Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bike Lanes: Promise and Peril | Bikeways . 1

By Michael Felsen

As a Boston resident who’s cycled to work for over thirty years, I'm heartened by all the current interest in, and promotion of, bike commuting in the city. As a mode of urban transportation, it’s fast, efficient, fitness-friendly, and green. And it’s definitely catching on. Two-wheeled traffic on my various routes to my job has notably increased in the last year or two.

One manifestation of the official recognition of cycling as a valid and valued means of transport is the sudden proliferation of bike lanes all over the city. As a bike commuter I appreciate these dedicated lanes, at least in theory. In practice, though, I have a serious problem with almost all of them: the lanes characteristically begin immediately next to the line of parked cars and, hence, leave bikers squarely in range for what's probably the greatest hazard (other than reckless riding) they face: “dooring.” My main concern is that unwary cyclists (and there seem to be many of them) operate as if riding in these bike lanes offers them a measure of safety. Not so: riding down the middle of a bike lane puts the cyclist directly within range of a suddenly opened door.

As most bike commuters can attest, this concern isn’t academic. I’ve been doored twice. Ironically, several years ago I’d just had a physical exam at work, and the attending doctor remarked how I was in pretty good shape, and how I ought to keep doing whatever I was doing. I told him my secret was that I biked to work. The next day, riding to work on Columbus Avenue, I was doored by the driver of a panel truck. I went flying, my front wheel was destroyed, and, thank goodness, I was wearing a helmet. Battered and bruised, I limped back to my office health center, and the physician on duty asked what had happened. I said: “Well, I was just doing what you told me to keep doing.”

Much more tragically, a number of years ago a friend opened his car door and hit a vibrant young woman who was biking, in a bike lane, to graduate school. She was knocked off her bike, slid under an oncoming bus, and died. Devastating, for all involved. Enough said.

Admittedly, many Boston streets just aren't wide enough to allow space for bike lanes that begin at the point beyond the range of a parked car's opening door. But the current practice of placing the lane within range of that door is a dangerous one that will likely contribute to future injuries, and even deaths.

Here's a suggestion: On roads wide enough, full-width bike lanes need to be located beyond the reach of an opening door. On the narrower roads most common in Boston, let’s make the bike lane much narrower, even just a foot wide; brightly mark it "bike lane" still, but make sure its edge that's closest to the line of parked cars is beyond the range of an open door. This way, motorists will still be called on to acknowledge -- and hopefully respect -- a dedicated bike lane; and cyclists riding inside the lane can proceed to work free from the hazard a car door, suddenly flung open, presents.

As an urban cyclist who’s “been around the block” a few times, I ride on the far left edge of existing bike lanes, but I fear for those newer bike commuters who haven’t had the benefit of that experience. Every day I see them riding in the middle of these new bike lanes, well within the span of a car door, and squarely in harm’s way. Realistically, it's going to take years of consciousness-raising before motorists have learned habitually to look for oncoming cyclists before they open their street-side doors. Until that happens, the narrower bike lane beyond dooring range could prove a life-saving alternative to what's out there now.

Images ... Top: Bike lane on Columbus Avenue in the South End, Boston. Bottom: Bike lane in the Phillipines. Courtesy of Vanguard.

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