July 3rd, 2009

It is all the rage nowadays for novice cyclists, planners and politicians to advocate for bike lanes as a key facility for promoting the adoption of bicycles as alternative transportation. Safety is often cited as one of the benefits. Another argument is that bike lanes are training zones for introducing cyclists to the procedures and techniques of vehicular operation. This belief, however, is flawed.

Michael Bluejay has compiled a competent summary of the pros and cons of bike lanes. Though it is, in my opinion, too heavily slanted toward advocacy, some valid points are made. On the other side of the fence are summaries by Fred Oswald and John Forester, which rely less on unscientific studies and more on logical analysis. No matter how you view the controversy, in the end, promotion of bike lanes is a means of shirking personal responsibility. Competency and skill are transferred from the vehicle operator to the government.

There have been no studies showing that those who are introduced to transport cycling through reliance on bike lanes to facilitate adoption ever graduate to become competent vehicular cyclists. Quite the contrary, several studies and media reports highlight the very real hazard that these infrastructure enhancements represent – particularly at intersections. The incidence of fatal right hooks increase as unskilled cyclists pass queued motorists and position themselves at the front of the line.

Other problems arise when cyclists need to make a left turn. Two options result: either the cyclist must make the counter-intuitive decision to cross the solid white line delineating the perceived safety of the bike lane and venture out into the proper traffic lanes or they must execute a pedestrian turn. Neither of these methods is intuitive and both lead to confusion and inconvenience.

We, as a society, do not provide special lanes for novice motorists, nor do we provide special facilities for motorcyclists taking to the roadway for the first time. Why is it that bicyclists are seen as needing special, designated lanes for travel from one point to another? The truth is, these facilities are not necessary.

Many municipalities already have a functional training grounds for novice and inexperienced cyclists. They are frequently referred to as bike routes. Often designed and implemented with input from experienced vehicular cyclists, these designated routes make use of relatively calm, quite side streets and residential roads to ease the inexperienced bicyclist from realm of the recreational to the world of the transportation cyclist. Because the roads chosen have relatively less traffic and, often, wide outside lanes, the cyclist is able to gain much needed confidence. As they gain experience, they can move on to busier and more efficient routes.

Competent, experienced vehicular cyclists are often chided for being closed minded and elitist when it comes to our abhorrence of bike lanes. These are interesting terms. It is more closed minded, in my opinion, to believe that special facilities are the only means of promoting transportation cycling. Proponents of these facilities seem to doubt their own ability to master proper vehicular technique, while at the same time projecting an irrational distrust of their motor propelled counterparts. They assume all cyclists must share this paranoia and consequently advocate for segregationist facilities and protective legislation.

Labeling vehicular cyclists as elitist is even more puzzling. To be among an elite is to be an exemplary representative of one’s group or class; to be superlative. That some fit that label, there is little doubt. Though the achievement has come with years of experience. Elitism is the act of promoting the best to the exclusion of the rest. Nothing could be further from the truth. Competent, experienced vehicular cyclists seek only to protect our right to operate as a legally recognized vehicles and encourage others to adopt the same guiding principles in order to achieve the same level of ability. This is not accomplished by segregation within special facilities. It only comes as the result of application of proven technique and ability.

Designated bike routes facilitate the acquisition of knowledge and experience through operation on quieter, wider roads. As confidence builds, competence will follow. Many of the communities in North Texas have route systems which have either been fully implemented or are close to being so. Dallas leads the way with, perhaps, the oldest and most extensive route system. Fort Worth has a nascent system with additional enhancements on the drawing board. Garland, Richardson, Plano and others have signed, on-street routes to guide new cyclists. Unfortunately, few have published this information online. Careful study of the types of streets designated by Dallas or consulting with experienced commuters, however, will allow one to glean functional insight.

If cyclists are going to preserve their right to be recognized as vehicles and respected in that capacity by others, it is contingent upon them to ensure that privilege through action. Demanding special facilities or protective legislation serves only to jeopardize our standing in this regard. If we see ourselves a vulnerable and in need of special consideration, our peers and politicians will respond by removing us from the roadway for our own protection. Instead, we must acquire the knowledge and experience necessary to be competent self-propelled vehicle operators capable of claiming our right to the road and doing so safely, legally and effectively.

4 Responses to “Inculcation”

  1. CycleDog says:

    One other negative aspect of bike lanes is that they foster dependency in those who use them. I’ve encountered comments like “I can’t get from here to there because there aren’t any bike lanes!” Unfortunately, some so-called advocacy groups use these timid cyclists as examples of the need for an ever-expanding network of bike lanes, rather than use the opportunity to educate those same cyclists in using the road network safely and comfortably.

  2. Steve A says:

    On a daily basis, part of my commute is along designated on-street bike routes in the City of North Richland Hills (NRH). The system follows the principles espoused in Herman’s post. Their map is published on their city website. The NRH route system, simply put, isn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit. As a matter of fact, the part I ride on is a lowlight of my commute.

    On this NRH-designated route, there’s what appears to local motorists; a bike path that meanders alongside the route. It is also uncommonly difficult to trigger the traffic signals in order to cross major arterials. Any route identification signs disappeared long ago. Along another part of the route, there’s a shoulder that somebody decided to paint “bike lane” on. Debris on this “lane” is, however, kept clear since motorists routinely use it as an auxiliary lane to pass other motorists waiting to make left turns. Having seen this, I think that CycleDog need not fear about THAT lane fostering dependency in me.

    Seeing this, I fear that Herman’s optimism about cities and route systems may be misplaced. NRH followed the Dallas example, only to fail to follow through when the civic fashion changed. Time will tell if Dallas lets its own system languish in a similar fashion.

    His LAST paragraph, however, says everything that needed to be said. I’d extend that sentiment even to government involvement in bike routes.

  3. CommuteOrlando says:

    It is interesting that we are called elitist, when many of us spend an enormous amount of personal time teaching and trying to empower fellow cyclists (novice or otherwise), giving them the tools to ride their bikes with confidence on any road. While those calling us elitist are content to create dependency, a false sense of security and even lure novices into situations they don’t understand… just to get them to ride bikes.

  4. danc says:

    Fred Oswald has written a new article “Bike Lanes and Training Wheels”

    Some “bicycle advocates” claim that bike lanes act as “training wheels,” helping beginners learn to ride. This comparison may be more apt than they realize. Let’s examine this issue further.

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