A lot of people think a solution to bicycle-friendliness is to build more bike paths and bike lanes. A lot of other people, particularly most League Certified Instructors, don’t really agree with this as a solution or a matter of policy. It all gets down to how one wishes to define the concept of ‘sharing the road.’
There are really three ways to approach bicycle facilities. The first is to have fully segregated facilities, where bicycles have their own place that is not part of the road. This is usually achieved via the construction of bicycle paths or sidepaths. The second is to have separated facilities. A separated facility is most often a striped bicycle lane on a roadway, designed to provide a specific pathway to a bicycle versus a motorized vehicle. The last approach is an integrated facility. This would be building wider lanes, traffic circles and roundabouts, and roads using calming engineering strategies to provide for multiple types of road users without drawing boundaries.
If the true goal is to share the road and promote acceptance, integrated facilities have the most to offer. Other facilities maintain a separation between modes of transport, and can in fact promote ongoing ill-feeling between users of said modes.
For instance, bicycle lanes often promote a belief among motorists that bicycles should only be using streets with such striping, and that bicyclists must remain solely within the lines created by the lane striping. This is not only not in line with the rules of the road in many states, but often encourages unsafe bicycle ‘driving’ behavior as many bicyclists shate this belief. Poorly engineered bicycle lanes — and there are many — often place the bicyclist in a position to the right of a right-turning car if they maintain position in the bicycle lane, rather than moving into the ‘vehicular’ lane. In Saint Paul, Minnesota, two examples of this can be seen within a mile moving westbound from the State Capitol to the River along the John Ireland Boulevard/Summit Avenue bicycle lane. At John Ireland and Kellogg Boulevard, facing the cathedral, the bicycle lane brings cyclists to the right of traffic right-turning from John Ireland to Kellogg. At Dale Street and Summit, the lane curves curbward, once again placing cyclists in jeopardy. I have witnessed multiple bicycle-car crashes at both intersections — and been sworn at for moving into a lane-control position in the rightmost through lane in order to maintain visibility and avoid such a fate myself!
Bicycle lanes also encourage some cyclists to violate one of the first rules of traffic — the slowest traffic should be to the right. However, the presence of a bicycle lane to the right often has bicyclists passing slow or stopped traffic on the ‘wrong’ side. This is not recommended!
Another scarily engineered bicycle lane can be found in Minneapolis, where a bicycle lane on Hennepin Avenue runs to the left of traffic moving northbound, although the cyclists are slower and should be to the right. The bike lane also puts the cyclists facing southbound bus traffic. Head-on bicycle-vehicle collisions tend to be among the most serious, as the bicycle and the vehicle both have approach speed and thus there is more force in the collision – basic physics.
Sidepaths, as a fully separated facility, have a number of issues. First, they very frequently cross over numerous driveways and sidestreets in such a way that users of the path must be on special alert to avoid collision with right- or left-turning cars. Second, such sidepaths often occupy just one side of a roadway, which can promote users of the sidepath travelling contrary to traffic flow on the road. When a bicyclist is travelling counter to traffic, they are less visible. A right turning vehicle is going to look to their right for clearance, not ahead or to their left – which are both possible places for a sidepath user to be. One more issue with a sidepath tends to apply most in northern climates — they’re the last thing plowed or cleared by civic authorities, and in some municipalities aren’t cleared at all. This makes them poor choices for four-season use.
Bicycle paths can have some of the same issues as sidepaths, depending on their location and vision in development. Some bicycle paths are actually pretty acceptable from a cyclo-tourism perspective: They take people to places roads may not exist as such, except sometimes as unpaved country lanes. This may not suit a goal of bicycle as transportation, however, as an idea in transportation planning is to allow multi-modal users to access daily activities and destinations. Minnesota’s Gateway State Trail is a lovely recreational facility, although some of the at-grade crossings are pretty hazardous. However, it’s not going to help a day-to-day user access groceries or employment, generally speaking. The Minneapolis commuter trails (Cedar Lake Trail and LRT East/Midtown Greenway) use railroad right-of-ways to mirror major expressways, which are obviously not bicycle-suited, to create good cycling corridors. However, once again, many of the at-grade crossings can be fairly hazardous, with several crossing fast roads with poor visibility for the trail users.
Both bicycle trails and sidepaths also have an additional associated hazard: They are shared with non-vehicular traffic. Whereas drivers on roads have specific rules and licensing, paths are shared with pedestrians, dogs, children, rollerbladers, and squirrels — none of which have licensing or specific training and rules to regulate their behavior on the facility.
Many trails and sidepaths give users a false sense of security, rather than reinforcing what has been statstically shown again and again: Bicycles fare best when they share the road and are treated as vehicles. For some, the idea of being on a roadway with a vehicle can be scary. But if taught to use proper lane positioning, and to operate according to the basic rules of traffic – not special rules – roadway use is safer than use of most paths and sidepaths. Sure, there are jerks on the road. There are jerks everywhere. We need to model our behavior and transportation planning not around accomodating jerks, but accomodating the day-to-day needs of multiple modes of sustainable transportation.