The Debate Over Physically-Separated Bike Lanes Continues

A physically-separated bike lane on a shopping street in Copenhangen, Denmark

Two weeks ago "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz wrote an op/ed for the Sunday Times advocating for physically-separated bike lanes in New York City. The next weekend, John Allen, a Waltham-based regional director for the League of American Bicyclists replied that separated bike lanes are dangerous and bad idea. Period. This Sunday’s Times carried a letter from Noah Budnick, the Deputy Director of New York City’s Transportation Alternatives, refuting Allen’s claims:

To the Editor:

A Nov. 12 letter claimed that riding a bike in a physically protected bike lane is more dangerous than biking in traffic.

I strongly disagree.

In fact, physically segregating bikers and drivers is often a safety imperative, particularly on streets with high-volume and high-speed traffic.

A recent study of the last 10 years of bicycle crashes in New York City by the city departments of health, transportation, police and parks found that fatal bicycle crashes rarely occur in marked bicycle lanes (1 out of 225 cyclist fatalities in 10 years).

Furthermore, physically protected bike paths greatly promote cycling. Since the car-free Hudson River Greenway opened in 2001, daily cycling on it has increased 27 percent, and, during the same time, cycling on Manhattan’s avenues has increased 30 percent.

While driver and cyclist education and enforcement are part of the equation to increase cycling in New York City, New Yorkers will not be encouraged to ride if they perceive streets and traffic to be scary and uninviting. More protected space will make city streets more inviting to bicyclists of all ages and abilities.

Would you feel comfortable biking on Sixth Avenue without protection from traffic?

Noah S. Budnick

Photo: Aaron Naparstek

59 thoughts on The Debate Over Physically-Separated Bike Lanes Continues

  1. I would not take a five year old on the street with only a painted stripe protecting them. And I would not want to be a wheelchair user trying to make it across the street. However I do think the striped lanes make a difference. Here’s a shot from West 77th in which a driver came to a stop behind a double parked car, rather than cut me and my 9 year old son off by zooming into the bicycle lane ahead of us:

    Yeah, I know they are a little bit into the bike lane, but they stopped in time to let us through. I’d say about one in five drivers “do the right thing” on this block in this situation. Let’s see if my daily “counseling sessions” on this block make a difference.

  2. steve, i’d love for you to counsel some city bus drivers too.

    i was nearly killed by a bus on union street in brooklyn when it zoomed up behind me, straddling the boundary of the bike lane. if i had moved even a few inches to the left (still within the painted lines) i would have been killed. this could easily have happened, since i didn’t hear the bus until it was (literally) right next to me. just thinking about it is frightening.

    painted bike lanes are a joke.

  3. Paint is better then nothing, but physical seperation is better then paint in a most situations. I was recently in Vienna and the network of physically seperated lanes in the downtown area were a joy. The painted lanes worked fine outside of downtown, as did the shared bus bike lane. It is all about designing the streets to work for bikes and peds and transit, not just cars.

  4. The stats are that skaters fall twice as much as cylists on protected bike paths. On painted bike lanes cars make the falls lethal potentially even in Central Park.

  5. I’m with CB. Paint is better than nothing, but physical separation (ideally bollards rather than a wall) is better. The paint makes the motorists more aware of the bicyclists. What they do with that information depends on the motorist. Some will stay out of the bike lane or, if forced in by another vehicle, wait until there are no bicyclists coming, as in the phopto linked above. They may do this because they are fundamentally decent people, or afraid of a ticket or because they are professional drivers not willing to risk their livelihood for a marginal increase in speed. Other drivers will go on pretty much as they did before, except that regardless of how much they encroach on the lane, they will be less likely to accidentally hit a bicyclist because they have been forewarned of their bicyclists’ presence by the painted lane. Then there are the ones possessed by road rage who will deliberately obstruct and menace bicyclists in the bicycle lane, and even (David Chesler is probably right on this) try to force bicyclists in the middle of the road into the lane.

    I think the painted lanes help with the first two categories of motorists described above. I also think it’s possible to push motorists from category 2 (don’t respect bicyclists’ right to road but will avoid hitting them), which I think is by far the largest category, into category 1 (respect bicyclists’ right to road). Of course, depending on the approach you take, you can pretty easily push drivers from category 1 or 2 into category 3.

    After a close brush with a category 3 driver like Anne’s, the paint may seem like a “joke.” But as Mr. Cidron demonstrated, even a bicyclist on a physically separated lane is not completely safe from a motorist who (at the very least) exhibits a depraved indifference to the safety and lives of others.

    But bear in mind that a professional drivers, such as an MTA bus driver, can be seriously disciplined for competing with a bicyclist for a bicycle lane–not because MTA cares about bicyclists but because of the potential for liability from reckless/unlawful driving. So bring your camera next time, Anne, document the incident (if safe to do so), try to let the driver know you are doing so, follow through by sending the pix/footage to MTA, and see what happens. And let us know what happens!

  6. steve, it’s a good idea, but the bus was going too fast for me to have been able to document anything before it was gone (i imagine its speed was a violation as well). not to mention that i was practically hyperventilating with fear.

  7. We are debating the wrong question here! I’ve bicycle commuted to work over 100,000 miles. I don’t want physically separate lanes. I want virtually separate lanes. This is too far out-of-box to explain here. In summary, It is within your power to start the CHALLENGE so that cars CAN NOT hit bicyclists, cars CAN NOT pull out in front of or cut off bicyclists.

    The CHALLENGE also has some goodies for motorists as it eliminates multi-vehicle accidents, halves vehicle insurance costs, eliminates traffic congestion, and raises average passenger miles per gallon above 50 pmpg with a net decrease in everyone’s transportation expense by 2020.

    If you aren’t already aware that we have the technology, ask a few visionary Intelligent Transportation Systems experts (not the ones still hung-up on drive-by tolls or automated signs). If you want to know how to organize a CHALLENGE ask the Defense Acquisition, Research, and Procurement Agency (DARPA). For more specifics google ‘V2V GM’ or ‘Guardian Angel Cars’ or ‘Car2Car’ or ‘Vehicle Infrastructure Integration’ or “DARPA Urban Challenge.”

    The technology is happening without the CHALLENGE, but in ways that make bicyclists and pedestrians less safe. So get on the keys to your elected representatives.

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