [10] Fred Oswald photo from Victoria, BC Canada [11] Fred Oswald photo from Cleveland, OH

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© Copyright 2003-2017 Fred Oswald and LAB Reform.  May be copied with attribution.
Some materials may have been 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