Monday, September 23, 2013

The Problem(s) with Bike Lanes

When I am feeling at loose ends and up for some cantankerous reading, I occasionally go to the comments section of the local newspaper, especially when the story involves bicycles. I do this for a combination of amusement and education. The amusement comes from the almost rigidly predictable insights from autoists and cyclists alike…the Greek Drama-like inevitability of comments about bad cycling, bad driving, the environment, moral purity, and whole-group condemnation.

Once in a while, however, I get some education. I learn something new about what folks are thinking and doing out on the asphalt, and what might be done to make auto-bike interaction better (other than banning a large part of the population from driving/biking—or writing comments on web sites). One such educational moment occurred recently.

The author of a comment remarked that what made him so angry with cyclists was their practice of not staying in the center or the curb-side of bike lanes. He found it really frustrating that so many cyclists rode on the traffic-lane side (or even outside) of the bike lane. This seems pretty reasonable—a kind of “stay in the lines” argument. If there are bike lanes, USE THEM. I would generally agree (and try to do so).

However, as someone who both drives and rides, I saw the problem with this argument immediately. The commenter—presumably a person who hasn’t cycled since about age 10—was unfamiliar with what it often means to ride in a bike lane. His comment was educational, so I am returning the favor.

Bike lanes are a great concept—if you believe that bikes and motorized traffic mix naturally and safely (I don’t). However, in practice they have many drawbacks that a habitual driver may not realize. Below are some illustrations.

Dooring zone

Most non-cyclists would see little problem with this situation. Just ride in the bike lane. However, what if a street-side door on the van just ahead suddenly opens when I’m passing by? That’s called “getting doored,” and is one of the more frequent causes of serious injury while cycling. Note, too, the darkened window at the back of the van (an increasingly common auto trend), making it very hard for a cyclist to see if anyone is in the car--a predictor of the door being opened.

What to do? The usual answer is to ride on the traffic-edge of the bike lane in order to avoid getting doored.


This drainage grate is a “great” example of one of the biggest problems with bike lanes. The grate was once flush with the street surface. Successive re-pavings (and in some examples, the settling of the grate’s supporting structure) have made it a pit trap well below grade. If I were to go over this at anything like normal traveling speed, I would likely be thrown from my bike and/or break a wheel.

Or, for another example, here is a kind of storm water grate that is perfectly designed to catch a bike’s tire and hold it, throwing the rider over the handlebars (this antique example was found on a newly paved street, no less; it combines a totally unsafe design for bikes with the below-grade result of hasty paving). Wow! How does this stuff happen? Couldn’t anyone see the potential for danger here?

Solution: slow down and ride on the traffic side of the lane, or (if the obstacle is big enough) ride in the traffic lane to avoid this hazard or mess.

Debris minefield

This problem is pretty obvious, I should hope. The bike lane is often the place where various nasty and dangerous debris from auto traffic end up. This is especially problematic when it comes to glass shards and sharp metal scraps.

Then there are the dead and/or pulpified animals, or the piles of leaves that hide more serious objects (like a large fallen branch), becoming slick bogs of soggy Wheaties-like slime. Ugh. I don't envy those with the task of keeping up with this problem on the city staff. Generally, they do a good job. Some routes get swept by the city every week, others less often…but such debris get into the bike lane constantly and cannot be predicted.

Evasive action required: move out of lane so as not to puncture a tire, slip and fall, or hit something hidden.

Game Over: sudden endings

This is one of the more bizarre problems with some bike lanes. Occasionally, they end with no clear plan in sight that makes sense. What does this picture of the Mission and Winter intersection even suggest? Is this an “Immediate Rapture Lane" for cyclists?

In practical terms, it means that bikes are not being encouraged to turn right or left (which is sane, considering what Mission Street is like, but then again, the Mission Street viaduct has all sorts of bike and pedestrian infrastructure on it, so why can’t bikes be directed there on Mission?). Yet, following the bike lane and going straight puts one smack into a curb—even though the access to the multi-user path through Bush Park is in fact almost straight across the intersection. (The really galling thing about this intersection and its disappearing bike lane is that the city had a chance to do something about it recently when the curb-cuts for ADA-related pedestrian updates were put in. But, the project instead only reaffirmed the oddity of this much-used bikeway choke-point.)

The required course of action is to veer crazily across the intersection and take the little curb-cut at the end of the pedestrian crosswalk on the right, then make an immediate and tight zig-zag to go up into the parking lot and the multi-user path through the park. Argh.

However, if there are any pedestrians using this crossing (and there very frequently are), this puts everyone at added risk of an accident (at a very short light). Also, this curb cut is often full of debris that makes it very slick.

Finally, there are times in the later evening when this light doesn’t seem to be actuated by a cyclist in the bicycle lane (believe me, I know; it was a highly meditative experience until I walked over and pushed the pedestrian signal button). So, the lane becomes a sort of object lesson in frustration and confusion. Not helpful.
. . .

These are just a few thoughts about the problems regularly encountered by a utility cyclist in bike lanes. I hope it will prove helpful to those drivers who have not had to use this low-budget form of cycling infrastructure. Those white lines don’t make for a magical land without dangers to the cyclist. They don’t require a cyclist to commit suicide by staying in them, and they don’t free drivers from the responsibility of being careful around cyclists. They are just paint that indicates…but neither protects nor assures.


  1. Thank you for noting these 'bike lane' hazards. Might I also add: 1) Bike lanes filled with yard debris bins and garbage cans that are ready-for-pickup. 2) Bike lanes littered with gravel from the 'unfinished' road's edge. 3) Cars that drive in the bike lane to 'pass' motorists waiting to turn left - without first checking in their rear-view mirror. The idea that a strip of paint provides safe and adequate space for bicyclists on the road is simply untrue. Hooray for the "strong and fearless," but as an "interested but concerned" mother-of-two, I dream of the day Salem invests in real bike transportation strategies.

    1. Amen, Angela. I imagine we could create a fascinating catalog of hazards and drawbacks to this fundamentally-flawed accommodation for bikes.

      Not being much of a vehicular cyclist myself (with some understanding of the vast universe of issues that term brings up), I agree that cycling will never become much more commonplace without safer, less traffic-immersed infrastructure.

      But America is--especially now--dominated by the "strong and fearless" in just about every aspect of discourse, and thus we sound like weenies for thinking this (Dutch) way. There are a lot of ways to get around town that are pretty safe...but you really have to do some exploring. There are, of course, some places that are simply out of reach of most cyclists--impregnable islands of autoist isolation. There are also great routes that are cut in two by roads crying out for pedestrian/cycling accommodations (read Union Street downtown).

      But my experience suggests that most folks in the planning of Salem's future right now don't live and work in the its inner core or its flatter districts; thus, no motivation through experience to value this form of transportation or upgrade these potentially valuable 21st century neighborhoods. We must either try to persuade them, or bide our time until new leadership emerges, I guess.

      Thanks for the comment. I am glad to know there are others who share my experience!

    2. Well said. I've been thinking much along these same lines. In fact, I wonder if you and I might talk via email about possible plans to 'persuade them'. ????

  2. Many people see bike lanes/paths as super convenient parking. Or a place to assemble a large item pulled from their vehicle. Or a place to stand in oblivious groups and chat.