Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2011/ Bike Lanes

Bike Lanes

Often I make it sound as if I dislike bike lanes. I don't think this is true; I use bike lanes a lot, and in many cases they make me feel safer. In Waterloo, I use Father David Bauer Drive and Caroline Street, both of which have bike lanes. When riding in the countryside I feel grateful for the paved shoulder on regional roads, which I effectively use as a bike lane (and which is apparently an allowed use, according to regional staff).

Having said that, bike lanes can be dangerous, and often they put me in situations where I feel unsafe:

The common theme here is in these events where I have to react quickly and unpredictably. The bike lane's painted line sets up an expectation for both cars and cyclists: that cyclists will ride their own lane, and will stay off the main road. Every time I leave the bike lane, I violate that expectation. That's how accidents happen.

Bike lanes should be more than symbolic lines of paint on the road. They need to be well-designed, well-maintained and enforced. Cycling is scary and risky, and there is no way to ensure that cyclists in bike lanes will be completely predictable. But there are often systematic problems that make bike lanes more dangerous, and I think they should be addressed:

Some people believe that concrete separations between bike lanes and car lanes are the way to go. I think that this has potential, but that there are many potential drawbacks:

Without these considerations, separate bike paths are just as useless as bike lanes -- only more expensive to construct.

When cycling in the city, I find that the least stressful paths consist of quiet side streets that run parallel to main roads. Three examples are Allen Street, Blucher Road and Ellis Avenue -- all routes I take when cycling to Waterloo. These are quiet residential roads that run in straight lines. Even though traffic is shared between cyclists and cars, the cars are slow and calm. Best of all, older sections of Kitchener and Waterloo are laid out in grids, so that when there are obstructions or traffic on one of the side streets, cyclists have the option to take other side streets without needing to use the main roads.

Unfortunately, planners have decided that modern residential streets need to be curvy and ill-connected, so that they function as extended driveways and not transportation routes. When cycling in the suburbs people don't have the option of travelling down quiet side streets, which makes cycling much more dangerous. That's a real shame. Unlike so many of the bike trails in this region, side streets are well-lit, well-cleaned, and provide direct routes to the destinations we want to reach.

In contrast, the so-called bike trails are designed for recreational -- not commuter -- use, so all too often they are meandering, poorly-lit at night, and actively dangerous because they mix pedestrian and cyclist traffic. Recreational trails have their purpose, but getting around town effectively is not one of them.

Given these realities, painted bike lanes can be a good option. However, if we build bike lanes we have to take them seriously. If we don't, then we might well be better off getting rid of the painted line and having cars and bicycles share the road.