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Top Five Concerns About New Bike Lanes In Our Community

Ian Sacs's picture

I live in Hoboken, New Jersey.  It is a small (~50k residents), very densely populated city (fourth in the country), with high pedestrian volumes and some hairy traffic issues in certain areas.  With heavy rail, light rail, subway, bus, ferry, taxi, bicycle, pedestrian, and para-transit all converging at Hoboken Terminal, it is also home to perhaps the richest intermodal transportation facility in the world (in terms of modes).  It is often characterized as  feeling European, or like Brooklyn, take your pick.  Recently, we have been successful in implementing a nascent bicycle plan that includes bike lanes striped along the length of two north/south avenues in the heart of the city.  Cross streets are next with "sharrows" since these streets are too narrow for exclusive lanes.  The response has been overwhelmingly positive; however, there are very legitimate critical comments from the community about the new bike lanes as well.  Below are the top five of these that I have gathered via local blog posts, with responses that should be appropriate for many other cities undergoing similar discussions with doubtful members of their communities.
Comment #1: Bike lanes are a stupid idea and will be a failure.
Response: Encouraging bicycling is based on a simple fact: When more people choose to bike in Hoboken, fewer cars are on the street, and parking becomes more readily available.  The goal of bike lanes is to send the message that bicycles belong, and are welcome, on the city's public streets as a viable form of daily transportation.  They also have the side benefit of reducing speeding by giving drivers a narrower lane in which to navigate. Introducing bike lanes is a major shift from the auto-dominated streets of yesterday; however, many cities in America and around the world have had similar initial concerns with very positive results.  The opinions of doubtful and skeptical residents are important; however, we also ask that the bike lanes are given a chance to demonstrate whether or not they are adopted by the general public.

Hoboken bikers take to the new lanes for an inaugural ride.

Comment #2: I can see cars double-parked in the bike lane from my window...they will never work.
Response: As bike lanes become more actively used by bikers, some drivers will learn to respect these lanes and keep them clear.  Nonetheless, others may choose to deliberately use these lanes for double parking or other purposes.  This can be addressed in different ways.  Enforcement of double parking laws is certainly one way to discourage this, but does not get to the heart of the problem.  The root cause of double parking is, of course, not having enough curbside parking spaces available.  It is clear that this issue will be looked at by the city more seriously in coming months, hopefully to the relief of both drivers and bicyclists.  That being said, our streets are used by many, many people each day and it should be expected that different uses (i.e. parking and biking) will occasionally overlap.  The best course of action as a community is to share the streetspace when possible using respect, caution, and deliberate care.  In that vein, drivers who choose to illegally double park would best demonstrate their respect for bikers and bike lanes by doing so on the side of the street opposite the bike lane, so that passing motor vehicles are forced to slow down and carefully enter the bike lane to negotiate around a double-parked car, rather than vice-versa.

Local blog Hoboken411.com posted this photo earlier in the year to make a point

Comment #3: Bike lanes are dangerous because bikers may swerve out into traffic to avoid potholes, debris, or double parked cars, or dart out in front of traffic at cross streets.
Response: Bikers are expected to ride with due care, caution, and concern for themselves and others around them.  They are also expected to follow the same laws and rules as motor vehicles, including staying alert, driving defensively, changing lanes with caution, and stopping at signs and signals.  If a biker needs to change lanes (from the bike lane into the vehicular lane), she should do so as if she were driving a car (except for the turn signal, use your hands/arms instead!) by checking first that she will not be pulling in front of faster moving traffic coming up from behind, carefully and deliberately changing lanes (from the bike lane into the vehicular lane), passing the object that forced the switch, and then similarly changing back into the bike lane as soon as is practicable.  Swerving and careless riding is punishable by law just as it is in a motor vehicle.  At intersections, riders are similarly expected to obey all traffic signs and signals.
Comment #4: Bike lanes are more dangerous than simply sharing the street.
Response: Bike lanes should never be touted as offering safety or protection from drivers; rather, the goal of bike lanes is to send the message that bicycles belong, and are welcome, on the city's public streets.  There is truth to the idea that a bike lane can provide a false sense of security, but it is up to the biker to behave with due care and caution so that they protect themselves and people around them.  On the other hand, bike lanes also send a clear message to drivers that they are not supposed to be in (or near) the bike lane.  You can already see this message being followed along Madison and Grand Streets, where most cars position themselves in the center of the new lane created between the cars parked on the right side of the road and the newly marked bike lane.  Just as Hobokenites are much more aware of pedestrians than drivers in other New Jersey cities, increased safety for bicyclists will come with greater numbers of bikes on the street and, hence, a greater awareness of bikes by drivers.  Examples from cities all around America and internationally have shown that as drivers become more familiar with greater numbers of bikers on the street, the risk of accidents between the two decreases. 
Comment #5: The bike lanes are on the wrong (left) side of the street, isn't that illegal?
Response: Precedents in other American cities (New York City, Minneapolis) have shown that on one-way streets with parallel parking on both sides, bikers benefit from a much lower risk of being "doored" (unexpectedly hit by a car door opening) when the bike lane is on the left side of the street adjacent to the passenger-side door (instead of the driver-side door).  This is particularly true during peak traffic periods when many vehicles have no passenger (solo commuters).  Also, since drivers sit on the left side of cars, they have better visibility of bicyclists of all sizes.  On streets with bus stops, left-side bike lanes prevent bicyclists from jockeying with buses (currently not the case in Hoboken, but also a design factor).  Nonetheless, bikers should watch out for passenger doors opening, keep a reasonable distance from doors by staying in the far right portion of the bike lane, and remember to slow down or stop to avoid swerving into the vehicular lane if a door appears to be opening.  New Jersey Statute 39:4-14.2 requires bicyclists to "ride as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable"; however, there is no specific regulation pertaining to the placement of exclusive bike lane markings.  Therefore, bicyclists have a choice of riding either in the designated bike lane or to the far right.  It is reasonable to assume that such nuances in the state law are absent due to the relative absence of bike lanes throughout New Jersey until very recently, and that these regulations will likely need to be updated for clarity to reflect the changing character of urban streets throughout the state.  Until that time, bicyclists may choose to ride in Hoboken bike lanes placed on the left side of one-way streets for the reasons described above.

Ian Sacs, P.E. is a worldwide transportation solutions consultant based in Finland.



Be careful when considering left hand bike lanes

Your post provides some great responses to some of the prevailing bike lane myths that crop up around the country. I would caution the last response, I am not sure that left side bike lanes are a slam dunk on one-way streets with parking on both sides, there are a number of factors to consider and I use local knowledge from Minneapolis to make this point.

First you are correct that there is obviously less actual exiting from the passenger side with on-street parking (assuming the large number of SOVs on the roadways), but the people who do exit from the passenger side are significantly less likely to be checking mirrors or watching for approaching bikes. That said, it may still be safer but perhaps not enough to overcome two important disadvantages.

1. Motorists are frequently not expecting a cyclist on the left side (particularly at intersections) thus the likelihood of left-hook crashes can be greater (as recently and tragically played out with a fatality on a left-side bike lane here in MPLS). Special care is needed to ensure that left turns at intersections allow for safe bicyclist/motorist interactions and you cannot simply mirror a right turn treatment to achieve this, attention to conspicuity is critical.

2. Left side bike lanes are fine if the street is one-way for the entire duration, however, if the street transitions to two-way operations it is very difficult to transition the bicyclist from the left to the right (or the opposite from 2-way to 1-way) without inconveniencing the rider or installing a bike signal or bike box (not that these are not great tools!).

I would suggest careful consideration when deciding whether to place bike lanes to the left of traffic on one-way streets. This approach is not necessarily a bad one, but such a treatment requires close attention to all details related to placement and design to ensure real safety benefits for bicyclists.

Tony Hull
Bike Walk Twin Cities
Saint Paul, Minnesota

Safety First, Community Input Second

I think Tony Hull expresses his concern diplomatically and clearly for safety issues. This article focuses on community safety concerns rather than looking at what the experts already know. Sad that Ian consider himself the professional in the matter of safety but does not have the professional maturity to avail himself of the real expertise. The town of Hoboken has violated the public trust but allowing this promotion of cycling to roll out in this dangerous fashion.

Left-side biking

With respect to #5: In the California Vehicle Code, it is permitted to ride on the left side of one-way streets. In downtown Los Angeles, with roaring 4 lane one-way streets crisscrossing downtown, it is very common for cyclists to do that, particularly if they are going to be making a left turn several blocks down the road. As always, caution is needed by both the cyclist and the driver.

Sharrows, not lanes

I am a League Cycling Instructor with the League of American Bicyclists and have been involved with bike advocacy on the East Coast for five years. Much of that time I've spent biking around Boston contemplating traffic. This is a good laying-out of concerns about bike lanes, and I think you addressed the listed issues well. It seems like the discussion of bike lanes has grown more nuanced over the past few years, and I'm grateful for that. That said, my greatest concern about bike lanes is rarely addressed: the fact that they encourage bicycles and automobiles to be in the wrong position at intersections. There are numerous lane arrangements at intersections, and all of them are problematic. In its simplest form, the bike lane running along the right side of the road continues in that position right up to the intersection. This regularly makes for a situation where a cyclist intending to go straight through is positioned to the right of a motorist intending to turn right--a dangerous situation. There are even intersections where the bike lane continues to the rightmost position of the road even when there is a right turn lane. In situations where the bike lane veers to the left, crossing the right turn lane, it has been shown that cyclists are less likely to check for traffic before veering to the left with the bike lane.
You touched on the fact that bike lanes can lull a cyclist into a false sense of security, and I think that's a very important point. I believe segregation is not the answer, since bicycles and cars must interact in order to safely proceed--traffic, after all, is a social system. That's why I am a huge fan of "sharrows". They loudly proclaim the existence of bicycles without suggesting a rigid driving lane.
Ride on,
Vance Edwards-Orr, LCI #1495

'Counter-flow' bike lanes on one-way streets

Montreal has been implementing 'counter-flow' bike-lanes on some of the smaller one-way streets for a few years now. There are also *large* 'sharrows' on the road indicating that bicycles going in the same direction as traffic have the right to share the space with cars. This approach works quite well. Here is a blog entry about the technique: http://spacingmontreal.ca/2007/08/29/follow-the-sharrows/

Montreal has really ramped up the amount of bike lanes in the city this year. Many of them are quite well-designed, but there is still a distinct lack of awareness of how bicycles navigate intersections. If there is a dedicated bike lane, there should also be a dedicated bicycle traffic signal. It is all too clear that traffic engineers are designing the bike lanes, and the needs of bicycle riders have not yet penetrated the design codes of the profession.

Double Parking

The root cause of double parking is, of course, not having enough curbside parking spaces available.

And the root cause of insufficient curbside parking availability is, of course, a grotesque underpricing of the valuable resource.

Ian Sacs's picture

Ian Sacs Responds:

zaneselvans, you are unarguably correct! i just got to this topic today:


Left side bike lanes have many problems

I agree with everything else on this article but the idea of defaulting bike lanes onto the left side of one-way streets.

While there are some advantages those advantages are more than negated by the disadvantages. Along with some of the good reasons brought up already, others include:

1 - They violate a basic rule of the road where slower traffic is to stay to the right and faster traffic to pass on the left. They also reinforce a riding technique that is illegal in many places without the lane (riding on the left side of a one-way is illegal in many places and where it is, it is only legal where one needs to make a left as is the case in New Jersey).

2 - That they promote illegal contraflow riding. Many left side bike lanes are ridden in the wrong direction by many riders. (As an aside, left side bike lanes in other countries and in Minnesota are typically designed and intended for contraflow riding on one-way streets. Germany and other European countries come to mind. This technique would seem to violate rules already established in other places).

3 - They expose cyclists to faster and therefore more dangerous motor vehicle traffic traveling in the left lane.

4 - They are often used as a "cop-out" when designers are not allowed to put a bike lane outside of the doorzone. This was the case in Hoboken where designers put the bike lane in the doorzone on the left because the left door is less likely to open. (It could be also argued that this design violated New Jersey's last bicycle facility design manual.)

5 - The driver of a parked car is less likely to be aware of an approaching cyclist as he pulls away from the curb and into the left side bike lane. Drivers have much less situational awareness on the right side and rear of a car and the blind spots are bigger.

There are times when a bike lane needs to be on the left side of a one-way street, like when approaching a bike path into a park or a major bridge but to place the lane on the left as a matter of practice does not in my opinion compensate for all of the problems that the practice creates.

Ian Sacs's picture

Ian Sacs Responds:

andy, i appreciate your passionate replies here and on other sites. i'd like to simply say, as i have elsewhere, that for every valid point you list against left side bike lanes, one can counter with a similar problem with another configuration, including no bike lanes at all. there is no conclusive study demonstrating one configuration as better than another at the moment. we are all going with our best judgment, and in this instance we happen to disagree. fair enough.

as i have tried to demonstrate in this and other posts, bike lanes are not a safety device and should not be "sold" to cities/communities as such. rather, they are meant to invite new bikers and communicate a message that bikes are welcome here too. regardless of what design is used, flaws exist, as does risk of injury or death when a greater number of bikes come into contact with cars. what is conclusive in many studies however, is that at a critical point, the more bikes on the street, the safer streets become for bikers, due to increased driver awareness of bikers. nycdot 2008 rider volumes vs. fatalities statistics are the most recent to vividly demonstrate this fact. so getting more bikes out there should be our goal, rather than a cyclical debate over design criteria that have yet to be effectively studied against one another.

Left Side Bike Lanes Are Dangerous

The fast-moving traffic is of more concern than dooring from parked cars. Cyclists expect that door anyway. Of greater importance are the fast-moving cars passing on the left. They expect bikes (or slow-moving traffic) on the right. There are a few of these left-side bike lanes in Brooklyn and they simply do not work. Plus, the shifting of Left-Side to Right-Side lanes throughout the city is confusing for everyone. There is some contraflow riding in that left lane, too. The only thing crazier (read: dangerous) than the left-side lanes are the green Chinatown lanes or that insane two-way bike lane that runs down the left side of a two-way street (Hennepin, I think) in Minneapolis.

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