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So Was That Great Bike Lane Viral Video Right?

Aug 19, 2011

My mother-in-law picked me up from the Auckland airport after my most recent trip back to America. Driving through the city I heard her opinion on many things, including the bike lanes crowding the traffic from three lanes to two through much of Auckland.Mind you, New Zealanders are a people who don't mind the fact that the main road between Auckland and Wellington, the major city and the capital, is for most of its span a two-lane road with the odd passing lane every three miles or so, subject to temporary closure whenever a farmer needs to cross his sheep.When a United States Army Corps of Engineers unit was stationed here during World War II with nothing to do for months on end, they offered to pave a four-lane highway between Auckland and Wellington, cutting travel time from eight hours to less than four, all for free. We'd pay for it and do all the work. The Kiwis said no thanks, we like it how it is.

So this is not a people terribly addicted to maximum driving efficiency. And bear in mind further that New Zealand is also probably the most pro-green country around. Nuclear-powered ships are not allowed to berth here, and they were willing to reduce their defense agreements with the United States to enforce that -- to great popular approval. Recycling, conservation, no littering and the like are second nature to Kiwis.Still, the bike lanes do irritate a great number of Aucklanders. More so as the entire trip from the airport to my in-laws' house across the Harbor Bridge in Devonport, we didn't see a single bike actually using the lane.So what happened? Weren't bike lanes a good idea?

Bike Lane Hazards Gone Viral.

Of course the whole issue went viral in June, when New York-based filmmaker Casey Neistat made a hugely popular YouTube video after he was ticketed for not riding his bicycle in a bike lane. On the video, which has received over four million views, he is seen dutifully riding in the bike lane -- and crashing into the various things that make bike lanes unsafe to actually ride in, such as construction barriers, garbage cans and other assorted urban hazards.

With over seven hundred miles of bike lanes in New York, one would be able to find plenty of safe riding space, but the New York Post followed up on Neistat's video, fanning out across Midtown and finding "pedestrian blockades, cars spilling over the lanes, and even parked taxis" rendering biking in the bike lanes unsafe and problematic, if not downright impossible.

A bike lane is simply a lane on a paved street reserved for bicyclists. The idea was that if there was that if you built such a lane, they would come -- people would realize they could ride bikes on the streets much more safely, and would leave their gas-guzzling, polluting cars at home and jump on a bike instead.

Great Idea, Yes.

Nice idea. Would that the world always operated the way nice ideas say it should. But in reality, of course, bike lanes are far less practical than their idealized image, and are a far greater hazard to bike riders and cars alike.

Liberal city councilors love proposing bike lanes, submitting editorials to local newspapers touting bike lanes to pump up their greenie street cred, voting funding for bike lanes, being photographed opening bike lanes, and sometimes, if there are enough TV cameras hanging around, pedaling a few yards on bike lanes.

But the people who have to live with the bike lanes, cyclists and drivers alike, generally despise them. Even in one of the most liberal and green cities in North America, bike lanes are seen, at best, as a mixed bag. Vancouverite Don MacKay of Burnaby said a couple months ago "I cross the Burrard Bridge many times per month at random times, including rush hours, and the most riders I have seen at any one time: 8! The Dunsmuir lane hardly has any users anytime. An extremely expensive, politically correct exercise that adds tons of pollutants to the air due to the slowdown in vehicular traffic."

Um, Doesn't Increasing Car Time Increase Carbon Footprints?MacKay makes a good point -- taking usable street space out of commission for cars necessarily slows drivers. It's certainly the case here in Auckland, as it evidently is in Vancouver. Doesn't keeping a car out on the street longer to complete its journey increase the pollutants emitted by and fossil fuel used by that car?And Arline McFarlane of West Vancouver notes, correctly, that bike lanes generally work better in Europe because lots of people ride bikes there: "Vancouver unlike Europe, has few cyclists. It was difficult enough driving downtown, dodging idiotic pedestrians crossing against the lights, but now drivers are forced onto narrower streets, creating bumper to bumper traffic, thanks to cyclist Mayor Robertson's bicycle lanes."

Bike Expert Thinks Bike Lanes Stink

As the fervently anti-bike lane Vancouver Cyclist Web page says, however, "Bike lanes only do two things: they make life worse for cyclists, and they allow politicians and uninformed advocates to feel that they've 'done something for cycling'."

Bike Expert Hates Bike Lanes.Vancouver Cyclist then turns to bicycling expert and bike lane hater John Forester, author of Effective Cycling, to explain why:Bike lanes cause turning and crossing conflicts. No city with bike lanes ripped out its existing streets and started over from scratch to optimize the placement and integration of the bike lane. The way it had always worked was that bicyclists followed the same traffic laws as anybody else, and car drivers just sort of kept an eye out for them. Especially when they had those bike flags, faddish in the '70s, when many of the bike lane projects in major cities were hatched.

But as Vancouver Cyclist says, "The presence of a bike lane encourages cyclists to ride in the bike lane, even when it is not appropriate to ride on the far right side of the road." As he notes, "arterial streets often have right turn only lanes at intersections. In this case, a cyclist who is planning to go straight through the intersection must merge out of the right turn lane before reaching the intersection." If she doesn't, then her bike suddenly has an argument with a car turning right. And we know who usually wins those bike-car arguments.

One System Grid, Two Logics? Bad Idea.

The basic problem here is that what is essentially one street system has users following two separate logics on the same grid. Left-hand turns for those in the bike lanes are even worse, as they must leave the bike lane and merge across several lanes of traffic to get to the left-turn lane. And what's the point of a bike lane you have to leave whenever you want to turn?

Bike lanes cause motorists to drive in a dangerous fashion. Motorists can't be expected to be processing their own driving while tracking the possible activities of every bicycle on the street. When drivers turning right under-estimate the speed of a cyclist in the bike lane, which is highly likely, again we have the bike-car argument happening. "Cyclists in bike lanes find that motorists dart out in front of them, seemingly without having noticed the cyclist's presence," Vancouver Cyclist says.

Debris and pedestrians. Those of you who try to use bike lanes whenever possible are nodding along now. The only city in the world we've ever been in where we witnessed the majority of pedestrians actually a) notice and b) care about bike lanes and keeping them clear was Munich. If it happens elsewhere, great. And of course debris gets kicked off sidewalks and off car-traveled streets, and ends up on bike lanes.

Bike lanes lead to discrimination against cyclists. As Vancouver Cyclist notes, when a cyclist on the street, not in a bike lane plans to turn left, that rider merges across a couple of lanes to get to the left turning lane: "A competent cyclist does this smoothly and without incident every day." But once a bike lane exists, "many motorists think that cyclists must use that bike lane, and only the bike lane," quite reasonably so, and motorists aren't looking for bikes to come across lanes for a turn. It's the problem mentioned earlier of two different usage logics operating in the same system.

Bike Lanes: Preventing Good Cycle Traffic Skills?

And the killer problem with bike lanes -- Cyclists who have any business riding don't need bike lanes. Any experienced urban cyclist can ride in traffic with ease, and dislikes bike lanes as annoying and dangerous for the reasons outlined above. There are plenty of traffic cycling skills courses offered for those who aren't confident riding in traffic, and as Vancouver Cyclist notes, "just as we don't provide special facilities for incompetent drivers, we should not waste tax dollars in providing facilities for incompetent cyclists."