Image from Gunnisal on Flickr
So you’ve probably been on vacation in some uber-cool city like Portland or Boulder, and/or overseas to Amsterdam or London, and noticed hundreds of residents, young and old, on bicycles meandering slowly around bike lanes built through the heart of their respective downtown’s. Then you hopped on a plane, landed in Dallas and sat in rush hour traffic, while thinking, “Where the hell are our bike lanes?”. Good question…and a complex one. This is a topic that I began researching several months ago in my efforts to work with the city to bring a more walkable environment. My studies have taken me to all of the cities listed above, and on each occasion, I came back to our home in Oak Cliff and wondered, “Why?”. When I spoke to representatives in the cities I researched, they all cited the same reason for their progressive bicycle initiatives: An elected official, be it a mayor, or city councilperson, took a stand to champion the bicycling cause, and refused to take “No” for an answer. That’s all. Nothing more.
The Split in the Advocacy
The one thing I never anticipated when beginning my dedicated bike lane research was that the opposition was from within. Those new to the world of cycling, or even those of you who are leisure riders (which is by far the majority of riders), would assume that it would be obvious that all people promoting bicycling as a major mode of transportation would be for bike lanes. Not so.
An article released earlier this year by BikePorland.org summed up the opposition to bike lanes as “a persistent and vocal group (commonly referred to as vehicular cyclists or “VC’s”) who favor equal integration of cars and bikes (instead of finding ways to separate the two modes) and think anyone who throws a leg over a bike should be highly trained to play on a level playing field with motor vehicles.” When meeting with Portland’s transportation adviser, Rick Gustafson, in late August, he shook his head and sighed, “Oh yeah…we had those guys here too…we called them the ‘Invincibles’. They’re the die hard riders that cycle every single day rain/sleet/or hail, expect all drivers to obey the laws and don’t want anyone confining them to a lane.” A lane advocating blog commenter noted, “I prefer to follow the 8 and 80 rule…if you wouldn’t feel comfortable putting an 8 year old or an 80 year old in the lane, then it needs to be reworked”.
Attend a local Dallas bike advocacy meeting, and you’ll immediately see the divide. People passionate on both sides of the equation, will speak at length as to why their point of view is correct, and the other is faulty. It’s a partisan battle that rivals any political division you can imagine. To the point where lane advocates will fire off salvos noting the recent swath of bicycle accidents due to lack of separated lanes, while VC advocates will forward pictures of cities attempting to install bike lanes, and critique in dismay why the work is doomed to colossal failure. And in some cases the attempts are failures. “We constantly had to tweak our programs in the beginning…sometimes we’d make lanes too small, or they’d pose a danger that hadn’t been anticipated,” stated a Portland official we spoke to, “but we remained undeterred. If something didn’t work, we learned from our mistakes and tried again…and eventually, we got it right.” The largest point of contention for those opposed to lanes is the “placebo” effect created by riders who are lulled into a false sense of security, and get hit while riding in lanes through intersections. Intersections are by far the most common areas for all transportation accidents, whether it be bicycles, cars, or pedestrians. Portland has recently adopted Bike Boxes, which has proven to dramatically improve visibility and safety to riders.
Dallas city bicycle coordinator, PM Summers, is a VC advocate, and Dallas is prime example of a VC city. In a recent Dallas Morning News article, PM stated his objection to striped lanes and the false sense of security they create by noting , “I haven’t seen the paint that will stop a car”. Dedicated lane advocate, Zac Lytle, returned with “I haven’t seen the traffic light that will physically stop a car either, but VC riders expect drivers to obey the existing laws…we do too, we just want them to adapt to laws with lanes…they’re doing it in Boulder and Portland as we speak”.
While the debate on safety rages on, one thing is undeniably clear: bike lanes increase ridership. In an email to Bike Friendly Oak Cliff, Portland’s lead bike coordinator, Roger Geller, stated “Bike lanes and other bicycle facilities have been absolutely instrumental to the success we’ve had in increasing ridership. Our city auditor now reports that 8% of Portlanders identify the bicycle as their primary commute vehicle and another 10% identify it as their secondary commute vehicle. That’s up from 6% and 10%, respectively last year.” Anyone who visited Portland 10 years ago, and returned recently, will note the change. “It’s astonishing”, said Oak Cliff resident Robert Ramirez, “I’m planning on going back every year now, and have no need to rent a car.” Imagine saying that in Dallas. Conversely, a recent study released by Portland notes the percentage of accident rates has dramatically dropped.
In a phone interview, Adam Gross, a bicycle lane advocate in Indianapolis said, “We had a lot of old guard city staff members, who would bristle when we’d bring up these new ideas about creating lanes and say things like ‘”Don’t question us, we’ve been doing this for 30 years…”‘, we’d fire back ‘”That’s the problem!…you’re building the city infrastructure the same way we did in the 1970’s!”‘, he went on, “It got pretty heated at times…we were really wanting some fresh blood in there that wasn’t afraid to challenge the status quo.”
Other challenges include keeping lanes clear of debris, and finding areas where lane or parking reductions can be made to adopt the systems. “No business in Dallas likes to lose parking”, states Oak Cliff Chamber Board member Rob Shearer. The former issue has been resolved in many cities by the creation of non-profit “Friends of Lanes” groups, that hold fundraisers to help maintain their city’s bicycle facilities.
So the question remains, why, if these are such major failures as many VC proponents suggest, are cities throughout the world implementing them? And if these lanes truly lead to rashes of accidents, wouldn’t places like Portland be removing them, and not adding more each year? and Boulder? Also, why is Dallas rating at the bottom of government census lists for bicycle ridership? And why are major bicycle periodicals consitently rating our city as the worst for cyclists? You can immediately see why some local officials might be on the defensive when being compared to city’s that rate higher, and begin to nitpick their progressive programs.
Copenhagen, the indisputable Bicycle Capitol of the World, has seen bike accidents drop to decimal point levels. This is quite an accomplishment considering the number of cyclists overlapping with cars. As time goes on, more data can be gathered to show a true representation of the success or failure of North America’s young systems.
Annie Melton, a Dallas transportation consultant, noted the problem being that some cities attempt putting in bike lanes, but do it halfway, and end up causing more problems than they solve. According to Melton, if you’re going to implement a successful lane strategy, it has to be a wholesale approach, and not piecemealed. She went on to say that lanes aren’t always the solution, though they can be used effectively. “In the end”, notes Annie, “Your city has to have the will to change.”