Ride Boldly!

Bikes, bicycling, and road safety.

Bike Lane Design

A lot of people are enamoured of bicycle lanes as a means of encouraging cycling on roads. I am not the militant against bike lanes that some of my LCI colleagues are, but I am lukewarm about the wonder and glory of bike lanes because so many are so poorly designed.

The bulk of bike lanes in the Twin Cities are on streets with curbside parking. One of the inevitable side effects of such placement is the insertion of the bicyclist into the door zone — that area into which a car’s door will open when someone has parked and thus will want to leave their car. Getting doored is a crummy experience. The presence of the bike lane does not necessarily mean the parked driver will look in his/her mirror before getting out of their vehicle.

The presence of parking does not preclude a bike lane, for those who really want to build a bike lane. But it is rare that these bike lanes are inserted even up to the ‘best practice’ standards put forth by the Minnesota Department of Transportation guidelines! In their Bikeway Facility Design Manual, the state recommends 5-foot lanes for bicycle lanes, and recommend adding an extra foot to the lane when on-street parking is present.

I can’t think of a single major bicycle lane in the urban core that meets this standard, in part because the lanes are being inserted onto existing arterial streets with limited space. The options are to either do a narrow (4-foot) lane, or eliminate parking. City residents get very surly when parking is eliminated, so the 4-foot lanes are what gets put in. Note that a 4-foot lane is a full TWO FEET narrower than the recommendation! Those two feet are recommended for many reasons, including allowing space to dodge doors, pass slower cyclists, and perhaps even a pragmatic realization that more novice cyclists will tend to the inner section (away from moving traffic).

A 4-foot, or sub-4-foot, bike lane is not going to provide dodge room for even a boring sedan (I measured the door on my 2004 Mazda Protege, and it would take up most of a bike lane in most parking situations), let alone the door on a super-jumbo thingyboo, like a Yukon or a Denali.

I’m not convinced that much of the Summit Avenue lane is even to 4 feet, and that’s a busy parking zone. I didn’t bring a tape measure yesterday, but I might next time. One thing I’m noticing is that they seem to be doing street repainting, but skipping painting the bike lane. The end result is that they’re throwing a white paint stripe down to define the parking lane, but leaving the main ‘lane’ as a wide lane that is somewhat suitable for side-by-side bicycles and autos — without the perceived restrictiveness of a bike lane. This almost has to be deliberate — to make the parking stripe would require a temporary parking ban, and they’re already running the white reflective paint unit. The tools are there to paint it all, and they’re only painting the one line on much of the roadway.

Another issue with the placement of bike lanes, in my mind, is that they create certain perceptions among cyclists and drivers, including:

  • Bikes only belong in bike lanes. When the bike lane ends, the bike should get on the sidewalk. (False under MN law and the laws of many other states.)
  • Bikes need to follow the bike lane absolutely. (Again, false. The bicycle needs to take the safest line and is generally supported in law to do so. I have seen at least 3 accidents in 2 years where a rider going straight followed the ‘bike lane’ to the curb and ended up getting slammed by a right turner when the light went green.)
  • Bike lanes are safer than streets without bike lanes. (Bike lane placement often is dictated by vehicle volume and recommended speed, but a street with a lane may not have any special advantage over a street with a wide traffic lane that accomodates both bicycles and cars.)

These kinds of perceptions are why a lot of people say that bicycling would be safer if there were more bike paths and bike lanes. Frankly, good roadway design is more the issue, not the paint on the road. Unfortunately, convincing many people of this is difficult at best, and certainly isn’t supported by the League of American Bicyclists, given how they upgrade cities looking for Bicycle-Friendly Community status for the number of bike lanes and trails they offer — not well-designed shared roadways, which are entirely different things, definitionally.

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Author: julie

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005. She is a past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association. She has 2 children and 4 bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations.

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